Friday, May 25, 2018

Quick Sips - Lackington's #17 [Gothics]

It’s a huge issue of Lackington’s out this month, focusing on the Gothic. And from literal Ostrogoths to exquisite corpses, there’s a lot to see and a lot of amazing interpretations of the theme. There are eight original stories (and a reprint that you should definitely check out but that I’m not reviewing this time) and each of them feature themes and settings that embrace the Gothic aesthetic. Haunted houses, neglected estates, and isolated villages all make the stories ripe with shadows that just might swallow up the unwary traveler. These are pieces about facing the strange and the dangerous, the supernatural and the all-too-human. And, well, not always coming out the other side. There’s a great mood to these stories that really gets at the heart of the theme, and it’s a fantastic way to explore what is one of the oldest kinds of SFF stories. So let’s get to it!

Art by Richard Wagner

“A Thousand Tongues of Silver” by Kate Heartfield (4500 words)

No Spoilers: This story takes the gothic theme rather literally, featuring two Queens of the Goths—Amalasuintha, who ruled over a newly unified Italy following the fall of Rome, and Kristina of Sweden. Both women have to contend with cousins who have intentions toward them, be it for their throne of their bodies. And the story comes filtered through the voice of a strange witness to all of this, through a book created to try and unite Roman and Goth which only seems to have made things worse. The piece is wrapped in the gravity of tragedy for these queens, for the way that the world seems to push them to fit the molds of acceptable women, to be used by men instead of the fierce and free people that they are. And the piece looks at what the price of being independent and powerful can be for a Queen, but also the hope and the joy that can come as well. And the story seems to me to be about love and ambition as much as it is about power and rule. It’s dark, tinged with blood, but still resolving into something beautiful and free.
Keywords: Books, Queens, Assassinations, Intrigues, Silver, History, Queer MC
Review: The threads of this story follow two similar but also wildly diverging narratives. For Amalasuintha, it’s one of betrayal and destruction, how one man with some thugs is able to undo all the work and progress she had made over a lifetime of careful planning and navigation. Rather than let himself be ruled, he decides to take action. And Amalasuintha pays the price for it, certain to the end that she’s doing the write thing, mind always on what’s good for her people, for the state. For Kristina it’s so much different because it’s not the state she’s most devoted to. It’s her own self and happiness, and the main difference between her and Amalasuintha is that Kristina’s cousin is, at his core, interested in her happiness as well, and accepts that she can rule her own fate. He still wants her, wants her to marry him, but he never makes a move to violate her will or wishes. And for me, the book at the heart of this is one that was designed to trick and betray. It’s the voice that convinces Amalasuintha to make the mistake of giving some of her power to her cousin, and is the voice that fails to convince Kristina to do the same. It’s devious and as pervasive as culture, as every belief that women need a man to wield power on their behalf. But it’s not inevitable, as Kristina proves. It’s not the only option. Sometimes there can still be love, and power, and change. And it can be wonderful, just like this story. Go read it!

“Satia Te Sanguine” by A.J. Hammer (2800 words)

No Spoilers: A woman has come to Rome to, well, to be in Rome. To feel it around her and maybe to take some of its vibrancy back with her to a life that she finds stifling. On her last day there, she is approached by another woman who leads her into the dark of the catacombs of the city. There, she tells this traveler a series of stories. Of the past, and of the future. The nature of the stranger becomes clear, and maybe the traveler learns something from this. But the piece resists fitting neatly into some moral story, into a myth or a fable. Instead, it seems about life, and seeing life not as a straightforward or wholly satisfying read. It’s messy, and it’s real, and something about that certainly rings true.
Keywords: Blood, History, Stories, Gladiators, Travel, Vampires(?), Queer characters
Review: This is the second story in the issue and the second to be set in or around Rome. Given the history of all things Gothic, though, that’s probably no surprise. And I will admit that the stranger here might not be a vampire, though they drink blood and live forever. There are likely many creatures that fit that description. But I love the way the story to me speaks to life and stories, and how life rarely if ever fits into a neat box or book. The traveler wants a satisfying story, and yet despite the long years the stranger has lived, that’s not really an easy request. Because putting that structure to life is artificial, and worse can make people believe that lives should have a standard format, a way of going so that they are satisfying. When, really, life flourishes in all forms, in all ways. And worrying too much about fitting into a certain kind of story or structure is a good way to end up missing what makes you happy or fulfilled. So despite wanting a satisfying story, the traveler must settle for what there, for what’s offered, and must try to bring that lesson with them, to live a life the way they want. At least for me it’s a story very much about embracing the nebulous and the strange, the mysteries that don’t have easy answers. And it’s a complex and compelling read!

“Letters Written to the Dearest Deceased Frances Blood” by R.M. Graves (5000 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as a series of letters from Mary, the narrator, to Fanny, her friend, this piece cleaves much closer to the traditional interpretation of Gothic, with its moody and haunted castle, its complete asshole rich dude, and its female protagonists trying to survive it all. Mary has taken a job as a governess, a position she doesn’t exactly relish, being more the type to enjoy activism and pushing forward women’s rights. She meets Pin, a young girl who’s had a rough life and has a genius for sewing, and takes up residence in Waterspike Castle, which is isolated and foreboding. The story follows her observations, which are scientific in the way of being intellectually rigorous but not closed off to the notion of the supernatural. Well, not exactly. And the piece slowly builds up this haunted narrative, populating it with quite a few surprises and culminating in a dramatic confrontation and resolution. It’s fun and creepy and just the right amount of dark.
Keywords: Castles, Education, Ghosts, Letters, Loss
Review: For me, the largest surprise in this story isn’t the identity of the narrator. It isn’t even when the climactic moment happens and everyone is confronted with the full weight of what has happened. It’s a much quieter moment, when it’s revealed what exactly is happening with the framing device. With the letters. And that, for me, is both heartbreaking and interesting because of how it frames Mary’s state of mind here. She’s experienced this great loss and while it has a distance to it, it works into this other story of Pin, where the young girl is alone and missing her dear friend, and forced to be in this Castle with this terrible man. It rises in Mary all sorts of feelings, and confronts her with the ways that she’s an agent for this man but also working against him. That she pushes Pin to pretend in order to get by all the while trying to give Pin an education that might allow her to have freedoms that her father doesn’t want her to have. And it gives the story this extra depth and darkness, that all along, witnessing all of this, Mary is also being haunted. By her grief and her memories and her powerlessness to save her friend in the face of the injustices of the society she lives in. And it gives her a new resolve and a new perspective and it’s a wonderful story with a warmth cutting through the chill of the setting!

“Swans and Roses and Snow” by Laura Friis (2400 words)

No Spoilers: This story keeps with the classical feel of the Gothic, moving to another well-known work (I think), or at least alluding to that story in order to tell the tale of Mrs. Cosway, formerly Mrs. Rochester, who is part flesh and part machine, who is alive and who can do great feats of strength but who also cannot dream and who is somehow haunted by what she cannot touch or be. It’s a story with a certain fogginess to it, an uncertainty caused by the violence and heat of what has happened. Mrs. Cosway leaves the one who brought her back to seek her fortunes, using her abilities to become powerful in her own right, feared and respected. And yet there’s something that she’s avoiding, not quite ready for, and the story follows her as she decides when the time is right.
Keywords: Reanimation, Sideshow, Fires, Secrets, Death
Review: So to me (and maybe going by the dedication), this story ties back to _Jane Eyre_, and in particular the “mad” wife of Mr. Rochester who dies in a fire to free him up to marry the titular heroine of that book. And yet this piece imagines more for Mrs. Rochester, a life after death, a way to keep going and avoid being just a footnote in someone else’s story. She let the fire took her as a way of getting out, and the story shows her doing just that, thriving in the world that she was denied. Able to finally stretch and move and celebrate herself. And yet for me the story is also heavy with grief and loss surrounding what happened to Mrs. Cosway, what happened to her in the fire and afterward. Because there are things that she cannot do, now, and ways she cannot be. And it’s a difficult story for me because it focuses on the life that she never had, with children and peace. And it brings her toward some sort of confrontation with her past, with (I assume) Mr. Rochester and Jane. It doesn’t quite show the full extent of it, choosing instead of let the implications linger and cast long shadows. And it’s just a rather dark and brooding story that further explores the Gothic and add to a work that many people might be familiar with. A fine read!

“At the Hand of Every Beast” by Premee Mohamed (3790 words)

No Spoilers: This story takes the more classic feel of the last two original stories and turns it on its head, creating a weird and action-packed story starring a young boy named Emile and a walking cathedral hungry to expand. Upon waking to find the strange beast bearing down on his home, Emile ends up following in its wake and actually entering into it, speaking to the man inside who is responsible for the monster. It’s a story that speaks of bargains and arrogance and love and fear. It shows a person wanting to be remembered, wanting to be seen as the most pious, the most devout, the most humble, and yet by that very desire proving himself to be full of pride. It balances humor and terror quite well, too, building up this very strange situation and rather horrific creation.
Keywords: Cathedrals, Religion, Bargains, Architecture, Chasing
Review: So much of this story for me comes down to the man inside the cathedral, the old man who made a deal with the literal devil because he wanted to leave something behind. Which speaks so much to how people, and especially older people who don’t want to face their own mortality, will make spectacularly bad decisions because of it. Here we see this man creating something that has destroyed homes and villages and animals, that is rampaging, and yet even knowing that he doesn’t want to stop it, because even if it’s terrible, he’s so afraid of being forgotten, of dying, that he’s willing to go along with it. It takes Emile telling him again and again how bad this is, how much of a hypocrite he’s being, how much even this won’t forestall his death. Even this won’t buy him into heaven, because it’s not these large acts and monuments that get people into heaven. It’s actions. And this man’s actions have definitely not earned him a place in paradise. It’s a story that really embraces this visually striking premise, and after that goes about the business of following Emile and he tries to stop the monster and convince this man to do the right thing. And it makes for a fascinating read!

“Verwelktag” by Steve Toase (3800 words)

No Spoilers: And with this story the issue goes full on into horror, with a disturbing take on the trope of people visiting a foreign town and finding themselves on the receiving end of some violent local customs. The follows Angela and her husband Joe as they visit a small German town. One that has some unique plant-based festivals. The piece opens with a trespass, with Angela and Tom not respecting the local laws, and ends with, well, that would be telling. It’s a thrilling read, tense and horrifying, though content warnings ahoy because this story does linger on some rather graphic violence and imagery. And it’s a very visceral and intense take on this horror trope, leaning on the Gothic landscape and darkness, the isolation that comes when you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language, where you’re vulnerable because you’re facing an organized, united threat.
Keywords: Flowers, Rituals, Sacrifice, Outsiders, CW- Torture
Review: I wasn’t quite expecting just how dark this story got, though it follows most of the trajectory of the issue. This one embraces a pure horror, though, leaving behind most SFF trappings and instead offering an experience that oozes dread (though the flowers might be kinda supernatural so I don’t mean to say that this isn’t SFF rather that the horror here is definitely the main focus). I often hesitate with stories that focus on the danger of being in a foreign place, because it can make things seem like everything unfamiliar is therefore seeking to kill people. The story does show Angela and Joe being rather clueless and entitled tourists, but if that’s supposed to be the reason they’re tortured and ritually murdered, then I’m thinking the village would have found a reason regardless, or would have just killed them anyway. So there’s a part of me that’s uncomfortable with how the initial trespass of Angela and Joe might set up a “they earned this by committing a cultural taboo because of their ignorance” because Picard taught me better than that and is Wesley didn’t deserve to die then certainly these people don’t. That said, it’s a very effective bit of horror, and it creeped me right the fuck out. So there’s that. It’s a disturbing and violent piece, and fans of horror will probably find a lot to like. Just maybe approach with caution.

“Cavity in a Hurt” by J.M. Guzman (4500 words)

No Spoilers: This is certainly the most surreal of the stories this far, horrific in its own way but very different in tone and execution from the last piece. Here there’s not a whole lot that I can say with certainty or confidence, save that there is a woman named Santi who is dealing with some very invasive thoughts and feelings and an urge toward self harm (it seems to me) and there is a house who is also a monster who might be responsible for some missing kids. Throw in a mysterious father and a number of other people who might all be part of a biological weapon and maybe space ships and...well, the story flows around the hurt that Santi feels and the events of their life that may have led them to feeling that way. But it’s a disjointed and deeply strange experience that seems to focus on what it might be like to be haunted, or be a haunting. It’s weird, okay? But it’s also rather beautiful.
Keywords: Houses, CW- Suicide, Faith, Exorcism, Names
Review: I’m not sure I can pull out a linear story from this piece, and I’m not sure that I want to. A lot of it seems to resist any attempt to put a structure onto it, to make it make sense. Which, given the framing of the story, that this is a haunted house, a haunted place, speaking to itself as it also speaks to Santi, I think it’s fitting. That this house is a weapon, or a living thing, and that part of what makes it so difficult to exorcise is that it’s not something that makes total rational sense. It’s shape is that of a house but also isn’t. There’s a sense that I get reading the story that here is the house’s defense, it’s skill, it’s nature. And that, then, it mirrors in some ways the hurt that Santi feels, her own drive toward annihilation. That there’s so much complexity wrapped around these feelings, these thoughts, these actions, that it can only really be approached as a multitude of voices and images. As a series of moments. Not as a physical being so much as an action, a state of being, and trying to convey that through prose might be really tricky. Or, of course, I may just be way off. Because it has this poetic language, this way of defying the literal, I might be way off. But I do like the effect that it gave me, and I do think that it’s a piece worth spending some time with, to see what you might pull out.

“A Game of Lost and Found” by Mike Allen, Vajra Chandrasekera, Amal El-Mohtar, Natalia Theodoridou, & JY Yang (2520 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator is trapped in a maze, and yet the nature of the maze, and what it’s a maze to, remains a mystery, locked inside memory abd symbolism. The story is told piecemeal, each section complicating the one that came before but ignorant of any of the other sections, the whole something much different than the story where it began but the effect as a single story still rather interesting and striking. And I think it’s fitting that the story features a maze, as it’s something of a maze itself, twisting and turning, certain elements becoming dead ends while others further the reader toward an ending. Also fitting that the story is rather strange and nebulous, symbolic and just a bit creepy. For me, the meaning comes from following the diverging threads and finding where they all come together, the narrator on a journey through their memories, through themself, through the boundaries that exist between them and their goal. It’s a fascinating experience.
Keywords: Mazes, Memory, Pursuit, CW- Self Harm, Exquisite Corpse
Review: I think this might be my first time reviewing a story done as an equisite corpse, and it certainly closes out the issue with the strange momentum that peaked in the last story. Here, even with the myriad authors, the piece is on a bit more solid footing, and the story unfolds as a narrator finds themself in a maze, not really sure about much except for a few core truths. And I do like how each section deals with that, with what the narrator knows, and what they are yet to know. The maze is one of information as much as it is one of physical walls. It’s about what separates them from the one that they’re chasing, that they’re seeking. A sibling, lost to them. A cycle that keeps them stuck in the same loss, over and over again. The story seems built on the will to confront, to break through the walls that are keeping the two appart. And as the story progresses what becomes clear is that the walls only reflect their own inner conflict and struggle, and once they realize that, once they find the tools they need to proceed, they don’t hesitate. It’s a bit of an unsettling read, because the end comes with no small amount of blood, but it’s also something of a triumph, of this person breaking through the limitations forced on them and finding a beautiful dawn. A wonderful read!
(My secret guess: 1. JY Yang, 2. Amal El-Mohtar, 3. Mike Allen, 4. Vajra Chandrasekera, 5. Natalia Theodoridou)


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