(Third Flatiron Anthologies, Spring/Summer 2019)
Reviewed by Chuck Rothman
I’ve lately been interested in hidden history fantasies—those where the fantastical elements fit in the cracks of known history. So I was very excited to see an anthology based on the concept.
The book starts out with “The Fairy’s Bell” by Bruce Golden, set in Elizabethan England. Dorothy Stafford was a lady-in-waiting for Good Queen Bess in her old age and who is present when the relates to William Shakespeare a secret from her past, and perhaps the reason why she never married. The story is set up just to reveal the situation, but it is a clever mixing of fact and fantasy.
Kai Hudson writes a mix of alternate and hidden history in “Fire, Steel, and Flaming Pearls.” Christine, a Chinese-American teen is upset about the way they teach about the Dragon War in school: dragons existed, but were wiped out as they fought among themselves. Her mother is upset that the stories in school are lies and takes Christine to her grandmother, who knows what really happened. The story telegraphs its ending a bit, but has the charm to overcome it.
“Losing Face” has Andy Janus growing a mustache—a large Imperial style that changes his appearance. But in Matthew Reardon‘s future society, it means that the facial recognition software no longer knows who he is, stranding him. He soon discovers an underground society of people for whom the software also doesn’t work, turning them into people without identities. It’s an interesting concept, but the shortness of the work leads to a far-too-easy ending. I would have preferred it to be explored in greater depth.
“Indian Uprising” by Brenda Kezar is set at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where it appears that the Sioux are using zombies as part of the attack. Alonzo Palmero, a reporter, talks with some of the tribe to get to the bottom of the rumors. It basically reveals the source, but doesn’t do all that much more with it. A good idea, but it deserves more.
“Carbon-Nitrogen-Oxygen” by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is set in the city of Axxaashe, whose people became ecological fanatics and where a group of people starts to break the rules, led by Tetazani Rakotomalala, who inadvertently shows them their errors. Unfortunately, the story reads like a dry lecture from a historian many years later and doesn’t dramatize any of the conflict.
“Behind the Purple Haze” by John A. Frochio follows a young Jimi Hendrix who is on tour in the south after being discharged from the army. He wanders into a Gypsy camp, and meets Magda, who appreciates his music and who is present when he meets what seems to be an alien. It’s a strong story that fits in nicely with the theme.
Dennis Maulsby‘s “Freudian Slips” tells of Lili and Keean, two immortal demons sharing the same body. While traveling to the US in 1939, Keean remembers meeting Sigmund Freud in pre-WWI Vienna. Freud knows them for what they are, and the story is a discussion of early psychological theory. I’m afraid the story just introduces a parallel between Freud’s theories and the demons’ experience, but really does nothing other than introduce it. I also think the flashback form works against it.
“The Oracle’s Dilemma” is set in the future where people can turn themselves into robots. Anton had fallen deeply for David, and his life fell apart when he saw David kissing Xi. Years later, he goes to an oracle to learn to understand why. The answer is not what he expects. Michael Robertson doesn’t really do a lot with the concept—the situation is based on pure misunderstanding—and the story didn’t engage me.
“The Secret History of the Space Shuttle” by Mike Barretta involves Emmaline Henry interviewing ex-astronaut Robert Healey about his role in the cold war, when he flew a secret military mission on the space shuttle, one that nearly causes World War III. All the characters in the story have a connection to I Dream of Jeannie, something that is cute, but doesn’t add much to it. Another issue is a pitfall of hidden history: by its very nature, nothing changes, so you need to concentrate more on what happens to make things come out as we know it. In this case, it’s a pretty routine account.
Simon Lee-Price contributes “Best Possible of Worlds” where the narrator’s father has a strange attitude about history: that analyzing it after the fact is worthless. He is finally taken to an unusual library, where there is a far different view of history. The story would have been better if it did more to explore the setup instead of merely showing it.
“MH370” by Ricardo Maia deals with what was on the lost voice recorder from that particular disaster, when a plane went down in the Indian Ocean and was never found. It spins a story about something (probably aliens) taking over the plane. The structure of the story is problematic, since it’s all dialog without a lot of context. We never discover exactly what is happening.
“The Ghost Train” is set in World War II, where we discover a group of Jewish anti-Nazi fighters who are trying to free a group of Jews who are slated to be transported to Extermination camps. J. D. Blackrose not only develops a clever, but logical, twist on history, but does more than just present it, resulting in a tight little adventure.
“Man Overboard” by James Chmura focuses on the Titanic, where a man in an experimental survival suit makes his way to the Californian, reporting the disaster and urging they rescue people. But it turns out that Edward Rathbone had something more insidious in mind. I found that Rathbone’s plot made little sense and his actions turn him into a villain straight out of an old melodrama. There are a few lines justifying it, but they don’t hold up to any real scrutiny.
Arthur Carey‘s “Running on Empty” is set at the end of World War II, where the Japanese have developed a superweapon that will immediately reverse their fortunes. It turns into a debate about reason versus a military logic that ignores the dangers of total victory. There’s a very good twist at the end that makes the story one of the standouts of the anthology.
“Proving Pictures” by Tony Genova has Melodie looking through the equivalent of a blog documenting her daughter Ariel’s life on Instagram. But we slowly discover that this isn’t exactly what it seems to be. I liked the way the story unfolds to reveal the secret and the sad/funny/horrifying story.
Edwina Shaw writes “Against the Roaring of the Fire” at a witch burning, where Martha Douglas watches as Mary Shepherd is being put to the flame. Martha muses on their relationship, where she was Mary’s best friend until desperation caused Mary to betray her. It’s primarily an emotional story as Mary tells it, and ultimately very tragic.
“Yes, Yes, Yes, We Remember” by Elizabeth Beechwood has the mood of a legend, as the mountains tell a tale of the day when the Rusalka arrive in the village below, exploiting it and its people, and leaving them starving. But a goddess is soon invoked in order to take revenge. There’s little new in the concept of the story, but the point of view and language carry it very well.
Sandra Ulbrich Almazan wrote “Specimen 1842,” where Rosie Harris, working on an archeological dig, begins to discover something very strange about the jawbone that gives the story its title. The bone is from an 800-year-old burial mound, but analysis shows some pretty startling anomalies. I’ll have to say I figured out what was going on from the beginning and the story suffers from just revealing what’s going on and doing nothing with it.
“The Homebringing” by Robert Dawson is set on the Apollo 13 mission, where Mission Control has to deal with bringing the astronauts back. And the answer is to use some mystical arts. It’s a good idea, though the story doesn’t really catch fire.
“The Thunderbird Photo” is mostly a story about the Mandala Effect, where people remember things that didn’t happen—or did they? The narrator remembers a photo of a giant bird—maybe a legendary thunderbird—that seems to have vanished. Jennifer Lee Rossman explores whether the narrator’s memory is correct and comes up with a story that manages to be a solid read with an ending that is nicely inconclusive, and with hints of something more.
Shannon McDermott‘s “The Fulcrum” is a basic “go back in time to fix the past story.” Wing is getting ready to go back in time to make that change by going back to stop what they call the fulcrum: the thing in the past that would make all the difference in the world. I tend to like the type of twist the story provides, and the story handles it efficiently.
“The Sixth-Gun Conspiracy Letters” by Evan A. Davis is one of the more clever entries in the book. It’s a series of letters, primarily from John Wilkes Booth, as he writes about a special assignment he is given to help save the Union. Booth is a patriot, and goes deep undercover, with tragic results all around. This is the type of story that makes the hidden history genre so much fun: a skewed look at what was going on, with a logical ending that shows a different side of history.
H. J. Monroe‘s “Defender of the Realm” is an alternate history where Louise the First becomes queen of the UK after terrorists assassinate all the other royals. A man calling himself Arthur Rex appears in person in the unimpressive form of Philip Duncan. The idea is a strong one, but most of it is delaying the inevitable realization, and once revealed there are hints but no story.
“Cry the Thousand Sentinels” by Brian Trent starts with an attempt to kill a man, which fails. The creature behind it is one that was created to secretly guide the human race away from disaster, but the work was deliberately thwarted by a couple of teenagers who lure it away into the desert, where the full story behind the creature is revealed. The revelation here is big enough to carry the story and move it into unexpected places.
“Red Reckoning” by Jonathan Shipley deals with a long-lost Nazi superscience project, where children were given drugs to make them mathematical geniuses. A descendant of one of those children shows up to interview one of those survivors, who was part of this Red Reckoning group. The story spins an interesting background, with a strong twist at the end.
The book ends with three bits of flash fiction under the umbrella title of “Grins and Giggles.” “Them Tourists” by A. Humphrey Lanham portrays alien tourists trying to fit in, with a parallel to all the clueless tourists on Earth. “Date Attire” by Tyler Paterson riffs on the issues with dating a man who runs around with a giant “S” on his chest. “Fairy Godmothering” by Dantzel Cherry shows a day of classes in a school for fairy godmothers. All are light, humorous tales—evocative of smiles, but not guffaws.
The book has some good stories, but does suffer from some of the problems inherent in hidden history: since, ideally, this is revealing secrets that don’t change anything from what we already know, the story is more about process than results. Also, the book was looking for shorter stories, which made it difficult to expand on situations instead of just preventing them.
Even give that, though, there are some pretty good stories in the anthology.