|Art by Deoxy Diamond|
Strange Horizons closes out January with two more issues, including two poems and a novelette. The poems are well paired, about romance mixing with some certain darker elements, and both do a great job of exploring the feelings caught up in the attraction between two people. The novelette...well, it's an amazing work of dark fantasy/horror and I very much recommend it, but definitely be aware of the content warnings because it is also a very difficult story in many ways. Challenging and responsible, in my opinion, but certainly not light or easy. So let's get to the reviews!
“One Hand in the Coffin” by Justin C. Key (9765 words)
No Spoilers: Okay well take a good look at the content warnings on this one because this is an intense story about family and loss and grief. It centers the three kids of a black single mother, one of whom...well, isn’t alive anymore. The remaining two, twins by the names of Corey and Alisha, are both probably Autistic, though the story never says for sure, just that Alisha goes to a special school and Corey, while able to navigate the allistic spaces better, is the viewpoint character. The story unfolds in the wake of tragedy, the suicide of their older brother, Michael, which is further complicated by everyone’s messy relationship with Michael, who was also dealing with emotional and mental issues. And wow, yeah, the story is difficult at times but rings true, exploring the intersections of pain and guilt and the extremely messy reality of mental and emotional struggles that are perhaps at direct odds because of limited resources and economic stress. Fuck capitalism.
Keywords: Family, CW- Abuse, CW- Suicide, Puppets, Friendship, CW- Hospitalization, CW- Slurs, CW- Self Harm/Cutting
Review: To reiterate, this story is visceral and difficult and should be approached with some warning especially for readers to whom this content might be hurtful. That said, I think the story addresses that messiness directly and compassionately and isn’t going to blame you if you need to not engage. Seriously, self care. Which is where so much of this story shines, in the ways that it acknowledges that self care isn’t something you necessarily get when you’re poor and have no support. More than that, when you have no support but need to be a support to other people. It deepens the mental and emotional cost on you all the time. At least, that’s what seems to be the case for Corey and his family. Who are dealing with the loss of Michael but in ways that are deep and tragic and gutting. Because Michael wasn’t exactly kind to Corey or Alisha, and their mom really didn’t have the time to deal with that, with the violence that he inflicted on them out of his own anger and sadness of being abandoned by their father (which he then blames on Corey and Alisha for not being neurotypical). It’s all messed up, and for me what really focuses the story is how this could have been avoided. How the problems here are coming from the outside in rather than being some sort of inherent issue that these characters have. I can’t imagine the father’s departure wasn’t at least in part because of the strain and stress (financially and otherwise) of having children and especially having autistic children. And then at each new link, from Michael to Corey to Alisha, the problems don’t lose their momentum, and aren’t stopped. Instead they grow, and without the resources to get help, it falls on people who really don’t have the tools to handle any of this to handle it. Which doesn’t go well. And it’s just a heartbreaking story about family and about the ways that love and hate can melt together. It doesn’t offer easy solutions, and things are never quite “done.” But it seems to aim for peace, whatever that means for the characters and the reader, and I find that haunting and beautiful. A great read!
“Sap and Superstition” by Jessica P. Wick
This poem speaks to me of desire, of a kind of romance or attraction wrapped unbroken around a myth, a bit of superstition. The plot, as it were, involves the narrator receiving what I’m guessing is a text, a picture and an entreaty. A statement of yearning. And it’s sweet, in many different definitions of the word. It plays with courtship, with distance, with a bit of mystery. The situation is never fully explained. I get the feeling from the piece that these are people who know each other quite well. Who are in a relationship, and it doesn’t really feel like a new one to me. And I think it’s because of the familiarity. There is no preamble to the picture of what I’m assuming is the apple skin. There is no explanation. This is something that they share between them, some insider knowledge that they both know the other knows about. It’s something of a code, a way of saying much more than just the words and the picture might have otherwise. And it’s a warm piece, capturing this feeling the narrator has at seeing the text. A little playful, a lotta flirty, I get the feeling that the distance between these people isn’t too great, because it has such a sense of downplayed immediacy. The way it opens with that echoed admission: “I want you.” It feels like these two people, forced apart by work or by their separate lives, reaching out, teasing, doing that couple thing where they pine for one another. And the sap is the sentiment that runs between them, the sticky sweetness that they feel around one another. The superstition is the method by which they reach out, this peeled apple, this initial that says in some way that they must be meant to be. Or at least meant to be together now. And it’s alive and vibrant and wonderfully rendered, sexy while only using hints and shapes. A wonderful piece!
“Disemboweled Sonnet for Telling Your Crush You Like Him in the Waning Hours of the Party” by Weston Richey
This poem mixes rather intense and visceral violence with a kind of awkward adorable confession that is one part disturbing, two parts actually surprisingly heartwarming. It’s a poem that really benefits from the title, contextualizing this moment, when in the closing hours of a party the narrator is trying to pluck up their courage to actually tell the guy they’ve probably been near all night that they’re crushing on him. To give voice to this feeling that is so intense but that they can’t quite bring themself to say. So it takes the form of this, well, this very strange scenario, or metaphor, or hypothetical, seeking to show this crush what more straight-forward words can’t seem to capture. And I love the way that this confession, this poem, is in many ways like way inappropriate. You tell this to your crush and you’re like as not to scare him away, because you’re kinda admitting that you’re imagining his skull being crushed. But that, too, speaks to something kind of real, that this person confessing is the kind to not just worry about a sudden alien invasion, but to kind of feel it, too. Not as a fantasy that they want to be having, but something that gets into their head and still manages to sum up their feelings. And the feelings are intense, loyal, in some ways very kind, but filtered through this situation that is full horror, full grotesque mutilations. And still I think that it’s rather romantic and adorable, because it’s Intense and Weird but captures something so raw, so yearning, and makes obvious that the narrator is just terrible at talking about their feelings and being vulnerable, that in order to do so they are kinda making it so that this crush has to first get around this armor that is this very viscerally unpleasant imagining. And I don’t know, I kinda hope this guy does see past the unpleasant imagery and to the heart there, vulnerable and shy. It’s a strange poem, but complex and oddly tender and very much worth checking out!