Needle Song by Charles L. Grant (1942-2006) is another example of double dipping in a single source for a story. This time the magazine is Midnight Sun Five, edited by Gary Hoppenstand. The previous story from this collection was In the Fourth Year of the War by Ellison. Midnight Sun was a bad ass fantasy/sci-fi magazine; sadly issue 5 was the last. The first two issues featured a ton of Wagner writings including his famous poem of Kane, Midnight Sun in the first.
Grant is a multi-award winning writer and the year this story was published he was riding high on two recent wins, a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award. He is for sure one of the more established writers of the collection. I’ve read some of his stories in collections in the past, I’m embarrassed to say the only novel of his I’ve read was Whirlwind, an X-Files novel, when I was 13.
Far from just writing Grant was an editor as well. Remember that World Fantasy Award I mentioned earlier? It was for the anthology series Shadows that he edited. Just flipping through the table of contents of Shadows one begins to recognize a lot of the same names popping up in both his collections, and the Year’s Best collections Wagner was putting together. Great minds think alike.
Needle Song is about two kids in the suburbs trying to protect their suburban community from a witch. We learn this ideal land of lawns and barbecues changed the day the old woman moved in. At first she just sat on her lawn, watching. Then the nightly piano music started, and the neighborhood was hit with a string of good luck. Finally, the Needle Song started. After the nightly piano music that seemed to shift depending on the listener, the old woman would pull her sewing from the old box she brought with her and begin to sew. As she sews, terrible luck hits the community and things devolve into destruction and chaos. This witch is manipulating the community to harvest their happiness for her thread. The two kids in the story combat the witch by holding onto their positive memories and sharing them with each other. As this psychic battle of sorts comes to a climax, the cuts between the kids and the witch come faster and faster, ratcheting up the tension. In the final moment, who really did win?
I loved this story. I have to admit, I re-read the ending about four times and I don’t understand it. I’m going to say his ending is masterfully done ambiguity. He is leaving it up to the reader to decide what happened. He leaves clues to what the rules of the world are in the final reveal, but whether the spell/curse was completed or not, that’s another story.
If you like this story you should also check out Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. It deals with similar themes; a ‘seemingly’ perfect suburban community being ripped apart by a witch.