REVIEW: “Down and Out in R’lyeh” by Catherynne M. Valente

Review of Catherynne M. Valente’s, “Down and Out in R’lyeh”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Down and Out in R’lyeh” is like A Clockwork Orange with demonic gods in waiting. Catherynne M. Valente has built a story with its own street language of drugs, fashion, and class politics that works just as well as the patter of Anthony Burgess’ novel:

Be me: Moloch! Dank as starlit squidshit, antique in the membrane, maximum yellow fellow! Only five thousand years old, still soggy behind the orifices, belly full of piss and pus and home-brewed, small-batch disdain for all he beholds. Keeps his tentacles proper pompy-doured and his fur 100% goat at all times. Keeps his talons on the sluggish pulse of the nightmare corpse-city that never sleeps…

The language that Moloch (‘not THE Moloch’) uses to narrate this story asks the reader to do a lot of work in order to parse his meaning. He obscures his tale with slang and eldritch references, and so it takes a while to adjust to his way of speaking. However, the meat of his story quickly becomes clear. Moloch is part of a disaffected generation, trapped in a small town, waiting for his elders to yield the field so they can have their go at destroying the human world. In the meantime he, his girlfriend, and his best friend spend their days getting high or ‘mundane’ in a variety of elaborate ways. When that’s not enough they go out looking for trouble with the ‘gloons’ or the poseurs of their world. While they may be supernatural creatures who look and behave so differently to humans there’s a very basic relatability at the heart of this story. It’s a smart and inventive science fiction parody of stories like A Clockwork Orange but it also works as its own entertaining tale of one long hazy night.

“Down and Out in R’leyh” is a story I think I would have got a lot more from if I had read Lovecraft’s original Cthulu stories. However, I did know enough to see that two female characters burning down Cthulu’s house, while he’s inside, could be interpreted as a feminist strike in the heart of Lovecraftian territory. Even without knowing much about Lovecraft’s original stories, I had a lot of fun threading my way through Moloch’s story (even if the imagery is quite deliberately gross which is not usually my thing).

REVIEW: “Bullets” by Joanne Anderton

Review of Joanne Anderton, “Bullets”, Podcastle: 491 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Content warning for animal death. Podcastle managed to schedule “Bullets” for a week when my environment echoed the opening of the story, what with widespread fires in the North Bay and the pall of smoke hanging in the air. “Bullets” opens in the aftermath of a horrific Australian brushfire when the protagonist, Judy, is engaged in the deeply unsettling but morally necessary task of searching out and dispatching livestock and wildlife fatally wounded by the fire. When she comes across the still-living remains of a wild horse she has run out of the titular bullets. Her heartbreaking frustration is interrupted by a wonder. At this point, it’s impossible to talk about any of the significant themes of the story without one small spoiler, though one that happens very early in the story. But if that matters to you, be advised.

The natural world reacts to impossible tragedy with supernatural transformation: the dying wild horse splits open to produce a naked young man whose body retains enough of the fire’s nature that, if not constantly cooled, he will burn whatever he touches or wherever he walks. And, as we learn, he’s not the only one. Throughout the bush, creatures trapped by the fire have transformed into non-verbal humans that hold within them the destructive heat of the fire. But like fire itself, they are neither evil nor malevolent, they simply are. And perhaps in response to Judy’s attempts at mercy, they gather at her farm in a complicated partnership, to rebuild. The fire-children come with technical skills and understanding, despite the lack of direct communication. They fix and build and tinker, moving Judy’s place beyond simple repair to improvement.

This puts Judy in an awkward position relative to her neighbors, who see her luck as a zero-sum game. And someone or something is setting fires everywhere except on her property. Judy has a modus vivendi with the fire-children, but they can’t help burn what they touch. And she wonders.

The story sets up some deep moral problems, not so much for the protagonist who makes the decisions she considers necessary, but for the listener/reader in working out how to frame the nature of the fire-children and so the context of Judy’s actions to determine the genre of the story. Is there a framing by which Judy’s eventual solution is moral? Or has she jumped to a horrific solution to a problem that might have been solved differently? Are the fire-children sentient beings with agency, or are they a type of revenant–a mere emotional echo of the fire’s horror. I’m not exactly sure that I like that the story left these questions unanswered, but it’s a powerful narrative device that I appreciate. I would say that “Bullets” will provoke at least two very different reactions in its audience, depending on how one fills in the story’s unresolved ambiguities.

ETA: (Originally published 2015 in In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep: An Anthology of Australian Horror)