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Danged Black Thing
by Eugen Bacon

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 20, 2024

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Eugen Bacon is a African-Australian writer. Born in Tanzania, she previously lived in the UK before settling in Melbourne. Danged Black Thing is a finalist for this year's Philip K. Dick Award, winners of which will be announced next month at Norwescon. That award is for original paperback publications in the US, but it was previously published in Australia in 2021, and was a finalist for both Aurealis and Otherwise awards. The page counts for each are different, so I am not sure if the contents were the same. One of the stories, 2021's "The Failing Name," was a World Fantasy finalist on its own. More on that one later. Seventeen stories in all, possibly a novelette or two, but most are short stories, a couple of them flash fiction. It is a good thing the book is short because I felt the need to re-read it right away, and probably should have re-read each story before moving on to the next. I'll admit I am not always the most attentive reader, but these included terms and concepts of which I was unfamiliar. Oddly enough, my favorite turned out to be one of the more confusing ones. The stories range from general fiction to fantasy, horror to science fiction, with a few that defy categorization. Several end abruptly, without a resolution, daring the reader to visualize what comes next.

The first story, "Simbuyu and the Nameless," is somewhat related to Cthulhu. Tragedy and death follows a boy, who may be possessed by a demon from when he encounterd what he thought was an octopus when he was a child. "The Water Runner" sees a woman traveling to where deaths have been reported, since credits are given to families for allowing the collection of the body's water for community use. "Phantasms of Existence," one that ends without resolution, features two women who visualize their child before birth. In "Unlimited Data," a man convinces his wife to have a chip implanted which will provide him with more data usage for his phone. Complications ensue. "A Pod of Mermaids" is about the mythological figure of Angerboda (alternately Angrboda or Angrbođa), consort of Loki, mother of Fenrisúlfr. She comes to Earth to nurture a child, yet Loki always interferes, with her choices growing up to be genocidal dictators; Idi Amin, Francisco Macías Nguenma, Félicien Kabuga, among others. Skipping ahead to one of the later stories, Idi Amin recurs in "De Turtle o' Hades." I'll skip a few others, one I'm still puzzling over, then one of the flash pieces, along with my favorite, which I will return to. The main character in "She Still Visits" is a woman who came to Melbourne on an academic scholarship, but she didn't come alone. The spirit of her dead sister made the journey with her. "A Visit in Whitechapel" is a mix of science fiction and a possible fantasy/dream sequence, since if I read correctly, not everyone could see the aliens. Maybe it was just a meteor that fell, the aliens only in the imagination of the children.

The previously mentioned award finalist, "The Failing Name," was written in collaboration with Seb Doubinsky. It first appeared in Fantasy Magazine in 2021. A young girl meets a boy when she rescues him from a man who was attacking him. She doesn't see him again, can't even remember his name, but years later, with the help of a lock of his hair that he gave her, she tries to recreate him by shaping a body out of dough. It might have worked better if she could remember his name. Skipping a couple of general fiction stories, we come to "Danged Black Thing," which was co-written with E. Don Harpe. A woman buys a used laptop for her husband, one which appears to be possessed by a seductive spirit named Embu. He becomes obsessed with it (her?), being very secretive and protective of it. The woman tries to throw it away but it keeps coming back, along with some other possessed devices that want revenge. The woman in "A Taste of Unguja" is separated from her husband, and from her child. That may be because she is unstable, but we only get her perspective. She sets out to confront him, carrying a heavy stone she will use as a weapon, but is instead distracted by a small bird, a nightjar, which directs her to a mysterious restaurant. While there she sees the spirits of several of her ancestors. When she leaves she has decided she will not attack her husband, but instead figure out a way to get her son back, then her husband will be the one wandering the streets of Melbourne alone. Another science fiction story closes out the collection. "Forgetting Toolern" is set in future New London. Soya meets Toolern, a wild-eyed Englishman who supposedly travels throughout the galaxy in his ship that looks like an old ice cream truck, he and his travel assistant Emma continually saving the universe from various threats. Soya decides she has to forget about him, and another suitor, since neither is willing to commit to a relationship.

I should mention I received a free digital copy of this collection direct from the author. Not sure why she offered, but maybe due to a couple of previous reviews of other collections, and I was happy to oblige since I have wanted to read her for a while. She also offered another title which has been on my wish list, and I hope to get to it soon. The novel Secondhand Daylight was written in collaboration with Andrew Hook, with whom she also wrote my favorite story in this collection, "Messier 94." As I said above, it is a confusing story, but it is mesmeric, kaleidoscopic, fascinating. To give you an idea of what I mean, here is the opening paragraph:

"I was passing through an altered line-up of suspects removed from linear time, but none revealed their wind or percussion, not even a state of mind. What I needed was a shift that happened inside out, outside in, something fixated on call and response. What I needed was zoom, possibly in never out."

The story's title refers to the spiral galaxy, also designated as NGC 4736, in the constellation Canes Venatici. I cannot say why the viewpoint character mentions it in reference to her own situation. She is (I think) a psychiatrist trapped within her own therapeutic computer simulation, eXplo. Some of the people she encounters may be her patients. But what of the blood on the door handle? I won't say more, since even though I've read it twice, I need to read it again. And probably again. It is still very good in spite of my confusion, worth your time to explore. I won't rank the other stories, but can also recommend "A Pod of Mermaids," "She Still Visits," "A Visit in Whitechapel," "The Failing Name," and "Danged Black Thing." I am sure there are others that will be someone else's favorites. Thank you, Ms. Bacon, for trusting me with your work. It will not be the last I read.

 

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Author
Eugen Bacon

Published
Stories: 2012-2023
Collection: June 20, 2023

Awards
Finalist for:
Philip K. Dick Award
Aurealis
Otherwise Honor List

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