Tangent Reviews

Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1998

from Tangent Online

The stories recently in the news of the incredible deprivations, almost to the level of self-torture, voluntarily undergone by the mother of the Texas octuplets, are all we should need to remind us that for most humans, reproduction is the paramount virtue, higher than self-preservation. How odd then that we must also remember the incredible and double alienness that results from having one and only one of our two sexes carrying all the literal and figurative burdens of pregnancy.

Babies as aliens have a long history in horror, and find their way into this issue of F&SF in its closing novelette, "Cockroach," by Dale Bailey. It took Tangent's omniscient editor, Dave Truesdale, to remind me of a more specific antecedent, a somewhat obscure Ray Bradbury story entitled "The Small Assassin." I was doubtful at first, since Bradbury's story concerns what happens after birth and Bailey's that which occurs before, but eventually the details and similarities piled up. Bailey set himself a high bar indeed, for he is not one-tenth the writer that Ray Bradbury is. This is no disgrace – neither are any of the other writers in this issue – but "Cockroach" fails once the comparison is set. Bradbury establishes a tone of horror from his very first magnificent line: "Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell." Bailey tries to tease us into the horror rather than grabbing us, but despite twice the length, his characters never quite come to life. Bradbury's ability to turn our everyday joys into the blackest of horror remains unique.

Imagine you're a smoker who's sunk your swindled millions into tobacco stock in 1962 and fled to 2003 in your time machine to reap your reward. Hugh Cook, a Brit educated in New Zealand who teaches English in Tokyo, somehow nails every one of America's PC obsessions in the short story, "Heroes of the Third Millennium." The joke gets even better once we learn that his 1962 was an alternate time line. That leaves the question: is his 2003 also alternate? Or is that our future we're staring so closely at?

Eric Reitan sets out to press our every button in his short story "Faerie Storm." He leaves no room for characterization.

Jerry Oltion starts with a burning bush in "The Miracle," a short story that fortunately soon turns into kind of a scientific joke.

A stranger commissions an elderly woman artist to paint a portrait of a severed head in Mark W. Tiedemann's poetic and powerful short story, "Psyché." She paints, and paints, and paints, and all the while we fall with her deeper and deeper into her obsession, and the obsession of all art. The only flaw I saw in the story was that it did not correspond with what I remembered of the Cupid and Psyche legend. I did my own detective work on this one and found the clues in Edith Hamilton's Mythology, starting with Venus' command to Cupid that he make Psyche "fall madly in love with the vilest and most despicable creature there is in the whole world." The stranger's name, you see, is Van Helsing. Tiedemann brilliantly uses the background rather than the foreground of the myth to shape his story into something both new and old, unique but resonating. It succeeds in the task at which Bailey's fails.

For pure, old-fashioned storytelling, however, "The Island in the Lake," a novelette in Phyllis Eisenstein's long series of stories about Alaric the minstrel, is hard to beat. Alaric wanders to a castle on an island surrounded by the waters of death. Inside, of course, as in any good fantasy, he finds good and evil, innocence and deception, and both life and death, his own included. Eisenstein unfolds the layers of the story with perfect pacing, and creates both for Alaric and the people of the fairy tale castle, new myths, and new songs. My only objection is that she has given Alaric magic powers so convenient that he is never in any real danger. A stronger – or stranger – foe in the next story would make the very good even better.

Copyright 1998 by Steve Carper

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