“It Feels Better Biting Down” By Livia Llewellyn (Published: October 2014)
Nightmare Magazine: Women Destroy Horror!
In a season of grim stories that have crept into view, this month’s Nightmare Magazine is a guest issue edited by the esteemed Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton, Women Destroy Horror! It and October’s issue of the largely defunct Fantasy Magazine are companions to the successful Kickstarter issue by John Joseph Adams, Women Destroy Science Fiction! I find this story by Livia Llewellyn highly satisfying, unusually structured, and a real stand-out among strong offerings.
“Sister is crying. The mimicry tears, we call them. It’s the kind of crying we do when we don’t really want to cry but we have to, because everyone else is acting a certain way and we need to do the same.”
The young narrator and her twin, Sister — the name they both insist on using, refusing to answer to anything else — are both violently co-dependent and viciously weird. They even terrify their parents who, tellingly, have escaped on a small vacation. With their guardians away, the siblings encounter a disturbing presence outside their house, one that causes their entire relationship to break down and reassemble itself.
Horror is most interesting to me when the audience doesn’t quite know the rules and Llewellyn isn’t playing with vampires dispatched by the sun or zombies waiting for their brains to be splattered. Instead, though the direction is sure and confident, the territory is nebulous. Her monsters have more to do with family struggle and body horror. Also in this issue is Gemma Files’ “This Is Not For You,” an intriguing short story where anger seems to spiral off the pages as a group of zealous women hunt and kill men carefully procured for sacrifice. Files’ piece has a more straightforward plot, but “It Feels Better Biting Down” stayed under my skin in a way that was exquisitely uncomfortable and hard to extract.
“Taxidermist in the Underworld” By Maria Dahvanah Headley (Published: October 2014)
As a fictional character, the Devil is well traveled. His unlucky victim of choice, this time, is a perfectly harmless taxidermist. Satan needs help with his ghost problem and Louis is pressed into service.
Headley brings her A-game to this eerie story, keeping the tone deceptively light. Louis despairs over his boyfriend, Carl, as he tries preserving the ghosts in gorgeous but increasingly unlikely ways. His terror changes shape during his time in Hell. So do his copious and sadly hilarious notes on the impossible task set before him.
Like many folk tales and songs about golden fiddles where the Devil has sway over the main character, I expected a story of deals, backstabbing, and soul bargaining. But Headley has a different set of surprises lurking under the intentions of her characters. The ride toward the ending is gorgeous and just a little bit cruel.
“The Scrimshaw and the Scream” by Kate Hall (Published: October 2014)
Another story of body horror but with the trappings of a fractured fairy tale.
“I have a scream inside me, Claudette had confided to her the day before she changed. She had peered at Felicity over the rim of her teacup, fresh scabs marring her white forehead, her brilliant green eyes muted and tear-filled. Feathers had poked through her sleeves, feathers that hadn’t started growing until her parents barred her from her instrument. It’s gotten so loud, I’m afraid I’ll explode. It wants me to play again. I want to play again.”
Suppression of desire doesn’t only breed discontent in this country but feathers. Felicity tries to be “good” and be the thoroughly Victorian (or analogue to the era, anyway) girl she’s meant to be. She follows her mother’s directions and tries to impress her intended, Ernest. A stranger comes to town, as these things happen, and the kind woman is both entirely featherless and surprised at Felicity’s buttoned-up, starched society. Our heroine is enraged at a “fairy god mother” she had no intention of finding.
Felicity’s so buried in the rules of the world around her, she’s almost a direct inversion of the woman-ahead-of-her-time who often appears in historical romance novels. Still, she grows feathers and becomes increasingly flustered with the ordeal. The story is gentle, though, but always honest with itself and its characters.
A god waltzes into Christina “Tíntín” Reyes’s life and looks to make her his disciple. It’s the same family god who haunted and struck bargains with her mother, a legacy more natural than dark.
“The dead god descends on me as I sleep, the way it did my mother the night before my conception, and my grandmother before that. Even with my dream-eyes shut, I know it’s there; the weight of folded limbs on my body threatens to crush my ribs, and I can smell the wreaths of sweet sampaguita hanging from its neck.”
What unfolds in stunning prose is a story about life decisions, family loyalty, and a figure from Filipino folklore, the terrifying Aswang. It’s a shame how this creature has been under-utilized in fantasy. I’m glad Wong looks to fix that problem and enjoy the way she depicts the culture around it.
The story shines best when the god is on stage. He’s a fascinating character with a presence that fills the room. Otherwise, Tíntín has a fairly standard task of coming into her own as a young woman. She just has to do it with an amoral god lingering nearby.
“Jupiter Wrestlerama” by Marie Vibbert (Published: October 2014)
This story is a pleasant surprise. It has all the tropes of noir detective fiction: the cooling, newly dead body, the wounded lover as detective, and the list of likely and unlikely suspects. Mad Lib style, however, it mixes it up the rhythms of Raymond Chandler with competitive wrestling and a space station orbiting Jupiter. Somehow, everything falls into place beautifully.
Karen, the level-headed main character, is out to find who did in her boyfriend, “Two-Ton” Tony, and why. Her grief is real but muted by her search for answers while the police declare Tony falling down the stairs with a knife in him an “accident.” It has a clipped pace and suspenseful ride, a mystery that wraps up in a satisfying way. I’ve enjoyed the creepier stories that have come down the pipeline this month, but this one wormed its way into my heart with ease.
Gillian Daniels is a writer of prose, poetry, and criticism. After attending the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in 2011, her poems and fiction have been published in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Flash Fiction Online, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine among others. Her reviews are available at The New England Theatre Geek blog and other venues. She is a transplant from Northeast Ohio and is highly suspicious of her home in the New World, i.e. Boston.