What an absolutely stonking story. It carried me along, gulping for more, with its utterly entrancing Justine, an automaton built to sing opera like no human could ever sing, against a panoply of background characters — the Maestro, the Ballet Mistress, the dancers, and, most importantly of all, Lise, who gives Justine the final secret she needs. It’s the sort of story that telegraphs one ending from the start, but leaves the reader desperately hoping that that is not the actual ending. Really, really enjoyed this one.
“If you had a problem you couldn’t fix, you moved on and left it behind.” This is a lesson Marcy learned from her parents, and she’s put it to good use more than once. Right now, the problem she can’t fix is Lenny, and the story opens with her moving on from him, leaving him behind without any reason or notice. Everything seems so very ordinary, up until the point at which nothing is ordinary at all and everything is extraordinary and weird.
I enjoyed the abrupt shift in direction that Gardner introduced with great effect, and felt the two halves — the mundane and the fantastic — of the story balanced each other nicely. I also appreciated Gardner’s choice of heroine — Marcy is in her sixties, fat and grey, and dealing with stress incontinence. In other words, she’s a real person, not a fairy tale. I like reading stories about real people, especially when they end up in unreal situations.
Content warning: Drinking, gambling, domestic abuse.
This urban fantasy set in Jamaica centers around the titular character Mama Tulu, and Sasha, the young woman who goes to visit her to make an unspeakable request. I liked almost everything about it — but not quite everything. I have a deep ambivalence about the use of phonetic representations of dialect in written fiction; I am never sure how appropriate or successful they are. Reading them often feels like an uncomfortable caricature; but on the other hand, I think it’s important to recognise the varieties of ways in which people speak, and to recognise the legitimacy of, e.g., AAVE.
There was a lot of cliches in this story — the dragon-fighting knights trying to win the hand of a princess; the princess who didn’t want to be an object of conquest; the maiden aunt who provided the princess with the training needed — but ultimately, this was a fairy tale, and fairy tales are cliches, so it worked.
Content note: Corpses, severe injury, nonconsentual commitment to mental institution.
Now this was my kind of horror! Haunted books, twisted stories, Cathar heresy, and a pervasive uncertainty of what the cause of it all is, all written in an engaging and characterful style. Thumbs up.
Content note: Slavery, loss of child.
This was an eerie story, invoking an intense feeling of autumn — scents, sounds, activities. The plot was simple but effective, and just the right length to be satisfying.
I loved the combination of horror and fantasy that comprised this story. The foreign setting was just familiar enough to make you feel like what was happening could’ve happened anywhere, perhaps even here in the real world; and Clava’s desperate, perverted desire to become the beheld instead of the beholder, and the steps that she takes to achieve this end were chilly and creepy. Beneath all of these was the uncertainty I had whether Clava was the villain — or the victim.
To cap things off, David Bowman’s illustrations accompanying this story were really quite divine.
This story was cleanly and precisely written with elegant language — every word necessary, to the point where I found myself having to go back and reread various parts of it, sometimes more than once, to ensure I wasn’t missing out on some important clue. It had a sort of hard-beaten/detective noir to it, but for all that, I’m not quite sure what was “horrible” about this story.
This is the inaugural fiction story in Undertow Publication’s new horror serial, Weird Horror, which I received a review copy of via my friendship with David Bowman, one of the featured artists in the issue.
I haven’t read a print fiction journal in ages and loved really enjoyed it — it feels so nice in my hands, look so nice on the page, well-formed great art (not just Bowman both other artists are featured as well, with personalised art for every story), plus opinion columns and reviews in amongst the fiction.
But the fiction is what I’m here for, so let’s talk about Ruthnum’s story. For all that horror is a speculative genre, this story was full of gritty realism. The horror comes from how reasonable the narrator sounds, how sympathetic and empathetic, and how he never quite says what it is that has happened. Reading the story was a weird combination of humor and gaslight, and it was altogether creepy. A solid start to the issue, and to the journal itself!
This reads like a series of beautiful vignettes — words carefully painting pictures for the mind’s eye — rather than a story with characters to be invested in, events to be concerned about, outcomes to celebrate.
But it is short, and it is pretty, so I can’t fault it too much.
(Originally published in Scarlet Leaf Review, 2016.)