There was a lot of cliches in this story — the dragon-fighting knights trying to win the hand of a princess; the princess who didn’t want to be an object of conquest; the maiden aunt who provided the princess with the training needed — but ultimately, this was a fairy tale, and fairy tales are cliches, so it worked.
Review of R.Z. Held, “A Tally of What Remains”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 313 (September 24, 2020): Read online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
The final story in BCS’s twelfth anniversary issue is a very good one. Its themes are loss and grief and hope restored amidst a sort of plague—themes that strongly resonate in this year of the pandemic. The story features two characters who are not as different as they first appear. Helena, a blood mage, finds her magic to be of little help in maintaining the small family farm where she struggles to aid survivors of the Fever who have found refuge in her barn. One of these survivors, Benedict, is reeling from the death of his husband, while Helena can’t get past the guilt of being the only member of her family to survive the Fever. Each needs to grieve and move on; instead, they take their anger out on each other. As time passes, only Benedict seems willing to confront his feelings and work through them. But when another tragedy strikes, both characters find consolation in the strength, compassion, and friendship of the other and soon begin to look forward in hope to a brighter future.
Content note: Corpses, severe injury, nonconsentual commitment to mental institution.
Now this was my kind of horror! Haunted books, twisted stories, Cathar heresy, and a pervasive uncertainty of what the cause of it all is, all written in an engaging and characterful style. Thumbs up.
Content note: Slavery, loss of child.
This was an eerie story, invoking an intense feeling of autumn — scents, sounds, activities. The plot was simple but effective, and just the right length to be satisfying.
I loved the combination of horror and fantasy that comprised this story. The foreign setting was just familiar enough to make you feel like what was happening could’ve happened anywhere, perhaps even here in the real world; and Clava’s desperate, perverted desire to become the beheld instead of the beholder, and the steps that she takes to achieve this end were chilly and creepy. Beneath all of these was the uncertainty I had whether Clava was the villain — or the victim.
To cap things off, David Bowman’s illustrations accompanying this story were really quite divine.
This story was cleanly and precisely written with elegant language — every word necessary, to the point where I found myself having to go back and reread various parts of it, sometimes more than once, to ensure I wasn’t missing out on some important clue. It had a sort of hard-beaten/detective noir to it, but for all that, I’m not quite sure what was “horrible” about this story.
This is the inaugural fiction story in Undertow Publication’s new horror serial, Weird Horror, which I received a review copy of via my friendship with David Bowman, one of the featured artists in the issue.
I haven’t read a print fiction journal in ages and loved really enjoyed it — it feels so nice in my hands, look so nice on the page, well-formed great art (not just Bowman both other artists are featured as well, with personalised art for every story), plus opinion columns and reviews in amongst the fiction.
But the fiction is what I’m here for, so let’s talk about Ruthnum’s story. For all that horror is a speculative genre, this story was full of gritty realism. The horror comes from how reasonable the narrator sounds, how sympathetic and empathetic, and how he never quite says what it is that has happened. Reading the story was a weird combination of humor and gaslight, and it was altogether creepy. A solid start to the issue, and to the journal itself!
Review of Merrie Haskell, “The Heart That Saves You May Be Your Own”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Issue 313 (September 24, 2020: Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
Tabitha Muller (Tabby for short), the second person narrator of this excellent story, is a girl alone on the prairie engaged in a special sort of hunt. When she accidentally falls into a fissure and loses consciousness, she dreams of returning home in triumph with a unicorn slung over her back. As the story progresses, we learn what this accomplishment would mean to her, and how the society in which she lives would view it. It’s a community in which “respectable” women must capture a unicorn to win the right to marry in white and forever after sit up front in church and get called “missus.” Otherwise, women are banished to the back of the church, wearing red. Initially, Tabby calls such women “half-married” and scornfully derides them for deciding that “bearing children is better than bearing pride.” However, after being befriended by Salvia and her wife Petra following her fall, a pointed conversation leads Tabby to a life-changing and movingly written choice when she finally comes face to face with a unicorn.
Review of Richard Parks, “A Minor Exorcism”, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 313 (September 24, 2020): Listen online. Reviewed by Richard Lohmeyer.
The title of Richard Parks’ story in BCS’s oversized 12th anniversary issue is ironic since the exorcism required turns out to be anything but minor. The story begins with Parks’ popular Lord Yamada feeling sufficiently bored to accompany Kenji, his friend and priest, to the small village where Kenji is to perform the exorcism. Upon arriving, however, a bad odor emanating from the village’s burial grounds portends trouble. In short order, Yamada and Kenji find themselves battling for their lives against a creature that haunts graveyards in search of meals. Like the exorcism referred to in the story’s title, the story itself seems fairly minor, but the many fans of the Yamada series will probably find it enjoyable.
This reads like a series of beautiful vignettes — words carefully painting pictures for the mind’s eye — rather than a story with characters to be invested in, events to be concerned about, outcomes to celebrate.
But it is short, and it is pretty, so I can’t fault it too much.
(Originally published in Scarlet Leaf Review, 2016.)