Purchase Calls for Submission here.
My dear unknown friend,
There is a secret history to this world. Selena Chambers knows this. Perhaps more importantly Chambers understands that fiction is the most potent tool at hand with which to chip away at the carefully constructed facade of official history with its building blocks of “progress”, “great men”, and “technological advances” shoring the bulwarks against the promised Hobbesian nightmare of slathering hordes of barbarians that wait to drag us from the gains made since the Enlightenment into the yawning pits of darkness of the new Dark Age. Selena Chambers’ stories ask “What if?” and perhaps even more subversively, “What could have been?” I admire Selena because her imagination is sharp and fierce and I feel that she understands our imagination is the most potent weapon at our disposal, one that should be loved, exercised and encouraged at every opportunity. Her new collection, Calls for Submission, delivers all this and more.
First it has to be said the title of this collection delights me. I believe the title is the first clue the prospective reader has to the vibrant wit and intelligence that shines behind the stories in this collection. I was also pleased to note that nearly every one of the stories within Calls for Submission had been previously published elsewhere prior to being collected in this volume. Selena Chambers has been in the game for a good number of years and her prose reflects this. Her writing is polished, sharp and economical while still painting evocative images. The volume’s opening story, “Of Parallel and Parcel,” is a pitch perfect example. I’d wager this story barely tops the thousand word mark yet it paints a beautifully wrought portrait of a historical figure we know only through the lens of others. Though I do not know Selena Chambers personally, from this story and others in Calls for Submission I would add “fiercely intelligent” alongside my earlier call of a fierce imagination. Except here we have someone who does not feel the need to telegraph their vast intelligence, footnoting their accomplishments and sources as they proceed merrily on their way. If anything Selena reminds me of Ghostface from Wu-Tang, content to sit back and watch others play themselves for the fool while they instead get down to the business at hand.
The variety of stories within Calls for Submission are a breath of fresh air. They can also be used effectively to subvert your expectations and pull the rug out from under you. “The Sehrazatin Diyoramasi Tour” is a great example of this, setting up the tropes of genre fiction, establishing behaviors and signifiers before whispering, “Have you ever considered?” to pull back the curtain on a much wider vista. While not ostensibly a horror piece, in fact it masquerades quite well as a piece of steampunk fiction, this is indeed two-step horror in that two steps after the realization takes hold the implications start to settle. As someone who feels saddened that the steam over shadowed the punk in the years following The Difference Engine I found this piece with its entirely unsettling premise delightful. That Chambers starts the story by riffing off of The Mechanical Turk before playing with themes of photography, politics and the Ottoman Empire once again points to the fierce intelligence I wrote of earlier.
“Dive In Me” written with Jesse Bullington shows Selena Chambers’ strength with character driven stories. I have seen far too many one dimensional “alterna-teen” characters. Weird fiction is doubly prone to this problem for reasons I can not comprehend. Thankfully Selena Chambers’ characters suffer no such affliction. This tale of teenage girls egging one another on to find and dive into Suicide Sinks is a lesson in building a steadily increasing sense of dread while the girls in question maintain an entirely believable banter back and forth between one another. Too often the pendulum will swing the other way and authors have their characters become too cool, mouthing sentiments that no teenager in their right mind would ever consider. Moira, Spring and Gina bear no such problem. They’re definitely a trifle immature, still unsure of themselves, in other words they’re kids feeling their way in the world and thus the events within “Dive In Me” are believable. Most importantly you wind up liking these kids which makes the events in this story strike home.
“But this is Lovecraft eZine!” I hear you cry. Do not worry dear heart. “The Good Shepherdess” is a gorgeously effective tale about Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais and the Old Ones that dear lords I wish Mrs Chambers would expand into novel length. (Any of these three would be a welcome sight.) Besides the fact my wife insists I suffer from a Joan of Arc complex I have always been fascinated that she fought alongside Gilles de Rais. I am hardly surprised Selena picked up on this as well. Adding the Old Ones to the mix adds that last tiny bit of frisson that simply makes it hit oh so well.
“Remnants of Lost Empires” introduces us to the Bas Bleu, a shadowy esoteric organization interested in the work of “Sarah Pickman (1780-1810) an imminent member of London’s cognoscenti, claiming friendships with early Romantics like William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft.” Chambers is fully capable of creating such a character wholesale because such women are all too frequently forgotten in the annals of official history, or if they are remembered relegated to a footnote awaiting the curious investigator.
“The Neurastheniac” shows again the fingerprints of the Bas Bleu Sisterhood. This time they are interested in Helen Heck, a poet who left behind “incomplete and fragmentary unpublished notebooks, collectively known as The Neurastheniac”. The story documents Heck’s arrival in New York to attend Barnard College, her discovery of The King in Yellow in Columbia’s library special collection and her subsequent trespassings on the abandoned and decaying Winthrop Government Lethal Chambers. What follows reminds me of a combination of Gabrielle Wittkop, Leonora Carrington, and Francesca Woodman, a harrowing journey indeed.
As usual I have not scratched the surface of the treasures that await you within Calls for Submission. From the wine tasting notes of “Vintage Scenes” that scatter the collection, the longer devastating piece “The Last Session” that showcases Chambers’ deft hand with character’s voices or the simply haunting “The United States of Kubla Khan” that ensured I will never listen to a Lawrence English piece the same way again, Calls for Submission is more than a collection of short stories. It is the showcase of a writer with a deliberate and considered world view, intensely honed craft, and a calculated message. My only hope is the next work I read by her is of novel length.
Soundtrack for this review:
Purchase Calls for Submission here.
Main article photo by OleAarnes. See more of their photography here.
This review by Acep Hale.