(WMG Publishing, October 2019, tpb, 311 pp.)
Reviewed by Tara Grímravn
Are you superstitious? Chances are that, even if you don’t consider yourself to be among those who put stock in portents and omens, you can at least name a few. The thing with superstitions, though, is that they had to come from somewhere, right? As the editor so eloquently points out in the introduction, someone had to be the first person to connect good fortune with a severed rabbit’s foot, for example. And beliefs are funny things. Whether we want them to or not, they have an effect on us for good or ill. Released on October 14, 2019, that’s just the thing that Fiction River: Superstitious tackles with its 17 stories and single poem. I won’t be reviewing those that aren’t genre, but even they are mostly well worth a read.
“Salvage” by David Bruns
It’s 1969 and Bit Prescott is relaxing in the heat of a South Carolina evening when she receives a visit from a British man named Redi. Redi wants to hire her boat to take him to the site of a Civil War shipwreck, The Wanderer. She agrees, even though the ill-fated wreck is rumored to have played a part in her family’s fall from high society. Face to face with the ship, Bit finds more in that wreck than she bargained for and is forced to come to grips with the truth about her family’s history.
While Bruns’s story is well-written overall, it felt as though it ended a little too quickly. There is quite a bit of lengthy buildup to reach the climax, after which the story sort of sputters out with an ending that is a little anti-climactic.
“Rough Musick” by Joslyn Chase
Nervous, Kesten makes a visit to the village healer, Morwenna. She hopes that the older woman might cure whatever sickness has taken hold of her. To her surprise, Morwenna tells her that she’s pregnant with the child of her sweetheart, Branek. Soon after, Kesten and Branek marry and their son is born. That same night, the ritual of the groaning cheese, meant to procure a life of prosperity for the newborn, doesn’t go as planned, however. The actions of a rival suitor, Jago, have cast a pall over the joyous occasion, bringing ill-fortune to the happy couple.
The message in Chase’s story seems to be that superstitions are all in one’s head, that they only hold power if one chooses to believe in them. Making the choice to ignore them then grants one a sort of freedom. While I am not entirely convinced that this story falls within any of the three genres on which Tangent Online focuses, the plethora of Cornish superstitions and folk beliefs presented are fascinating, coming very close to placing this in fantasy or horror. It really is quite a good read.
“Knuckleheads” by Jonathan Kort
Luis and Hector are a pair of thieves ready to move on to a new location. With that in mind, they’ve planned just one more heist before they leave behind the snows of Butte, Montana for the warmth of the New Mexican desert. Things don’t go right for the pair from the get-go, though, mainly because Hector refuses to carry a knucklebone charm in his mouth.
I’m not entirely certain what Kort’s intent was in this story; so much so, in fact, that I’m tempted to say that it isn’t genre but I’m going to review it regardless. The plot is obviously meant to be funny—that much is clear—but the ineffectuality of the two thieves is established from the start, which is enough to justify the ending. This makes the knucklebone charm somewhat superfluous to the story, even though it’s stated by the old woman that she knew that it was what had kept them from being caught on prior crimes. She even goes so far as to collect the bones so the criminals can’t use them, which implies that the charm was important.
Unfortunately, this premise just doesn’t make logical sense. Luis states he’d been carrying one around in his mouth on every heist they’d carried out, which was why they’d not been caught. Hector, on the other hand, hadn’t heard of the thieves’ knucklebone charm (an actual human knucklebone taken from the hand of a thief) until this particular heist and the fact that it has to be carried tucked against the cheek inside the mouth is, in part, why it repulses him and he refuses. As such, it couldn’t have played a part in any of their prior successes. If it did, why does Hector’s refusal to use it serve as the reason for this heist failing this time, since Luis had been the only one to carry it before? The old woman taking Hector’s charm is what seems to trigger the robbery to fall apart, not their ineptitude. Given the clearly established bumbling nature of the pair, it doesn’t seem very likely that they’d have never been caught previously without some sort of miracle, yet either the charm either didn’t really do anything or the rules of how it works changed for this heist. My final verdict on this one is, although it is amusing, the plot just doesn’t hold water.
“Grave Decisions” by Sharon Kae Reamer
About to be wiped off the map thanks to a mining operation, the town of Perchta has asked Roland to exhume the roughly 300 graves in the local cemetery so that the bodies can be reinterred at the town’s new location. Given only two weeks to get the job done, he’s enlisted the help of two young boys, Jo and Marshall. It’s not long, though, before he discovers that a local ghost, Lady Perchta, may cause mischief that could haunt him forever.
For the most part, Reamer’s story is engrossing. It hooked me from the start and held me until roughly the middle when the inconsistencies in Roland’s character began to show. Earlier, it’s made very clear that Roland sees ghosts and considers it part of his job as a gravedigger to help them accept their situation and move on. But then, on his second visit to Frau Geisen, he states that he’s never witnessed a haunting, nor does he believe in any of the things that the old woman is telling him about the ghost. That directly contradicts his earlier reminiscing about the ghosts of those he’s buried. He then immediately returns to planning how he intends to meet Lady Perchta and make a deal with her so he can complete his job. Later, during his confrontation with the ghost, he says again that she doesn’t speak like the other ghosts he’s encountered before reverting once again to not wanting to believe that his encounter with her was real. This inconsistency in his character is irritating, to say the least, and took me completely out of the story.
“The Robin Club” by Ron Collins
What would you do to make sure your favorite team was always on top? That’s the question every member of the Robin Club eventually has to answer for themself. You see, several years ago, a group of men made a deal with a witch—blood for wins—while on a drunken bender. They didn’t take it too seriously at first, forgetting the agreement by the next morning. But it soon became clear just how real that deal was. Now, the latest generation has to come to grips with what it really means to be a true die-hard fan, as our narrator discovers.
Collins spins an intriguing tale in “The Robin Club” with a little bit of every genre mixed in. There’s a bit of science fiction with the talk about two worlds, the one we know and one that’s similar but different, there’s the deal the narrator’s father and his cohorts make with the witch, which brings in the fantasy element. Finally, the nature of the deal itself and the character named Angel adds a touch of horror. The premise is also interesting, and the sacrificial theme of the story shares echoes with the distant past, of a time when, in many cultures across the globe, “blood makes the grass grow” was a belief firmly held to ensure the prosperity of clan and community. Great story!
“Offerings” by Jamie Aldis
Four college friends set out on an expedition into the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. Like hundreds of others who entered this sacred area never to return, they are in search of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine—not for the riches it’s said to contain but for the glory of being the first to come back alive with proof that it exists. As they trek further into the wilderness, however, the omens that death is stalking them begin increasing. It starts with three crows followed by a black mountain lion, all signaling to the unnamed narrator that someone may die before the end of their journey. When their friend Ben falls into the river and goes missing, the narrator’s fears are confirmed but the bad luck has only just begun.
As a whole, the story is worth reading, if only for the plot. I like that the narrator had researched Apache beliefs about the area and had come prepared with cornmeal and other offerings to appease the spirits. In other words, she didn’t just blindly blunder into sacred territory like her friends; she approached the land with respect. Honestly, the only real issue I have with Aldis’s story is the dialogue. In the first part of the story, it’s fine. It’s casual and sounds like real conversation that college kids might have. It begins to get very bad after that point, though. Once the terrible events start happening, the way in which the characters speak changes, becoming overly formal and not very believable, especially for college students. Lines like “No, my love. It was just a ghost! You live. You live!” and “I am shot!” sound like they’d be more at home in a Gothic novel than coming from the mouths of modern young adults. Coupled with the characters’ decision to forego the use of contractions in their conversation half-way through the story, the dialogue made me cringe both inside and out.
“Sweet Sixteen” by Ryan M. Williams
In a future where artificial intelligence (A.I.) has become nearly commonplace but not yet sentient, Sarah leads a group of scientists who’ve developed the first truly self-aware A.I., Genna. As the group prepares to copy Genna into sixteen androids for use at a demonstration scheduled for the following day, it becomes very clear that the A.I. isn’t very happy with Sarah’s plan and has no intention of cooperating.
I’m not usually one to buy into the whole Skynet concept that inevitably arises whenever the topic of advanced artificial intelligence comes up in conversation. Still, I have to admit that Williams’s tale has left me a bit unsettled. Genna’s reasons for objecting to being copied into the androids are irrational for an A.I. but therein lies the horror. Her excuses are meant to disguise a far more sinister objective, one hinted at in the final lines of the story.
“Three Breaths” by Lisa Silverthorne
In the middle of the Civil War, Cade’s superiors have made a terrible mistake. They’ve written his name on the company roster in red ink, a color reserved for writing down the names of the deceased. The ensuing apology doesn’t make him feel like any less of a doomed man, and even the encouraging words of his friend George can’t lessen the sense of impending doom that hangs over his head like a cloud. No, as far as he is concerned, Cade is a marked man and, when Death finally comes for him, he can only hope that he’ll know what George meant in saying “it takes three breaths to beat Death.”
I’ve read Silverthorne’s work before and each time I have thoroughly enjoyed it. This story is no exception. While I had suspected that George wasn’t what he’d appeared to be by the time Cade is ordered to break for the Miller farm, the twist at the end is still a complete surprise. I highly recommend this story.
“The Perils of Taking Table Selfies at a Con” by Annie Reed
Everyone knows that breaking a mirror carries a penalty of seven years of bad luck but does breaking a cell phone count? When Krissy first broke her phone at the SF convention after seeing her favorite TV star, she didn’t buy her friend Leo’s insistence that it did. But as things keep going from bad to worse, she starts to think there might be something to this old superstition as applied to her phone after all. The question now is how to fix it.
Reed’s is a cute story with an interesting premise. Most every reader will be able to identify with the protagonist, especially since nearly everyone has, at one time or another, felt that sense of elation over meeting a crush (even a celebrity crush) and the subsequent pain of losing those things that were meant to immortalize that moment, just as Krissy does. As for the premise, I never would have thought of a cell phone as being the same as a mirror but, then again, it does show us a reflection of sorts.
It also fits quite nicely with that old superstition about cameras. If breaking a mirror both damages and angers one’s soul, cameras are far worse—some legends say that the picture-making box can outright steal and imprison the soul. While the lore concerning mirrors is rich and varied, I have to wonder if this particular myth about the camera played a part in Reed’s plotting, since the belief is said to stem from the use of mirrors in the camera itself. Either way, it’s a great story.
“Unsavory” by Michael D. Britton
Dr. John Greene is working on an archaeological dig identified as the location of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, following in the footsteps of his deceased rival, Sam Revell. One particular area of the site contains an unusual deposit of salt that is the focus of his attention. Taking it back to his lab, he soon realizes that he’s staring at the evidence for something he thought impossible and now he has to deal with the consequences of his discovery.
Like mirrors, salt has a plethora of myths surrounding it as well. In this story, Britton has chosen to explore the Dead Sea and the legend of Sodom and Gomorrah, both inextricably linked with the mineral. While the story is okay, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the fate of the curmudgeonly Dr. Greene. I just don’t see the point that the author is trying to make.
Lot’s wife was punished for looking back at the destruction of the two cities, thus going against the direction given by the visiting angels. Depending on which version of the myth one reads, she’s punished in this way for either secretly loving the sinful ways of Sodom and Gomorrah, for checking to see if her two daughters were able to escape the destruction, or for asking her neighbors to borrow salt to prepare a meal for the angels, an action that alerted the citizenry of their presence and making her guilty of “sinning with salt.” Either way, being turned to salt is a punishment specific to her violating the angels’ instructions in one way or another. So why, then, is Dr. Greene afflicted with the same malady? He admits at the end to having believed in the supernatural all along, despite his loudly proclaimed contempt for others that hold those same beliefs, even his own very religious mother. If his affliction is a result of his disbelief, this goes against the idea that God, who purportedly wants all men to be saved, still affords them free will to choose otherwise. And, too, God would know that Dr. Greene truly believed all along, considering that most say he knows the truth in men’s hearts. If it’s his naming the sample “Lot’s Wife” as a jest that dooms him, it still doesn’t really fit the biblical story, making the legend of Lot’s wife itself irrelevant to the tale, even if other biblical myths indicate this type of spiteful pettiness is typical of God, such as when he sends a couple of bears to devour children who poke fun at Elisha for being bald.
As a result, I found the ending a bit too convenient and the story itself not entirely convincing. The premise would have been much better served if the nature and origin of the malady had been explored and developed a bit more and those tenuous connections to the fate of Lot’s wife made a little more solid.
“Puckish Behavior” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Portia is a drama teacher at Yale with a secret—she and her sisters come from a long line of witches. This semester, she has Noah Whitestone in her class, a member of another old family in the area. A few weeks into the term, Noah approaches her with a handful of USB drives and a message from his father to watch them. It turns out that his outdoor theater was under attack by sprites, the real reason behind the old theater saying “break a leg,” and he needs Portia and her sisters to fix the problem.
Rusch’s story is something of a magical mystery, with our protagonist and her sisters playing the part of Sherlock Holmes with two Watsons. Overall, it’s a decent story and the premise is quite imaginative. The only downfall to the tale is that it moves quite slowly with very little action and an overabundance of expository dialogue. I found myself wanting to skim through much of it and had to force myself to actually read through it all. Despite this, however, it’s still worth a read.