|Art by Joey Jordan
It’s my pleasure to announce that starting today I’m adding a new publication to my reviewing list—Diabolical Plots! The venues tends to come out with two original stories a month, but kicks off 2019 with three short stories that present a mix of styles and structures. Indeed, the stories are linked perhaps by the novel ways they approach storytelling, with each taking a style that isn’t precisely new (a travelogue utopia/dystopia, a portrait of the mundane, and a list of words and definitions) but doing something different and delightful with them. There’s also a decent amount of darkness to even the brighter of these stories, and a humor to even the darkest of them. And they certainly don’t take the road most taken to reach their literary destinations. To yeah, let’s get to the reviews!
“The Divided Island” by Rhys Hughes (925 words)
No Spoilers: This story is framed using an older method, that of a traveler who has to set down and finds themself in someplace strange and wondrous. Here the narrator ends up finding themself on an island that is divided into two parts. The north is ordered and sterile; the south is chaotic and dangerous. Things aren’t quite as simple as they seem, though, and the piece explores the physical borders of these nations. And in so doing, it captures this feeling of layers and the interplay of order and chaos and absolutes always resolving into exceptions. It’s a strange and rather striking experience, walking the line between story and thought experiment.
Keywords: Order, Chaos, Zoos, Travel, Borders, Laws ,Violence
Review: I like how this piece leans on some older techniques with regards to revealing a strange but supposedly real place where Things Work Differently. Here, there are countries defined by order and by chaos. One where law is absolute and one where law is to be trampled. And yet both end up being reflections of the other, including the way that they grow, simultaneously yet organically, seeds of the other inside of them, so that the countries reflect back across borders both external and internal, both containing and maintaining a separation from the rival land. Which is strange, but I like how the story seems to explore how each country by needs does define itself based on its opposite. That order defines itself against chaos and chaos against order. That both are not necessarily coincidental outcroppings of organization but rather that they find expression in contrast to the other. Which is why the chaotic land is not just lawless but actively about breaking the laws that are in place in the land of order. And order is not about all restriction, but rather the restriction of the “freedoms” of the chaotic land. And that it becomes a sort of ouroboros because they are working in concert and yet opposed, neither of them exactly the cause of the other but that reflection existing all the same. And it becomes a sort of maze, a labyrinth that the narrator gets lost in in their quest to escape first one, then the other nation. Because both are really no place you’d want to live, and so the piece becomes about borders, and lines, and difference. And though it indeed might be something of an elaborate thought experiment, might be that conceit the story nods to in the end, it also might be something deeper than that. Whatever the case, it’s certainly an interesting read worth spending some time with.
“The Man Whose Left Arm Was a Cat” by Jennifer Lee Rossman (3195 words)
No Spoilers: Tom is a boring, boring man. Which is how he mostly wants to be. I mean, he enjoys being boring. For the most part. Don’t get him wrong, he just likes things that just...aren’t that out of the ordinary. But there are some things that he might also feel himself pulled towards. Like a weird neighbor who likes to wear bright colors and smuggle cats aboard the bus. Except, well, when there’s something of an...accident on the bus, it leaves Tom is a whole new world of, well, interesting. As the title implies, the piece is mostly light but also carries a surprising amount of darkness to it. Mostly, though, it’s cute and charming and rather heckin’ delightful.
Keywords: Cats, Accidents, Surgery, Blandness, Colors
Review: Okay so yes, I’m a sucker for stories that feature cats. And I like the setup to this one, where Tom is this guy who just doesn’t really like taking chances, but almost kinda wishes that he was. He likes things bland and gray, but he’s also drawn to a little bit of adventure. To people who aren’t exactly normal, like his neighbor Wendiie. And I like that the story is rather about...how terribly wrong going outside of his comfort zone goes. Because he doesn’t get off a bus he felt he should, and it turns out there was a bomb on board, and he ends up with a cat arm. And...well, in some ways it’s a rather dark piece, because there’s a bomb on a bus and there’s not really a way to make that...funny or light. But that aside, I like that the story shows him that while it’s not exactly what he wanted, he does end up like the cat arm, and likes being a bit more interesting than he was. It gives him a kind of confidence he never had before, and gets him to talk to Wendiie, and find that he’s not as alone or isolated by this unlikely situation as he might have been. And it’s fun and rather cute, a piece that might not really lend itself to a huge amount of in-depth analysis, but one that brought a smile to my face! A nice read!
“A Dictionary For Dreamers” by Cislyn Smith (2133 words)
No Spoilers: This piece is framed as a dictionary, as a list of words with definitions. And yet it also tells a kind of story, though not one that’s all that easy to piece together. There are clues within the words and definitions, though, feelings and ideas and dreams and hopes and hurts, which together begin to build up what might have happened. And which, which taken together, seem to speak to something terrible, and shattering, and how the narrator is trying to change things. To make it better. To apologize. To...something. And yet through it all there’s a feeling of loss and distance. Of someone being out of reach, and reality itself being fractured by what has happened. It’s a piece that seems to try and define the world in order to take back some sort of control from an impossible situation. To try and make right what doesn’t seem capable of being right. And it’s a careful and wrenching experience.
Keywords: Words, Dictionaries, Dreams, Accidents, Hospitals, Reality
Review: I love the way the story works as a dictionary, as these entries that might be random but for the shape they trace. The shape of loss, of the narrator in a hospital, trying to make sense of everything. Trying to offer this story-in-dictionary-form as a bit of apology, or as a way to try and rewrite the rules of the universe. Because if there’s one thing that a dictionary is supposed to be it’s factual. A dictionary defines things as if it stumbles upon the true meaning of words. And words make up the realities that people experience. So having control over the dictionary is no small thing. Here, I feel, the story puts the narrator into a situation where they have to watch someone die. What’s happened isn’t for me entirely clear. Was it a car accident? Or is this something more like a disease? Whatever the case, the action within the hospital isn’t exactly hopeful. Whatever happened, it seems terminal, and the person dying is someone the narrator really doesn’t want to lose. Someone they can’t seem to handle being gone. And so they do what they have to, what they can as a writer. They use words to try and wrest back the power in the situation. To map a language where they don’t have to lose, where they can escape their pain and their powerlessness. And it’s just a really interesting piece, complex and powerful for all that the literal plot might be a bit obscure to me. It’s formally daring, and I feel like the chances it take pay off in a mood and feeling to the piece that is heartbreaking and beautiful. A wonderful read!