The Spring 2014 issue of Subterranean Magazine is as strong as this magazine ever is, and that’s saying a lot. Kat Howard’s story, “Hath No Fury,” stands out as a memorable work about the old gods in the modern age. It is a story about women who are victimized by men, and the women who refuse to allow those victims to go unavenged. Based loosely on the myth of Medea and Jason, the story is told in the first person by one of the Erinyes — the Furies — who in Howard’s contemporary New York are charged with avenging women murdered by husbands, boyfriends, lovers. Kaira is a close friend of Medea, who is a sort of muse to the Erinyes, guiding them when they first are changed from human to this new shape and watching over them as they fulfill their duties. Several other myths are mashed up here to create something new; so, for instance, Medea keeps bees, the Fates are old women knitting in the park, New York becomes a labyrinth that Kaira must explore, and Jason returns as Jax, a womanizer and worse. I was intrigued by the reshaping of old tales, as well as by Howard’s poetic prose:
Sing, Muse. Sing rage.
I am not a Muse, but I could sing you a song of rage. My origin is rage, rage and helplessness. I began as the sort of thing no one pays attention to, that everyone dismisses, just another girl, and there are too many who are my sisters in this.
Only one thing disturbs me about this story: Medea is portrayed solely as a victim, with no true personal agency or responsibility for her bloody deeds. Euripides saw her quite differently, and while he had sympathy for her, he did not dismiss her murder of her children as simply as Howard does. It’s tricky to make a mother seem sympathetic who murders her children for revenge against her husband, seem sympathetic, and Howard doesn’t quite pull that off.
“The Screams of Dragons” by Kelley Armstrong, which leads off the issue, also deals with questions of the extent to which one is responsible for one’s own actions, and how much the blame must be borne by those who shaped that person. We first meet Bobby as a child who has dreams of golden castles and endless meadows; he laughs only in these dreams. Awake, he is a discontented, moody child, leading his parents to pamper his more biddable sister. When he is almost eight, he tells his grandmother of his dreams, and she concludes that he is a changeling. She begins to abuse him and openly mock him, to the dismay of his parents — not because of the harm to their son, but because they are embarrassed at her Old World ways. In fact, Bobby’s parents seem to blame him for their humiliation. It is a bad time for Bobby, except for when he is allowed to visit Cainsville. There, he is treated as someone special by the entire town, almost as if he is the changeling his grandmother accuses him of being. But when Bobby proves himself to be all too human in his desire for revenge, everyone in Cainsville turns against him, too, and he is left with nothing. How much of this is Bobby’s fault? And what is to be done? Armstrong builds her characters with skill, and gives us a picture that sets us thinking about much larger issues than appear on the surface.
Caitlín R. Kiernan gives us “Bus Fare,” in which an albino girl named Dancy Flammarion is waiting for a bus. A girl who says her name is Maisie is sitting and talking with her, but she makes Dancy uncomfortable. She compares Dancy to Joan of Arc: “You got yourself an angel who tells you where to find the monsters, and then you kill them. You’re just a crazy girl doing the righteous work of the Lord. Sounds like Joan of Arc to me.” Dancy denies that she’s like Joan of Arc, and says she’s not crazy, but she doesn’t deny the substance of Maisie’s claims. How does Maisie know these things? Kiernan’s tale unfolds skillfully, each sentence leading naturally to the next, each event requiring the next. The vernacular, which might be annoying in the hands of another author, is deployed with skill here.
I greatly enjoyed “The Traveller and the Book” by Ian R. MacLeod, in which a man lost in the desert, hungry and thirsty, exhausted and seemingly on the brink of death, comes across a blank book. Using his own blood for ink, he writes “WATER” in the book. He drags the book with him for no real reason as he continues to crawl through the desert. That evening he comes upon a well of cool water. After satisfying his thirst, he again uses his blood, this time writing both WATER and FOOD. And sure enough, the next evening, there is a loaf of bread by a well that looks just like the first well. The next day he adds SHELTER to the list, and again, in the evening, he finds everything provided for him just as he wrote it. Now that he is no longer delirious with hunger and thirst, he requests ink and a pen. As the days go by, his requests grow greater and more detailed, until he is sleeping in palaces. This is essentially a folktale, and it unfolds as folktales so often do, reminding me of the old story of the fisherman who catches a fish that grants his wishes, but whose wife is never satisfied. It’s charming.
“One Dove” by Stephen Gallagher appears to take place in the early years of the 20th century in London. Sebastian Becker is a special investigator employed by Sir James, the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy, to help insure the proper functioning of Bethlem Hospital, the institution for the mentally ill that gave us the word “bedlam.” A mystery presents itself in the form of a letter delivered to a patient just before he committed suicide. In actuality, nothing is written on the paper, but it contains a lock of hair and a pressed white tulip. The hair seems to match that found in the dead man’s possessions in the back of a miniature of his dead wife. In solving the question of where the letter came from, Becker solves the problem of the man’s wife, her brother and the man’s suicide. It is an enjoyable tale that partakes of the fantastic only in that these particular people never existed. I was sufficiently entertained that I intend to track down Gallagher’s novel and other stories about Becker.
Chaz Brenchley writes about a Mars that never was and never will be in “The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini.” In this tale, the United Kingdom has established a colony on the red planet, which is run much the way India appears to have been run by the British, including in its treatment of the life native to the planet. A man has just been hanged, but he is given a hero’s burial procession, apparently in defiance of Her Britannic Majesty. Cobb, the viewpoint character, is a gravedigger who learns a mystery about the dead man and what he died for. The story is too short for the complex world Brenchley is attempting to describe here; the story left me with a great many questions that it does not answer.
The issue closes with “The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile” by Aliette de Bodard. The story is about Thien Bao, whose Second Aunt cares for her while her Mother works in a factory, producing designs for new kinds of sharp-kites and advance needle ships. They live on a planet in Empire-controlled space during the time of rebel attacks. Things are growing increasingly desperate because of the war, and the family has few resources left; it seems that the Empire is doomed to fall. Finally, an evacuation order for their planet comes, and Thien Bao learns that her dreams have not been dreams at all, but a special form of communication with a special form of weapon. The story is of not only the horror, but also the futility of war. De Bodard is fast becoming one of the most powerful voices in science fiction.