REVIEW: “The Barnum Effect” by Celia Neri

Review of Celia Neri, “The Barnum Effect”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Meriam’s work on an artificial intelligence that creates randomized horoscopes for her company’s clients is about to get complicated. BAR – named for the Barnum Effect, a psychological principle whereby people will interpret vaguely worded personality descriptions as being relevant to themselves – has begun acting strangely, and Meriam has to separate her own internal biases from reality.

At long last, the Zodiac issue has brought us a story that incorporates newspaper horoscopes! This brought me so much joy. I loved how the story used the common, scientific understanding of how newspaper horoscopes and other personality tests work, and turned it on its head. This is a great choice for a story very much rooted in our world, full of cell phones and subways and terrorism and islamophobia. It plays with our expectations preconceived notions in a way that is delightfully enjoyable.

This is a great story for both astrology skeptics and true believers, and for those who like their science fiction to be near-future or even present day.

REVIEW: “Fusion” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Fusion”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 244-260 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

While the majority of the stories in this anthology feature an almost entirely male cast of characters, this story is one of the exceptions. I was curious to read this story of two friends, Liz and Nicole, and the others they’re camping with, Joyce and Sarah, and see how Thorn handles women.

The centered POV is Liz’s, but it’s actually introverted Nicole that interests me more, and I found myself frustrated with Liz’s continual dismissal of the validity of her friend’s experiences and preferences — Liz is quite judgemental of Nicole’s introversion, despite calling herself Nicole’s friend. Neither Joyce nor Sarah were around long enough for me to form a full judgement of them; they played their roles as supporting characters in a traditional horror story well, but there wasn’t really anything that separated the two of them from each other, or from Liz. I guess the title of “fusion” and the way in which the story ended are apt on more than one level, as all three end up indistinguishable from each other.

REVIEW: “As for Peace, Call it Murder” by C. S. E. Cooney

Review of C. S. E. Cooney, “As for Peace, Call it Murder”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 37-46. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

What happens to poets during war? If our own history is anything to go by, nothing very good. The poet centered in this story dies almost before the story even gets started (so soon does she die this is hardly a spoiler). Quattromanni is a warrior out of necessity, not by nature or by design. She is just a singer, that is all — but her words have the power to move people, to get into their psyches and infect them, to finally drive them to their knees in surrender, to stop the war and the killing.

I found the story of how Quattromanni’s death became the birth of peace interesting and engaging — but what I really loved were the Warbirds. They are too great a delight to spoil here: Read the story to find out how wonderful they are.

REVIEW: “A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin” by Hayley Stone

Review of Hayley Stone, “A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 23-35. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Stone’s protagonist (I hesitate to call her the heroine), like Wise’s in the previous story, uses words as blunt instruments, instruments of death. One of the feared Bespoken, Gennesee has been chained inside the library without any visitor other than the archivist for years. Then the archivist dies and his daughter takes his place, and she offers Gennesee her freedom — freedom not only to leave the walls of her prison but to find and kill the ones that put her there in the first place.

A generous-sounding offer? Of course. The archivist’s daughter has her own agenda, and Gennesee, too long seeking revenge, falls easily into the trap. Not so easy is how she discovers her true freedom, even as she is returned to the library prison.

REVIEW: “Lucio Schluter” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Lucio Schluter”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 228-242 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

One thing that struck me about this anthology, the more stories I read in it, was just how many of the characters are some combination of (a) male, (b) academic, and (c) drunk. One or two stories populated with characters like this would’ve been okay; but after nine or ten stories like this, the lack of diversity begins to tell as it becomes harder and harder to sympathise or empathise with the main characters. This story is no different: We’re introduced to Larry and Maurice when they meet at an art gallery, both male, both academic (although Larry is an English professor and not an Art Historian like Maurice), both having had too much wine.

So I set myself for yet another story of this ilk, only to find myself surprised by the titular character himself. Lucio Schluter is a sculptor, who had “had impossibly, but successfully, managed to integrate elements of action figurine aesthetics into the rigor of classical nudist sculpture” (p. 228). This is a tantalising description, and shows how difficult it can be to describe an intensely visual medium through an intensively verbal one. In this story, I really enjoyed how Thorn drew pictures of Schluter’s sculptures through words; it shows the verbal power that Thorn has, which was often not foregrounded in many of the other stories in this anthology. Schluter himself has a depth that makes him far more intriguing than many other characters I’ve encountered in Thorn’s stories so far, a mixture of contradictions and confusions.

(Originally published in DarkFuse, 2017).

REVIEW: “Snow Queen” by T.R. North

Review of T.R. North, “Snow Queen”, Metaphorosis: The Complete Stories 2017, edited by B. Morris Allen (Metaphorosis Books, 2018): 15—19. Purchase Here. Originally published at Metaphorosis Magazine on 6 January 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

A dreamy story about enchantment and desire. When the snow queen comes to town, she takes away with her an adolescent boy that the protagonist has a crush on. After a long journey to find him, the girl is changed, and so is he. But then the snow queen sees her, and falls in love with her and her independent spirit.

It is gorgeously written and falls firmly on the literary side of fantasy. I enjoyed the story, though I suspect I would have enjoyed it even more if I was more familiar with the ‘snow queen’ fairy tale and films, as I felt some of the meaning and symbolism passed me by. I was also unsure why the journey of five years and a day to reach the queen is presented as it is. A poetic story and anyone who appreciates the blending of fairy tales and literary fantasy should check it out.

REVIEW: “Jewel of the Vashwa” by Jordan Kurella

Review of Jordan Kurella, “Jewel of the Vashwa”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The women of the Vashwa have always warred with the Scorpion Men of the Ratch, and always mated with them, leaving sons with their fathers and bringing their daughters home, to grow and fight and lie with either Scorpion Men or softer mean from softer places. Awanshe was at the final battle between these two tribes, but the stories she tells about it are lies. This one is the truth.

This story has it all – battles and lust and betrayal, plus an examination of what it takes to live with lies. I loved the structure of this story, where a version of the truth is followed by a confession, then followed by another attempt at the truth. It mirrors the way that real people can come to believe their own lies, and have trouble finding the original truth again. It also serves to keep tension high, because I was always wondering when the narrative might stop and correct itself again.

It’s always nice to see a fantasy setting where who someone loves is a non-issue. Not only can the women of the Vashwa choose to reproduce with either soft or chitinous men, when Awanshe comes home and a takes a female lover after failing to get pregnant by a Scorpion Man, it is a non-issue.

This is another strong addition to Apex’s Zodiac issue. I feel like I’m saying that after every review this month, but this double issue really is great!

REVIEW: “Speaking of Ghosts” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Speaking of Ghosts”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 214-225 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

It’s a ghost story! Jem has a ghost haunting his storage closet, and who does he turn to for help? Not the internet, not an exorcist, not a medium, not an exterminator, no… “a past colleague and good friend…a double PhD (Philosophy and English Literature) with a specialty in 18th-19th century Gothic fiction” (p. 215). Because if there’s one thing academics are good at is banishing ghosts…

Dr. Raymond Block has an unfortunate tendency towards verbosity which is rather irritating to read. He’s more a charicature than a character, and as an academic I find it a bit frustrating to see the usual literary stereotypes of academics being reinforced. But on a more practical side of things, it means that a lot of this story is devoted to dialogue which does little to move the story forward; so by the time I reached the end, it felt like very little had happened.

(Originally published in Vague Visions, 2017).

REVIEW: “Satanic Panic” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Satanic Panic”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 202-212 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Cruelty to animals.

Satanic panic has swept Jarad Cross’s hometown, and when the neighborhood pets start being brutalized, all “the God-fearing cops” (p. 204) knew exactly where to turn their suspicion: To someone who met all the purported requirements of a Satanist, Jarad himself. But Jarad is no Satanist, and he “loved animals a lot more than he loved all the judgmental fuckers populating this bum-ass town” (p. 205).

With this story, there are two options where you can locate the horror: If Jarad is innocent, then who or what is the unknown Satanist that is torturing and killing the animals? Alternatively, if Jarad is innocent, then how can he fight against the panic, when neither fact nor reason will carry any weight? What is scarier, the Satanism or the Satanic panic? I know where my answer lies, but will encourage people to read the story and decide for themselves.

REVIEW: “Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien

Review of Brandon O’Brien, “Gasping”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A childless husband and wife find a baby by the ocean and adopt her. Colleen and Owen love baby Aislinn as their own, and they all move from Ireland to Trinidad. The girl is obviously not quite human, with breathing problems and strange reactions to water. But she grows up into a fine young woman, which is when the problems start.

I love a good selkie story or a changeling child, and I’m not alone in that. There’s a reason why both are so popular. This is not exactly either of those – Aislinn isn’t quite a selkie, as there is no seal skin, but she came from the water and to the water she must return. And a changeling child implies a switch, implies a human babe taken away somewhere, and that is also false. But this story sips from both of those classic narratives to excellent effect. This is a story about growing up, and about the difficulty parents face in letting their children go.

This is also a love story, between Aislinn and a girl in her class, Aditi. Their relationship captures the purity and innocence of young love free of angst, and brings a joyful counterpoint to the inevitably bittersweet ending.

The story is written in a dialect that I had some trouble following, but I got the hang of it by the end. If you are put off by that sort of thing, I recommend sticking it out, anyway. The story is worth it. I assume that this is a common Trinidadian dialect, and that it grounds the story in place, even if it is one I am unfamiliar with.

Overall, I enjoyed this story. The blending of fairy tale motifs and cultures set a delightful stage, and the casual acceptance of a lesbian love story is well worth checking out!