|Art by Sarah Zar|
"The Laura Ingalls Experience" by Andrew Neil Gray (6200 words)
This is a lonely kind of story about space and distance, about sisters and grief and loss and repentance. It's a lovely tale of a woman surviving with a mostly mechanical body, taking and old-timey tour on Earth in memory of her sister. As a sort of punishment for herself. It does a great job of drawing parallels between the old West, the vast expanses, the loneliness, and actual space, the places between planets and stars, the hopes of striking gold. The way that religion worms its way into things. And okay the story actually takes a much kinder look at religion, at how it can make everything seem more familiar, more beautiful. The way that the main character relates to religion is interestingly and complexly done. That it was her sister's religion and came between them. The idea of judgment, and if it's possible to want to save someone without judging them. And I do love the sort of sad tragedy of the piece, the character's guilt and shame and borrowed faith. That she wants to believe in the religion so that she can be punished, because she can't handle what happened and her own role in it. That what religion becomes for her is a way to suffer, which is nicely done and a rather powerful thing, that there is belief that is affirming and there is belief that is not at all, and both are religious. And in the end I just really like the feel of the story, the way that everyone faces their isolation. It's a dark story filled with loss and grief, and it's unflinching in how it examines guilt and regret. A very nice read!
"The Teratologist's Brother" by Brandon H. Bell (6700 words)
This is a strange story about brushing against foreign realities and foreign gods and about brothers and abuse and parents. It pairs nicely with the other original story, both featuring siblings both similar and different, separated by choice, by need. Here the main character, Telly, who identifies himself as gay (but who sorta seems pretty bi to me but I'll just roll with that), is called to identify the body of his younger brother. The two used to be close, both growing up in a very religious environment and both effected by it in different ways, both damaged by the idea of divinity, an idea that the story uses to great effect and in some weird, unsettling ways. Telly teams up with a local cop who has some insights into the case but the story is more about Telly reconnecting with his brother. Too late, it turns out, but it gives him a final chance to learn who his brother was and what they shared and to have one last adventure together, to conquer their demons and maybe save the world. I really can't stress the strangeness enough, the iconography and the sense of otherness that permeates the entities encroaching on Texas in the story. There's a touch of the eldritch, which is nicely done and gave me a bit of a nudge and a wink into how to read the title of Telly's brother's book, that idea that a mask is being pulled away to reveal not the mundane but something strikingly different. It's a story about coming to terms with loss and family and all of that and also about tangled realities and foreign gods and it's just rather neat and definitely worth checking out.
"Fertility" by Craig Finlay
This is a poem that takes a look at a sort-of forgotten god, evoking the style of works like American Gods or even the show Supernatural, where the gods never really went away. That captures a bit of timelessness and examines what might happen when worshippers look away, when people stop giving attention to the gods-that-where. Here is a goddess of fertility who is keeping to her post in a very…well, who is more or less taking it out on the people around her that she is no longer being worshipped. It's a dark story because there is that air of punishment about it, a darkness in how the goddess so casually goes about flexing her power in ways that will destroy lives. At least, in absence of any sort of indication that these women want to get pregnant I'm going to say that it's a Bad Thing what this goddess is doing, vindictive and inhuman and probably in need of a Winchester to happen along. But it is a very nice examination of the character of the goddess, the regard for humans as vehicles for worship and, failing that worship, as toys to play with. That smirk, that thoughtless cruelty, makes this poem an unsettling experience and a very nice poem!
"The Farmer's Milk" by John Yu Branscum
I love that this poem mixes a childhood fear and ignorance with the slowly sinking understanding that something is off, that something is off and dark and holy fuck the poem gets dark without really delving into specifics. Which is its charm, really, the way that it presents a certain uncertainty to the horror of the poem, that it is a child remembering and child might exaggerate or see something in nothing. Might have an overactive imagination. But slowly the poem reveals with its simple, short lines and crystal imagery evoking something insectoid, something definitely not normal for farming, that there is something wrong here. The way that it sets the scene with child waiting for a birthday cake, the ingredients less than wholesome, is great, is strong and challenging and creepy. It's just a feeling, just a sinking suspicion, that grows and grows until it cannot be denied, until the implications of that last drink of milk are deeply unsettling. And it's just a nice scary poem, something difficult to accomplish but down with style here, with a sinking doom. Another great poem!
"Myth of the Mud God" by Michael VanCalbergh
Okay then. This is a nicely creepy poem examining mud, or at least the idea of mud. The narrator of the poem seems to me to be Mud (big M), identified from the title and from how Grease and Ash are named, the personification of that slow creeping feel that mud has. The way living in a rut, in constant toil, seems to be like being one with the mud. Always slow, always seeping, stuck in a cycle that brings no real relief and always unpleasant. The language of the poem is effective, conveying that sense of slow despair or depression, the way that nothing changes, or changes only to reset. The poem's form mirrors that as well, stepping out as if leading somewhere only to snap back to the baseline, returning to the beginning, no further for all the effort that it took. It's a heavy poem, gets right into that with the first line and examines what it is to be mud, to be viewed as mud, treated like mud. Wet and with no real hope of drying, because even then it would just mean a transformation into dirt which isn't really better anyway. It's not exactly a hopeful poem but it's nicely conveyed and richly constructed. I love the feel of it, that it's a myth that's so close to reality, so close to how people live, with the constant wounding and trudging and plodding and pain. A fine poem!
"Song of Encantado" by Jeremy Paden
Okay quick aside that has little enough to do with the poem but I read the first stanza and almost, for one glorious moment, thought this was a horror poem about Lisa Frank art. It is not. It is definitely not, drawing in myth and seduction and dark magic. It's about the allure of something deep and moving, something that seems bright and living but is anything but. I love the sense of magic here, the sense of poem as warning, as a rebuke to one who is brash and proud and wants to prove themselves. That they have stood up to things before and so rush into this confrontation without thinking. Without realizing that some seductions seems custom built to trap the bold, to trap the confident. It's a neat bit of world building, of storytelling, because the implication of course is that the warning will go unheeded. That it's something that needs to be said but in some ways it will only provoke more, that those who should heed will be more motivated to prove the warning wrong. Because the language is evocative, sensual, alluring. Though the poem says don't look the way it builds the danger is tempting, is a part of the seduction, part of the danger. And it's a fun read, moving and invigorating while still concealing deeper currents at play. Indeed!