|Art by Reiko Murakami|
“Super-Luminous Spiral” by Cameron Van Sant (3510 words)
No Spoilers: Told in second person, this story puts you in college, an undergraduate seeking an English degree, in a creative writing class when you meet a boy with blue and green skin that pulse with galaxies. And with him you seem to awaken to your potential, writing a story that seems to shine, that makes you feel...good. Except afterward the boy moves on, finds someone else, and you are left to try and pick up the pieces. To that end, you try to reach out to the other people who have been touched by the same boy, the same muse. Full of longing and hurt and uncertainty, the piece is wrapped in a delicate beauty that traces the feeling of creation and freedom linked hand and hand with the horror of it all as well.
Keywords: College, Writing, Queer MC, Muses, Quarantine
Review: Okay, so as an English Major there’s a lot I appreciate about this story, about the feeling of presumably learning how to write, and experiencing college and the freedom of it and coming to terms with maybe being much less straight than you thought you were. It’s all happening at once and the emotions rush in this graceful arch through the story, where you are basically emotionally exhausted, making kinda messed up decisions more because there’s no resources to help you with all of this. And all of those feelings concentrate into the idea that there is a muse of creation, that there is a source that a person can tap into, and through that make their best art. And I love how the story captures the feeling of writing something personal and strong and then feeling like it’s impossible to ever do again. Because you want something to last, the satisfaction of that moment to last, and it doesn’t. It moves on, and you sort of have to as well, even if you don’t want to. Because no success is eternal, no single story enough that you can just sort of...stop. And yet how people and professors talk about writing is often kind of lofty, focused on literary fiction, and breeds a certain kind of arrogance and insecurity. And yeah, I like here how this idea of the muse is one of ignition, that it’s something that wakes in all of these people a hunger and a need that it can’t fulfill. And how they chase after it, desperate, and will continue after it until they realize they don’t need it, and that the craft of writing is neither about divine (or celestially sexy) inspiration nor droning iterations of the stories about cheating. That learning and growing as a writer is sometimes about living, and experience, and that getting too focused on any one aspect of writing doesn’t tend to go well. But yeah, it’s a lovely story that’s very much worth spending some time with. Go check it out!
“The Horror of Party Beach” by Dale Bailey (9450 words)
No Spoilers: Mike is a high school junior in a town that doesn’t have much to offer, where the long days are spent mostly working and dreaming about the future. And listening to music and necking over at Party Beach. Unfolding in the 1950s, the story follows Mike as he and classmate Elaine start going steady. Elaine, the daughter of a man viewed as something of a mad scientist. Elaine, whip smart and very much into science...and the sea. The piece starts out as a bit of Americana, flavored with nostalgia of times gone by and regret that slowly blooms into a horror that seems to nod to the older monster movies. Like the title, the piece is something out of time, not a satire but more a more modern pastiche of creature features, with a more in depth and human focus, and by extension a more profound and unsettling terror.
Keywords: High School, Dating, Monsters, Seas, Sex, Friends
Review: Where I almost expected something with this title to be played for laughs, instead what I found in the story is a rather wrenching and yearning story about the past. About the darkness that was born there, that is being visited on the present. About the culture of silence and broken promises that opened the doors for the horror that unfolds in the story. Mike and Elaine’s relationship is complex but something I wanted to root for. There’s...well, not an innocence to them (though the nostalgia gives everything a softer, almost more sympathetic air), but rather they’re just sort of cute together. Her more in control despite the times and gender roles, him much more passive. In that passivity, though, there’s also a darkness and a guilt. And for me it’s there that the story gains a lot of its impact. Because I think what the story does is look at the past through Mike’s eyes to show not how guilty he feels (because, tbh, he doesn’t seem to feel all that guilty about what happened), but to show how guilty he _is_. Guilty not just in a moral sense, but in more profound ways. His passivity serves him well, but it also allows for better men (the totally-not-secretly-Steve-Rogers Brad, for instance) to die and be consumed. Despite that it’s Mike’s reluctance that gets everyone in trouble. Mike’s refusal to examine his situation. Mike’s ignoring of the warning signs because he wants sex. Mike’s fondness for his own terrible children. He has power in these situations, could have worked to actually make things right (as Brad seemed at all times to be trying to do). Instead, he writes himself off as powerless. And makes that feeling of powerlessness a virtue in his heart, even as it dooms everyone. For me it’s a critique of the nostalgia that he holds for the past, showing that what it hides is a slide from valuing standing up for what’s right to looking out for yourself. And it’s rather subtly done. There’s also a nice sense of science run amok and young love and it’s a rather complex read, very much worth spending some time with. A great story!
“Ten Deals with The Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (3440 words)
No Spoilers: An unnamed (as far as I can tell) narrator recounts the many times they made a deal with an indigo snake. Starting out in childhood, for a bit of justice, to test the waters. As they grow up, though, the bargains grow and shrink in complexity, impact, and cost. And the nature of the deals, and the snakes, slowly begins to form as the narrator struggles with the curves of their life, the consequences not of their bargains but of their decisions. The piece isn’t exactly tragic to me though it’s far from happy. The focus is on costs, and choices, and addiction, and it makes for an aching read at times, where the narrator makes choices hoping to win something, not really realizing what it is that they’re really doing. And through it all there is a sort of fragile beauty, a relationship built for all the wrong reasons that still ends up being incredibly important and redemptive.
Keywords: Bargains, Snakes, Gambling, Queer MC, Consent
Review: I love the idea of snakes as vehicles not exactly for temptation (though there is that), but for bargains. And how that has earned them (rather unfairly) the reputation as corruptors. As liars and tricksters, trying to lead humans into further and further folly. When, time and again, it’s clear in the story that the snakes don’t have a choice in the matter. That it’s not really their wills driving the deals. That they simply know the price for what humans want, and aren’t allowed to refuse. It makes for a rather difficult situation for them when people seek them out. When the narrator continues to return to the indigo snake, to Drymarchon, time and time again. Not that the snake doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t want the deals, but that there’s no choice really, just a statement of terms and an execution of them. For the narrator, it’s more complicated, especially because they’re addicted to it, to the gamble. And it leads them down some very damaging avenues, trying to coerce the universe into giving them what they want. To make them happy and satisfied. And I just love how the story takes that and brings the narrator to where they can begin to see that what they’re doing isn’t what they think it is. That they have been participating in this lie that they were being tempted, that they were being seduced, that they were the wounded party because they were the one always paying the price, when it was always them pushing the deal. And it’s a complex and careful story and one that’s sad and lovely and so interesting. Another wonderful read!
“The Real You™” by Molly Tanzer (3620 words)
No Spoilers: An unnamed narrator gives their story to an equally unnamed audience in this story framed as a one-sided conversation. Which is a rather apt device, seeing as how the piece focuses on intimacy and trust, appearance and expression. The narrator is someone navigating a web of friendships and lovers, boyfriends and liaisons. And when the story opens, they are talking to a friend about a procedure that makes a person’s face into something of a blank slate, devoid of the standard markers of expression. It’s something that recurs through the tale as they tell of who they argued with, who they cheated on, and how so much of their life seemed to fall apart. It’s a story heavy on drama driven mostly by the flighty narrator, whose voice is at the same time casual and intimate.
Keywords: Plastic Surgery, Faces, Cheating, Relationships, Breakups
Review: I think what I like most about this story is the main character and the strange place they inhabit. It’s like they’re in some ways the champion of not committing to much, moving from relationship to relationship, friendship to friendship, leaving a trail of hurt and destruction in their wake. There’s this deep dissatisfaction that I read in them, that doesn’t allow them to settle, or to really be happy, and I feel that the story places a lot of that on a culture where most of what’s important is only surface level stuff. Is only appearance, and perception. It’s a game, and as a gamer the narrator feels that they’re pretty good. Except that they can’t seem to find a long-lasting happiness or contentment. They are pulled this way and that. And, stepping in to capture that feeling, this procedure of wiping away the facial features is interesting and complicated. Because in some ways it’s another refusal of trust and intimacy, obscuring that face behind a mask and saying that the mask is only what is true. Which is interesting and might have some traction except that this is also something driven by money and fashion, what seems like an affectation for many. For things like this, though, the line blurs around what is a true expression of self and what is instead an attempt to conceal that truth, something that’s definitely muddied when dealing with a character whose stated motivations are more about wanting to avoid being vulnerable than really identifying with the procedure. And really, it’s a messy story because it reveals this very messy character, in some ways cruel and in some ways very human, making mistakes and always reaching for something that might make them feel better, never quite facing that what’s making them miserable is the very system, the very values, that they’re reaching for and participating in. It’s complex, and strange, but compelling and captivating and profound. A fine read!