|Art by Michael MacRae|
"Hani's: Purveyors of Rusks, Biscuits, and Sweet Tea" by Sara Saab (3776 words)
A nicely creepy story about a town and a sweet shop and some terrible secrets. From the start it's obvious that something is off about Hafeez with his creepy taking of children into the kitchen where no one would hear from them for a while. The story does a nice job of building the mystique of the old man, of contrasting him with his grandson, who for being less sinister I suppose is still not a nice person, is still not wholly out of the trade that his grandfather was in. And I love the contrast of the sweetness and darkness, bonbons and murder. The sensory imagery in this story are great, especially the descriptions of smells, of that sweet aroma that lingers, of the scent of Hafeez's corpse that is just so nicely revealed. The twist, the truth of what Hafeez was doing, balances nicely with the fact that no one wants to believe, that no one wants to think of his grandson as anything other than a vile person, and to learn that their beloved sweets maker was something worse, something truly grotesque, lands with a sort of muted power. No one wants to believe, but the story sells the ending so well, the lingering fear and doubt, the uncertainty and wonder and horror. I'm always a fan of stories that use food to good effect, so I'm quite a fan of this one.
"A House of Anxious Spiders" by JY Yang (5034 words)
I love the central idea of this story, that people carry spiders in their mouths that allow them to talk, that can be brought out to fight in verbal battles. It's such an interesting premise, strange but making complete sense, capturing the feeling of having venom in one's tongue, barbs in one's words. The story follows Sook Yee, at her husband's family home following the death of his mother. At odds with his sister over inheritance, he lets Sook Yee fight his battles for him, being a bit too weak, a bit too spineless to fight them himself. It's a role that Sook Yee doesn't really want but takes up all the same, her sister-in-law wounded and lashing out and very much looking to start a fight. But as much as the story is about spider duels (and as awesome as that is) the story is also about family, and about empathy and understanding and fear. About how people react to stress, and to grief, and what remains after a lifetime of being venomous. The story explores the fragile relationships Sook Yee has with her husband, her sister-in-law, her father-in-law, and herself. It also explores where the mouth spider metaphor leads, how easy it is to use words to silence others, to hurt others, and how the much harder thing can be to refuse to be baited, to be drawn into duels. It's a slow story, the prose elegant, the ending much more tense than the moment of spider-combat. It's the quiet moments that are often harder to bear. A very good story.
"The Old Man in the Kitchen" by Patricia Russo (4001 words)
A story about the price of kindness, or perhaps the price of being a good person, this one is a good exploration of a child growing into the realization that kindness is something that is rare because it is difficult, and being forced to examine her own actions, her own responsibilities. It shows two young sisters who accompany their mother to one of her older cousin's house where an old man is kept, an old man with a stick who frightens the girls, not because he's mean but because he is strange. The girls hate going there, don't like to be confronted by the man, don't like to see him, and eventually successfully campaign to stay behind. But something eats at the older one, because her mother says that the old man does so much good, and implies that the reason for his maladies is that he pays the price for kindness. The girls still stay behind, but when their mother becomes ill they have to try and do something for her, and see that kindness is easy when it costs nothing. That idea in particular is strong in this story and makes it one layered and satisfying. That kindness is often seen as weakness, often makes people less able to be "presentable" or even pleasant. Life is about more than being pleasant, after all, and for those able to pay the price, the world would be a very dark place indeed if they all chose not to. The eldest sister sees this, sees it and is left with a choice of her own to make. A neat story!
"Mother of Giants" by Kirsty Logan (3296 words)
This story surprised me. In some ways it is a fable, and like all fables it is something of an extended metaphor, and for a long time the story really sells the magic of it, the witch and the Mother of Giants and all of it. And...and it is dark. Incredibly dark. I'm not sure exactly how much to spoil so I'll wait for later in the review maybe but now I'll say that the story moves with a power of fable, the main character a young girl in a world that she doesn't completely understand, that seems like it just is, that events happen from no real cause but magically, as divine blessings or punishments. It's just part of the story, part of what makes everything tragic and tense and makes the coming ending seem so inevitable, because in fables the endings are given, are set in stone. And yet...and yet this one does, this one breaks that ending and delivers something I was not expecting, and manages to bring up a topic that really needs to be talked about, brings it up in such a way as to challenge the way that it is presented to the world, challenges the way that people shy away from the truth, hide it in shame and secret and it is a good one. (OKAY I CAN'T RESIST SPOILERS!!!!) Abortion. At least, that's how I read it and I cannot imagine it being about anything else, though I suppose it's not really said, because it's about taking the act out from the shame, taking away the associations and lies and making it about what it is. A decision, and usually a very difficult decision, but not one that is evil, not one that is wicked, just a decision, and oftentimes the best choice available in a bad situation. It's a nice twist and one that really makes the ending resonate. A nice way to end the issue.