|Art by Tomislav Tikulin|
The two stories in the April The Dark Magazine both turn back the clock and offer up two historical or alt-historical (or I guess fantastical) stories of hauntings and abuses of power. Both pieces find situations where harm is done, where atrocities are allowed because some group is considered unworthy of consideration. Enemy soldiers or those too poor to merit more than trite sympathy, the people at the margins of the societies but front and center in the action of the stories are those who must suffer for the actions, or inaction, of the narrators. And those narrators have to decide whether or not they’re going to continue to ignore the bleeding humanity before them, or if they’re going to do something to change their own hesitation and complicity in tragedy. To the reviews!
“Otto Hahn Speaks to the Dead” by Octavia Cade (3545 words)
No Spoilers: This story looks at a fictional take on the life of Otto Hahn, German scientist who among other things contributed to the breakthrough that would make nuclear weaponry possible. The story joins him earlier than that, though, when he’s part of a different initiative during World War I developing gas weaponry, a project that a friend’s wife is so angry and hurt about that she takes her own life rather than be a part of it. And the piece follows Otto as he’s haunted by her ghost, by her voice and bleeding visage. The piece is heavy, about the horrors of war and the uncertainty of justice. About guilt, and shame, and sorrow, about the kind of world that one builds for the future.
Keywords: Gas, War, History, CW- Suicide, Ghosts, Family, Science
Review: A lot of this story for me has to do with justifications, about the way that Otto believes he doesn’t really have a choice but to help develop weapons that are war crimes. That are designed to kill on a massive scale, tortuously, and impersonally. But there is no impersonal mass murder, and as he lives he is followed by the ghost of this woman who died in part because of what he had done. She becomes...not his conscience, exactly, but a reminder that death is something he’s very much personally participating in. It’s not enough for him to think that it’s necessary or distant. It’s not just enemies who are being killed. And his decisions during the first World War do lead to the second, lead to the world being an uglier, more corrupt place because of what he helped to author. The chemical warfare, the nuclear breakthroughs that allowed for the building of bigger and bigger bombs. There’s so much wailing regret in this story, too, so much hurt that he wants to spread around. He wants to blame the ghost that she died, wants her to feel as bad as him because she left behind a son, because her death was traumatic. But it was meant to be. I think she saw that if this was the world she helped to make then it would taint her son, would taint everyone. Which sort of happens anyway but she did, through this action, make the ultimate statement about not wanting to be any part of it. Abstaining from being part of that hurt, even if she couldn’t help but hurt someone. It’s something Otto has backwards, believing his allegiance must be personal, to his wife and child, to their well being, not realizing that if he doesn’t pay attention to the big picture, he is no less betraying them, no less opening them up to sorrow and pain. The piece does a lovely and heavy job of following his very interesting biography, and pulling from it a call that there are some things you can’t wash away, and some things you shouldn’t be a part of, no matter the stakes. A great read!
“Some Sketches of County Life” by Peter Gutierrez (4043 words)
No Spoilers: Told as a sort of letter between a Louis Ludwig and an unknown recipient (who sort of becomes the reader by default), the piece weaves together two different elements. The first is a Stick Man, who sells sticks and seems to exist in a space of child-like innocence. The second examines a troupe of estate clowns, who live on the land of a rich family and who act as a sort of entertainment for people of the area. The observations about both of them are delivered with an almost academic detachment, and yet build into something creepy and dark and powerful, full of a promise of something nearing, almost here.
Keywords: Observations, Clowns, Sticks, Fire, Poverty
Review: I love the strangeness of the piece, the way that it builds these two different elements with such care, as if they are simultaneously strange and mundane. The Stick Man, who might just be a poor person getting by, but who might also have a touch of magic about him, about the way that he cares for sticks, the way that he can connect with children. Like with the clowns, there’s something...almost creepy about him. About them all. And yet there’s also something rather wholesome. Regardless of why they are or how they are, they represent something that’s rather whimsical. To a child they must seem like a splash of magic, something to brighten up their worlds. Whatever sinister adults might read into them seems to have more to do with an inherent distrust of people who don’t have “normal jobs” and who don’t live in “normal houses.” And yet most people like and support the Stick Man, and most people find the Clowns interesting, to be admired from a distance. In both instances, though, there’s a sense of dehumanizing that’s going on, that allows the town to make exceptions to their prejudices, to their unwavering support of money and the rule of money. The valuing that money imposes on who deserves to live, who deserves a house, who deserves to be happy, and who doesn’t. And when push comes to shove, people don’t ultimately protect the Stick Man, and though some might mourn him, there is no attempt at justice. And it’s there where the crisis arises, in the narrator and by extension in us, where he asks what he should do, what side he should take, what he should do with secret he has. And it leaves a lasting and creeping feeling, a needling and shameful guilt that seems about ready to come back to haunt those who didn’t consider these people pushed the margins of society real people. It provokes a constantly-looking-over-one’s-shoulder kind of fear, which the story captures masterfully, even through the disinterested tone of the narrator. A wonderful read!