So I might have missed when this latest issue of Anathema dropped on the last day of the year. My apologies! I’m super glad I caught it, though, because it’s an amazing bunch of stories, featuring six different works that explore grief, loss, and a palpable powerlessness. The characters are dealing with things that cannot be changed (or that seem like they cannot be changed) and finding out what they can do about it. That sometimes means learning how to accept things and try to move on, though that’s complicated by grief, by pain, and by the fear of losing more. It’s an emotional and often devastating read, and I’ll get right to those reviews!
“There are Ghosts Here” by Dominique Dickey (2850 words)
No Spoilers: Leo, the elder brother of Louisa and Lucas, has disappeared. One day he’s just gone, offering no real closure for his family, for his parents. There is a moment of hope, it seems, in some relatives that the family knows, but that opens up its own complications, and a whole lot of time. The piece mostly follows Lucas, who is quite young when his brother goes missing, as he grows and tries to process his feelings about life and death, about his brother and what happened. It’s a solemn and quiet story, full of loss and a sort of mystery. Not about what happened to Leo, though that question remains as well, but of the strange powers that Lucas witnesses, and what it all means.
Keywords: Ghosts, Healing, Family, CW- Auto Accidents, Resurrection, Stars
Review: I love the way this story hits with just this loss at the beginning, the disappearance of Leo, which the piece never really explains. Because, I think, it doesn’t really have to. For me, at least, it’s not about the reasons for why Leo was beaten to death. Those reasons are probably all too common—the color of his skin, or where he was walking, or who he talked to. Those reasons don’t really reveal much, and so I like that the story concentrates instead on what happens next, of what that loss does to Louisa and Lucas, and the magic that springs up from Maisie, their cousin, who seems to have inherited the power to heal the mortally wounded or even, it turns out, to raise the dead. The piece is strange and has this great sense of…I’ll call it innocent maturity. Lucas and Maisie are acquainted with death, and with loss, and with grief. And yet they both look forward, toward a future where they are not defined by that loss. They save what and who they can, and they respect the rest as they can. And they do push for some level of closure for what happened with Leo. Not by solving his murder, but by bringing him back to life. Not bothering really with the reasons, but knowing that they can, and doing it because it feels right. The piece is understated but richly imagined, a tale of family and magic and pain and healing. A stellar way to kick off the issue!
“This is the Nightmare” by Aysha U. Farah (3525 words)
No Spoilers: This story reimagines Sherlock Holmes as someone who specializes in finding people using the Net, an immersive internet that they can slip into and expand into, that allows them to both embody themself and escape their body. They’re agoraphobic and looked after by their sister Maya. The piece follows them as they come across a new entity, one that they have a hand in making, and one who comes to bring them deeper into the net and also pushing them far outside their comfort zones. It’s a piece of attraction and repulsion, fear and hate, and the complex reality of this Sherlock Holmes. For me it’s about self-destruction, and seeking an escape from a constant pain and worry and discomfort.
Keywords: Immersion, Family, AI, Sherlock Holmes, Hacking
Review: I really like what this story does with the idea of Sherlock Holmes. It’s not a traditional pastiche or adaptation for sure, even outside of the science fiction trappings and the much improved Mycroft. Indeed, what this story does in part is show what’s possible when a Holmes-type story gets outside of the Holmes/Watson dynamic. In every other iteration, Holmes and Watson meeting is the beginning of the story. Here, though, there’s this waiting that is thwarted by not concentrating there. There is a question of who the being is that Sherlock helps to create, who this doppelganger is, but most probably won’t confuse them for Watson. Instead, the piece is about Sherlock making a sort of mirror of himself, and how bad that gets. How much it solidifies what was always the case, giving body to the dark places of their psyche, of their mind. And it’s rather terrifying because of that, because here they have no Watson to pull them back from the brink. They have only this version of themself who has for so long been waiting for a chance at expression. And it makes for a slightly surreal experience, dark and brooding and on the edge of something dangerous and sensual. Most of the time Holmes stories are a bit more clinical, a bit more about his intellect and his boredom, but here I don’t get that. Rather, it feels a bit more fleshed out, a bit messier, and I really appreciate that getting outside of that paradigm. It’s a lot of fun while also presenting a very complex and nuanced take on this character, on his genius but also his stupidity. And it’s a wonderful read!
“Igbo Landing” by Jonathan Kincade (3425 words)
No Spoilers: Marcus and his boyfriend Vincent have broken down in the middle of nowhere, on a long stretch of swampy road. Marcus is a photographer, and while out snapping pictures, trying to make the best of things, he and Vincent stumble across a bit of history. A history muddied by time and shame, by an attempt to forget about the atrocities of the past. Only that history is not willing to stay buried, to stay forgotten, and it holds a more personal connection to Marcus. One that beats in his veins, and wakes at his presence. It’s a horror story that combines the feeling of being lost in the relative wilderness and navigating a brutal history that cannot be denied.
Keywords: Zombies(?), Cars, Queer MC, History, Ancestry
Review: The story unfolds with a tension that grows exponentially, that starts with just the mundane worries of a couple who have been together a little while and then growing into something much bigger, and much darker. There’s a bend toward tragedy here, too, which plays into some horror tropes and make parts of this more difficult, because of how it treats with queer tragedy, but I feel that the piece’s focus on tragedy overall makes the treatment interesting and rewarding. These are men who are in a long stretch of their relationship, with all the small tensions that brings with, but they seem to very much like each other. At the same time, though, they seem poised on the edge of something that neither of them really understand. They find this historical market and this bridge, and decide to cross it, not really knowing what they’ll find and not really caring. It’s almost like people who decide they want to take a genealogy test, thinking that it’s all in good fun, that there’s nothing that they could learn that would surprise them, and finding…well, that they were quite wrong about that. Because there are some things that can change a person to know. That can change a relationship. That cannot be unseen. And being linked to this history that neither knew anything about does open up this doorway into something terrifying, into something dark and deep and waiting. It’s a piece that plunges quickly once things get going, a rollercoaster ride into the inky abyss, and it’s a moving and gutting experience very much worth checking out!
“Taraxacum” by Cristina Stubb (1625 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has lost someone. Told in the second person, they’ve lost you. You, a childhood friend who became so much more. Who lived and made something of yourself but who also…well, who is gone now. Only maybe not so gone as it might seem. Because the narrator keeps finding flowers. Dandelions. Your favorite. The piece is full of grief and longing, a raw hurt that is carried through beautifully by the prose. It paints its situation in broad strokes, but in a way that conveys all the heart of what is happening and what has happened. It’s about endings, and beginnings, and all the pain that can go along with both of those. And it does a great job of combining dreams, and hauntings, and love.
Keywords: Flowers, Ghosts, Gifts, Loss, Queer MC
Review: Okay so this story hurts. It’s a heartbreaking read in large part because of how carefully and yet lightly the piece builds the relationship between the narrator and their lost love. That in itself would be emotional, but there’s so much history here, so much feeling behind it. That the two characters have been friends since they were kids, helped each other through so much. That they had this brief window of time that was marked by mutual love, by a blooming of their childhood feelings into something mature and alive and amazing. The piece doesn’t go into great detail about that, leaving even the way that you died a bit of a mystery. But then, it doesn’t make the story about the death, about the actual event. It makes it about the way the narrator is struggling with it, the way this loss is haunting them, perhaps literally through these flowers. How they have this guilt from their desire to move on, to keep going, to maybe even fall in love again. And how they aren’t sure what you would think of that. How they want to believe you would approve, but they’re afraid. They feel guilty that they want to live, that they want to continue when you do not. And it’s moving and it’s beautiful and I love the way that dreams and magic intrude into the world here, completely unquestioned and real. It’s a tender and wrenching exploration of grief and healing through flowers, and the lingering hope and fear of moving on. A fantastic read!
“The Plague-House” by Maya Chhabra (2625 words)
No Spoilers: Catia is a woman who has survived the plague before, who is immune to it—but her family isn’t, and she’s already lost her stepdaughter when it swept through the city last time. Now that it’s returned, she loses no time waiting for it to find her family, and instead goes out to volunteer at the plague-house nearby. It’s a desperate situation, made more so by Catia deciding to take in an abandoned and sick child who the house couldn’t fit. The piece is rending, difficult because of the brutal efficiency of the disease and the way that the odds of survival, of the magical cure working, seem to never be certain enough. It’s about compassion in the face of epidemic, and how sometimes (often, even), it’s disaster and need that bring out the best in people.
Keywords: Disease, Family, Medicine, Magic, CW- Loss of a Child, Death
Review: Wow. The issue continues along the tragic trajectory of the past few stories, deepening things even more as death stands poised to pass through a whole city. And it’s a plague that takes so many, so quickly, that no amount of heroics on the part of Catia seems to make a dent. Some people are saved, but even some of those end up succumbing, and in the end even the relative good odds of healing by a sorcerer (one in three) doesn’t really seem to make that much of an impact, especially when those odds often feel optimistic against the realities of watching people suffer and die. Catia’s situation is one tinged by tragedy, and yet she reacts to that by reaching out more, by trying to redouble her efforts to do good. She does not shrink away from people because of her experiences, but rather gets right to work. So does her partner, though perhaps in a different way. And there’s a heartbreaking impact of having to watch Catia, who is some ways seemed grateful not to have much to lose, lose more. This story (for me) contains the deepest dark of the issue, the powerlessness in the face of disease, in the face of the efficacy of medicine. And yet at the same time it continues the turn of the end of the last story, choosing to end on a bit of respite, on a hope, on the ways that life continues and compassion is not fruitless, even if it does not halt loss or tragedy. It’s a story that shattered my feels just to put them back together again, and it’s definitely a story to check out!
“Tiny Blue Dot” by Kai Hudson (3000 words)
No Spoilers: Elena is a linguistic analyst working in a failing field, one that grew in the shadow of First Contact, a signal from a distant world that was determined to be of intelligent origin. With the distance, though, any hope of a second signal so close on the heels of the first is…slim, and in the face of massive cutbacks following the fervor of the discovery dying back, Elena finds her situation precarious, trying her hardest to support not just her child but her parents and her family abroad as well. The piece is very much about family and desperation, about the decisions that people make thinking that their security, that their jobs, will last forever, and the things they might be willing to do, to try, when that security crumbles in their hands.
Keywords: Aliens, Space, Childcare, Employment, Linguistics, Parenting
Review: After the last few stories, that this one doesn’t focus on death and grief doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly a light story. Indeed, there’s a tension and a hopelessness that builds organically out of the last piece, where Elena’s situation isn’t entirely unlike Catia’s, both of them desperate to not lose everything, both of them having to face that they can’t control what happens, can’t control anything but what they do in the face of their loss. And this story just does a wonderful (as in painfully accurate) job of showing what it’s like to have made “good choices” and still be on the edge of collapse. Because of how rigged the system is. Because of how there isn’t a safety net, and yet people are still pushed to walk a tightrope above ruin. Because once children and family get involved, it’s impossible to make dispassionate decisions, and because it’s always impossible to see the future, and never a sure bet. And I like that, in the face of that, Elena makes the decisions she has to, not just accepting that this is all just and right. Not just rolling over when she knows that things can rise and fall based on a single scrambled signal, and that when the whims of fate seem uncaring and cruel, sometimes they need a nudge in the right direction. It’s a piece that really gets what it’s like to be straddling the line, financially, and looking down the barrel of cutbacks and a decline job market. The way it crushes hope. And the way that in the face of that kind of corruption that leaves people working their hardest still without security, some moral decisions can get just a bit hazy. A nice way to close out a strong issue!