Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Before a brief October hiatus, we last talked about The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1 edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Debbie Notkin, Pat Murphy, and Jeffery D. Smith—a couple of posts devoted to older stories, for a change. So, this time around, I thought I’d return to some current publications and catch up with recent stories: specifically, the first issue of Lynne and Michael Thomas’s new project, Uncanny Magazine.
Uncanny was launched via a highly successful crowdfunding campaign—which is no surprise considering the editorial work the Thomases have done singularly and as a pair in the past. Intended to be a magazine that has both a contemporary edge and diverse contributor base, as well as a sense of the pulpy history of the genre, Uncanny Magazine has a pretty wide editorial remit; I’ll be interested to see how the tone begins to develop over time. This first issue, though, spans November/December 2014 with six original stories, one reprint, several poems, and also a handful of essays.
For our purposes, there are a couple of stories that stood out to me the most: “If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” by Maria Dahvana Headley (coincidentally, also discussed by Amal El-Mohtar, here) and “The Boy Who Grew Up” by Christopher Barzak.
“If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” by Maria Dahvana Headley is a touch surreal and a touch tarnished grit. The concept of all of those movie animals from the golden age of Hollywood being actors themselves is strange but compelling, crossing that uncanny valley between the human and the not-human; it’s dreamlike and unreal. But then the narrator’s voice is all true-story reporting, echoing the tone and attitude of the late sixties years in journalism—and the hard-edged reality of the animals’ prison-like lives as well as their lack of autonomy is a grim shadow cast over that surreal premise.
I appreciate that Headley takes what could be an almost cartoonish concept—talking animals who perform alongside and in concert with the big stars—and twists it to a believable and stark narrative of power, money, and in some real sense betrayal. Though the idea of “animals with interiority and speech are treated as second class citizens” is a familiar on in spec-fic, especially science fiction, Headley’s treatment here doesn’t read as if it’s old news. The brutality of the Hollywood machine is part of the allegory, of course, but the story also functions as a piece of realistic narrative itself; though it treads on the surreal in its imagery, the strong emotional undertone keeps it from becoming either a morality play or a flight of fancy.
Her particular approach to the potential for love and mingling between the animals and their human costars doesn’t ameliorate the fact that, in the end, they can be auctioned off like pieces of furniture. That Leo is bought by his lover—so we presume—doesn’t remotely offer a happy ending, for example. It’s an odd closing scene, dismal and bleak despite its color and energy. As the narrator says, “I felt ashamed of us all.”
Overall, this is an odd story that nonetheless maintained my interest throughout the entire experience. From the imagery of the old showgirls who are part of Leo’s entourage to the picture of Gable holding his kids, who are lions, and from the reporter’s inability to get an aging and forgotten star to offer anything up to him to his sense that he hasn’t earned anything even when he learns the truth—it’s got a lot of small, interesting things going on that build up to a satisfying and memorable conclusion.
I also thought I’d talk about “The Boy Who Grew Up” by Christopher Barzak, because it’s working with a set of tropes too—the retelling, in this case an interpretation of Peter Pan; the broken family; the coming of age moment when a child decides to shift to something more like an adult—but manages to be reasonably fresh nonetheless. It’s not quite so demanding and emotional as the Headley piece, though. It’s a bit more of a light, young-adult piece, gentle in its execution and mild in its conclusions.
I found myself in an odd position reading this one, also: I tend to appreciate Barzak’s short fiction a lot (in fact, I reviewed his collection Before and Afterlives, here)—but I also don’t particularly care for retellings or strongly allusory stories. There’s something that tends to feel a little rote to me about the majority of them, though occasionally on might slip through the cracks and win me over. “The Boy Who Grew Up” occupies a sort of between space on that front. At parts, I found it handsome but predictable—the introduction of the boy who is Peter Pan, for example, felt like something I’d seen before. The direction the story takes, though, I did like; Barzak never quite makes Peter too real or too fake, and doesn’t overplay in either direction the protagonist’s responses to him. He’s uncanny, but not absurd.
—and that’s also the second time I’ve thought of a piece in this issue as having that element of the uncanny or surreal, bound in ever so carefully. I’d say I sense a theme, but that’s perhaps too damn obvious.
Digression. “The Boy Who Grew Up” is a good story, I’d say. The prose is functionally handsome, giving us the voice and tone of the young man who’s telling the story without letting go of the attractive turns of phrase that Barzak is so skilled with. It’s also got that soft-edged experience going for it—in contrast to the bleakness of the Headley, the Barzak offers a sense of the mild small hopes that make up a life. A boy going to see his absentee mother; a night spent with fairies convincing him not to stay outside of the world but to return to it and try to make his life work as it is. There’s something pleasant and quiet about that being the revelation of the piece, after the mythical journeying and fantastical moments of whimsy contained in it otherwise.
The two paired together are an interesting set—one opening the issue’s fiction, one closing it—and the stories in between are also worth giving a look, coming from folks like Ken Liu, Amelia Beamer, Max Gladstone and Kat Howard. I thought it was a decent first issue with a lot of well-recognized names (and that’s without even touching on the poetry and nonfiction), and I’m interested to see what comes next.
Brit 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.