"Hunting the Viper-King” by Kathryn Harlan (6053 words)
No Spoilers: Dorothy has been traveling with her father her entire life in an RV, chasing a fortune he received that he would find the Viper-King and render its fat, drink it, and gain all the wisdom in the world. It’s something that Dorothy, now fourteen, accepts without too much question, though at the same time she doesn’t exactly believe that it will ever happen. She studies advanced math and deals with being a kid whose father is chasing a mythical snake across the country. When the latest clue take them to Kansas, though, the fantasy they’ve been chasing seems poised to leap into the nonfiction section. Quiet and heavy, the piece tackles themes of family and knowledge, dissatisfaction and desperation.
Keywords: Quests, Family, Snakes, Fortunes, Wisdom
Review: This story has such a weird premise—this quest by this quasi-deadbeat dad to find this mythical snake and drink its fat to gain infinite wisdom. Not exactly because that’s something he really wants, but because he’s enamored with the idea that he’s this special person in a world that is fundamentally disappointing. That the feeling of generalized dissatisfaction he’s felt his entire life must mean that he’s meant for something larger, greater, more important and magical. And he’s let that guide him, living with his daughter in an RV with very little money, ignoring most things about actually raising her or caring for her, just chasing this dream. And I love how that plays out from Dorothy’s perspective, how she has this terribly complex relationship to her father and his quest. How a part of her seems to resent it all while another part accepts that it’s just her own normal, however slim a probability it might be that she’d end up this way. There’s comfort for her in numbers, and also a way to avoid thinking about the future, a future that neither she nor her father really can imagine. And then the impossible happens, and it turns out this snake is real, and it’s amazing how that’s captured, that this was never some grand prophecy but rather something that her father latched onto, that he made his destiny by chasing it. But also that’s it’s not absolute. Which for Dorothy seems freeing in some ways, that she’s not bound by the restraints of someone else’s destiny. That she can maybe make her own way, away from the deeply flawed man who has raised her. That maybe she needs to think about herself, and a future outside this quest which is now over. It’s a tender and strangely emotional story for all that Dorothy is not a very emotional character. But her levelness contrasting her father’s more drastic moods speaks volumes, and sets up a loneliness and longing that is profound and moving. It’s a lovely read and a story worth spending some time with!
“Gephyrophobia” by Rykie Belles (1544 words)
No Spoilers: Sam gets a call every Halloween from his childhood friend, Becky. Not really to catch up. In fact, they know very little about each other since they last saw each other thirty years ago. Thirty years ago when they shared an experience that is following them still, which requires a call every year just to confirm that it really happened. The explores this lasting damage, the scars of which both characters bear prominently. And it looks at what happens when, one year, the cycle of call and suppress is finally broken. The piece uses a light touch when building up what happened, leaning on some tropes and conventions in SFF and horror, but it does so sharply and powerfully, building to a moment of doubt, hope, and darkness.
Keywords: Halloween, Bridges, Trauma, Portals, Scars
Review: I really love the slow build the story engages in when revealing what the fuck happened to these people when they were kids. How they crossed a bridge on a blood moon and were transported into a magical realm that was decidedly not safe, were captured by some sort of dark presence there who imprisoned them and literally drained their blood. It builds up this very dark story of what happened to them without really every saying what happened. The reader must fill in the blanks with their own guesswork and knowledge of how these kinds of stories go. The kids pass through, are hurt in unspeakable ways, have to do Some Shit in order to escape, and then return to the real world where they haven’t aged a day (despite years having passed) and being real fucked up by it. And I love that the story becomes about how they move forward, how they try to live normally and ignore the fuck out of what happened to them. How in some ways they try to pretend that it wasn’t real, because if it was real it would make them killers. But they have to have this moment on Halloween where they confirm to each other that they aren’t just making it up. That it happened. And I really like how, thirty years on, they are at a place where they have to return. Where they have to confront fully what happened to them and try to put it to bed. Try to fully end it so that they can maybe stand a chance of recovering. Of healing. Because otherwise it’s this open wound that they try to move around but that just drains them still. And I like the rapport between the characters, their history and their ease with each other despite not having seen each other in so long. It’s a piece where I want more because I desperately want to know what happened, and what will happen, but at the same time I don’t think it’s necessary to know. What’s here is strong and strange and dark and very good. A wonderful read!
“The Bride of Frankenstein Considers Her Options” by Meghan Phillips
This piece speaks to me of choice, and monstrosity, through examining the character of the woman made to be the bride of Frankenstein’s creature. It looks at the role she’s expected to step into, as well as the lingering darkness that lurks under everything, that informs the danger she’s in and the path she must try to navigate. She’s been created, after all, to be an object, expected to retain her obedience to the system by virtue of her being built from women. And she’s expected to accept everything that is handed to her, the thought of being made as a bride rather than as a full person. The thought of having to trust men who have done nothing to earn that trust, who actually have seemed to be entirely selfish and damaging to everyone around them. They’ve shown they don’t care about life, and especially considering she’s been built in part out of women they’ve had a hand in destroying, she’s supposed to be okay with that. The title of the piece implies that she’s trying to find a way out of that, out of the cycle of violence and abuse that everyone seems caught in. It’s not exactly a happy piece, but I appreciate how it frames the violation of this woman, the way that she’s been primed to be a kind of sacrifice, all the while being assured that she’s not, that she’s being valued as a person. Only she can see through the lie, and is left wondering what she can do about it, or if she’s stuck playing victim to the abuses and hungers of the men around her. It’s a slightly unsettling but powerful look at a character who doesn’t get much in the way of voice or attention. A great read!
“tigerlily” by Amanda Gafford
This piece speaks to me of generalities as well as specifics, building up the kind of beautiful tragedy of witchgirls. The details of the piece are specific and often intense, which gives the feeling of intimacy for me, that this must be the story of one girl, and yet the poem seems to seek to keep things grounded in the universal. This is the story of a witchgirl, yes, but it is also the story of all witchgirls, the fate waiting for those who would break with conventions and embrace the natural and the magical, the dark and the powerful. And I love the way that it builds this moment of intolerance and tragedy, where the witchgirl is invariably kicked out and turned on by the community she threatens because of her ability to reveal truths and corruptions. And how it refuses to let this be only about her destruction, because she finds ways to live on still, in the shadows of the world, in the faces of bees busily making honey, in every facet of nature that settlements that kicked her out also spurn. But that waits for those wanting a taste of magic, eager to share a glimpse of a possible future but also damning for the greedy and for those who would seek to take without asking, who would seek to exploit what is being freely given. I like how this new magic is edged, still refusing to back down, still taking what power it can. It’s a sort of myth, too, a way of wrapping this magic in a story, a way of personifying a kind of plant so that it becomes a symbol for something else, a way of remembering and carrying forward the dead, who like in the poem are often nameless, just witchgirls. But here they live on in story and in the plants, free in some ways from the cycle of abuse. It’s a great read and a fine way to close out the issues!