SHORTS: Poe, Rinehart, MacDonald, Lien

Here are some of the short fiction works we read this week that we wanted to share with you.

“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe (1843, free online at Poe Stories, Kindle version)

I recently stumbled upon PoeStories.com and am pleased with the find. A Poe a day may well keep boredom at bay. The website helpfully gives descriptions of each story. I chose this one for the enticing simplicity of the summary: “a horror story about a cat”.

This is indeed a horror story about a cat, told by a particularly wretched narrator whose descent into alcoholism leaves him plagued with violent thoughts. One night he turns his rage on a once-beloved cat and from then on becomes increasingly unhinged. It isn’t clear if the cat really does come to haunt its master (I chose to believe so) or if in his madness the narrator is seeing things. Either way, it is a cat that sends him truly insane, and by the end of the story he is utterly cold-blooded. If you are after a horror story about a cat (and who isn’t?) this would be a very good place to start. Edgar Allen Poe is in full gothic swing and this is a fast-paced, grim little story that made me consider tee-totalling. ~Katie Burton


Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium by Gray Rinehart (2014, free online at Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show). Nominated for 2015 Hugo (novelette).

A human settlement on the planet Alluvium has, for the last eleven years, been struggling under the onerous rules and restrictions of lizard-like alien overlords, called the Peshari, who arrived on the planet after them and soon took control. Among other things, the Peshari have confiscated many of the humans’ technological devices, including a “nano-fabber” that infuses nanotechnology into the humans’ bodies to overcome the few elements in the Alluvium environment that are toxic. Human rebellions have, so far, resulted in nothing except many lost lives.

Toro Cerna’s friend Phil Keller is in ill health because of the loss of the nanos in his body. For reasons Cerna doesn’t understand, at least at first, Keller goes to the Peshari to ask them to make him a monument for when he dies. As Cerner tries to figure out exactly what is wrong with Keller and what he can do to help his friend, he discovers that Keller’s research into the death rituals of the Peshari and his ideas for his own unusual death rites might give the humans a new tactic for overthrowing Peshari rule.

Gray Rinehart’s story is more quiet and somber than it may sound, focusing on exploration of religious and cultural beliefs regarding death, rather than on action. Based on the brief glimpses we are given into the Peshari biology and culture, they were suitably alien. I did get the feeling that this story broke off right before events were about to get really interesting. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Golden Key” by George MacDonald (1867, free online, Kindle version)

George MacDonald was one of C.S. Lewis’s primary influences. He wrote lovely fairy tales that some modern readers are likely to find too pretty and old-fashioned for their tastes. Many of them, including “The Golden Key,” are full of Christian symbolism. In fact, it may be difficult to appreciate this story if you don’t realize and appreciate that.

This fairy tale tells of two young children who meet in a magical country where they find a key and meet the Old Man of the Sea, the Old Man of the Earth, and the Old Man of the Fire. As they journey, they lose each other and become old, then find each other again. I like that the symbolism and allegorical meanings are not at all obvious; I had to think about them. I don’t think this is MacDonald’s best work or that it will be widely appealing, but I’m glad I got a taste for his short stories. I listened to the audio version read by Paul Eggington. ~Kat Hooper


The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society by Henry Lien (2015, free online, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction). Nominated for the 2015 Nebula award (novelette).

In New England high society in the late 1800s, Mrs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe is renowned for the magnificence of her rose gardens, which, when viewed from above, reproduce famed paintings by Flemish masters.

Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s garden had for several seasons been gilded with the honor of being the first that Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt visited during each summer’s garden tour among the great houses of Newport. Mrs. Vanderbilt could hardly have bestowed her attention upon a more grateful object and the distinction turned Mrs. Howland-Thorpe a peculiar mixture of haughtiness and sycophancy.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Howland-Thorpe, an Italian countess, Mrs. Fleming, moves in next door to her and decides to plant a garden of her own, and promptly outshines the Howland-Thorpe garden. So begins the battle of the gardens, with Mrs. Fleming becoming the new favorite of Mrs. Vanderbilt, and Mrs. Howland-Thorpe being pushed down the society rankings and driven to more and more desperate measures to try to outwit and out-garden Mrs. Fleming.

Henry Lien’s story is written in witty, pseudo-formal language, befitting high society in the Gilded Age, with a distinctly satirical undertone. The story is structured in eight short chapters or “battles” between the two ladies. What begins as a highly enjoyable farce, however, evolves into a lecture on environmental awareness and the dangers of genetic modification, as Mrs. Howland-Thorpe ― despite Mrs. Fleming’s most strenuous warnings ― decides to replant her garden with a newly developed underwater plant called the sea-rose. The tone of the story becomes rather strident toward the end as it turns into an environmentalistic cautionary tale and our society ladies descend lemming-like to the sea. ~Tadiana Jones


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KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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5 comments

  1. By the way, Lois Tilton, in her review of “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society,” makes another excellent point:

    “I have another objection, rather more science-fictional. The narrative repeats several times that “It could not be known” what disastrous effects the sea-roses would have on the marine environment. But of course it could have, should have been known, since these organisms were artificially bred by “enterprising botanists at Harvard University” over a period of time sufficient to observe their pernicious habits. As farce, this scenario isn’t really required to stand the test of scientific reason, but the text shouldn’t rub it in.”

    See http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/2015/04/lois-tilton-reviews-short-fiction-mid-april-5/#as201506

    • Repeating a point several times in the text — especially if it’s easily disproven — seems like a bad choice. Still, the story sounds interesting.

      • It is an interesting story, and there were parts of it that I enjoyed very much. Read it and let us know what you think!

        • It’s interesting, but quite long. The artificially inflated language could have been toned down (and the story itself trimmed) with no detriment.

  2. Tadiana, my disappointment with “Ashes to Ashes…” was similar to yours; even though the story arc is completed, it felt like things were just starting to get interesting. I liked the author’s conception of the Peshari, and I liked the exploration of funerary customs across different cultures (and species).

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