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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Nightmare #40, January 2016

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Nightmare Magazine #40, January 2016

Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller

Vulcanization” by Nisi Shawl

Reviewed by Nicky Magas

It’s 1987. In the streets of New York those in the gay community drop off like flies at the feet of the plague of AIDS, just one more group among many living and dying on the fringes of society. Isolated and willfully forgotten by those who could do something to help, three young men of this forgotten population cling to the almost glory of their fallen artists. Between them is a fractured collection of the life works of dozens of dead writers, photographers, and poets, cast aside as their creators had been. In the pessimistic melancholy that clings to their deserted coffee kvetches, Jakob, Pablo and Derrick come up with a way of preserving these legacies, of binding them together into a single face, a single voice for the entirety of their community; one entity to speak for them all, through the voices of the dead. With their individual talents they breathe life into their creation, never imagining their harmless idea could grow and mutate and become its own, living, breathing being.

I think every writer has experienced a little flutter of excitement or fear at the impossible idea of meeting his or her characters on the street. “Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller encompasses that feeling and so, so many more. It's the spark of an idea that grows furious in the hands and hearts of a crowd. It’s the anger and passion that plows change out of the status quo in every civil rights movement. It’s the way a concept itself becomes its own being, wresting control from its creators and gaining the ability to affect real, physical change in people and in the world. Miller gives readers a Frankenstein’s monster of ideas and unleashes it on a barely fictional New York City staggering on the cusp of social change. Told from three unique perspectives, in lovely style and prose, “Angel, Monster, Man” carries its horror on the wings of alternate history and like many of it’s kind, the possibility that it could have been real is what makes this story so engaging.

Leopold is plagued by the ghosts of his past in Nisi Shaw’s “Vulcanization.” As king of the conquered Congo, he has seen and orchestrated his fair share of bloodshed and now the specters of the natives won’t give him a moment of peace. So taxed is he by his unwanted apparitions, that he elicits the help of a mad scientist and his complicated invention to give the unwanted ghosts corporeal form. Once solid they can hopefully be banished, once and for all. But Leopold’s ghosts are far stronger than the spirits that have been used in trial runs. Forged in violence, their residual beings are attached to Leopold in ways that no one can predict.

Vulcanization” feels like a satire that lost its protagonist to cartoonish villainy. Rich, socially powerful and possessing some of the more repugnant discriminatory views in humanity’s history, Leopold is a picture of white colonial power, with none of the grace or charm of upper society. Which is fine; the reader is never intended to like Leopold. Unfortunately, with uneven pacing and a point of view a little too close to Leopold’s head, the reader might find little else to enjoy in this story. The description and demonstration of Travert’s spirit Condencer eclipses Leopold’s experience with it, and leaves readers with too little information to piece together the differences between Fifine’s trauma and Leopold’s. Additionally, it never feels like Leopold is adequately punished for his crimes, nor is there any change in his character that might give the reader the satisfaction of a moral lesson learned. Leopold ends the story in nearly the same place as he began it, giving the whole narrative a sort of hollow feeling for readers to come away with.