The stories in this February issue of Nightmare Magazine look at the worth of a life. In both pieces, the main characters are asked what their lives are worth, and this central question drives most of the tragedy and horror in the stories. Which only makes sense. The question of what makes life worth living, and conversely what makes sacrificing a life a decent bargain, is not an easy one. And the stories here reveal how difficult it can be to justify life and death, action and inaction. The stories look at characters who end up defining a lot of their worth in someone else. In those that they love. And these are two rather difficult but rather rewarding stories that look at magic and death and the vastness of choice in rather interesting ways. To the reviews!
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"The Garbage Doll" by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (3222 words)
This is a weird story about, to me at least, worth. About the worth of a person and a life. About the main character, who seems caught up in death, caught up in some state of being where they're a bit disconnected in time, being weighed and examined at the close of their life and getting everything a little bit confused. [SPOILERS…maybe…if you agree with my interpretation I guess]. The story centers the main character's attraction or fascination with a blind musician who would busk at a farmer's market where the main character used to work and hang out. And the main character spends their time remembering this woman, following her. Haunting her, in some ways. The style of the story is a bit disjointed and very strange, but with a heavy feel to it. The life that the main character lived was full of a sort of artist's drive, to create and to live and to enjoy the company of others, to protest and to fight, but at the end of it all, when called to account, the main character seems unsure how to measure what they did. They seem unsure of whether their life was worth it, when it seems like so much was done watching and not acting, observing and not really reaching out. The story is lonely to me, the main character more than anything drawn back to people, drawn back to this one person who was always so close but always so far away. The main character never seems to have talked to her, gotten to know her. And this relationship haunts them, haunts the story. Stranger still is where the story goes with this, showing the magic and the darkness of the situation and shifting the main character into a sort of hell, into a world where they don't walk, where they are close to the person they desired but never really able to talk. Only to watch. Only to dance. It's a weird but subtly creepy story and worth spending some time with. Indeed!
"Youth Will be Served" by Andrew Fox (6575 words)
Like the last story, this one I feel also examines worth, but through the lens of age and youth. The worth here is reflected in the way that Samantha, the main character, looks at her sort-of niece, who is thirteen but, because of her Progeria, is dying. Samantha is at the beach with her sort-of sister (not related but sisters in the important ways), and together the three make a sort of family. And their day at the beach reminds Samantha of another day a long time ago, that she spent there and learned something terrifying. And this is much more recognizable as a horror story than the last one, relying on a rather creepy setup and touch of the sublime, the huge, the vastness of the sea and the unknown, to breathe its horror into the world. It could be seen as a monster story but I don't think the true horror of the piece comes directly from the monster but from the situations that people find themselves in, calling on monsters to make bargains. The story definitely deals with terminal illnesses and grief, especially with the denial of death or impending death. These are people who do not wish to face that final pain and so have found another way out. It's an interesting form of bargaining especially because the people all know that it likely won't end well. That there might be complication. But also that this is what they can do to try and make something of their end, that this is still a power they have left to them. It's a nicely built story that flits between present and past to build this moving portrait of Samantha and her experiences with loss and the sea. The terminal illness thread of the story is one that reaches for empowerment with regards to end of life care and the drive that Samantha feels is wrenching and makes sense to me. The horror elements are lightly done but still carry a great weight, and the ending does a nice job of pulling everything to a satisfying end. A great read!