REVIEW: “Murders Fell from Our Wombs” by Tlotlo Tsamaase

Review of Tlotlo Tsamaase, “Murders Fell from Our Wombs”, Apex Magazine 107 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A village in Motswana is haunted by a serial killer. Every month, a woman is killed. Every month, a young woman watches the murder happen in her dreams, during her menstruation. This young woman, Game, wants nothing more than to escape her village, her poverty, her curse, and to attend university. One month, the pattern shifts, and men become the victims. This small shift causes a huge cascade in Game’s life, and forms the heart of the story.

It’s an enticing premise, braiding together a feminist sensibility with cultural awareness and a clear understanding of poverty and how all of these can trap a person, bend their lives in ways that they can’t really control. To call it intersectional feels like an understatement.

The setting is phenomenally realized, which makes sense, since the author is Motswana herself. She does a fantastic job of painting a clear picture of that world, both the isolated village that Game comes from, but also the city that she eventually moves to for university. I felt transported to a place far outside of my experience, which seems to me to be one of the best things fiction can do.

I wanted to like this story more than I did. It’s obviously brilliant, dealing with big, important themes with subtlety, grace, and intelligence. Despite that, I had some trouble following the plot. I suspect that this story just isn’t meant for me, a white middle-class American, and that is fine. I can still tell it’s a masterful story, and well-worth reading.

REVIEW: “The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allen Poe

Review of Edgar Allen Poe, “The Oval Portrait”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 127-130 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story is one of the reasons I was so excited to review this anthology — for despite having been an English lit major many many years ago, the only Poe I’ve ever read is “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” (if you can call listening to the Crüxshadows’ version of it “reading”).

Poe’s tale of an oval vignette portrait of a young woman is gothic in the extreme — an injured hero, a forced entry into an abandoned building, old and gloomy and grand, references to Mrs. Radcliffe — and it was a little bit weird to read a story that wasn’t so much aping or mimicing or paying homage to these literary structures as being a part of what the homage is paid to in the first place.

Two other things struck me about the story: I love Poe’s use of hyphens, his punctuation style is very much after my own heart; and on p. 129 there were a few things where I wasn’t sure if they were errors in language or intentional. When Poe’s narrator reads a description of the portrait in a small volume he has found upon his bedpillow, the same sentence describing the woman is repeated. A few sentences later, the unusual spelling “pourtray” (for “portray”) is found — not implausible for the mid-19th century, but it’s the only atypical spelling in the story. I could look past both of these as being quirks of Poe’s writing, but then a few sentences later there is a genuine typo, (“be” for “he”), which served to make me unsure about the legitimacy of the two earlier issues. It’s unfortunate: For it then made me question the reliability of this edition of the story.

There is a note at the end of the story indicating that this is a shortened version of a longer story originally published in 1842; this shortened version was revised to remove “the suggestion of a drug-induced hallucination” (p. 130). Given that, and my uncertainty about the story as it is published in this 2018 edition, if nothing else I have now been stirred to go find the original 1842 edition and read that!

(Originally published in Broadway Journal, 1845.)

REVIEW: “The Stories We Tell to Sleep At Night” by Anna Yeatts

Review of Anna Yeatts, “The Stories We Tell to Sleep At Night”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 199-211 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content warning: Contains oblique references to sexual assault.

John Clive Owens has been offered the chance of a journalist’s lifetime. The divorce of Frank and Cecile Cooper is “as high-profile as they come in Atlanta’s social circle” (p. 199) — not just because of the divorce but because two years into litigation, Cecile disappeared. So when Owens gets a letter purporting to be from her, ready to tell her story, he cannot say no.

He cannot say no when he arrives in the middle of nowhere and Cecile takes away all his tech, his cell phone, even his glasses.

She knows too much. Against Owens, that knowledge is her power over him; but against her ex-husband, no knowledge would be enough to free her from his power. The story she relates is a horrible one of deceit, manipulation, assault, gaslighting, and outright lies — a story all the more horrible because every woman reading Cecile recount her experience either has or knows someone who has had similar experiences.

But Cecile’s story is not the one that Owens needs to tell…

REVIEW: “The Inheritance” by Bethann Ferrero

Review of Bethann Ferrero, “The Inheritance”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 267-274 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

When Glen inherits a house from his reclusive uncle Butch, and finds a rat-infested abandoned wreck left to moulder, it’s clear that we’re in for a classic horror story. There’s really no other way things can go than badly.

I’m not a huge fan or horror, and this story is certainly not one I’d ordinarily enjoy. Nevertheless — like fine Scotch that is well-made but not to my taste — I could appreciate how well Ferrero took all the typical elements of a horror story and wove them together into something where nothing is new or unexpected, and yet the story is still overwhelmingly successful in what it sets out to do. If you like horror — or prefer your Scotch aged in port to bring out the sweetness — you’ll like this story.

REVIEW: “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” by M. R. James

Review of M. R. James, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 179-197 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The story opens with a long paragraph of Latin which — I’ll admit — I spent far too long translating before moving on to the next paragraph and laughing when the antiquary reading the book the text is from comments that he still needs to translate the text, and does so in the next paragraph. (Unfortunately, modern spellcheckers tend to choke when it comes to Latin, as I know all to well from my own academic research, which is why, I suspect, the typo in the first line wasn’t caught in editing or proofreading.) And, oh, dear reader, the story has informative footnotes (five of them!), and those who’ve been with SFFReviews from the start know how much I love an informative footnote. All this to say: This is a story basically set up to appeal to me. What appealed even more was when I flipped to the end and read the author’s bio: “Though still well-regarded for his work as a medievalist, he is best known as one of the preeminent voices in modern Gothic horror.” A fellow medievalist who specialises in speculative fiction? How have I not heard of James before? This is one of the things that I love about the anthology: It has introduced me not only to contemporary authors but also historic ones, ones where my chances of otherwise stumbling across them are significantly reduced.

(Originally published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904).

REVIEW: “The Palm Bride” by Diana Hurlburt

Review of Diana Hurlburt, “The Palm Bride”, Luna Station Quarterly 33 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Any man might create a Palm Bride…It’s made of dreams.

I love me a good historically-influenced fantasy story, and Hurlburt’s story set in St. Augustine-of-the-past, -of-the-not-quite-here-and-now, delivers.

The setting of the story is post-war, when those who returned from the fight are still alive but now old and grey, and the war is near enough so that the uneasy tension between black and white remains, along with the uncomfortable matter of unchaperoned, unmarried young girls. Miss Randolph has traveled to St. Augustine from Seneca Falls to pursue a matter of ghosts, or spirits, but what she finds at Mrs. Cobb’s mansion, Villa Reina, is not at all what she expects. That which inhabits the Palm Bride is “a spirit now, and a bit livelier than most, but there was a time in which she was a goddess”. Miss Randolph is there both to study the spirit and exorcise it.

It’s a pretty standard ghost story; I kept waiting for some twist at the end, but I never quite got it.

REVIEW: “A Strange Heart, Set in Feldspar” by Maria Haskins

Review of Maria Haskins, “A Strange Heart, Set in Feldspar”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 57-72 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I love the title of this piece — it is stuffed full of possibility.

The story is told in alternating points of view, from above, from beneath, from between. These voices provide the shape of the mine that is the titular abandoned space of this story. At first, I thought it was a horror story, with all the horror that comes from being a parent myself and imagining it is not Alice but me in the mine, dark, claustrophobic, uncertain of where my children have gone. (Such simple things so terrifying.) And that horror is just a shadow horror that Alice must face: The choice between whether she wants to find her children or find her way out of the mine. But then, at the very end — I don’t want to say for fear of spoilers, but the ending makes me need to revise my original classification.

A powerful, real, and disturbing story — probably my favorite of the anthology so far.