I never paid much attention to Kelley Armstrong because it looked like her books are mostly of the paranormal romance variety, but I’ve just started reading Subterranean Press Magazine, and she has the leading story for the Spring 2014 edition (you can download the whole edition for free in epub or mobi format, or read the story on the Subterranean Press website). I now have to take another look at her books, because “The Screams of Dragons” is fantastic.
Bobby is a strange, unsettling little boy. He’s cold and distant. He never laughs, never plays, never feels happiness, except in his dreams of golden castles and green meadows. He also dreams of screaming dragons, after he hears a story about a king who suffers three plagues, one of which is the screams of fighting dragons.
The dragons start keeping him awake, but he thinks it best not to tell anyone about them. Instead, he tells his grandmother about the good gold and green dreams of castles and meadows, which are beautiful but leave him sad and frustrated when he wakes up. This turns out to be a dire mistake. His grandmother decides that Bobby is a changeling, and she uses cruel, folkloric methods to prove it. The evidence seems perfectly clear to her, but makes no sense to anyone else because Bobby reacts to the tests like any other child would.
You feel a brief sense of relief that the grandmother is dismissed as a superstitious fool, but things only get worse for Bobby. His family comes from some unnamed ethnic group, and his parents – who try to portray themselves as modern and educated – are ashamed when people start to see them as ignorant peasants. His grandmother starts abusing him, making up reasons to beat him or send him to bed hungry. His irritating little sister Natalie (he calls her the Gnat and she really is a horrible little thing) delights in his grandmother’s abuse and sometimes tries to make it worse. His parents don’t want any more trouble so they just ignore it all.
Rather than get angry, Bobby just tries to bear it, and even feels sorry for how fearful and desperate his grandmother can seem. But the abuse takes its toll. He is different, and starts to feel like he doesn’t belong in the family. The only place he does feel, if not happy then at least content, is in the town of Cainsville, where his mother’s family comes from. In Cainsville, people appreciate difference. The adults there take Bobby seriously, talk to him like an adult, and treat him as special. The residents seem particularly unusual themselves and either have supernatural powers or treat such things as the norm. Hannah, a little girl that Bobby likes to play with, can communicate with animals. Her friend Rose has some kind of prophetic sight. Bobby isn’t that unusual – he doesn’t have any powers as far as he can tell – but he fits in in Cainsville in the way he can never fit in at home or at school.
However, Bobby does get increasingly strange and undoubtedly sinister, if only in self-defence. It’s understandable, based on the way he’s treated by his grandmother and his sister, the bullying at school, his parents’ refusal to help him or even acknowledge that anything is wrong. At the same time, you have to admit that his dreams are strange and is connection with the mysterious town of Cainsville seems important. You have to wonder if there’s something seriously (supernaturally?) wrong with Bobby, or if he’s just an odd kid corrupted by people who torment him or ignore his suffering?
I could never answer that question and that’s one of the things I like most about that story. You can’t unravel the mystery of Bobby’s psychology and you’re left to wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t told his grandmother about the dreams, if she hadn’t abused him, if his parents tried to help him, if the people of Cainsville had taken a more active role in his life instead of just asking if everything was alright at home (he always says yes), if Bobby made different choices, if, if if.
The way things turn out makes for a great story in itself though, and there are lots of things I loved about it. Firstly, a creepy child, one of my favourite horror tropes. And this is a horror story – a psychological one. That’s another thing I like about it. Armstrong uses just the right amount of restraint, achieving the ideal balance (for me, at least) between revealing information and hinting at underlying terrors. It produces tension throughout the story, making it an excellent read.
“The Screams of Dragons” is a prequel story to Kelley Armstrong’s novel Omens, a paranormal mystery. It’s the first in her Cainsville series and the second book, Visions, is due to be published in August this year. While I’m still not keen on her paranormal romance titles, Armstrong obviously knows how to tell a good story, so Omens immediately went onto my tbr list.
One last thing before I go – I’m really excited about Subterranean Press Magazine. How did I not notice it earlier?! I’ve been following Subterranean Press for a while because they publish collector’s editions, which I’ve recently started investing in. So far, I’ve only bought Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente, but I kicked myself for missing out on the trade edition of her collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams, (although there’s still a limited edition for $60) and I’ve got my eye on Equoid by Charles Stross.
Anyway, I knew Subterranean has free fiction available on their site, but I never got around to reading any because I prefer reading on my Kindle than a computer. But they have a quarterly magazine that you can download for free, in either epub or mobi format. They amount of talent they’re showcasing is just incredible, with stories from some of the best authors in the field – Catherynne M. Valente, Ted Chiang, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nnedi Okorafor, and loads more that I can’t wait to discover.