Carving Up the Truth: Review of Nibedita Sen’s “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”

It has been a while since the day job has allowed me time to read and review a speculative short story. And just as I put away the school year for the summer, I read “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen in Nightmare Magazine, a publication that promotes stories of horror and dark fantasy. The story expertly plays with many of the academic forms of writing I know well and teach on a regular basis. It also slyly questions many of the problematic constructs and foundations of western academia itself. As such, it is both subtle satire and sincere narrative at one and the same time.

I love–love–the framework of this story. I am a sucker for a story conceptualized as an annotated bibliography. I also love stories that are meta, that play around with commentary as story (a reason I am a huge fan of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as well). Such texts play with the very idea of how we consume narrative.

The prose of this is precision itself, shifting voice and tone to match the varying types of sources: the ornateness of turn-of-the-century research (“the regrettable happenings at Churchill Academy”), the condescension of theory (“the maternal semiotic”), and the familiarity of popular websites (“who among us hasn’t sometimes had a craving to eat the whole damn world?”).

A beautifully-constructed and thoughtful piece.

Transporting the Soul: Review of T. K. Lê’s “2086”

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I am teaching an introductory literature course on speculative fiction this semester, and I always feel a responsibility to teach my students a broad range of perspectives and approaches in the class. So, instead of primarily teaching the “classics,” I like to present a mix of new and old stories. A week or so ago, I paired a couple of new stories, Ken Liu’s “Paper Menagerie” and T. K. Lê’s “2086,” since there are a lot of a thematic strands that weave them together: navigating emotional ties to a mother figure, dealing with loss, struggling with both personal and systematic racism in America.

“2086” can be read in the January 2019 issue of Strange Horizons, a publication that encourages stories that make us think and “critique society.” They are also dedicated to presenting a “global” and “inclusive” picture of speculative fiction, an effort supported by their sister magazine, Samovar, which solely publishes non-English and translated work.

Lê’s story is a powerful examination of how America’s treatment of immigrant and non-white communities is a problem past, present, and future. “2086” examines the emotional and physical fallout of this treatment (represented by Bà Ngoại’s disappearance in a new transportation system rolled out in marginalized communities) through an intensely personal lens. How does a family deal with the loss of a mother and grandmother? And what does loss really mean? Do we actually lose family?

The answer that Lê presents is poignant. And it does not let us forget the larger systemic problems as we dwell in the intimate and personal. A good and provoking read.

Imprisoning the Soul: The True Horror of Castle Rock

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It’s come to the point where Castle Rock (available on Hulu and now on Blu-ray) has been on my mind so much that I just have to write a bit about it. Stephen King is far from an up-and-coming author (like most of those I feature on this blog) but we can all hope to be one day so successful. And the best parts of King’s legacy are present in this show–even if he himself did not write it: the horror of the everyday, the horror of humans in their day-to-day interactions. This is not unlike the horror that The Terror captured so perfectly, though in that show, men were subjected to intense strain. In Castle Rock, there is a supernatural bleakness that suffuses the titular town, but there is also everyday, normal horror, present most intensely in the depictions of the for-profit prison system (Shawshank) and the racism of a small New England town.

We can’t ignore that Shawshank’s literary past already emphasizes the racism inherent in America’s prison and political systems. However, Castle Rock doesn’t fall into the same trap of exoticizing (via magical qualities) the black man as some of King’s other works do (especially in their movie and TV adaptations). Instead, Henry Deaver, as one of the main characters and main perspectives on the unfolding events (we must recognize the important distinction between those two roles) is a smart lawyer, down-to-earth, tired, and concerned for his mother. He is, by all first appearances, a pretty normal person by King standards. Even when the show begins to unpack and mystify his past, Deaver does not lose his grounding, his this-worldness. And, importantly, the show asks us whether we should and how much we should invest in the stories that estrange him. This is because we have already observed the subtle slights and attentions Deaver accrues by being a black man adopted into and returning to a very white New England town.

The character arc of the prison guard Zalewski is also intensely emotional as we realize that his struggles with the system he helps to support ultimately precede the supernatural revelations of the first episode. They are grounded in the problematic violence and abuse endemic to the for-profit prison system.

These are but a few reasons that Castle Rock has so gripped me and why I wish that it was receiving the same sort of attention as The Haunting of Hill House, which, though occasionally interesting, lacks this level of social commentary and complexity.

 

A Witch’s Woes: Review of “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry, and I Love You” by L’Erin Ogle

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Metaphorosis is a speculative fiction journal rising in recognition and it hosts an array of stories in keeping with its tagline: Beautifully Made Speculative Fiction. In honor of having a few days off from work, I read Ogle’s poignant story “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry, and I Love You.” Self-identifying as a mother and an emergency-room nurse, Ogle writes a story full of tenderness and sadness that is an ode to both occupations.

The witch Percy was created for a man’s selfish desire and when she finds herself on her own, she has only her son to love. When she loses that son, she is desperate to find any way she can to recover him–or at least enough of him to apologize to. The story wanders through reminiscences and contemplations on the nature of witchiness (I love the descriptions of her heart as a residence for evil: “It wound itself into a tight little knot and dug itself deep into her core.”) to a tearful, but satisfying, end.

If you’re looking for a different sort of celebration of family after Thanksgiving, check out this tale!

Skinchanger: Review of “The Pull of the Herd” by Suzan Palumbo

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The great thing about Palumbo’s story (well, one of the many great things) is the complexity of the relationships in it. “The Pull of the Herd” appears in issue 5 of Anathema, the title of which should already give you a hint about their editorial focus: to provide a home for the “exceptional work of queer people of colour (POC)/Indigenous/Aboriginal creators.” And, as a publication which describes art as a bruise, Anathema strikes true with Palumbo’s tale, which is both delicate and painful. The latter description also describes the unique beauty of the doefolk, the people to whom our narrator belongs.

The story is a fascinating spin on the skin-changer motif, one Palumbo uses to effect as a metaphor for her narrator’s liminality. The narrator, Agni, is a self-declared “outsider,” not only to humans but to her own kind despite her deep and binding ties to individuals of both worlds. These ties have been created by a lifetime of kind and unkind deeds that Agni must struggle against in the face of even bigger threats, hunters who smell of metal and blood.

A compelling and gut-wrenching story. And the expert use of names (Vashti as Agni’s sister) to echo the theme is a nice touch.

 

 

 

 

Contamination: Review of “The Singing Wind and the Golden Hour” by Nicole Feldringer

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Feldringer’s protagonist, Kala, is a photographer–and evocative images are strewn throughout this fascinating story. “The Singing Wind and the Golden Hour” is July’s story on GigaNotoSaurus, a webzine that caters to stories with high wordcounts. The story tracks the attempts of Kala, and her friend Abe, to expose the truth behind an illness that suddenly assaults the Warrens, a first-gen district of their Martian town.

Throughout the story, vivid description reminds us of the wild beauty of Mars even as the societal structure is all too familiar to Earth’s class politics. Kala photographs a landscape encroached upon by the Martian settlements: “The antenna mast’s shadow corrugated across the yardangs, destroying the illusion of wilderness.” Talented but fearful, Kala finds a way to use her photography to highlight the abuses of the first-gen district in the face of the increasing demand for housing due to settler influx.

The story is successful in mingling the familiar and the unfamiliar, so that the well-established Martian civilization reflects very current and Earthly concerns. It also emphasizes the role of art, and its potential partnership with the sciences, to combat injustice. A good read!

Revolutions: Review of “Seven Turns Around the Sacred Fire” by Meera Jhala

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“Seven Turns Around the Sacred Fire,” by Meera Jhala, appears in the Summer 2018 issue of Kaleidotrope. It is a story about a married couple who endures many lifetimes together (seven in accordance with their marriage ritual to take seven turns around a sacred flame). And it is beautiful. It won me over.

The contextualization is sparse, but this contributes to the story’s delicate balance between detail (“The moon hung over the sand dunes”) and mystery (“I don’t know why we didn’t make the cut”). Similarly, the choice to use a first-person narrator who directly addresses the lover (rather than the reader) puts the reader in the position of an eavesdropper, listening in on an intimate conversation that spans centuries. Subtle descriptions of time and place allow the reader to find their bearing and follow the characters through their seven lives.

This is a good story to read over a quick lunch break, since it is short–but it will stick with you throughout the day.

Words as Tools: Review of “The Bridge” by Yukyan Lam

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Sometimes you read a story that just makes you revel in the words themselves–words like obsidian, amaranth, and tenebrous. The words are sensuous, jewel-like and complementary to the plot. In this case, the words primarily speak to sight, but sight and emotion are very closely linked in Lam’s “The Bridge.” This story appears in Issue V of Bracken, a relatively new speculative fiction magazine that describes itself as “inspired by old world storytelling with roots in the wood’s shadows.” Lam’s story fits neatly within this mission statement. The world of her tale seems old, but it is threatened by shadows of resource-hoarding and prejudice.

The titular bridge is the central image of the story–a bridge that extends from the narrator’s country, which exports minerals (mined at great cost) via the narrator’s father, to the lands that have “harnessed the power of the sun, the winds, the waters.” The story follows the narrator’s apprenticeship in his father’s work as resources shrink and are met with less demand. In trying to understand the dynamics of trade, the narrator uncovers more and more questions, including those regarding secrets of his own family.

The story is mournful, but its allegorical notes strike true. Check it out for yourself.

The Terror of Being Human: A Review of AMC’s The Terror

 

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I just finished watching AMC’s ten-episode series The Terror, thanks to the kind invitation of a friend who had already watched it and was eager for fellow viewers. (Btw, the memes this show has generated are amazing. Watch the show. Then appreciate the memes.) The television series is based off of the novel by Dan Simmons which, in turn, is based off a nineteenth-century historical expedition to discover the Northwest Passage.

The novel and TV series introduce supernatural elements into an already-terrifying landscape and situation (imagine poisoned food, stranded ships, and dead bodies, and you’re only partially on your way to understanding the reality of the situation). However, the real horror of the show lies not in the terror that stalks these trapped British explorers–but in the souls of the sailors themselves. It is a show expansive and claustrophobic in turn, full of brilliant and disturbing images. The intensity of the show builds as one episode bleeds into the next until you are begging for a cathartic release, much like the men themselves.

Part of the horror of humanity that this show explores is the danger and trauma of expedition fueled by Western colonialism, as the sailors endanger not only their own lives but those of the native Inuits. The show is not perfect in its representation of these marginalized voices (as it does not avoid the stereotype of indigenous peoples as mystic), but it heads in the right direction by casting Inuit actors to represent the Arctic inhabitants who encounter and interact with the white explorers.

The show is worth a watch, if you enjoy the interplay of supernatural and all-too-natural horror.