- “Witherking” by T. J. Berg
- “Care and Feeding of Your Piano” by William Shunn
- “Pistols at Dawn Amongst the Evergreens” by Samuel Mae
- “In the Beginnings” by Shannon Page and Jay Lake
- “The Next Day” by Dave Justus
- “Shoes Worn Once” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
- “Memories of Chalice” by Peter M. Ball
- “∞°” by Darin Bradley
- “The Comedy at Kualoa” by Monica Byrne
- “The Stonecutter” by Damon Kaswell
- “The Portal to Heaven” by Shira Lipkin
- “Intrepid Travelers” by Josh Rountree
- “Carte Blanche” by Genevieve Valentine
- “Worm Days” by Karl Bunker
- “Unlocking the God” by L. L. Hannett
- “My Lovesick Zombie Boy Band” by Damien G. Walter
- “Beata Beatrix” by Jenna Waterford
- “An Abiding Memory of Scarecrows” by William Knight
- “Pie in the Sky” by Michaela Roessner
- “Gaining Traction” by Jonathan Wood
- “Checkmate” by Brian Trent
- “Frazier” by Lauren Henley
- “A Mermaid’s Catch” by Brenda Stokes
- “In the Dark” by Ki Russell
- “Infatuectomy” by Ki Russell
- “Drowning in Pearls” by Ki Russell
- “Patience” by E. Lily Yu
- “The Long Trajectory” by Geoffrey A. Landis
- Interview with J. M. McDermott
- Content TKTK: Brains Lite by John Ottinger III
- Sampling the Aspic with Penelope O’Shea
- Blindfold Taste Test with Jim C. Hines
- A Remembrance of the Future
Witherking by T. J. Berg
“Witherking!” the road boss had laughed. “Your mother not like you much?”
He had said nothing in response. His mother had liked him very much, and had given him a name, of course, like any other kid, but he was done with that name now, because he was not his mother’s son anymore. How could he be? “You keep them together,” she had said. Over and over. “You keep them together.” The armpits of her hospital gown yellowed with sweat and she would raise up her arms, make scrawny, weak fists. “Don’t let them tell you you’re not old enough.” Any time he was alone with her. The sicker she got, the more she said it, and he knew she was hanging on despite the pain in the hope that he’d turn eighteen before she died. “You keep them together. I won’t have you kids going to the farms. You keep them together. You don’t let them tear this family apart. You’re the oldest, my son, strong, and when I die, you’ve got to keep Jessa and Kyle. Take care of them.”
Care and Feeding of Your Piano by William Shunn
While the personalized interactive hypertextual nature of this manual may tempt you to skip from topic to topic, skimming through or overlooking any section is strongly discouraged and furthermore may nullify some or all warranties. [See Appendix G.5 for waivers of remedy specific to your locale.]
Viewed topics will be marked as you access them. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO OPERATE YOUR PIANO UNTIL YOU HAVE READ ALL TOPICS AND PASSED THE CERTIFICATION QUIZ IN SECTION 12!
1.1.1 Discretionary Updates. While all you need to know for the safe operation and maintenance of your piano can be found in this manual, occasional updates and clarifications, both general and user-targeted, may be distributed from time to time. Please check regularly for addenda in the appendices following J and for topic-specific revisions.
Pistols at Dawn Amongst the Evergreens by Samuel Mae
‘A duel! A duel!’ The words spread around town like sickness in winter.
‘Tomorrow at dawn.’
Nobody quite knew who.
‘Out in the evergreens.’
Of course, people speculated and by early evening there were at least eight potential reasons for the duel and a dozen likely participants.
Nobody much slept that night.
In the Beginnings by Shannon Page and Jay Lake
“Correct,” she said, “you can’t make a better living through chemistry.”
Her eyes glittered like rubies in a bowl of vinaigrette.
After graduation, I took the entire non-obligatory year in Hell.
He folded his children still crying and slid them into his vest pocket with the lint and raisins.
Under the carpet glistened the long-lost hopes of my first marriage.
One always wonders what a God wears beneath His robes; one never truly wants to find out.
Charming, feral and homicidal, sure, but Charles’ worst sin was his eggplant surprise.
Coruscating rays of invisible energy lanced across Dirk Blastwall’s opaqued visor.
The gray-bearded gnome tented his fingers before his lips, gazed at the princess, and finally said, “If you drop the robe, I’ll think about it.”
Once again, my fillings picked up Radio Mars; the third invasion this year.
Sex in the afternoon always seemed like such a good idea.
Important safety tip: bulldozers and ouzo don’t mix well.
No one ever called the fire department because they did something smart, and today was no exception.
“I’m only funny accidentally,” she said as she choked the clown to death with his own silly string.
The Next Day by Dave Justus
Peter Shale awoke with gills and fins, his opalescent scales glinting in the early-morning sun.
It’s gotta get better than this, he thought, and went back to sleep.
Shoes Worn Once by Keffy K. M. Kehrli
The shoes came last night, in a cardboard box carefully, discreetly packaged. Michael thinks about them while he shaves (she can never shave closely enough) for work, and then he thinks about them at work, and after. He thinks about the shoes while he picks the girls up from daycare and tries to pretend that he is not obsessed (she is obsessed).
They are red, with heels so high that they are classified as “fetish.” This is fine with him because when he tells himself that his problem is a fetish, he feels more alive. Of course, if it was only sexual deviancy, he might tell Patricia. She is always just that little bit more liberal than he is.
Michael never says anything. It is not just a fetish. No matter how many times he tries to lose himself in the harsh glare of reality—turning out for football, getting married, fathering children—it keeps coming back (she has nowhere else to go).
Memories of Chalice by Peter M. Ball
I hoard my memories like winter apples, for they’re precious despite the sour taste of recollection. Among them is my final sale. Or, at least, the last sale that remains to me, in whole or in part, divorced of continuity: I met the client in the Café Damascus, exchanging greetings beneath the dim light. It was summer in Chalice, warm and sweaty. My client hid his face behind a fishing hat and glasses, casting furtive glances towards the shadows for fear of paparazzo. We ordered steak, cola, fries; all this despite the reputation of the Café’s fine lamb tagine. This is my last memory, my last fragment, before my fall from grace.
“It’s dark here,” the client said, hacking at his steak with a blunt knife. I attacked my meal with far less enthusiasm, but that remains part of the job. “Of course,” I said, “the Damascus values privacy.”
“Not this place.” The client looked up, waved his fork at the ceiling. “Here, in the city.”
“Ah.” I swabbed a forkful of steak through the juices on my plate, regarded it carefully before placing it in my mouth. I remember feigning enthusiasm for the meal, for the excess it represented. “Yes, the darkness; a curse of the Nexus. Light moves differently here, in the heart of the mountains; time gets tangled in the tines of the great machine, and what is light but a measure of time and space?”
∞° by Darin Bradley
Artaud Wells, executor
Estate no. 0102-0125, de Blainville
Lot appraisal 3821-06 (affidavit 3821-b)
Attached, please find our bibliographer’s analysis for de Blainville Lot 3821-06 . Dr. Paulin Gáribe’s chemical analysis appears in appendix ii, Dr. Anna Singlest’s commentary in appendix iii, and Dr. Anima Nandwani’s in appendix v. The accompanying affidavits will appear under separate cover (excepting 3821-b, reproduced here as appendix vi), each from the analysts’ respective laboratories and universities. We now record these in triplicate, so sign all three of each and return a copy to us. At the direction of one of our new insurance providers, we’ve included notarized memoranda in duplicate following the appendices: the documents stipulate that we request (and you agree) to provide a copy of each of the analysts’ affidavits for the de Blainville heirs. The other copies are for your records.
Our bibliographer assures us he will return the lot by this weekend. Let the matter of his scanning and uploading the documents be done between us. Following last week’s deposition, both your lawyers and ours signed off on the agreement (cf. “Fair Use,” appendix vii: Millennial Philology Subscription and accredited partners). It is for posterity and research that our agent made his copy—even if, I grant, he should have first acquired leave. As he told us, he did it without thinking—a scholar’s reflex, perhaps. Let me encourage you to acquire a transcript of the deposition, which includes the record of the bibliographer’s testimony, for it is both disturbing and brilliant. He felt (and still does) as if the documents scanned and uploaded themselves—as if, through his analytic processes, their perpetuation occurred as a foregone matter of course.
I think he may simply have acted on his bookish instincts without thinking. Regardless, the lot is undamaged, and we regret the inconvenience to the de Blainville heirs.
The Comedy at Kualoa by Monica Byrne
For twenty-four hours, Gupta didn’t hear from her star theater critic. She didn’t know if he was alive or dead. So his phone call, when it came, was welcome.
“Olsen, where are you?”
“I’m at home.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I thought you might be swimming with the fishies.”
“Nope. I’m alive.”
He sounded casual. Which made her nervous.
“Okay,” said Gupta slowly. “I’ll tell you what we know: The scientists aren’t talking. The entire run of the play has been canceled. But the paparazzi broke through restricted airspace and now we have shots of dolphins trapped in the Theatorium, and no people anywhere.”
“I’m not surprised.”
Gupta lost patience. “Olsen, what happened?”
“I’ll tell you,” he said. And his voice was at ease, as if nothing was wrong.
The Stonecutter by Damon Kaswell
The Stoneheart sat in the true center of Hektanos. It had grown with the city; it now stood four times as tall as a man, dominating the market square.
Marick the Stonecutter, its caretaker, wished he’d never picked up a hammer and chisel.
He looked at the pulsing heart, and tried to keep his own in check. I can’t fix it again, he thought. I can’t keep doing this.
And below that: I’m too old and too tired.
But Marick’s hands and eyes knew better. His hands traced a knowing path along the black cancer; his eyes picked out the exact point where a well-placed blow would remove the lesion, and leave the stone beneath smooth and intact.
A voice behind him interrupted Marick’s thoughts. “I think it goes a finger-width into the—”
Marick pivoted on his heels. “Shut up!” he shouted hoarsely.
Olbert, the Mayor, gave Marick a frown. With his long, curling hair, perfect beard, and overflowing health, he looked like a stern god. “You will treat me with the respect due my station, Stonecutter, or we’ll hire another.”
The Portal to Heaven by Shira Lipkin
It took them a while to notice that no new souls were coming through. They were very busy with the existing souls, of course; with people comes paperwork, and it’s much the same for angels, perhaps doubly so. The angels puttered around in their offices, and the souls wandered about, and it all seemed fairly normal until some angel ran the numbers and said “Huh. Population growth is . . . not so much.” His boss checked with one of the devils of bureaucracy—don’t be surprised; there was always unofficial communication between Heaven and Hell. Some of these angels and devils were good friends before the war, and that’s not going to stop just because of a little change in circumstance.
So the accounting angel checked with Hell, and his demon friend said “Huh, that’s funny—no, we haven’t had an increase in newbies.” Then he ran *his* numbers and discovered that not only had the entries not increased—they’d ceased entirely.
Intrepid Travelers by Josh Rountree
I close my eyes for just a second and the world is supernova gorgeous. My head feels like it’s going to collapse in on itself as the rush trips merrily from synapse to synapse, reaches out through the ship’s hull to wrap the others in a blanket of light, then snatches hold of creation itself and . . . pulls us where we need to be.
I open my eyes and we’ve dropped into the middle of a shitstorm. The Kennedy sector is filthy with botcraft and they key on us the second we register on their scanners. This is not a problem. These are small maintenance ships, cargo haulers, upper atmosphere defenders that don’t have enough firepower to tackle the kind of smoke Kesey’s throwing at them. They close in like tiny clawing predators eager to pick and chew at the soon-to-be-dead things that just popped into their little sector of space, but what they don’t know is we are the Intrepid Travelers and they don’t have a hope in hell. I mean, we’re inside the primary planetary defenses, just popped there out of thin space which . . . to bot thinking . . . ain’t possible. While they’re trying to sort that out, Jill the Pill bears down in her attack craft and disrupts a whole slew of them with energy waves. Gentleman Jim, Day-Glo Danny, and the others follow suit and the botcraft drop one by one as their return laser fire sizzles against a shield of cold silver light that shouldn’t exist. Good thing we’re not overly concerned with the laws of physics.
Carte Blanche by Genevieve Valentine
The first card they showed me had a triangle on it, three thick black lines stamped on the white expanse.
“What is it?” they said.
I said, “A triangle.”
They sent me back to the cell, where the other guy was waiting for me. He had been there longer than I had. He was far gone.
“Which card was it?” he asked.
“Triangle,” I said.
He nodded. “I remember that,” he said, and burst into tears.
Worm Days by Karl Bunker
The street ahead was full of worm. I was driving along Lamartine, made the right turn onto Rockview and there it was. Three blocks away and coming straight toward me. I swore and slammed to a stop. I made a nervous three-point turn, took the next two rights and then went five blocks north. As I figured, this put me almost behind the worm. When I turned east, Rockview Street was ahead of me and I just caught sight of the tail end of the thing.
It must have come up pretty recently, because there wasn’t much commotion. No sirens, no police car PA telling people to evacuate. It was almost a typical peaceful evening, except for the two-hundred-foot worm slithering down the street.
My street, goddammit.
Unlocking the God by L. L. Hannett
Steward thought it was a wart, at first. Or a nicotine stain at the base of his thumb, even though he’d given up smoking. It was black-brown. Itchy. It grew exponentially. Misshapen, like a corduroy sofa cushion, it sprouted out of the palm of his hand. He feared it was melanoma.
“Cut back on the wanking,” said his roommate Chet, without glancing at the pulsating mass in Steward’s right palm.
It was the hand he wrote with. The hand he’d sent love letters to Farah with. A poem a day for three weeks. Each one tucked into her mailbox before work; each of which she’d repaid with a wink and a kiss. Twenty-one kisses and twenty-one winks. And one shag before she had dumped him.
He hoped it wasn’t the wanking.
My Lovesick Zombie Boy Band by Damien G. Walter
I am excavating an eight-pointed star onto the pages of my textbook when I catch the boy looking at me. I keep the pen moving, the shiny blue ink bubbling and frothing, soaking the pink paper. At the centre of the doodle I draw a lidless eye. It gazes up at me unblinking, forever caught in devotion and desire. The boy is looking at me like he owns me. Boys are so dumb. Don’t they get that beauty is a trap you fall into by looking?
I hear voices whisper my name. Antonia, Jane, and Elisabeth, the three bitches, are hissing at the back of the class. I used to be bitch number four, until I went from bitch to witch. There is nothing that teenage society hates more than an unauthorised image change. I turn to stare them down, but they take cover behind perfect schoolgirl flicks that muffle their mocking laughter.
“Alexander,” Miss Holloway calls out the name in her frustrated drone. I suppose if I was an unmarried 40-something school teacher I might be frustrated as well. Rumour is that Miss Holloway used to be the world’s biggest Harriet. Now she is making up for all that niceness with a bitch impression of the highest calibre. Hers is the face a person gets from having their heart torn still beating from their chest and brutally stamped on, not just once or even twice but over and over again. Her lesson for us is simple—there are no happy endings.
Beata Beatrix by Jenna Waterford
Lizzie haunted Gabriel long before she swallowed the last sip of laudanum needed to keep her from ever again awakening. Paint had more power over him and poetry more allure than she could ever exert, so she drifted as near to him as he allowed, all the while hoping that one day he would see her.
Now it was too late; the curse had fallen. The mirror crack’d from side to side, though no drifting boat awaited to bear Lizzie down to Camelot. In its place, they carried her to her grave in a casket full of flowers, the rich aroma masking her decay. Crushed petals stained mourners’ hands and Lizzie’s dress, decorated her long, unbound hair, and caught in Gabriel’s beard and lips as he sobbed his whispered final words to her: “Farewell, my darling Beatrice.”
But there could be no farewell, not when she still gazed back at him again and again from his studio’s walls. That he’d created each ghostly echo with his own hands while she’d yet lived flavored the rich taste of the curse with ginger, hot and sharp and sweet as it hit the back of her dried-fig tongue.
A stunner they’d called her, those first, strange young artists, so carefully polite. They’d sprinkled their educated speech with awkward attempts at gutter cant while grinning at her around their sketchpads and canvases, paint-spattered and laughing and trying to coax a smile onto her lips.
Lizzie had been charmed; her parents worried. Models were little better than whores, they’d said. Lizzie promised she would be no man’s whore. She carried her prayer book to each assignment and kept her eyes downcast.
But sometimes she’d peeked through her lashes.
An Abiding Memory of Scarecrows by William Knight
In a fallow field a scarecrow stood, ignorant of the strands of stinging wood nettle which intertwined its feet. The coarse fabric of its jovial face was stuffed to bursting, and it wore a kirtle, of variegated color, shabby and stained. From the ruptured seams, persevering straw poked out, fluttering soundlessly in the chill autumnal wind.
The foraging birds gave the scarecrow a wide berth. Never had an appellation been more appropriate, a trick of fate more cruel.
With barely a sound, legion in its sorrow, the scarecrow sighed.
Pie in the Sky by Michaela Roessner
It’s amazing the lengths we mortals go to in order to explain away unusual and at times threatening situations: Rocks that crawl across the desert floor, leaving snail-like tracks in their wake. UFOs and alien abductions. Poltergeistian housewares, zooming airborne.
Why does there have to be an otherworldly explanation for these kinds of things? Why don’t we apply Occam’s Razor and assume that the most obvious explanation is the most likely one?
Crawling rocks? Instead of habitation by the unhappy souls of indigenous peoples, the daily heat expansion and nightly cooling contraction of the desert floor.
UFOs and alien abductions? The CIA and secret military experiments.
Poltergeists? Instead of ghosts or angsty, paranormally talented teenagers, how about housewares simply being fed up with their misuse by us?
I swear to you – look about your normal, everyday life, and ask yourself if you need look any further for roots and causes.
Consider food. What is more threatened by us than foodstuffs? What has the least to lose by trying to escape, defend or even retaliate, than all those things we eat?
Just because we eat them, don’t for a minute think that they’re entirely helpless. They have the ability to at least try to flee. At times they can exert mind control over our very movements, resulting in cases mistaken for telekinesis, even poltergeistism. And yes, they are capable of revenge.
Gaining Traction by Jonathan Wood
I feel like I’m standing still, like everything’s rushing past me. I can’t get any traction.
Maybe it’s just a trick of perspective. Maybe, in fact, I’m the one hurtling forward at incredible speeds, yet the world is traveling with me, screaming through space at an absurd velocity, approaching redshift–supernova explosions blinking past us, space spiders stringing webs that flap tacky strands through eons.
Still, even if that is true, in the end, all I see is myself standing still.
Checkmate by Brian Trent
The black steamrotor chugged noisily beneath the maze of damp brick arches, cutting a frothy wake in the underground canal. Edward Oakshott stood rigidly at the bow, leaning against his silver cane. The dank stink of London’s forgotten netherworld perspirated over the vessel’s wood, the humidity visibly beading like a spate of glassy insect eyes on the many green lamplights they passed. Edward drummed his fingers against one clammy hand. His sense of direction, precise as his fashionable gold pocketwatch, reckoned they must be passing directly below the evening crowd at Charing Cross’ Hungerford Market.
Yet he wondered at their boatman’s skill in navigating these dark, labyrinthine channels. How often were customers ferried to Thoth’s subterranean bazaar? Edward grinned in nervous anticipation and peered from beneath the rim of his hat at the constellation of green lamps marking the canal’s many twists and turns.
“We shall be late if this continues,” Sophia Westbury said behind him. Her folded parasol looked like a pale sword against her shoulder. “Really, Edward, was there no earlier date you could meet him? It had to wait until the very eve of war?”
“The party shall wait for me.”
by Lauren Henley
Frazier was the only high school guy I knew whose dad
was older than my grandpa and who stood
to inherit a ranch style home before he could even vote
and I couldn’t help touching the white leather recliner
and the brass naked lady floor lamps,
listening to my own hum reverberate in the huge house
and the grandfather clock knocking away time,
and think about Frazier alone, doing calculus
at the big dinning room table, making his own lunch,
saying goodbye to no one
and waiting for the bus after walking the long desert road.
Let’s just play cards he’d say, the old man
isn’t dead yet so don’t feel sorry for me, okay? And playing
cards would always turn into kissing each other on the neck and the jaw line,
the lips and ears, and not wanting to stop but having to
when his old father would call from the living room,
That door better be open, son! And we’d come out
of Frazier’s room, saying, What? We were just playing cards.
And sometimes I’d touch his father’s hand
when he fell asleep in his chair, just to make sure he was warm.
When I left I felt bad I hadn’t given Frazier more
to hold onto. And I thought maybe when it happened
I could live there with him in the silence,
just step into an apron and angel wings,
arrive on the porch when the body was taken, make Frazier dinner
and play cards, give him the gift
of an open bedroom door, of going further even
when the voice was still there
telling us not to.
A Mermaid’s Catch
by Brenda Stokes
There was once a mermaid girl who fancied
young men by the seashore,
tying riggings in tight leggings.
So she fashioned a net made from seaweed
and strands of golden hair and
cast it on land to catch a few for her watery pleasures.
And she caught one, then two, then three,
and dragged them down to the place
where the water was ice to set the mood.
But she was ever disappointed,
for the men in her net were always
decidedly pale down here.
She supposed it was the lack of sunlight.
She’d keep them for awhile in spite of their lack of vigor,
playing with the buttons on their shirts
and blowing bubbles in their ears.
But their youthful skin soon turned blue
with bloat and melted away, in a matter of days,
leaving only bones, decidedly ending her fun
and sending her ashore once more.
In the Dark
by Ki Russell
The cacophony of color
drains from the drapes
and soaks the rug.
Near the hamper
your red shirt bleeds
into my purple skirt.
All fades to gray
or to nothing, if the night
is dark enough.
I understand refraction
but it shocks
me each night
when color exists
then doesn’t exist
then does again
with the flick
of a switch.
by Ki Russell
into my ear
when you said
Drowning in Pearls
by Ki Russell
A strand of pearls bumps up my throat and the orbs drop
one by one from my lips. The last pearl catches in my teeth
and I unhook the strand. It dangles from my fingers.
I coil the saliva-damp orbs in my palm and offer them to the man
next to me. He yanks the strand apart and white
dots scatter across asphalt.
I drop to the ground and gather rolling pearls. I scoop them
in my palms, but they slide between my fingers. They spiral
away from me, disappearing down sewers. I cough and more
spew out of my mouth, unstrung. I choke and blood oozes out
around the white balls. Each pearl is larger than the one before
and I know my throat will rupture. I cram one hand over
my mouth and press the other against my throat, try to press
the pearls back down my esophagus. They dribble out
and fall down, pooling around my legs. The asphalt turns
iridescent and the man shuffles away, kicking great clouds
of pearls. They fan up and he curses as they pelt his arms.
He flails with hands but still more shower down. His shoulders
hunch and he stumbles, the pearls roll his feet in circles.
His body drops and still pearls boil from my mouth, shoot between
my fingers. His hand claws against the white tide but the orbs
bury him and his fingertips drop below the pearl sea.
by E. Lily Yu
To thin to sirocco and ceramic silence,
draw a dry bath of natron and myrrh.
The sun will exalt you, drop on clear drop,
until all that remains is the tissue of flowers
wrung of their oil, discarded and dry.
Else allow darkness to climb your chin,
silt your mouth with cold dust, crush your eyes.
Time thickens the flesh into mineral masses,
iridescently amused, museum-quality,
cold and imperishable.
The desert sings, it is said, since its belly contains
a princess in her palace who sighs and twangs
bronze-fingered upon a mandolin. The music persists.
Centuries of caravans and camelback physicists
never dared to swim down. Though the singer is drowned,
though she dries to moth crispness, she waits.
Another I knew held a wrinkled shell to her ear
(the voice of the desert is the voice of the sea,
better reception some places, never so sweet
it loses that skull-scuttling hiss) and listened too long,
insensible to the shore gathering up her feet,
the water trespassing upon her knees, until too late.
There are voices that claim us. Rich, royal, sometimes divine;
light as beetles ticking in a pharaoh’s tomb; mantic; cruel;
organ tones, slant rhymes, brass edicts, or oh unlucky
the simplest thing, a boy’s untuned words; we hear and obey
and expect too much from them. (What do you want from me?)
It is when they fall silent that the others smokelike ascend
from charred Gobi dunes, from the curls and cusps of the sea,
and other fingers lift the phone from its cradle and dial
and we tremble (is it?) and exuberant answer (no) but
because you will not speak I can sit here a little longer listening
to the sand and the wind on the other end.
The Long Trajectory
by Geoffrey A. Landis
Space is vast and dark
humans are small and fragile
ship is my cocoon
A thin steel bubble
speeding through the emptiness
keeps me warm and safe
Fans and motors hum
The noise, like air, comforts me
Outside is silence
Only one part fails
of ten million in the ship
They’re all critical
A natural part of air
CO2 is sleep
Systems all shut down
A quiet descends like night
Soon all will be still.
INTERVIEW WITH J. M. McDERMOTT
Q) You’ve said that you see Never Knew Another as a novel on “the border between Urban Fantasy and Epic/Heroic Fantasy.” As such, Never Knew Another subverts many of the standby tropes of heroic fantasy; this is a world in which—particularly for the characters of demonic descent—heroic action is still required, not for personal gain or enrichment, but for survival. Your debut novel, Last Dragon, traveled similar territory. What is it that compels you to write high-stakes cross-genre fantasy?
A) Is that what I’m writing? I don’t really think of it, that way. I think that when I read heroic and epic fantasy what often annoys me is the mechanical stuff—the plot needs this betrayal here, the plot needs romance here, the plot needs a big fight here—and what interests me is the human stuff. Fiction is a human institution, where you get to walk a mile in someone else’s life experiences, gather what wisdom and insight is available to them. By wrapping that in the imaginative and speculative fictions, I get to do things that aren’t possible, and do it to help people see what is possible. Or, something. The important thing is that I like fiction deeply rooted in characters. Plot is boring and predictable. People are not. If my characters act heroically, it is because people must act heroically sometimes. In poverty, especially, and when you are an outsider to society, heroics are required just to lead something resembling a normal life. In my mind, that’s more inspiring than saving the world from some magical MacGuffin.
Q) Never Knew Another features an unusual frame narrative for fantasy fiction, one with a very noir sensibility; the story of Jona and Rachel is related by the Priestess of Erin, as she draws it from Jona’s mortal remains. What inspired you to choose this narrative strategy, and were you inspired by other literary frame narratives?
A) Memories are a fascinating subject for fiction, because they are as unstable as the language we use to describe them, and because they rely on a core of feeling to maintain their place in the mind. When I use a word, I speak to your memory of that word, and your feeling of it. What I think of when I think of a “bird” is not the same, exactly, as your remembered “bird”, for instance, nor the emotional moments it conjures in you. We construct our sense of self out of these memories, and often re-imagine what happened based on our own sense of a personal narrative. That’s fascinating, to me. It’s one reason, I think, fiction is traditionally told in the past tense. It’s like we’re collectively inventing a cultural history in prose. What’s interesting to me about the way this story is told is the dissonance between the natural empathy that the narrator will feel for the person whose mind is with hers, and that allows her a powerful level of access and insight into a whole way of life with the people around Jona, is wrapped up in the fact of what she is doing. She is hunting the people Jona knew and loved. She feels for them even as she hunts them. It’s probably a metaphor for something, but I’ll trust readers to figure that out for themselves.
Q) One of the themes in Never Knew Another is passing, that is, hiding one’s origins in order to fit in among the dominant culture. Jona and Rachel are both of demonic descent, but Jona passes to the extent that he is able to infiltrate the City Guard. Rachel passes as human as well, but to a lesser degree. As a Southern writer, was this theme on your mind when you began Never Knew Another, or was it something that evolved as you were writing the book?
A) Though I am from the south, I am not of it. I was born in Germany to an American military officer from Boston and a California farm girl who joined the army to escape her small town. I stuck to the cities, surrounded by immigrants and transplants from all over. I don’t think of myself as a southern writer as much as I think of myself as a suburban writer. In that vein, what I was thinking about was what it was like for my gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and trans-gendered friends and neighbors in a southern city that was full of hatred and revulsion for these apocryphal sons and daughters. I didn’t understand it, and I still don’t. Often, I wondered what it must be like to “pass” in these suburban southern towns, trying not to draw attention to the fact that you’re different in certain places, and never quite sure what will happen to you if the wrong person finds out who you are. What’s worse is that the very people who most need to read books about GLBT folks were probably never going to. I tried to create a cuckoo’s egg, with Dogsland, to plant that seed where it wouldn’t otherwise be planted.
This sounds very political, all of a sudden, and it’s not really that political. Books aren’t really useful as political objects. They’re whispers in the storm of media, at best, and no one is going to change their mind because of this book. I still think it’s a good idea to make those whispers, and to make them honestly, with an eye towards creating interesting, engaging fictions. So, it’s not so much a political book as it is a call towards just empathy. Creating characters people care about, identify with, maybe even want to follow into another book or two.
Q) The Priestess of Erin refers to the city in the novel as “Dogsland,” as the city is overrun with stray dogs. It’s a striking image, and seems a larger metaphor for the decadence and fallen of the city dwellers. What inspired it?
A) Well, I could have made up some cumbersome accumulation of letters and sounds to “name” the fantasy city, but it is far more useful, I think, to focus on what the city represents to the book. In this, I relied on the narrator’s perspective. Through her eyes, the city is a dogs’ land. That is also a metaphor. Ideally, that’s how speculations in fiction are supposed to work, right?
Q) Finally, what are you reading these days?
A) I’m in graduate school, so I’m reading a lot of things for that. When I have the time, I’ve been reading a lot of Rikki Ducornet’s short fiction, lately, hunting it down wherever I can find it, also Michael Cisco’s latest novel, The Narrator, and a collection of poems called Through The Stonecutter’s Window by Indigo Moor that I’m really enjoying. I recently did a big school paper on mosaic novels that was lots of fun to research. I got to revisit Accelerando by Charles Stross and City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer, both that I can wholeheartedly recommend. What are you reading? Electric Velocipede, you say? Excellent choice! I’ll never forget discovering Jeffrey Ford’s classic story “The Way He Does It” in this very publication! I hope this issue is as surprising and delightful as always!
by John Ottinger III
A Brief and Incomplete History of Zombie Literature
All we want to do is eat your brains
We’re not unreasonable; I mean, no one’s gonna eat your eyes
All we want to do is eat your brains
—Jonathan Coulton, Re: Your Brains
Zombies: Shambling, brain-eating, scary with a twist of the absurd. There is usually little to like or love about the undead, yet in recent years zombies have grown from an unknown and little-used monster (save in Night of the Living Dead knockoffs) to a key element of major bestsellers. What is it that makes zombies so appealing, and why have they begun to permeate speculative and mainstream fiction?
The concept of the zombies originally comes from the West Indian/Caribbean religious tradition known as voodoo. According to its tenets, a dead person can be revived by a bokor, or sorcerer. Controlled by the sorcerer, the zombie has no will of its own, and is forced to do the sorcerer’s bidding. Zora Neale Hurston, the American folklorist and novelist, is usually attributed with the earliest exploration of the belief in zombies when on a trip to Haiti, but she was unable to learn much from her studies, which were published in 1938 as Tell My Horse. Subsequently, several scientists have explored the science of zombieism, postulating various theories from drugs to undiagnosed schizophrenia as causes. But no matter the origin or cause, zombies of the voodoo tradition portray few of the characteristics that popular literature now attributes to them —such as the shambling gait, rotting flesh, and the ability to pass their condition on to others. What popular fiction has borrowed from voodoo lore is mostly the idea of a mindless being, sometimes created through a scientific process.
EARLY ZOMBIES IN LITERATURE
Most modern zombies are inspired by the work of George Romero, a screenwriter and director whose 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead popularized the concept of a group of undead bent on wreaking havoc on the living. But even his work had its precursors, some of whom even pre-date Hurston. In the 1920s and 30s, H.P. Lovecraft (who has seen a renaissance in recent years) wrote several short stories featuring zombies or zombie-like characters. Lovecraft’s primary work in this vein being “Herbert West—Reanimator” in which the titular character uses scientific means to revive human corpses.
Weird Tales had picked up on the concept as well, publishing a work by Henry S. Whitehead called “Jumbee” in 1926 (zombie is sometimes thought to be an mispronunciation of the Haitian word jumbee). Tales by Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard would subsequently follow. Other more short-lived pulps also picked up on the trend, but zombies were rarely the subject of stories in the 1930s and 40s. Another author, William Seabrook, first wrote about zombies in his pseudo-travelogue on Haiti, The Magic Island, in 1929. But Seabrook’s zombie was nothing to fear; it was depicted as cheap labor for the local plantation owner to use in harvesting his cane fields.
In 1954, Richard Matheson reinvented the zombie with the publication of I Am Legend, which posits a world sent into apocalypse by bloodsucking beings. Though Matheson did not set out to write a zombie novel (his intent was to explore vampirism) , many of Matheson’s concepts are now staples of the zombie mythos. Most notably, the idea of a worldwide apocalypse caused by such beings, the transmission of zombieism as a disease, and the mindless lust for blood (or flesh) are key elements of most zombie stories which first made their appearance here.
Yet none of these stories really fits the modern conception of the zombie. Each had their elements, but it was not until Romero’s film that zombies as a group of shambling, previously dead, infectious, and very angry beings entered the modern psyche.
MODERN ZOMBIE FICTION
Though zombies have been around for some time as a subgenre of horror fiction, the undead have existed mostly in the realm of film, with only a few books – primarily anthologies —revisiting the zombie archetype. After Matheson’s contribution, little zombie fiction of note was published until the cult classic The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis appeared in 1985. It took five more years before another significant work of zombie fiction was published. The Book of the Dead arrived in late 1989, followed by the 1992 publication of Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2, both edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector. The not much heralded novel Wet Work, published in 1993 by Philip Nutman, used the idea of the intelligent zombie to satirize the Bush administration. The Ultimate Zombie anthology, edited by John Gregory Betancourt and Byron Preiss, arrived that same year and included such writing luminaries as Anne Rice, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe. But even these volumes were just blips on the radar screen of the horror genre as a whole. Not until 2003 would the undead find their greatest proponent/opponent in Max Brooks.
A writer for “Saturday Night Live” and the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, Max Brooks published The Zombie Survival Guide in 2003 —and what was a small, insignificant, and rarely used trope soon birthed its very own subgenre. This zombie themed parody of the popular Worst Case Scenario brand of books attempted to prepare the reader for either an individual zombie attack or a worldwide zombie apocalypse. The book was a smash hit, spawning several copycats and inspiring other writers to rethink the zombie archetype.
What followed was not an avalanche of new fiction, but a slow trickle that grew into a river in the six years following Brooks’ first publication. In 2004, David Wellington published Monster Island, a sometimes vilified work in which a band of Somali survivors of a zombie apocalypse take a ship to an abandoned New York City in search of AIDS drugs. Wellington avoided explaining the origin of the zombie outbreak (something later explained in the prequel 2005 Monster Nation, published as an online serial novel, then printed in 2006), and the book was primarily an adventure novel with simplistic characterization.
In 2003, Brian Keene published The Rising, a Bram Stoker Award-winning tale of intelligent zombies. Unlike many other zombie tales, Keene mixed science and spirituality to find the source for the unsettling of the dead; demons possess the dead and use them for nefarious ends. Keene’s zombies are not like most others, in that they are intelligent and seem human.
But the “mainstream” stamp of approval of zombie fiction as literature arrived when acclaimed horror author Stephen King wrote his own contribution to zombie fiction with Cell. A number one bestseller upon its release, Cell brought zombie fiction into the homes and minds of millions of readers. In King’s story, an electromagnetic pulse turns cell-phone users into bloodthirsty maniacs. There is some contention over whether King’s zombies really fit the mold of Romero’s undead, but a dedication of the book to Romero and Richard Matheson highlights King’s indebtedness to the early pioneers of zombie tales and his appreciation of the archetype, even as he twisted it to make it wholly his own. King’s greatest contribution to zombie fiction was bringing it into the mainstream and marrying it steadfastly to the idea of an apocalypse.
The same year as Cell was published, Max Brooks returned to zombies with his publication of World War Z, a fictional collection of survivor stories of the zombie apocalypse. Compiled as interviews of survivors by the fictional author, World War Z changed zombie fiction from simple scare tactic into complex social commentary. Criticizing government ineptitude, corporate corruption, and human shortsightedness in various ways throughout the book, Brooks also believes that zombie fiction allows readers to think about their own anxiety about the end of the world. In a October 2006 interview with Publishers Weekly Brooks said, “They scare me more than any other fictional creature out there because they break all the rules. Werewolves and vampires and giant sharks, you have to go look for them. My attitude is if you go looking for them, no sympathy. But zombies come to you. Zombies don’t act like a predator; they act like a virus, and that is the core of my terror.”
In an online reader-generated interview with the Washington Post in October of 2006, Brooks expanded his remarks and tied them into the current cultural climate. “The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation. That has always terrified me. Of course that applies to terrorists, but it can also apply to a hurricane, or flu pandemic, or the potential earthquake that I grew up with living in L.A. Any kind of mindless extremism scares me, and we’re living in some pretty extreme times.”
To Brooks, zombies are more than merely a scary monster. They have much to say about who we are as a species and our fears and hopes about the end of the world. Brooks took zombie fiction and made it zombie literature, using a simple creature to dive deep into both societal and individual fears.
Zombie fiction continued to gain traction in 2008 and 2009. Jonathan Maberry, a Bram Stoker Award winner, built on the groundwork laid by The Zombie Survival Guide to write Zombie CSU, a hefty tome of nonfiction that interviewed over two hundred and fifty experts in various disciplines to discuss how the real world would react to zombies. Says Maberry, “The scientists I interviewed didn’t seem to think that zombies were all that far out of the bounds of possibility. In their view, zombies were probably ‘nearly’ dead but not entirely dead, and they went on to explain each of the various qualities of a zombie (the lack of awareness, resistance to injury, etc.) from a sound medical perspective. It was quite chilling, and it’s what gave me the idea for Patient Zero.” That novel was published in March 2009, and the book and its sequels were recently optioned for TV by Sony Pictures. Though more techno-thriller than zombie novel, Patient Zero still terrifies as it explores a very real twenty-first century threat.
Also in 2008, John Joseph Adams, a noted anthologist, and at the time the assistant editor at the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, compiled The Living Dead, an anthology of zombie fiction by some of the best names in speculative fiction and horror, which became a 2009 World Fantasy Award finalist. Adams has also planned a sequel anthology, The Living Dead 2, in stores now, which features many of the stories that could not be included in the first anthology.
In April 2009 humorist Seth Grahame-Smith took zombies and mixed them into Jane Austen’s classic Regency novel Pride and Prejudice. The result, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, became an instant bestseller. Readers and critics enjoyed the way the zany and snarky humor of Grahame-Smith mixed with the manners and wit of Austen. With this novel, writing about the undead became a way to explore humor and human social interaction. Though zombie fiction had already been doing this to a small extent, it began to be acknowledged by a wider audience that zombies were not limited in their ability to explore nuanced themes, even as they provided mayhem and carnage.
Zombies even entered the world of young adult fiction in 2009. David Lubar wrote books in the Nathan Abercrombie series (My Rotten Life, Dead Guy Spy), about a young boy who becomes an accidental zombie. Carrie Ryan, in her debut novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth, uses zombies as a metaphor for the feelings of entrapment that many teenagers feel. Ryan explains, “Mary’s struggle is to figure out who she is, whether she can trust her dreams and what she’s willing to do and sacrifice for those dreams—how far she’s willing to go . . . I think this is something we can all relate to—how we define our lives beyond mere existence and what we’re willing to fight for.”
Stories of the undead are not simply limited to narratives which contain zombies as we have come to understand them. Zombies have also found their way into epic fantasy, space opera, and humor.
ZOMBIES AND FANTASY
Zombies, as they exist in fantasy fiction, are often depicted as sword fodder. Unliving in dank, dark dungeons, zombies are used by authors as a way to give their adventurers and heroes something to fight against that takes little to no effort, but provides a bit of action between dialogues or exposition. These zombies usually take the standard form first depicted by Romero. They do, however, hearken back to the original folklore that believed zombies were controlled by a master rather than being a mindless horde. The undead are often used in sweeping epic fantasies where the hero or group of heroes is fighting a necromancer or other sorcerer with some power over the dead. Since many villains in fantasy usually have some power over the undead, the zombie has already reached trope status, as ubiquitous as an orc or an elf.
Gary Gygax greatly promoted the zombie concept in fantasy when he used it in the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game in 1974. Gygax cited Gardner Fox’s story “The Sword and the Sorcerer” as his source material. Gygax’s zombies are more closely tied to the voodoo origin of the archetype and are usually considered to be enslaved to a necromancer. Subsequent editions of Dungeons and Dragons have created myriad kinds of zombies, but all follow the same formula as the original game.
There is one subgenre within fantasy that does more than just provide zombie sword fodder: paranormal fantasy is most often set in current times, more often than not in a major urban center like New York or London. The alternate world of these tales is populated by vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena. Zombies are included in this mix. Though they often follow the standard prescription of an undead creature with little motivation besides the desire to eat brains, some authors have used them to great effect in both dramatic and comedic ways.
For instance, in Martin H. Greenberg and Daniel M. Hoyt’s anthology Better Off Undead, two of its contributors use zombies to probe human nature. The protagonist in Jay Lake’s “In Two All Beef Patties” begins to think that perhaps being dead isn’t such a bad thing. But even undeath isn’t perfect, and the young narrator soon learns that even the undead have cravings . Lake uses the zombie archetype to explore human needs and desires and how even a significant change in lifestyle does not always satisfy perceived wants. In the same anthology, “My Tears Have Been My Meat,” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, brings to life a truly frightening tale of spousal abuse and the fears of those trapped in such horrible situations. The protagonist’s husband is diabolically evil, and at his death, he returns in zombie form. This zombie, like Lake’s, is not the unthinking, ravening creature more common to the archetype, but something even more frightening in its unstoppable evil.
The phenomenon of using the zombie archetype is not limited to just short stories, or even books that would qualify as zombie fiction. Both Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind have used the concept of people turned mindless and/or controlled by magic. Jordan’s version appears early in the Wheel of Time series when Rand al’Thor attempts to raise the dead to full life but instead creates what is essentially a zombie. A more modern version of zombies appears in a key chapter involving Matrim Cauthon in Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm. Goodkind uses the archetype profusely in the form of his Confessors, who magically force men to do their bidding. In neither case are the “zombies” the shambling, corpse-like beings most commonly depicted, but the core essence of a mindless drone controlled by a sorcerer is there.
Even within fantasy there are occasions where zombies appear or are used in such a way that it is not wholly obvious that they have any influence at all.
ZOMBIES AND SCIENCE FICTION
Zombies are very closely tied to the subgenre of science fiction known as apocalyptic fiction. World War Z, I Am Legend, Cell, and Patient Zero are all based on the idea that zombies will or are becoming ubiquitous, to the point of nearly wiping out humanity. A significant number of zombie stories are married to the concept of a doomsday scenario.
In such cases, the existence of zombies is a new event, something never seen before by humanity and something that the population is completely unprepared for. This leads to vast slaughter and a great deal of terror. “These monsters embody our fear of death and perhaps our dwindling sense of humanity,” says San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Christopher T. Fong. And so these monsters have come to be closely aligned with an apocalyptic scenario. “Other monsters may threaten individual humans, but the living dead threaten the entire human race,” says Max Brooks. “Zombies are slate wipers.” And no aspect of science fiction so cleanly wipes the slate as an apocalypse for which humanity has no solution.
Zombies in science fiction exist in other forms as well. Caribbean-born author Tobias Buckell uses zombie-like characters in his third novel, Sly Mongoose. In this case, the zombies are created by a virus that turns people into mindless drones that are part of a collective intelligence known as the Swarm. However, the larger story is a space opera, full of strong heroes fighting bad guys in a city in the clouds with laser weapons and machinery. “I thought it would be very easy to misinterpret a radical techno-democracy as a form of zombie-ism from the outside,” says Buckell when asked why he included zombies in his science fiction. “Outside the borders of the West, there is this impression that the society marches in lockstep socially and culturally, and even here people write articles about the McDonaldization of the world. And yet, living inside of the West, I have a degree of personal freedom and choice others don’t share. That difference in perception was interesting to me. I thought it would be fun to amp it way up and create an organism that looked completely zombie-ish (the Aeolian League) and then take it even further by introducing a sort of consciousness plague that’s the logical end game of it.”
Bestselling author George R. R. Martin (best known more for his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire) mixes zombies and science fiction in “Meathouse Man” where the reanimated dead are used to mine the planet and serve as sex slaves. In this story Martin uses zombies to explore issues of intimacy and the power of desire. And a major character, known as Hoodoo Mama, appears in the Wild Cards shared universe, edited by Martin. The zombie concept has permeated our thinking so much that the reader readily accepts such a superhero as par for the course.
Even the genre of steampunk is adding some new fiction to the zombie trend. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is a novel set in an alternate 1880, where the Civil War has been dragging on for decades. Sixteen years earlier Seattle was devastated by Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, when a test run of the machine went horrendously awry, hitting a natural gas line that turned people into the living dead. Like Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth or Matheson’s I am Legend, the focus of the plot is not on the zombies. The zombies are a means to an end, a way of creating danger and suspense in a very character-focused story. But neither are the zombies unessential; they are a key element of the story and provide needed context for the themes and meta-narrative.
The notoriously content-cautious Star Wars franchise has included the zombie concept in its universe with the release of Joe Schreiber’s Death Troopers in October 2009. In this story, we get a standard semi-apocalyptic scenario set in the universe created by George Lucas. Schreiber used his horror chops to create a story that both thrills and terrifies.
ZOMBIES AND HUMOR
Just as zombies have been used to scare, they have also been used as vehicles for humor, such as in 2002’s Dating Secrets of the Dead by David Prill or 2009’s Zombie Queen of Newbury High by Amanda Ashby. David P. Murphy, author of Zombies for Zombies: Advice and Etiquette for the Living Dead, published in 2009, finds that “there is some special synergy between humor and horror. In the case of zombies, I think it’s especially true because it involves death and the dead and there is something naturally wrong and wacky about dead folks strolling the back roads looking for a hand-out or just a hand.” Jonathan Maberry explains, “We generally laugh when we’re nervous, so the more tension you can bring into a situation the greater the potential for comedy . . . . In entertainment terms, zombies are . . . mindless and devoid of personality. They are a constant threat. So, just as you could set a comedy in the midst of a dreadful war (M*A*S*H), during the destruction of the earth (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), or during an attack by a serial killer (Scream), you can find the funny in a zombie attack.”
David Lubar uses zombies to explore the morass of social and emotional zaniness that is a student’s life in My Rotten Life. “Humor and horror are just two aspects of the same reactions. We often laugh and scream at similar stimuli. The common threads found in things that are funny or horrifying are the unexpected, and relief in seeing someone else get the pie (or the spiked baseball bat) in the face.”
Even the now well-known Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is first a comedy of manners and then a zombie novel. Noting that “characters in Jane Austen’s original books are rather like zombies because they live in this bubble of immense wealth and privilege and no matter what’s going on around them they have a singular purpose to maintain their rank and to impress others,” author Seth Grahame-Smith is “struck by what a sharp wit she [Austen] had and how vicious she could be in taking apart the conventions of the society in which she lived.”
The horror and humor that zombies evoke are flip sides of a coin. The archetype is used often in myriad ways—“as a mirror held up to what people are tussling with in regards to the outer world as a whole,” says Buckell. Just as people enjoy a scary reminder, so too do they need to laugh at their troubles.
Though 2009 saw a glut of new publications containing zombies—in one form or another—it is unlikely that the zombie archetype has seen its apex. “Zombies are a very elastic storytelling trope . . . . What they represent in zombie fiction is a constant and universal threat that is implacable and unbearable. That kind of threat puts all of the characters under pressure, and from a storytelling point of view, characters under pressure are the only interesting ones to write about,” says Maberry. Buckell agrees. “It often provides . . . a chance to decouple some of the baggage of issues through a plot metaphor so that the writer can explore a series of issues within a fictional context.”
Expect to see these and other authors continuing to expand the potential of the zombie archetype in 2010. Early announcements of forthcoming works show the number of novels and short stories of zombie literature in 2010 will likely surpass those published in 2009. Zombies are a part of mainstream culture now, appearing in diverse places and often being used as a metaphor for some of the larger issues plaguing our world today. Zombie fiction has grown from a little known piece of folklore into a much-used aspect of popular culture in the last century, and it is unlikely the trend will stop anytime soon.
SAMPLING THE ASPIC
by Penelope O’Shea
Seriously . . . again? I think this is the eleventh or maybe the thirteenth time through this song. And it wasn’t a good version of this song the first time. The caterwauling of yet another drunken diva is NOT going to make it better this time around. They tell me that a place doesn’t normally allow this kind of repetition, but since we are such fun-loving and well-paying sorts, they’ve made an exception. I wish they hadn’t done that. I haven’t the head or ears for this late-disco era record’s thumping beats . . . and the scrolling type and the flashy lights are making me all kinds of irrational. Or perhaps some of the problem is the drink. This is probably the seventh . . . or is the drink the eleventh? I cannot seem to remember which numbers go with what. These are so easy to drink, it makes a girl forget . . . stuff. Next time you are in need of help, you might want to order one . . . or maybe one for each hand.
In a cocktail shaker full ice, add:
1 ½ oz. raspberry rum
4 oz. strong lemonade, OR juice of one lemon and 2 oz. simple syrup
Shake vigorously. Pour into a tumbler and top with EITHER:
Club soda OR Strongly brewed iced tea
Garnish with cherries and lemon wedges.
Tonight, I’ve drunk it both ways, and perhaps even with both additional liquids at once. I cannot be absolutely certain. But one thing is for sure; I will never, not EVER, be rid of this ditty dancing about in my brain. Another drink might help . . .
Next time a group of friends asks me to go to a karaoke bar, just to listen, just for bit, just for drinks, just for fun, I may need to consider declining the offer. I am not sure how the raving and howling of the drunkenly brave few can be considered fun. The music isn’t what I’d choose anyway, but the musical stylings of this crowd are, at best, butchery. Its horridness makes me ready to swear off friends, drink, music and even meat. And for me, a faithful flesh-eater, that means something. One cannot abide the aural massacre without an altering to one’s intestinal fortitude. Whatever I eat later will most certainly need to be filling, but sans carnage. Something comforting . . . like
1 to 2 leeks, into half-moons
2 stalks celery, cut into half-moon slices
½ white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 bulbs fennel, cut into celery-sized pieces
In a large soup pot, sauté in 3 T. butter and a glug of olive oil until veg softens and becomes translucent, about 10 minutes.
1 bunch of broccoli, cut into small florets and stems peeled and diced
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 in. dice
3 scallions, chopped. Place white parts in pot. Reserve green portions.
Keep these moving as they start to cook. Once the broccoli turns a glossy, bright green, toss in:
2 T. chopped tarragon
1 handful of other freshly chopped herbs, including parsley, chives, dill, chervil, lovage, celery leaves, savory or any combination of these
2 T. flour
Mix everything together until you have a thick, pasty sludge surrounding the veg, letting the flour cook a minute. Then, whisk in:
6 c. chicken or vegetable stock
½ c. half-and-half
Salt and pepper, to taste
Simmer on low until the potatoes are fork tender. Then, use a potato masher or an immersion blender and give everything a good whacking, to break down some of the veg and thicken the chowder. Don’t overdo it . . . you do want it chunky and rustic. Ladle it into bowls, garnishing with strong shredded cheddar cheese, the scallion tops, and croutons. (For those in carnivorous need, a bit of crumbled cooked bacon as a topping is a nice touch, too.)
This is warm, gorgeous, satisfying. It would be a lovely respite from this cold, dark, jangling place. The eerie silhouettes of a singing duo sway before the buzzing neon glow of their monitors. The hissing, spitting microphones sting my ears as a preamble to another song, this time with a slow, country twang. Though I hold no hope that it will actually be better than the last one, at the very least it is a new tune.
This duo’s version reminds me of all the Conway Twitty-Loretta Lynn duets I grew up listening to in my parents’ farm kitchen. The crackling radio was the second thing switched on every morning; the first was the percolating coffee pot. As a child, I was met at the bottom of the stairs by a combination of nostril-permeating brew and chirpy, tinny, swinging drawls. Add breakfast and this was my childhood’s sensory reveille. What I do remember eating most often were eggs. They are a good medium for cleaning up the scraps of previous meals that you might have hanging around in the ice box. Back then, before quiche became de rigueur, we had
Heat a 10-in. cast-iron skillet on the stovetop. Also, turn on the oven’s broiler setting. When the pan is hot, add
3 T. olive oil
½ onion, diced
Sauté until softened. Then add to the pan:
Any pre-cooked and frozen or previously cooked vegetables (My favorites are boiled potato, broccoli and frozen peas, but cooked carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, green beans, spinach, or really anything that you like in eggs, will work here.)
Just stir any veggies together to reheat them in the pan with the onion and then remove from the heat and let stand to cool a bit. In another bowl, mix together
½ c. cheese (anything sharp in flavor is good . . . cheddar, swiss, parm, even goat’s cheese are all good options)
Chopped fresh or dried herbs, whatever you like in eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Pour this over the frying pan’s contents and place it back on the heat. Cook on medium stove temperature for about 8 minutes, until the bottom is starting to set, but the top is still gooey. Pull the side away from the pan to check. When you get to this stage, put the pan under the broiler and WATCH it, until it is set. Pull it from the heat, run a knife around the edges and flip it upside-down onto a cutting board. It should come out easily and be ready to slice. It is great eaten hot or cold. And, again if you must, you can always add any tidbit of meat you have around to the egg mix, but it is just as well without, in my opinion.
In the midst of my recollections, I faintly notice that we have now moved to the hair-band staples, an entire catalog of music which makes me feel a bit green with nostalgia. It might be a good time for something more in my stomach than booze. And in a bar, there is no better snack than nachos, eaten greedily with your friends before they go cold. But they can be somewhat figure unfriendly. What if they could be good eating and good for you? How about this?
Cut 8 pocket pitas into pie-shaped wedges. I get about 8 wedges from each circle. Then pull the wedges apart, so that you have exposed the inside of the pocket. Place these onto a cookie sheet in a single layer. Onto each “chip”, sprinkle:
Olive oil (about 2 T. total), which you can brush on with a pastry brush
Dried oregano, crushed between your fingers as you sprinkle (about 2 tsp.)
Freshly cracked pepper
Place these into a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes, rotating the pan once about half way through. They should be crispy and browned. Pull them and let them cool.
While you are waiting for them to cool, proceed with making the nacho topping. Cut about 6 plum tomatoes into bite-sized pieces, discarding the seeds. Sugar the pieces with about 1 tsp. of the sweet stuff, and let stand. Cut a red onion into thin half-moons. Douse with the juice of ½ lemon and let stand. Pit and halve about 12 kalamata olives. Wash and cut some leaves of romaine crosswise into long green ribbons. Slice cucumbers paper thin. If you are game, slice fennel thinly as well and submerge in icy water to firm up its crunch.
When the chips are cool, assemble them onto an oven-safe plate or tray. Scatter the rubble with your favorite hummus and about ½ c. crumbled feta cheese. Put this under the broiler for about 30 seconds, just to warm and soften the cheese a bit. When the feta is hot, but not brown, pull the pan out and arrange all your awaiting toppings (thoroughly draining liquids from the onion and fennel) over the warmed chips. On the top, drizzle them with
1-2 glugs olive oil, if desired
1 T. red wine vinegar. (You can use some of the lemon juice from the onions if you like more tartness.)
Sprinkling of dried (or fresh chopped) oregano
Pinch of salt and few grinds of black pepper
If you cannot stand nachos without some kind of creamy topping, and watching your diet isn’t a pressing concern, I’d add homemade tzatziki. The cucumbery sauce is a wonderful addition and it is easy to make. The left-over sauce works great later in the week as a salad dressing, too. To make it, mix together
1 c. Greek yoghurt
½ English cucumber, grated
¼ c. sour cream
1 ½ tsp. white wine/champagne vinegar
1 ½ tsp. olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
1 T fresh dill, chopped
1 tsp kosher salt
This is best made ahead and allowed to chill about 2 hours to meld the flavors, but that isn’t absolutely necessary. It is something that keeps well in the fridge if you don’t use it all with the nachos. These are so good, you almost forget about the oozy cheesed and gunky guacamoled original sort altogether.
That’s enough of this rotten music . . . now I’m ravenous. The drink and my patience have languished. It is time to go seek out something to assuage the cutting strains of these amateurs. I hate to leave my friends, but I feel I’ve withstood my share of re-imagined ‘oldies ’n goodies’. In some small way, I honestly regret not having the gall to take over the mike. There is no melody that has stirred my inner crooner . . . no singer whom I feel I could honor with this voice. I grab hold of the club’s door, readying myself for the fierce night air, and . . . wait, are they playing “Private Dancer”? I was once told that I do a dead-on impersonation of Tina Turner . . . perhaps another three minutes and fifty-four seconds in this place wouldn’t hurt. My stomach can wait that exact amount of time for its relief. And, now, without a seat available at my prior table, maybe I’ll just move toward the monitor and see what happens when I get there. Wait for it . . . “All the men come in these places . . . ”
BLINDFOLD TASTE TEST
with Jim C. Hines
What is your favorite food?
Either lasagne or hot fudge sundaes, depending on whether I’m in a dinner or a dessert mood.
Are there any foods that you find yourself craving regularly?
Ice cream, I suppose. I’m diabetic, so I don’t indulge very often. Stupid defective pancreas!
Is there anything you eat that no one you know eats?
Nope! I’m really quite boring.
(When) Where was your most memorable meal?
Back in high school, my girlfriend and I (mostly her) made homemade pasta and a wine-based sauce. Lots of fun, and one of the best meals I’ve had.
This is not my most memorable meal. No, that would have to be months later, when I tried to improvise a meal that would capture the same tastes and flavors. Without going into details, this involved mac and cheese, grape Kool Aid, and far too much vinegar. It was a bad, bad day in culinary history.
If money was no object, what would your food splurge be?
I’d pack extra insulin and batteries for the insulin pump, then fly out to the East Coast for an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.
What’s your favorite literary food scene?
In my own work? Either the fast food joint in my short story “Brainburgers and Bile Shakes” (set in a zombie theme park), or else any of the scenes in my goblin books where Jig the goblin has to survive on disgusting human foods like bread and potatoes and pickles. In other people’s work? I’m going to go with Chinese fighting muffins. Or maybe second breakfast, and all of those other delightfully indulgent hobbit-style meals.
Do you cook at home? Why/why not?
I do indeed, mostly because I get home an hour and a half earlier than my wife. If I don’t cook, the children get that look in their eyes, the one where they’re sizing me up and trying to figure out whether I can be chopped into microwavable bits, or if they should just try to shove me into the oven.
Who are your cooking influences?
My wife, who leaves notes reminding me how to prepare various meals without poisoning our children. Also, whoever invented the microwave burrito.
What food item are you always running out of?
Milk! (Two growing children who drink a lot of milk and eat a lot of mac and cheese.)
If you could invite any three people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?
Charles Schulz (I’m a huge Peanuts fan), Jesus (because he could clear up an awful lot, and also provide neverending bread and fishes), and my wife (because if I got to have dinner with Schulz and Jesus and didn’t invite her, I’d be in serious trouble).
A REMEMBRANCE OF THE FUTURE
The future. This little column portends to be about the future, but mostly talks about what happened in the past. This time, let’s talk about the future. Or more accurately, the present.
Electric Velocipede’s peers are mostly online. They reach a wider audience than we do by a huge margin. We are being left behind by remaining a print magazine. The future of short fiction is online and electronic publications.
We love being a print magazine. We love putting an issue together and fiddling with all the layout problems that come up. We love holding copies of the finished issue in our hands. But we’ve done everything we can as a print magazine.
Hell, we won a Hugo award. That’s pretty damn cool.
Almost everyone we run into has heard of Electric Velocipede. For a magazine that’s never printed more than 500 copies of an individual issue, that’s impressive. If we take that prestige and cachet online, there’s no limit to what we can do.
What will that mean for the print edition of Electric Velocipede? At this point we don’t know, but keep watching and you’ll find out.