Benjamin Szumskyj

Lulu (2007)

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in April 2007)

It could be argued that not all of the stories in this collection are speculative fiction, but I would beg to differ. All of these stories look at the involvement of God or Satan in the world, in different contexts, and whether you are religious or an atheist (note to reader: reviewer is Christian) I think we can agree that examining people’s reactions to these sorts of interventions falls under the spec fic banner. Otherwise, those stories that look at people’s reactions to aliens also don’t fall into spec fic, which is just silly.

Let me get a gripe out of the way first: this is a self-published work, and there are some places where this is all too evident, in the standard of the editing. I don’t know whether Szumskyj got other people to proofread the manuscript before it was published – I certainly hope he did – but there were a few glaring typos, and some bizarre sentence structures that could have done with some pruning or rearranging. That said, I have noticed those sorts of things in professionally published works as well, so maybe I shouldn’t accuse self-publishers of it alone.

Onto the stories!

First up is “The Shadow Beneath the Cross”, by Nathan Burrage. Set in Cappadocia (home of Saint Basil, the inspiration for one of the characters apparently), sometime before Christians were officially accepted by the Roman Empire in the early to mid 300s. A group of Anatolian Christians are hiding from a Roman patrol, since if they are caught they face imprisonment or death. While hiding in their caves, however, they face something in the dark which scares them even more than the Romans. This is a good story, with one or two unexpected twists that save it from being completely straightforward. The characters are a bit two-dimensional, although I did like the portrayal of Suetonius, the Roman centurion, the straight-down-the-line soldier who has to deal with something supernatural – I sympathised with him perhaps more than with Bayzar, the leader of the Christians, who generally seemed supremely confident.

“Miracles”, by Leslie Carmichael, is a standard story of the stigmata. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this story, except the very lack of the remarkable in the discussion of the stigmata marks.

P. F. Davids’ “Face Time” is about the experiences of a newly-converted man. Many people who convert later in life after experiencing many things regarded as sin by Christians find it hard to believe that these things are truly forgiven by God, which is exactly what this man is finding. The ending is a little bit too easy, as far as I’m concerned, but I quite liked the build-up to it, since I wasn’t entirely sure where it was going.

People seeing angels and/or demons is something of a staple in Christian literature, I think, and often it’s a cop-out in plot terms. “No Eye Hath Seen”, by George L Duncan, takes the idea and gives it a scientific spin. Again I sympathised more with the agnostic scientist, Steven Poderzant, than with the Christian Grant Hughes – his struggles make him more approachable somehow. The question of the existence of angels and demons has sometimes been a vexed one in Christian discussion, so it’s interesting to see it treated this way.

I couldn’t get through “Saving Hope”, by Jaqui French. The characters were boring – twins who have been feuding for too long, a woman whose language couldn’t get any more stilted if she tried, and a few other characters who fade into the background. The plot doesn’t save it either – the twins are transported somewhere and Only They Can Save The World. Or something along those lines.

Despite what I said in the introduction to this review, I don’t understand what “Eyes of the Swan”, by Heidi Wessman Kneale, is doing in this anthology. I didn’t mind it as a story – it’s just a straight romance, which isn’t usually my thing, but the writing was bearable and it wasn’t too sappy. But there was no God! Not even Satan! I am still confused by its inclusion.

“The Party at the End of the World”, by Tim Kroenert, also doesn’t mention God, but is at least apocalyptic, which is both more interesting than a straight romance and is more to do with spiritual things (at least potentially) than romance. “Fatty” spends his last few days on Earth reflecting on his life (as you would) and dealing with some issues (not sure I would). It can be a bit of a depressing thought, what your life would look like in retrospect with the end of the entire world glaring you in the face – although people with life-threatening illnesses have to deal with it all the time.

Tiffany Secula’s “The Light Within” was a bit too sentimental for my tastes. Julie and Tina are moving house, and have a car crash, and for some reason Tina ends up blind. The story examines how both mother and daughter deal with this and all the other changes in their lives. It simply didn’t work for me – too schmaltzy.

I’m sure that for many people, the story of Abraham being tested and asked to sacrifice his son Isaac is one of the weirder and more distressing stories of Genesis. “Angel of Light”, by Scott A Sheaffer, plays with that story, having an angel appear to struggling single “mom” Melissa. Sadly, it didn’t get the sort of clever or tricky treatment this idea could invite. There is a twist, but – for me at least – quite a transparent one.

Genetic manipulation is explored in Steve Stanton’s “Snow Angel” – an interesting choice for a Christian anthology, and again I wonder at its inclusion here. There is no mention of God, or Satan, unless you count the idea that man manipulating genetics is man playing at God. A man picks up a passenger who looks an awful lot like his dead wife, and has to deal with all of the attendant issues. Again, sadly, the conclusion really let this story down.

Benjamin Szumskyj’s contribution to the anthology is “When Man Formed Man from the Dust of the Ground”. Two kingdoms exist side by side, both believing in God and living peacefully. The king of the smaller kingdom begins to doubt the existence of God, and acts upon that skepticism. It leads, of course, to trouble. It’s a very short story, and has quite an interesting conclusion, but I was not totally convinced by it.

Finally, we have “Lonely Hearts”, by Blake Wilson – not a romance, as the name might suggest, but a story that reminded me of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Kamau is an occult detective asked to retrieve a holy Relic by Miss Givanti. It’s a fairly straightforward story, with a twist in the tail that wasn’t entirely unexpected. I quite liked Kaumu – he’s just an average, Van Helsing-type guy with a difficult history.

This anthology has a few highlights, and a few lowlights as well. The writing quality is inconsistent, but there are some interesting characters and a few interesting situations explored. It is by no means just for Christian readers, either.

Reviewed by Paul Mannering (this review was first published in April 2007)

When the discussion on reviewing this anthology began, I offered, but advised that I am an atheist. What has eventuated will be the standard ASif! format of two reviews. In this case, one by a Christian and one by an Atheist. In fact when my wife frowned over my shoulder and asked what I was reviewing, her reaction was entirely non-plussed. Surely, she said, there has been a mistake? However from an Atheist perspective, indeed any readers, reviewing this collection simply to argue with the points of faith and the tenets of the religion it is focused on would not be a positive experience for anyone. With that in mind I have read these stories with the same openness I would read any sub-culture specific anthology.

Szumskyj starts us out with a heartfelt introduction where he briefly outlines how this anthology came about and expresses his hopes for what it will bring to those who read it. I found the Introduction to be a succinct and honest essay. Szumskyj delivers the goods and lets the stories be their own sermon with the focus of the anthology on stories of “emotional and spiritual awakening.”

The first story in this anthology, “Beneath The Shadow Of The Cross” by Nathan Burrage meets the criteria set out by the editor in his introduction, where he stated that it was his belief that Christian fiction could be set in any genre. This story is an engaging historical fiction set in Cappadocia in the first Century AD, with Christian refugees being confronted by Roman troops outside, and an apparent demon on the inside of an ancient carved refuge. The historical significance of this is outlined in a brief authors note at the end. As is almost required in the common theme of these stories a divine deus ex machina effects the outcome. However it is a well written action packed tale, with some nods to historical fact (the inclusion of a homosexual relationship between two Romans was refreshingly blunt).

“Miracles” by Leslie Carmichael is the second story in the collection to use Stigmata as a plot device. However those who encounter this phenomena are somewhat embarrassed by it. It’s not the sort of thing that happens in their church. The story is worth a second reading, with the message about miracles as subtle as the miracles themselves.

“Face Time” by P. F. Davids is the first dud in the collection. A series of poorly conceived attempts at wit ruins the otherwise competent writing style. Add to that the preachy attempt at creating something surreal and you get an over-worked revelation that seems totally contrived. Over all this piece smells like it was written by an earnest young Sunday School pupil for whom the age of 10 was still some way off.

“No Eye Hath Seen” by George L. Dunan is another preachy fable oozing with smugness. As a science fiction tale it has merit, but it also makes some silly leaps of logic. Overall this is another repetitive sort of clichéd story that, at most, elicits a wry smile and a small chuckle. Personally I think smoking is a greater evil than playing pool.

“Saving Hope” by Jaqui French suffers mainly from poor writing. It reads like a synopsis for an episode of Supernatural. Two brothers combine a magical amulet and get transported to a place where they bring light back into the world. The majority of the story takes place in an acceptable fantasy setting hampered by the brevity of the time devoted to it. This alternative world is quickly saved and the brothers return to their own world and oh, we need to have some words of Jesus at the end. Because otherwise it won’t be a Christian story I guess.

“Eyes Of The Swan” by Heidi Wessman Kneale, is not her first short story I have reviewed. What I like about Kneale’s writing is that she executes it well. In this modern take on a Beauty and The Beast scenario I was frustrated by the female lead. How could she not have exchanged a photograph with this guy? But of course it all works out in the end. Interestingly enough this is a story that demonstrates that core Christian value of loving and not judging and has a lead character who does nothing but. Personally Josh, I would have dumped the miserable cow.

I found “The Party At The End Of The World” by Tim Kroenert to be delightfully sublime and another subtle lesson on a key message. “The End” is of course the religious apocalypse; the world goes dark and cold. Only then when all others die does a man find it within himself to believe in himself. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of faith.

“The Light Within” by Tiffany Secula. Ugh. Oh no I hate God because I got blinded in a car accident, and how could God do that to me? But never mind, I will go through a cliché of being miserable and depressed and traumatized, and then of course someone gives me a bible in Braille for Christmas and hallelujah my sight is restored. A patronizing, saccharine fairy-tale that was so cheesy it should be served with crackers. I hope the Braille Bible came with a gift exchange card.

“Angel of Light” by Scott A. Schaeffer is almost a fable against Christianity. There are two ways to consider it, either you should avoid the Bible because it suggests some incredibly inhumane and clearly sinful things to do to people, or you should just not do drugs. Ever. Especially when you may one day have children. Not quite a morality tale, but a well crafted shocker none the less.

I am not sure of the point of stories like Steve Stanton’s “Snow Angel” where the religiosity is sprinkled throughout not for any benefit of the story, but to some how make it Christian. It is as if this type of story is crafted, the characters and dialogue are hung on the frame of the plot and then religious words and phrases get stuck on them almost at random. It does not add anything to the story. You can write a great spiritually themed story, as many of the contributing authors have done without using “key words.” These unnecessary additions make it seem like the story is targeting some kind of Christian search-engine.

The editor of this anthology includes his own work in the collection with “When Man Formed Man From The Dust Of The Ground” and I realize I have read this story before. It hasn’t improved with time. What I am sure is meant to be a rousing speculative fable-like story, perhaps modelled on the lessons that the author has no doubt studied and deliberated over in his Bible comes across as somewhat confused, almost a visual joke where the nuance is lost when you try to explain it to someone else. There’s these two kingdoms right, and they are symbolic of faith and this other ideology. This Theist king’s son dies, and he makes a golem thing. And it kills everybody and it’s actually atheism. It’s quite concerning to think that perhaps this is a view of atheism held by Christians. Not so much for the Atheists, but I feel sorry for the Christians.

“Lonely Hearts” by Blake Wilson reminds me that Christian legend and mythology stories could fill an anthology of their own. The rampant success of conspiracy theory novels like The Da Vinci Code barely touched the surface. Here we have a well written tale of the search for a lost relic. The heart of St Lucinia, that was torn from her body by rampaging German knights while she stood in defiance of their pillaging is missing. It’s this kind of mysticism that makes religious history so much fun to read. Half-baked tales of miracles presented as truth have been a rich creative ground for hundreds of years and thousands of stories. Of course the more rational among the faithful recognize what these stories are intended to be. Lessons in the power of faith, and the benefits of following the prescribed philosophy. This is a fine story, laced with historical detail and some wonderfully gothic overtones. The surprise ending wasn’t but a worthwhile read, and by far the longest story in the anthology also a good end piece to the collection.

My overall feeling about this anthology is this: I would like to say that this is a collection of fiction that Szumskyj can be proud of. However I feel that he has let himself down, by including several pieces that were distinctly below the standard of the majority of the included pieces. This has the effect of reducing the overall effectiveness of the collection. I will recommend Crossroads, not just to Christian readers, but to anyone who likes their fiction with a touch of inspiration and thought provocation added. If you can disregard the clangers, there is spiritual currency included here that has value for all of us.