Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

October 19, 2013

TMoRP Day 3 – Stories by Ian McHugh (January)

To kick off my month by month look back at the best short stories I’ve read this year, I’m going to immediately break my rules. I said I was going to take a look at a single story for each month, but for January 2013 I’m going to look instead at two stories by a single author. The man in question is Ian McHugh, who is one of the luminaries of our Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. But I’m not writing about him because he happens to be a mate and a bit of a mentor, but because he wrote two flat-out terrific stories that I happened to read in January this year.

The first was Bitter Dreams, which I read in the Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy Fifth Annual Volume. Up until recently, editors Bill Congreve (and sometimes Michelle Marquardt, though not this particular volume) put out one of these collections every year. The title kind of gives away what’s in them, and from my reading of three of the five volumes available, they are well worth picking up for a good cross-section of writing in the speculative genre. The Year Five volume (covering 2009 publications) is pretty damned dark, though, be warned – most of this particular issue seems to be dark fantasy or horror.

But this is about Bitter Dreams. Bitter Dreams is a slice of colonial-era dark fantasy, using the extremely haunted alternate Australia setting he’s used in a few of his stories. Structurally it’s not unlike a wild west story, with a lawman putting together a posse of locals to investigate a murder and mysterious goings-on in an out of the way Victorian settlement. Of course, under McHugh’s sure hand, everything goes horribly, violently wrong. It’s a horror story with set dressing from Rush (he said, making a pop culture reference from, like, forty years ago. For something a little more contemporary, imagine The Tracker, but instead of Gary Sweet going bonkers, you’ve got extraordinarily hostile ghosts). Ian’s published it on his website, so you can read it yourself.

The second McHugh story I read was Red Dirt, which is currently available online at the Beneath Ceaseless Skies website. I read it in the Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year Three ebook compilation. BCS focuses on weird, fantastic (mostly second-world) fantasy, and nearly everything I’ve seen there is well worth a look. They have several best-of anthologies for four bucks in all ebook formats. They have my endorsement.

Red Dirt is set in an alternate history in which the Dutch have established a foothold on the Australian continent (Nieuw Holland rather than Australia) and are competing with the English for territory. As with Bitter Dreams, the ancient, terrible alien land is unconcerned with European politics. It seems determined to drive off the invaders, send them insane or just to eat them. This story concerns a French ship’s captain negotiating corrupt port officials, wayward crewmen and stalking, nightmarish dream-horrors. You may be startled to learn that, like Bitter Dreams, this story involvesĀ  gruesome encounters with the supernatural and a high body count, both typical features in McHugh’s writing.

Check ’em out, yo. They’re free, and they’re great!

August 16, 2013

AWWC 2013 – Review – One Small Step: An Anthology of Discoveries (edited by Tehani Wessely)

This is my 8th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. I picked up my copy of the anthology at the April 2013 launch at the Australian National Convention, Conflux 9.

One Small Step: An Anthology of Discoveries is a showcase of Australia’s current wealth of women writing speculative fiction. These 16 stories cover a range of genres, from far-future science fiction to dark fantasy, fairytales – traditional and post-modern – to police procedurals, and the odd foray into the weird. All tie into a theme of exploration and discovery – emotional, intellectual and sometimes geographic.

My experience of themed anthologies is that the quality can vary considerably, usually with one or two outstanding stories balanced out by mostly good ones and a couple of duds. One Small Step is better than that. The standard here is very high. The worst that I could say about editor Tehani Wessely’s selection is that a couple of them are excellent specimens of styles that aren’t to my tastes. Even the very few stories I didn’t particularly like were undeniably worth reading. (In fact the story I enjoyed the least in the collection was probably the most strongly written. My tastes don’t always line up perfectly with storytelling excellence!) I would note that if your speculative fiction appetite starts and end with hard science fiction of the spaceships and robots variety, there’s probably only one story – D K Mok’s “Morning Star” – that will suit. But it is a good one!

I’m calling out a few of my favourites here, but take my word for it that I’m not papering over any cracks in the collection. I’m prepared to bet that every story here would make someone’s top three. One Small Step opens with Michelle Marquardt’s “Always Greener”, a child’s encounter with strange aliens on a hostile colony world, a setup that seems like it could go anywhere but still takes an unexpected and bittersweet turn. Jodie Cleghorn’s “Firefly Epilogue” is a colourful evocation of the Australian tourist’s experience of Malaysia, again tinged with a sweet sadness. I adored Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Cold White Daughter”, a homage that nails its colours proudly and playfully to the mast, while re-examining a beloved childhood tale.

One Small Step is worth picking up for a good idea of what the current renaissance in Australian speculative fiction looks like at the moment. Smart, heartfelt and a little bit otherworldly. It works for me.

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