REVIEW: Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I’ll admit: Prior to receiving a request from the press to review this collection, I had not heard of M. John Harrison. My personal route through SFF has been rather idiosyncratic, and has missed out pretty much all of the “classic” SF authors. This made the opportunity to read a retrospective collection of Harrison’s stories — spanning 50 years — rather more desirable, not less, because it gave me an opportunity to fill a gap in my education. For that, I must comment on how useful I found Jennifer Hodgson’s interesting foreword to the collection; it says almost nothing of Harrison’s biography or history, but focuses more on the experience of reading his stories, and the way in which they reflect the world we inhabit and our experiences within it. Coming ignorant to Harrison and his work, Hodgson’s foreword piqued my interest and whetted my appetite, and set the stage for reading this excellent collection.

In these stories we find many repeated themes, as Hodgson highlights: The theme of dissatisfaction with how things have turned out; the theme of never knowing enough; the theme of always being just outside of things. Some of the stories focus on questioning reality; in others, the reality is so different from our own and yet it is taken for granted. Most of the stories contain at least one of these aspects; many of them contain more. This makes them exceptionally accessible: Even the weirdest of weird science fiction in them is not enough to make the stories themselves unfamiliar or strange, while sometimes the most mundane and ordinary of settings turn out to be home to the strangest and weirdest of stories.

Reading the collection was edifying, and I don’t mean this to be pejorative. I learned a lot about ways people look at the world; but I also learned a lot about the craft of writing stories, because even though I liked some stories better than others (usually the older ones I found more effective than the newer ones), there is no doubt that Harrison is a master of his craft, and one cannot help but marvel at what he has produced.

As is usual, the stories will be reviewed individually, and we will link the reviews back here when the are posted.

  • “Settling the World”
  • “The Gift”
  • “I Did It”
  • “Running Down”
  • “Land Locked”
  • “Yummie”
  • “The Causeway”
  • “Colonising the Future”
  • “The Machine in Shaft Ten”
  • “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”
  • “Science & the Arts”
  • “The Incalling”
  • “The Ice Monkey”
  • “The East”
  • “‘Doe Lea'”
  • “Cicisbeo”

REVIEW: “Where the Hollow Tree Waits” by John Langan

Review of John Langan, “Where the Hollow Tree Waits”, Weird Horror 1 (2020): 70-73 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

For such a short story (one of the shortest in the issue), there was a lot of description — it’s pretty much all description as Martin narrates to his father, Les, a dream he’d had the night before. It wasn’t too far into the dream-recitation that I had an inkling of what was going to happen, which meant that if I was right, almost none of the description was actually necessary to read. I feel like the tension leading up to the ending in this one could have been handled a bit better, but there was a bittersweetness in the sharp, swift ending that I really loved.

REVIEW: “You Can’t Save Them All” by Ian Rogers

Review of Ian Rogers, “You Can’t Save Them All”, Weird Horror 1 (2020): 51-61 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This story made me uncomfortable, and not in a “I’m scared/this is good horror” sort of way but rather in a “I don’t really like the way purported child abuse is being portrayed” way. I can’t really articulate what precisely bothered me, beyond that I did not think the author handled the subject matter with care or sensitivity. So: This was not the story for me.

REVIEW: “A Tally of What Remains” by R.Z. Held

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.  

REVIEW: “The Night Kingdom” by Shikhar Dixit

Review of Shikhar Dixit, “The Night Kingdom”, Weird Horror 1 (2020): 62-68 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

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.

REVIEW: “The Devil and the Divine” by Inna Effress

Review of Inna Effress, “The Devil and the Divine”, Weird Horror 1 (2020): 29-34 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

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.

REVIEW: “White Noise in a White Room” by Steve Duffy

Review of Steve Duffy, “White Noise in a White Room”, Weird Horror 1 (2020): 18-27 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

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.

REVIEW: “Krazy Krax” by Naben Ruthnum

Review of Naben Ruthnum, “Krazy Krax”, Weird Horror 1 (2020): 10-14 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

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: “The Heart That Saves You May be your own” by Merrie Haskell

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.