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: “Sabbatical” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Sabbatical”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 182-199 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story surprised me. After story after story of misogyny, male privilege, and general assholeish behavior, this one featured a character (Gage) willing to call out such problematic behavior in a fellow character (Thad): The first time I’ve seen this behavior explicitly commented on in the book. What a refreshing change!

This was also one of the few stories where the psychology of the story worked well one me — there was a constant wondering of why? and what will happen next? and even a bit of how?.

I don’t think these two things are disconnected: By framing Gage as someone who is not a jerk, Thorn makes me care about him and what will happen to him, and the uncertainty on this latter count is unsettling, and thus provoking, and successful.

(Originally published in Dark Moon Digest, 2017.)

REVIEW: “Economy These Days” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Economy These Days”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 164-179 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: Domestic violence against children

This story seemed somewhat out of place in the anthology, as it lacked anything that struck me as typical of the horror genre.

I did have to laugh when I read this:

He’d submitted résumés and cover letters to no less than two hundred openings. A total of three potential employers requested interviews. No call-backs (p. 165).

Not because it was funny, but because of all the tropes in the book, it is this one that is the most scary, because the most true. They say “write what you know”, and it is clear from this — and from other hints in other stories — that Thorn knows the academic trajectory quite well.

But otherwise this story of a struggling academic seeking to find an alternative means of financial support is violent without being either psychologically or physically scary.

REVIEW: “Words in an Unfinished Poem” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “Words in an Unfinished Poem”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 1-21. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The gunslinger waits in the saloon for the one person who can help them find the final word that will finish their poem. Sewn into their coat are the shell casings of every person they’ve ever killed, each inscribed with a single word, a poem ever changeable and rearrangeable.

We never learn the gunslinger’s name in this story, but we learn so much more about them…the curse that haunts them, the grandmother that raised them, the memories that they cannot escape. This is not a “pen is mightier than the sword” story but rather a “the pen is the sword” story, as for the gunslinger their words and their bullets are one and the same, each as deadly as the other.

This was a beautiful and sad story, told with glittering words.

Happy birthday to us!

Exactly one year ago, we launched SFFReviews — happy birthday to us!!

In the last year, our team of reviewers has reviewed around 480 pieces. Most are pieces of fiction–speculative, fantasy, horror, sci fi, romance, queer–ranging from flash fic all the way up to novellas, but we’ve also reviewed poetry and nonfiction in the context of some of the anthologies we’ve reviewed.

We’ve reviewed stories by award-winning authors, stories that have been selected for their year’s “Best Of” anthologies, stories by authors for whom this is their first publication. We’ve reviewed stories in pro venues, in semi-pro venues, and in emerging venues that hope to one day reach those levels. We’ve reviewed stories published by mainstream publishers as well as ones that have been self-published or published by small presses. Want to read our most-read review? It’s of George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell’s anthology Abandoned Places. Want to read a review that was missed by most of our readers when it was first published>? Then read our review of Henry Stanton’s “Mother Imago”.

Throughout, we’ve worked hard to emphasise the personal and subjective nature of the experience of reading a story: We don’t try to be objective in our reviews, we don’t provide ratings or stars or statements of comparative quality, because there is no way to separate a story from the person reading it, and so every individual’s experience of a story is going to be just that — individual. We’ve tried to be sensitive to when the content of the stories or our reviews may be distressing to certain readers, and to treat all the authors we’re reviewing with respect and kindness, even when we think the story fell short of our own personal hopes for it.

A site like this wouldn’t exist without a huge number of people contributing to it. Thank you to Charles Payseur for giving us the idea in the first place. Thank you to all of our dedicated reviewers, past and present, whether they were able to review many stories or only a few. (Want to join us?) Thank you to everyone who has followed us on Twitter or Facebook, who has read, liked, linked to, tweeted, and shared our reviews.

But most of all, thank you to all the writers who have written these stories. Without you, we wouldn’t have anything to review. You make the world better through the stories you write; all we do is try to boost the signal a bit.

REVIEW: “Rethinking Risk” by Andrew D. Maynard

Review of Andrew D. Maynard, “Rethinking Risk”, 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): 193-201 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In this nonfiction companion piece to “The Use of Things” (read the review) and “Death on Mars” (read the review), Maynard advocates a new approach to conceptualising risk that focuses not on behavior that can be characterised by so-called “risk-aversion” but rather on “the things that people find too important to risk losing” (p. 193). The goal is to

open up a deeper conversation around risk that explores the trade-offs that are often necessary to create the future we desire (p. 193).

I found this an interesting piece to read not only for what it has to say concerning the risks we do and must take in near-earth space travel but also how this can be applied to other facets of “the future we desire”. In the context of SFF fiction (as opposed to fact), one facet of that future that we desire is the increasing representation of marginalized voices, taking their stories seriously both in reading and responding to them, and for less marginalized voices to ensure that their characters and worlds are suitably representative (we don’t really need any more cis-het-white-male “#ownvoices” stories…) What are the risks we take in moving towards that future? And what are the things that are too important for us to risk losing?

The only way these questions can be answered is individually; the answers that I came to are not the answers anyone else will come to. As Maynard points out, “what we consider to be important…is not always obvious” (p. 196). So I recommend reading this piece not because of the answers I got out of contemplating these questions, but because of the value others can find in answering the questions themselves.