REVIEW: “Party Time” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Party Time”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 68-79 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Gory violence

This is the story of Steve. Steve is a drunken asshole with a tendency to violence, and an overdeveloped sense of possession when it comes to women. Steve is not a likeable person — this is made utterly clear from the very first paragraph. The question that kept me reading was: Does Steve have any redeeming qualities? Does he have any redemption at all?

Unfortunately, no, not really. He gets a comeuppance, but it’s not in any sort of poetic-justic way. Instead, it’s just a successively violent stream of gore.

REVIEW: “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein

Review of Tal M. Klein, “Kerouac’s Renascence”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Kerouac is living in Japan, so that his sister will not see his declining health. Now that his illness has reached its final stage, he plans to go to California to grant himself a dignified death, aka euthanasia. Selling all his possessions leaves him with more money than anticipated, so he chooses to travel there by way of a 22 day cruise, as a final treat. Against his better judgment, he makes friends and falls in love. Then things get weird, and we as readers remember that we are reading a piece of speculative fiction.

I did not find Kerouac to be the most likable narrator, but he is engaging and sympathetic. His choice to isolate himself from the people who care about him – a choice made repeatedly during this story – is frustrating to read simply because it is so realistic. It’s such a common (if hurtful) human coping mechanism that I would not be surprised to learn that psychologists have a special term for it. And that’s really where this story shines, in the ordinary. Most of the story takes place in the “real” world, with speculative elements appearing around three quarters of the way through, and Klein captured my attention and my interest without them.

This story is on the longer end of what Apex publishes, which means that it has plenty of time to delve into smaller moments and build itself, yet it never felt meandering. The story is tight.

This piece deals with some heavy topics – chronic illness, assisted suicide, fear of death and pain – without becoming maudlin. It’s not a light piece, but neither would I describe it as ponderous. For all that Kerouac’s life has been consumed by these topics, his conscious thoughts tend to push them aside, which lets the story breath without ever letting us get distracted from the stakes.

The ending surprised me, so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, but I will say that the title is a bit of a clue. This is a strong story on a dark topic, but there is hope.

REVIEW: “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

Review of Kelly Robson, “A Human Stain”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 129—154. Purchase Here. Originally published at Tor.com on January 4th 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

A ‘family with a secret’ story that is well executed and unlike any I’ve come across before.

Helen is a penniless bohemian, brought to the Lambrecht family house at Meresee Lake in the Bavarian Alps by her friend Bärchen, with the intention that she can tutor Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter for the summer. Straight away it’s clear that things are amiss, with the servants uncommunicative and unhelpful, Peter vanishing every five minutes and the nursemaid Mimi, whom Helen immediately resolves to seduce, silent and frightened (and what the hell’s happened to her teeth?). The mystery builds to a chilling end through some very disturbing moments and lovely signposting.

Helen is an interesting, tough and level-headed protagonist so we’re rooting for her from the start. I also found it refreshing that Helen and Bärchen are both gay, so there’s no romantic element to their relationship, a simplicity that stands at odds with the mystery of the situation Helen finds herself in. All the half-truths and misdirection in the story work really well (especially on a re-read) and the ominous atmosphere created is excellent. I had quite a few questions at the end that I couldn’t satisfactorily resolve, and I really wanted to know more about the — without giving too much away — natural history of the family Helen has found herself among. Some readers will love the unknown and unknowable elements of the story but I found I wanted more, because there was such potential for mining the idea further. It’s a gripping read.

REVIEW: No Man of Woman Born by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a book of stories written for the “trans child hiding with a book under a pink duvet” (p. x), of stories that center the trans, nonbinary, those whose genders “break, subvert, and fulfill” prophecies (p. xi). It is the stories of heros and heroines who “aren’t special because they are trans, they are special and they are trans” (p. xi).

I’d been hearing the hype about this book on twitter for a few months, but somehow it wasn’t until about a week before it came out that someone actually mentioned that it was a book of short stories, at which my “want-to-read” radar started dinging even louder. Hey!, I thought, I could review it for SFFReviews, and therefore justifying buying it! (I have a very complex relationship with purchasing new fiction, and it involves intricate justifications to stave off irrational guilt.) But one thing that worried me was that I wasn’t at all sure that my cis-woman’s opinion about these stories was really one that needed to be all that loud in the conversation — or even if it should be present at all.

But Ana is a truly excellent human being, and when I expressed my uncertainty to xer on twitter, xie responded immensely generously to my worries, and encouraged me to not only buy xer book (as well xie should!) but also review it. I’m so glad, because it is a real treat, and while I am manifestly not the target audience for these stories, it is my hope that I can boost the signal not only for those who are, but for others like me, who simply want to read beautiful stories well written. These stories may not have been written for me, but I have been benefited, entertained, and enthralled by reading them.

As is our practice on this site, I’ll review the stories individually and link them back to this post when they’re published. Each story comes with their own content warning, which I reproduce here so that people are informed before clicking through to the review.

The stories are all long and lush, fully developed and described. I have only two complaints about the book: First, it isn’t long enough — only seven stories! I want more! — Second, it doesn’t have any pictures. I’d love to read these stories to my 6 year old daughter, but she still doesn’t have enough patience for long stories unless there are pictures. Both of these complaints are solvable: Ana Mardoll can write more stories, and I can sit down one day with my paints and paint my own illustrations for my daughter. Maybe I’ll read her the stories in pieces and we can paint pictures of them together.

REVIEW: “Whatever Comes After Calcutta” by David Erik Nelson

Review of David Erik Nelson, “Whatever Comes After Calcutta”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 107—127. Purchase Here. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2017. Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

You know when you come home from work early and your wife’s in bed with a cop, and then said wife shoots you in the face with your own gun? Yeah, this is one of those stories. And it’s great. The three short opening paragraphs alone are a textbook example of how to start a short story to get maximum impact – we have action (sighting of a hanged woman, narrow escape from a car accident), location (somewhere in the sticks near Calcutta, Ohio), context (the protagonist — Lyle —isn’t thinking straight) and mystery (he doesn’t want to think about his ear, his wife, the detective or the gun he’s carrying, though we don’t yet know why). What I at first thought was going to be a simple revenge story (once we find out what happened with the detective and Lyle’s wife) then takes a sharp left into something else when he sees the ‘hanged’ woman, and all the parts roll together into a pleasingly twisted ending.

Nelson also plays with our expectations and perceptions. For example, the section with the hanging seems believable because of the community involved and the way they are characterised, yet they are validated in the end — making the story more horrific. I enjoyed the way the tale played with the idea of being hagridden, and who is doing the riding and why. My only slight disappointment was that I was rather hoping that the lack of emotion on Lyle’s part, whether through shock or a more profound mental imbalance, would allow him to change the ending, which felt a bit inevitable. But then, this is a horror story. And a thoroughly enjoyable one.

REVIEW: “The Wolf Behind the Sun” by Johann Carlisle

Review of Johann Carlisle’s, “The Wolf Behind the Sun”, The Future Fire Volume 1, 2005: Read online. Reviewed by Elliott Baye.

In this story, two camps of opposing armies are ravaged by unexpected violence when a sorcerer hunts and enchants a wolf. There’s a lot to this story, and it remains ambitious right up until the very end. Unfortunately, shifting between four perspectives is a bit too ambitious in a story this short, and I had to reread some of the passages to fully understand what was going on. It’s clear the author had a very visual and thought-out idea for this work, but by trying to include so much detail, it was a bit overwhelming.

Despite that, the writing itself was quite vivid. The wolf’s bloodlust, and the humans’ as well, was encapsulated by the gory descriptions. Though it switched too often for my personal taste, each perspective’s tone shifted appropriately. The pride of the wolf, the cockiness of the young spy, the determination of the enemy, and the destructive nature of the werewolf all felt real, and kept me on my toes. It was clear anyone was capable of anything, and I was never sure what to expect next.

Unfortunately, the descriptive nature of this story made me a little uncomfortable when the sorcerer “enchanted” the wolf. Mainly because it was sexual in nature. Upon rereading, it does suit the story, but it was definitely a shock when I first read the tale. I have to caution anyone who reads this one: if sexual content bothers you, tread carefully. Actually, the same goes for violence and gore.

I do recommend this story to those who love dark werewolf myths, worldbuilding, and characters getting their just desserts. The writing itself is worth the read; I just can’t recommend this one to the more sensitive readers.

REVIEW: “A New Kind of Drug” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “A New Kind of Drug”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 48-66 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: Drug and child abuse; homophobia.

Being a teenager is complicated. Being a lonely teenager trapped between the charybdis of behavior you know is wrong and the scylla of not wanting to be alone any longer is even more complicated.

“Are you a killer?” is the question the story opens up with, asked of the narrator by one of his classmates. It’s all too easy for that question to bring up thoughts of all the high school shooting incidents that populate recent US history, from Columbine on down. The story we’re always told about them is that it is the lonely, bullied outcasts who suddenly snap, grab a gun, and kill. But more and more we’ve been learning that that “story” is not true: It is the bullies, not the bullied, who tend to act so lethally. So when an insecure and lonely teen is asked, in this story, if he is a killer, the quiet voice that runs through my head is “This isn’t how things go.”

No, the narrator (whose name we never learn), isn’t a killer. That doesn’t mean his friend doesn’t end up worse than dead. This, like many of the other stories in this anthology, is not a pleasant story.

REVIEW: “The Chariots, the Horsemen” by Stephanie Malia Morris

Review of Stephanie Malia Morris, “The Chariots, the Horsemen”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A young woman begins ascend to heaven during the church potluck, and is barely caught in time by her mother. The same thing happened to the girl’s mother, when she was that age. Her great-grandmother ascended as well, though her grandfather, a preacher, remains firmly earthbound. The women restrain their own ascension to please him, or at least to mitigate his anger.

There’s a lot packed into this fairly short (1,650 words) story, but at its heart I’d say it’s about women giving over control of their bodies in order to court male approval. Their bodies naturally want to lift off the ground and fly away, but they resist because a male relative, an authority figure, disapproves. It triggers his own feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, which the women must protect him from. They go so far as to chain themselves to the furniture and gain copious amounts of weight to rid themselves of this unwanted tendency.

I was uncomfortable with the use of weight gain as a method of controlling their ascension. It makes sense that maybe if they became heavy enough, they wouldn’t life off the ground, but it also felt a little fat-phobic to me. I don’t believe it was intended that way, however, and your mileage my vary.

It’s interesting to me that this story is couched in Christian imagery and terms, when it feels so earthy and embodied. I don’t get the sense that either woman is particularly pious, no matter how their society has framed the phenomenon that lifts them into the air. Despite that, the religious overtones make an intuitive sort of sense for the story, and work well in it.

This is a strong story with an empowering ending, and I highly recommend it as a quick read.

REVIEW: “Life on Mars?” by Steve Ruff

Review of Steve Ruff, “Life on Mars?”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 139-145 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is the non-fiction companion piece to both “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder (read the review) and “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby (read the review). Ruff, a Mars geologist who describes himself as a virtual Martian like the homesteaders in Schroeder’s story, was part of the Spirit and Opportunity rover teams in 2004, and has as close to “personal” experience of life on Mars as is currently possible.

Ordinarily, scientists write up their knowledge and experiences in scientific papers, which come complete with their own vocabulary, constraints, and norms, with the result that even to scientists in other fields, these papers can be inaccessible. (Just because I write and publish in logic doesn’t mean that theoretical physics makes any sense to me. And I challenge any biologist to pick up one of my specialist papers and make heads or tails of it.) The opportunity to hear the insights and experiences of people like Ruff, as they relate to both science fiction and science fact and in a way that makes them accessible to the non-specialist, is one of the highlights of this anthology.

While his focus is on what would have to change, technologically, in the real world in order for Schroeder’s and Ashby’s futures to come about, what struck me most about Ruff’s account of his experiences on the rover team was how important the human-robot relationship is. The robots “are immune to jet lag and free from human frailties” (p. 140), unlike their human commanders back at home, some of whom struggle to adapt to the different length of the Martian day. But on the other hand, our mechanical counterparts on Mars often lack the mobility we have, and no amount of our trying to control them can change this. It is easy to anthropomorphise these mechanical contraptions, these first colonists of a foreign world. Here, fact and fiction blur, and who are we to say that intelligence can’t be created simply by treating the machine as if it were intelligent? Maybe the first life on Mars will turn out to be artificial, not biological.

REVIEW: “Where’s the Harm?” by Rebecca Lloyd

Review of Rebecca Lloyd, “Where’s the Harm?”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 77—105. Purchase Here. Originally published in Seven Strange Stories (Tartarus Press, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I’ve been a fan of Rebecca Lloyd since reading her story ‘Ragman’ in last year’s Best Horror of the Year (Volume Nine), so was pleased to see a repeat appearance this year. ‘Where’s the Harm?’ is a particularly fine contribution to the anthology. Two brothers are redecorating the parental home they have inherited, an effort that sparks some long-standing sibling rivalry. When the brothers decide to explore the nearby woods and come across a house that shouldn’t be there, yet which is home to an odd family of long-haired sisters, the gap that has always existed between them prevents the aversion of a tragedy that is slow and horrific in the making.

I loved this story, with its elements of siren mythology (particularly given the etymology of the term ‘siren’ being linked to rope and entanglement, the women’s preternaturally long hair, and the act of ‘winding’ that appears in the story), the air of mystery around the women, the frustration of a relationship broken since childhood, and the building of tension as the inevitable approaches – though one is never sure quite how it is going to end. Wonderful stuff.