Those who have lamented the passing of SciFiction can get their fix of Datlow-edited stories in Subterranean #7, which features a distinguished lineup of familiar names. The issue opens with Lisa Tuttle's "Old Mr. Boudreaux", a lovely portrait of mother-daughter relationship. The protagonist goes to see off her dying mother, and ends up gently drawn back into the life she had left behind many years ago. It is delightful to see a female protagonist who is not young or relationship-obsessed, and it's a quiet story of wistful sadness at the passing of one's parents and one's youth. Unlike many of the going home stories, this one does not greet the returning protagonist with a sinister mystery or earth-shattering tragedy, but a sad mundanity of inevitable loss of one's parents, of getting older -- and quiet revelations of unexpected magic. The speculative element is subtle and brings to mind Garcia Marquez's "An Old Man with Giant wings", but without the grit and dirt but instead a gentle sense of wonder. Yes, gentle and wistful is perhaps the best way to describe the feel of this story, and I found it a great introduction to this issue.
Rick Bowes' "The king of the Big night Hours" is another quiet story -- quiet despite the rather violent rash of suicides in the NYU library. Similar threads run through it as though Tuttle's story: wistful regret for the passing youth, told from the point of view of an aging gay librarian who witnesses the suicides and remembers an old friend -- or his ghost, or the ghost of the friendship. The present-day story is interlaced with the memories from the time of the AIDS epidemic, and the memories are lined with sadness and unease. While the references to 'the plague' are few and subtle, for me the memories of this time seemed to have colored the entire story with not so much fear but the sense of helplessness, when even the smallest gesture that offers solace is precious because of the bleak background -- much like it does in the present day part of the story, during the epidemic of young people's suicides. It seems to me that the reaction to this multilayered story would be very much colored by the reader's individual experience; for me, it left a lasting and profound impression, a deep resonance, and belief that a touch of a shoulder can be life-saving.
Jeff Ford's "Under the Bottom of the Lake" is a lovely story that is difficult to describe. Ford breaks the fourth wall and seems to work his way through the story -- and yet, different beginnings and fits and starts add up to a fractured, beautiful tale of tangled secrets that persist through generations, affecting lives long after the people who brought them in motion are dead. Surprisingly, it is a light, playful tale, despite the oftentimes grim events.
"City of Night" by Joel Lane and John Pelan is a familiar story of a man slipping into an alternate dimension or a nightmare, populated by creepy giant centipedes straight out of Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" and downtrodden handfuls of people. It's a nicely atmospheric tale, but the one I couldn't help but feel I read before.
M. Rickert's "Holiday" is a strange, wistful thing -- a man who is supposed to be writing a book about the innocence of his father accused of child molestation is being visited by ghosts of dead children. Jon Bennet Ramsey (even though she is never named) is the first one to appear. Rickert manages to take a difficult topic of child abuse and murder (and its creepy corollary of children's beauty pageants) and write a touching, poignant story around it. The relationship between the protagonist and his brother add a layer of family blame and damage to both; I was reminded of the Friedman family, where the father and a son were both arrested for child sexual abuse, and the oldest son is still dealing with the legacy of his family history. It's a difficult story to read, and like all Rickert's stories it leaves a strange, somewhat bitter aftertaste. Well worth the read.
Anna Tambour is perhaps one of the most interesting stylists working today, and her "The Jeweler of Second-Hand Roe" demonstrates her control of the language as well as flair for the historical detail. As the title suggests, the story deals with a family that trades in second-hand food; as one would suspect, food takes the center stage -- as well as some of the stranger trophic proclivities of the jeweler's wife.
Terry Bisson's "Pirates of the Somali Coast" takes on a disappointingly moralistic theme -- teenagers and their videogames that make them unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and who are not able to see the permanence of death. Of course, the current obsession with pirates among many perfectly reasonable people resonates through the story as well. I guess I would find this story less disappointing if the tone of the teenage (possibly younger -- his age is not mentioned in the story) protagonist was more believable. As is, it rang false, and the epistolary nature of the story made this deficiency of voice more glaring.
And now for the longest and most complex story of the bunch -- Lucius Shepard's "Vacancy". I've been a Shepard fan since I was fourteen, so I was predisposed to like this story; however, I didn't have to be. It's a dark and haunting story, dark fantasy at its best, mixing the timeless and the mysterious with the specific time and place. The source of menace here comes from the Philippines, and for a bit I was worried that the story would cross into the territory of exotic evil. Of course, Shepard is too good a writer who is well aware of the complexities of the America's relationship with less privileged parts of the world and cultures to do that, and the story really seems to be about the damage of American cultural imperialism.
Cliff, the aging has-been actor and currently a used car salesmen starts investigating some strange goings-on at the motel near his car lot, near Daytona FL. What struck me about this tale was the almost palpable sense of atmosphere -- of a town and buildings and people decaying in the tropical climate, dilapidated under the assault of the elements, ready to be engulfed by the suffocating vegetation and swamps and ocean; the sense of the invasion of an unknown menace, mirrored by the constant intrusion of Cliff's memories of his times shooting B-pictures in the Philippines. The nature of the mystery is almost irrelevant here, and, true to the spirit of this recursive story, it remains unexplained -- although Cliff learns something about its cause and his own role in it. An unsettling story that is somehow satisfying despite leaving most of its crimes and mysteries unresolved. Here once again Shepard presents the readers with a thoroughly unsympathetic protagonist and somehow makes them follow along, pulled by the beauty of his prose and precision of detail.
Overall, a wonderful issue. I am glad to have had the chance to read it, and hope that Subterranean will have more of those guest-edited issues in the future.