“If Destiny Still Reigns”

I picked up the first issue of Penumbra – A Journal of Weird Fiction and Criticism solely for this story.

While I won’t be reviewing much else in the magazine, I will say it’s worth picking up if you like weird fiction. Not only are there stories by writers currently working in the genre but also reprints of classic works including translations from non-English works. There is also some decent poetry. The critical articles are mostly jargon free, often insightful, and, at worse, merely state the obvious.

Review: “If Destiny Still Reigns”, Mark Samuels, 2020. 

Cover by George Cotronis

The story opens with one of those sinister tv transmission that frequently show up in Samuels’ work. The so-called December 8th transmission appeared on the world’s televisions for about a minute. The commentariat had an explanation.

The already limited attention span of the average consumer of mainstream mass media was further shortened when responsibility for the transmission was claimed by an obscure climate change campaigner and technology insider who also maintained that he had hacked into the network systems delivering terrestrial and satellite data streams.

But, while the impressions viewers of it had are written off as pareidolia, they seem remarkably consistent:

another world, one whose surface consisted of cratered, rusted, and blackened metal. The succession of still images were rapidly intercut and speeded up in order to incorporate the greatest number of them within the limited time available. And in that series of desolate tableaux I espied an almost infinite series of underground tunnels in what was a honeycombed, machine planet; one populated entirely by hideously wrought components, cogs, or other mechanisms of incomprehensible import. There was nothing in those images that pertained to organic life, nor any indication of its having had prior existence there at all

The narrator, a journalist seeks answer, and he knows whom to ask: a Russian communication expert named Josef Rostok who lives in the polluted Siberian mining city of Arkilsk, once a gulag.

The greeting he gets is as frosty as the air. Liars, he’s told, find i teasier to come to the city than leave, and “Mainland rules don’t apply” though Arkilsk is definitely not an island.

Samuels does a wonderful job depicting this city in winter darkness and under polluted skies, a city full of abandoned buildings. It’s as evocative as his strange, abandoned city of books in “The Search for Kruptos”.

On the way to meet Rostok, the narrator runs into sort of a mystical, violent madman and will eventually learn that Earth is threatened by a propagating wave of corruption similar, but not identical, to such Samuels’ tales “The Age of Decayed Futurity” and “The Crimson Fog”. I will say no more except that the best part of this tale is the appearance of a character from another Samuels’ story. That character makes this a particularly enjoyable story of unresolved weirdness, eschatological ambiguity, and another look at the taint of modernity on our lives.

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