It’s not often that I personally get sold a book, but that’s what happened with this one. I was in Dreamhaven Books contemplating whether I should buy this shrink wrapped title or not because it had a Brian Stableford story in it. Dwayne H. Olson, shareholder in its publisher Fedogan & Bremer (and supplier of the Hannes Bok story in the anthology) talked me into it.
Low Res Scan: Searchers after Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2014.
After finishing this book, I contemplated writing an essay on just the bad stories in it. But, after actually making notes on the stories, I realized there actually weren’t that many bad ones. But I’ll be getting to them later and the matter of unsatisfying endings in weird fiction.
I’ve already reviewed “Et in Arcadia Ego” by Brian Stableford and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” from Nick Mamatas. I don’t think my original interpretation of the latter is correct, but it’s not a story I’m spending more time on.
First story in the book is Melanie Tem’s “Iced In”. I’ve known, professionally and personally, women like the one in this story. Poor, a hoarder, chronically and dangerously indecisive, she finds herself trapped in her house after an ice storm. Told with empathy and memorable, it’s well done.
In the town I’ve recently moved to, a frequent question is “Do you ice fish?”, so I have a fondness for Donald Tyson’s “Ice Fishing”. In it, two Camp Breton Island ice fishermen, Gump and Mickey D, going out fishing one night. There is idle talk about the disappearance of an acquaintance a couple of weeks back and puzzlement why the local Indians aren’t fishing as usual. Tyson continues to impress me with his versatility, and this one has some humor too.
While it’s not a Cassie Barrett story, I was pleased to Ann K. Schwader’s “Dark Equinox”. It’s another tale of archaeological horror, here once removed because we’re dealing with strange photomontages of archaeological artifacts. Why did the photographer lock herself up in her studio one night and torch everything? And, more importantly, why do the photos seem to change over time?
Most of the plot revelations were taken care of in the preceding #Savant book, In My Time of Dying. About half of this story is a chase with Elizabeth Dee and bodyguard Porter Rockwell trying to rescue John Dee from Count Germain. And John isn’t going to be offering much aid remotely to Elizabeth this time since he has been almost completely silenced and immobilized by Germain aka Edward Kelley, Dee’s old associate.
The story starts around Cheyenne with Elizabeth and Porter Rockwell attacking a train to get John Dee back. It will end in the Liberty County Jail in Missouri – a place Rockwell knows all too well since he spent – as he did in our timeline – many months imprisoned there.
Along the way we get cameo appearances by Crazy Horse (who fights a duel with Rockwell) and the James Gang and a special guest villain appearance by Helena Blavatsky.
There’s mayhem aboard trains and steamboats, and Rockwell will once again get to use those prototype pistols John Browning gave him.
This story is darker, moodier than its predecessor since we get some flashbacks to violent episodes in Rockwell’s life. (I wonder if one particularly strange one is a recap of another Rockwell story West has written.)
Another winning weird western from West, and I look forward to the third installment of the #Savant series.
I liked the fourth installment of the #Savant series enough, “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” in Tales of the Al-Azif, that I decided to check out the first installment in the series. (The crosshatch in the series title makes sense in terms of the story, but I wonder if there also isn’t some Twitter marketing ploy at work.)
If my reviews of West’s work seem a bit short compared to others, it’s not just because his stories are in the novella or short novel range. It’s because they are well-done modern pulp, and part of the enjoyment of a good pulp story is usually the plot twists and turns and the set action pieces.
And there’s a lot to like here in terms of plot.
Our story opens not in the American West of 1875, where most of it takes place, but in the Himalayas in 1874. In a mountain fortress, a group called the Knights of St. Germain have a prisoner, and they’ve had him a long time. His name is John, an emaciated figure of skin and bones chained in a dungeon as he has been for many a decade. He is a sort of reservoir of lifeforce, constantly recharged by mysterious forces and then drained by Count St. Germain. Or, at least, that’s what he calls himself now. John knows him under his old name, Edward.
Certain readers will no doubt tumble on to whom these two men are, especially since our series heroine is Elizabeth Dee. But, for those who don’t, I won’t spoil West’s slow reveal.
John is a man of formidable resources, an ability to dominate wills, and he makes a break from the fortress – by flinging himself off its high walls.
There’s a lot of Lovecraftian fiction here, mostly using the Cthulhu Mythos paraphernalia of gods, places, and blasphemous books. Not all of it falls in that category though.
Sweetening the deal for your purchase of this book, even if you’ve encountered Gafford’s fiction before, several stories are original to this collection.
One is “The Adventure of the Prometheus Calculation”. As you would expect from the title, it involves Sherlock Holmes. Well, a Sherlock Holmes with a Babbage Engine for a brain and the world’s only “living, functional robot”. It proceeds roughly along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes tale “The Final Problem”, but Mycroft Holmes and Professor Moriarty have different roles. There are also elements of Frankenstein in the story. Ultimately, though, it’s nothing special as either a Holmes story or steampunk.
Unlike Meikle’s collection Samurai and Other Stories, this story has only one type of story: entities and creatures that don’t know their place. There’s boundary breeching, lockpicking, and mangled spacetime membranes. Things are roused that shouldn’t be and invade our earth from the ether, the briny depths, and the spaces between atoms.
Surprisingly, for such a tightly focused collection, none of it was stale or boring when reading it straight through. There was only one story I had a very minor gripe about.
“The Doom That Came to Dunfeld” is the one original tale here and quite an effective horror story. Its narrator tells us what happens when the British government tries to repeat the legendary Philadelphia Experiment off the coast of Newfoundland post-WWII. They want to make a warship invisible. What they get is a dissolving warship and a killer fog.
Meikle has a real knack for the sea horror story and shows it even better with “Home From the Sea” which has a group of Irish men on a rescue mission to take men off a whaler floundering off shore. But they’re already dead, and their killer still on board. Continue reading →
To be honest, this issue was a disappointment. It was shorter than usual and a higher percentage of stories were ho-hum though there were a couple of bright points from two of the magazine’s old reliables.
I’m afraid the two newcomers don’t distinguish themselves.
Cynthia Ward’s “Six Guns of the Sierra Nevada” is actually a reprint of a story that first appeared 20 years ago in Pulp Eternity Magazine #1. It belongs to a time travel theme running throughout this issue. Carl Rhein seems to have been sent back in time by a shadowy cabal from the future in order to poison future American race relations by wiping out the Robin Hood Gang composed of all blacks. You have to be really good to get me to care about yet another story centering on what I’m told is the cause of all evil – racism, and this story isn’t, and its ending is a trifle murky.
There’s some racism in Paul J. Carney’s “The Warden of Chaco Canyon”, but it’s main problem is just that it’s kind of bland. It takes place in an alternate American West where prospectors have been hunting meteors with “star iron” – sought because of its use in protective amulets and bullets that will penetrate anything. However, the strikes have petered out after five years and prospector Hewitt wants to know why. He falls in with an Indian shaman who has his own ideas about what to do with “star iron”, and there are the ghosts of the town wiped out in the first meteor strike. Continue reading →
Like its predecessor, it has an article, “Tumbleweeds: Western Icon or Martian Invaders” from editor Campbell. It looks at the hardy tumbleweed aka Russian thistle, an invasive species into the American West.
Beth Daniels, an author I’ve never read, offers an interview on writing steampunk, advice that can also be found in her Geared Up: Writing Steampunk.
This being a Science Fiction Trails publication, there’s a dog story. Here that’s Campbell’s “RCAF (Royal Canine Air Force)“, inspired by the cover illustration. It’s a slight story with dogs and cats dogfighting in the air, and the dogs blasting a factory. Airships, machine guns, and plasma cannon included.
More steampunkery is supplied by the heist/rescue story “Shell Games: A Hummingbird and Inazuma Con” from Peter J. Wacks. It, as the title implies, involves a couple of conmen and seems to be part of an intended series. Inazuma is a “brilliant swordsman” (though he’s not called a samurai). Hummingbird is a gunfighter. The story takes place in Canton, China, but, of course, a steampunk alternative. Here the technological divergence is the invention of the “airjunk” in 1890. There are the usual iconic sorts of things like “clockwork carriages”. Hummingbird herself is a cyborg with a “clockwork right arm”, specifically a smaller variant of the one used in the West. It uses acupuncture needles connected by steel threads to serve as musculature. Hummingbird is accomplished at tai chi. Our two con artists are sent on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of the police commissioner. There are some historical figures here. The villain is Grigori Rasputin. Winston Churchill shows up too as a lieutenant in the police force since this section of China is occupied by Britain. Hummingbird and Inazuma’s con is complicated and precisely timed. The bits with Churchill were nice. Rasputin is set up to be a running series villain, but I wished he was on stage more.
Another story that reads like part of a series is Jessica Brawner’s “Bad Altitude”. The story has a great opening with our naked heroine falling from an airship over Paris. The ending doesn’t entirely explain the villain’s motives for wanting her airship. Still, the stuff in between is entertaining enough. This is set in a 21st century world where Douglas Adams is a “great philosopher of the last century”.
And, speaking of clockwork, there’s O. M. Grey’s “The Clockwork Heart”, a nicely done story which metaphorically puts that imagery to use in something of a feminist tale. It’s told by one woman and relating the story of another “woman”, Eleanor. Eleanor is a clockwork woman, but she used to be a regular woman as evidenced by the scars around her wrists (a suicide attempt) and neck and chest. The latter seem to be surgical scars from her one-time lover, Dr. Clague. Another woman, Penelope, is Clague and Eleanor’s daughter though the two were never married. Eleanor has been revived after her suicide attempt to hang about the house as a governess for Penelope. Emotionless during her second round at life, she wants to feel again, and Clague helps her have emotion again. Just in time to experience them when another man enters her life.
Lyn McConchie does no harm to her reputation as a reliable contributor to Science Fiction Trails publications. Here it’s with “The Steam Powered Camera”. The fantastic element here is slight. Was it really necessary to have a steam powered (in effect, a movie camera) with a wide-angle lens instead of just standard Victorian-era photographic equipment? Probably not, but it’s a fairly clever horror story in which a photographer doing psychic investigations comes across an impetuous youth, also with a camera, who mocks his equipment.
Lesbian lovers seem to be (or, at least, were back in the heyday of steampunk and judging by Amazon browsing) something of a steampunk cliché. Jeffrey Cook’s and Katherine Perkins’ “Opening Night” features two. Cliché is doubled by making one a warrior babe. The story intercuts between Emily’s stage performance as a clockwork doll (her own body has damaged limbs encased in mechanisms and she’s missing an eye) and Luca foiling an assassination attempt in the opera house.
The rest of the stories are kind of amalgams of steampunk and weird western.
Henry Ram gives us another installment in the life of Potbury the Necromancer in “The Courtship of Miss Henrietta”. The rich and dying Mr. Seven has his airship Azincourt parked above Name Pending, Wyoming. He’s hallucinating from products of “advanced science” put in his body and brain, and he needs Potbury to do his resurrection thing on him. Potbury says that’s not possible. Seven’s already been resurrected once. Another time is going to be technically difficult. Seven, not taking no for an answer, starts to threaten Miss Henrietta, the former local prostitute Potbury is in love with. Another engaging entry in the series with appearances by regular characters like the rapacious and two-faced madam Mrs. Broadhurst and worthless town marshal Wainscot.
I liked Liam Hogan’s “Horse”, a first person tale about a 15-year old boy and his mechanical, steam-powered, intelligent horse inherited from a beloved professor killed in a faro game. What the boy finds in a town — a gunsmith interested in the horse, local bullies, and a prostitute — makes an interesting story, but it’s not a coming of age tale.
“The (Almost) Entirely Untrue Legend of John Henry”, from David Boop, starts in 1855 with John Henry being sold for a 20 year period to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad. The story then shifts to the end of the ballad – John Henry pounding away at the end of a mountain tunnel. However, the mountain collapses on him since they tunneled through to an unmapped mine. John Henry and several men are trapped. We then get a different version of the famous John Henry vs. the steam drill story with a lot of exotic machinery. A nice bit of steampunkery and secret history.
Eric Aren’s “A Cure for Boundary Pirates” is set in a vaguely defined Old West of airships (with helium no less) and electric rifles where trade seems to be prohibited between the natives of the west coast and the people of the plains. A portion of the Great Plains has been turned into “the Colony” for those suffering from tuberculosis. The Colony forbids alcohol and tobacco. Simon, a pharmacist, smuggles “airflower” (seemingly marijuana given its analgesic properties) to the Colony. He’s been blackmailed by a couple of airship pirates who live in the Boundary (aka Rocky) Mountains into helping their smuggling. But the relationship is getting troublesome, so Simon takes steps.
Of course, this being a Science Fiction Trails book, David B. Riley channels karl, the dinosaur sheriff to introduce a collection of flash fiction about fog making machines. Karl, in “Some Protection“, talks about meeting one H. G. back in the Cretaceous. H. G. thought his time machine’s fog generator would protect from the vicious local fauna.
Eric Aren’s entry “Victory!” is a rather confused entry about a war between Russia and Germany.
P. R. Morris’ “English Waters” is a grisly alternate version of the Boer War with the Boers trying to prevent Gordon from reaching Khartoum.
“Pressure” from Guy Anthony De Marco is just jokey and underdeveloped.
Sam Knight is a weird western writer I usually like, but his “A Pirate Fog” shows, at least here, flash fiction is not his thing with a slight piece of naval combat in the Gulf of Mexico.
“From the Editor”, J. A. Campbell — Brief statement by the editor stating how much she likes steampunk and the magazine’s commitment to articles and stories that capture the artistry and diversity of steampunk.
“From the Publisher”, David B. Riley — Publisher Riley’s brief statement that he had long seen steampunk stories of the western variety as editor and publisher of Science Fiction Trails and that he wanted to focus more on steampunk.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk Fashion”, Carrie Vaughn — An article by Vaughn about steampunk fashion in which she argues that, unlike most clothing we now wear, it is individualized and makes a statement about the character/persona of the wearer. I had no idea Vaughn was the author of a bestselling series until I looked her up. I’ve only read one thing by her.
“Karl’s Korner, by Karl, the dinosaur sheriff”, David B. Riley — Karl, the dinosaur sheriff, is a running gag in Science Fiction Trails edited by Riley. Karl ruminates on their energy needs and fragile bodies relative to the pterosaurs he knew. Continue reading →
Riley adds to the same universe that his Miles O’Malley stories are set in with four stories and an essay, “A Most Baffling Event”, on the Great 1897 Airship in western America.
Two stories involve the U.S. Navy’s first airship, the Wanderer: “Wandering About: The Adventures of the Airship Wanderer” and “The Toy Men”.
In the first, the airship gets involved into Russian incursions in America, both on the ground and in the air. It seems the Russians have been in contact with Martians and hope to use the alliance to get parts of California and all of Alaska back from the United States. Good, genial fun that even the frequent talk about food doesn’t slow down. (And neither does frequent mention of the port wine President Chester Arthur inherited from his successor and is trying to foist of on visitors.) It features Penelope Hudson who shows up in Riley’s The Devil Draws Two.
The second story is shorter, quirkier, and funnier when a rogue State Department decides to launch a real war on Christmas – or, at least, Santa Claus. Continue reading →
Stirling thinks through the consequences of his alternate history. The point of divergence is a series of commentary impacts, mostly in the northern hemisphere, in 1878.
American civilization is wiped out. The British Isles are all but denuded of people. Prime Minister Disraeli marshals an exodus of the most important people, cultural knowledge, and technology and sends it to India. France is also wiped out but French culture lives on in Northern Africa. Islam is resurgent across the Middle East and Balkans. Russia has turned into a country of nominal Satan worshippers. Japan and China have combined. The Angrezi Raj, the cultural fusion of British and Indian culture, inherits the British empires (including new outposts in North America.)
The exposition is mostly in the first 60 pages of the book in which Stirling throws around a lot Indian/Hindu terms. He gets around to religious issues (basically the Anglican Church has accepted a lot of the Hindu gods and goddesses as versions of the Trinity) later on. To further show off his world building, he has five appendices with the background of the world. The culture is credible, and Stirling certainly makes this version of the British Empire seem noble and appealing with its personal ties of loyalty and honor and an intelligence run along informal lines.
Initially, I didn’t like my first exposure to seeress Yasmini, whose visions of the future, I thought, brought an unwelcome element of magic to this alternate history. Then Stirling got around to rationalizing using an obvious, if oblique, version of Roger Penrose’s idea that the brain is a quantum computer and thus (Penrose doesn’t say this) can see alternate timelines. The presence of a Kali cult was to be expected even if they were minor villains allied to the Satanic Peacock Throne.
The novel has two faults though neither was enough to disgust me. The reason — penetration of the Imperial intelligence services so vast that they can not be purged safely without first luring the traitors into the open –why Athelstane King and company have to sneak aboard the dirigible at the end seemed was a bit weak. I think Stirling, understandably, just wanted some scenes on a dirigible.
The end of the book descended into a wealth of clichés (presumably taken from the authors Stirling lists in the acknowledgements). There is not only a prince in disguise (the French envoy sent to arrange a marriage turns out to be the French prince who gets himself involved in a lot of combat during the book) but three marriages. The marriage of the French prince and Princess Sita was expected — after all, that’s why the envoy is there, to arrange it. But the marriage of Athelstane King and Yasmini, though hardly unexpected, was that old cliché of adventure plots. Worse was the convenient death of the Emperor and the marriage of scientist Cassandra King and the Crown Prince.
All three of the main women characters are of the same improbable action heroine mold beloved of modern authors. Stirling may have a thing for this sort of thing given the character of guerilla leader Skida Thibodeau in Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling’s Go Tell the Spartans. I think I was supposed to find the constant insults between King’s faithful Sikh Narayan Singh and would be Pathan assassin Ibrahim Khan (who also turns out to be a prince) funny. I didn’t mind them, but I usually didn’t find them funny.