Murky Depths #1

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“State Your Name” by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Image“Supply Ship” by Kate Kelly
“The Quality of Mercy” by Ron Shiflet
“The Pattern Makers of Zanzibar” by Lavie Tidhar
“Today Is Not” by Michael Sellars
“Paston, Kentucky” by Jonathan C. Gillespie
“Naught But Ash” by Anne Stringer
“Cyberevenge Inc.” by Eugie Foster
“67442” by Paul Abbamondi
“Looking In, Looking Out” by Gareth D. Jones
“Come To My Arms My Beamish Boy” by Douglas Warrick
“Death and the Maiden” by Richard Calder
“The Other Woman” by Chris Lynch

“Empathy” by Luke Cooper

Despite being Murky Depths #1, this is, in fact, the second issue of this “Quarterly Anthology of Graphically Dark Speculative Fiction”; there was also apparently a #0.  It is published on high gloss paper, and is quite heavy on the illustrations compared to many other publications in this genre.  It even contains a few completely illustrated stories, though for the most part, the artwork is secondary to the stories, which are presented as ordinary text.  It’s a most substantial publication, collecting more than a dozen stories, an interview, and some illustrated poetry, but I was disappointed by the inconsistency in story quality.

I’m probably going to get an email from Jon Courtenay Grimwood telling me what a dunce I am, but I simply don’t understand “State Your Name.”  A society facing apocalypse has devised a means of escape, but for some reason, they seem to be evacuating only their criminals and infirmed, as if they’re somehow shipping them off to their doom.  However, the story makes it fairly clear that they believe they are sending them off to their salvation, and it is those left behind who will be doomed.  I’m very confused.  At any rate, a young man who is neither a criminal nor infirmed wants to leave, and it seems that committing some criminal act is the only option open to him.

History tells us that prisoners of penal colonies sometimes lit fires to lure or mislead passing ships into crashing into the rocks so that they could steal their supplies.  This is recast on a penal planet in “Supply Ship” by Kate Kelly.  Though quite short, I found it carefully structured with little fat, effectively delivering the plot essence with as few words as possible, resulting in a certain Spartan joy.

I was unimpressed by “The Quality of Mercy” by Ron Shiflet until the last couple of paragraphs, at which point it completely blew me away.  A young man in a diner sees the misfortune that will befall all the workers and patrons around him; this gift of sight coming to him from his aunt.  What follows is a litany of visions of people and how they’ll die—car accidents, bombs, heart attacks, strokes, murder, all manner of violence.  Assaulted day in and day out by these visions, understandably strung out from lack of sleep, and his comprehension of his ultimate inability to save any of them, he comes to a desperate conclusion.  I’m not going to give even the slightest hint of what that is, but the payoff is a fine one.

Lavie Tidhar must be a plenty prolific soul—it’s a name that even I in my limited explorations have come to know.  In “The Pattern Makers of Zanzibar,” a journalist investigating the slave trade in 1870 Zanzibar comes across an unpleasant truth.  Though not what I would describe as an immensely original story, it features richly detailed characters in a well paced and well thought out story.

“Today Is Not” by Michael Sellars is not the most action packed of the stories in this issue, but it is easily the most intense.  A severely disturbed woman seeks pieces of some powerful magical item (a Luminissmus) in fragments of broken glass.  Her search for these pieces, her collecting them, and her testing of them is sharp, anxious, bloody business.  Her life falls apart, her family unable to help her.  Will she complete her quest?  The outcome makes for a jagged and chilling tale.

“Paston, Kentucky” by Jonathan C. Gillespie posits a postapocalyptic world decimated by metal-gathering robots run amok.  I’m skeptical that a lack of metal would, in fact, lead to the complete downfall of our society (we’d probably replace many things with conductive carbon composites), but given that I’m willing to suspend that little piece of disbelief, I found this one of the most enjoyable and fast-paced stories of the issue.

Give all the oddness of many of the other stories in the issue, it was kind of a surprise to find a pure, simple tale like “Naught But Ash” by Anne Stringer.  Alien attacks (and it’s never made clear exactly what form these attacks took) has left only small pockets of humanity living a technologically bereft lifestyle not unlike the Old West.  An entire family is butchered, a young man apprehended for the crime, and it falls to old Doc Cameron, a man who remembers what it was like before the attacks came, to dispense justice.  Just what kind of man could commit such a brutal and violent act, both from a philosophical and physical viewpoint?  The Doc has questions, and he might not like the answers.  Given the complexity of many of the other stories, this one was almost like a palate cleanser, tangy and refreshing.

Unlike the previous Eugie Foster story that I reviewed in anthology Bash Down the Door and Slice Open the Badguy, “Cyberevenge Inc.” leans heavily towards the sadomasochistic yuck factor.  A woman being terrorized by a cyberstalker is contacted by a sort of Twilight-Zonish online company that will help her for a price.  Very gross, hyper violent, it would probably be a big hit among the revenge-fantasy crowd.  Though the narrative is solid, the motivation for the stalking is only superficial, as if being a racist sexually-twisted assclown is sufficient to explain her stalker’s actions, which are both extensive and extreme.

“67442” by Paul Abbamondi is likely the shortest story in the issue.  An android has its old personality thoroughly and graphically stripped away—the hair, the skin, the muscles, the memories—and a new one installed in preparation for its reentry into society.  Excellent as a descriptive scene, but only makes a hesitant attempt to deliver a tiny plot in the last couple of paragraphs.

“Looking In, Looking Out” by Gareth D. Jones is a visually interesting story consisting of a double page spread of several paragraphs, almost thought balloons, arranged in a counterclockwise circle around a picture of a fetus and the Earth.  Each paragraph is a log entry by an alien species attempting to communicate with people on the planet.  They find the only mind flexible enough to understand them as a fetus and so begin to interact with and teach it.  Then comes the twist.  Simple, quick, and pleasant.

Having had a parent who succumbed to Alzheimer’s, stories in that vein affect me deeper than most.  “Come To My Arms My Beamish Boy” by Douglas Warrick is no exception.  A man in the final stages of Alzheimer’s envisions the loss of his memories as a kind of theft, seeing them sucked from his body and his life by creatures he describes as like lampreys.  His desperation, sadness, and the loss of his most precious memories all hit home.  It tries, I believe, to end on a slight up note, but for me, it didn’t succeed.

“Death and the Maiden” by Richard Calder is apparently part one of an unknown number of parts, and while the story will almost certainly become clearer with future installments, as a stand alone, it tells us essentially nothing.  A prostitute is picked up by some psycho killer and is rescued by someone else who might be Death.  It has some action going for it, but that’s about it.  Incidentally, this is one of the fully illustrated comic-style stories in this issue, and I found the illustrations—grainy slick CGI affairs—to be a little hard on the eyes, most probably coming from some much larger format and being shrunk down to fit the page.

There’s a Stephen King story about a man who maintains his wife, dying of some terminal disease or other, in a room where he keeps time slow so she will live as long as possible as they search for a cure.  Don’t ask me to remember the title, but I think it’s in Skeleton Crew.  At any rate, “The Other Woman” by Chris Lynch is reminiscent of it.  A man visits his wife on their anniversary, and she’s being kept alive by the all the horrors within the power of modern medicine to inflict.  It’s a little sad, but we’re given no backstory and little reason to care about the characters, and the narrative is really too shallow to be anything more.

A hostage negotiator with a unique ability to really get inside the heads of the gunman is called to what seems, at least at first, to be an ordinary hostage situation in “Empathy” by Luke Cooper.  As we quickly learn, that getting-inside-the-head thing can have unintended consequences in the hands of a clever author.  I liked it.