|Art by Grace P. Fong|
December is full of presents, it seems, with Anathema giving the gift of more SFF short fiction and poetry to all the nice (or naughty, bc yolo) people of the world. The stories and poems are solidly strange and haunting, the mood rather appropriate for winter, which is where I’m reading them. They are cold, distant, and dominated by isolation and loneliness. They deal with ghosts, with gods, with loss, with transformations, and with hope. The characters here are dealing with feeling silent, with feeling cut off from needed support. From being able to truly inhabit and express themselves. To the reviews!
“Men in Cars” by Lisa M. Bradley (5175 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this piece spends a lot of time walking from town through the Bad Luck Bends, a rather deadly stretch of highway, to her home. Only recently has there been another woman who she’s walked with. A woman dressed entirely in white. Perhaps a coincidence, but there’s an urban legend in the Bends that there’s ghost who walks in white, who helps to contribute to the place’s reputation by luring men and then causing accidents that lead them to their deaths. Everything isn’t quite as it seems in this piece that’s part horror, part mystery, and very much about wounds and healing.
Keywords: Ghosts, Cars, Urban Legends, Murder, CW- Car Accidents
Review: I like how the piece plays with expectations, casting doubt right from the start about who might be the mysterious woman in white, and who might still be alive. For me, at least, the first teases that the woman the narrator meets on the road, dressed in white and with such an aggressive hatred for men, could be the ghost. As time passes, though, it becomes clear that something else is happening. And for me that has a way of really underlining how pervasive the larger problem is. Not that ghosts might target men. Not that a serial killer might target men. But that they are all of them hunting the kinds of men who have hurt them. A type. And they are everywhere. That even in this tiny little stretch of bending road where it is known that men should be careful, they still fall for the trap. They take the bait. And that’s a sad statement on these men that rings true to me. At the same time, I feel that the story mostly avoids the idea that all men are evil. Both women seem to have their targets, and those that they would let go. And it’s hard to blame them, really, for most of it. That the narrator changes her MO toward the end is interesting, though, because at first blush the man doesn’t seem to be interested in hurting her. More, though, that he’s not aware of the way that he’s hurting her, and isn’t interested in hearing it. This area is just a little project for him, a way to increase his reputation, and to do that he’ll sacrifice the narrator’s new friend. And the narrator knows that someone like her new friend will get no justice from a system that has already failed her. Failed them both. They have they own system, now, and while it’s far from perfect, it benefits by actually prioritizing them over those who would make them victims. Which makes for a rather chilling and creepy ghost story! A wonderful read!
“Fossilized” by Jessica Yang (2950 words)
No Spoilers: Huayin is a student living in the shadow of Tianran, a mountain god whose face has been caved long ago, revealing the god to the world. It’s a past that Huayin feels somewhat distanced from, not just by time but by a language barrier that makes communication with the primary guardian of that legacy and knowledge, their grandmother, mostly a stranger. It’s something they regret, not learning that language, not being able to say more to their grandmother, especially when they receive the news that she’s died. And the piece explores the grief left behind by that with its unique contours and depths. It’s tinged with loss and sadness, but the piece overall is not dominated by grief. Rather, it maintains a humor, and a rich flavor, that make it a rather joyous experience.
Keywords: Family, Grief, Gods, Ghosts, Queer MC(?)
Review: This story really speaks to me of family and the kind of divide that can open between a younger person and their grandparent, one mostly of language and distance. Of reaching the age when you really start to want to hear the stories that maybe as a child you weren’t ready for, or felt bored by, or couldn’t understand. Stories that always came second hand, and painted a picture of a grandparent that is different from the one you knew. Different from the careful, slower, older person that they became. And feeling this keening loss that comes with having that sudden moment when it’s no longer possible to reach back. Where it’s too late to have learned the language in order to talk to someone because they’re dead. Where you’ll never know how they thought about certain things and, most importantly, how they really thought about you, and how they might have reacted to knowing certain things about you. For Huayin, who definitely seems to be some kind of queer and/or trans, it’s a hugely loaded thing, because they basically hid themself from their grandmother for fear that she’d react poorly. And now it’s that they might have forever missed out on the chance to be accepted. To be have that moment of being seen and it’s a really emotionally charged moment that Huayin tries to bury by insisting that they didn’t really know their grandmother. But it haunts them, until they go out to the mountain, to Tianran, where it is said people can speak to the spirits of the dead. And the meeting there is just delightful while also being a little devastating, because it it’s until now that these two people can actually connect, and there is still this deep loss and grief, but it’s complicated by the way that the two do get on, and like each other, and that at least allows Huayin some closure, and some warmth and joy, as they look forward to a world where their grandmother isn’t alive any longer. A wonderful and heartwarming read!
“Fission” by Nicole Tan (3100 words)
No Spoilers: Ellis had something of an existential crisis following an argument and possible break up with xir girlfriend, Mai. Or maybe it was more of a physical one. Xe split into two people. And now, ten years later, Ellis has found xir binary. The reunion, though, promises to be loaded, strange, and filled with a mix of emotions for both people. Because in ten years they have changed, are now drastically different people. What that means for the Ellis who narrates the story, and for the complex situation around xir, is what the story explores and confronts, and makes for a slightly surreal but deep experience.
Keywords: Splitting, Time, Non-binary MC, Queer MC, Abandonment, Relationships
Review: This story imagines a sort of split timeline, Ellis experiencing one side of a coin as xe and xir binary are left living different lives. The narrator Ellis moving constantly, never settling, never staying involved with anyone for very long. Not saving, not advancing in any sort of career. Whereas “binary” Ellis (something of a pun, given that this Ellis uses she/her pronouns) is married to Mai and has a house, a somewhat stable job, all of that. It’s something where the narrator almost wants to believe that they must be two entirely different people. That the binary Ellis is too different to have truly come from the same point. Only it’s rather impossible to tell which is the “original” and which the copy. They split. They are the same. Just two different paths. And the narrator begins to see that as the rosy tinges wash off of binary Ellis’ life, as the narrator sees the cracks there and in seeing those sees xirself. For me the piece is about confronting possibility, of looking back and imagining what life might have been like. In some ways Ellis seems afraid that xe might have “made something” of xirself if only xe had done things differently. If only xe had conformed more to what society wanted. That xe be binary, that xe “settle.” It’s something that gets under xir skin, that literally pulls them apart, again and agian, because xe can’t shake the wonder, can’t shake the weird guilt and shame that all xe does is run away, leave people behind. To the point that xe doesn’t know if xe left xirself behind. If xe made a mistake. And it’s wrenching and real, messy in all the right ways, revealing a character who wants desperately to be let in, to be accepted, all the while having defense mechanisms that keep them alone, that push away those that get too close. And it’s a wonderful(ly queer) read!
“I Tire of This Skin” by Lowry Poletti (6400 words)
No Spoilers: Aeja is is a woman living with her mother in a house ripe with unfulfilled ambition. Their family is old money, but an old money that has mostly run out, and Aeja’s mother is not exactly on good terms with the relatives that are better off. That doesn’t mean she can’t leverage some, though, and so she invites her nephew and his new wife to visit, her plots anything but simple, and most of them revolving around marrying off her daughter. Aeja has no intention of going along with it, though, and aside from a fear beaten into her by her mother, she’s wild, a wolf who bristles under the demands of human skin. And then she meets her cousin’s wife, and things start to change. The piece is strange and carries a sense of oppression and defiance.
Keywords: Wolves, Family, Marriage, CW- Abuse, Queer MC
Review: This is an interesting take on something that resembles werewolf stories. Where Aeja is a woman who turns into a wolf, who revels in the night when she can finally be free and eat, can slip the bonds of her mother’s expectations that keep her prisoner during the day. The pressure to marry, to trade the abuse she gets from her mother for a probably-worse abuse she’d be subjected to from a husband. And I really love her character, someone who is brash and unwilling to be chained. Who sees the way everyone else acts and is disgusted by it, stifled by it. She doesn’t have the same restraint as her cousin’s wife, who she can tell is also a wolf. But a wolf who much more successfully hides who and what she is. Who is able to pass and move in the social circles that Aeja has no interest in. Aeja wants to hunt, wants to run in the woods, wants to be out about everything. And the piece then takes on a rather heavily queer implication. That being a wolf here is like being queer. And Aeja doesn’t want to hide from it, even as she’s been isolated, even as she has really no experience with other queer women. And so finally getting to interact is this further transformative moment, one where she wants (it seems, and in a rather loaded and evocative and kinky moment) to be submissive to this woman who seems to have more control, who might be able to bring Aeja to heel but not in a way that erases her. Rather, in a way that releases her from the constraints put on her by her mother and family. She wants to be free, and it’s a beautiful and aching portrayal of that, one that seems to find some peace by the end, in the wild and sensual and dangerous. A great read!
“St. Agnes” by Andalah Ali (2950 words)
No Spoilers: Mallaidh doesn’t have a lot of friends, doesn’t have a lot of contact with the rest of the world. Their work leaves them mostly alone, and their single good friend is an attendant at a cemetery. The piece is rather surrounded by death, and specifically the figure of one man, who appears in a special dream of Mallaidh’s, and who acts as a sort of thread that weaves throughout the tale. It’s a strange, haunting experience, chilling and challenging, with a slow sinking feel to it. Of a draft working its way through a room, or a door slowly closing.
Keywords: Cemeteries, Rituals, Dreams, Death
Review: Of all the stories in the issue, I hesitate really to call any of them the Most Strange, but this one I think has the lightest touch when it comes to narrative direction. Mallaidh is living in isolation, going days or weeks without speaking to anyone, without hearing their own voice. And when they try to change that, when they buy into superstition a little to try and get a dream of their future husband, they are greeted instead by the visage of a dead former classmate. And the piece is just so lonely to me, the narrator dealing with this crushing weight of distance and the desire to reach out contrasted against their aversion to people, their gravitation toward activities that are solitary. And so for me the dead man, this person they get a vision of in their dream, represents something of a “safe” way for them to be with someone. Which doesn’t necessarily start off as very horrifying but I do feel that it grows more so over time, that there is something creeping about the piece and the way this dead person keeps reappearing. For me, the piece sort of shows them slipping away from people, slipping into a dark where their only contact is this person who is already dead, who is a presence and not, until they, too, are something of a ghost. A ghost spouse being pulling into a tomb, forever cut off from the rest of the world and still unsure if that’s for the best, still not sure what they want, just numb and cold and caught, transfixed. It’s a lovely work, building this weirdness like a fragile silence, like the hush of a library, both comforting and oppressive all at once. A fine read!
“Ophelia” by Sydney Richardson
This work speaks to me of distance, of water, of the feeling of drowning. It features a narrator who has seen an apparition. A ghost. A woman in white. An archetype, here captured in Shakespeare’s Ophelia. The one who drowns. The one who is wronged, the one who is manipulated and used and discarded. And here in the poem the narrator comes across the woman in a river. A river the woman is floating on top of despite the currents and the rapids, despite the voices and the rushing waters. And Ophelia gives them a bit of advice that the narrator gets to carry with them, that the narrator is wise enough not really to tell anyone about, except in secret, except to us, the readers. It’s a rather lovely scene the poem paints, too, contrasting that terrible central part of it. The body. The dead woman. Both exist almost as a romantic painting, the stark light of her body against the depths of the water around her, the detail that the poem uses to described the way she is weightless, everything about her spindling out into the water. But she remains, for all that this might seem like the ultimate defeat for her, the end of her story. She remains, refusing to be pulled away into obscurity. She remains, with wisdom to share, though it’s not a very cheery sort. The truth that she tells is a warning, though I feel that it’s not a warning in the sense that many people (and the play itself) mean it, where Ophelia is too sensitive and so dies from the emotional abuse that she’s put through. Rather, her warning is about looking into the dark. About the need especially for women but for anyone in an oppressive and unjust situation to keep swimming. To keeping fighting. To not get caught focusing only on the seemingly impossible task ahead, or at the way that everything seems dark and infinite and hostile. To concentrate on swimming. And for me that is an empowering message, a needed reminded that you have to know when to breathe, and when to hold your breath. Definitely a piece to spend some time with!
“Tapah Lullaby” by May Chong
This poem tells a story, a myth, a bit of folklore, a piece of history. That once there was a man who found a Tapah on a dry bank and cut them open. Gold spilled from inside the fish, and the man then sewed the fish back up and released them, after which this man made a vow that none of his line would ever touch a Tapah, on pain of a rash that would infect them. And I really like the way the poem renders this story, the from the point of view not of the humans involved, but of the fish. That here we find the descendants of that tapah, and find that they have many reasons to be upset with humans. That this fish in particular, the narrator of the poem, is angry, grieving, and looking for a spot of revenge. And I love that the fish here is reminding the reader, who is put into the position of the person who ate the narrator’s mate, that it wasn’t the tapah who made the vow in the story. It was the human who put the mandate on his bloodline, something the tapah are not restricted by. It will cause not a bit of discomfort of the narrator, for example, to eat the reader. To eat a human. And I think for me it gets at this idea of breaking through the distance that people have constructed between themselves and their food. A distance that didn’t exist during the time when the folklore, when the myths, were helpful for warning people about the dangers (allergic or otherwise) that certain foods posed. And the narrator of the poem seems determined to cross that distance, to break that distance, to bring back to the reader, to the eater, the fear and respect that is due to the animals who become our food. And it’s a piece with a rich vein of darkness, an implicit and explicit threat, and a great ending. It’s a wonderful way to close out the issue!