Retail is Hell

Retail is Hell

A review of Elizabeth Twist’s “Prodigious” in Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus (World Weaver Press, 2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Retail is Hell… and it gets way more hellish around the holidays. The blaring of jolly music is only beat out by the screaming of customers who want what they want right away and the sound of cash registers. Elizabeth Twist has set her tale “Prodigious” in a toy store around Christmas time to tell the story of Krampus… a figure from Austrian Yule traditions whose whole job is to punish children who are naughty so that Saint Nicholas can reward the ones who are good. Krampus is portrayed as a demon with a long tongue, horns, and fur, holding a set of twigs that he uses to lash bad children with. In some tales he throws those naughty children into a bag and bring them down to hell.

He is the figure that I’m sure a lot of retail workers wish would be around to deal with naughty customers and Elizabeth Twist plays with this idea, having store employees play Krampus each year for the holiday party as a break from the artificiality of the canned Christmas music and ho ho hos of fake Santa Claus figures. Who wouldn’t want to play Krampus after having to deal with the Christmas rush every working day.

Twist’s “Prodigious” plays with traditional holiday narratives, subverting them into a retail revenge tale with occult undertones and even a love story because a Christmas demon may want some snuggles.

To find out more about Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus, visit https://www.worldweaverpress.com/store/p66/Krampusnacht_%28ebook%29.html

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Hard Knocks School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

A review of Lesley Livingston’s Trippingly Off The Tongue (in Misspelled Ed. Julie Czerneda, Daw 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Competition at magic school can be killer… and I mean killer… Michaela faces her final exam with a lab partner who vastly outpowers her and has a playful sense of what is appropriate when handling dangerous spells. Vinx has a devlish side… being, of course, a demon.

In the school Livingston creates, spelling bees are deadly and involve actual spells, but Vinx treats them as something no more dangerous than baking cookies. He knows the nature of spell-casting and it isn’t something he needs to focus on or worry about as Michaela does.

Lesley Livingston’s short story Trippingly Off The Tongue explores the over-competitive nature of schools and the roots of competition in the educational system. She magnifies these by having a curriculum in which one of the goals is to rid yourself of your lab partner.  Although Michaela is unconfident with her spell-casting and has been known for her occasional errors, and Vinx is supposed to be something evil and ugly, the two develop an intercultural friendship, working cooperatively in opposition to the school-enforced competitive framework. They face stereotypes about each other, playing and teasing each other for their difference and for the assumptions society has imposed on them. This attitude of play overrides the deadly competition of the educational system, pushing them into attitudes of antagonism that they struggle to resist.

To find out more about Lesley Livingston’s work, visit her website at http://www.lesleylivingston.com/ . To find out more about Misspelled, visit http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781440633508,00.html

Demonthropology

A review of Marie Jakober’s The Demon Left Behind (Edge, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Demon Left Behind courtesy of Edge ( http://www.edgewebsite.com/ )

Cover photo of The Demon Left Behind courtesy of Edge ( http://www.edgewebsite.com/ )

The world is full of invisible entities, entities affected by us and by the chaos of our world – demons. They aren’t evil, but rather morally grey, like us, varying in their outlook on the world. But because of the link between the visible and invisible worlds, they feel the need to study us, watch and observe us and ensure that no human (visie) action will affect them or their lives. Demons have become silent observers in Marie Jakober’s The Demon Left Behind, bound by a supernatural prime directive not to interfere with our world, but to observe it in case action needs to occur – particularly since human inventions like nuclear bombs could demolish demon life as well as human life.

When the young demon Wye Wye disappears, Melusine and her team are tasked to find him and bring him home. They discover that in his quest to discover threats to the world, he has become insatiably curious about militia groups who believe that the End of Times is upon them and believe that they have a role in protecting the world from things that they see as threats to Christian hegemonic control. Melusine and her group have to employ the work of a human informant and begin to re-trace Wye Wye’s steps as well as his research in order to find out what happened to him and how he became lost in his search to understand.

Jakober’s The Demon Left Behind plays with the image of ethnography, studying humanity from the perspective of an ‘Other’ that is so different from human experience that it does not have a bodily existence apart from the time the demons spend emulating humans in order to study us. Like in many early ethnographic texts, Melusine experiences the allure of the ‘Other’, feeling a desire to become more like the human beings she is observing. She feels a pull toward bodily existence, the desire to experience human sexuality, human desire, human food, and the complexities of bodily existence. Others in her group experience disgust at the idea of bodily existence, but as Melusine becomes closer to her human informant, Paige, she begins to better understand his experience and sees value in corporeality even though it would mean the loss of her immortality if she were to take human bodily form for too long.

The Demon Left Behind evokes in readers a sense of estrangement from the human experience, an othering of our own lives so that we can look at ourselves from an outside perspective and wonder at the strange things that occur in our world that we don’t question – that we normalise.

To explore this and other Edge books, visit their website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/ .

Being ‘Othered’ in the Otherworld.

A Review of Kelley Armstrong’s Spell Bound (Vintage Canada, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of Kelley Armstrong

When you define yourself by your abilities, by the powers that make you distinct from others, what happens when you lose those powers? Kelley Armstrong explores this question in Spell Bound, the twelfth book in her Women of the Otherworld series. In Armstrong’s world, supernaturals are rare, and represent a small part of the population. They are born into categories of supernatural race: werewolf, vampires, witch, sorcerer, half demon. They can’t acquire these powers except through their own birth, or, on a few rare exceptions, through a bite.  They are minority groups, surrounded by a huge sea of humanity, but now some of them want to acknowledge their existence: come out of the coffin, out of the broom closet, out of the woods.

Savannah Levine is trapped in the middle of the struggle to come out. Most of her is interested in maintaining the status quo of secrecy among supernaturals (though there is still a part of her that revels in the idea of being open about her powers), but the supernatural group that wants to reveal themselves and the existence of all other supernatural races to the world has a huge interest in her. Savannah is unique – a blend of the bloodlines of a witch and a sorcerer (which is normally impossible), with a little bit of demon blood in the mix. This uniqueness makes her fascinating enough, but she also fulfills one of the group’s prophesies, making her an icon that could be used to gather interest from others.

This is all further complicated by the fact that the thing that makes her a witch, the thing that distinguishes her as a supernatural and other than human – her magic – has been taken from her. She experiences a loss of identity, the search for herself and what her new life without powers could mean, and the general sense of helplessness that comes with a rapid change in ability. Savannah worries that she has lost an essential part of herself that defined her as a member of a community, and fears the way she will be treated by friends and family now that she has changed. Her experience mirrors that of many people who acquire disabilities later in life: she has to learn new ways of doing things, she accidentally falls back on what worked before her body changed, there are moments when she feels globally disabled instead of seeing her disability as an isolated part of her overall abilities, and she fears that her new disability will mean that she will be treated in a fundamentally different way by her social circles. Armstrong complicates the disability trope in this novel by also creating a character whose outsider identity is based on belonging to a group that is defined by the very ability she has lost. Savannah is left feeling like a double outsider, cast as an ‘Other’ by her identity as a witch, and then further ‘Othered’ by the loss of the thing that most defines her as a member of that group: her powers. She is left in a place between identities and this is fantastic place to explore notions of identity itself.

As with most of the books in the Women of the Otherworld series, in Spell Bound Armstrong shows an incredible grasp of the psychology of her characters, an understanding of what the character’s innermost thoughts and feelings would be while experiencing supernatural turmoil. She infuses the question of identity and supernatural psychology with an exciting, fast-paced plot and twists and turns that illustrate the defining humanity of her not-quite-human characters.

You can discover more about Kelley Armstrong and her Women of the Otherworld series at http://www.kelleyarmstrong.com/ .

Eldritch Summonings from the World of the Unconventional

A Review of Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth Edited by Duane Burry, Vincent Mackay, and Alexander Newcombe (Here be Monsters Speculative Fiction issue seven, September, 2012)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth is the first of the Here Be Monsters anthologies that I have read, and I am extremely impressed with the quality of work in this volume. It is great to see that an epic battle for which stories should be included in the volume, that, according to the editors involved “fighting with tooth, tentacle and claw… eldritch summonings [and] chaos magic” still proves its effectiveness in producing an incredible volume of speculative fiction – the old methods still produce incredible results.

The magical and monstrous suffuses every page of this volume, summoning the reader’s attention and passions. The stories in this volume question reader pre-conceptions, encouraging them on their own adventure into the darkness of their own subconscious to find the root of their social confinement and dig it up.

The volume itself becomes like a body of text or a textual body, laying out each section with a depiction of the body, illustrating that horrors come not from without, but from within.

Claude Lalumiere’s short story The Ministry of Sacred Affairs evokes the threat of a society that demonises others, a society where fear prevents any form of inquiry or debate and supporting the supernatural is viewed as a terrorist threat. Goblins and golems become figures that question the status-quo and shake up a society that has become complacent in its fear of others.

Numbered by Duane Burry continues the theme of questioning social fears. When communication technology is discovered that allows for interplanetary conversations and connections with aliens from other worlds, instead of viewing it as a method of discovery, it is perceived as a militaristic threat. Humans, unable to travel to the stars, are able to speak to other civilisations, talk to people from distant worlds who have foreign experiences and knowledge to share, but in a universe of fear, all they share are threats of war and questions about possible dangers. It is not the silent vastness of space that cuts off interplanetary voices, but the vast terror of the sentient mind and the secrecy that terror imposes.

Karl Johanson’s The Airlock Scene illustrates a different danger with encountering new worlds: beauraucracy and the need to perform for an audience at the expense of the adventure of exploring a new environment. Johanson portrays the need of scientific minds to mediocritise the fantastic through their pedantic ego battles. Like Burry’s story, Johanson’s is about political issues interfering with the sense of wonder the pervades exploration.

Universal questions are turned domestic in Amy Bright’s Private Transit where the monstrosity of domestic assault is displayed and one can see that abuse is as alienating as any landscape from space, causing the victim to lose all pieces of themselves to feed the monstrous abuser.

Pickle’s Story by Alexander Newcombe reveals the power of myth and legend as well as the bond that can develop between the human and the animal. Newcombe shows the power that gossip and tales can have in creating a reputation, and the power of a thief who wields lies to create his own mythology.

Tarquin Steiner evokes nostalgia in his story Cobbled by modeling it after a text-based computer game.

Camille Alexa casts us back into space in her Children of the Device where, despite being the fifth generation of inhabitants on a colony ship escaping from a doomed Earth, our traditions continue from New Year’s resolutions to war and greed.

Tyler MacFarlane brings the search for identity and the inescapability of ourselves back to the Earth in his Antennae. MacFarlane illustrates that despite the desire for a distraction, the next new thing, we always are brought back to ourselves.

We are reminded that we can’t escape from ourselves again in Carl Roloff’s If Not the Moon, Then the Exquisite Sun where humanity faces the destruction of the Earth by our own sun, and, in an attempt to save something about the human experience, decides to transmute the remaining human beings into crystals – converting individual human thoughts and experience into art that will reflect the burst of the sun into the universe. But Roloff reminds readers that eternity is an experience that is alien to humanity and transcendence is a form of loss itself.

Where Carl Roloff presents the mind as a form of escape and transcendence, Vincent Mackay’s Brain Freeze warns readers of the dangers of technologies of the mind. The mind becomes something that can be used for terrorism and war, converted into supermindbombs that can only be decoded through a process that seems equal parts psychology and computer programming. The Earth’s surface has been made uninhabitable by a field that requires inhabitants to control their own thoughts to the point at which they become insane. Thought becomes a weapon.

Thought is further explored as a vehicle for terror in Sterrennacht by Cat McDonald as art itself becomes a place where kidnap victims and stolen items can be stored. McDonald explores the idea of a world where people can enter into paintings and the terrifying effects of experiencing impressionist art from the inside. Van Gogh has never been so absorbing as McDonald explores the physical, auditory, and other sensory experiences of being totally enmeshed in the world of art. But art has an effect on those who experience it, and the danger of art is that it can consume you.

Ann Ewan explores the loss of humanity in a different way, through literal consumption by an ogre. In Ogre Baby, human beings are infected with ogreness (through ogre mud placed in the body of dead human beings) as a means for the ogres to reproduce. They depend on human beings as an infusion into their own tribe, as a way of expanding their numbers. The familiarity and difference of the human being and the ogre horrifies both species and, in the ogre, excites a deep hunger that may stem from their need to be partially human, to incorporate humanity into their monstrous form.

The body further fascinates Rich Larson in his Strings. The body becomes a marketable commodity, and re-shaped for sexuality. It is divorced of its thoughts so it can become a vessel for sexual pleasure, conveying the notion that as a society we tend to look at bodies in isolation, separate from their fundamental humanity.

Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth is as much a voyage into the self as it is a voyage into the realm of the Other. Like the monster itself, the pages of this volume are dark mirrors reflecting all of the hidden things we like to forget. It is a volume that is fundamentally about the search for a deifining feature of our humanity, the fear of a loss of our humanity, and the dangers that are presented in the human spirit.

To find out more about this volume of Here Be Monsters and other volumes in the series, visit their website at http://herebemonstersanthology.blogspot.ca/

Displacement

A Review of On Spec #89 Vol 24, No. 2 (Summer 2012 issue)
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been a fan of On Spec for some time. I enjoy the quality of their stories, the diversity of their authors, and their ability to play with diverse characteristics of the speculative medium. I enjoy the fact that On Spec combines short stories with poetry, essays that provide insights into the nature of speculative fiction and trends in the speculative genres, interviews with authors that provide insights into the authorial process and the thought that goes into a creative work, and I am impressed by On Spec’s willingness to bring in artistic works that play with ideas of the speculative rather than focussing on the textual. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy On Spec so much is that its ideologies match so well with my own. Like this website, On Spec is interested in both exploring speculative authorship at the same time as it is aware of the incredible insights an author can provide and the complex issues that speculative fiction authors bring into their works to evoke thought from their readers. As a speculative artist (you can check out my art work at www.dereknewmanstille.ca ), I particularly enjoy that they are willing to engage in multiple media of the speculative, not just sticking to short stories, but displaying an interest in works of photography, painting, pencil and ink sketches. It is great to see a recognition of the diversity of media that people operating in the speculative can bring out. On Spec also displays an interest in quotations, and an incredible aptitude for pulling out the most poignant and thought-provoking quotes in a story. I always find it exciting when I look at the quotes that they have pulled out of a story and notice that they match the ones that had drawn me in.

Normally I like to review a selection of short stories from On Spec volumes, but I thought I would do a quick overview of the Summer 2012 issue to look for binding themes and ideas that pull the volume together. This volume taps into an interest I have noticed recently in the theme of displacement by Canadian speculative fiction authors. There is a sense of loss that permeates this volume, a sense of homes forgotten, the search for a new place, the feeling of being left behind by people, by time, and by places that shift and change in such a way that we can no longer fit into them. Memories fade and we are lost in a place between them. There is an edgy sense that knowledge and wisdom can be alienating and that, perhaps… sometimes ignorance, while not very fulfilling, can at least keep one from the horrors of knowing about the loss of everything that can be valued.

The volume begins with an essay on Steampunk, a genre or aesthetic that plays with notions of the displacement of time and uses elements of past worlds and the notion of nostalgia to create a place of adventure outside of the normal course of time. In the words of Mike Perschon, Steampunk “is the way the present imagines the past seeking the future.” It is a complex interweaving of times and notions of time that both plays with notions of nostalgia for the past, while also complicating notions of the past and the way we see the past from our present perspective.

That sense of the defamiliarisation of time itself carries over into the first story, 7:54 by Susan Forest, a story about the ability to see into the future, and the inevitability of the future that opens moral questions about the way we envision ourselves moving forward. Shen Braun’s Village of Good Fortune is set in the past in the world of Japanese shintoism where spirits and demons are part of the landscape of the world. Here, the displacement shifts to a man who has had to leave his home and searches for a new place to call home, a place of belonging and comfort.  But, these things are not easy to find and even the most pleasant village can have a dark undercurrent running through it, a shaky ground of ambiguity between ideas of right and wrong.

This place of metaphysical and moral ambiguity brings us to another story about questions of morality and the nature of good and evil, Peter Darbyshire’s The Only Innocent Soul in Hell. The terrifying thing about hell in this story is that it shows a remarkable similarity to the bureaucracies of our everyday experience…. and this reminds us that although we believe we are living in a world of familiarity and normalcy, there really is hell lurking in every government building. Darbyshire portrays the typical impatient, self-righteous customer as the archetype for the sociopathic personality, and, reminds the reader that people who play the system too well… a pretty hellish system at that… are probably devils in sheep’s clothing… or at least expensive wool suits. Through hiding his memories… and a few other tricks, a sociopath tries to trick a demon into letting him out of hell.

The theme of memory and the loss of memory follows into E.J. Bergmann’s Penultimate, a poem about the process of aging and the loss of memory and selfhood that can be seen to arise from the experience of getting older. It is a crushing poem about the systematic loss of the self, a story being unwritten with pages torn out of the autobiography of the self.

Paul Kenneback’s In Which Demetri Returns the Elgin Marbles takes the notion of loss to an international level and shows the horror of a world that has decided to forget its own history, emptying museums to fill them with the less controversial and less diverse Disney. It represents the ultimate Disneyfication and Touristism of the world: turning the world into a spectator’s gaze reflecting itself – everywhere cultural specificity is erased so that every nation is just a mirror of the United States with slightly different climates. Kenneback shows the horror of a world that has been systematically erased in the name of social control and propaganda, a place that has been neutralised and whose art has been rendered bland and undifferentiated. Kenneback wields his narrative of an artist working for museums trying to promote Disney in order to evoke in his audience a desire to question the focus on the modern and the systemic loss of cultural memory and artistic past that defines civilisations.

Canine Court by Tyler Keevil, takes away the notion of familiarity in one’s family. He portrays a typical Canadian small town with a secret and a displaced city boy who soon discovers that things may not be as they appear in the town or in his own family. Keevil’s tale features werewolves, but the kind of predators that lurk in small towns may not all have fangs.

Kevin Shaw’s Bespoke explores the lack of familiarity that can be evoked by a changing body, a body that has been mutated into a shape that is responded to by onlookers with horror. But, although often body changes are portrayed in stories as tales of the loss of the self, an inability or lack, in Shaw’s narrative, this body change can distance someone enough from their familiar patterns that they can be encouraged to develop new behaviours, new relationships and when slight changes are made to accommodate their bodily difference, a new respect and love for their changed body.

This volume of On Spec was an amazing adventure into the unfamiliar territories that lurk hidden in the shadows of the familiar. The reader finds him or herself lost, disassembled, made strange to her or himself and then brought back together with a new understanding of the world around them and appreciation for the weird places that lurk between the cracks of the normal.

Bullying, Bodies, and Baddies

A Review of Timothy Carter’s Evil? (Flux, 2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Fitting perfectly with the current interest in the bullying phenomenon and finding ways to stop bullying, Timothy Carter’s Teen Fiction novel Evil? features a queer-oriented teen growing up in a small town in Northern Canada. His town is highly Christian and even teens in this town admonish people for “taking the Lord’s name in vain”.

Stuart is a teen who is unsure of his religious beliefs, feeling excluded from certain aspects of Christianity because of his queer orientation. He does what anyone who wants to find out the truth about religion does… he consults with the source, a reliable figure…. a demon. In his ritual patterns, Stuart weaves a spell requiring the demon to speak only the truth and asks him questions about Christian belief. He finds out that despite what others suggest, there is nothing evil about homosexuality: “God doesn’t care who you kiss” (30). As an outsider, this demon who hates him and only wants free is one of the closest things that Stuart has to a friend… the other is the local priest who similarly explains that homosexuality is not a sin.

Timothy Carter disrupts the notion of the small town as a haven and location of rural safety when he illustrates what can happen in a small town to a queer teen. Although Stuart’s mother moved to the small town to keep his family safe from the dangers of urban regions, Stuart finds himself without friends and fundamentally abject (made an outsider) – his classmates will use homophobic comments with the words “no offense” as a means of disarming the implied hatred their words embody.

Eventually, Stuart faces mob violence, but, oddly enough it is not for his homosexuality, but because he is caught masturbating in the shower. The town begins a religious crusade against the crime of “spilling”, the Sin of Onan. He is subjected to bullying by schoolmates, teachers, humiliated publically and the victim of violence. Surprised that masturbation is the thing that causes religious mob violence against him instead of his homosexuality, Stuart starts to inquire about the motivation for hate crimes and discovers that a supernatural being is behind the sudden surge in hatred. It is only through gathering together a small band of outsiders, a priest, a demon, and a general attitude of acceptance that Stuart can begin to fight the tide of evil that has submerged his town.

Although masturbation is used by Timothy Carter as the vehicle for discussing issues of violence against social outsiders, and although he attributes a supernatural cause to the bullying, he is pointing to an overall issue of violence in the schools against students who are treated as social outcasts: queer-identified students, racialised students, students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Carter brings our attention to the wider issues of violence that occurs in the schools and how embedded it is in our behaviours. He uses the supernatural as a mechanism for pointing out the absurdity of the bullying phenomenon and the need for real social change to prevent the issues the underlay bullying.

Evil? displays Timothy Carter’s incredible sense of humour while dealing with deep issues like the entrenched nature of homophobia, body shame, fear of sexual expression, and bullying. It is a fundamentally deep teen fiction book that calls the reader to question the origin of ideas of hatred and their impact on teen lives. It asks the reader to question everything and to determine their own belief systems. Carter expresses the importance of teens deciding their own truths and finding their own path.

Despite the religious questions evoked by the story, ultimately it has a pro-Christian, or at least pro-belief-in-something-like-the-Christian-God message. Despite not wanting to be like biased, dogmatic Christians, Stuart is forced to engage in questions of faith and debate about whether he is being dogmatic in his own rejection of the notion of a higher power. Despite the religious message, as a non-Christian reading this book, I found it entertaining, hilarious, and great at asking tough questions.

Author photo courtesy of Timothy Carter

This book would be an excellent one to suggest to a teen struggling with questions of identity, religion, bullying, or concerns about the body. It would be a great addition to a school or public library so that teens can peruse it in privacy if they are worried about attracting attention from bullies.  Adult readers will find this book interesting for the depth of the story, the questions it evokes, the development of the characters, and the general humour that animates the text.

You can find out more about Timothy Carter at http://timothycarterworld.com/ and read more about Evil? and his other novels.