Fearful Symmetries


I have just received FEARFUL SYMMETRIES: edited by Ellen Datlow, as purchased from Amazon UK.

ChiZine Publications (2014)

Stories by: Gemma Files, Nathan Ballingrud, Bruce McAllister, Gary McMahon, Pat Cadigan, Helen Marshall, Terry Dowling, Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Evenson, Jeffrey Ford, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Robert Shearman, Michael Marshall Smith, Kaaron Warren, Laird Barron, Catherine MacLeod, Siobhan Carroll, John Langan, Carole Johnstone, Garth Nix.


My previous review of an Ellen Datlow anthology: Wild Justice.

30 thoughts on “Fearful Symmetries

  1. A Wish From A Bone by Gemma Files
    “Yeah. ‘Cept back then they were still one angel in seven parts–“
    And here from this book I promise I shall seek another type of gestalt from several minds’ endeavour – stories separate yet one. The Meet Book. Not the X Files but the Gemma ones – a story, writ in a mysticism-carnal John-Cowper-Powys texture that appeals to me, a story that tells, for me, of another adventure template (amazingly coincident with two other stories in two other books I read earlier today and ‘sigiled’ here). This template (however otherwise different these three stories happen to be from each other) is an adventurous scientific or paranormal search by those who are half-spearcarriers, awaiting the coming of monster(s) … But here the text is writ within and without their souls amid war zones where they do their research. All rather telling and worthy of further dwelling on, especially today with Isis and other religion-steeped conflict. Yet, it is also a Big Brother TV reality game, it seems to me, where each eviction is gradual and filtered in both directions of that filter between self and self’s conjoined monster or angel.

  2. The Atlas of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
    “…the language of deep earth that curdles something inside me, springs tears to my eyes, brings me hard to my knees.”
    There’s something I don’t get about this story but I know enough about this story, having just read it, to be pleased at least that I don’t get it! It has the aura of a brutal, conniving city gangster ethos that migrates to the swamps outside the city, where books and skulls are not distinct from each other and where Whovian metal boxes allow insulated migration from Hell itself, ending with a boy dangling these boxes like huge lanterns … or gas masks? It seems a perfect follow-on from the previous story but, as yet, I know not whither all this is taking me… A reading journey is only complete when every bit of that journey, that is still unread, has later been taken further into eventually complete hindsight.
    The Ballingrud language here is like bone containing blood and vengeful vistas, apertures, double dealing, all sweetly searing inward. My previous review of one of his books here.

    siobhan shearman kiernan kaaron warren mcmahon barron ellen langan nathan cadigan caitlín

  3. The Witch Moth by Bruce McAllister
    “You could catch big fish in the bay, as if no one had ever fished for them before, and so they trusted and bit and you pulled them in.”
    I feel like that when fishing for leitmotifs in stories and books as I gestalt real-time review them. I still have fish to fish in the Files and Ballingrud, fish that may match up with those fished here in childhood’s naval military base and bay, by the protagonist boy and his little brother, grandmother, mother, moth… And father. In this wonderfully ‘slow’ childhood story where meanings are slow like the use of the word ‘slow’ for a 14 year old girl. The meanings, though, do dawn on you, but maybe wrongly as you grow up, and you wonder if those ‘fish’ were ever there at all.
    Resonates with the concurrent mother and father syndromes in two concurrent real-time reviews respectively here and here. And the ‘slow’ childhood synaesthesia here, where the moths are wriggly things.

  4. Kaiju by Gary McMahon
    “As a boy he’d loved monsters. As a man, he wasn’t so sure how he felt.”
    That seems to hold a whole resonance of meaning as does the whole of this quite short story, deceptively so. The monster here reminds me of Godzilla (and God seems appropriate, God as self), but also a monster called a ‘storm’ – because a monster is frequently not a discrete thing, but a mass of things, a scatter of nagging physical and mental items, real or imaginary or wishfully thought up, gestalted, like my evolving reviews, into a single monster that perhaps plagues or plays us all? The plot is a possible type of outcome from this book’s first story’s shared template of “seeking and/or waiting for a monster” type genre fiction expeditions to create real dangerous things you somehow need doing or done to you. And so it resonates on… Ka as Kaiju.
    (My earlier reviews of McMahon fiction are linked from the foot of the page here.)

  5. Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up? by Pat Cadigan
    “…there were a few tiny bumps on the surface of each cross that was supposed to be the body of Christ.”
    I got so far into this almost whodunnit-type, couples-at-a-college-prom-dance story, I nearly stood up. Compelling chatting at me by the narrator girl got under my skin – as if I should be interested in such a scenario as Neighbours or Home & Away in faraway land called USA – but whether it was that girl’s skill or her leasehold author’s, she trapped me in this story with her gradually darkening chatter, with its take on religion and how it can be mutated… The victim as victimiser. And I at least began to understand why this whole book is called ‘Fearful Symmetries’ – and then I suddenly remembered reading and reviewing here this author’s story entitled ‘A Lie For A Lie’ (‘If there were any justice in the world, the two would cancel each other out, or at least balance.’” – “Like I said, what people won’t do for love or money, they’ll do for religious reasons.” ) and then I understood even more.

  6. In The Year of Omens by Helen Marshall
    “‘I thought so too,’ Leah whispered, but Inez had already taken off in a perfect backstroke toward the deep end.”
    There is a deep end to this haunting story plus, not a shallower, but a lighter end, too. This resonates with the previous story and its young girls’ scenario of relationships and life’s new adventure upon the cusp of the period between certain ages that is actually a deep cusp. Here, either a single drawn-out sound or a bodily stigmata (like the mound on the cross in the previous story but now His vague face): omens of an impending something that is welcomed, a sort of release. Awakening to a first kiss, the girl, I wonder, becomes part of a fearful symmetry between ‘omen’ and ‘nemo’?

  7. The Four Darks by Terry Dowling
    “I’ve always felt it was people, certain people, who drew things to them. Or are drawn to things, people, places.”
    This starts as a psycho-theosophical Socratic dialogue in a Tarr & Fether scenario, one that reminds me of when I first read, four decades ago, Alice A Bailey’s books on Esoteric Astrology. But it does end as an effective horror story: a bit like cracking open the mystery in Twin Peaks. When I just read this story, I knew I was meant to read it! A new preternatural symmetry that reminds me of my own concept of the Ligottian knot or ‘ligottus’ – here synchronously developed by Dowling as the Fuligin Braid. And I think I should have added ‘fuligin’ to the earlier list of words I happened to append (I then knew not why) when writing my review above of ‘The Atlas of Hell’ where I also said I knew not whither it was taking me. I think I know now, though. Seems part of this very act of writing gestalt real-time reviews…
    “But ideas are of their time, and valid connections being missed fill recorded history as much as wrongheadedness and outright errors do:”

      • Reference here to ‘The Four Darks’ and the passage quoted from it shown below, when later discussing ‘Geschäfte’ by Scott Nicolay.

        “His contention was that we evolved essentially as creatures of light, that the whole biological purpose for sleeping, actually needing to become unconscious in order to rest properly, was to protect us from night’s two pro-active, disordering powers. But the final strand is the one that’s most interesting. It’s where an actual artefact is produced, a night artefact in a sense.”

  8. The Spindly Man by Stephen Graham Jones
    “It gave the spindly man more excuse to stare her up and down. To–and this was the only word for it–malinger.”
    I have just read and reviewed here in the last few days a book entitled ‘Malingerer’. Not only a lovely word for those who hang about in fiction knotting and unknotting it, but also for something that indicates sickness without it being sickness at all if they can just stop pretending. This story is about a bookclub studying a famous story by another Stephen that I reviewed a few years ago here when it was published in the same anthology book from which I also reviewed (here) a story by the Stephen who wrote ‘The Spindly Man’, a Stephen who possibly uses a middle name to differentiate himself from yet another Stephen, a third Stephen who gathers stories, too, to be judged and realised as a gestalt… And that all sort of fits with this haunting tale – and with triangulating the same story with one’s own real story, including the bookclub’s leader’s story of driving his son toward a car accident….
    I have long publicly advocated gestalt real-time reviewing (or as I now call it ‘dreamcatching’ books) by all readers who read each book or story, so as to triangulate its core meaning from every angle and temperament of readership. But we still must tread carefully, because one day the triangulation or structure will be complete, and the story’s horror will stand in front of us all.
    Remember what is said in the second Stephen’s ‘Little Lambs’: “Because he’s afraid of the structure ever getting complete?”
    But we must never stop pretending, malingering, finding symmetries.

  9. The Window by Brian Evenson
    The author’s surname just autocorrected to Evensong… This short short seems initially just a run-of-the-mill, if suspenseful, intruder-at-night (is it a ghost of a burglar?) story, as the narrator later tells his friend, but who’s his friend? An imaginary friend like Jesus or a real human friend? The intruder seems to have luminescence from within, but there is a preternatural feel, as if it is that shapeless mound from Cadigan’s religiosity charm, or the ‘Omens’ stigmata, like the dark streetlit window that provided the earlier luminescence but now another window the cause of the halving stigmata… yet, I now genuinely feel this is the ‘night artefact’ from the 4 darks quoted in a sub-sub-comment above. It all fits in.

  10. Mount Chary Galore by Jeffrey Ford
    “She was lit from behind and the glow made her seem some kind of spirit.”
    Following that Evensong effulgence, a frenetic nightmare ensues almost gratuitously at the end of this ointment-spreading tale where madness makes things seem ‘right’ – and, although not a story that particularly appeals to me nor one that strikes me as holistic, it does, however, seem to be ‘holy’ in the accretive sense heretofore in this book, explicitly ‘touched with God’.
    Three of McAllister’s ‘slow’ children, now deemed ‘deputy angels’, are commissioned by the preacher to spy on the ointment lady and her familiar smoking hog – and their troubled childhood, including attempted underage sex as paralleled by their own regrouping parents’ relationships, is a tale for our times very much along the same underage-theme lines of another story, one by Ralph Robert Moore that I synchronously read and reviewed yesterday here.

  11. Ballad of an Echo Whisperer by Caitlín R. Kiernan (an author I also reviewed HERE)
    “You write the things, the least you can do is read a few.”
    I feel I am a sort of Echo Whisperer myself, not only reading the sort of things I write, but colluding (echoing?) with each one in its role as a separate work as well as within a wider gestalt. Can one whisper on the Internet…? I whisper that this story, for me, doesn’t fully work, although it does succeed in conveying an Aickman-Proustian ‘The Same Dog’ haunting, a heady and scenic atmosphere of New Orleans etc., of a railway journey, and, by use explicitly of one of my own favourite words (“retrocausality”), an intriguingly combined revisit and visit, by dream and non-dream, to a devastating event that affects this male ‘writer of things’ and his co-traveller Anna. Like filters can conceivably work both ways, so does a traintrack, I guess. But which way is which? Which of them reads Thomas Hardy? We are never sure. A fearful symmetry, indeed.

  12. Suffer Little Children by Robert Shearman
    “‘I pray to God each night that you’ll love me,’ he said.
    ‘God can’t answer prayers like that.'”

    Not so much a ‘Turn of the Screw’ theme-and-variations but more an ever-tightening of it by dint of this whole book’s ‘holy’ context, like that boy from Hell in the Ballingrud dangling boxes…
    The story teems with larger than life ghost story tropes and teeters on the edge of going over the horror genre top, but it succeeds in frightening – just. A governess turned schoolmistress with a backstory that only gradually becomes clear after she changes trains at least four times before reaching her new job in an out-of-the-way school, eventually with a fearful symmetry between her past and present. There is a sort of endlessly extrapolated classroom spelling-beam based on arithmetic rather than words, a terrifying tightening tontine (literally)…the story’s central masterstroke.

  13. Power by Michael Marshall Smith
    “Fast, incisive, final. It’s how I operate.”

    # I have power. Structure as robot.
    # All components are functioning.
    # All above apps aligned.
    # Previous book monitoring to contribute:
    …each eviction is gradual and filtered in both directions of that filter between self and self’s conjoined monster or angel.
    Ka as Kaiju.
    siobhan shearman kiernan kaaron warren mcmahon barron ellen langan nathan cadigan caitlín fuligin
    A terrifying tightening tontine – each eviction is gradual
    …afraid of the structure ever getting complete.
    (I still have fish to fish…)

  14. Bridge of Sighs by Kaaron Warren
    As if dodging the help of that erstwhile Marshall Smith robot saviour: “…he took up swimming, long laps along the bottom of the pool, eyes open.”
    This Warren is one of those perfect stories more than barely rarely encountered in books here and there, as if, here, infused with Dowling’s theosophical ‘fuligin braid’, the protagonist of this story is himself infused with his mother’s attempts to reach the Bridge of Sighs, each sigh a mist that holds a moment of life during, even after, death, a series of soft not hard suicides that he captures for his stand-up or helped-to-be-stood-up ‘funeral parlour’ tableaux for each bereaved client. And there is a ‘mist’ here, among others, that will last the reader for more than just one moment, if not forever: a perfect, almost sexual pearl between a still birth and its wet nursing…

  15. The Worms Crawl In, Laird Barron
    It seems with the ending comma as part of the title that the heading on the page makes the title refer to or run into the author’s name if not the author himself…and indeed I guess this is gobshite alpha male stuff compared to the nancy boy ghost stuff in the previous story.
    “Pasted in gore and excrement, crowned by a garland of intestines, I strike a Jesus Christ pose…”
    Against my inclination, though, I actually began to like this story, despite its easy glitch for orange and black cock-of-the-hoop speech rhythms, unholy revenge, and sexual recrimination, as told from the actual point of view of an accretive zombie Kaiju, against assholes and an insect woman of the garish mags. I first approached this story “like a God-fearing Catholic fondling his rosary” and ended up tangled in its fucking “fubar” Fuligin Braid…

    This story says: “I loved monster movies as a kid. Don’t all boys love monster movies?”
    Gary McMahon’s story earlier in this book says: “As a boy he’d loved monsters. As a man, he wasn’t so sure how he felt.”
    I wonder how the More Dark Man feels. My ancient review of one of his earlier books here.

  16. “I wonder how the More Dark Man feels.” That must be rhetorical. How one feels about monsters is inextricably bound to how one feels about people.

    • Thanks, Laird. A wise reflection – and thought-provoking with regard to your story.

      Me above: “…filtered in both directions of that filter between self and self’s conjoined monster or angel.”

      Dowling above: “But ideas are of their time, and valid connections being missed fill recorded history as much as wrongheadedness and outright errors do:”

  17. The Attic by Catherine MacLeod
    “I love that crunch when the last piece goes in.”
    I love, too, the final piece of each Dreamcatching gestalt real-time review as I complete reading for it (as I will eventually with this remarkable book), the last piece always seen in hindsight as “hiding in plain sight”, just like the jigsaw puzzles in this story, real as well as metaphorical jigsaw puzzles, piecemeal puzzles tantamount to a cut-off, cut-away community’s bespoke religion as taken from The Book of Corinthians, a religion (“About families making sacrifices for each other.”) that makes me want to encourage you to read alongside this story another story in a different publication, one by Sara Saab that I synchronously real-time reviewed an hour or so ago here; the two stories really do unconsciously complement each other. Astonishing I happened to read and review them only an hour or so apart!
    As a standalone, this story really does work well, too, with the character of the pursued woman wayfarer who ends up in this community, her hair-stick marriage to one of the men who lived there, her poignantly forced violations of humanity’s rules, her inferred wittily, downbeat clipped expressions as narrator quite revelatory in their power, as well as her impulse to break the community’s mysterious taboos like wanting to see an attic simply because she had never seen one before!

  18. Wendigo Nights by Siobhan Carroll
    “‘The air is full of ghosts.’ She delivers this information as though it were an ozone reading: a fact, visible to us all.”
    From the Attic to the Arctic. Not only an ozone reading, but also an osmosis one, where the words infect us with the same insidious power as by which the plot infects its characters…? This, like the book’s first story, is at first glance another adventure Whovian template of gathering characters working or investigating (here in the Inuit Arctic), characters whom we have enticingly adumbrated for us, their template as threatened by some inferred monster. Here it is a canister given forth from these melting Arctic wastes…or a “Holy Grail”, a container, like this book, that emits holy as well as unholy, where a combination of both is more powerful than either.
    A story blending, inter alia, the mist ghosts of Kaaron Warren and the ‘retrocausality’ of Pat Cadigan; we gradually work out what I feel is Eucharistically threatening these characters, except, intriguingly, their retrocausality is not linear in any particular direction…as part of the aforementioned infection? I shall read this story again one day.

  19. Episode Three: On The Great Plains, In The Snow by John Langan
    This substantive story is beyond my pay grade to review. But here goes. It presents a roaming man and woman, as it were, somehow touring the realms of a version of Hell in haunting theatrical conversational exchange, even Joycean monologues, and this Hell is tantamount to our own world, where Toynbeean history (American history, here) confronts recurring challenge with recurring response, symbolised by a battle against this book’s earlier Kaiju (Langan: “There is something that pulls itself up skyscrapers with one hand while swatting airplanes with the other.”), a battle fought by, inter alios, this book’s Spindly Man icon (Langan: “When the man, this old-young man in the black suit that has a vest, too, speaks, his voice is a distant shriek,…”) – and the honest horror dread again is for whenever the structure becomes complete. The structure of this book. And I merely repeat what Langan writes in this text: “Monster, it is then.” as well as “are you an angel?”…and “Who was it said that hell is repetition?”
    There is much more in this work, like speculation on this being a game being played alongside his young son (now grown up) amid this book’s Attic body parts or its Arctic eating of them. As I say, it is beyond my pay grade to judge, other than to judge it’s probably a classic.
    My earlier detailed reviews of Langan books: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/the-wide-carnivorous-sky/
    https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/04/19/mr-gaunt-and-other-uneasy-encounters/ the latter containing a story entitled: ‘Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers’.

  20. Catching Flies by Carole Johnstone
    Before dad left to make new babies with Sadie-who-tries-to-make-me-call-her-mummy he’d give me piggybacks around the landing and dangle me upside down till I screamed ‘uncle!’…”
    Normally there are no flies on this author, but, discounting the fact that I might have been spoilt by what I have read of her work before, this one seemed all of one mood colour, with too many catchphrase horror word-refrains to convey the oblique nightmare of this young girl’s childhood, her Roman Empire roleplaying on the chaise longue, her broken parents, her Grandma, the dark fate of the next door neighbours, her little baby brother and her eventual Kafkaesque captivity in a room with a single bulb. It is, nevertheless, a memorably grim vision, and it did serve to make effective cross-literature contact with, for me, a replica of the unusual cry of “Uncle!” (as an agreed word for someone to stop torturing you) in a story by Ralph Robert Moore that I reviewed here a few days ago in a magazine wherein also appeared another Carole Johnstone story.
    My many reviews of Carole Johnstone’s previous work are linked from here.

  21. Shay Corsham Worsted by Garth Nix
    “Ludicrous words, but proven by trial and error, trial by combat, death by error.”
    I love that crunch when the last piece goes in. A retrocausal kickstopper.
    Not as I expected, but an amusing, almost literary absurdist, scherzo of a coda to the foregoing book, where two old men fight each other with ludicrous codes, and horror finally and satisfyingly slips from our fingers like scissors. At first I thought it was a theme and variations on the Evenson intruder theme, but it became an Aspergers-breaker, offering a ‘variable’ for the earlier ‘Hell as repetition’ routine. “Sounds rather Biblical”, completing the jigsaw of holy and unholy, angel and monster, separate as well as conjoined.

    An anthology threaded with my single personal gestalt, yet presenting a whole varied range of horror genre styles and themes.

    The feel of this sizeable book itself is bendy, rough, and chunkily handleable, fading in and out with smeary rust and coal colours, making it seem like a modern Bible, one to carry around and bring out in city bars to show to strangers, and say: this is horror. Plenty horror.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s