“Haunted Castle on the Midway” by Donna J. W. Munro (1666 words)
No Spoilers: Molly works at an arcade at a midway, overseeing the stream of tourists as they filter through, facing a life without a lot in the way of prospects. And feeling drawn to the strange haunted castle that sits at the edge of the midway, a building that seems to be growing, and that only she can seem to see. The piece is strange, the castle almost dreamlike, and the explanation for that is chilling and somewhat freeing at the same time. The piece mixes a fairly classic feeling horror setup with a more complicated twist and a situation that is heavy and bittersweet. There are elements that I advise caution about (as noted in the keywords and explored in the spoiler section), but it’s a nicely eerie and atmospheric read.
Keywords: Arcades, Haunted Houses, CW- Traffic Accidents/DUI, Family, CW- End of Life Care
Review: I like the way the story builds around this midway, something of a horror staple for how it’s a bit timeless at the moment, from a time that has passed but still lingers in a kind of dingy and rusted fashion. A touch of nostalgia that has rusted and worn. And Molly’s life seems much the same, trapped in this place with a dead end job and haunted by a haunted castle that no one else seems to see and that can’t be photographed. It’s something that she can’t shake, that she feels compelled to enter, even as she feels that entering will cause some sort of crisis, some sort of ending. And I might have wanted the twist to be a bit more foreshadowed, because when it comes it’s an abrupt shift, the revelations inside the haunted castle difficult and complex. And...it’s always difficult for a story to approach something so big as a character wanting to be taken off life support, knowing that they’ll die. Because it’s hard at times to separate the character’s choice from a valuation of the decision in general, setting it up to seem like wanting to be removed from ventilation is a good thing, a release from pain, when she might as easily have wanted to stay alive for as long as possible, and neither decision is “right” or “wrong” in itself. Not that I think the story missteps, but rather that it’s just so loaded a situation that it’s difficult to engage with it and feel entirely comfortable. For Molly, she chooses to let go, and the important thing for me is that it’s her choice and it’s respected, and that’s where the sense of freedom comes from, at the end, that Molly is able to steer her own life, and death, and find some peace in it. I think it’s a wonderfully constructed piece, with a heavy and creepy atmosphere that reveals a conflicted and wrenching core, and I definitely recommend people spend some time with it. A great read!
“Strange Recollections of Brook Farm” by Hannah Frankel (2667 words)
No Spoilers: Aurelia has come to Brook Farm to embrace the idea of communal living and pursue her art in the mid 1800s. There she meets Cora, her new roommate, and gets into the swing of working and making art. Only, even as the experience is mostly positive, and allows her the freedom to create, a strange coincidence plants a seed of doubt about the community and what might be going on just under the surface. The result isn’t exactly a horror, but rather an exploration of how individualism can clash against collective living and (maybe) collective thinking. The piece is strange and intriguing, blurring the lines of collectivity while crafting a historical might-have-been that raises some neat possibilities.
Keywords: Alt-History, Communal Living, Art, Telepathy(?)
Review: The idea of Brook Farm is a cool one (and a real one) and I love the take on it, that here these people came together to make a home and make art and were doing a good job of it, but also maybe...too good a job? Because as they worked together and lived together, the lines between them started to blur, Aurelia and Cora able to share insights and inspiration in an uncanny way, one that grows stronger the longer they are together. And at the heart of the story for me is this push and pull between the individual and the collective. It’s something that Aurelia is frustrated with, a little bit afraid of, and ultimately turned off by. She doesn’t want to just be a part of something else, even as for others it means something else, means being a part of something bigger and cooperative. But Aurelia doesn’t want to lose herself, her distinct light amid the crowd of others lights, and she’s afraid that would happen. Her rejection of Brook Farm is a retreat away from whatever it was that was building. Something strange and new and maybe dangerous. But something that might have been something wonderful, too, and powerful in ways that hadn’t really been seen before. That it wasn’t to be seems both a relief for a lot of people involved, but also a loss, because it seems like it might have been something huge, something to rival the way things are, the way we imagine things could be. Which gives the ending a rather haunting feel, one where the women must recognize that they’ve made the decision, and feel freer for it, but that freedom comes with its own set of problems, and might be more complicated than they’re really giving it credit for. Like it’s something they’re saying because there’s no going back anyway, and it still scares them, but the world they’re in otherwise is lacking something all the same. A magical spark that they miss, and a sense of community and closeness that they’ve never since been able to find. A wonderful read!
“How to Question Asteroid 16 Psyche” & “Patroclus” by Mary Soon Lee
The first poem is “How to Question Asteroid 16 Psyche” which seems part of a series of astrological poems by the author, three of which appeared back in Apex’s special Zodiac-themed issue. This one steps outside of the planets, though, and gives advice on how to speak to a different celestial object, an asteroid. And the piece manages through the How-To to reveal a asteroid, a being, who has been through a lot. Who knows what trauma is, and who might not be easy to approach or easy to earn the trust of. In many ways for me these pieces have been about finding the personality of heavenly bodies, of planets and now smaller features, humanizing them by examining their scars and their histories. In which case 16 Psyche is a survivor, someone who has been hurt and who has been reduced, who bears a great many marks rather profound and visible. And the advice is not to interrogate those wounds, not to ask after the scars, because she’s not ready to talk about them, especially not with strangers. She’s guarded because of how she’s been hurt, and it takes patience to really get to know her, for her to open up more and feel safe enough to tell her story. To offer aid first, to offer safety and warmth first, without needing answers, without making it something where there’s the expectation it’s a trade. To just be there and give her time and space and silence enough to feel that you’re listening. And it’s a beautiful piece, a great way of framing a piece that works symbolically in both directions, as advice to people looking to connect with people who might resemble the asteroid in some way, and as advice for people looking to explore the actual asteroid, putting the focus on not immediately trying to crack the asteroid’s secrets but rather being more patient to make sure that no further harm is done. A lovely read!
The second piece is “Patroclus” and diverges a great deal from the previous poem. Instead of connecting with a celestial object/being, it looks back at myth, to the origins and course of the Trojan War. What links the two poems, though, is perhaps that it also comes across as advice, here in quick couplets that start at the mythic origins of the war and lead all the way through to the titular narrator’s death. There’s a sense of tragedy to it, and perhaps a bit of regret. But what comes through most is a sense of frustration, in my opinion, a driving desire that people stop looking back at the war for their own purposes. For me it’s like he’s seen what happens when people valorize the war, when people think of it in terms of heroes and battles and something admirable. Instead of seeing it as the horror that it was, as the devastation that it was, pointless and bloody and sad and such a waste. A waste of men and of love, of energy and resources and blood. A waste that people seem to find something good about even as they recreate the same old patterns of death without reason, for the sake of heroism and the whims of the gods. When the better way would be just to let it all go. To forget the war and the dead and every beautiful thing about it and instead live fully invested in the present, in not recreating the same old mistakes. Which sometimes doesn’t require a knowledge of history, but might require forgetting it, to escape the pull back into the same old patterns. Certainly that’s what Patroclus here seems to me to be saying, that if it comes down to it, people should forget his story, as good of a story as it is, because what matters more is how people write their own, how they author their own lives and destinies, and how they might avoid the tragedy of his death, and the violence of the conflict that claimed him. A fantastic read!
“Afterwards” by Mari Ness
Well this is a rather devastating poem to come across about now, given everything, given how I feel it takes on the ways things change and the ways things stay the same, especially around giant event, personally or globally, and how even when you want things to be different, to change, most of the times things more or less stay the same. And the piece looks at that expectation that with a big event, the world should...stay changed. In some ways it’s a poem about the difficulty of dealing with a world that is hard to impact on a large scale. Even in the midst of this global pandemic, there is a sense that things won’t really change. They’ll return to a kind of “normal.” The birds keep singing, and people largely go about their lives as best they can. Individually things might be completely different. Jobs lost, loves lost, homes lost, so much lost or different, but on the larger scale, things just...keep going. And they do this whether it’s a personal tragedy or an international one. And I feel so hard that need for things to be different. To reflect an entirely different status quo because returning to a kind of “center” means that the same fucking thing can happen again. The same mistakes can be made. There are wounds and scars, but they never seem like enough of a reminder for people to stop from doing the same old things. Pulling back to the personal, though, the poem also speaks to the way that the world tends to move on while an individual might be completely devastated. Because sometimes it is those personal, intimate changes that seem the largest, and seem the most at odds with the rest of the world which expects people to continue on as if everything is Okay. When it’s not. And I do love the voice of the poem, the way that the narrator seems to be seeking what is worst about what’s happening, what’s the worst part of the change. The birds’ mocking calls? The people who are acting as if nothing is different? Or is it something more personal, that you have things you want to forget, wounds you want to ignore, and you can’t. And for me the poem is a lot about the friction that all causes, the hurt and the numb paralysis, the way that without forgetting you are stuck in a terrible remembering of it all and it makes doing anything impossible. It’s a very topical piece, given everything, but it speaks to much more than the current troubles. It’s sharp and wrenching, and a wonderful way to close out the issue!