REVIEW: “Remembering Absence” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Remembering Absence”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 262-274. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Murder.

Don’t ask me how long it’s been since I saw myself die. I can’t remember (p. 262).

What a wonderful opening line — and what an interesting little story on the experience of being a ghost. Thorn’s recounting of the phenomenology of being a ghost I found more compelling than when the narrator (his name is never known) slipped into long monologues about the phenomenology — those tended to bog down a bit. But this story had none of the banality that so many other stories in the anthology did, and all of the beautiful turns of phrases. It was a good story to end the collection on.

(Originally published in Straylight Literary Arts Magazine 2016).

REVIEW: “The Auteur” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “The Auteur”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 98-115 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Simon, Cate, and Edwin all work in a movie rental place, and Cate — self-described “in-house horror specialist” (p. 99) — spends a lot of time rehearsing the merits and demerits of various horror movies to her co-worker Simon. None of them are what he really wants to watch: What he wants access to are the movies Cate, “world-changing auteur of pure horror” (also self-described, p. 101), makes.

It’s difficult to describe a movie in words, and even more difficult with a movie that relies so much on timing, pacing, angles, and sounds, as horror movies do. But that’s what we get in this story when Simon finally gets a chance to see one of Cate’s movies, alternating description of the movie, recounting of dialogue in the movie, and Simon’s reactions to it. In the end, this story felt much more like a clinical description of horror than actually horror itself.

(Originally published in Turn to Ash, 2016).

REVIEW: “Mired” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Mired”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 82-96 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Unlike some of the other stories in this collection, which go more for the grisly and the gory, this story opens with a nightmare scenario so parody-like it’s more amusing than horrifying: A researcher confronts a neon green blob in his closet, while the blob eats his research. (What kind of research? you might ask. Apparently Randolph is the type of pretentious guy who reads Derrida, Hegel, and Nietzsche. He is also the type of guy who when confronted with a neon green blob panics and calls a woman (whose name he doesn’t even remember correctly) to come and sort things out for him — but he’s not even got enough courage to go through with that!)

I sort of feel like I should’ve come away from this story with some great weighty reflections about man’s relationship to his work, and the weight of ideas that are never read or grappled with, or even some sort of sense of kinship to Randolph, an academic philosopher like myself; but he was never really sympathetic enough for me to be all that bothered by what ended up happening to him.

(Originally published in Double Feature Magazine 2016).

REVIEW: “Hair” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Hair”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 12-26 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The opening line of the opening story in this collection grabbed me viscerally and left me deeply uncomfortable:

Tonight, Theodore voluntarily ingested hair for the first time.

All it took was the insertion of the single world ‘voluntarily’ to conjure up images of some bizarre and creepy fetish — and also to conjure up questions that I must have answered in order to be satisfied: Why does Theodore choose to eat his own hair, and what is the reason for the strange elation it brings him?

In the end, I’m not sure I got any answers: But the sheer creepiness of the story carried me from start to finish almost without allowing me to pause for breath.

(Originally published in DarkFuse, 2016).

REVIEW: “Iron Aria” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “Iron Aria”, Podcastle: 518 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

A fantasy of ecological catastrophe and the need for skills and approaches outside the default to heal the land. Kyru has a talent for speaking with metals. He might have spent his life simply as an excellent blacksmith, except for the part where flaws in a dam threaten to destroy his entire community when it fails and no one else can sense the looming peril the way he can. Both the problem and its solution are conveyed in the impressionistic experiences of the protagonist–although told in the third person, it has a very first-person feel to the point of view. I loved the imaginative worldbuilding and poetic language used to describe it.

This next bit is more of a meta-commentary on storytelling within our particular present moment and is only slightly relevant to the content of the story. There’s another entire layer to this work, separate from the functional man-against-nature plot, involving non-default identities and negotiating how to exist in a world not designed for you.

Two central characters are trans and their recognition of each other’s experience is a key part of their bond. The protagonist is also neuro-atypical, which is tied in with–though not equated with–his unusual metal-sensing/healing skills. The ways in which these aspects are integrated into the story point up some of the awkwardness of our current balance point with regard to representing non-default identities in fiction. We aren’t yet at a stage where representation can be successful simply by casual and neutral inclusion because–to many observers–that approach can feel a bit too similar to erasure. It’s perfectly possible to write a story featuring a trans character where their transness is never explicitly addressed because it’s not relevant to the plot, but at our current moment in the cultural timeline, it’s hard to count that as representation.

All of this is to say that, within the context of the storytelling, it felt to me that the communication of both trans identity and neuro-atypicality were over-telegraphed within the story and that the over-telegraphing interrupted the flow of the storyline. But at the same time, I recognize that dialing those narrative aspects back to a level that wouldn’t have felt overdone would have made it possible (perhaps even likely) for a majority of readers/listeners to miss them entirely. I see what the author is trying to do, and I appreciate the approach, and at the same time I would have loved to see how this story could be told in a context where the potential presence of those aspects of character identity could be more taken for granted rather than needing to be fronted in the way they were here.

Originally published in Fireside Fiction.

REVIEW: “A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley

Review of Charlotte Ashley, “A Fine Balance”, Podcastle: 517 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

In an early-modern secondary world setting that gave me an Ottoman Empire feel, the social and political balance between two ethnic groups is maintained in part by an elaborate system of ritual dueling and economic forfeiture. But the power differentials that underlie the superficially “fair” system come to a head when one side is willing to cheat to claim permanent advantage. The story is told from the point of view of an apprentice duelist who witnesses and participates in the crucial confrontations.

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding in this story and how the listener’s understanding of the social conflicts and function of the dueling rituals builds gradually to support the main conflict. The one flaw for me was that the play-by-play of some of the duels themselves got tedious, but I know this is a feature that people with more direct familiarity with martial arts may instead find a plus.

I particularly enjoyed how women were given pride of place in the narrative without needing to erase the underlying patriarchal nature of the cultural setting.

Originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction

REVIEW: “The Death of Paul Bunyan” by Charles Payseur

Review of Charles Payseur, “The Death of Paul Bunyan”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 279-286 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The suits pass a glance amongst themselves like it’s weed at a folk rock concert and Johnny wishes he ad brought something to take the edge off. H remembers smoking with Paul and Babe, during a summer they spent in the northwest once. Bigfoot hunting, they said, though in the summer of 1944 draft dodgin was probably more accurate.

For me, this was the perfect piece to finish off the anthology with, which is why I left it for last. The title alone evoked both nostalgia — memories of the Paul Bunyan murals at the Memorial Union at UW-Madison where did my BA and MA — and also a bit of embarrassment when I realised I’ve left Wisconsin behind long enough ago that I do not remember the details of Paul and Babe’s story.
So of course I did what any self-respecting academic would do, and read up on them before reading Payseur’s story. (While utterly irrelevant to Payseur’s story, I feel honor-bound to inform all of you that Disney did an animated musical Paul Bunyan, featuring the voice of Tony the Tiger.) What surprised me — most likely because I never knew this in the first place — was the status of the Bunyan tales as “fake-lore”, that is, stories that were made up to be like folk tales but without the long oral history that folk tales have. But this is supposed to be a review of Payseur’s story and not a discourse on Paul Bunyan, so let’s go see what happens when Bunyan dies, because that is when this story begins:

Paul Bunyan has died. Paul Bunyan has died and Johnny Appleseed is heading north (p. 279).

Both Bunyan and Appleseed are men out of American myth, but their status as myths doesn’t prevent them from still being men. (Reading the story I had a strange sense that I was reading a superhero story.) But how one can be both myth and man is the pole around which this story pivots, and in turn the story — stories — are that which make Paul and Johnny who they are:

They’re all made of stories, people like Johnny, people like Paul (p. 283).

But does the story die because Paul does, or does Paul die because the story does? That ambiguity, dear reader, is why you should read this story for yourself.

(Originally published in Lightspeed, 2016.)