If there is a theme underlying (most of) this month’s selection, it is how environment and its flow of power constrict and shape the individual: the means by which power is exercised, the structures that direct it, and the social and mental frameworks that enforce it.
The long-awaited new issue of Alchemy is full of wonderful stories; it was tough to narrow down my choice. Sarah Monette’s "The Séance at Chisholm End" is my pick of the month: a compelling, well-rounded and neatly self-contained story that is both a supernatural mystery and a quiet journey of liberation for its central character, Harriet. The date is unspecified, but the feel is late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The setting is a great house belonging to the sort of well-to-do family that employs (and abuses) a host of servants. Harriet’s station in life is reminiscent of that of the heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: she is a paid companion of "old Mrs. Latham", a wealthy lady with a nasty temper, who seems to keep Harriet around largely for the purposes of belittling her, so as to bolster her own sense of superiority.
Enter one Dr Venefidezzi, to conduct the titular séance — an enthusiasm of the various Latham ladies, although it proves rather more tangible experience than they are accustomed to, and dark secrets are duly revealed. Monette expertly captures the oppressive atmosphere of the setting, and the constrictions Harriet’s social and financial position. She also shows where her priorities lie in her choice to focus the ending on Harriet’s nervous escape, rather than dealing with the potentially more dramatic — but less interesting, in terms of characterization — matter of the fall-out from the séance. Excellent.
It’s always a pleasure to read a new piece by Theodora Goss, and "Letters to Budapest" proves as lovely and sorrowful as ever. Set in Communist Hungary, it is structured as a series of letters that János Pál receives from his younger brother, István. It soon becomes apparent that István, an art student, has landed himself in trouble by creating paintings that do not conform to the Party’s preferred forms: uncontroversially bucolic works with "social value", depicting farm girls picking apples and other such wholesome subjects. But István longs to paint something more modern, more imaginative. He is fascinated by forbidden styles, such as he discovers in an art magazine buried amid his roommate’s pornography:
The paintings in Les Fantaisistes meant nothing. They existed only for the pleasure of the artist. They were like riddles without answers.
Yet the painting that emerges from this journey into iconoclasm — Leda — attracts the attention of more than just the Party’s hypocritical censors. Nor is it all unfavorable, such as that of the mysterious Támora von Graff. Goss makes excellent use of the Communist-era setting to explore issues of artistic freedom, individual expression, and the value of non-realist art, with István facing repressive censors on the one hand and, in the figure of von Graff, the opposite, equally harmful extreme: individualism taken to utter selfishness, with a fantastical twist. Goss’ prose, meanwhile, is as unshowily, luminously beautiful as we’ve come to expect.
In "Like The Stars and The Sand", Sonya Taafe plays off the story of Thomas the Rhymer to present a break-up with a difference. It is told from the perspective of a loquacious, self-satisfied (but not unsympathetic) salesman, whose love of the sound of his own voice puts more than his relationship in jeopardy. The conceit is an interesting one, but I found I shared some of the protagonist’s frustrated incomprehension of the distant love interest — a little too much, perhaps, since in the end his perception of her as cold due to her taciturnity is never entirely diffused.
Timothy Williams’ "The Hollows" takes us to another very different environment: this time, to rural Kentucky, specifically to a backwater small town and its adjoining slums (the hollows). The former local sheriff is our narrator, looking back on the events of fifty years ago, when Mary Tasker fled to the town from the hollows, bringing her children and quickly attracting the disgust and ostracism of the pious townsfolk. As the river swells to flood proportions and the inexplicable deaths mount up, the sheriff finds himself entangled in an increasingly murky clash between small-town conservatism and the harsh reality of life on its margins.
"You don’t know anything about the hollows, John. Nothing at all."
"Listen," I said.
"No. You listen. There are things out there like you or no one else in this town has ever seen. Life’s thinner out there. (...) People in the hollows have to make accommodations to survive. They have to make compromises, sacrifices."
The parallels with immigration issues are obvious, but do not overpower the story. Mary’s unrepentant adherence to her old way of life contrasts with the long struggle of the sheriff’s wife to abandon, and even conceal, her own hollows background. There is tragedy in the past and in the present, and no heroes to be found — only conflicting worldviews, intransigence, and other, less quantifiable, forces at work. Williams effectively crafts a suspenseful atmosphere, so much so that the narrator’s occasional interjections of hindsight are not necessary, if not exactly intrusive. Wonderfully creepy, and uncompromising.
This month’s Strange Horizons features a pair of stories that play with gender paradigms. The first — and most successful — is Michael Hulme’s "Minty Bags a Squidboy" (24th July), an excellent example of what can be achieved with a thoroughly amoral protagonist. Minty and her friends are in constant competition with each other to see who can land the most shocking, objectionable boyfriend — and, just as importantly, to brag and/or complain about their conquests. Minty finally finds what she considers the loser to end all losers — Kevin the squidboy, from the despised half-human, half-tentacled minority community — and she takes great delight in showing him off as the prize of her daring. Minty possesses barely a hint of self-awareness, by our standards, but she nevertheless tells us everything we need to know to pass damning judgment upon her and her society. Her point-of-view also makes what could have been an earnest, dull tale of ghettoization into something both lighter and more affecting. The casual, unthinking way that Minty uses Kevin as an exotic accessory, and for the thrill of breaking taboos, underlines the callous attitude of society as a whole. This is only made more pointed by the reversal of conventional gender roles in the relationship; Kevin’s naivety and romanticism regarding Minty provides a painful counterpoint to Minty’s uncaring exploitation. Minty does not merely misunderstand — she lacks the will even to try. Only her narrative matters, and in that she is depressingly closer to the everyperson in her approach to Other than we might like to admit.
"The Women of Our Occupation" by Kameron Hurley likewise turns gender roles on their head via an invading army composed entirely of women. The women browbeat the populace into submission with a mixture of brute force and selective torture, and abuse their dominant position in all the traditional ways of male soldiers — sexually abusing civilians, shooting insurgents, billeting themselves upon occupied homes. They also remake society after their own model, giving the menial jobs to the men and the higher-paying, more prestigious roles to the women. It is about power: who wields it and who endures it. The parable is rather unsubtle, but biting nonetheless — particularly when witnessed by a teenage boy with more traditional notions of gender — and Hurley even finds some poetry among the brutality:
When my father did come back, red dust filled the seams of his face. His hair had gone white. The spaces under his eyes were smeared in sooty footprints, a dark wash against his sallow skin.