|Art by Gregory St. John|
"The Spider Tapestries" by Mike Allen (1180 words)
This is a rather strange story, vaguely insectoid and, to me, steeped in the ideas of community and dreams. The action of the story follows the preparations for a special ritual, a festival where an entire dream-reality is spun and experienced under the influence of a diluted and fermented venom. The setting is a labyrinth of dangers and dreams, a place where a people have lost a world and so engage in recreating it, however briefly, in the magic of drug and vision. Deeply surreal and delightfully vague, the story left me with the feeling of a decline and a reaching, a poisoned world that these people with their beauty and grace and dance are trying not exactly to reclaim, but escape for however long they can into a past that they would have lived differently. I'd put spoiler warnings throughout this review if I thought this was a story that I could spoil. Instead it seems to defy summary of any the plot elements in favor of capturing a latticed feel, a web of dreams and people dreaming. It doesn't read to me as a story that offers a lot in the way of answers, but rather excels in the subtle and luminous, and I found it a fine read.
"Gallery" by Mathew Scaletta (3047 words)
Well shit, yeah, this is a rather dark and unsettling story about love, about love and how love can be twisted. How love can be shared and how love can be lost. The story shows an open relationship. Well, sort of. At the least, the narrator of the story (called Robot and using female pronouns), was in a relationship with three men. Not having sex with all of them but in love with all of them, the four of them together in all the ways that matter. To me, the story explores the ways that relationships involving so many people can fracture, though it does not seem to cast such a relationship as flawed or impossible. Instead the four are seen as complete, as whole, but being wrecked by doubts, by jealousies, by lies. [SPOILERS FROM HERE I THINK] The tragedy of the story arrives from the way the four avoid dealing with their fears. They love and their love is transcendent, beautiful, but each begins to harbor feelings they keep to themselves. Certain relationships are prioritized and the center cannot hold. Slowly the loves twist and extinguish. The story doesn't condemn the characters their love but instead shows how fragile love can be, especially one that is being pressured without and within by perceptions of what a relationship should be. By the binary, by the dual. I liked the drive the characters have for each other, and the sorrow and the loss, the drug use and the reaching. It's a sad tale, a tragedy that unfolds slowly, with ample chance to avoid the bitter ending but for the momentum of the betrayals, the inability of the characters to quite extinguish their jealousy. It's a great story.
"Song of the Krakenmaid" by JY Yang (3373 words)
The darkness of the issue definitely continues in this sensual story of a research assistant in a marine facility helping to study a newly-discovered species, the krakenmaids. Part cephalopod and part human (or something like that, the true nature of the creatures hidden and elusive), the krakenmaids condense a certain erotic quality for the narrator of the story, who is dealing with growing unease at her life. At the unfulfilling aspects of her job and relationship. As I read the story, the krakenmaid becomes a spot of magic in a dull world, something bright and alive and meaningful, something beautiful and deadly and seductive. And yet at the same time the krakenmaids are being destroyed, are dying from their confinement. Like the narrator, there is a stifling energy at play that is only dispelled by embracing the unknown (kinda literally). And I love the way the story builds the dark and near-humanity of the krakenmaids and the cold dispassion with which they are studied and exploited. It's a stunning story, an elegant look at human desire, despair, and hope. Definitely give this one a read!
"I Am Winter" by Robin Wyatt Dunn (2202 words)
This story tastes of loss and distance to me, cold and the memory of cold. It takes place on Earth but not as it is, not in its familiar orbit but yanked into something different by conquering aliens so that what remains is stuck in long winters and the dwindling of humanity. The main character is a hunter on the trail of a thief, but I felt there was a lot more going on than just the chase. Inside the hunter's mind there is memory and loss and a sort of transformation that is recognized. That they are a traitor, that they are hunting humans, that they are becoming something different, awakened only in dream to what has been lost and what can still be lost. I thought it did a nice job of selling the idea of distance from the past, of an Earth that still exists but which cannot be returned to, the geography the same but really it's an entirely different planet. The drama that unfolds between the hunter and the boy, the thief, is a bit more predictable, classic in some ways but I liked how the hunter was reaching back, saw in this boy a vision of the hunter's own past. And I thought the ending was strange but fitting, slightly abrupt but also filled with that same quality of dream, nebulous and unsure but with a gravity that feels heavy. It's an interesting piece, to be sure, and another worth spending some time with.
"Pillow-Talk of the Late Oneirocalypse" by Vajra Chandrasekera (2019 words)
This is a weird but deep story about dreams, and identity, and loneliness. The narrator of the story is, along with the person they are addressing, part of a dream-world. A sort of endless landscape that exists in community with everyone, where the laws of the "real" world don't really apply. And I love the freedom that it implies, the way that things can happen, the dinosaurs leaping out of oil, the nightmares becoming real, all of it, as much as I also love how the dreams aren't exactly random. They exist as artifacts of human minds, or what used to be human minds. I thought the story did a nice job of complicating it, showing how things progressed once the idea of the real world was slain, what religion and philosophy might look like in a universe of dreams and how that could be used and twisted by people. Because the nature of individuality is complicated in dreams, where there are no bodies, where the borders between self and other break down even past the perceivable and physical. It's a strange idea but beautifully handled, the voice of the narrator a nice layer of charming above a hidden danger. The ending, when it comes, is a dark turn and a sinister one, if also one that has some humor to it. And I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry at the end, at the subtle way it all works together, a confession wrapped in a lover's embrace with a looming threat behind it. A great way to close out a surreal issue. Indeed!