You should follow #creepiestobject on twitter, where curators post horrible and fascinating exhibits from museums around the world. Like a lot of culture in the last couple of months– at least in Canada– it’s full of anxiety and a kind of manic amusement at the weirdness and horror of the world, very much whistling-past-the-graveyard. Looking through the links with a friend, we decided to do our own whistling and started writing creepy microfiction about the exhibits. There are so many dolls, and desiccated animals, and bits of witchcraft, you can’t help but want more from them– an explanation for why there are pins in a pigeon’s heart, or what happened to that cat.
A few people have posted their stories, so I wanted to collect the links:
…and I wrote “Mine” about Rat Kings.
After he fell asleep, she collected the things he brought to bed: books, cars, a noseless bear. When he played, he curated his toys by rules she did not understand. This dinosaur, not that. This bunny. That block. When he slept in her arms, his hair a fluffy nimbus after his bath, she still found rocks in his hands, smuggled into the bedroom.
She emptied his pockets after every walk: a bottlecap; a crumpled leaf. He wanted to bring worms home from the park. “No,” she said. “They’re dirty. Dirty.” Her face full of exaggerated disgust which she hoped he’d mimic, even if he didn’t understand her shudder. She still found them wriggling in his pocket. By July, a knot of fur. The exuviae of snakes and cicada. After a long day in the sun, he smelled of earth, mud in his teeth, his hugs damp and sour.
On a night in August she collected rocks, dinosaurs, his dad’s right shoe. As she dug about his sleeping body she found nails bent into a cross. A greasy yellow bone. A handful of hazelnuts.
And then— a knot of dark hair beneath his cheek. That was the first rat. After that another. Another. Another, all bound by their tails, desiccated, but warm from the heat of his body.
At her feet, their paws clattered as though alive.
He woke, then. He did not smile.
“What—” She asked. “What have you done?”
I have long admired Undertow Publications. They’re a small Canadian press that publishes beautiful books in that narrow category of literary-weird-horror. It’s the same country as Daphne du Maurier, Robert Aickman, and Alberto Manguel’s Black Water anthologies: precise, elegant, and uncomfortable. I particularly recommend Aickman’s Heirs which contains “The Underground Economy” a story that will scare you in a deep and absurd way. They also have a regular anthology series called Shadows & Tall Trees, and I’m pleased that it includes one of my stories, “Child of Shower and Gleam.” It’s about pregnancy, motherhood, and childbirth, so part of the same family as “Uterus Abscondita” in Shimmer, and “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” in F&SF. It’s darker than those, I think, not about the terror & hope of transformation, but a changeling story, a story about vulnerability in the everyday world.
When we moved to this neighbourhood– shortly before our son was born– I liked how busy it was, mostly with students, but also with kids. They traveled in packs on bikes and scooters, shouting up and down the street to the park at the end with the swimming pool, draped in beach towels, with the occasional supervising adult or older sister. There were a few children, though, who seemed out of step with the others, a little behind the group, more often alone, and never accompanied by adults. Sometimes they knocked on our door, asking for treats and glasses of water and just for the attention of a friendly adult who would listen to their strange stories and watch their somersaults. Sometimes I had the time. More often I did not, with a baby and a wholly transformed life to figure out.
Then– as is often the case in a neighbourhood full of rental houses– they were gone. I still think about them.
A very long time ago I used to write literary fiction. These were populated by a lot of young women who had feelings and watched loons fly across evening skies after days of unspecified sadness (not exactly that, but it gives you a sense of what I mean). They also had failed relationships, and drank coffee, and sometimes something a little uncanny happened, like they wandered into a cornfield, or someone lit themselves on fire. I’m being glib, of course, though I did learn a lot about writing producing those stories, and I even published a few of the more interesting ones in Canadian magazines like Grain and Geist and Room of One’s Own. They were best when they slid into the literary weird, which I think happens naturally if you’re trying to describe your experiences of the world in a precise and granular way– deep focus and precision makes everything seem weird, doesn’t it?
Anyway. One of places I used to send stories was a magazine called subTerrain. I think I might have also sent them some pretty dire poetry, as well, poor editors. They never took anything, though. And who can blame them, what with the loons and the feelings.
So, you can imagine my great, gleeful pleasure that finally I have a story appearing in subTerrain. And while it’s about feelings, and forest fires, and there are no loons, there is systemic forgetting, on both the institutional and personal level. And there’s dystopia. Please check it out and buy if you can. There’s a lot of good & relevant stuff in here, and it’s a beautiful magazine.
I wrote this story in a fit last August, one of those inspirational writing sprints that poets are supposed to feel. I wrote it after months listening to stories about the Uighurs in China, violence and state surveillance. Which made me think of the Stasi, and our own Canadian brand of Cold War surveillance in PROFUNC, the Fruit Machine, the Lavender Scare.
The list doesn’t end there, of course. But these examples are particularly horrifying (to me, I mean) for their intimacy, the way they evaluate a citizen’s behaviour in their most private, internal moments. There’s no privacy, no recourse, no escape from that evaluating gaze, which seeks out imperfect citizens, deems then internal enemies, and destroys them.
I was on a panel once, talking about the DEWline (a paper that I revised into this article), when Karl Jirgens, a Canadian writer, argued that the technologies of the Cold War– surveillance, proxy wars, MAD– have become standard operating procedure for all the world’s super powers. We might have celebrated the end of history and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we still live within the structures of that era. When I look at Uighurs, I believe Karl, and I am nauseated, and terrified, by how effectively those technologies have been refined, enhanced, rendered more perfect. Implacable.
So, as usual, I wrote a story about it, trying to capture the intimate violations of state surveillance.
So there’s a thing called the fourth trimester, a name for the first three months of an infant’s life, when they still seem foetal and completely unsuited to the world. They can’t regulate their temperature. They are only happy when they’re in contact with you, skin to skin, like they haven’t left your body. They register no boundaries, and no limits, and no language, but respond to touch and tone, and to your heartbeat, and rhythm of your footsteps walking up and down and up and down.
I’ve written a lot about pregnancy and birth since I got pregnant and had my son in the Summer of 2017, with “Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita” being the last story I published on the topic (and the last story I published– a YEAR ago). “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” appears this month in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, it was the first thing I wrote after giving birth, and it’s about those first strange months. It’s about trying to figure out what it means to live this wordless, animal life, caring for a creature who is beloved and disoriented and helpless, who cannot be argued with (no matter how tired you are, and how much you try to explain that he needs to need for sleep). I write “animal” meaning it in the best possible sense, since the fourth trimester belongs to a place before language, or maybe beneath it, where all communication is visceral rather than abstract. The story is about what this experience does to your daylight, rational, waking self. Since I write gothic-ish, horror-ish stuff these days, the story is a darker version of events than what I experienced. This is a representative excerpt:
Max’s first doctor’s appointment, day twelve. Getting out the door a disaster. Max crying, inconsolable. She stood in the middle of the living room, trying to remember what she didn’t have, but how could she think when the sound of his voice wrenched her mind until she couldn’t think —
it’s okay just a minute don’t
— what was it —
cry it’s okay max boy my max my little guy
— sandals she could step into because otherwise she’d have to tielaces and —
just a minute
Such a tiny and desolate sound, it was hard to believe, sometimes, that he was human and not some other sort of creature, so enormous were his eyes, and his head, and his thin little arms and legs braided across his body as though he was still enwombed.
Handbag. No. Phone. Yes. No. Keys?
max my sweet boy my dear please
And? Something else. She need —
baby don’t cry im right here im
— ed her phone. She grabbed the landline and let it ring until she heard it through the basement door, where a faint light shone through the cracks and —
You can find my story “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” in the May/June issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s online at weightless books, as well as on their website, and over at amazon.
ETA: There’s an interview up over at the F&SF website.
I have in the past avoided eligibility posts, mostly because I assumed people who wanted to read my work would find it via either the magazines that published it or my earlier posts. But then I saw ACWise collecting 2017 eligibility lists on twitter, and talking about why they’re valuable. She’s right. There’s so much fiction being published now it’s very easy to lose stories. I certainly need the reminder of what I’ve read, so I’m assuming other people do, as well.
So here’s my list, and my contribution to keeping track of 2017 in SF/F. All three of these are Hugo/Nebula/Aurora eligible, and fall into the short fiction category in each case:
“Lares Familiar, 1981” appeared in Liminal Stories back in May. It’s about the Cowichan Valley and the logging industry and a family with an uncomfortable relationship to both. It’s another of my attempts to capture the uneasy feeling that certain legends give me– those stories about strange encounters that never quite resolve, but leave you with a sense of how how huge and complicated and strange the world really is.
“On Highway 18” (this takes you to an interview about the story and includes some buy links if you’re interested) appeared in the September/October issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Another one about strangeness on Vancouver Island, and about violence and the intensity of adolescent friendship.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in September. It’s very close to my heart, and I used the story to organize and process a lot of thoughts about the First World War and how the world ends, about the beauty and frustration and vulnerability of archives. I love Oskar (the main character) who is smart and naive and resilient. I love the world, which is full of pre-FWW optimism and utopianism as it falls to the Guns of August.
And that’s my literary 2017: the rainy Pacific coast of Canada; strange meetings; genius loci; mal d’archive; our relationship with history both personal and political; memory; early 20th century optimism and early 20th century violence colliding in the First World War.
ETA: The podcast is now available, for those who prefer audio.
I’ve written a lot about the appeal of the archive and library: ”Water Logic” over at Capricious, and The Paradise Engine describe my own experience as a researcher, and the confusing and frustrating labour by which we make meaning out of things left behind. They’re my attempts to capture the pleasure and anxiety of archive fever.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is part of the same impulse. I started thinking about it when I first read about Paul Otlet and his Mundaneum, which was a kind of world catalogue, infinitely extendable, and designed to—eventually—take in all human knowledge. It was part of a huge and ambitious project, and an international movement, parallel to (and at odds with) the European arms race that led to the First World War.
My Mundaneum is quite different: it’s a museum and a junk-drawer and a wunderkammer as well as a catalogue; it’s a temple to the utopian dreams of Europe before 1914; it’s a physical wiki-binge. My story follows a young man left in charge of the Mundaneum just as the Imperial German Army crosses the Belgian border, transforming the world in ways he cannot yet imagine.
There’s a peculiar effect that archives have on you when you’re immersed in them, one that produces both insight and disorientation. You want, desperately, to know, but there’s always far more information than you can manage, even after years of practice. That’s the illness of the archive, an obsession with organizing what you see, making it into something accessible like argument or narrative. But the larger the archive grows, the less likely you are to find a unifying theory for its contents.
“The Fall of the Mundaneum” is about that preoccupation with order at the moment of its destruction, since it’s also about the chaos of the twentieth century smashing into a fantasy of total human knowledge. My narrator is a man trained to organize information and culture, and we watch him collide with mechanized warfare, which is ineffable, and which by its nature disorders the world, despite the rationality of mass troop movements and industrial military production.
In the end, war leaves behind its own archive: one constituted in bodies and objects half-destroyed and unstuck from their provenance, like the very substance of meaninglessness overflowing into the golden summer of 1914, and the beautiful dream of the Mundaneum.
After a few years of alien parasites and “filigree cosmic horror” (I owe that designation to Julia August) I’ve gone back to The Paradise Engine. Not directly, but by association: “The High Lonesome Frontier” is a story about recording technologies, the strange vertiginous effect that music can have on us when we listen hard, the way a song can be found and lost again, but still hide out in the back of your mind, or on a mix tape in an old car, or a .flac on an external hard drive. It’s SF in the very broadest sense.
This is also the first story I wrote after I finished Clarion West last year. I wrote it last August, in a strange, exhausted haze between the six-week workshop and the defence of my dissertation. It’s the biography of a song called “Where Does That Water Run?” imaginary, but inspired by obsessive listenings to “I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground,” tracked from its composition, through sheet music and player pianos, through performances and torrent files and broadcasts. Through– most importantly– the people who hear it, and remember.
Two relevant contexts (relevant to me as I wrote—possibly not to someone reading):
I like songs that only become folk music as they are repeated, gradually coming unstuck from their original authors. “Now is the Hour” was popularized by Gracie Fields after the Second World War—one of those songs of longing and separation that seemed so popular in those years. The melody was written by a theatre critic called Clement Scott and called “Swiss Cradle Song” until a Maori woman named Maewa Kaihau wrote the now-familiar words and renamed it “Po Atarau” and then “Haere Ra Waltz Song.” In the song’s global wandering it lost its original attribution, which is why Gracie Fields called it a “traditional Maori song” when she heard it in 1945.
“Wildwood Flower” started out as sheet music in 1860 with the title “I’ll Twine Mid The Ringlets,” but by the time the Carter Family recorded it in 1928, it was folk music—attributed only to “trad” until AP Carter got a writing credit when the work was republished after its success.
Ernest Seitz was a Canadian composer. He trained in Berlin before the First World War, but returned to Canada in 1914 for obvious reasons. While he devoted his life to teaching and concert performances, he’s probably most famous for a song that doesn’t have his name on it—“The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” He was, according to some stories, embarrassed to have written a pop song. Nevertheless, it captured the imagination of so many performers: Fritz Kreisler to The Beatles, and Oscar Peterson to Neko Case.
Did he ever enjoy that remarkable accomplishment? Did he ever hear one of these versions on the radio and think that’s mine?
Yesterday the Sunburst Society released the shortlist for their 2016 awards. It’s the first year they’ve included short fiction, though they’ve had categories for adult and YA fiction for a while now. The formal title– Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic—is an appealingly broad category that celebrates work from magic realism to hard SF, which is one of the reasons I like the award– there’s room for Nalo Hopkinson’s Skin Folk, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle.
I’m pleased to say “The Glad Hosts” is on the list along with these other remarkable stories:
Charlotte Ashley’s “La Héron” in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Mike Donoghue’s “Stuck in the Past” in Abyss and Apex.
Catherine McLeod’s “Hide and Seek” in Playground of Lost Toys
Kelly Robson’s “Two Year Man” in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Peter Wendt’s “Get the Message” in Second Contacts
When I saw the list I ran through a series of peculiar sensations, from yay! to this is probably a mistake, I bet they update the website soon with the right names to Second Contacts looks like a fantastic anthology and Damn, Kelly Robson is on fire and I’m so glad Lackington’s published that story. The next day I’m no longer sure about the “it being a mistake” part, but the rest stands. I’m also glad Lackington’s got the nod by way of “The Glad Hosts,” considering what an excellent editor Ranylt is, and how much work it is to launch a magazine.
The award is named after Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst (1964), a compelling piece of Cold War SF & nuclear anxiety. I have this additional, sideways joy in the name, because I used the novel in the last section of my dissertation, which was about the Cold War, with references to civil defence, the DEWline, spy novels, and Camp X, so Gotlieb’s novel fit in nicely between my creative & critical ambitions. Unfortunately the footnote got snipped at the very end, along with reflections on Graham Greene’s spy fiction, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (sad truth: my footnotes were wayyyy better than the body of my dissertation– all the cool stuff was in the footnotes).
Oh– and I wrote “The Glad Hosts” with the help of an Ontario Arts Council grant, so I’m additionally pleased to give the OAC their money’s worth. I mean, at least on that story…
New story called “The Journey and the Jewel” up over at Sockdolager (an excellent magazine published by Alison Wilgus and Paul Starr). I am always surprised by how consistent (not to say “repetitive!”) my stories are thematically, and this one covers a lot of familiar concerns. Forests. Grief. Families. Beaches. That’s pretty much my territory.
“The Journey and the Jewel” is also about that peculiar genre of the early 80s: the “armchair treasure hunt” book, something that reminds me of an ARG, an idea that arrived a little early, and that would have benefited from contemporary communications tech. The paintings in these books always remind me of Celestial Seasonings tea and the fantasy-and-science fiction section of the secondhand bookstore I used to visit in Duncan, BC when I was a kid. Unsettling high realism, sometimes, and dreamlike landscapes more strange than comforting.
Kit Williams seems to have originated the genre with Masquerade in 1979. We had a copy when I was little. I don’t know where it came from, but there were a few pages I found terrifying (I was just that kind of kid– I had to leave E.T. early because it was too scary). There was this one painting of the sun, a character in the story, who had been turned into a puppet and dropped on a beach at sunset, his limbs all twisted. I really didn’t like that picture. Because I was a bit of a scaredy-cat, the book ended up living in the top of the linen cupboard for most of my childhood.
It’s an interesting genre, though, and I can see why some of the other, unsolved examples have found a place online, where people can collaborate on their interpretations & theories. Over at the The Secret wiki people are trying to find ten jewels whose locations have been hidden (since 1982!) in paintings that remind me a lot of Kit Williams. I can see why they’re looking– an unsolved riddle, a still-lost treasure is appealing because the story remains unfinished, the end deferred. It’s made to be solved, right? So what happens to the story if it isn’t? “The Journey and the Jewel” is a kind of answer to the question.