The Summer 2013 issue of Subterranean Magazine has a special K.J. Parker section, which is a treat for anyone who has read any of Parker’s work. This author (gender unknown) writes from the perspective of a military historian, and appears to have a special interest in ancient Greek and Roman warfare. All of his/her stories have the flavor of ancient days.
“The Sun and I” is the first of two Parker stories in this issue. It is a take on the statement attributed to L. Ron Hubbard: “If you want to get rich, you start a religion!” Five friends, all from wealthy and educated backgrounds, but all presently out of funds, decide to start a religion. It seems a better way to raise funds than to beg as unemployed and disabled veterans, and besides, they don’t have and can’t afford the red lead they’d need to give themselves fake war wounds. The narrator, Eps, decides what they need to do is worship the sun — not as a metaphor, but the big glowing disc in the sky, the Invincible Sun. The men draw up a list of commandments and observances, fake some holy scriptures, and benefit from some fortuitous events, such as the end of a war ten days after they take to the streets to preach. Indeed, everything seems to be going their way; they’re practically minting money. They cure an epidemic of mountain fever — made possible because one of the men has happened upon a cure made from moldy bread and garlic, which he tells the ill is a gift from their god. All is going swimmingly, with just a hiccup here and there (like the time Razo gets fed up and decides to preach that the world is going to end, just in time for an eclipse), until Eps starts having dreams in which the Invincible Sun visits him and gives him directions on how to proceed. These dreams coincide with the discovery of genuine ancient scrolls that are virtually identical to the scriptures the men invented. Eps argues with his god in this dream, telling him that he can’t possibly exist, but it seems he does. And that’s when things start going downhill for Eps, but continue on an upward trajectory for the Invincible Sun. The whole story seems to have been written with the author’s tongue firmly in his/her cheek, but it’s a beautiful exegesis of how religion works, and I loved every word of it.
The second Parker story is “Illuminated,” a story about a pair of wizards who discover a new spell in a book they find in a three-hundred-year-old Imperial relay station. The elder wizard is male; the younger wizard-in-training is female. The question whether women can properly serve as wizards is apparently one of some controversy, but our elder wizard has no problem with them, he tells me, even though they have a lot of disadvantages: late onset of talent, early diminution, traumatic dispossession. They need to be treated specially to take advantage of their shorter bursts of talent, but they still have to apprentice to someone, and he’s gotten stuck with this one. The book they discover has to be copied out by hand, which is up to her; she’s forgotten to bring paper, so he has to clean the papyrus of another book with brick dust so that she has the necessary equipment. It’s worth it, because the book offers a new spell known as verbum scripsi. But it doesn’t do what the ancient wizard thought it would do, and it doesn’t do that for our two wizards, either, not the way they expect. The magic of words on paper can lead to terrible things.
Parker also has a nonfiction essay in this issue, a fascinating disquisition entitled “Rich Men’s Skins; A Social History of Armour.” I learned more than I’d thought there was to know about how war was conducted in ancient Greece, and why; about how the development of armour dictated who fought, and the manner of fighting; and how new weapons changed armour. It’s all written in Parker’s highly readable style, the kind of writing that flows along so easily that you’re learning things without even really knowing that you’re being taught. If Parker teaches history somewhere, I’d sure like to know about it, so that I can attend that university and take every single one of the courses he or she teaches.
Most of the other stories in this issue are relatively short, compared to the usual long stories Subterranean is known for. “The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World” by Catherynne M. Valente is the first thing I’ve ever read from her pen that I didn’t like. It seems to be a metaphor for the battle of cities and their spirits, with the Wizard of Los Angeles battling it out with the Wizard of New York for the hand of the Bride, who cowers behind the bar in the Gnaw Hollow Saloon as they fight. It seems to be intended as an allegory, but I can’t tell for what.
“Don’t Ask” by Bruce McAllister and W.S. Adams is about a man who retrieves the remains of his lover after she has been destroyed by an IED. They were both mercenaries, and both knew the risks; that they were both fighters is largely what they loved about each other. He looks to reinvent her by cloning her, a solution that seems doomed to failure. It’s a short and sad love story.
Kat Howard’s “Stage Blood” is an odd fantasy about Ian, a magician who, each night, places a woman in a glass box and inserts swords. The magician feels the swords pass through the women, but they do not flinch or cry out, and there are no visible wounds, though the stage floor is covered in blood. The magic isn’t explained, because magicians never explain their tricks. Ian is especially secretive, making fetishes of his secrets that he hides away in a special room in his home, in order to make magic from them. But Stella finds his magic room, and Ian is captivated by her. There are locks and there is pain and there is mystery; and soon there is a turnabout that is, perhaps, Ian’s punishment for years of brutality. It’s a subtle story that rewards rereading.
K.J. Parker’s “The Sun and I” is my favorite story in this issue, but Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Case of the Stalking Shadow” is a close second. The narrator tells us about Dana Roberts, a ghost breaker, a dealer in the supernatural, someone who wouldn’t ordinarily trust; but he loves her stories, and she seems to have a more natural and unassuming way of telling her tales that allows them to worm into his consciousness. One night she visits his club, and tells the story of her first investigation, The Case of the Stalking Shadow. She was only a child, not yet a student of antropology or a ghost hunter of any sort, when she and her cousins spent a summer at the home of her Aunt Elizabeth. It’s a huge estate, 100 acres, many of them wooded, with a house with 45 rooms, “overdone and overblown.” The cousins play many games, but one night they decide to play a mash-up of tag and hide and go seek in the woods. Dana’s cousin Jane has already said that she finds something strange about those woods, but Dana doesn’t discover what the strangeness is until that night, when she finds a place that hides her all too well. A shadow of sorts, a faceless creature of surprising menace, chases her from the woods long after the other children have all ceased the game. And then the cousins return home, and the story would seem to have ended, for years and years — until one year when Jane writes that she is going back on Christmas Eve, because she has to know. Dana joins her, and — well, they find out.
It’s another excellent issue from Subterranean. Really, we are in an amazing Golden Age for science fiction, fantasy and horror short fiction, and Subterranean is publishing some of the best of it. This is a free publication that you can read on your computer screen or download to your Kindle or other ereader. You’re really missing out if you don’t take advantage of the marvelous work Subterranean is doing.