Short Fiction Spotlight

Short Fiction Spotlight: Clockwork Phoenix 4, edited by Mike Allen

Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last week we dipped into the realm of online magazines and discussed Charles Stross’s creepy novella “Equoid.” This time around, I’d like to talk about another recent anthology of original stories: Clockwork Phoenix 4, edited by Mike Allen. Following in the footsteps of three previous anthologies—all well-received—the fourth Clockwork Phoenix came from a Kickstarter campaign after the original publishers encountered financial difficulties.

The funding went well, and the end result—the book I just read—was released in early July. The Clockwork Phoenix anthologies generally tend toward, as Allen says in his introduction, “the trends variously described as interstitial, new weird, [and] slipstream, as well as other types of strangeness.” Furthermore, as he says, “I wanted stories that were bold in the style of their telling and also emotionally satisfying; experimental yet coherent and engaging.” It’s not often than an editor comes so clean with their criteria, and I found that a pleasant introduction to the stories that followed—a sort of framework through which to appreciate them.

So, how about the stories in this anthology: what are they doing, how do they come across, did I like them? Overall, these are good pieces and the anthology is even in quality—amusingly enough, I wouldn’t call most of them experimental or slipstream etc., though a few certainly are. On the other hand, “bold in the style of their telling” applies more or less across the board: all of the authors go in full-speed on the tone and artifice of their stories, which is notable in couple of cases. A few of the most engaging pieces in the collection are fairly straightforward tales of the dark fantastic; other powerful pieces have contemporary settings of various sorts, occasionally science-fictional.

There are too many stories to discuss them all—and I actually think that’s a shame, because again, this is an evenly good anthology where very few of the pieces didn’t stand up to the caliber of the rest. However—as always—there are some that stand out as particularly notable or unique, a few that linger in the mind. Though not necessarily the “best” of the anthology, these are the pieces that seemed to me the most present, most intense, or even the most fascinatingly broken.

“Trap-Weed” by Gemma Files is a sorcerous pirate story with a selkie—and a damn enjoyable one. I’m not generally one for the pirate tale; somewhere above zombie stories and below Persephone stories on the list of “things I have seen far too often,” that’s where the pirate story goes. But not this one. “Trap-Weed” is far more concerned with themes of will, revenge, and the perils of earthly desires than with the usual piratical trappings, and that makes it work. The uneasy alliance between otherwise diametrically opposed creatures from the sea, here, forms the central emotional arc; the brittleness of that alliance, its sharp edges, makes for quite an engaging read. Also, the prose is handsome; the narrator’s voice comes through quite clearly.

“What Still Abides” by Marie Brennan is the story that, to my eye, exemplifies Allen’s editorial note about pieces that are “bold in the style of their telling.” In some sense it’s a zombie story—again, something I generally couldn’t care less about—but I would more likely describe it as a folk tale told in the style of Old English poetry (though obviously updated to modern English diction). Brennan’s effort at rendering the voice authentic, kennings and all, is remarkable, considering that the story also reads as smoothly as any other in the anthology. The prose, here, is the delight: the story’s bleak and winter-blighted setting breathes with life, and the creeping horror of the situation for the village is wrought with a truly deft level of slow-build tension.

“Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” by Kenneth Schneyer is the first of the pieces I found particularly notable that reads a bit more on the experimental side of things. Written as a series of directive notes from an art exhibition—including leading questions for students etc. at the bottom—the story asks that the reader patch it together from inference and uncertainty: is it, perhaps, a ghost story? The actual “story” is Latimer’s, but we will never meet her—or hear her explanations—as a reader. We see only another, anonymous writer’s notes on her paintings at a gallery. The real story is somewhere, lingering, between all of the pieces of evidence we are shown via the mediated texts of the literal, on-the-page story. That’s fun. Often these sorts of stories become dull—the lists of things asking to be put together sometimes get so boring that you don’t make it to the end of the list—but this attempt is far more successful than most.

Another story that’s experimental in a way is “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. It’s a dense science fiction story that often skips a pace ahead of the reader in its world-building; though that’s sometimes a bit frustrating, it’s also an interesting choice for rendering a world that should be somewhat opaque to us. Of the stories in this collection, it is the one that intrigued me the most yet didn’t entirely satisfy that intrigue—and yet, it did linger. The actual plot—finding the sister, hiding the planet from the rest of connected space, that sort of thing—I found less engaging than the strange and tech-magical development of the protagonist’s “hive” as well as her sense of her place in the grand scheme of things. It leaves too many things unstated; it’s not a balanced story, certainly. All the same, I enjoyed it.

Finally, there’s the story that closes the book: “The History of Soul 2065” by Barbara Krasnoff. This story follows through several decades one girl—then woman—and her family and friends, across reoccurring seder gatherings down the years. Some grow old; some succumb to a catastrophe that alters permanently the face of the world they live in. And, in the end, the protagonist is alone, deciding to join her loved ones: the other parts of Soul 2065, their half-joking concept of the unit that they make up together. In many ways this is a straight-forward piece: it skips a decade at a time, building a casual sense of a greater world, but spends most of its time on the characters. In others, it benefits greatly from that straight-forwardness, because it still works to really hit home on the emotional level by the end. These are characters who feel real; their lives are short or long and always complicated, interwoven as they are. And in the end—it is the end.

As a whole Clockwork Phoenix 4, much like its predecessors, is a high quality, well-organized, engaging anthology. The stories are, for the majority, executed with panache and depth; their authors have done a good job across the board at developing complex characters and settings, imbuing the stories with tension and, often, emotional intensity. I’d certainly recommend it for an afternoon’s reading of short fiction that spans a variety of genres, tones, and themes.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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