I’m trying to remember if I’ve read another story that upped the creepy factor in a similar way to “Inscribed,” and I’m drawing a blank. Found in Skin Deep Magic: Short Fiction, this story is interspersed with excerpts from “Mercurial Magic: the Language of Hermes and Thoth,” by Byron Davies, the white (and, soon revealed, gay and largely absent) father of biracial Simon Davies. We meet Simon at his father’s funeral, where the pageantry is only outdone by the paganism, and Simon struggles to reconcile his widely varied feelings about his father with what he’s seeing.
The core of the tale a kind of triangle with Simon’s ambivalence (and sometimes well-deserved hatred) of his father at one point, Byron Davies’s afterlife journey at another, and the third point landing in a murky somewhere/something growing and trying to manipulate both to become something more than it currently is. Simon’s mother, Viola, who is also dead, has a few key moments in he story as well, but we mostly stay with Simon and Byron, and Simon’s slow fall into a video game that seems built upon so much of what his father believed and wrote about. While Simon tries to work out the puzzles in the game, Byron (and Fiona) try to fight their way through an afterlife to stop him from succeeding.
With a similar tone to the Orpheus myth, Byron’s story is heavy of magic and spirit and otherness, whereas Simon’s progress feels like a slow, addicting trap designed specifically to draw him in. The end result is a pair of ticking clocks, both counting down to something the reader only knows is ominous and not a good idea. The characters themselves are so wonderfully rendered, too, where even at their cruellest or most neglectful, Simon and Byron never feel irredeemable. They are instead two flawed people unknowingly in over their heads with an incredible force. It’s a wild ride, and one of the standouts of Gidney’s collection.