Subterranean Magazine, Issue #7, guest edited by Ellen Datlow
Reviewed by Eugene Myers
This review was long in coming, one might even say overdue but hopefully not too late. It turns out that I’m not just a slow reader, but I’m an even slower reviewer.
Subterranean #7 is the penultimate print issue of Subterranean, which successfully transitioned to a fully online magazine last year. Their second print issue, themed “Science Fiction ClichÃ©s”, was guest edited by John Scalzi; the refreshing practice resumes in issue #7 with Ellen Datlow taking the reigns. Though this issue had no set theme, there are certainly several similarities threading through the selections.
I actually read this issue a while ago, but I needed some time to think about how to review it. What could I say about a magazine with so many good stories? “Buy it!” is my first and strongest inclination–any chance to read a collection of original fiction edited by Datlow is a treat. Maybe I should just stop there; you probably already know the quality and type of stories you’ll find in these pages if you’re at all familiar with any of her edited anthologies and, of course, her work at SCI FICTION. You may also think you know what to expect if you recognize the names in the table of contents: Lisa Tuttle, Richard Bowes, Jeffrey Ford, Joel Lane, John Pelan, M. Rickert, Anna Tambour, Terry Bisson, and Lucius Shepard. I was most impressed by the variety of the stories here: there’s horror, to be sure, but there’s a broad range, from the clearly fantastic to, dare I say, literary. There’s darkness but there’s also a fair bit of humor.
My next thought was to simply mention what my favorite stories were in this issue, but when I looked over the magazine I realized that was more difficult than I imagined–I enjoyed each and every one. Every reader is going to vary in her opinions of course, but I can guarantee that there’s something here for everyone. Some of these stories will affect you very strongly; many of them will linger after you’ve read them, probably long after you’ve forgotten the authors or the titles, or even where you found them.
Despite the great diversity of these pieces, they seem to share some common themes. They’re often deeply personal reflections on terrible events, outside of the control of the protagonists or sometimes indirectly caused by their actions past and present. The stories that reached me most in this issue are those with less of a fantastic element, those that really could happen or perhaps already have–surely nothing is more troubling than horror that can touch us in our normal lives, without supernatural agency.
My favorite of the collection is “Holiday” by M. Rickert, the story of a man haunted by the ghost of a child star named Holiday, just as he’s haunted by his father’s sins and his own dark compulsions. He tries to comfort Holiday and the other child spirits she brings to his house with movies and parties, and his antics spiral deeper and deeper into obsession. Rickert realistically portrays the narrator’s increasingly perverse reactions to his creepy encounters through the chilling conclusion. One can either read this as a ghost story or a purely psychological tale, but I experienced it as both; itâ€™s insidious in its subtlety, all the more because it suggests the real world headlines that likely inspired it, such as the murder of child star JonBenÃ©t Ramsey.
“The King of the Big Night Hours” by Richard Bowes similarly echoes actual events, exploring the aftermath of suicides at a New York University library. The fantasy element is slight, but evocative. In it, an employee of the library recalls his own troubled past when he faces these shocking deaths and tries to help other students deal with them. This is a story about change–recognizing that the world has moved on without you and deciding whether you should give up or change with it.
The lead story, Lisa Tuttle’s “Old Mr. Boudreaux” is another tale where someone remembers and then reinterprets her past, which then reshapes her identity. On her deathbed, the narrator’s mother asks her to take care of Mr. Boudreaux, a promise she makes lightly, thinking that the mysterious old man, her grandmother’s “fancy man”, is long dead. When she returns to her grandmother’s estate, she discovers that the old man is somehow still alive, and there’s far more to him than she knew. She has inherited this responsibility from her grandmother and her mother, but she discovers she needs him as much as he needs her. This is one of the weirder stories in the issue, but certainly one of the most engrossing and thought provoking. It’s about coming home and facing responsibility as much as it’s about being trapped in a role, unable to escape your past–about living for and defining yourself by others.
“Pirates of the Somali Coast” by Terry Bisson is easily the cleverest of the issue. Arriving just ahead of the several pirate-themed anthologies and magazines that assailed us last year, this story is structured as a series of e-mails from a little boy to his mother and his best friend from a cruise ship, where he’s vacationing with his aunt and uncle. When their ship is hijacked by pirates, he thinks it’s all a game. There’s a healthy dose of black comedy; I was alternately amused and disturbed as the boy relates the events from his own childish perspective.
Jeffrey Ford’s “Under the Bottom of the Lake” explores the act of storytelling as discovery, an entrancing tale that seems to be made up by the narrator as he tells it–as he sees it for himself in a cracked glass bubble. The story escapes from this bubble, as stories sometimes appear to get away from their authors. This is a beautiful and layered piece, and one of the most haunting in the issue.
In “The Jeweller of Second-Hand Roe”, Anna Tambour offers a surreal period fantasy where some of the most surprising details–the concept of a second-hand food trade–are actually based in historical fact. “City of Night” by Joel Lane and John Pelan follows characters Paul and Angie through a frightening landscape that is not as alien as it first seems, a fine example of strong world building and psychological horror.
The issue is rounded out by a novella from Lucius Shepard, “Vacancy”. Once again, a man is forced to confront his past: Cliff Coria is a washed up actor turned car salesman who is attempting to write his memoirs. He’s drawn into a supernatural plot for revenge when he witnesses what he thinks are crimes, a la Rear Window, and for the first time in his life tries to do the right thing. This is a despairing and dark story–sometimes it’s too late to make up for your mistakes, and we don’t always get a second chance. This story is also currently available for free in the Winter 2007 online issue of Subterranean.
Pick up Issue 7 of Subterranean while you can; it’s a fine send off to a quality print fiction magazine, one which leaves you wanting more. Fortunately there is plenty more to be found: issue 8, the last print issue, is available now, and every month you can read new selections for free in Subterranean Online.