Strange Horizons closes out May with its regular number of fiction and poetry offerings, and they are as wonderful as they are challenging. The poetry takes on some very difficult content, from the fear and violence people react to snakes with to the harrowing experiences on both ends of an alien abduction. The fiction doesn't offer any lighter revelations, keeping things heavy and intimate, looking at the way that violence and toxicity can take hold and manifest in something truly terrifying. Let's get to the reviews!
“The DEATH/GRIP Challenge” by Johnny Compton (5883 words)
No Spoilers: Alicia is the daughter of a couple that’s now divorced. She lives with her mom, Emily, while her dad, Benito, lives with his brother, Robert. The relationship between the brothers is rather strained, in part because of Benito’s missing hand, which has a lot to do with Robert and their relationship. It’s also the reason that Benito might be so interested in a series of memes and viral videos going around, all centered around a terrible horror movie about a psychosomatic epidemic where people’s hands would rebel and do evil! Only the whimsy of the memes making fun of the movie slowly creeps to something else, and the piece shows a descent, a rot, a festering wound that comes to a rather chilling tipping point.
Keywords: Movies, Hands, Family, Viral Videos, Memes, CW- Trauma/Violence
Review: The story has this wonderful take on family for me, where Alicia is dealing with wanting to support and be there for her dad, who is always a joker, who is always trying to get people to laugh, and who has become rather obsessed with this terrible movie and the feelings that it brings out of him. Mostly because he has so much that he hasn’t face about losing his had, seeing the act of grappling with feelings a weakness, and wow, yeah, the story really does a great job of showing Benito’s relationship to his masculinity, to feelings in general. He’s dealing with losing a hand, a part of himself, and having such an anger and resentment about it, trying not to show that it means anything to him because it would mean being vulnerable, would mean showing something genuine rather than the jokester persona that he maintains. And he maintains it as a sort of shield for others, to not “burden” them even as they are asking to help, even as they don’t see it as a burden. And it gets to the point where even when he does join a group of people to talk about what’s happened to them, it’s...well, it’s not what I would say is a very healthy outlet for him. Run by a woman bitter about her own loss, she encourages others to foster their bitterness and anger, maybe to have some catharsis, maybe just to not be alone. But it doesn’t help at all. Instead it creates the very thing that the horror movie was so bad at capturing, the way that some kinds of violence, some kinds of “evil” very definitely are contagious, able to be brought out in the right situations, able to take over. And for Benito it’s a chilling, heartbreaking descent, one that reveals who he is and what he can’t laugh away--the deep rage that finally needs expression in the worst way imaginable. And it’s a difficult, complex read, but I think very much worth checking out!
“The Fall of Snakes” by Jong-Ki Lim
This is a rather haunting piece to me that speaks of violence and cycles, both the symbol of ouroboros, the snake eating itself endlessly, and food cycles, snake body become food for maggots, which feed chickens, which feed humans, which go out and kill snakes. The piece unfolds from a narrator who seems to be living with or spending summers with their grandparents, who is saddened when their grandfather kills a snake, who is saddened because it’s a part of a larger trend, one that I’m aware of as well, where snakes are killed on sight because of their reputation, because they are deemed dangerous or gross or sinister, regardless if they are venomous or not. And the narrator seems to note a few things out of all of this. First, that humans are here feeding on this death, almost depending on it, but without any care or respect for the snake. Their hunger is one that doesn’t see the webs of connection, the ways that snakes are beautiful and necessary. Like killing spiders because they are gross, while ignoring that spiders kill pests, people end up killing just to kill, an unsustainable practice that assumes that regardless of how much humans kill, nature will absorb and provide. More, that this attitude extends much farther, is part of a larger structure, something where humans destroy without thought, where humans attack the very foundations of the universe, of our universe, without thinking, essentially taking part in their own destruction, eating their own tail not without end but until they bite off too much and choke, and die. It’s a piece that has a deep sorrow to it and a sense of general powerlessness, the narrator a child who cannot stop these deaths, who can only witness them and mourn. It’s a grim read, but an important one, and I definitely recommend checking it out!
“Abduction” by Dana Wilde
This poem unfolds from two perspectives, from two very different ways of seeing the world, of experiencing the universe. The first section sets up the perspective that is more...well, that is alien, both in the wider sense that it’s very different from the human way of experiencing things, and because the poem seems to be about abduction...alien abduction, and the aliens (or at least one) narrate the first section. They come to Earth, though the whole thing is sort of cloaked in a different context, a different value system. They seem more plant-based than humans, more plant-focused, and they come to Earth in order to learn, in order to find out how to save their own people, who might be on the edge of complete destruction. Their observations and interventions are couched as clinical, detached, as not really doing anything that bad. Not really. It’s only with the second perspective, the person that they’ve been taking and observing/experimenting on, that the real scope, intimacy, and horror of the situation more fully drops and is felt. It’s here that the piece describes the terror of being taken, so very different from the detached need from the aliens. The person being experimented on is told to stay calm, that what’s going on is no more than small discomforts, but it’s torture, and it’s something that the person has to wake not really remembering, but still knowing on some level, still having gone through it (it actually reminds me of an episode of Star Trek TNG where crew members are similarly taken and experimented on and get PTSD but don’t really remember why because they are made to forget). And it’s made more complicated by what the aliens might have done to this person, how they might have sought to save themselves and gain knowledge in such violating ways. It’s difficult and it’s bleak in many ways, but I think it’s a poem that’s worth sticking through, because it gives a stark look at the idea of abduction, at the feeling of it, the desperation on all sides and none of it right, none of it okay. It’s difficult, but it’s still a fine read!