This was a smashing story to end the anthology on. The basic premise — what it is that the narrator is selling — made me laugh with delight as soon as I clocked what it was. And then came the true chilling horror as the details of the premise got successively filled in. No gore, all psychological games, and the ugly enjoyment that comes from watching someone rationalise the impossible.
Summary in one sentence: In a setting that could be either post-apocalyptic or merely futuristic (one sometimes looks at the world’s current trajectory and wonders if there’s any difference), Ash and her lover Rebecca are forced to come to terms with the consequences of decisions that neither of them really wanted to make.
I found this story raised more questions than it answered; it felt lacking in details needed to help me understand the importance of the situation that Ash and Rebecca found them in. As a result, I never quite felt like I was following the conversation properly. This was particularly bothersome in the opening paragraphs when I was unable to tell whether the topic of their conversation was rape, or not — something pretty important to determine so that I can put appropriate content notes on reviews! In this case, I think the answer is “not rape”, but the story still involves a degree of sexual violence that some might wish to stay away from.
Review of Jessica Walsh, “I Wake Up In Strange Places”, in Little Creepers (Sewn Together Reflections, LLC, 2018): 46-50 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)
When it came time to settle down and read a story before bed, I picked this one because of its excellent title. It’s the sort of title that clearly has a story behind it, begging to be told, and yet the reader has no idea what kind of story it will be.
The story opens on the unnamed narrator awaking yet again in a strange place, and follows what happens after. It is remarkably factual: As a reader, I get told what happens, but not how or why. And even some of the what questions remain unanswered, as even the narrator themself doesn’t know the answer. In the end, I felt the story lacked resolution: Without the background hows and whys, I didn’t care enough about the narrator for the whats to matter.
Sometimes, all it takes is a single moment for a person’s life to change irrevocably. In “White Noise”, we get to see one of these moments in the life of an unnamed narrator, and to see how she must grapple with the consequences of that moment and the decisions she must take afterwards.
If I had to classify the genre of this story, I’d put it firmly in “paranormal” rather than “horror”; it may read as horror to some, but I found I had figured out what the ending would be too soon for the story to have any uncertainty or weighty anticipation for me.
Three travelers journey across an inhospitable desert, hoping to escape the Guild which pursues them. Their quest is feeling increasingly futile to at least one of their members, a wyrmrider named Adzala, whose wyrn they abandoned eight days ago. The situation grows increasingly dire, until Adzala finds out the truth of why the spellcaster is being hunted by this Guild.
This is probably the most high fantasy story I’ve read in Apex, with a world rife with magical creatures, spellcasting, and political intrigue. Also, a lot of fighting: this is a pretty harsh world, where nobody trusts each other, apparently with good reason. There’s a depth to the world, a sense that there is more happening here than we see in the story. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the author has a novel set in the same world – it’s certainly rich enough for one. It’s also nice to see a fantasy set in an alternate Saharan Africa, instead of the more typical pseudo-European settings.
I had trouble getting emotionally invested in this story. While there is certainly a strong setting, I had some trouble orienting myself in regards to the characters. Jasiri, their fighter, stands out as the only character to push back against the harsh, distrustful norms of the setting to truly care about people and reach out, but he is the only character whose personality felt strongly developed to me. Still, if you’re looking for a fantastic setting and a tense plot, this story delivers.
Content warning: Suicide.
This brief story starts off dark and tremendously sad — Christmas night, a man contemplating suicide, awash with memories of committing his senile mother to care, how in the aftermath he lost not only his mother but his wife and son, too. The thread that runs through all the events and emotions, past and present, is a music box that once played on the man’s mother’s dresser, and which he hoped would one day play for his son. In the end, the song of the music box is, I think, intended to leave the reader with a sense of hope, but I’m not sure how successfully it did so: I just felt rather down after finishing it.
This story — at one page long — is over and done with before it even gets started. It was the story I started off with, and it probably wasn’t the best choice for me; it was too short to be satisfying, and I find the 2nd-person narration grating. However, the final line went a long way to turning around my initial impressions.
(Originally published in Apex Magazine 66).
This year, SFFReviews participated in #RevPit on twitter for the first time — where authors promote their books for review and reviewers indicate which books they’d be interested in reviewing — and that’s how we received a copy of Jessica Walsh’s short collection of horror stories. Two of the stories, “Whispering Waters” and “Lurking Status”, had previously been published, but the rest are new. Interspersed throughout the tales are interesting illustrations which lend a new dimension to the stories.
It is an eclectic collection, ranging from the single-page almost flash-fic story “And Then There Were One Hundred and Twenty-Eight” to the nearly-novellette 43-page story “My Life”. As a result, I read the stories out of order, rather than sequentially, so that I could pick a length that suited my reading desires at a given time. As is customary, we’ve listed the contents below (pretty much my only significant complaint is that I would’ve liked to have had a table of contents in the book itself!), and will review the stories individually and link the reviews back here as they are published:
- “In the Pipes Below”
- “Whispering Waters”
- “Giving In”
- “And Then There Were One Hundred and Twenty-Eight”
- “White Noise”
- “Lurking Status”
- “I Wake Up In Strange Places”
- “My Life”
- “Lovely Decisions”
- “For Sale”
To speak to the collection as a whole: I often struggle with where “horror” fits into SFFReviews. It certainly can fall under the umbrella of “speculative fiction”, especially in its psychological guises. Sometimes horror can be purely mundane, though; for instance, when it stems from physical violence and gore. It was hard to categorise these stories, some of which were definitely on the speculative end of things, while others (like “Giving In”) were so mundane as to be merely depressing rather than horrible. Good speculative horror that is well done I truly enjoy, and that’s what keeps me dipping back into the horror genre time and time again. In this collection, some of the stories lived up to my hopes and satisfied my desires; but unfortunately only some.
Take one part 1950’s aesthetic and one part friendly totalitarian government, mix them well, and you’ll get something similar to this wholesome American dystopia, reminiscent of “The Lottery.” Mr. Clausen is sick of being called to vote almost every evening after work, but this is the price of living in a direct democracy – the people must vote on every issue, from whether to launch more laser satellites, to issuing more war bonds. Mr. Clausen suspects that these votes do not really matter – after all, who could tally them so quickly? – and he’s about to learn the truth.
What struck me was how nobody takes the voting seriously. It’s mostly a social occasion, with the teens flirting and giggling, the women gossiping in the corner, and the men ribbing each other about their work days. Something that is ostensibly supposed to make people more engaged in the political process actually makes them less engaged. One person actually says that he just votes for everything. When Mr. Clausen starts to question what is going on, everyone keeps asking him why he can’t just go along with it like everybody else, as if voting doesn’t really matter.
The world and the government grow steadily more and more creepy as the story progresses, and as we and Mr. Clausen both learn more about what is happening. Eventually, he is forced to confront the worst of what can happen when “the will of people” is honored in word, but not deed, and conformity is all that matters. The conclusion is open-ended, but it is hard to imagine any resolution to the situation that could be described as happy. It’s a haunting picture, and one that I’m sure will stick with me.
Ellie and Benji are ransacking a dragon’s lair, hoping for gold and money that will “keep us for years, if we’re careful.” Clever, quick-witted, little Benji is convinced the dragon is dead and the lair is empty of everything except treasure there for the taking. But “trollblood” Ellie, “big and strong and slow of thought and speech”, for the first time in her life refuses her brother.
What follows is a tense, tough, awkward, horribly sad story of the highs and lows of sibling relationships and familial ties, of greed and betrayal, of the monsters that live in the dark, a story that brought me to tears.