From the Trenches: An Anthology of Speculative War Stories

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"The Other Side" by Rafael E. Cariaga
"Wonder Maul Doll" by Kameron Hurley
Image"Maes Gwenllian" by J. Anderson Coats
"Victim" by Kenneth J. Chiacchia
"Possibly Grief" by Josh Rountree
"Iphigenia in Ursalim" by L. R. Snow
"Harris on the Pig: Practical Hints for the Pig Farmer" by Anil Menon
"Dawn’s Early Light" by Pati Nagle
"And Everything but Wretchedness Forgotten" by Michael Sellars
"Under the Skin, Under the Bones" by Steve Vernon
"F*cking Napalm Bastard" by John A. Pitts
"So Hot" by Terry Hayman
"Companies of the Heart, Come with Fire and Sword" by Jay Lake
"Vera Lynn Sings for the Boys" by Mikal Trimm
"Across a Blackened Landscape" by Pam McNew

From the Trenches: An Anthology of Speculative War Stories
, edited by J.P. Haines and Samantha Henderson, is a new release from Carnifex Press, containing 15 short stories.
The anthology begins with short-short “The Other Side” by Rafael E. Cariaga, a meditative rant by a soldier entering battle.  I found the narrative voice too distant, too laconic for the length. It was hard to empathize with the soldier’s fear with no urgency or intensity in the story’s voice.

Kameron Hurley‘s "Wonder Maul Doll" is a harsh look at a grunt squad performing a recon operation for leaders who won’t accept the evidence they’re presented with. The narrator’s squad is searching the planet, Pekoi, for organically tailored beings portrayed as a threat to the civilized world. The squad is brutal and rough. They do what they’re ordered, the fastest way they’re able. On their mission, they find a shelter filled with three girls and are told to bring them in alive. Events go south when they stop at a village and the villagers turn on them.

"Wonder Maul Doll" resonates with both the current political situation and the Vietnam era when American troops were often criticized for brutality against a brutal enemy. This story serves up a subtle criticism of policies that put troops in a no-win situation.

In "Maes Gwenllian" by J. Anderson Coats the eponymous Gwenllian has taken command of the Welsh army while his more experienced and respected predecessor, Gruffydd, is away seeking reinforcements. Gwenllian find Gruffydd’s hauberk an ill fit, literally, as he wears the armor to inspire his troops to rally around the more able Gruffydd’s authority. It seems to work, and the Welshmen beat back their Norman foes until they come to the Norman-controlled Cydweli.  Einion, to whom Gwenllian has deferred all along, urges attack.

“Maes Gwenllian” is a strong piece of historical fiction. Gwenllian is interesting, and the story carries a pleasing ambiguity until the end. I would have liked to have seen Einion a bit more developed. He is portrayed as the distant advisor, but there are hints of a closer relationship such as that of a surrogate father which could have added depth.

Kenneth J. Chiacchia‘s “Victim” opens with Petty Officer Estaban forced to kill a prisoner. He and his squad are under attack, and they can’t escape with a man in tow. When they are reinserted into combat, they must retreat after a heavy firefight, an ambush gone wrong. While sheltering in a farmhouse, they take another prisoner, a little girl, as rumors of enemy mind-attacking powers arise.  Members of the squad start to fall apart, and they are picked off, one at a time, as they try to escape.

“Victim” is an interesting study of war and its effect on the psyche. Can the enemy really attack minds?  Or is that the soldiers’ delusion? These men have done atrocious things to stay alive, as is often the case in war, but they aren’t evil; they only want to survive.  Often, a soldier doesn’t have time to consider future consequences.

Providing multiple visions of a woman wracked by loss, “Possibly Grief” by Josh Rountree is about people who lock themselves off from the world after the death of a loved one, and the people irresistibly drawn to them. The War Witch is the strange woman down the street who still lives in 1945, when her son died in the war, the embodiment of a scary story told by old people and children. 

Rountree’s story is a plotless, postmodern menagerie of the horror stories that “Possibly Grief” could be. Bouncing from vision to vision, from the horrific to the pathetic, it offers glimpses down story branches but most pointedly refuses to follow any single one.  Readers looking for traditional storytelling, characters, and plot might find this off-putting, but “Possibly Grief” is a modern allegory. The sad and frightening War Witch is a pointed symbol, though it isn’t completely successful.  

L. R. Snow’s “Iphigenia in Ursalim” follows a long tradition of writers who use the classic tales to comment upon the modern world.  In Greek mythology, Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon slated to be sacrificed to ensure the boats of Troy would have wind in their sails. Snow’s stream of consciousness story is almost a straightforward retelling but for the ending. Ursalim is the name Israel used (and may still use) for Jerusalem after the 1967 occupation, and predictably, “Iphigenia in Ursalim” thereby examines the current Middle Eastern conflict.

“Harris on the Pig: Practical Hints for the Pig Farmer” by Anil Menon is about terrorism. The narrator is the most unreliable of narrators, the terrorist himself. His intended victim is a man with archaic views, Mr. Joseph Harris. The title, reflecting upon Mr. Harris, is also the title of a late 19th century book on hog farming.  Harris is a man who would be at home in our modern era of factory farming, though the story is set in the indeterminate future after 2027. The terrorist campaign targeting Mr. Harris is by the reprehensible Koyaansqatsi, whose representative, our narrator, makes snide comments about how the culturally blinded Mr. Harris should take their random and cryptic clues as warning to change.  Yet, the narrator is socially unable to take them in the same context. 

“Harris on the Pig” had the potential to be marvelous. Menon displays keen insight as he highlights the contextual implications behind terrorism and its corollary responses. It only falls short in it how difficult this reader found it to meaningfully empathize with either the narrator or Mr. Harris.

In “Dawn’s Early Light” by Pati Nagle, an inquisitive journalist seeks out Miss Tamer, a dark woman who nurses dying soldiers in a Civil War field hospital. “She comes after the darkness—after the battle is over—and moves among the wounded, weeping men, a silent shadow bringing comfort and peace.”  Miss Tamer is an enigma, a woman with the full support of military officers in a war zone. Of course, as all good journalists do, the protagonist unearths the truth, but there is a cost to that discovery.  And while he regrets it, he still gets the story.

”Dawn’s Early Light” doesn’t cover anything fresh; it introduces no new ideas and makes no pointed or grand statements. It is simply a well-written story that is a pleasure to read. In an era with too few such stories, that makes ”Dawn’s Early Light” easy to recommend.

The horrors of the World War I battlefield are revisited in “And Everything but Wretchedness Forgotten” by Michael Sellars. Robert stumbles through the trenches as the gas pours over him, experiencing both the ugliness of war and his own personal horrors.

Sellars’s story recalls the tone and feel of many of the most vivid pieces written from World War I, such as Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est”—the terror of the gas, the fear that your children might have to fight in this war, the horror that other children already are.  The title is a line from Siegfried Sassoon’s “In The Pink,” another WWI poem.  It is apt that Sellars revisits questions from the last truly brutal war that still lingers at some edges of the American consciousness and is not watered down by other political concerns. It reflects upon modern questions about war, recalling savagery we are supposed to have moved beyond, and sparks debate over the very nature of war—whether it is really war we are engaging in or something less savory.

Steve Vernon’s “Under the Skin, Under the Bones” is an almost Lovecraftian vision of a German soldier’s experience.  The Germans and Russians fight a pitched battle filled with blood, death, and mayhem.  Our narrator is knocked unconscious and experiences a surrealistic dream. He awakens to find only he and one other soldier remain on the battlefield. Not wanting to be ambushed by the enemy, they decide to take shelter in a village dominated by a large, angular church devoted to something unknown. It is there they discover the narrator’s nightmare was more than a bad dream.

This was one of the more intriguing stories in this anthology, set apart by its surrealism. Readers should be warned, however, that it contains some graphic and violent sexual elements that not every reader will enjoy.

In “F*cking Napalm Bastard” by John A. Pitts, an Army Sergeant in the Vietnam War, “Preacher” Ike, has the second sight and uses charms from world religions and objects that connect him to his past as channels for his ability.  This story recounts the Tet Offensive, except that Ike and his squad mates are fighting zombies and giant monsters, not soldiers. As with the actual Tet Offensive, the forward soldiers are ignored when they tell command something is wrong, until it’s too late.

The key to alternate reality stories is making all the factual details fit into the new reality. Pitts has written a convincing tale with an interesting character at its center, making “F*cking Napalm Bastard” a solid story and a good read.

In “So Hot” by Terry Hayman, Stickney is on watch when he sees a woman kill an insurgent in Iraq and is driven to find out why. She turns out to be an AWOL soldier taking revenge on the Iraqis for a failed relationship. This is a predictable tale about soldiers who hate where they’ve been assigned and aren’t too fond of the people they’re fighting. Its inclusion is somewhat curious as there isn’t a speculative element. Overall, it neither detracts nor adds much to the anthology, so much as it seems out of place.

In Jay Lake’s “Companies of the Heart, Come with Fire and Sword” Anders and his war band, the Miegenmen, believe their land defeated and their families slain, so they adopt false personas and flee to the relative safety of a neutral city.  To their great surprise, that city subsequently faces an invasion at the hands of the Company of Miegenmen—family they thought lost.  

Lake writes with his usual assuredness, but the story is, at times, a little confusing; the time shifts required multiple readings to get a handle on. Still, he’s a deft writer, and the ending is keen but ambiguous. A worthwhile read.  

“Vera Lynn Sings for the Boys” by Mikal Trimm touches upon how war impacts families left at home. Virgil Horne is a parent of one of eight boys from a small high school class who went off to war in 1942 and were killed in far off lands.  He lives with his own private, musical accompaniment, and he is haunted by his deceased wife’s last words: “Maybe we need to sacrifice something of ourselves…For the boys.”

Trimm uses poignant lyrics to counterpoint Virgil’s pain in this quietly moving story. Questions of loss and sacrifice are prevalent: What sacrifice must be made? Is it paramount to the loss of their sons? Or to the greater losses of war?  These are pointed issues at a time when we are confronted with a war in which we are asked to make no sacrifices, and worth reflecting on.

Pam McNew’s “Across a Blackened Landscape” is a rambling descent into disconnected madness, the words of a soldier reflecting upon his upcoming life in a tirade of future experiences.  It reads as a diary of memories from a tortured soul in a future forgotten war. The present tense and plotless structure challenge the reader in a story that relies to great degree upon metaplot to give it shape.  In the end, the overarching remembrance of experiences is too broad to give it cohesion.

From the Trenches varies widely in style and tone, though only one story feels out of place in this collection. As with all anthologies, the careful reader can pick and choose favorites to find a satisfying experience.

Publisher: Carnifex Press
Price: $12.95
Paperback: 176 pages
ISBN: 0-9789583-2-2