REVIEW: Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth edited by Jen Baker

Review of Jen Baker, ed., Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth (British Library, 2021) — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Do you like ghost stories? Do you like haunting stories about dead children? Do you like to delve into the history of speculative fiction! This is the anthology for you! Jen Baker has collected thirteen (of course) Anglo-American and Irish stories (most written by women!) first published between 1831 and 1925 (and accompanied by a bibliography of sources cited and further reading, in case you want a bit more on the academic side of things.)

The genre of “dead children literature” is pretty popular in that era — unsurprising given the high child mortality rates — but Baker (an academic at the University of Warwick) draws a distinction between the Gothic horror of the stories in her collection with the more common “twee” (her word, p. 7) approach of many poems and elegies of the era. In these stories, the ghostly children are not returning to console or comfort their parents, but for more sinister and strange purposes. But to say more would be spoiling things!

Each story is accompanied by brief biographical information about the authors, and the original publication history of the story. As usual, we’ll link the reviews of the individual stories back to this post as they are published!

REVIEW: “Diamond Cuts” by Shaoni C. White

Review of Shaoni C. White, “Diamond Cuts”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

The first person protagonist of “Diamond Cuts” is magically forced to perform in a two-person play where they must act out real, physical harm. When their former partner dies, their new partner, a hasty replacement with more knowledge of the outside world, makes a plan to break the spell and leave the theater. But his plan might be more likely to kill them than save them, and even if they succeed, it will have far-reaching consequences…

The story begins with a sparkling, visceral paragraph about the narrator eating a star: plucking it from the sky, biting down, and spitting out “shards of glass coated in spittle and blood.” It is terribly beautiful and remains my favorite part of the piece. From that point on, I was a little disappointed in the main plotline of the story and particularly in its conclusion. I was getting ready for an expansive space opera narrated by some sentient heavenly body that could (masochistically) consume stars, but I was given a play about magic, a story trapped within the four walls of a theater house. This subversion of expectations feels deliberate: it brings the reader into the magic of the theater for a moment, since they assume the events of the play are a real part of the story. Still, that opening set up an expectation that I felt wasn’t quite fulfilled. While the physical pain and danger of our narrator’s acting comes up throughout the piece, I wanted more exploration of what it meant to them and why it had to exist in this world. 

Without giving away the exact events of the ending, it leaves many possibilities open and revolves around a theme that doesn’t have a lot of relevance to the rest of the story. It’s just classic; you’ve likely read some version of it before. I wanted more.

REVIEW: “Embracing the Movement” by Cristina Jurado

Review of Cristina Jurado, “Embracing the Movement”, Clarkesworld Issue 177, June (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Myra Naik.

A fantastical tale of a strange sort of first contact. Things don’t go the way you may anticipate. There’s delicious buildup about existence in outer space and the different kinds of lives people live. It also features a very creepy payoff.

Different sorts of living spaces, structures and communication types exist in our universe. We have barely begun to understand this universe, and stories like this throw that fact into sharp relief.

A subtle queasiness exists throughout the story. If you enjoy feeling creeped out, this one will be right up your alley.

REVIEW: “The Graveyard” by ​​Eleanor Arnason

Review of ​​Eleanor Arnason, “The Graveyard”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

When Magnus Thorvaldsson, a Lutheran Icelandic-American, profanes a pagan graveyard with a Christain cross, the angry ghosts come clamoring to haunt a nearby farmer, Atli. Will he be able to appease the ghosts? More importantly, will he be able to appease Magnus as well?

This contemplative and humorous ghost story was a nice light read after some of the more tear-jerking and action-packed stories in this issue. While it is a little formulaic, it holds hidden gems: sprinkles of Icelandic culture, history, and literature that support the story and weave in unique elements. Between Atli’s droll, practical comments and the slightly bratty ghosts, it put a smile on my face many times. 

The story is told from the perspective of an Icelandic-American narrator rediscovering stories about her ancestral homeland, yet it features a stereotypical wealthy, meddlesome Icelandic-American character. Indirectly, it asks interesting questions. How are people raised in privileged America perceived when they try to learn about their ancestral cultures? Is there a way to do this appropriately and respectfully? While the story only hints at answers to these questions, the judgemental voices of Atli’s distant ancestors provide a fascinating backdrop for this exploration.

REVIEW: “The Wishing Pool” by Tananarive Due

Review of Tananarive Due, “The Wishing Pool”, Uncanny Magazine Issue 41 (2021): Read Online. Reviewed by Isabel Hinchliff.

When Joy visits her ailing father in the family cabin that she lived in as a child, she is forced to confront her memories about a small puddle in the forest that seemed to grant wishes in unexpected and sometimes tragic ways. Now that she’s an adult, Joy knows that the pool doesn’t really have any power, but is she desperate enough to wish for something anyway?

This heart-wrenching story confronts the realities of ageing parents head-on. While it’s definitely not a lighthearted read, I would recommend it for those who would like a more gritty and realistic take on a classic fairy tale theme. If nothing else, the ending will hit you right in the gut.

REVIEW: “Warlord” by Steve DuBois

Review of Steve DuBois, “Warlord,” Flash Fiction Online 87 (2021): Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content note: Cockroaches.

Ever since childhood, Kobi has been attended by a horde of bloodthirsty, talking cockroaches. Now, the presence of cockroaches isn’t generally something that will get me all het up for a story, but I’m not so creeped out by them as to stop reading. I read “Warlord” in a state of mixed horror and amusement — on the one hand, cockroaches, on the other hand, as far as Kobi’s concerned, they’re Cinderella’s mice. Which is hilarious. To sum it up: This story is quite the ride.

REVIEW: “Into the Lightning Suit” by Kyle Richardson

Review of Kyle Richardson, “Into the Lightning Suit,” Flash Fiction Online 87 (2021): Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Cora and Ben’s mother is dead, and the two siblings disagree about what to do next: Cora wants to let her mother rest in peace; she’s already said goodbye. Ben, on the other hand, wants to rebuild her.

What I liked: Crisp prose with good pacing.

What I disliked: The constant description of Ben and his activities as “mad” or “insane.”

REVIEW: “The Silent Decades” by Olga Kolesnikova

Review of Olga Kolesnikova, “The Silent Decades,” Luna Station Quarterly 47 (2021): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

One of my favorite genres of speculative fiction is what we might call speculative nonfiction, that is, a fictional nonfiction/research paper or book. Kolesnikova’s story is set around a century and a half in the future, and is series of tootnotes to a historical/analytical report of the “the silent decades” in the middle of the 21st century, complete with numerous references to secondary reading. It’s really hard to make up plausible non-fiction — especially when you need to make up the sources you’re citing! — and I thought Kolesnikova did a marvelous job.

REVIEW: “Your Brother’s Touchstone” by Isabel Lee

Review of Isabel Lee, “Your Brother’s Touchestone,” Luna Station Quarterly 47 (2021): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

It’s never a good sign when I start reading a story going “ugh, 2nd person POV. I hope it’s not too awful…” While it was by no means awful — LSQ doesn’t publish awful stories! — it was not, in my opinion, a story that was improved by the use of the 2nd person POV. I would have loved to have read a version of this story told in a more traditional format. Because the basic premise — Hana’s little brother Phillip has a tendency to disappear, literally, leaving her to pick up the pieces — was cool, and there were some very sweet and touching moments in it, and a twist near the end that I didn’t expect.

So, if you’re not like me and don’t mind 2nd person POV stories, definitely read this: I think you’ll like it.