"Something Insidious and Natural"
Reviews of "Keeper of the Plains" by Allison Wall and "The Cold Side of the Island" by Kali Wallace
If I am lucky enough to have your attention than I can be fairly certain of two things. First, you are likely reading this on a computer and second, you are familiar with the three basic types of conflict in fiction. Miss Rutherford, my sixth grade English teacher, explained these basic conflicts in each plot as either: man vs man, man vs himself or man vs nature. In speculative fiction, this last point can be widely varied because our protagonists don’t only come into conflict with nature, but they also must wrestle with the supernatural. In the two worthy short stories I am reviewing herein, we have characters that come into conflict with both the natural world and the supernatural world. In both cases, it is the natural world that is more insidious.
“The Keeper of the Plains” by Allison Wall (Aphelion Webzine, August 2016) and “The Cold Side of the Island” by Kali Wallace (Asimov’s, December 2016) are both stories which describe a meeting of nature and the supernatural. What I enjoyed most about both stories and what linked the two stories for me was how the authors envisioned nature. Both authors describe nature, not as some distant wilderness like the Yukon or Walden Pond, but they find nature just over a guardrail or in the stand of woods behind a grocery store. The wild, for both Wall and Wallace, is in walking distance of your house and just over a fence. The two authors also succeed in describing small patches of urban or suburban wilderness with a sense of something greater; magical wonder as in Wall’s story or a gothic sense of dread as on Wallace’s island.
Though I loathe admitting it, I spend most of my time in safe heated rooms with electricity, wi-fi and maybe a domesticated animal or two. I often feel in control of my environment and all this impressive technology doesn’t feel magical, it feels mundane. But when I walk away from the pavement, the house and the artificial lights my inner child expects to find something fantastic in nature. If you are a fan of speculative fiction, ghost stories, and mythology than I bet your inner child also expects to find something magical in the woods. The heroines of both stories succeed in encountering something magical in those little patches of wilderness that are just over the bridge or behind the coffee shops.
Of course, we all know this feeling of disconnect with nature is an illusion or at best temporary. Nature can assert itself at any time, and Wall and Wallace recognize the ultimate supremacy of nature. In the two stories, it is nature that is the villain. Nature is cancer, nature is a tornado, nature is a snowstorm, nature is aging and nature is not having control over your world. As Wallace puts it, nature is insidious. So in a world with both the supernatural and the natural what does the supernatural have to offer us?
Allison Wall has imagined an America where wizards are pseudo-celebrities who stand at the intersection of humanity and nature. In Witchita Kansas, where Wall’s story takes place, there is a joining of the big and little Arkansas river and at that location resides the titular wizard, the Keeper of the Plains. The Keeper is a wizard who’s job it is to untangle ‘disparate energies’. He explains his job this way,
"You find 'em (disparate energies) where two things meet. Where the wind meets the clouds. Where the rain meets the earth."…"Where one river meets another. Hot, cold. Earth, sky. Wind, rain, but you can pull them apart, run 'em through you, use their energies. Harvest, harness."
But while he claims to be able to untangle the forces of nature the Keeper does have his limitations. He is scruffy, basically homeless, smokes, gets drunk before noon and has trouble paying for a cup of coffee. (So your typical hipster with artistic pretenses). This trouble paying for a cup of coffee is what brings him into the story, as he is forced to leave an I-O-U on a napkin for a barista at a trendy coffee shop.
The barista, named Olivia, is the main character of the story and Olivia’s struggles drive the story forward. Olivia’s mother has a stage 4 lymphoma, terminal cancer, and Olivia has an I-O-U from a scruffy, hard drinking homeless-looking man who people call a wizard. The conflict comes not from whether or not the wizard can cure Olivia’s mother, but whether or not Olivia will bring herself to hope that the Keeper of the Plains will cure her mother.
In the “Cold Side of the Island” we also have a woman coping with an ailing mother, and who has an encounter with a supernatural force in the pockets wilderness that exist alongside coffee bars, gas stations, and our backyards. Whereas Olivia encountered the supernatural at the confluence of rivers on the other side of a guardrail, Lacie (Wallace’s protagonist) encountered a subtlety supernatural being in the forests on the unpopulated side of the New England island on which she grew up.
Where Olivia was being forced into independent adulthood. Lacie is moving into middle age. Lacie's story begins with her getting stuck in a snowstorm while trying to drive home for the funeral of a High School friend. The death of this friend had further meaning because this friend had shared in Lacie’s encounter with the otherworldly being. Without wanting to give anything away, I believe that Wallace’s story falls squarely into the gothic tradition of storytelling. All the events in “The Cold Side of Island” are tinged with supernatural menace. But as in “The Keeper of the Plains” the true danger in “The Cold Side of the Island” comes from time, aging and disease. In both stories, the supernatural represents hope and the promise of a larger world, and in both stories, the characters are unable to escape reality.
What drew me into the stories, and why I recommend them both, were the careful descriptions of the settings and how the authors used those descriptions to set the tone for the stories. In “The Keeper of the Plains” spring is coming as are storms and thus the setting reflects what Olivia needs to accept: that time is moving forward and she can no longer avoid the tragedy in her own life. In the “The Cold Side of Island” everything is frozen, claustrophobic, and hints of death. For Lacie, the youth of summer, her encounter with the eldritch force, and the powerful sense of possibility and ambition that encountering the force imbued upon her is just something remembered. The characters each learn that magic can’t keep out reality, but perhaps it can help one cope with it.