Tor.com, September 2020
“Wait for Night” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Hearts in the Hard Ground” by G. V. Anderson
“Solution” by Brian Evenson
“The Perfection of Theresa Watkins” by Justin C. Key
“The Ashes of Around Twenty-Three Strangers” by Jeremy Packert Burke
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
All the stories offered this month are very dark in mood, ranging from supernatural horror to apocalyptic science fiction.
In “Wait for Night” by Stephen Graham Jones, a man working to remove debris from a creek discovers a century-old skeleton when a large willow tree is uprooted. Thinking it might be valuable, he tries to take it, only to be stopped by a fellow worker. A desperate battle breaks out, revealing the true nature of the skeleton and the other workman.
For the most part, this is a traditional horror story, making use of a familiar supernatural theme. The scenes of violence are vivid and realistic. Adding to the tale’s verisimilitude is a convincing portrait of blue collar laborers, not often seen in fantastic fiction.
“Hearts in the Hard Ground” by G. V. Anderson is a ghost story involving multiple hauntings. After the death of her mother, the narrator moves into an old house. She soon encounters an undead seagull. Other specters follow, from the spirit of a child who died in the house to the malevolent ghost of the aunt who may have killed him. With the help of a new friend, she overcomes the evil entity and learns to deal with her painful memories of her mother.
Despite the extensive supernatural aspects of the plot, this is mostly a character study. Mundane happenings, such as the arrival of an ordinary housecat, seem as important as the various hauntings, giving the story the feeling of magic realism. The quirky, semi-comic presence of the zombie seagull does not fit the mood of the rest of the work, which is downbeat and introspective.
“Solution” by Brian Evenson takes place in a future world facing extreme environmental degradation. The narrator, embittered by the death of his wife and by the selfishness of his two sons, makes use of biotechnology to change the future of humanity in a disturbing way.
The author creates an effectively grim mood of doom and desperation throughout the story. The details of the narrator’s plan resemble those of a cinematic Mad Scientist, and seem implausible.
In “The Perfection of Theresa Watkins” by Justin C. Key, technology allows the consciousness of a dead person to inhabit a body donated by a prisoner serving a life sentence. The narrator’s wife undergoes the procedure after she dies of cancer. Besides the obvious difficulties involved in adjusting to a new body, a crisis arises when it seems as if the woman is experiencing some of the dead prisoner’s memories.
There is much more to the story than this simple synopsis suggests. The woman’s history of schizophrenia, as well as the narrator’s poorly controlled anxiety attacks and faulty memories, make for a subtle and complex narrative. An important aspect of the plot involves the fact that the African-American wife now finds herself in the body of a white woman. In the hands of a less skillful author, this could have led to a simplistic allegory of racism. Instead, the theme is handled in a sensitive, thoughtful manner.
The setting for “The Ashes of Around Twenty-Three Strangers” by Jeremy Packert Burke resembles the modern world, but differs from it in very strange ways. It no longer rains outside, but storms develop inside houses, forcing the occupants to leave. The protagonist goes into these abandoned houses, collecting portions of the cremated ashes of the deceased. She takes the assembled ashes to a place where a gigantic humanoid god lies motionless. In this world, the faithful believe that the ashes of the dead will be resurrected. The woman hopes her collection of mixed ashes can replace those of her dead brother.
The main appeal of this surreal tale is the bizarre uniqueness of its concepts. It’s not clear why the protagonist thinks the ashes of random people could be an acceptable substitute for her brother’s remains. If the story is intended as symbolism, the meaning is unclear.
Victoria Silverwolf notes that this month contained five Wednesdays.