Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Trepass, Decoded Pride and Cast of Wonders

Trespass (Amazon Original Stories) February 2022.
Decoded Pride 6/22
Cast of Wonders 6/18/22

I’m starting off today reaching back to Febru­ary, when released a set of origi­nal stories under the theme of “Trespass.” As a whole, the project looks at the intersections of the human world and a wild, non-human world – not necessarily a natural world, but one that is decidedly outside human influence and, at times, understanding. First out of the gate is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “The Tiger Came to the Mountains”, which follows a family trying to survive a bloody war. The narrator’s father has joined the guerillas fighting a military that moves through the area with a hunger for food, wealth, and new recruits. Every time they near, the narrator, her brother, her cousins, and as many supplies as can be hidden are sent off to the caves to wait it out. The military isn’t the only thing in the mountains that hungers, though, and the story finds a former circus tiger lost and out of place and on a collision course with the narrator. Moreno-Garcia captures a defiant and danger­ous balance inside the narrator – a desire for freedom and survival that finds a chilling mirror in the escaped tiger. There’s also a sense of loss and grief held at bay this one moment, all under the relentless and crushing weight of history and tragedy. Bookending the project is another story featuring tigers, with Carmen Maria Machado’s “Bloody Summer”. Framed as an academic exploration of clapping games arising in a small town that would become famous for a single bloody day, the story injects horror and mystery into a catalog of games that turned out to be part prophecy and part spell. Machado proves once again to be a master of nested narratives, drawing readers to stories within stories, all drawing to a terrible truth and its bloody repercussions. Set in an all-too-normal small town, the implications spill out, that true horror is hiding all around, and if left unconfronted and unresolved, it finds its own ways to spill out into the world.

Next up is Decoded Pride, a project that released a story a day in June in celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month. With 30 stories (including a few graphic stories/comics), it’s hard to pick out a single thematic thread that follows throughout. But the focus on LGBTQ+ identifying creators means that readers looking for queer stories, or wanting to support projects highlighting queer authors, can do much worse than checking out this annual anthology. For 2022, there’s a whole lot to enjoy, including Simo Srinivas’s “The Vetala of Crystal Vellam Inlet”, which follows the some­what bumbling attempts of Mayan, a sorcerer, to make a name for himself, cure a deadly disease, and live up to what he thinks a great man should be like. Fortunately for him, he’s rather terrible at being a “great man,” and might learn instead what it means to be a good person – someone who cares about others and listens to his own heart rather than the expectations of others. Srinivas does charming work bringing Mayan to a deeper understanding, not just of the world and its in­trigues, but of himself, which might be the much more important feat. Amanda McNeil plays with a romantic supernatural in “The University of Late-Night Moans”, where Leonora thinks she has everything together at college except, you know, her giant secret crush on Virginia, her best friend. Well, that and the whole weird moaning phenomenon coming from a forbidden cemetery bordering campus. The solution to both of her dilemmas and distractions, however, might be linked, as Virginia offers to accompany Leonora on a late night exploration of the possibly-haunted graveyard. McNeil keeps things mostly light and adorable in revealing Leonora’s fears and insecu­rities, drawing her out of her shell with a bit of ghostly assistance.

Lisa M. Bradley reveals a world where large birds have died out and siblings Luce and Lucky are making it the best they can by raising crickets and sidelining as illegal restauranteurs in “All Shall Know Their Appointed Time”. When Luce encounters a strange creature at work, hir world is thrown into turmoil when it turns out to be a mothman, a supposed omen of death and destruction. For Luce, though, it might portend something different and much less grim – a change and a hope that some losses are not ir­recoverable. Bradley’s prose sings, especially with the cast, who pop from the page (including the irascible myna Borracho) and give even the grimness of the setting a vibrant and undefeated resolve. Fairytale expectations are twisted in “A Wolf in the Woods” by Robin Quinn, in which a woman and a wolf meet in a misty forest in a scene that could easily have resolved in violence. Instead, the two strike up a bargain, and though they seem to have every reason to go back on their words, by following through and acting in good faith they build something together that both come to cherish. Quinn mixes fairy tales and romance to great result, creating a seemingly fragile and tense situation that blossoms into something resilient, transformative, and beautiful. K.T. Roth pens a warm story about grief and two people who find their world has ground to a halt in “Suspension”. For Alex and Paul, the world has suddenly stopped, and all the other people in it have vanished. As they work to find out what’s happened to them and how to fix it, they get to know each other and discover that their situation might be caused by the universe recognizing something about them that they themselves are in a state of denial about. Roth keeps the piece care­ful and slow, heavy in the same way the world is for Alex and Paul, bringing the characters toward a confrontation not with time or physics, but with their own griefs and desires. The work keenly engages with how it sometimes takes someone else experiencing the same troubling emotions to spark recognition that things aren’t okay, but that they might yet get there.

In “Hands, Heart, Hunger” by V. Astor Solomon, Dee is caught in a cycle of generational trauma, expected to embrace the magic of her family and sing the dead into servitude. Instead, she wants only to drum, and in drumming tap into a different kind of power – one that doesn’t seek domination or subjugation. The piece doesn’t shy away from the unsettling weight of familial obligation and inheritance, and doesn’t hesitate to put Dee into a situation where she has to choose between her family and the chilling reality of enslaving a spirit. Solomon deftly reveals the grim and grisly reality of abuse and a legacy of violence that cannot be completely avoided or abdicated – that must be faced and faced ag­gressively in order to break the cycle of power and exploitation and maybe open the future up to new possibilities. Maurice Moore frames a story around a report and a supernatural history in “The Syncerus Legend”. Alternating between sections of bureaucratic archiving and transcripts of spoken word stories, the piece revolves around Junio, a young man who is also a supernatural be­ing, a Syncerus, undergoing the first transforma­tion that causes his temperature to spike and his body to change. As a Syncerus he’s also in danger from those who would use his blood for their own magic, which places him and those like him in a kind of fixed decline, with family trees full of holes and scorch marks. Moore manages an ef­fortless and expansive worldbuilding, even as the focus always remains on family, connection, and the magic of storytelling. Closing out this year’s project, Izzy Wasserstein tells the story of Dani Carpenter, a psychic detective with a chip on her shoulder in the shape of a disappeared sister in “These Whispering Remains”. Dani is a kind of medium, able to see through the eyes of the dead as long as she can touch the remains. As she and her business partner work on solving a string of interstate serial killings, though, the weight of the dead are pushing down ever more heavily on Dani, and the future only seems to promise more of the same. Wasserstein captures a feeling of obligation and exhaustion, having Dani walk along the edge of burnout with no sign of stop­ping or even slowing. If this were the pilot for a new show, I’d being hoping for multiple seasons (and I’d also be very worried for Dani’s partner Jensen’s niece, just saying).

June brought Avi Burton’s “Hurricane Sea­son” to Cast of Wonders – a story about Ella, a young woman living in Florida who learns to love storms. The nature of that love, though, isn’t about the rain or the thunder, but about another young woman, Amaya, who turns out to be very different than she seems at first. There’s a mix­ture of romance and longing, and the majestic and awesome power harnessed in the beauty and brevity of a hurricane, which leaves much more than devastation in its wake (though there’s some of that, too).

Moving over to Escape Pod, June saw the release of “Love and Supervillains” by Caroline Diorio, which finds in Rosalind a narrator who was mostly just trying to enjoy her life through personal independence and lots of casual sex until the guy she hooked up with turned out to be a superhero whose bodily fluids had some… unex­pected consequences for Rosalind, who is now a kinda-sorta supervillain. The story comes across as a confession of sorts, though not one bogged down by remorse. Instead, Diorio embraces the wicked and free spirit of Rosalind, not shaming her for her desires nor ultimately condemning her for acting on them. There is a wild freedom and joy that runs through the narrative, refusing to bow to the supposed established moralities of power and desire.

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of speculative fiction. His works have appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Lightspeed Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others, and many are included in his debut collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories (Lethe Press 2021). He is the series editor of We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction (Neon Hemlock Press) and a multiple-time Hugo and Ignyte Award finalist for his work at Quick Sip Reviews. When not drunkenly discussing Goosebumps, X-Men comic books, and his cats on his Patreon (/quicksipreviews) and Twitter (@ClowderofTwo), he can probably found raising a beer with his husband, Matt, in their home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

This review and more like it in the Sepetmber 2022 issue of Locus.

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