Friday, June 12, 2020

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 06/01/2020 & 06/08/2020

Did you know that the 2021 Strange Horizons Fund Drive is going on now? Have you backed it yet? I'll be covering the content of the special fund drive issue later (hopefully when all the content has been released), but in the mean time there's still lots of regularly scheduled Strange Horizons stories and poetry and nonfiction to read. I'm here looking at the first two issues of the month's fiction and poetry. And it's some strange, moving, wonderful work that is formally challenging but thematically rewarding. It's sharp and emotional and just what I've come to expect from the publication. So yeah, let's get to the reviews!


“The Husker” by Jessica P. Wick (907 words)

No Spoilers: Told as a conversation between two people in bed (with some interruptions for contextual notes from an unknown source), this story unfolds around games and folklore, growing more and more chilling the longer it goes on. The back and forth here is natural while also being pointedly unnatural, a deviation from the norm that the He of the story thinks is a game. Because games are normal for them, including ones about language. Even so, his frustration does seem to grow as the She of the story refuses to clue him in on what game they’re actually playing. A game he almost seems to be purposefully ignoring. It’s a short but very creepy read.
Keywords: Corn, Beds, Games, Folklore, Riddles
Review: I love the back and forth of this story, the way that it dips into folklore and establishes the relationship of the characters but twists it. A lot of the piece hinges on this seeming like a normal interaction between these characters, after all, and there does come to feel that these people like to play games. Word games and riddles and little verbal sparring that is light and mostly fun. Only as it goes on it becomes clear that things are not normal, for all that the He of the story doesn’t seem to want to see it. And for me that sort of points to the ways that on some level he must understand that something sinister is going on. Something dangerous. But he doesn’t want to face it, knows in some way that avoiding the moment of realization is the only way that he’s coming out of this. At least that’s the feeling I get, that the story is digging into this feeling of dread, that the reader picks up on the “real” game ahead of the He, because we get a little bit of help. Still, though, it becomes clearer and clearer that something Fucked Up is going on, and I like how that’s at first couched as just these people maybe being quirky and weird. But that as the game gets a bit more aggressive (meat! like really!) there’s the very keen feeling that what’s happened is completely different than it seems at first. That there’s a presence in the story, in the bed, that isn’t what it seems. It’s creepy and fuck, yeah, just jibbly-inducing in every way. The framing is interesting first because it anonymizes the action, making the pair just about anyone, the only things known about them their role in this new game, which is heading toward a dark place. The dialogue moves and is quirky enough to be disarming and then slaps you with the desire to go hide in the bathroom with the lights on for a while. Because yeah, it’s one that sort of gets under the skin. Unsettling, great work!

“The Present Only Toucheth Thee” by Kathleen Jennings (1192 words)

No Spoilers: This is a strange piece that features a narrator writing to a second person You who seems to be a being who is reborn over and over again while the narrator themself lives on, immortal thanks to some magic involved with the book that they’re writing in. A book made from the body of the You of the story, from different parts of them from when they were animal and plant, assembled and added to over the course of centuries. The relationship between the two is...odd, and seems to be one where the narrator is using the You somehow to remain immortal, retaining control of the book and through that able to live on, and on, all the while repeatedly murdering the You to keep the cycle alive.
Keywords: Reincarnation, Cycles, Books, Long Life, Climate Change
Review: This is a really odd story, and one that I’m not sure entirely how to contextualize. A quick search finds that the title is from a Robert Burns poem of a person talking to a mouse. Which kind of fits for the action of the piece, where the You are many different animals, have been so many different bodies all trying to get at the book. But the book. For me it’s something that allows the narrator to, well...control the narrative. Not just in the sense of the story but in a larger sense. By having control of the book, the narrator controls the story and the roles they both play in it. Them as the immortal, You as their victim, basically, always exploited, always used, always murdered. It might speak to the ways that people use the ability to craft narratives from history to justify their positions. Not only to exploit and destroy the natural world, but to exploit and destroy other people as well. People who don’t have the control over the book. And if so it’s telling that the only end that the narrator imagines is one of utter destruction. Never that they might turn away or stop. Never that they might try to communicate with You in any meaningful way. In the Burns poem, the narrator frames the mouse lucky despite everything, because the mouse only has to worry about the present, while the narrator can look backwards and forwards in time, in fear. Only of course that rings a bit hollow if the speaker is repeatedly killing the mouse, actively making their present horrible and then telling them to feel lucky. And it’s just a strange and rather sharp take on all of that, for me becoming a statement about how this voice has that edge of toxicity. How they’re treating You like some sort of active participant instead of a captive. It’s a lovely complicating and expansion of the referenced poem through a speculative lens and it’s certainly a story well worth spending some time with. A fine read!


“We Others” by Jade Riordan

This is a lovely and haunting poem and one comes filtered through another text. The poem is an erasure, which if I am understanding it correctly is a poem made by erasing sections of texts to create a new poetic work (like blackout poetry). As it started as a fairy tale, that the result should feel like a bit of a fairy tale is probably no great surprise, but given the original story this really is something where the erasure does a lot of good, at least in my opinion. Because wow, that’s a fairy tale that had a lot of weird issues in it, and while it’s also a wonderful story about the resilience of a young girl it’s also full of all the expected what-the-fuckery of fairy tales, with kings wanting to murder their sons, enchantments that turn men into flowers...and birds? And a kidnapping that turns into a marriage that I guess we’re just not going to talk that much about. The erasure embraces the darker aspects of the original but crafts an entirely different feel, one where there’s only the girl. No brothers, no parents, nothing but her and her isolation. Her loneliness. And a wish for laughter that doesn’t really go as planned. There’s a sense of power here, of magic that quickly turns to fire, to death, but all the while there’s something wild and free about it all as well. The wish is granted, and there is a kind of release in that, for all that it also comes in the form of destruction. In with that is the title, which seems to me to place this character in a plurality. A community almost, but of lonely and isolated people. People desperate for some happiness, for some joy. And in that I find that the last line might not be a complete destruction. She laughs until her death, which might mean she dies in the fire implied in the preceding lines. But then, she might not die then. She might live for years and years. She might find her way out of the isolation and into a place where she can feel joy. Where she can be happy ever after, as it were. And there’s a sense of uncertainty in that, made almost hopeful by the title. To say that We Others are the ones who don’t get the full fairy tale. Who are passed over. But who might still manage to find their way through the stories of others to be seen and heard. And whatever the case, it’s a wonderful read!

“Off-Season” by Keaton Bennett

This is a rather visceral poem about a wound, about caring for a wound. Or, if not caring for it exactly, treating it. Harshly and quickly, with something like desperation, or a need to be away. The title and the capitalizing of Seabreeze make me think that the location here is important, that this must be some sort of attraction, either an amusement park or a resort, someplace that caters to tourists, who are absent here. For me it speaks to the way those kinds of places transform when they’re not in heavy use, and for the ones that don’t keep the greatest security, how they might be a place for children or young adults to go. To maybe do some stupid things. Some things that might lead to someone getting a shard of glass somewhere and not being able to afford going to a hospital maybe also not being able to admit where they were. That’s the feeling I get from the piece, that it unfolds in the middle of this rather traumatic event made more so because the people involved might not be that old. Old enough that someone can drive. But young enough that there is no thought of seeking outside assistance. And the sentiment is sharp, the way this character who has been cut assures the others who are there that it’s okay. That whatever damage is done, it’s invisible. It’s wrenching because it speaks to this need to maintain appearances above all else. To put on a good face for the tourists. Or the parents. To keep your true self tucked away, private, probably hurting, and always yearning to do those dangerous things that might end in disaster. Because something is missing and those things take away from the feeling of loss. It’s a short but beautiful poem, and I definitely recommend checking it out!


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