Filler content with fearful symmetries

Following on from Wednesday’s post, here’s the third and final part of a feature on anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow that originally appeared in Black Static #45:-


I didn’t get round to reading FEARFUL SYMMETRIES (CZP pb, 344pp, $16.99) until 2015. Un-themed and subtitled simply ‘An Anthology of Horror’, it began life as a Kickstarter project, the logic behind which approach editor Datlow explains in her introduction. The anthology proper begins with ‘A Wish From a Bone’ by Gemma Files in which an archaeological expedition discovers the key to releasing seven demonic entities with the power to destroy all creation, but fortunately there is someone on their team charged with preventing such an eventuality. It’s a story that reeks of authenticity, both in the details of expedition life and convincingly portraying the thought processes of alien beings, with a gut wrenching twist or two in our journey to the denouement, giving the reader cause to think about the nature of good and evil, and from whose perspective it needs to be seen.

Book dealer Jack, whose expertise includes acquiring occult tomes, is forced by somebody higher up the food chain to go in search of ‘The Atlas of Hell’ in Nathan Ballingrud’s New Orleans based story. It’s a piece filled with beautifully realised characters, some of them slime balls, but with a softer side as regards motivation, a true sense of the forces lurking just behind the walls of the everyday and a Barkeresque potential underlying the surface narrative. In Bruce McAllister’s ‘The Witch Moth’ we are privy to the power struggle between the women in two generations of a family, though there is also the possibility that the young boy who is the main protagonist is the one causing the shifts in reality that occur, the story offering us a rite of passage, one that is wise in the ways of the world and the follies of men and women. Set in the aftermath of an attack by some great sea beast, called simply The Storm for want of any other name, ‘Kaiju’ by Gary McMahon sets up a relationship between the indifferent destruction wrought by a natural force and the evil that men themselves do. With echoes of Katrina, the story is compelling in its portrayal of a blighted landscape, but suggesting that in some way our love of monsters has brought this about, or the will for them to exist, externalising all our fears and hopes.

Pat Cadigan’s ‘Will the Real Psycho in This Story Please Stand Up?’ has a Carrie vibe going on, at least initially, with some girls from the outside of the in-crowd taking a high school pariah under their wing for the night of the prom, but then things go awry. It’s a very clever and self-aware piece, thanks to the interrogatory style of the first person narration, with an immersive plot and serious questions being asked along the way about the nature of suffering, a subtext that touches on the metaphysical. ‘The Four Darks’ by Terry Dowling is a story rich in ideas, of people who attract evil and a true understanding of the night, all wrapped up in a narrative detailing the struggle between two men with special abilities and secret knowledge, reading like nothing so much as an episode of Medium straitjacketed into the oeuvre of early Clive Barker. In Stephen Graham Jones’ story ‘The Spindly Man’ joins a reading group studying a Stephen King story and reminds each of them of their own encounter with the intangible. It’s an unsettling confection of stories within stories, and has an end twist that addresses the true nature of evil, what hold it has in our own heart and identity.

In ‘The Window’ by Brian Evenson a man has what appears to be a premonition of his own death, the brief story undercut with a note of sadness and acceptance of something regarded as inevitable. Jeffrey Ford’s ‘Mount Chary Galore’ is a story filled with backwoods magic and a sense of folklore about it, as three children are empowered by a witch to wreak revenge on the parents who abandoned them, the story told in a way that holds the attention from first word to last, and with some excellent characterisation and strong sense of the mores of the rural community in which it is set. ‘Ballad of An Echo Whisperer’ by Caitlín R. Kiernan is a vivid and highly descriptive piece about a visit to New Orleans, an unusual friendship, and a haunting, with a final twist that pulls the rug out from under the feet of the reader. Robert Shearman’s ‘Suffer Little Children’ is one of the highlights of the book, with a governess who left her old position under a cloud finding a new role as teacher at an isolated school, but the past comes back to haunt her in a chilling manner. A powerful story that explores the idea of the old gods and the corruption they engender, it shows how even children can become monsters, along the way unearthing an apocalyptic subtext.

In ‘Power’ by Michael Marshall Smith a man who creates a machine to protect and control his wife, finds that he is hoist by his own petard, the story a simple but elegant one, predictable but entirely satisfying. A photographer captures ghosts and injects them into corpses to animate them for a last picture in ‘Bridge of Sighs’ by Kaaron Warren, but one customer gets hung up on what is happening. It’s a story packed with ideas and some sick characters, made believable and even slightly appealing as they are motivated by something akin to grief, though what it makes them do is terrible, with echoes in the scenario of the Victorian penchant for photographs of the recently deceased. Laird Barron’s ‘The Worms Crawl In,’ begins in a low key, with two men with murder in mind on a camping trip, then rises rapidly through the scales taking in zombiehood and godlike power, ending as a surreal psycho-drama come deathbed fantasy. Compellingly written, it has unsettlingly creepy characters and a narrative drive that leaves the rest of these stories standing.

In ‘The Attic’ by Catherine MacLeod a woman running from her criminal past ends up married into a strange community, but finds that the sacrifices demanded by The Church of the Risen are not for her. It’s a story that asks questions, putting the reader into the shoes of the character and wondering how we would behave, if we would make the same decisions or act differently. Siobhan Carroll’s ‘Wendigo Nights’ was the one story that didn’t work for me, a piece that I felt was a bit too impressionistic and lacking in focus for its own good, veering between a variation on The Thing and a story of somebody infected with the wendigo virus, but never quite clear, to me at least, on where the author wanted to go with it. John Langan’s ‘Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow’ is a romp of a story in which two trainee angels (possibly) take care of a rogue tyrannosaurus by pitching it in a battle against the ghosts of Cheyenne warriors and US cavalry. And yes, that is as crazy as it sounds, but Langan makes it work and marvellously well, so that for the reader it’s a fun filled roller coaster ride of a story.

In ‘Catching Flies’ by Carole Johnstone we have as unreliable narrator a young girl who claims that when she opens her mouth flies come out and inflict harm in the world, but it could be a metaphor for the idea that she is holding bad stuff inside of herself and that sometimes she acts out. The character’s inner life appears to be an artificial construct she uses to justify or explain how she behaves in the real world. Last story in the book, Garth Nix’s ‘Shay Corsham Worsted’ has a streak of dark humour to it, as a retired security officer tries to convince his old colleagues that a creature of incalculable power is close to becoming active again, but they don’t believe him, think he is just a harmless old man with delusions of relevancy. It’s an engaging story, one that is fun and entertains the reader, though not really challenging us.

Also included in this anthology, which to date is the best I’ve read in 2015, is ‘In the Year of Omens’ by Helen Marshall, which I’ve discussed above in the feature on that writer’s work.

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