Merry Christmas from Our column today focuses on Christmas and winter-themed stories. Enjoy!
“Every Winter” by E. Catherine Tobler (2016, free at Apex magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)
As soon as I finished “Every Winter” I went right back to the top and started re-reading. It wasn’t because I enjoyed the reading experience (though I did) but because I was intrigued by things I’d missed ― all the signs that suggest that the villa in the story is not all it seems.
Halla is an artist who returns to the same French villa every winter, seeking total isolation. This year she has forgotten her canvases and so, compelled to paint, she uses the walls of the house. The story is a slow-burner, there are no dramatic action sequences, but every day and every night peculiar and painful things happen to Halla, always with the result that she continues to paint.
“Every Winter” is a deftly told ghost story (although whether there’s a ghost involved or something else is never clear). The tension slowly builds and the reader’s curiosity is gently piqued. But this isn’t a normal horror story, in that there’s no terrifying climax. As we know, Halla returns to the villa “every winter”. Instead, it is a study of isolation and art and an exploration of an artist who prefers to live a solitary life.
Though beautifully told, the pace sometimes suffers; I found this story was best appreciated in two sittings. Partly this is because Halla remains a distant character. In a repeated refrain we are told that Halla doesn’t have “grand” enough words to describe certain things, which suggests she lacks intelligence, but there’s no other evidence to suggest that this is the case. I’d love to see more of this story and find out who Halla really is and what brings her back to the villa every winter. ~Katie Burton
The Christmas Show by Pat Cadigan (2013, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle)
Dita and Coco Trebor are sisters who are cursed to wander the earth … putting on amateur theater productions. Each one they do works off a little bit of their debt to the Powers That Be, and Christmas plays are the best for working off a good chunk of their debt (“we’re like a lot of business people in that respect—we work hard all year but most of the profit comes in during the holidays”).
The twist here is that their productions include ghosts as part of the play, the spirits of those who have passed on but not entirely left our earth yet. So with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Dita and Coco have an ideal opportunity to include several ghosts as cast members ― as long as they can keep the humans in the cast from figuring out what’s REALLY going on. And the guy who plays Scrooge seems to be suspicious …
The Christmas Show is humorous and breezy in tone. It’s a little lightweight, and Pat Cadigan elects to gloss over significant background details, like the reason for the curse, why it’s worked off by putting on theater productions, and what the actual ghosts have to do with the sisters’ curse. I was hoping for more explanation, but it was still a charming read, and I’d be happy to read more about the adventures of the Trebor sisters. Recommended if you have affection for humorous ghost stories, A Christmas Carol, or amateur theater productions. ~Tadiana Jones
“Beautiful Winter” by Eugie Foster (2009, free at Intergalactic Medicine Show, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)
In this Russian folk tale-inspired story, Prascovia is the teenage daughter of an unreasonable, highly demanding mother. Her mother was once a lovely woman who danced for the czar, but Prascovia is neither beautiful nor graceful, though she is talented at drawing. Mama refuses to believe that lessons and beauty treatments won’t make her daughter more like her, so their relationship is highly contentious.
Prascovia’s father dies when she is sixteen, and her mother remarries a common man who has a lovely and sweet (if slightly simple-minded) daughter, Marfa. Prascovia is surprised and a little dismayed to find that her mother’s venom has been transferred to Marfa, who has done nothing to deserve it. When Prascovia tries to intervene, it backfires … but leads to a surprising, supernatural encounter.
“Beautiful Winter” is inspired by Russian folk tales, mostly “The Twelve Months.” It’s a straightforward retelling, but Eugie Foster changes the story in some fundamental ways, particularly in the relationship between the two stepsisters and the character of the plain daughter. Though she has some envy for her stepsister, Prascovia is a decent person with a good head on her shoulders. I enjoyed the way her artistic nature was woven into this story. ~Tadiana Jones
“Red Christmas” by Lavie Tidhar (2016, free at Apex magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)
In this quirky mix of alternative history and gumshoe detective fiction, Jewish author Lavie Tidhar, through the imagination of his character Shomer, envisions a different fate for Adolf Hitler: Hitler and his Nazi party were brought down by the communists before coming to power (he even spent time in a concentration camp!). Now, in December 1937, “Wolf” Hitler is a down-on-his-luck private investigator in London. A seedy actress called Elske Sturm comes to Wolf, claiming that she’s being blackmailed due to an affair with a married politician. She asks for Wolf’s help in watching to see who picks up the £300 that’s being demanded by the blackmailer’s anonymous letter.
“Red Christmas” is a stand-alone story set in the same world as Tidhar’s novel A Man Lies Dreaming. The Jewish character Shomer, a former pulp fiction author, is imprisoned in Auschwitz; he mentally escapes the horrors of the concentration camp by imagining, vividly and in detail, this alternative life for Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s racist views are intact and as vile as ever was, but he’s lacking any political clout and is barely scraping by, miserable and bitterly angry at his fate. It’s a bit meta, with not only Hitler, but other historical characters being woven into this alternative world, like William Joyce and Reinhard Heydrich. Tidhar offers a Historical Afterword at the end, briefly outlining the actual lives of these other characters.
The Elske Sturm case is a well-crafted detective story but, given that Tidhar wrote an entire novel about Shomer’s dreaming up Hitler’s alternative life, I’m not sure what prompted him to write this additional episode. It’s intelligently written but extremely gritty and cynical. Definitely not a cheery, sentimental holiday story! ~Tadiana Jones
In “Every Winter,” do you think Halla is someone who is not verbally articulate because she is a visual artist, and that is why she feels she doesn’t have “grand enough words?”
I think that’s probably exactly it Marion. After all so much of the story is an exploration of an artist and the way she works. I should’t have doubted her intelligence, which obviously comes in many different forms! I think I just felt that the words being described as “too grand” didn’t seem that grand and therefore seemed at odds with the character. That said, we never hear Halla speak, so perhaps you’re right – her genius lies in paint not words.