Review: “Familiar” by China Mieville

FamiliarFamiliar by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edging on allegory, this urban fantasy sees a London witch-for-hire drawing power from his familiar in order to increase his abilities and to impress a client. But it is not the client-witch relationship that matters, but that of the witch and his familiar. A witch’s familiar is, by folklore, his animal companion and that is what the witch thought he was getting when he previously summoned one.

The seeming protagonist is a witch numb to the many animal sacrifices he’s performed in the past for the sake of a spell. To summon a familiar, he had to sacrifice a part of himself–literally flesh and fat cut out. But he does it for the sake of the result, and then he waits for the likely animal to appear. Yet no animal appears, rather the slimy slug of ameobic flesh starts to move. And the horror begins . . .

Horror and regret lead the witch to try to undo his creation by killing it: by fire, acid, knife, and finally drowning. It’s at this point that the POV jumps to that of the familiar writhing it’s way out of a bag in the dark bottom mud of a London channel. The self-aware thing explores and learns by tool usage, incorporating the discarded bottles and pens it finds to make a carapace and legs. Fish ribs become spikes; fish eyes become its eyes giving it sight. Growth begins. Soon it is taking on mice, cats, and dogs, incorporating their parts along with the inanimate objects it finds. It also starts to explore conceptual tools such as territory and hunger. And it grows . . .

A wonderful climax brings the familiar and witch back together again to show that they’ve never really been separated. Unfortunately, it’s an inverse relationship . . .

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Looking for Jake.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Blood Makes Noise” by Gemma Files

3 of 5 stars.

Through the din of hallucinations and loss of humanity, a man grapples with his mounting fears. This convoluted tale on a sinking submarine on a clandestine mission piles fear on top of fear: suffocation by asphyxia as oxygen stores run out, the darkness of the banthum deep, drowning in a pressure-compromised submarine, loneliness and survival guilt as the last man living, loss of humanity as living host to the parasitic monster found at depth . . .

The creature killed them all, with fear, as is its way. It feeds on the fear. But for the narrator, a deal is struck: an endless life of fear as host and cocoon for the creature . . .

Due to the nature of the premise, the truth within the tale is slippery. Is it the hallucinations speaking or the remnants of the man?

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in TransVersions. I’d previously read and reviewed this author’s “A Wish from a Bone”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “The Machine is Perfect, The Engineer is Nobody” by Brett Alexander Savory

1 of 5 stars.

Like the first season of Lost, this tale starts with desperation and an enigma, develops into tension, mistrust and awkward affection, and then opens a hatch in the floor to a bunch of new questions without bothering to answer any of the original ones. And like Lost, I liked it until this promised to go nowhere.

A man and a woman awaken to find themselves in a cave with no doors or windows, just a too-small air duct vertically extending from the ceiling. Bottles of water, cans of food and jars of kerosene occupy one corner, a mattress lies in another. A third corner has a toilet hole. Mechanistic noises grind and whir outside.

4 months later, the supplies have dwindled and strangers share an awkward kiss. But there is distrust, deservedly. The noises change and a drill pierces the floor of the cave from beneath. . .

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Taddle Creek.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “The Serpent and the Hatchet Gang” by F. Brett Cox

3 of 5 stars.

This curious tale melds 2 historic accounts from the Rockport, MA area not unlike the way Erik Larson [Isaac’s Storm, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City et al.] creates historic fiction from gleaned sources. In this case, the Victorian Era actions of an uprising of the women of Rockport against the sale and consumption of alcohol in the city enmeshes with the unexplained coastal sightings of some sort of monstrous sea serpent from those same years.

On the former issue, the tale is colorful and forthcoming. As the history can and has been delved, it’s interesting to see an account of a pre-prohibition, neo-puritan uprising that ended successfully. Amazingly, Rockport remained dry until 2005. The tale digs into the humanity of the issue. A downturn in the fishing trade and many grounded boats is shown to have turned many of the men of coastal Rockport into idle alcoholics without a steady source of income. Additionally, the economic frustrations mixed with the liberal alcohol consumption led to cases of domestic violence. The tale is as much one of women’s lib and women’s issues as it is of prohibition.

On the second front, that of the sea serpent, the tale is more vague. Since the existence of the creature was never substantiated, perhaps this is not a surprise. However, the serpent makes a few appearances in this tale, just without any purpose or consequences. It’s merely there in the background. Though at one point it leads to the trippiest scene of the story as time and space warp . . .

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Black Static.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “The Deep End” by Robert R. McCammon

4 of 5 stars.

I saw Jaws as a kid and was thereafter fascinated and freaked. The freaked part especially took over in my swimming lessons when I’d envision sharks circling beneath in the cool blue of the overly chlorinated water. This was not a welcome distraction while trying to continuously tread for 5 minutes.

This tale draws on the common primal fear of the things beneath the water. In this case, a monster that can hide like a ray along the flat surfaces. A desperately sad man, Glenn, has lost his 16 y.o. son, Neil, in a deep end drowning accident. Or was it an accident?

Glenn is drawn to the coincidence and tragedy of a spike in pool drowning over the past 5 years at the local spot. His son was merely the last. His son’s voice seems to goad him from beyond leading him to investigate on his own, late at night, and armed with a spear gun. Glenn is losing it, which is not a particularly handy trait if something lurks therein . . .

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Night Visions 4.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Monster” by Kelly Link

2 of 5 stars.

The classic campfire boogeyman story takes on a literal sense as teenaged boys at summer camp share monster stories while earning their overnight badge in the rain-soaked muck an hour’s hike from the cabins. The campers and their cabin leader are colorful and believable hitting all the right eerie points.

The cabin leader wanders off on his cellphone leaving the boys with a too-wet firepit and their tales. Then despite being summer it starts to snow. And a monster from their tales arrives. . .

It’s always unfortunate to have a great tale undermine itself. In this case, after a strong and eerie set-up, the monster-horror show is played for laughs. Blood, gore and laughs. And it’s not funny. The monster is too topical, and nearly hipsterish for a monster. This mockery of a tale also undermines the good it was doing in representing bullying in its subtle manipulations.

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Noisy Outlaws. I’ve previously read this author’s “I Can See Right Through You”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Not From Around Here” by David J. Schow

2 of 5 stars.

Man vs. Nature plays out in this common set-up: a man moves his wife and daughter out of the bustling city [San Francisco] to enjoy a more peaceful rural life. They even get a dog. However, nature is not the idyll he imagined when a monster descends from the mountains. The tale even includes the cryptic grumpy rural neighbor that all but threatens the man to leave his new rural abode.

Animals and then humans are hurt and killed in the telling of this tale, sparing no punches. A particularly nice scene has the man remember an incident from his early teens in which he was accosted by a bully and then rallied.

More inexplicable are the grumpy neighbor’s motivations for staying cryptic and fatalistically resigned. Also, the overt eroticism of the monster attacks closes in on an engendered allegorical meaning without ever reaching it. Otherwise, the amount of time describing erections and ejaculations amid a monster attack unnecessarily verges on violence porn.

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Seeing Red. I’ve previously read this author’s “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker

Rawhead RexRawhead Rex by Clive Barker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This folktale is unsubtle allegorical gynophobia. It glorifies rape and youth mutilation and fears the fruitful uterus–not unlike many aspects of modern culture. At least it recognizes that this stance is that of the monster.

The creature, Rawhead Rex, is a giant hypermale [9 ft. tall] with a skin-less face making it roughly the embodiment of a monster circumcised erection. It likes to mutilate and debase other males, devour prepubescent kids and rape non-menstruating women in order to procreate. It cringes away from women on their period and runs from pregnant women.

Filled with gore and engorged cocks and a very thin history for the creature, this tale won’t be for everyone. A religious element emerges in which penis-worship takes a literal turn when a religious man accepts a baptism by urination from the creature. Unsubtle–check. Not for everyone–check.

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Books of Blood Volume 3.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “Keep Calm and Carillon” by Genevieve Valentine

2 of 5 stars

This is a quixotic tale that like the television series, Lost, starts with a mystery that it never answers and then layers on more enigmas until its unresolved conclusion. [Also inexplicable is this tale’s inclusion in an anthology of monster stories. One could create one’s own monster-based reasoning for the unanswered mysteries, but the story itself doesn’t include nor imply monsters. Supernatural intervention, yes; monsters, no.]

A courthouse elevator plummets 8 stories. The 9 random occupants step out unscathed, bonded and joyous. None offer an explanation of what happened, but they are changed. They really like each other [though they were largely strangers ahead of time] and they love, love, love playing handbells. They quit their jobs and spend their time together in a newly formed handbell choir, or practicing their handbells.

The one guy that is slightly less enthusiastic about the group and the handbells is also the only one that doesn’t know what happened in the elevator car, and the only one that had his eyes closed. . .

As time passes, the enthusiasm for handbells wanes but the compulsion to play doesn’t. The survivors also start insisting on spending all their time together in the form of meals, rides, freetime . . .

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Farrago’s Wainscot. I’ve previously read this author’s “Aberration”, “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat”, and Dream Houses.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: “The Third Bear” by Jeff VanderMeer

3 of 5 stars.

Like a hybrid between a fairytale and a Miyazaki anime, this tale borrows liberally from common tropes [a rampaging monster, a banished witch, a wise village elder, a brawny hero] without explaining many circumstances. This is one genre that can get away it and still embed a concluding moral.

In a moment of village-wide sickness, the townsmen banished a blind old woman into the forest for being both the cause and a witch despite her knowing a mere few charms and foraging medicines. A year later, a scourge in the form of a bear-like beast menaces the village disemboweling forest interlopers and stealing their heads. Some blame the witch. Others wish to seek her for help–but they don’t.

One by one, heroes seek to defeat the beast, and never return. Farmers are cruelly killed with their families as they try to come to market. Finally, the elder goes to seek the witch. She admits the beast came to their forest in answer to her grief over her treatment. And that she’s finally learned some witch-like things, like a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The elder sees no alternative but to confront the beast and to see the “art” that it is making with the decapitated heads of its victims. It will continue its menace until it has completed its pattern. . .

When the elder never returns to the village, the villagers decide to never leave again. They go crazy for fear. They cannibalize and starve and do all sorts of horrible things–for fear of the beast–that they never see again.

This tale appears in Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay after originally appearing in Clarkesworld Magazine. I’ve previously read this author’s “Fragments from the Notes of a Dead Mycologist”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]