My rating: nine out of ten badgers
Shimmer is a magazine that publishes stories that might eat you alive. Some of them almost certainly will. Once a year, the editors put together a lovely physical collection of all the stories that have appeared in the online magazine, and as a contributor this year I was lucky enough to find Shimmer 2015 in my mailbox a few weeks ago. I waded in, knowing something about what Shimmer produces and happy to read more of it. Be warned though: if you’re looking for some light snacks, some fluffy fiction to help pass the time, this is not it.
These stories are real. They’re written with passion and razorblades. They have dark hearts, and they bleed. They might make you bleed as well.
The stories in this collection were a reminder to me that any time I think I have a handle on this writing thing, I need to go back to school, to shut up for a little while so I can have my heart torn out and handed back to me on a plate by other writers who are much sharper, smarter, and more alive than I am. Seriously, after reading these stories, I feel like my own are consistently written in crayon—or at best, smudgy pastels. (To be fair though, I’m quite proud of my piece that appears in this collection and feel it holds up pretty well, but that’s an exception.)
Shimmer is one of those rare markets that has a firm handle on exactly the sort of writing it wants to publish: science fiction and fantasy, ostensibly, but tending toward speculative fiction on the urban or dark end of the spectrum, with an iridescence that shades toward black. More than this tone though, a common thread in these stories is that they’re build not only on great ideas that would find a home on the pages of any fantasy or science fiction magazine but around characters that are alive in cultures or contexts outside your own tidy existence and that these characters and their perspectives bring a passion to their tales often missing from other more mainstream venues.
The opener for the volume, Malon Edwards’ “The Half Dark Promise,” provides an excellent example of this and a taste of what’s to come throughout the collection. On its surface, this story is about a girl with certain powers facing off against a monster in the dark, but it is clothed in the reality of a Haitian immigrant on the streets of Chicago. The language, the thoughts, the blood that flows through the story is that of Otherness and reality despite the fantasy premise. A similar example from early on in the collection is Alexis A. Hunter’s “Be Not Unequally Yoked,” which again takes a straightforward fantasy trope—the tale of a changling—but puts it in the context of an Amish coming-out story, Otherness turned on its head twice and shaken up a bit and again made real through its characters.
There are a few stories in the collection that could be considered more straightforward fantasy, but even these are done with a rich quality of content and tone, making them stand out in any collection. Of these, my favorites included “Of Blood and Brine” by Megan E. O’Keefe, in which O’Keefe creates an incredibly foreign but plausible world based on names and scents in a matter of pages. Another favorite because of the way it plays with nineteenth-century history of astronomy is “The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars” by Kali Wallace (and I hope Wallace tells us more about the Southern Star elsewhere).
Again though, what the stories in Shimmer 2015 do best is to take compelling ideas and clothe them in something more, a twist or a perspective that makes them land like a punch to the gut. “Monsters in Space,” for instance, by Angela Ambroz, is a piece about the naïveté of love against the politics of mining oil on the moons of Saturn. Likewise, “You Can Do it Again,” by Michael Ian Bell, is a gritty story of time travel that’s also about poverty, drugs, and the pain of a lost brother. “Good Girls,” by Isabel Yap, one of the most beautifully jarring works in the collection, is a monster story that’s also about friendship and girlhood and what it means to try to be a good when you are by definition one of the most frightening creatures imaginable.
I could go on: these are stories that are more than good. They illustrate what strong story-telling looks like today: taking fantastic or gorgeous ideas (like the idea of an illness that gradually turns you into a city in “Rustle of Pages” by Cassandra Khaw) and using it to hit you with the things you need to be thinking about (in this case, mortality and aging gracefully and love in the twilight of life). Then there are those that just push in the knife and twist it, like the absolutely eviscerating “Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale,” by Sunny Moraine, which takes the line from The Princess Bride song and pushes it to its darkest, most troubling conclusions—a story that literally eats you when everything bright in the world is gone.
I have a student who wants to be a writer, a young woman with a lot of passion who wants to put some of these into stories. I think I’m going to pass along my copy of Shimmer 2015 to her, because it’s a great example of the hardest thing about writing great fiction: you can’t just have good ideas and you can’t simply present those ideas in a compelling manner. More than this, especially today, you have to bring a voice and a passion—a perspective, usually in the person of one of your characters—to this whole endeavor that makes it come alive. Sure, some stories might survive on the merits of their ideas alone, but as Shimmer shows, the stories that come to life and grab you by the throat are the ones in which the characters carry you outside yourself with their own perspective, so you can see the world and all its incredibly, iridescent darkness and beauty, through their eyes.