This was an eminently peculiar story. I found myself reading it in fits and starts, going for a few paragraphs and then having to back-track and re-read. Ordinarily a story that makes me feel like I have to stop midway through and re-read because I’ve missed something crucial or something doesn’t make sense irritates me. This story, though, balanced on the fine line between fantasy/fairy tale and surreal that each read through brought with it a new detail or a new understanding, and helped build up different layers. No matter how often I read (or re-read) it, I was never quite sure what was going on, what was real, what was not. I really enjoyed it.
Charlotte is struggling with some dementia-like changes in her husband, Arthur. Since taking a new job advising a popular fundamentalist preacher, Arthur has transformed from a brilliant political correspondent at the paper where they both work, to somehow who struggles to sound out the word “acetaminophen” or understand that it is Tylenol. When a stranger tells Charlotte that the preacher is up to something terrible, and that she has to go to his event that night and stop him, Charlotte thinks that maybe she has found a way to understand what is happening to her husband.
Despite what you might think from the summary, this is a slowly building horror story. Yes, it centers a relationship, but that is not what the story is ultimately about. What is it about? That’s harder to say, because it is so subtle, and so rich. It’s about relationships, yes. It’s about wanting to understand a loved one, and thus acting against what might be your better judgment. It’s also about mind control, and about the comfort that can be found after giving up your free will to someone or something more confident than yourself. It’s absolutely terrifying. This is psychological horror at some of its best, holding up a dark mirror to real life that made my stomach curdle.
I love a good title, and this is a great title.
From such a title, one might think that the feature characters would be Lady Nightmare and Captain Alpha. But instead, it’s the unnamed girlfriend (who gets her name, Sara, in the first sentence of the story) that is the center of things. The tone that the narration takes, through a close 3rd person POV focused on Sara, is chatty and accessible, even when Sara is in the midst of experiences few readers can relate to (how many people have been taken hostage not once, but twice? And by a supervillain?). I found myself grinning intermittently (how can you not grin at sentences like “If Sara had known someone would be breaking into her home today, she would have cleaned”?) and rooting for Sara from the get-go. It didn’t take very long into the story before I’d formed a hope of how the rest of it would go, and Brand did not disappoint: I got exactly the happy ending I wanted. This was one of the most enjoyable, laugh-out-loud-able stories I’ve read recently, and I’m so glad I went back into the LSQ archives and found it.
I love fairy tale retellings, especially when the retelling tells a part of the story that the traditional tale omits. The inspiration for Schmidt’s story is Sleeping Beauty, but it is the story of what happened in a period often glossed over — after she fell asleep and before she was awakened. How many princes came and kissed an unconsenting princess before one finally woke her up? Well, in this story, it wasn’t a prince at all that woke her, but woman who loves the princess for her thorns, and not in spite of them.
An unusual twist on a usual tale, I enjoyed Schmidt’s interpretation of Sleeping Beauty very much.
Nata intends to leave the safe community of Isiuwa, to go out into the dunes. She has tried once before, been captured and narrowly avoided death at the hands of the chief in punishment, but she is determined to make her escape from this village that she hates. The chief insists that for anyone to go would anger the gods and doom Isiuwa, but Nata does not believe this. Like her mother before her, she is determined to see what lies beyond the walls, and to find freedom.
There is a lot going on in this story. On a political level, this story takes a long, hard look at the type of governance that seeks to protect people by limiting their freedom. Because, of course, the people in charge of Isiuwa are permitted outside the bamboo fence. They say they do it to the protect the people, that it is a burden and not a privilege, but that does not change the fact that they are the only ones who could possibly know what is out there. Everyone else must take their word for it. Most of the citizens seem unbothered by this fact, even if they do not all believe in the religious explanation provided by their chief.
But of course, it is the personal level of the story that most interests me. Nata’s challenging relationship with a mother who left years ago, before Nata was ready to question the truths passed down to her, informs much of the story. Her absence is almost a presence for Nata. I also appreciated her friendship with a younger boy, one whose mother also left for the dunes. So often, when we read about someone defying authority, they have to do it completely alone. I liked seeing Nata with an ally.
This is an engaging first story in Apex’s Afrofurism special issue, which is also the last issue of the magazine.
Many of the characters in the other stories in Walsh’s anthology felt very shadowing and fuzzy, but in “My Life” I felt like I had a chance to see multi-faceted people with names and lives and backgrounds. This was due in part to the length — a good solid story rather than a 1-3 page gossamer bite.
Erickson and Taylor were college roommates, and unlikely — but believable — friends. (They’d be more than friends if Erickson had his way, but Taylor always laughed off his overtures.) But now things are changing — Taylor’s moving out into his own place, Erickson’s getting a new roommate. Neither is quite sure how to begin navigating this new chapter in their lives, so when Taylor finds a name scribbled on the wall underneath some pealing wallpaper, and a notebook in his bedroom with the same name inscribed in it, he assumes it’s Erickson playing some sort of joke, a parting gift (if you like). First Taylor ignores the notebook, then he starts writing in it, imagining what the story behind the name — Nicholas — written in it is.
But of course, Erickson hadn’t give him any notebook. What follows is Taylor’s plunge into the uncanny as he continues to write Nicholas’s story, getting more and more involved in the fantasy he’s creating than in the reality he’s supposed to be inhabiting. As the lines between reality and fiction blur, what really comes to the fore and shines is the relationship between Taylor and Erickson, complex, delicate, full of pathos, and beautiful. It made the ending even more horrifying when it came.
Review of Jessica Walsh, “And Then There Were One Hundred and Twenty-Eight”, in Little Creepers (Sewn Together Reflections, LLC, 2018): 33. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)
This story totally wins the “best title” award! It immediately intrigued me. There’s the clash between the familiar “and then there was one” phrase and the unexpected “one hundred and twenty-eight”. Then there’s the “one hundred and twenty-eight what??” Coming in at not even a full page, Walsh doesn’t have much space to play with here, but she uses each word to its fullest potential. From the very first sentence, I know the setting — where it’s at, what time of year. I know what the 128 are, but only that: The question of why there are that many, and how they got there, is still to come.
My only complaint is that one of the main characters, Keegan, gets named, but his wife is only “his wife”. I always feel a little bit let down when the only explicitly female characters in a story are relegated to their relationship status.