|Art by Grace Fong|
Well, say what you will about the fact that Strange Horizons publishes all varieties of SFF, because what it always delivers on is right in its name…a h*ckin’ strange experience. A prime example is the short story from the second half of February, which combines an almost dreamlike, nightmarelike feel with a quest for apples in a ruined landscape prowled by twisted doctors. It’s as creepy as the poetry here is at turns fun and devastating. The pieces here show that SFF isn’t just one thing, isn’t defined by plot or world-building elements, but can shine by the strength of their weirdness. Their lovely strange horizons. So let’s get to the reviews!
“Dem Bones” by Lavie Tidhar (2216 words)
No Spoilers: Ezra is a former...inmate(?) of a strange group knows as doctors who roam the world demanding apples from people, taking those who can’t produce. Exra spent five years inside, and now that he’s out he’s got a line on an apple tree that might set him up good and proper. Only getting to it might be something of a problem, so he’s recruited some help. The piece is deeply strange and haunting, the world damaged and perhaps filtered through a man who isn’t really experiencing it the way that it is. If he is, it’s a world where everyone is afraid of doctors, who might as well have stepped out of a nightmare for how they move and act. But their power is unquestionable, and Ezra is determined to try for the garden he’s seen growing in an abandoned factory, even if it does seem too good to be true.
Keywords: Apples, Doctors, Traps, Theft, Death
Review: There’s a part of me that just doesn’t know what exactly to think of this story, with its bizarre and haunting imagery and the feeling that all isn’t quite what it seems. If these doctors require apples, then why aren’t there more apple trees? Why is everything so burnt out, so strained and frayed. The city seems to be greatly reduced, and the people greatly disheartened. What remains is violence and death and loss and incarceration. And yet I’m not quick to dismiss the literal reality of the story as merely some extended metaphor. Yes, it’s possible that it’s making a statement on healthcare, on doctors and their requirement that people hold up standards in order not to have their autonomy and freedom taken away. That Ezra might be someone with some severe cognitive and perception issues and he’s seeing a world twisted by paranoia and delusions. There’s something compelling to the world, though, that I don’t want to be metaphoric. Some statement instead that in a world where apples, a presumably renewable resource, are the most important currency, people are still just scraping by. Because of how everything is loaded against them. Because everything is trapped for the hell of it, and sometimes the best you can do is get a taste of something crisp and bright and wonderful. It’s a difficult and odd piece, but definitely one that’s worth spending some time with. A great read!
“The Modern Girl’s Guide to Dating the Paranormal” by Caroline Cantrell
This is a charming poem about dating and about the paranormal. About advice for girls who are thinking about going out with a person who’s a bit magical. More than that, though, I feel the poem does a wonderful job of capturing some of the ideas behind dating advice, especially for women. Namely, that there’s no real safety here, and no real...”winning” we’ll say. For every option here, there is advice, but all of it is about the ways that these magical beings might be a bit dangerous, a bit cruel, a bit...not perhaps the greatest choice for a significant other. The poem is broken into parts for each potential suitor, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with those, with the varieties of monsters and witches and time travelers on display. I love the way that the stanzas grow and shrink depending on how complex the situation is. But there’s also a darkness to the piece, not just because it’s dealing with the supernatural (not for me, at least) but rather that it’s dealing with dating, which here is essentially getting compared with monster hunting. For me, at least, the implication is that dating is like going out there into a dark world needing to be prepared for everything. Needing to be able to tell vampire from werewolf from ghost, not simply because it’s nice to know but because if things go wrong you need to know how to handle them. To protect yourself. Which is something that never truly leaves the equation, no matter how much a person wants dating to be simple and safe. So yeah, it’s a delightful piece about dating and desire, and it’s funny and cute and you should definitely check it out!
“In One Sentence” by Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto
This poem speaks to me of loss, and of the reminders of loss. Of home, and the reminders of home, and how in situations of war and strife and destruction, home is a loaded idea. Something that cannot be simply captured. Something that defies some sort of condensation for the sake of ease or brevity. For me, that echoes in the title, which seems to imply that the narrator is seeking to answer a question. On a form, perhaps? In an interview? Something that is requiring them to answer in one sentence something about who they are or where they come from. To describe their home, or why they left it. Something that sounds so simple, that looks so harmless there on a piece of paper with maybe two lines blank for the person to answer. In one sentence. Because these things need to be reduced to that much in order to be processed efficiently. As if that were even the point. As if it weren’t all to erase the harm being done, the complexity of the situation and the reality that this person doesn’t seem to have left their home—their home left them. And now here they are, not really sure of themself, not really sure of much except that they remember a place and a feeling that no longer exists. They’ve been forced away and now have to answer this question in a way that’s not satisfying or meaningful for them, but which might carry the weight of so much. The ability to live in another place. Or to hold a job. Or go to school. To apply for aid, or for asylum. All of these things that should want more than a single sentence, but know that if people actually got into it all they couldn’t then deny it. It makes it so simple, that these things need to be approached like elevator pitches in order to justify a human life and yeah, it’s a very powerful poem that does a lot in a relatively small amount of space. It captures a complexity and conflictedness about the idea of home for the narrator that cannot be reduced easily, that must be allowed space to be explored and mapped. And it’s an excellent read you should definitely check out!