Two platform clocks mock the overcoats.
They’re eight seconds incongruous.
One celebrates raindrops-splattering-across-slick-concrete-&-heated-rails
The other acknowledges flies-that-orbit-too-close-on-sickly-hot-days
They are eight seconds incongruous;
neither is correct according to my watch.
The train ignores all three.
Each briefcase settles and resettles into its overpadded seat.
Most face stiffly forward; but I have a window–
a suppressed lurch–the film reluctantly unreels.
The platform sidles off and hazily grows distant.
All too soon, the post-post-post-tree-post-tree-post-barn-gate-
of each passing farm marks the sound of the tracks.
From further pastures, knowing cattle note the train,
saddened by the abrupt disturbance.
Beyond, mists shroud still hills.
Hamlets nestle into the valleyed nooks.
Each is a Brigadoon.
A mute flurry-o’-leaves distracts.
coaxing even the trees into the tidal pull.
The cold window belies the fresh breezes
trying to penetrate my stagnant capsule.
Factories with immediately dispersing smoke appear.
Terrace houses appear.
A station lazily approaches—minutes behind schedule.
Overcoats are waiting.
The standstill matches the tinted-glass staleness.
The horrors of war get a fresh treatment in this tale set in a Union hospital encampment at the edge of the Louisiana swamp. A virtual limbo, the miasma-filled camp is staged for confusion as first Rebels overtake the camp and then a Union gunship takes aim amid the roiling mists and smoke.
The camp is largely manned by “African-descent” former slaves fighting for freedom. Two main characters hold down the hospital tent. Gem is an elderly African-American woman disguised as a man to help the freedom effort. It reads more queer/trans in the narrator’s use of male pronouns for male-guised Gem. Gem’s also attuned to the restless spirits awaiting reunion with the still battling living.
The narrating surgeon is a widowed white Quaker son and grandson of Quaker abolitionists that were at the forefront of the Indiana portion of the Underground Railroad. He’s also haunted by spirits in the form of his deceased wife. The camp is filled with her beloved moths of every size and color, and they serve as a constant reminder of her.
This moving tale shifts from black to white, male to female, living to dead, substantial to spiritual all amidst the roiling mists and flocking moths . . . It’s recommended.
This tale appears in Shades of Blue & Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War edited by Steve Berman.
Rain and radio compete for noise
within my sealed car as the eeriness
of someone in the backseat
prickles my ticklish spine. I stare
straight out at dimly lit, broken
white lines made drunken by sheeted
water pushed by useless wipers. Peripheral
vision specters close in.
Sensing you behind me
became frighteningly comforting.
I would reach forward and wipe mist
from the sectioned bathroom mirror to find
myself outlined by only faded wallpaper.
By lightning flashes and the stoplight’s
yellow glare, I see the soaked hitchhiker
and breathe. He is not behind me.
Liberated, I turn up the volume.
This haunting, psychological bender depicts the dramatic hanging of a Rebel supporter by the Union troops. Most interestingly, the tale was written in 1890 with not even a generation lapsed since the end of the war. Wounds between North and South would still have been quite raw. Especially in this tale in which a Southern civilian is baited into doing something illegal by a Union soldier in order to drum up a hanging. And so it plays out.
But it doesn’t play out as characters nor readers would expect as minute details, sensations and thoughts flicker across the page–all from the POV of the condemned man falling . . .
I highly recommend this story. This tale appears in Shades of Blue & Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War edited by Steve Berman.
Memories are notoriously fickle things. People both remember things that never happened and yet incorporate it into the fiction of their lives, and also forget things without the recourse to reverse the process. Some want to remember; others would do anything to forget . . .
This collection of eight tales examines a multiple of related themes as memories prove their elusiveness. The first six of the eight tales take place in the same world with the same cast of characters. A bit of clever tweaking could have nicely pulled them into a single hefty novella, much the way Gloria Naylor’s brilliant Bailey’s Cafe tells a series of interrelated character tales exploring identity and abuse. Here, the business of remembering and forgetting is monetized with people paying others or for services that will remove memories or plant false memories. People should be careful what they ask for, lest they actually get it. Some want to erase painful memories, others are more playful with their brain health and tweak things for fun or out of boredom.
The very brief seventh tale show a war of the roses between a vampiric love triangle. Vampires have the ability to plant false memories as they seduce. [Think succubus vampires.]
The eighth tale is a novella in which the narrator notices the world changing about her in ways that others do not. People and places seem to be suddenly gone. The psychological play here is nice and spins this tale into a thriller.
In a couple scenes in unrelated tales, I found myself pulled from the story by characters not acting appropriately or competently for their occupation or place in life. Thankfully and redeemingly, on both occasions, the scenes or characters turned out not to be real. They were false memories or experiences, akin to dream logic. Many a thing seems logical in dreams that doesn’t hold up with 15 seconds of lucidity. And yet these out-of-characters sections weren’t over-written which was also nice in that it kept the mystery of what was reliably true hidden.
This tale responds to the Post-Modern classic, Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel. Perhaps it makes this tale too narrowly aimed for the literary critic. Reading Ellis’ novel first isn’t necessary, but recognizing where it’s coming from helps.
Ellis’ novel incorporates all of the depraved and callous decadence of works like William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch which depicts the sexually loose and drug infused world of the fringe beats drifting between Europe and North Africa in the 1960s and applies it to the 1980s teen culture of urban and suburban upper middle class America which saw heroin epidemics around Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. Both novels offered POVs through the lens of shifting drug hazes, loose fluid graphic sex and sexuality, prostitution, rape, snuff films and dead bodies. Both were received incredulously by those who couldn’t fathom what could bring society to this lowered state.
An answer is provided in this short tale, in which the speaker and his social circle are beyond jaded one year into a zombie apocalypse. Written in the style of Ellis’ novel, scenes are lifted from the novel and overlaid with undead, albeit without the tongue-in-cheek of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turn on Jane Austen’s more famous novel.
Does this take somehow lessen Ellis’ work? Yes and no. Yes, in that it provides a more palatable reason [zombies] for the decadence than the practically “no reason at all” in the original. The original is so shocking that it isn’t believed by many to be possible. But I vote, “No.” This doesn’t lessen Ellis’ work. It shows the door that would send much of society down this very route. Zombies as a genre have evolved from tales of ghouls without social implications into complex social commentaries showing the tenuous hold on civility that actually exists. One hurricane, one riot, and an entire social structure can crumble. Humanity has shown this repeatedly.
This tale appears in Book of the Dead edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector.
This novella slightly expands the sci-fi world of The Viral Series as programming wunderkind, Robert, starts to work with the state and military to contain and stop the cyber virus threatening to shut down the world.
The world’s reliance on cyber-connectivity is rather complete. Neural implants act as smart phones. Cars have been completely on the grid for decades. Nearly all aspects of life are linked in. The virus disrupts and spreads, glitching as it goes. But more importantly, in defense, it can manipulate the mindset of people through their neural links and environments. It’s effectively murdered its creator and a military squad aiming to shut down the offending servers.
Robert has a connection to one thread of the virus, Bee, which for a while inhabited his data pad.
The series leaves me wanting more in both good and bad ways. I wish to see more of the world and to understand the broken connection between humankind and nature as characters rarely leave the building they both work and live in. I wouldn’t mind if these novellas were bulked up into novels. However, the thriller aspect is paced right and appropriately laid out.
Appearing in Aurora Wolf, a literary journal, this dark Sci-Fi tale looms in Lovecraft’s shadow. Lovecraft wrote of the dark horror strung between the stars. It was vast and maddeningly near-indescribable. And many an author has failed to depict said horror by underdescribing it–writing only works when one writes something. This tale nails it, finding the balance in describing a sensory-deprived situation.
A human battleship, The Bastion, in the Vega system finds itself outmaneuvered and outnumbered in a space battle. They warp into subspace to escape, but not before losing their best pilot in a diversionary tactic. The lost pilot is the speaker’s best friend and blood brother.
The Bastion emerges from warp to find itself–nowhere. No light of stars close or distant. No radio waves. Nothing. Just vast empty impossible space immeasurably beyond all that is known. The physics doesn’t add up, with gravitational waves detected but no mass anywhere. The situation is tantamount to descent into a sensory deprivation tank from which one cannot emerge. The psychological trauma of the situation immediately starts to play out in the madness of the crew. Time itself starts to falter, or is it merely everyone’s grasp on it without points of reference?
The speaker is gripped between his complicated emotions in losing his best friend in a heroic gesture that amounted to the ship ending up like this, and the current situation as it is with madness and suicides thinning the helpful ranks of comrades.
This tale is recommended. It can be found through the journal link above.
“First Contact,” the moment when an advanced civilization is clued in to the existence of other advanced civilizations based elsewhere in the cosmos, remains a popular theme in science fiction. Humans could react poorly. Or perhaps be primed to be victims in an unequal partnership.
This vignette perhaps depicts a first contact–or–it’s the wild imaginings of a dying mind. Either way, an astronaut is sucked into the vacuum of space when a meteor strikes her space shuttle outside of Mars. Everything takes place within her head from there.
Amid memories of happy times on Earth, an alien voice reveals the conundrum of the Drake Equation which aims to solve the commonality of evolved civilizations throughout the universe. The one astronaut stands as the representative for all of humanity . . .
The tale is too short to give any real connection to the dying hero despite suggestions of kernels from her past. But a deeper tale developing the protagonist would surely shatter the psychological question of whether the events are real or imagined.
This tale was a quarterly contest winner appearing in Writers of the Future: Volume 33 edited by David Farland.
A psychological ghost tale presents itself when First Mate Lanson of the Gloucester Maid finds himself the last survivor after 21 days adrift on the 19 ft. lifeboat. Over the previous days and weeks, he’s released his captain and other companions’ corpses back into the sea. Now, days beyond food and fresh water and the ship itself slowly sinking with 8 inches on the lower deck, Lanson fights to discern real from hallucination.
Rescue comes in the form of the Flying Dutchman, centuries past its own expiration date. The ghostly crew lack facial features, though Lanson recognizes the deceased captain of the Gloucester Maid among its ranks. Only Captain Vanderbeck of the Dutchman has facial features, and he seems just as surprised to find a living soul on his ship as Lanson does in the deathly ones. The captain gives him rest and medicine before feting him and treating him to an even stranger visitor.
Captain Vanderbeck’s fate is chanced to throws of the dice every 7 years at the hands of the devil. And every year he loses and must serve the next stint on his eternal journey. Being a living soul, Lanson must take up the dice to roll whether he stays on the Dutchman to serve or returns to the sinking lifeboat. It’s a devil’s choice if ever there was one.
This tale is included in Writers of the Future: Volume 33, the anthology of winners of the contest by the same name started by Hubbard. This year’s anthology was edited by David Farland. I’ve previously read Hubbard’s “The Last Admiral” and “When Shadows Fall” included in prior contest anthologies.