REVIEW: “Ghost Town” by Malinda Lo

Review of Malinda Lo, “Ghost Town”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

As in her superb vampire story “The Cure”, Malinda Lo mixes romance, history, and the supernatural in “Ghost Town”. There’s less subtext to dive into in “Ghost Town” than in “The Cure”. Instead, it’s a solid contemporary story of new towns, hopes, prejudice, and ghosts which is relayed by a smart, observant teenager called Ty.

Ty’s family recently moved from San Francisco to Pinnacle ‘a dinky little town on the flat part of Colorado’, where coal was once a big industry. She can’t wait until she can move back to San Francisco where her hair, and her sexuality, don’t make her stand out so much. When the story starts she’s following her crush Mackenzie, one of the popular girls at her school, into The Spruce Street Guest House for a ghost hunt during the town’s big Halloween holiday season. When they arrive at the room Mackenzie wants to investigate, the girls find a homophobic slur written in fake blood. Instead of breaking down, as Mackenzie clearly hoped she would, Ty leads Mackenzie to the basement and a real scare.

In the second section of the story, it becomes clear why Ty is able move past the word on the wall, and how she is able to set up a prank of her own. The story has a backwards structure, so in the second part the reader sees Ty following Mackenzie to see if she’s going to be pranked. And in the third section we see Ty visiting the Guest House on a tour once Mackenzie has invited her to go ghost hunting.

In these sections, “Ghost Town” reveals itself as being truly Ty’s story; the story of her life in San Francisco, and how she experiences life in a small, middle of America town. I really enjoyed Ty’s voice, which is simple and down to earth, and would happily have read a longer work with her as the narrator. “Ghost Town” also a story about Ty taking steps to make sure she’s in control. The fact that she has to work so hard to stay safe is undeniably depressing. The fact that the story gives her the power to gain control is wonderful.

The ghosts are largely a device which allow Ty to gain control of a messed up situation with flair, but they also have their own fleeting story to tell. The ending makes it clear that the women found dead in the guest house were lovers, and that they’re together (possessively so) even in death. It’s a creepy cute way to end a story where one girl gets let down by her crush, and I enjoyed the fact that Lo brought an element of happy ever after even to a story containing a lot of sadness.

REVIEW: “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde

Review of Fran Wilde, “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Uncanny Issue 18 is certainly high on horror, and Fran Wilde’s “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” should be your top choice if you’re looking for a scary read. It’s a disturbing, opaque trip into an old-fashioned freak show; directed by one of the people who plays a part in the show. The reader is personally engaged at every step as the narrator addresses all their instructions on how to progress through the show to ‘you’. This encourages the reader to quickly insert themselves into the story, and to experience all of Wilde’s cleverly crafted horror up close. As the narrator draws the reader on through a selection of increasingly disturbing scenes, this use of the word ‘you’, which is both impersonal and personal, enhances the story’s creepy power.  

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” feels reminiscent of Alyssa Wong’s style. It’s darkly bitter, and visits quite perfect, and quite disturbing, magical punishment on those who do wrong. Let’s just say ‘you’ do not come out of this encounter well. It’s not quite a revenge story; the punishment is too impersonal to call it revenge. It’s more about punishing society for their stares, words, and medical experiments. Punishing slowly; one person at a time. The reader is left with the feeling that the narrator will always remain, and that they have eternity to teach visitor after visitor a lesson.

And oh that narrator is tricky. They open the story by seeming to show the reader a safe way through the exhibitions. However, once the story is finished, it becomes clear that they planned to trap their visitor all along. ‘Your hands are beautiful, did you know that?’ has never been quite so chilling.

REVIEW: “Henosis” by N. K. Jemisin

Review of N. K. Jemisin, “Henosis”, Uncanny Magazine 18 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Henosis” is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but with a literary, and structural, twist. Harkim is an author in a world where, each year, the winner of the prestigious Opus Award is killed and portioned up; their parts distributed to large institutions as inspiration for the next generation of writers. If you smell a metaphor for toxic literary culture just wait until you get to the section on Vonnegut.

Harkim is kidnapped by a fan who believes Harkim will win the prize, and wants to keep him alive. Yet, despite the deadly consequences of taking home the prize, Harkim and his fellow writers desperately want to win this award. Winning means they, and their work, will always be remembered, and their great fear is being forgotten. The Opus Award, as brutal as it is, would guarantee Harkim a permanent place in the literary canon.

Harkim’s view is allowed much sway in this story, giving the whole tale a creepy ‘inside the cult’ feel, but the story also interrogates his views on The Opus Award. First, it provides a counterpoint view from Harkim’s kidnapper who values the life of her favourite author. She believes the award means ‘…they think you’ve done all you’re going to do, the best you’ll ever do. It means they stop listening.’ She also presents a forceful argument about the despicable way authors are picked apart after their death.  

And then there are those chapter headings.

“Henosis” is presented in short, out of order chapters, beginning with Chapter 4. By including these chapter headings, N. K. Jemisin deliberately disrupts the connection between the reader and Harkim’s story; pushing the reader to ask whether the story they are reading is the construct of an invisible author (other than Jemisin). Are Harkim and his world “real”, or is his tale of awards and kidnap a story written by an author that Jemisin has created but the reader never meets? If the reader is supposed to suspend disbelief and approach Henosis as they would any other story? And, if Harkim’s story is a work of fiction within a work of fiction, should the reader trust his conclusions about The Opus Award, ‘great men’, and the value of a good death for a writer?

By calling into question the reality of Harkim’s world, Jemisin also places the role of the real life author front and centre. The reader is reminded that each story is created by someone, and that authors make deliberate choices when crafting a story. This reminder that authors shape fiction is reinforced by the story’s subject matter which is all about an author. The out of order nature of the chapters really hammers this theme home as well, making “Henosis” rather a circular puzzle of a story. This makes it both frustrating and intriguing – one of those stories guaranteed to have the reader angrily scowling about ‘what is true’.  And that’s sure to make “Henosis” memorable at least.