farragoblog (farragoblog) wrote,

Behind the Wainscot: 5.2 Post Industrial Fantasy


   [ “absolute translation” (detail): Peter Schwartz ]

   Post Industrial Fantasy: Part 2
   [ Guest editor: Paul Jessup ]


   "The Post Industrial Fantasy Anti-Manifesto," Paul Jessup
   "Philannion," Paul Jessup
   The Secret History of Moscow, an excerpt E. Sedia

The Post Industrial Fantasy Anti-Manifesto

[ Paul Jessup ]

      A manifesto is about being disgruntled. About being unhappy with the state of things as they are. Manifestos are about angst, about changing the status quo into some better thing through revolution. It is about replacement, about change.
This is not a manifesto.

     A manifesto in F/SF (and oh! are we so full of them) usually proclaims X way of writing fantasy (or science fiction) superior to all other forms. It is about taking the current stagnation of form and replacing it. Overthrowing it. New Wave! New Weird! Cyber Punk! Ribo Funk! Mundane SF!

     The list goes on and on. People trying to change things. To enforce their viewpoint onto others. Claiming legitimization and power over forms that they have felt have gone stale, stagnant, or bored and boring.
This is not a manifesto.

     What happens when a manifesto in F/SF loses steam? What happens when that great big market swallows it whole? It creates a subgenre. It takes all that fire, all that change, and boils it down into bite sized chunks and makes it marketable. In the end it is submerged, the genre changes.

     The manifesto gets its way. People read the fiction inspired by it. People argue, people are up in arms—and then, then, then…the work ages. Faster than fast, people move on. The genre absorbs it, becomes different because of it. In a way, the manifesto wins. The writers change the genre. But what happened?

     It lost all its teeth. The writers have moved on. Now it's a category, it's marketable. Other people write in it, but the revolution is gone. The revolution has moved on. And all that fire, all that teeth—it doesn't seem as important anymore. But the genre is changed. For ill or good, it moves on. Different than it was before.

     This is not a manifesto.

     Consider this, instead. What about cutting right to the chase? What about moving past all that fire and heat and just accept the end result? What about creating new subgenres instead of manifestos?

     That's what this is. It's not about burning fire or teeth. It's not about unwashed masses of F/SF readers struggling against the mass market banality that is being served to them daily. This is about what happens after that manifesto is eaten and swallowed whole. This is about an idea for a new subgenre.

     Imagine, if you will, a subgenre of fantasy where occultism is studied by the writer like science for hard science fiction or mundane SF. Of course, I'm not talking about believing in that superstition—rather, there are so many untapped stories and ideas in that mythological soil that it is a shame to leave it untapped.

     Imagine a fantasy that is in a contemporary setting, with contemporary problems. But things are different, in ways we can't understand. Lots of little and big things are immensely different. Magickal things seem commonplace. Normal every day things seem magickal.

     Imagine a fantasy were mood and character and theme all take precedent over all else. Characters are the reason for the plot, the reason for the action. Plot is what happens when the characters react to one another.

     Imagine a fantasy with teeth. Imagine a fantasy with fire. Imagine a fantasy with attitude. Imagine a fantasy with nihilism of cyberpunk strapped into an occult frame.

     Imagine a fantasy with complex narrative structures that bend past the normal linear problem–solution setup. That the whole structure itself is part of the story, that the narrative is as important as character, as theme.

     Imagine a fantasy that stays in your brain, changing you after you read it.

     Imagine a contemporary fantasy without faeries, or stealing Native American mythology and spiritualism. Imagine a fantasy that uses surrealistic imagery to taunt the reader and subvert the reader on a symbolic level.

     Imagine a fantasy that is Lynchian in its dreamlike realism. Imagine a fantasy that is like a trance. Imagine a fantasy where the rhythm of the prose is worth celebrating on its own.

     Imagine a fantasy with hidden worlds, tucked into the corner of our contemporary reality. Imagine a fantasy where people in the rural areas and the urban streets go exploring in large ruins of industrial factories and broken down old warehouses and sanitariums.

     All together, I see this as some new subgenre. One I can't explain. It's not the same as slipstream—it has different results. But they do share some similarities. Welcome to the Post Industrial Fantasy un-revolution. I call it an un-revolution because in its heart it is not a revolution, it is not a cry for change in the heart of the world. It is a way of expressing ourselves. Maybe not a new way, but a way that needs to be used.

     I'm sure I'm treading on ground that many others have tread on before. I'm sure this is nothing new. That is why this is not manifesto. That is why this is something else. A manifesto and a revolution require belief, cult-like intensity and flame wars and arguments and wars and battle lines drawn in the sand. A subgenre is a tool; it is another way of expressing something a writer needs to express. And Post Industrial Fantasy is a tool for our modern world, for a way of seeing things and talking about things that need to be talked about. About the decline of the Industrial world. About the state we leave ourselves in after our life has moved on. There is no permanence anymore.

     All the more, we slouch forward, slouch onward. Into our next lives. And we need to talk about it. We need to discuss it. Post Industrial Fantasy is a way of doing this.

Quick definition for Post Industrial Fantasy:
Contemporary fantasy
Edgy. Nihilistic. Has attitude.
Prominence of Urban Exploration
Occult magic based on real world magic research
Characters, prose, mood, and theme paramount
Non traditional narrative structures
Surreal/Dream-Like/ Trance-Like

     As part of this series for Behind the Wainscot, I offer a mini anthology: four stories, each one exploring Post Industrial Fantasy in its own way, in its words, in its own methods. Each story is drastically different, yet at the same time they carry on a conversation. A conversation that is at the heart of each Post Industrial Fantasy work.

These stories are:
The Proslogium of the Great Lakes
by Catherynne M. Valente

The Histories of Now
by Jonathan Wood

by Paul Jessup

And an excerpt from The Secret History of Moscow
by Ekaterina Sedia
[ Prime Books, November ]

[ top ]

Paul Jessup has been published in many magazines, including Apex Digest, Fantasy Magazine, Farrago's Wainscot, Post Scripts, Electric Velocipede, Psuedopod, Flashing Swords, Nanobison, Journals of Experimental Fiction, Jacob's Ladder and the Harrow. He is also the recipient of the 2000 Kent State University Virginia Perryman Award. He currently edits with his wife the bi-annual magazine GrendelSong.


[ Paul Jessup ]

     Toby’s mother died during the week. Nobody could tell you the exact day, since all of the days ran together like rain across the car windshield. On the way to her funeral Toby tried to remember her face, and could only remember the book on string theory that was in her lap when it happened.

     His pants were ironed. Black pants, nice, neat with creases along the sides. He knew his mother would like to see him like this, knew his mother would call him a handsome little boy. She wouldn’t be mad that he forgot her face. She would be proud of him. Toby, Toby, her handsome boy, her mad scientist in a child’s skin.

     His dad said nothing on the way to the funeral. He just looked out the window at all the cars around them and the rain slick and shiny on the street and storefronts, meditating on a world that would let his Chloe die in such a way. When Toby wasn’t looking he would chew on the fingers on his left hand, picking at the calluses with his teeth.

     Open casket. Toby knew he would forget his mother’s face, forget her features. Instead of relying on photographs he turned to math, turned to the thing that had killed her. He memorized the vectors of her face, the equations that would create the lines around her mouth and the crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes.

     His brain calculated ways of rendering her hair. Brown and curly, each wave a different function, each strand its own unique array of numbers and information. He pushed all of these equations into his mind, and found he could pull them out at will, and by remembering this he could remember her.

     A plastic ball rolled up to Toby’s knee as he sat on the floor, trying to draw the equations of his mother’s face on graph paper. It came out at first like random geometrical shapes, perfect platonic forms. He looked over at the ball, and realized that it was wet and smelled like rain water.

     He picked it up and saw his dad standing in the doorway of his bedroom, grinning at him. He had finally shaven off the rough stubble that lined his face and was dressed in a sweater and corduroy pants. “Hey, champ,” his face glittered wet with rain, “You remember this? Your mom gave it to you when you were six.”

     Toby looked at it. All he could remember was its circumference. No other memories were attached to it. Just a little hand reaching out and measuring it with early eyes. “Yeah, I guess.”

     His father walked up to him. His shiny dress shoes left a trail of water across the floor. “What you got there, huh? Drawing something?”

     Toby wanted to pull it back, hide it, crumple it up into a little ball and shove it under the carpet. Instead he hesitatingly held it up. All those perfect forms, that platonic geometry that sketched the start of his mother’s face. His dad’s eyes looked at the page. A hollow glance, a haunted glance. A trigger of a memory.

     “You drew this?”

     Toby nodded.

     “I’m thinking of us moving. Somewhere else. Too many ghosts here. Too many things that remind me. Of. Of, well, of her.”

     Toby looked back at his drawing and felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Rough grip, strong, fingers biting down into skin and shirt. “I want you to design the house.”

     He did not know what to say. So Toby did not say anything. “I’ll take your silence as a yes.”

     It started simple. The basis of the house—the math of his mother that he had memorized so long ago. Then he layered it with other things, mystical algorithms he found in books on numerology, astrological charts overlaid on top of the primitive arithmetic of her face and body, frozen in his mind at the moment he viewed them in her casket.

     It took many painstaking hours. Toby did not sleep, did not go to school. For a week he worked, with barely any breaks to eat or to read on some new, interesting ideas that he could mold into the house. I am making a trap, he realized. A trap for my mother’s spirit.

     When he was finished he nearly collapsed. He dreamt that night of voids between spaces, of emptiness at the heart of all things. He dreamt of entropy, of the universe slowly burning out. When he awoke he was covered in sweat and could smell molded plastic and burning rubber on his sheets.

     When Toby’s dad first saw the finished house he felt afraid. The old man saw strange shadows moving through the bizarrely entangled corridors, saw doors appearing where there hadn’t been any doors before. He was more afraid of this house than anything before in his life.

     But his son—his son’s eyes glittered with love. His son walked through every room, comparing it to the map he had laid out so carefully. It had been a long time since he had seen his son smile. He never realized that he had missed it until now.

     It did not take them long to move. Amazing how little they had acquired over the years. Mostly some furniture, some odds and ends, scattered books on infinity and Carl Gauss. The new house was too big, too sprawling and mazelike to hold such little things. It felt empty.

     His dad went out and bought a few new paintings, to try and brighten the place up. One that had appealed to both him and his son was a picture of a girl holding some flowers in a rain storm. Behind they could see the ruins of a castle, outlined in fog and mist. It was by a local artist. His dad hung this in the living room, accented by chaotic beams of wood jutting out in different angles.

     A Closer Look at the Painting:

     The girl has blonde hair, ratted and uncombed. In her hands is a bouquet of wild flowers. Random assortments picked from the landscape around her. She wears a blue dress that is clean and unpatched. Around her neck is an upside down triangle on a necklace.

     Her eyes are exaggerated. Alien. Full of sorrow. Her mouth is half perched into either a scream or a moan of ecstasy. Her hands are calloused, her fingers worn to the bone and bandaged.

     Every blade of grass is painted in. Every peeking flower, each and every feather of the dead birds that litter the ground in the distance. The ruins are the front half of a castle, the architecture eaten away. On the ground are shapes made of wood. Some simple, some complex. Most are a part of this house.

     The first time Toby’s dad saw the figure he thought that it was a trick of the light, a movement from the oddly shaped shadows. The second time he followed the form, tracking it throughout the house. He thought it was a burglar, or someone sneaking in.

     But the form was familiar, female. When he caught a glimpse of her face, hidden coyly by overlapping shadowy triangles, he had nearly screamed and ran out of the house. It was her, his Chloe.

     After that day he laid in wait for her ghost. He sat in the hallway, chewing on the tips of his fingers, sometimes breaking the skin as he sipped on his coffee. His vigil was nonstop, he feared sleep would somehow break the spell, somehow send her back into the land of mists and death.

     Toby had not seen the ghost of his mother, and he feared that his magic had not worked. He listened to the whispers in the shadows, and wondered if there was any way he could’ve gotten it wrong.

     He noticed his dad at night, chasing ghosts and ignoring anything else. He wanted to reach out, to comfort his dad. But in the late hours the world takes on a different light, everything changes and becomes darker. More sinister than ever before.

     In those hours he laid in bed, listening to the shadows whisper and the sound of his dad’s footsteps running throughout the house, missing his mother and wondering what he could have done wrong in the designs.

     His dad went missing. Toby knew that he was lost in the house, trapped within its changing rooms and mazeling landscape. He wanted to crawl through the moving doors and find him, but was afraid that he would get lost as well.

     Instead he took the painting down from the wall and scurried back to his room, spending hours just staring at it. Hoping to see something inside the folds of the drawing that would change his world, change his life. Bring his mother back from death, bring his father back from the bones of the house.

     While staring at the painting a wet ball came out from the hallway, bouncing into his room. He picked it up and stared out into the darkness, remembering the circumference of the ball and the vectors of his mother’s face trapped within the architecture.

     He stood up, holding the ball in his hand. “Hello?”

     No response. He looked down at the painting and saw that it was empty. A blank canvas. Startled he ran out into the hallway and smelled burning rubber and felt numb fingers running up and down his skin.

     “Hello?” he called out.

     From the shadows came a small girl with bandaged hands. “My name is Philannion. And I am your next door neighbor.”

     Toby smiled. In his mind he overlaid the arithmetic of his mother onto her, and saw that they were in agreement. That the equations were equal on some base and primitive level. “Hello. My name is Toby.”

     She nodded. “I know. What happened to your dad?”

     Toby shrugged and walked with her into the living room. In the light she changed, her features moving. She looked both like the girl in the painting and his mother, yet like neither of them at the same time. She looked ageless and young. He could not pin her down.

     “I think the house ate him.”

     She laughed.“Aren’t you afraid the house will eat you too?”

     Toby looked around and got a strange sensation from the ill cast shadows on the walls. A void. He remembered his dream, and felt the house moving. The walls grinding. He looked up and saw bits of the ceiling shifting, and wondered if the house was hungry.

     “No,” he said, “I’m not afraid.”

     The girl shrugged. “Maybe you should be.”

     She walked up to him and stared into his eyes. He felt a stirring beneath the skin, and the motions of his first love crawling around in his chest. “I guess so,” he said, and leaned in and kissed her.

     Above the house shook and random dust from grinding wood and concrete created a moving mist in the air.

     An hour later and Philannion walked through the wreckage of the house. The abstract ceilings and floors lay like broken limbs, scattered dust hovered in the air. The house made no sound as it collapsed, released no noise at all.

     She walked through the rubble and felt like she was on the moon. The walls half eaten, the architecture crumbled and empty. She heard Toby crying out for help, heard his father muttering and whispering in the shadows. She pulled up pieces of shattered roof and walls, opened doorways but could not find either one of them.

[ top ]

Paul Jessup has been published in many magazines, including Apex Digest, Fantasy Magazine, Farrago's Wainscot, Post Scripts, Electric Velocipede, Psuedopod, Flashing Swords, Nanobison, Journals of Experimental Fiction, Jacob's Ladder and the Harrow. He is also the recipient of the 2000 Kent State University Virginia Perryman Award. He currently edits with his wife the bi-annual magazine GrendelSong.

[ website ]

The Secret History of Moscow

[ Ekaterina Sedia ]

an excerpt

I. Galina

     She had long pale fingers, tapered like candles at the church. She swiped them through the flame of a match carefully at first, feeling nothing. Then she held them there longer, expecting them to drip and melt. Instead they turned red and blistered, and she withdrew carefully, watching the skin peel and stand in tiny transparent tents on her fingertips. She was already thinking of a lie to tell her co-workers to explain the blisters. Iron. Sizzling, spitting oil in the skillet. Napalm. She laughed at the thought. Napalm is never reassuring, and only reassuring things made for good lies—food, ironing, domesticity.

     There was a knock on the bathroom door. "Galka, are you asleep in there?" Masha asked. "Come on, I have to go."

     She blew out the match. "Will be right out."

     "Are you smoking in there?"

     "No," she said, and opened the door.

     Masha, pink and sweating, bustled past her, brushing her enormous pregnant belly against Galina, already hiking up her housecoat.

     Galina exited hastily. Masha's pregnancy bothered her—not just because she was only eighteen and not because Masha's husband to be was still in the army, serving the last of his two draft years. The impending arrival of the squalling pink thing that would steal the remnants of her sister's affection away from her hurt more than she would dare to admit—their mother and grandmother were so excited about the baby. Galina pretended that she was too and burned herself with matches when nobody was watching as a punishment for being so selfish. She hoped she wouldn't get into trouble again.

     She blew on her fingers and headed for the room she shared with her mother and grandmother; Masha now had a room of her own, all the more reason for resentment and consequent weeping at her own monstrosity. The grandmother was away, at the hospital again and perhaps not ever coming back home, and the mother was on the phone in the hallway. Galina relished the moments of solitude. She stretched on her bed and listened to the familiar noises of the railroad outside, and to the mumbling of her mother's voice in the hallway. Quite despite her intentions, she listened to her mother's words.

     Of course she's too young, the mother said. But better too early than too late, and you know Galina: she's an old maid, and I doubt there would be any grandchildren out of her, and really, I wish she would just have one out of wedlock, nowadays who really cares? I know she won't find a husband and I've resigned to that. But if she would just have a baby. . . . Oh, I know, I told her a million times. But she's stubborn like you wouldn't believe, and I doubt any man would put up with that for long.

     There was nothing there Galina hadn't heard before—to her mother, men were rare and precious prey that had to be snared with cunning and artifice. Galina couldn't remember when was the last time their conversation hadn't turned into a lesson in making herself attractive—how she should dress nicer, and mouth off less and smile more. Maybe this way she would hold someone's attention long enough to get knocked up. Neither mentioned the premise of these speeches—that Galina was unlovable without artifice and deception. She tried to avoid talking to her mother lately. But the voice in the hallway continued.

     I just don't want her to turn into a bitter man-hater, her mother said. Last time when she came home from the hospital (she could never bring herself to say 'mental institution') I had hope for a while. But now . . . I don't know if she should just go back or if there's nothing they can do to fix her.

     Galina remembered that day, when she had returned home, still swollen from sulfazine-and-neuroleptics cocktails they plied her with. The injection sites still hurt, and she resolved then to never do anything that would cause her to go back. She never told anyone about the things that flickered in the edges of her vision—strange creatures, awful sights. The mental institution was an extension of her mother, punishing her every time she disappointed. She chose her mother's dull torment over the acute pain of needles and the semiconscious nightmare of neuroleptics. She still felt guilty about her lies.

     She pushed her face deeper into the pillow and pulled the pillow corners over her ears to block out the voice from the hallway. But it was too late—the fear had already kicked in, urging her to run, run far away, to protect herself. Like when she was a child (the only child), and there was a driving fear that the life she saw around her was all that awaited her in the future, and she wanted to run to avoid being trapped in the soul-killing routine of home and work, of TV, of acquiring things for the sake of it. How she longed to escape then; now, the desire was given a special urgency by her adult awareness that there wasn't anywhere to run to. The books she loved, the promises of secret worlds turned out to be lies.

     And then there was a scream—she thought it was a cat at first, a neighbor's cat with a stepped-on tail complaining loudly of its bitter injury, and Galina wrapped the pillow tighter around her head. Then she realized that the cry was not feline at all but human. A baby.

     She tossed the pillow aside and ran, her socks sliding on the smooth surface of hardwood floors. The cry was coming out of the bathroom, and Galina pounded on the locked door. No answer came.

     Her mother, the phone abandoned and dangling from the little table in the hallway, banged on the door too. A small woman, her fists struck the door with enough force to shake it. Galina stepped back.

     "Don't just stand here," her mother snapped.

     Galina ran into the kitchen. There was an old chest of tools their father left before he departed for environs unknown, and she searched for it, slamming the cupboard doors, her panic growing with every little door opened and slammed shut in disappointment. She finally found the chest on top of the china cabinet, and grabbed the largest screwdriver there was. Armed, she rushed back to the bathroom door, where her mother was still banging and the baby still cried inside.

     She pushed her mother out of the way and struck the door by the handle, chipping away long slivers of wood over the lock. When the lock was exposed, she pried it open.

     The baby, umbilical cord still attached, lay on the floor. A squirming purple thing her mother rushed to pick up and rubbed with a towel. Galina's gaze cast about, between the white porcelain of the toilet and the chipped rim of the tub. Vanity. Mirror. Window. The window is open. But no Masha.

     Her mother was too preoccupied with the baby to notice her youngest daughter's disappearance. Galina looked out of the window, as if expecting to see Masha hovering by some miracle eight stories above the ground. The air in front of her was empty, save for a lone jackdaw that circled and circled.

     She stood on tiptoes, half-hanging out of the window to see the ground below her, afraid to see it. Through vertigo and the waves of nascent nausea she saw the asphalt below—empty, save for a couple of stray cats and a clump of old ladies on the bench by the entrance. The jackdaw cawed and flapped its wings. It circled over Galina's head, demanding attention; it landed on the windowsill and cocked its head, looking at Galina with a shiny black eye, its beak half-open as if it were trying to talk. Its dull feathers looked like iron.

     Galina felt the world careen under her feet, and the incessant crying of the baby and her mother's plaintive voice fell away, the jackdaw's eye trapping her in a bubble of silence and awe. "Masha?" she whispered with cold lips. "Is that really you?"

     The jackdaw hopped closer and nodded its head as if saying, yes, it is me. It is me.

     "No," Galina said. "It cannot be. I don't believe you."

     The bird cawed once and hopped of the window's ledge. It fell like a stone until it almost hit the dead asphalt below; then it took wing and soared higher, obscuring the sun in the pale September sky.

     The sounds intruded back, and Galina winced and pressed her fingers, blistered on her left hand but untouched on the right, to her ears, and turned around.

     Her mother sat on the floor, the wailing baby cradled in the sagging folds of her housecoat, and cried. Her voice rose to a high-pitched scream, oddly matching that of the newborn infant, as the realization of her loss enveloped her. "Masha, Masha!" she cried, and the birds outside answered in angry shouts and caws.

     "She's gone, Mom," Galina said. She never mentioned the jackdaw. She didn't want to go back to the hospital.

     They called it the golden autumn, and that Monday morning Galina could see why. The poplars lining the road on her way to the bus station turned yellow overnight, shining like the gilded onions of the churches in the old city in the slanted rays of the morning sun. The air had just a hint of the autumnal bitter taste to it, and Galina smiled, squinting at the bright colors of the trees and the sky until she remembered.

     She did not want to go to work today, not with the misery back home; she felt like a traitor this morning, leaving her mother who looked startlingly frail with the bundled baby, among the diapers that needed washing and bottles of formula.

     "Just go," her mother had said, her ire visible. "If you lose your job, what am I going to do with you then?"

     Galina realized then that her mother was angry that it was Masha who disappeared—the youngest one, the normal one. She got ready for work.

     She worked in the center of the city, in the old part of it, where everything was historical and beautiful. Even there though new life in the shape of kiosks sprung up on every corner—they sold magazines, cigarettes, books, Tampax, pins, film, booze, eyeglasses, school supplies, handbags and t-shirts, and were manned by loud people who wouldn't leave the passersby alone.

     To get to her place of employment, a small science publisher, she had to navigate the underground crossing that used to be so wide and free but was now crammed with endless kiosks and beggars. In all her life Galina hadn't seen beggars until recently; she wondered where they came from, and left whatever money was in her pockets in paper cups extended to her by thin hands, on the homemade trolleys—board and four wheels taken off a child's abandoned toy truck—that carted about old men with no legs, dressed in torn, disintegrating army fatigues, as if they had existed like this since 1945. Some of the cripples were younger, and she guessed them for Afghan vets; she avoided meeting their eyes, as if the things they'd seen could pour into hers somehow, travel to her heart, and freeze it forever. She averted her face and tossed the loose change blindly, in a vain effort to assuage her guilt.

[ top ]

Ekaterina Sedia's first novel, According To Crow, was published by Five Star Books (Thomson/Gale). Her second, The Secret History Of Moscow, is coming in early 2008 from Prime Books. Her short stories sold to Analog, Baen's Universe, Fantasy Magazine, and Dark Wisdom, as well as Japanese Dreams (Prime Books) and Magic In The Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books) anthologies.

[ website ]

Farrago's Wainscot is an exhibition of weird, strange, bizarre, interstitial, or otherwise liminal fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and experimental forms.

Behind the Wainscot is a companion blogozine to the larger Wainscot exhibition, exploring similar ideas in smaller, more fragmentary segments.

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