OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
ANATHEMA, Spec from the Margins – Issue #8, August 2019
An online tri-annual speculative fiction magazine of work by “queer POC / Indigenous / Aboriginal creators” published by Editors Michael Matheson, Andrew Wilmot, and Chinelo Onwualu out of Ontario, Canada.
Cover: Springtime by Jade Zhang
Editorial: Continued Metamorphosis – by Andrew Wilmot
I really enjoy the way Andrew describes the continued evolution and maturing of Anathema as “an ever-blooming flower-type thing … akin to a well-oiled machine, only more organic and less, you know, oily …” A nice, light-hearted introduction to the fact that the magazine addresses serious issues to the point of risking offence to those readers who would rather avoid uncomfortable and disturbing takes on “the malleability of our existence.” Life carries on, as it must, no matter how badly hammered by fate and foe. “Please read with caution” he asks, to which I would add “and with an open mind.”
Still Water – by Ian Muneshwar
Miles and Trent are lovers. They’ve been together for a long time but their relationship has gone stale. They agree to give each other free rein. Miles promptly has a number of one-night or even one-hour stands but, put off by Trent having sex just once with another man in the same period of time, takes to sleeping on the couch and refusing to touch Trent. They see a counsellor. Solution, spend some happy time kayaking and fishing on the river by the cabin Miles inherited from his folks. Trouble is Trent hates being on the water and, as an unexpected current sweeps them both into uncharted territory, evidently the water hates him, too.
The story is prefaced with a “sexual violence” warning. Miles’ first date, meant to be a get to know one another meeting, quickly descends into rape. Yet he goes on to several other encounters, all quick, all unsatisfying, yet somehow addictive. Then he gets jealous as hell over his lover having a pleasant date. I have the impression that he’s filled with self-loathing because the best he can manage is a negative, almost stereotypical bout of cruising while his lover, it seems, easily transitions to a bright, new, intimate relationship beyond mere lust.
Where’s the SF or fantasy element in this story? The river. It carries their kayaks downstream despite their best efforts to resist its ruthless currents. Strange creatures are encountered, strange phenomena. The river is no longer just a river. It has become a metaphor, no doubt the stream of life and all the consequences of choices made. I suppose I could start throwing in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but it’s been decades since I read the book and I’ve forgotten so much there’s no point, especially since I doubt that journey up the Congo river is anywhere near as depressing as this story.
And depressing it certainly is. Superficially it would appeal to the just-say-no crowd because it appears to imply sex (no matter how you define it) is icky and demeaning and best avoided. What silver lining there is seems to offer the hope of true love triumphing even as you are consumed and devoured by forces beyond your control, i.e. lust and passion. A self-motivational feel good story this is not. It might remind some homosexuals, and heterosexuals as well, how lousy their sex life is, offering a reassuring touch of the familiar I suppose, but to what purpose?
Miles appears to suffer from the Casanova syndrome (which can apply to all genders and preferences), which is to say, addicted to as much sex as he can get but never, ever, satisfied. But at least he sees true love, the concept of mutually supportive and appreciative partnership, as an ideal worth pursuing, or at least, worth dreaming about. Every individual’s life experience produces an opinion on how valid this is. Every individual’s reaction to this story will be unique.
My reaction? It’s a powerfully visceral story with disturbing imagery whose meaning and purpose I can’t fathom, though it may be obvious to others. A moral fable perhaps, with the message that one should never give up hope no matter what horrific blows to your self-respect life hammers into you. But it strikes me as being more along the lines of “Be as happy as you can be despite being doomed.” Given that we all die eventually, I guess it is as good advice as any.
Or, to put it another way, definitely a horror story, but one that seems to illustrate the struggle of living is in itself a horror. Kinda bleak. Weirds me out.
A House with a Home – by John mayo
Mr. Arturo Balicao-McGinty and Mr. Lester Balicao-McGinty, as you can tell from their last names, are married. As the Husband, Arturo has a new job in a new city, so now they are purchasing a new home. The real estate agent is a bit bemused. Not because the house-seekers are gay, but because Arturo is a house-whisperer. He talks to walls. And the walls talk back. Only after a long conversation is Arturo keen on buying the house. Fine with Lester. It strikes him as the dreamhouse they’ve been looking for. He figures he will get a lot of writing done. Maybe even finish his novel. Once moved in he’s a bit startled to learn Arturo hadn’t been talking to the walls, after all. He’d been talking to the resident ghost.
The title is a subtle indication this story is a tad more cheerful than the previous one. Quite a bit of fun in fact. An artful and necessary choice to place this story second. Call it an antidote to the effect of the first story on the reader.
Actually, it addresses my principle interest in ghosts. I don’t believe in them. But were I to run into one, I’d be quite excited, because it constitutes proof of life after death (or proof I’d gone insane, but ignore that). First thing I’d do is ply it with all sorts of questions, try to find out its life (and death) story, probably drive it crazy. The ghost would end up running from me.
In this story Arturo takes the ghost for granted as the selling point of the house and does his best to convince Lester to feel the same way and get to know the ghost. Efforts to communicate and relate make for a sentimental and moving story. I like this one. Almost makes me regret I don’t know any ghosts. Certainly a refreshing approach for a ghost story.
Pendant (Poem) – by Joyce Chng
A young woman receives an heirloom from her grandmother.
If the poem is autobiographical I suppose I should have written “They receives an heirloom from their grandmother.” No matter (which is to say my ignorance is of no consequence). What counts is the poem’s description of the true meaning of such an heirloom. To explain what I mean by that would give away the point of the poem, so I won’t. The impact of the poem probably depends on how meaningful the concept of “family” is to you. I found it poignant.
Soul Sisters – by Brandann R. Hill-Mann
Tab is tired of being beaten by her partner. The city police simply tell her to go back to the reservation. The reservation police won’t do anything because he’s not tribal. The law offers no protection. She, herself, hasn’t the strength or the will to do anything. So, out of desperation, she goes to see the woman known as Auntie Ula. Apparently Ula can help, for a price, a steep price.
This story, too, is prefaced with a warning. “Domestic Violence.” I’m not certain if this refers to the actual violence visited on tab when she returns home, or to the overwhelming sense of dread she feels every waking moment regardless of whether he is present or not. Perhaps both. Certainly the story encapsulates every conceivable aspect of what it is like to be trapped with an abusive, alcoholic life-partner. The fantasy aspect is that, at long last, Tab is equipped to use a supernatural entity as a potential means of separation and deliverance from her ongoing nightmare or, at worst, of exchanging one nightmare for another.
The supernatural element threw me a bit. I was expecting something related to Tab’s ethnic culture but that was mere assumption on my part. The fantasy element is more Lovecraftian than anything else, as far as I am aware, but my ignorance is as vast as the universe itself, so I may be missing something. In fact the fantasy element is just that, wish-fulfillment fantasy such as victims often feel as part of their desperate mental coping mechanism. The story seems to imply, no matter what form a resolution may take, that a victim is scarred for life. Once begun, this sort of horror never really ends. I view this story as a sad and unsettling plea for understanding which nevertheless, through a few moments of beauty, also offers hope of release and rescue. So, on the one hand, it has something to say to the general public, and, on the other, speaks to every victim. Truly, a universal message.
Seventeen Days (Poem) – by A.Z. Louise
This is a poem about the horrible death of an idiot Persian soldier by the name of Mithridates in 401 B.C. (Not to be confused with innumerable generals and kings with the same name.)
As a classicist I am pleased to unexpectedly come across a poem devoted to such an obscure ancient event. Bit of a thrill, actually.
Long story short, a young Persian soldier accidently kills the pretender to the throne, Cyrus the Younger, during the battle of Cunaxa in 404 B.C. Fortunately for the warrior, his boss, King Artaxerxes II, is quite pleased, as this is the very resolution to the battle the King was hoping for. So, Artaxerxes loads Mithridates with gold and assorted presents which he gets to keep on one condition, that he keep his mouth shut. Artaxerxes wants full credit for the victory, you see. Alas, a few years later Mithridates, in his cups, openly boasts of his deed. Young men are wont to do that, but in this case, it was a very bad oopsie. King Artaxerxes puts him to death, employing a torture method generally reserved for those foolish enough to insult Persian royalty.
Unless you remember your Plutarch, chances are you’ve never heard of Scaphism. It is a god-awful, unpleasant, lingering way to die in which pain, suffering, and regret attend your every conscious moment. According to legend, Mithridates took seventeen days to die, hence the title of the poem. Absolutely a horrific subject suitable for a horror poem.
Yet, if you are not familiar with the background story, and don’t know what “scaphist wounds” refers to, or what the context of “milk and honey” is, you might mistake these sixteen short lines for some sort of New Age delirium describing some kind of incomprehensible religious ecstasy. In a way, you’d be right. Mithridates last thoughts may have been along these lines. Were he, in some sense, still present, he might well be pleased his life’s end has been “immortalized” in this poem. On the other hand, if the ghost of Artaxerxes is still about, he’d probably gloat over the fact his punishment of the ungrateful Mithridates is still being talked about 2,400 years later.
The poem is quiet and beautiful in its way, but unsettling the more you reflect on it, and terrifying if you know the background story. Unusual subject. Unusual poem. Powerful.
A Patch of Night – by S.J. Fujimoto
A formless being drifts through dark space feeding on dying starlight. Imagine its surprise when it runs into another being. It had not previously been aware of the concept of “other,” much less a bored chap by the name of Mathesis Ilm Trilby who invites the being aboard his spaceship in order to make friends. Even more startling, Trilby has the ability to transport the being to the surface of the unspeakably dangerous gravity wells it has always avoided. Not just a matter of mere experience, opportunities arise.
Seems like a playful concept-driven story articulating several possibilities of interaction between alien species previously unknown to each other. Mere entertainment, in other words. But by the end of the story the spectre of British philosopher Olaf Stapledon has been raised, in that the definition of cosmos-spanning intelligence and the meaning and ultimate purpose of same is under contemplation. One interpretation which occurs to me is that Trilby has inadvertently reintroduced God to the godless galactic civilization mankind will eventually create in our far future. At any rate, something to think about when you stand outside at night and stare up at the stars. Fun story.
A Half-Formed Thing (Non-fiction) – by Adefolami Ademola
Evidently the writer has suffered from an inherited genetic flaw his entire life. His toenails are “black and ugly.” The condition has been a psychic scar vivid and raw across his self-esteem. A constant hindrance to his confidence, he has tried all manner of means both physical and mental to counter its baleful influence, mostly to little effect.
Being Nigerian, Adefolami seems to have grown up in a village environment where being barefoot or wearing sandals was the norm for children, and as a result suffered enough ridicule from his “friends” to become permanently self-conscious about his “deformity.” Thus I take the title to refer to his adult self-awareness.
He refers to essays by two other African writers, one by Socrates Mbamalu about living with a scar on his head caused by a careless nurse when he was two months old, and the other by Gbolahan Badmus explaining his life-long habit of avoiding smiling because his teeth were “as widely scattered as Rambo’s bullets.” Such psychic scars are distractions that crop up even at moments of triumph and success, and worse, fill the mind when you have nothing else to think about.
I am reminded of the victorious Roman Generals who rode a chariot during their triumphs, bathed in the cheers and applause of the Roman mob, with a slave standing behind each constantly whispering “Remember you are mortal.” A necessary warning, given that the generals were dressed and made up to resemble Jupiter as a symbolic representation of Rome’s divine victory. Another way of saying, “Avoid hubris, you twit.” Adefolami’s self-image performs the role of that annoying slave, constantly reminding him he is less than perfect.
In short, any sort of obsession with a physical flaw is as bad as the self-defeating logic of a depressive, it leads to constant rumination over one’s failure as a physical being, almost as if one were being deservedly punished for some unknown sin.
How some people attempt to cope with, or appear to cope with their particular “flaw” is discussed, but no guaranteed solutions are offered. The whole point of the essay seems to be that we are defined by our scars. True enough, as far as that goes. Perhaps, as in the case of his father who possessed veritable hooves yet didn’t mind them at all, Adefolami is suggesting our scars are in part what makes each of us, as individuals, truly unique, and therefore constitute something to be cherished. Hmmmm. Could be.
The mood of the contents of this issue is so varied as to constitute an emotional roller coaster. Not everything within is calculated to uplift you. Even the editorial more or less says “Reader beware.” But if all you fear is boredom, there is nothing to fear here. Damned interesting stuff.
Find this issue at < Anathema Magazine issue 8 >