REVIEW: “Work, and Ye Shall Eat” by Walker McKnight

Review of Walker McKnight “Work, and Ye Shall Eat”, Apex Magazine 105 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The story opens three months into an unknown apocalyptic situation. All we know is that the staff of a colonial re-enactment village have been walled in with two layers of electric fencing, and they have no idea why. Is is a virus? An alien invasion? They are told simply to plan for the future, which Karen, their general manager helps them to do, getting the tradespeople to teach the actors and salespeople useful skills and making sure they plant enough food to survive the winter.

This is the calmest apocalypse I’ve read about, which makes the slow-growing menace all the more powerful. Karen becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator as she struggles to keep her people inside the walls, but it remains satisfying to read, because it’s so believable, so normal. In the end, I don’t really know what happened, except that it isn’t good. I’m not normally a huge fan of ambiguity, but in this case I think it works.

REVIEW: “Camping” by J. D. Buffington

Review of J. D. Buffington, “Camping”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 260-265. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

What I liked about this story was the structure, a tale of two camping trips, of two sons and their parents (mother and boyfriend in one; father in the other), of encounters with the strange and unusual. The son in the first trip is the father in the second, and this allows the two encounters, experienced by one person, to be filtered through two very different lenses. What seems wild and exciting and just a bit scary as a child can be terrifying as an adult; and what was told off as merely a wild animal to a child may, when seen by an adult, be a very different thing. At the end of the story, one is left wondering if the man’s childhood memories are true, or if his adult experiences are closer to reality.

REVIEW: “Daughter” by Will Reierson

Review of Will Reierson, “Daughter”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 249-256. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The title draws focus to the daughter in the story, but from the start it is Mary’s father, Neil, the narrator, who attracts my attention — and not for positive reasons. He is willing to ignore the fears of his wife, Cáit, and sacrifice the safety of his family simply to prove himself in the face of a dare. Oh, he has his own fears — but his fears of the fair folk pale in comparison to the more legitimate fears of his wife that they will struggle to survive the winter in an abandoned homestead. Throughout the story, my biggest impression is that Neil is both superstitious and a bit dim, and the consequences of both these things for his family, and especially his daughter, are real and serious. It makes it hard for me to find him sympathetic, in that basically that everything that happens to Mary is his fault, and he could have prevented it, at many different steps, and he refused to do so. That he eventually does all he can to rescue Mary in the end does not make him the hero of this story. It only reinforces that villainy comes in many different guises.

(In case anyone was wondering (and I doubt anyone was), Cáit is not a plausible nickname of Caitilín in the middle of the 18th century. Details matter. It’s worth doing the research.)

REVIEW: “Robbie and the Birds” by A. R. Collins

Review of A. R. Collins, “Robbie and the Birds”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 182-185. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

We’ve all read the ghost stories, read all the horror movies. We, like the narrator, all “know perfectly well that people who casually moved into haunted houses would always end up regretting it” (183). So reflects the narrator after she moves into a new house only to find dead birds upon her doorstep every morning, their throats broken or cut. Sometimes, though, the ghosts haunt not the house but the people who live in it.

Maybe it’s because I’m a parent myself, but I found this story of child possession exceptionally creepy. Thankfully (from my point of view), this creepiness was offset by a happy ending.

REVIEW: “Of Anger and Beauty” by Stephen R. Smith

Review of Stephen R. Smith, “Of Anger and Beauty”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 179-181. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Smith’s story is short, and I can see the anger in it. I don’t like reading stories about human trafficking, especially of young girls, but if I have to read them, I want them to be stories of vengeance and come-uppance. This one is, and it ends on a happy note. But while the anger is clear, the beauty is harder to find.

REVIEW: “A Helping Hand” by Samantha Trisken

Review of Samantha Trisken, “A Helping Hand”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 238-244. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I feel pretty strongly that every story needs to have a purpose, a reason why it has to be told, why this story, rather than another story. Sometimes that purpose is what the story itself has to say, the way in which the world is improved because of something in the story itself; sometimes it is simply that the story gives pleasure to those who read it; and sometimes the purpose is simply that the author is better off for having written it than they would have been had they not.

Given this, everything I read I read with a pervasive underlying question “Why this story?” I thought that a lot while reading the opening of Trisken’s tale, in which a young girl, Tessa, escapes a would-be abductor only to witness his murder.

The importance of that scene is that it introduces us to Dillon, and the centerpoint of the story is Tessa’s relationship with Dillon. It is engrossing to see the complexities of this relationship and how it develops, but the other consequences of the opening — the trauma that the witness of a murder has to have caused — seem nowhere taken up, and I found this made it hard for me to fully engage with the story. The end brings no further resolution: Why this story? I don’t know. Maybe someone else reading it coming with a different background and different experiences might be able to answer that question.

REVIEW: “Picture Perfect” by Lori Tiron-Pandit

Review of Lori Tiron-Pandit, “Picture Perfect”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 227-236. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Do you sometimes feel like motherhood is just a huge trap? Like you might have made a mistake, but now there is no going back? And you’re locked into this life with a child, and as much as you’d like to escape, you’re just stuck, and there’s no more hope? (227)

This was a scary, scary story, not because it exhibits any of the “scary-story” elements of classic horror, but because it tackles head-on a scary, scary topic, one which is both ordinarily quite taboo but also commonplace in the lives of many women: motherhood regret. Whether it comes in the haze of post-partum depression, or whether it is a one-off thought “Maybe my life would’ve been better if my child(ren) had never been born”, it happens, it’s real, and no one is willing to talk about it. This is where the power of stories come in — it allows us to explore the “what if” without the consequences, to work through how things might have been, both if things had gone worse than they actually did and if they had gone better.

I have a delightful child whom I love very much, who has always been a good sleeper and a good eater, and who was long-awaited, but so many aspects of Larisa’s experiences, and the experiences of the women in her online mothers community, ring true. It’s a glimpse of how things might have gone, but (in my case at least) didn’t, and it’s a scary, scary glimpse.

Goblins and ghosts, zombies and vampires, serial murderers in the dark — none of these scare me. This story did.