Thursday, January 21, 2016

Quick Sips - Nightmare #40

You know, I've said this before but I think if I had a "break-out performance of 2015" award to give, it would go to Nightmare Magazine. I have the feeling that it's often-times overlooked because of its focus on horror and dark fantasy, and I will admit that some of the stories have not been my favorites, but month after month the publication manages to challenge me, to serve up the unexpected and the dark and to push me to think more, to read better. I don't think any other publication has netted as many Sippy Awards as Nightmare, and if this issue is anything to go by, 2016 looks like it might be even better. Two stories (as always), and both challenging and deep and layered and good. Both take a look at the past, both the past as it was and might have been, both shedding light on how far we've come and how far we have still to go. It's a great issue that I will!
Art by Kirsi Salonen


"Angel, Monster, Man" by Sam J. Miller (11335 words)

I think this might be the longest original story I've read from Nightmare, and I just keep on being impressed with the work coming out at this magazine. Here is a story told in three parts that evokes the death and loss of those to AIDS as a physical being, a man coalesced from the hopes and pain and anger of those survivors who determine to do something. The premise is simple and haunting: three men are left with a heap of creative work of those who have died, creative work that now has no future and no past, orphaned before they could impact and change the world. And these three men decide to publish that work as if by one author, one man to represent all of those lost, a myth who turns out to be a bit more real than they intended. In some ways this story is the spiritual successor to "The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History" that appeared in 2015, using the idea of a power that can be evoked through community (the phrase "the heat of us" is used explicitly, and becomes a strong theme throughout).

What shines for me in the story is the way it circles the characters, the three very different men who call Tom Minniq into existence, and in doing give shape and voice to all those erased by a very dark time in recent history. Tom represents not just the creative soul lost, the works that were never read or sold or written or drawn or seen, but also the lost rage and movement, the lost activism, the lost compassion and love and everything. The tragedy of AIDS is layered, is the loss of life, the sheer number of the dead, but it is also that loss of potential, of so many lives cut short, so many that would have pushed forward. The story is horror and alt-history and magic realism all in one, a mixture that works and bites and doesn't let go. And the story shows through the three survivors that what remains is a bundle of raw hurt, careful hope, and numb resolve.

[OKAY MAYBE SOME SPOILERS FROM HERE ON SO REALLY GO AND READ THE STORY ALREADY] And I love the way the story slowly builds both the menace and impact of Tom, the way that he is this looming threat, born from death and some power so deep that it can't quite be understood. That it is different things to different people, an angel and a monster and a man, but at the end of the day he's more an idea, the sum of so many dead people, the rage and compassion and all of it, as deadly as despair, but through him there is change. That this alternate history is so much better than what exists at the moment, a place with more equity and empathy, is one of the great things about it. The idea that there can be better and it takes work and it takes something to rally around and if there had been something sooner there might have been more progress. Not an end to progress, as the story is careful to make clear, but perhaps at least there would be more movement toward a better world. It's a strange story and a deeply haunting one, but it also complex and amazing and this is definitely not one to miss.

"Vulcanization" by Nisi Shawl (4661 words)

This story takes aim at historical France, at a moment of Imperial colonialism, the exploitation of the then Congo for its wealth and resources. The story stars King Leopold himself, a man haunted by the ghosts of murdered Africans. His surety of action, the accepted "legitimacy" of his racism and white supremacy, are on full display in the story, showing a man with no qualms about butchering people who stand in the way of power, who sees these people as hardly people at all, as rather subhuman and served by his exploitation of them. It's a startling and somewhat uncomfortable story for that, for the casual nature of it, to the way that the ruler of a nation engaged in atrocities with the air of someone seeing to an ingrown toenail. I thought the story did a great job of building the tension, of introducing the strange machine, tested on unwilling Africans sometimes to the point of death, intended to "cure" the king of his affliction. And I loved that the affliction isn't something that can be cleared away so easily, that what the king achieves in trying to blind himself is only to galvanize the ghosts, to deepen his relationship to them. And the story does a fine job of showing just how coldly casual mass murder can be, not in the mustache twirling villainy but in the entitled and mundane corruption of privilege, here taken to the extreme of kingly excess. The horror arises from what is concealed, what is erased, for the power that such cruelty held and holds, for to think that such thoughts and beliefs that spawned the ghosts and misery here are banished to the past is a mistake, the voice of the king an echo from the past that returns to this day. A fine story!

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