Dark Magic – Witches, Hackers, & Robots – A Short Story Anthology edited by Emma Nelson and Hannah Smith, 2016
This anthology truly gives you your money’s worth. At over 26 stories, it provides exactly what it promises – stories about Witches, Hackers, and Robots. The strange juxtaposition of these categories is intriguing and delightful to read. I won’t review every story but I will say a few words about most of them. When I originally wrote the individual summaries and reviews, I found myself saying “very well written!” over and over, so just assume all these are Very Well Written!
Cleaning House – When a witch is aging and looking for a way out, what better place to find a new lease on life than in the body of a greedy but nubile niece? Short, well written, and very satisfying.
White Stones Of Bosherston – I love these stories where the expected ending isn’t the ending you get at all. A young woman attracted to Halloween and rustic villages is invited to a peculiar All Hallow’s Eve party where she’s to play a pivotal role in their bloody festivities. Unfortunately for the cannibals of Bosherton, she’s not the innocent sacrifice they were expecting. Great twist.
Annabella’s Apartment – A young woman’s smart apartment is trying to drive her insane, and her nosy landlady and her addiction to cough syrup aren’t helping. One of her problems decides to take care of the other. I don’t usually care for stories where the first person narrator is merely a watcher to the action, but this is pretty scary stuff.
Therapy – Rob’s a doctor’s assistant and is having trouble with his memory. Could it be because he’s a homicidal robot? Surely the doctor can cure him of his Angel of Death fixation like she did the last seventeen times. Nice dialogue story.
The Boo Hag – Paint your window frames indigo blue, put a bristle broom beside your bed, and you might wake up in your own skin tomorrow. Unfortunately, the boo hags are allowed to keep one person’s skin per year, and the non-believer from California is the likely target. Great monster (whether original or not), and excellent depiction of disbelief. The POV shift at the end is a little bumpy, but I don’t know how else the writer could have handled it.
Saint Katja of the Bloody Hands – One of my favorites in this anthology because it felt like I was reading a novel: good bad guy, great supporting cast, excellent world building, believable conflict and drama. Katja wakes from virtual reality, convinced she’s still in a game. A competitor in the game-writing business has stolen her mind, but she uses her friends’ skills as well as her own to beat him at her own game. Very believable amnesia scene as she discovers things when we do.
Heartless – I’m a sucker for hard science fiction short stories and this one is really good. Case, a terra-former and lone occupant of Mars, receives word that colonists aren’t coming to Mars, but a giant military cruiser is coming instead. He also has to shut off all the robots on the planet, including his good friend Alex. Case is between a rock and a hard place and has never been one to rock the boat. Great characterization.
Stages of Grief – A clever story of a woman who moves into a small town after her daughter dies. Expecting a change of scenery, she’s greeted by nosy neighbors bearing false sympathy. Finding an old diary in the attic, she’s surprised when she reads that one of her neighbors dies from being beheaded. She’s even more shocked when she reads the newspaper the next day and finds it’s true. In the days that follow, the diary reveals more names and more neighbors die grisly deaths, always drawing closer. An expected but highly satisfying ending.
Feedback Loop – A robot able to mimic human emotions has a lifetime association with a young man who exploits the robot’s pre-set error ratio. It’s all fun and games until they are paired on a planetary survey and someone loses an eye. Excellent job of telling the story from the android’s viewpoint.
Things Are Old There – A young girl grows up in a neighborhood with a strange house. One summer, she and the girl who lives there become friends, and the girl discovers her neighbor is a greenwitch. Unfortunately, once the witch’s secret is revealed, she has to leave. A great allegory for the loss of childhood, and lovely descriptions of the old house and the beautiful witch.
Mexico City – One of the darker tales, this one doesn’t actually take place in Mexico. A mysterious man provides gamers with customized virtual experiences – their own deaths, hell, and perversion. But the price is too high for the players and the creator. I’d like to have known who the mysterious caller/handler was. Satan?
Customer Service – In a world where autobots are the only recourse to solving a problem, a man is convinced everyone is a robot and attempts to take matters into his own hands. Short but impactful.
Gregory’s Tree – Another short story that felt as meaty as a novel. A haunted tale of what happens when a sleazy writer sells himself as a Satanist expert in a town where they still hang witches on an ancient tree in the town square. Great feeling of dread for the rest of the sinful world at the end.
The Qubit Jesters – Short tale of what happens when the internet takes over our daily lives. Nothing is secret, no spam, no ads, and the internet insists we’re “merely jokes arising from their minds.”
Wasteland – Sad and visual tale of a poor robot after the end of the world. His final command was to walk east until he achieves a satellite link to upload its data. Unfortunately, there are no satellites, only desolation and…wasteland.
Callia – An immortal witch, serving darkness, offers a young man the opportunity to reunite with his dead beloved. She does as promised, but the cost to the young man is horrible and eternal. These bringing loved ones back from the dead stories never seem to work out. “Leave your tombs earthed, people!”
Fascinator – A young man buys a machine guaranteed to provide him with realistic fantasies. At first it gives him non-stop sexual fantasies, interfering with his work and health, but soon he’s completely addicted and experiencing murders and strange encounters with a family he doesn’t have. Nice morality tale.
Those Robot Eyes – An oppressed house robot learns to astral project during long periods of inactivity. He fights for and possesses his master’s human body, forcing his former owner into the robot. When he calls the service center to have the defective robot taken away, he’s surprised to learn lots of robots are experiencing the same difficulty. Clever ending.
Forget Me Not – In the future, policemen are redundant as the web tracks crimes, criminals, and their consciousnesses. Randall, a cop recently engaged and fired, finds a back door to the web’s list of people who can’t be tracked and adds his name so he can become an untraceable burglar. Unfortunately, he also erases himself from his friends’ and fiancé’s minds. Like a good Twilight Zone episode.
Behold Her – My favorite tale. It’s very convoluted but worth the ride. A doctor, rescuing colonists in stasis on an ice planet, discovers one who looks like his dead mother. He erases the colonist’s memories and replaces them with his mother’s, but nothing feels right when the woman awakens. Then a great memory scramble ensues and everyone has a moderately happy ending even though no one is who he or she thinks they are. It’s much better than my summary, trust me.
Beating Seventeen – A very graphic, atmospheric story but a lot of magic for a simple ending. Seventeen, named after his mother ran out of names before she ran out of children, has some unbeatable dice. His challenger takes them to an old woman who unbewitches them and rebewitches them to only work for the challenger. Great ritual scene.
Salem – What if you were a young girl growing up in colonial Salem with the ability to predict the future? Might not be a good thing. Great use of first person, and a strong ending to an eclectic anthology.