Speculative fiction from ChiZine
Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall (ChiZine Publications, $11.89/$9.99 ebook).
They Do the Same Things Different There by Robert Shearman (ChiZine Publications, $11.89/$9.99 ebook).
The Family Unit and Other Fantasies by Lawrence Klavan (ChiZine Publications, $11.89/$9.99).
While ChiZine Publications—and its parent, ChiZine—say they’re not arguing over genre anymore (dragons = fantasy, unless they’re bioengineered dragons, then = sf, or maybe if it’s a dragon apocalypse, it = horror, to use their example). That’s a good thing, from a reader’s perspective, because what these collections of fiction give us is just plain weird in the best possible way.
Having already run across some really good books—Melia McClure’s The Delphi Room and David Nickle’s The ‘Geisters (read for fun and didn’t review)—it was pleasantly surprising to find that all of these worthy titles are from ChiZine, a house that asks us to “embrace the odd.”
Nothing’s better when it comes to reading than embracing the odd.
In Helen Marshall’s collection of stories, we get odd in some intriguing ways—more than once, intriguing interpretations of the rivalry that accompanies the impending arrival of a new sibling.
In “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects,” a child who seems to be “special” in either the extremely-bright-for-her-age or extremely-slow-for-her-age way (and we’re never quite sure which) thinks that the twins her mother is carrying are swallowing everything in the house.
"Lessons" was a bit too vague even for a collection of the odd, but "The Gallery of the Eliminated" covers similar ground in a much more emotionally satisfying way, as a little boy named Walter has mixed feelings about the arrival of his new sister. But the baby dies, and his family seems to disappear. He goes with his father to the titular "gallery of the eliminated," and we discover that some things—giant sloths, for example—can come back from extinction. But only some things, and there’s a dark undercurrent here that very aptly ties griefs small and personal to grief large and universal.
There are a couple of what we’d call sf stories in the style of the late, great Ray Bradbury—“The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass,” about a strange antique telescope that allows a boy to see back and forth in time, and “Supply Limited, Act Now,” in which a group of children get their hands on a shrink-ray that probably isn’t supposed to work as well as it does.
Far and away the best stories in the collection, though, are those that veer furthest from traditional genre fiction and more into the land of the odd-but-literary. “In the Year of Omens,” which was included in one of Ellen Datlow’s anthologies, Fearful Symmetries, is one such, as is the first story in the collection, “The Hanging Game.” A personal favorite, though, is ”Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta,” in which a sorority girl falls in love with Death. This isn’t a Meet Joe Black morality tale, but rather a socially-aware satire of relationships and expectations.
In fact, that sort of satirical bent lies beneath the first story in Robert Shearman’s collection, “Luxembourg,” in which the entire country just disappears one day. This leads to some difficulties for Juliet, who loses her husband Colin when he’s on a business trip there.
One of the best things about this, as speculative fiction, is that the absurdy premise is just that—a premise. The heart of the story lies not in the weird thing that happened, but in the way that the characters react to it, as well as in our reaction to the characters’ actions. We willingly suspend our disbelief about the most absurd element because the characters are drawn in such a way and behave in such a fashion that we find something with which to engage.
Some of Shearman’s stories tend to lean toward horror—“That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love,” about a girl who only believes in love that destroys what she loves, and ”Sounding Brass Tinkling Cymbal,” in which children must cut off and tame their own tongues in order to become speaking adults—but the true horror comes not from the monstrous elements but from recognizing the typical inhumane humanity that underlies them.
Lawrence Klavan’s The Family Unit and Other Fantasies rides a rush of paranoid anxiety—and manages to induce a great deal of it, too. It’s also a genre-straddler, but in Klavan’s case, impending doom is the genre—and that’s refreshingly open-ended.
The title story has a mysterious corporation making an offer on Arch’s family, and the anxiety is existential in a very weird way. Klavan’s background as a writer of graphic novels and screenplays is evident in the pacing and use of attention-grabbing detail at just the right point in the story to pull us farther in rather than allowing our attention to shift.
Reminiscent of Rod Serling, the weird that turns up in these stories is in fact aimed at teaching us some truth about our inner workings, whether it’s the post-storm refugees who seem to want help but may be after something more, or the weirdness of how arousal arrives when we least expect it. What shines through, powerfully, in these stories is the simple reality that the weirdest things happen the closest to home.