A Review of Three-Lobed Burning Eye #39

Ariel Marken Jack on the magazine of horror, wonder, and the weird

Cover art by Rew X

I take a very particular kind of delight in magazine issues that, even if they are not labelled as special or themed issues, seem to be tied together by a thread of commonality running from one story to the next. Issue 39 of editor Andrew S. Fuller’s iconically strange online speculative fiction magazine Three-Lobed Burning Eye offers its readers a sense of continuity through its four stories’ divergent – and deeply unsettling – takes on the theme of infestation. If I had read these stories at different times I might easily have missed this thread, but reading them all in a row revealed to me what seems to be a wonderfully cohesive issue created by a seasoned editor’s finely honed sense for how individual stories that stand perfectly well alone can fit together to build something greater and stranger. This issue strikes me not only as a collection of excellent stories but a lesson, for those who care to take it, in some of the finer points of curation – an art form in its own right.

Neal Auch, the author of ‘A Song for the Centipedes’ – the first story in this issue of 3LBE – is no stranger to the idea of infestation. Insects recur in his work as a fine-art photographer, creeping across the deathly still-lifes he sets up and documents, sometimes as they degrade. In ‘A Song for the Centipedes’, Auch puts this preoccupation with things dead, dying, and teeming into words, bringing a visual artist’s eye for sensory details to the creation of a written narrative in ways that effectively construct and bring to life a distressingly vivid world. As this story’s central character – a mother whose children have been stolen away by the man who imprisoned, blinded, and repeatedly impregnated her – nurtures the infestation of centipedes that grows to fill the empty crib where her babies should lie, the rustles and rattles and songs and smells of her sunless interior world build up a powerful and disturbing portrait of abuse and undeniably deserved retribution. In the end, the most disturbing truth Auch has to offer is of a purely human nature. His centipedes act in the service of a much wilder – and, truthfully, far less upsetting – kind of nature, leaving the sense that the truest infestation in this story – in, perhaps, any story – is us.

3LBE #39’s second story, ‘The Sticky-Sweet Path’ by J.L. Jones, also features a protagonist whose life is defined in relation to insects. Termites and bees, moths and cochineal, the little sparkling, swarming, stinging fairies who, when ingested in excessive quantities, cause a strange and dangerous state called Intoxication – T’quan’s understanding of his world is related through insect metaphors. In this story, though, the true infestation lies in systems of power and abuse, and in the unpleasant truths of the power of supply and demand. Haven, the oppressive – but, apparently, safe, despite the broken world outside its walls – community where T’quan lives with his mother and little sister, Evie, runs on rules and restrictions. T’quan, a boy on the cusp of manhood given too many responsibilities for his liking, longs for the freedom to play and eat candy with other boys. In his world, though, candy seems to be a hazardous and addictive substance – what his friends and the dealers on the outside of Haven call ‘candy’ seems to have effects closer to those of powerfully mind-altering drugs than those of simple sugar – and the price for candy proves to be much more than T’quan – a good boy at heart, and a good older brother – is willing to pay. It is no easy thing to root out infestation, whether it be the dark undercurrents in one’s society or the more personal, internal details of what one’s body has come to crave, but this story’s tense ending does offer the tiniest thread of hope for T’quan and Evie’s future.

Koji A. Dae’s ‘It Comes Through Us’, the third story, turns this issue’s direction away from the idea of infestation as something largely external to a protagonist’s place in the world and toward a much less comfortable space in which the protagonist is the infestation. Narrated in the first-person plural – a point of view Dae uses to wonderfully unflinching effect – this story generates its narrative arc through generalising common plot points of serial killer stories into a potently distilled portrait of some unspeakable driving force that looms behind all such acts. All the individual members of the ‘we’ whose story this is hide in plain sight, living ordinary lives to conceal what they are, and what they are is an infestation whose presence strikes and tears and rots at the edges of everyone else’s everyday lives. And yet, as the story unfolds, another, deeper infestation makes its eldritch presence known – something that festers inside the narrative collective, something surreal and horrific that belongs more to the reality of the story from which 3LBE takes its name than to the world from which this collective takes its victims. In the end, this story’s horror is both human and cosmic in nature, and the explanations it offers for its collective protagonist’s horrific acts neither excuse them as mere pawns of unspeakable extradimensional beings nor offer any sense that there might be some small hope for their redemption. ‘It Comes Through Us’ is a fascinatingly bleak take on both serial killer fiction and cosmic horror, and I suspect it will linger with me as my very own tiny mental infestation.

Issue 39’s final story, ‘Out(r)age’ by Amelia Gorman, brings the infestation fully back to the realm of things closely held and deeply personal. The story’s protagonist, Doe, lives alone in an empty house frequently shaken by rumblings from her underfunded coastal area’s unstable power grid. Alone, that is, save for the constant companionship of the Whisper. The Whisper infests her dreams, her mirror, her bed. The Whisper takes on unpleasant forms that Doe cannot stand to look at any more than she can stand her own reflection, even though the Whisper claims to find her beautiful. The Whisper is with her at work, and the Whisper, in the temporary form of a tacky decoration, leads her to the sea when the unstable grid goes out and gives her an unexpected day off from her dismal job as a grease-spattered fry cook at a dubiously sea-themed restaurant. And the Whisper is there when Doe finds something buried in the sand that entirely alters the shape and course of her life. I love that this story retains, through its lovely and just-stylized-enough prose, enough of a sense of myth and mystery to leave room for readers to form their own understanding of what happens next. If you look at it one way, this might be an apocalyptic Pandora’s Box type of story. If you look at it another way, it might be a different type of fairy tale, a selkie story for people who might not be losers. Either way, it is clear that the ending of this story – and the end of the infestation that Doe had carried with her for a long and exhausting time – is the beginning of something else. What better way to end not only a story but an issue of a magazine? ∎

Ariel Marken Jack (they/them) lives in Kespukwitk. Their fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Bikes in Space, Dark Matter Magazine, PseudoPod, Strange Horizons, and more. Their non-fiction columns on speculative and horror literature appear in Fusion Fragment and at Psychopomp.com. They also curate the #sfstoryoftheday. Find their writing at arielmarkenjack.com.

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