The stories in this season’s issue are extremely well-written and an absolute pleasure to read. The stories themselves, for the most part serious or even melancholy, are built on fresh ideas or at least interesting twists on established ones. Their fantastical elements range from the overt—mermaids and magic portals—to the mere shimmer of possibility hovering just beneath their surfaces. Though the quality of writing in Shimmer is of a consistently high quality, a few of the stories sacrifice substance in the interest of style, and the result is that the reader is drawn in by the writing but then left confused or dissatisfied, unsure what, precisely, just happened.
The first story, “Bullet Oracle Instinct” by K.M. Ferebee, is one such story. It takes place in an unnamed country during an unnamed war. Martin is a journalist, and Wednesday is the photographer with whom he shares a room in a dilapidated, shelled-out hotel. The snipers in the building across the street keep the journalists pinned in the hotel, and time passes. The snipers wait and claim their victims. Soon it is only Martin and Wednesday left in this strange, war-riddled Hotel California from which they can never leave. The writing is captivating, but the ambiguity is perhaps a bit too thick at the end. What is the significance of Martin’s lack of dreams? Is he dead, a ghost? Is Wednesday? Is Wednesday Death? It’s left to the reader’s interpretation, which makes it much creepier, but also detracts from the build-up, the climax. The reader is waiting for a reveal, for Martin to put it together and find the answer, and he doesn’t. He’s trapped, still, by snipers and by his inability to grasp the truth, whatever it may be.
Erik T. Johnson’s “Labrusca Cognatus” is a very short story a father tells his son about his own father, a man who spent his life trying to kill himself because he believed that the right death would grant him unlimited power and riches in his next life. One day the narrator finds his father dead, a strange plant growing out of his heart. As he wonders about this plant, why it has no flower, what it means, what it is, he buries it—along with his father’s heart. This is the kind of creepy folktale you feel you’re supposed to learn a lesson from, but can’t quite figure out what it is. What about the grandfather’s quest for another life would cause a flower to grow from his heart, killing him? What seed is this that grows a plant without a flower? The writing is haunting, the imagery evocative, but the theme, like the plant growing from the grandfather’s chest, never fully blooms.
One of the best stories in this issue is “Gutted,” by L.L. Hannett. Erl doesn’t believe in selkies, but everyone around him does, and when his wife goes missing after confessing to an affair, Erl is pulled into searching the seas for her. In a world where fishermen hunt bloodthirsty mermaids and a wife’s absence can be explained—and believed—by revealing her mythological nature, the truth of what happened to Erl’s wife unfolds in a chilling fashion. From the matter-of-fact violence of the fisherwives filleting mermaids to the Poe-esque fate of Erl’s wife, “Gutted” perfectly blends the sordidness of everyday human behavior with the fantastical.
As suggested by its title, “Frosty’s Lament,” by Richard Larson, is told from the point of view of a snowman and even includes the obligatory references to the song. The snowman loves its creator with the fierce, passionate emotion of a lover, and because of this, it hates its creator’s wife. It was created the day the man discovered his wife was cheating on him, and we watch events unfold through the snowman’s eyes. It watches their lives through the windows, built to be a consolation in a dark time, and is cast aside as soon as it’s no longer needed. Unable to move or affect its fate, the snowman thinks about love, life, and existence, and all the while, spring approaches. A surprisingly emotional story—you don’t expect to be able to relate and identify with a snowman, but Frosty’s lament is same as every one of ours: the desire to have our love returned.
In “All the Lonely People,” by E.C. Myers, Sophie can see faders—people who are slowly being worn away by anonymity and depression until they fade into ghosts, trapped forever in the life that erased them in the first place. Sophie has dedicated her life to helping the faders—helping them find release and escape the fate of becoming a ghost. When Sophie spots a fader named Emily on the train and decides to help her, Sophie’s own life unravels in the process. The concept and writing are stellar, as with the rest of the collection, but we don’t know enough about Sophie’s relationship with her husband Rick or see them together enough for the emotional devastation of her losing him to the ghost state to have the effect it could. Sophie’s own fade at the end of the story is more poignant, helped along by some nice storytelling by Myers, in which a supposed plot device—a man who eyes Sophie’s chest on the train to notify the reader that she’s attractive—becomes much more. The title is also a nice reference to the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby,” who would have been a fader for sure.
“Haniver” by J.J. Irwin is one of the strongest in a collection of strong stories, and with its first-person narration, mystery, and murky morality, it takes on a noir feel. Mel is a haniver, a hybrid human whose DNA has been spliced with that of a snake. Her creator, Vic, made several hanivers, each a different type. A strange family, but a family nonetheless. But after a few accidents involving hanivers result in the loss of human lives, Vic disappears. Mel traces him to his latest laboratory and discovers Vic has created one last haniver, whose purpose is to kill the rest of them. Irwin unravels the world of “Haniver” in an excellent fashion, dropping tiny pieces of information like bread crumbs, enough for the reader to understand precisely is happening without clogging the story with exposition. The only exception might be Vic’s vague relationship with Paul, but Paul feels like a plot device anyway, so his back story isn’t that important.
“Dogs” by Georgina Bruce is a hard story to summarize. It’s told by a woman who has gone crazy—possibly—after the death of her lover and his dog. She suffers from headaches and nightmares, and her favorite thing in the world is a dog mask she made in art therapy. A mask she can no longer remove. With a narrator as unreliable as this one, it’s hard to be sure what happened in the past or what is happening now. And thus, while the writing is certainly lovely, “Dogs” suffers in comparison to the other stellar tales filling the collection.
Stephen Case’s “Barstone” is an American tall tale, in which a giant named Barstone, whose “momma had been a mountain and his father a thunderhead,” falls in love with a schoolteacher slight and fast as quicksilver. Every time she kisses him, Barstone gets slower, until finally he just never moves again. The earth slowly covers him, and Barstone becomes a hill in a park, which the narrator discovers one day while walking his three-legged dog. He talks to Barstone, learning bits of his story, and then one day he meets the granddaughter of the woman Barstone loved and learns the rest. A quietly melancholy story, as Barstone will never move again, despite the narrator’s urging. Case lets you know precisely what he’s up to by referencing Paul Bunyan, and while there’s no great climax or wrap-up, “Barstone” still sparks a flicker of nostalgia in anyone who grew up on stories about Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.
The collection takes on a lighter tone with “A Window, Clear as a Mirror” by Ferrett Steinmetz. Malcolm and his wife had a deal: If movie star Dakota Jewel ever knocked on their door, Malcolm was allowed to sleep with her. And if Julianne ever came across a magic portal, she was allowed to go through it. Malcolm comes from work one day to discover that his wife has left him—through a magic portal to the Sunlit Lands with a unicorn. All she left him was a magic mirror, but whenever he asks it “Who’s the fairest of them all?” it shows him Dakota Jewel instead of Julianne. In an attempt to understand his wife and why she left, Malcolm joins the Sweetwater Commune, full of people trying to live like the elves in order to attract a magic portal and go to the Sunlit Lands themselves. When that doesn’t work, he realizes Dakota Jewel is the only person who can help him pass through a portal to the Sunlit Lands to find his wife, and what he learns there changes him forever. The story starts off very humorous and tongue-in-cheek, making fun of fantasy novels and the people who obsess over them and wish they could live with the elves. But once Malcolm meets Dakota Jewel and enters the Sunlit Lands, the story’s emotional core takes hold, and the lessons that Malcolm learns are touching and surprisingly wise.
The issue ends on an absurd note with “Four Household Tales (as told by the Giant Squid)” by Poor Mojo’s Giant Squid, four short tales about a giant squid with a taste for human flesh. In the first tale, the giant squid and his student, Abram Lincoln, encounter a beautiful maiden at a broken bridge. In the second, the squid is on the Titanic. In the third, what happens to the giant squid in Vegas stays in Vegas, and in the fourth, the giant squid re-enacts the famous opening scene of Scream with an innocent babysitter. The tales are written in a purposefully convoluted, silly version of old-fashioned English which is trying to be as obtuse as possible. The overall effect is immensely silly despite the people who get eaten, and so while in that sense this story doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the collection, it ends this issue of Shimmer with a smile.