|Art by Mateus Manhanini|
So it seems that Strange Horizons had a surprise in store for me this month, as it stepped back and a new issue of Samovar dropped instead of a regular issue. So instead of one story and two poems, I’m looking at three stories (one of them a long novelette) and two poems, and that’s not really a complaint. Because the works are interesting and deep, with an eye on history and quiet desperation. Oppressive environments wrought by human intolerance and corruption. And people trying to make their way through it, trying to find some beauty amidst the danger. To the reviews!
“The Stitch Beneath the Ice” by Ranylt Richildis (5651 words)
No Spoilers: Roy is smuggling whisky across the ice of the St. Lawrence from Canada to New York. As he moves, as he pushes through the cold and wind, he reminds himself why he’s doing this, the family that’s waiting for him. A vaguely historical-fantasy, the piece dips much more into horror as Roy crosses the frozen water and finds that there are things in the ice that are worse that the threat of being discovered by the law. The piece looks at the risks that Roy takes, and what’s waiting for him in the dead of night as he pushes and pulls a coffin-turned-sled over the rough ice. Strange and chilling, the piece shines in its mysteries, in the grim possibilities it opens and leaves the reader to grapple with.
Keywords: Whisky, Ice, Smuggling, Family, Songs
Review: I love the creeping horror of the story, the question that drags at every moment of Roy’s journey. The question of what is in the ice? What are the red tubes? What is the whole situation, which seems to go deeper than just smuggling booze from Canada to the US? The answer is never really explicitly given, but through the story the sense still comes through that Roy has made a mistake. That for all his intentions are good, that he’s doing this to try and provide for his family, he’s also feeding something that’s not exactly benign. And I just love how the landscape and the feel of the area is captured. The cold that cuts to the bone. That he’s pulling this coffin of contraband, that he’s out on the ice when he’s afraid of open water, that the world around him has tumbled, plunged into depression, where to try and make up for it he takes on these jobs, these dangers. They all build this situation that is tense and strange, the ice an alien landscape where anything is possible. And where perhaps the boundaries between the familiar and the intensely different is thin, and can be broken. The result is a strange and yearning story for me, one where Roy is pulled by his family, by the warmth of his love for them, but where that warmth cannot always protect him, and even when it can protect him, it might not be able to protect everyone. The result is chilling, full of shapes in the dark and cold, which is totally something that happens in snow, in winter. Only here it becomes real, shatters the peace and hope of Roy’s warmth and plunges him gasping into a depth that is not water, but is no less deadly or suffocating. A great read!
“Hummingbird” by Eisuke Aikawa, translated by Toshiya Kamei (5813 words)
No Spoilers: Yuko only really has one issue with her new apartment. It’s basically perfect, and she got it for a steal, and it’s a piece of freedom for her, a refuge from her job in a real estate office and a love life that’s pretty nonexistent and the lingering scars from an anxiety episode a number of years ago. Not that she hates her job or her life. Just that the apartment is so comfortable, so much the home she wants. Sadly, it’s also haunted by the previous owner, Ōe-san. His spirit still goes about his daily routine, oblivious to Yuko and her life while also disrupting it, putting this discord into a life she thought she had figured out. It’s only through confronted the issue, though, that she finds out the ways her life might not be completely working for her, and can start taking steps to fix that. It’s a strange, slow, interesting read, with a focus on routine, fulfillment, and happiness.
Keywords: Ghosts, Real Estate, Employment, Poetry, CW- Cancer
Review: I love the quiet nature of this story, which focuses on a woman and her home. Her little apartment that fits her dreams. It’s not exactly like the most elaborate of things. Not palatial by any means. But it fits her just right. Except that it’s haunted. By someone who’s not dead, it turns out. Which is a great twist. But I love the way the story captures this vaguely precarious nature of happiness that Yuko has. The way she’s curated her life, her job, her home, and yet there’s the looming threat that it might come crashing down. A fear that led her in the past to a kind of episode/break down that she doesn’t want to repeat. She just wants things to be solid, to be safe, to be secure. And in many ways she’s can’t make that for herself in her job or in her relationships. And now she can’t even do it in her home. Throughout the piece, though, she starts leaning into that a bit, letting go some of the control, getting more comfortable with the idea that maybe her life, which she felt was safely on a track that would last forever, isn’t quite. And that it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. That maybe it’s something that will allow her to step out more, to find new things she likes. To give a perhaps-unlikely relationship a chance. And maybe not. But that maybe she’ll start doing more for herself, reading poetry. Feeling more confident and alive. It’s a fun story, almost funny because of the quirks of the characters, the slice-of-life that it captures. It feels to me like a bit of a reminder to slow down some. To smell the roses. To listen to a bird sing, and to captures some of its joy. It’s low-stakes in some ways but delightfully personal and almost intimate, a layered look into the lives of the characters, and it’s definitely worth checking out. A great read!
“The Curtain Falls, The Show Must End” by and translated by Julie Nováková (14698 words)
No Spoilers: Returning to the paranormal history of the Neue deutsche Theatre in Prague, this time in 1938, this story finds the Theatre’s latest performance threatened by a violent ghost. Lacking a dedicated exorcist, an old author and two of the people working at the Theatre (who might have some blame for the current state of things) must figure out what’s going on before the hateful ambition sweeping the continent puts out the lights of the theatre before it’s time. The piece is full of people carrying the weight of what’s been happening, people reeling from the gains fo the Nazis, from the spread of nationalism and just trying to hold on to this one good thing. And managing to, if only for a moment. A tired but slightly hopeful read, even in the face of some very harsh history and reality.
Keywords: Ghosts, Theater, Summonings, History, CW- Nazis/Racism/Anti-Semitism
Review: Ah, the familiar helplessness of living in a time when hate is proving a stronger tool than understanding. Than love. The story unfolds in a rather familiar time narratively speaking, the spread of Nazism in Europe leading up to World War II, but far away from the more popular locations of Western Europe. At least as an American this is a side of the conflict I never really saw, and using a very historically grounded narrative to tell this story of ghosts and exorcisms is a great twist, showing the way things move in cycles, the rise of nationalism there and the helplessness felt by the people, by the Theatre director, by the would-be exorcist, by the actors and other employees, many of whom have already fled from territories taken over by the Nazis...it shows how impossible it can feel to stand against a tide of hate, a movement that is marching toward war, toward genocide. In the face of that, the characters seem overmatched, overwhelmed. Leppin is an old, sick man pretending to be an exorcist, despairing that he never really learned the craft, nostalgic about the men he knew who were good at it, mourning the loss of his son, the state of the world. Hanna and Stefan are trying to make the most of their lives, but also know their positions are fragile, their lives marginal. They open a lot of the tragedy by summoning a ghost. Hanna because she wants to make the past protect the present, wants it to pay for its own mistakes that have left so many vulnerable. And Eger just wants to keep the Theatre open, for it to exist outside politics, for it to be Art. And here he gets his wish, is able to put on this one last show. It’s a victory, but as the afterward shows, it’s brief. A respite at the beginning of something horrifying and wrong. But showing that even as a great many were rushing into conflict, into hate, there were always plenty who stood against it, who tried their hardest and sometimes won small victories, even as the larger ones slipped away. It’s a heavy and complicated story and wonderful read! Fans should check out “The Wagner Trouble” from April 2017’s GigaNotoSaurus.
“Coloring the Sun You Know” by JD Fox
This is such a wrenching poem, a look at a moment between a parent and child, a fragile moment that is shattered thanks to a careless, rather cruel comment. The piece starts off with a bit of explanation, the narrator explaining about the color of the sun, and how it can look different in different places because of how light and the atmosphere work. How in some ways the sun contains all kinds of light. And yet in this talk about what is possible, and what is great about the diversity of the sun, is turned into a criticism to say that the sun isn’t purple, doesn’t align to the way that the narrator’s son has decided to draw the sun. And it’s this moment of rebuke couched as education that really hits me, because it’s such a gutting thing, a way to really cut against this child’s creativity and desires, his want to draw a purple sun. It’s wrong, according to the narrator, and he doesn’t hold back from saying it, because in his mind it must be a favor that he’s doing. And I like that there’s...this moment within the poem where the narrator might see what he’s doing, might realize somehow kinda awful it is of them to criticize his son for drawing this purple sun. And yet he doesn’t really know where to go from there. He apologizes, but there’s the sense that this is an old pattern, and both he and his son know it, and know that there’s really not going to be much changing. The son is already trained to assuage the guilt, to say it’s okay, to be the adult in the relationship despite the fact they are the child. And the narrator is the one who comes out feeling different, feeling something lost that he can’t define or explain. For me it’s a glimpse into this moment of toxic masculinity, the narrator unsure why he’s done this and in some ways mourning that he now feels bad that he’s done it. He can’t tell if the sun is rising or falling because for him it matters. It’s wrenching and it’s real, that this son was just trying to do something he liked and the narrator had to comment, had to knock over the sandcastle, for a reason he’s not sure of and doesn’t really have the language to properly interrogate. So instead nothing changes, and it’s a complex and wonderfully captured moment. A great read!
“The Egg is My Sister” by Amel Moussa, translated by Hager Ben Driss
This is a strange poem to me, one that speaks of imagination and creativity unfolding inside a kitchen. A kitchen that at times feels like a cage, sometimes like freedom. That is complex, a place where the narrator writes and cooks, where the narrator speaks to the various things around them, to the food and the utensils. To the eggs. It’s a longer and rather complex read for me, the first part describing in some ways the physical space of the kitchen and the narrator’s place within it. It’s a place they spend a lot of time, so that the items and food with in become like characters. And in that it also feels to me like a solitary space. The narrator mentions other people but for me it speaks to how others use their kitchen, so that there’s this feeling of a great many people alone in their kitchen, separated by space and time but also united in a way. For the narrator, the kitchen is seat of their creativity, is where they write, where they cook, the two acts married in a way, sisters in that space. And what they create allows them in some ways perhaps to step outside the physical space of the kitchen with its walls, with its one knife, and connect to something larger. As the first part sets up the narrator’s space within the space, though, the second part seems to blur the lines a bit, in some ways melding the narrator with the food, with the kitchen. The egg from the title comes more into focus and for me the piece adds layers and perhaps a feeling of...something stifling. For me, at least, there is both a celebration of the egg as well as an exploration of how the egg, and by extension the narrator, aren’t really safe. There is more energy here, for me, more emotion as the narrator compares themself to the egg, digging into the baggage of being a woman. Of being a woman in love. Of being alone all the same, chilled, frozen, sunless. Trapped beneath a shell, strong and fragile all at once. It’s a piece that gives me something of a challenge, because for me it speaks to escape and imprisonment. Freedom and confinement. Writing and food. Eggs. And it’s a beautiful piece, very much worth spending some time with!