REVIEW: “Necromance” by Alyssa Striplin

Review of Alyssa Striplin, “Necromance”, Luna Station Quarterly 35 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content warning: Death, animal sacrifice.

I’m not a big fan of second-person narration, so I didn’t enjoy this story as much as some. This story also leans more towards the “horror” than many stories in Luna Station Quarterly, another count against it, in my book.

But these two complaints are very personal ones, and if you don’t mind second-person narratives or a bit of gore, then you may enjoy this story of the mortician’s daughter-turned-necromancer.

REVIEW: “Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson

Review of Nalo Hopkinson’s, “Old Habits”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 21 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Like many classic ghost stories, “Old Habits” is a study in futility, stasis, and regret. There’s nothing the dead in Nalo Hopkinson’s story can do about their situation. Trapped in the mall where they died, they have almost no agency, and are forced to regularly relive their own deaths. There are no heroes in Nalo Hopkinson’s ghost mall; no magic bullets, no tantalising opportunities to rejoin the living. And the mall they haunt isn’t exactly Valhalla.  

The mundane, slightly sordid, nature of the afterlife Hopkinson has created, and the powerlessness of her characters, could have made this story a frustrating experience for a living, breathing reader. This story rejects well-worn fantasy plot structures that focus on active questing characters changing, or finding, their fates through sheer force of will. It also centres the experience of a group of powerless ghosts instead of, as so many ghost stories do, concentrating on the living, or giving the ghosts powers. And finally, this story pushes readers to face the banal ways in which mortality can be brutally stripped away. “Old Habits” is not a comfortable read, and that’s before the reader finds out that these ghosts can be hungry, and vicious, when provoked by their own kind.

However, out of all this difficult material, I think Hopkinson has created an affecting, quiet story about the pettiness of loss. Partly that’s because its conception of death is so rooted in the mundane, and everyday; presenting, like much apocalyptic media, enticing details of a world which, at least for these ghosts, cannot be regained. And that central concentration on the powerless is a theme carried through to great effect. The story opens with the death of a disenfranchised woman, crushed by corporate security, in a nod to many real life deaths in custody. While it’s not a story I’m in a rush to read again (facing this vision of an afterlife is a hard ask) it’s certainly a well-crafted piece that plays on my mind. “Old Habits” is a reminder that ghost stories can be just as inventive as every other part of the SFF and horror genres.

REVIEW: “The Ghol” by Rose Strickman

Review of Rose Strickman, “The Ghol”, Luna Station Quarterly 35 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

After the death of her husband, James, Miranda and her two daughters, Lily and Violet, find themselves struggling to keep the farm — and the family — together as a ghol comes to haunt them. Their only defense against the ghol is the poems that James wrote, poems which are consumed in the act of defense, so that Miranda knows it is only a matter of time before there are no poems, no defense, left. And it is only James’s poems that work: Poems written by Miranda and the girls are useless.

The only way to destroy a ghol completely is to find what it is that it craves and give it a poisoned version of that. Strickman gives a satisfying resolution to this conundrum, making a neat little story of haunting and horror.

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: “Be Prepared to Shoot the Nanny” by Rachel Kolar

Review of Rachel Kolar, “Be Prepared to Shoot the Nanny”, Metaphorosis: The Complete Stories 2017, edited by B. Morris Allen (Metaphorosis Books, 2018): 31—39. Purchase Here. Originally published at Metaphorosis Magazine on 20 January 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

I have noted elsewhere my general distaste for zombie horror, but if it has to be done, this is how to do it! There’s a nice bit of humour here along with (as in the last story) some observations about a society awash with guns and middle-class self-obsession. It’s a post-zombie apocalypse world; things have returned to some semblance of normality, but anyone who dies comes back as a zombie until they are killed again. Miranda is a somewhat hateful, overbearing middle class parent, judgemental and casually racist, who is upset that her ‘kill switch’ has recently died. Having a kill switch is a necessity for childcare arrangements (for the middle classes), as you can’t leave child alone with a nanny in case said nanny croaks it unexpectedly and eats the child. So two are needed, so that one can shoot the other in case of sudden death. It’s a great setup. As there is only one nanny available today, Miranda decides to work from home to act as kill switch herself, and of course because she’s so overbearing and interfering — though with the best of motherly intentions — she makes what should be a normal day into a catastrophic one.

Miranda is a bit of a caricature I suppose, a tad overdone and bordering on sociopathy, but to be honest, if she is a ten, I personally know people who are at least a seven. It is telling that the first thing she thinks of when she realises she’s mistakenly killed an innocent non-zombie and might go to prison is that little Henry won’t be able to get into a good school, or a private one, so is essentially as good as dead. And then of course there is the implication of how easily mistakes can be made when guns are everywhere. Great story!

REVIEW: “Fusion” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Fusion”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 244-260 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

While the majority of the stories in this anthology feature an almost entirely male cast of characters, this story is one of the exceptions. I was curious to read this story of two friends, Liz and Nicole, and the others they’re camping with, Joyce and Sarah, and see how Thorn handles women.

The centered POV is Liz’s, but it’s actually introverted Nicole that interests me more, and I found myself frustrated with Liz’s continual dismissal of the validity of her friend’s experiences and preferences — Liz is quite judgemental of Nicole’s introversion, despite calling herself Nicole’s friend. Neither Joyce nor Sarah were around long enough for me to form a full judgement of them; they played their roles as supporting characters in a traditional horror story well, but there wasn’t really anything that separated the two of them from each other, or from Liz. I guess the title of “fusion” and the way in which the story ended are apt on more than one level, as all three end up indistinguishable from each other.

REVIEW: “Lucio Schluter” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Lucio Schluter”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 228-242 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

One thing that struck me about this anthology, the more stories I read in it, was just how many of the characters are some combination of (a) male, (b) academic, and (c) drunk. One or two stories populated with characters like this would’ve been okay; but after nine or ten stories like this, the lack of diversity begins to tell as it becomes harder and harder to sympathise or empathise with the main characters. This story is no different: We’re introduced to Larry and Maurice when they meet at an art gallery, both male, both academic (although Larry is an English professor and not an Art Historian like Maurice), both having had too much wine.

So I set myself for yet another story of this ilk, only to find myself surprised by the titular character himself. Lucio Schluter is a sculptor, who had “had impossibly, but successfully, managed to integrate elements of action figurine aesthetics into the rigor of classical nudist sculpture” (p. 228). This is a tantalising description, and shows how difficult it can be to describe an intensely visual medium through an intensively verbal one. In this story, I really enjoyed how Thorn drew pictures of Schluter’s sculptures through words; it shows the verbal power that Thorn has, which was often not foregrounded in many of the other stories in this anthology. Schluter himself has a depth that makes him far more intriguing than many other characters I’ve encountered in Thorn’s stories so far, a mixture of contradictions and confusions.

(Originally published in DarkFuse, 2017).