Little Whispers Of The Fantastic

A review of Catherine MacLeod’s “The Stone Alphabet” in Earth: Giants, Golems, & Gargoyles Edited by Rhonda Parrish (Tyche Books, 2019)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Catherine MacLeod’s “The Stone Alphabet” is a refreshing collection of microfiction stories. Each of the stories is only a few lines of text but shows incredible worldbuilding, character development, and each has a delightful twist ending. MacLeod plays with the senses of the reader, moving us from world to world and story to story, immersing us in little drips of horror instead of a larger pool of story.

Like the rest of the Earth collection, MacLeod’s collection focuses on the multiplicity of the element, illustrating the idea that Earth can be articulated in a variety of ways. She tells stories about characters with an appetite for stones to stories of the underworld, tales of dark cellars that suddenly appear, addictions to beauty mud, statues carved into life, and stories about stoning.

Despite the short length of these tales, MacLeod explores deep and powerful social patterns and ideas. She explores ideas of life and death, oppression and violence, loss and imprisonment, representation of the human body and the implications of creating something so close to the human. MacLeod invites her reader to speculate and imagine new possibilities, using the “weird” to invite readers to question their norms and everything that is taken for granted. Playing with the theme of the earth, she shakes the foundation of the reader’s reality and invites new philosophies and ideologies. The rapid succession of worlds and stories allow for a sense of cognitive dissonance, immediately putting the reader in a reflective, questioning space.

Reviewed By Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)

Authors in Quarantine – Chadwick Ginther

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Chadwick’s companion in Quarantine – Algernon!!

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Chadwick Ginther: I’ve been fortunate enough to still be employed at my day job, and have been working from home at what tasks are available to me. I’ve tried to impose some structure on my days, such as not sleeping in, writing before I sign on for work, daily walks and short workouts. I’ve also watched entirely too many terrible horror movies and caught up on a few television shows I’ve been meaning to check out. I’ve also been trying out some new recipes, and doing a bit more baking then normal.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Chadwick Ginther: There was a lot of anxiety at first. Worry about health and wellbeing, for myself, my wife, our loved ones. Fear about what things will look like on the other side of the pandemic. All that anxiety is still there, but the waves of it don’t seem to be hitting quite as heavily as they were.

It’s been painful not to be able to see friends and family, but both my wife and I tend to be pretty solitary folks, and we really enjoy each other’s company. I call my parents to chat a bit more frequently, and a group of my friends created a text channel for us to share recipes and pictures and updates, and that’s been great for feeling connected.
All of my roleplaying games have moved to online platforms, although many of them were partially, or already there. I’m resisting the urge to join new games because I know I won’t be able to maintain the commitment when things return to a more normal normality.

Not going to a store the moment I think of something I want, or run out of has also meant a bit less snacking. Hopefully I’ll carry a bit of that newfound impulse buy restraint forward when the restrictions are relaxed.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Chadwick Ginther: At first, it was brutal. Nothing was getting done. I struggled to finish even the tasks with existing deadlines, like some editor mandated short story revisions. Motivation to revise the book I had been working on prior to the pandemic was nil. Later, after the first couple of weeks, I managed to write a couple story pitches I’m waiting to hear back about, which seemed to help. Two weeks ago I decided to work on a passion project novel I’ve kept telling myself I’d start writing once this or that task was crossed off the list. I’m pretty happy with that decision, as it’s kept me writing every day, and I’m having so much fun exploring what might end up being the weirdest and most ambitious thing I’ve ever attempted in fiction.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

An Interview with Dr. Kelly McGuire About Pandemic and Outbreak Narratives

In light of the current COVID 19 pandemic, I wanted to interview Dr. Kelly McGuire, a professor and chair of the Women and Gender Studies Department at Trent University who has taught courses on epidemic and outbreak narratives and who researches medical history among her many research interests. 

Interviewer: Derek Newman-Stille

 

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kelly McGuire: I am a faculty member of English and Gender & Women’s Studies at Trent, where I specialize in eighteenth-century literature with a focus on medical history, although my teaching reflects my varied interests in popular culture, social justice, and feminism. I am currently working on how the eighteenth-century practice of inoculation (and the care labour surrounding it) was imagined in the literature of the time (so I’m paying particular attention to the discussions around immunity and the development of a vaccine in relation to COVID-19).

 


Spec Can: What got you interested in reading pandemic and other viral narratives?

Kelly McGuire: I am really interested in how these narratives give us access to the world of epidemiologists, virologists, and scientists affiliated with organizations like the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the WHO (Wold Health Organization). They also read on some level as detective fiction (with the scientists tasked with “solving” the mystery of the virus, which in its own way has the status of a character – usually framed as a demonic enemy even though viruses exist only to replicate themselves). The centrality of the body in these narratives also interests me, as all of those nasty things we generally avoid talking about assume centre stage.

 

Spec Can: What got you interested in researching and teaching pandemic and viral narratives?

Kelly McGuire: A strange constellation of interests, beginning in an academic sense with my dissertation on suicide, which brought me into contact with the strange new world of public health as it emerged in the eighteenth century. I became very interested in how historically literature helped to imagine infection, and over time came to integrate my interest in popular fiction into this particular focus.

 

Spec Can: What are some characteristics of pandemic narratives in fiction? 

Kelly McGuire: Priscilla Wald (Contagious, 2008) does an excellent job of tracing these characteristics in contemporary fiction and film, while I see some of these tropes being established much earlier in works like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which is a fictionalized telling of the 1665 Great Plague of London. So I’m not necessarily dealing with pandemic narratives so much as works that deal with outbreaks and epidemics.

Often we see a first-person narrator in these stories who is positioned to give us a first-hand and more intimate account of the epidemic as it unfolds. These narrators are by necessity characterized by a somewhat morbid and perverse curiosity, which propels them through empty streets and gives us access to eerie scenes and unusual behaviours that arise in times of quarantine. Another character that figures in many of these narratives is the healthy carrier or super spreader who becomes the chief vector of disease and is almost invariably scapegoated as a result (I’ll talk more about ethnic scapegoating below).  The extermination of cats and dogs in urban centres is a recurring feature of these works, unfortunately, as is the flight from the city (always aligned with corruption and disease at the best of times) to the country.

In a narrative sense, the outbreak has its own kind of rhythm, generating confusion and panic as it slowly but inexorably begins to register in the consciousness of the people. We see the same kind of denial and slowness to act that has marked our experience of the pandemic, and a proliferation of rumour and quackery, as well as superstition (as epidemics to this day are read as an expression of God’s wrath).

It’s also interesting how the representations of “emptiness” that characterize depictions of urban plague scenes often give way to crowded, carnivalesque scenes of carefree behaviour. In his discussion of how the plague city represents authority’s ideal of the disciplinary society, Foucault relates how the experience of quarantine is met with both order and disorder, and this is certainly a recurring feature of outbreak narratives. But the general trend in these stories is towards fragmentation and the fraying of the social bonds that hold us together.

These can also be profoundly existential narratives, giving us access on some level to the ways in which humans confront their mortality, and contain a good many psychological insights about how we deal with trauma and the breakdown of our social order.

Spec Can: Why do you think people are interested in pandemic narratives?

Kelly McGuire: Some people (like Ernest Gilman) would argue that we are on some level haunted in a traumatic sense by a kind of shared memory of the plague, which lives on as a result in the popular imagination. This shared memory arguably informs the iconic appearance and behaviour of zombies, often thought to be inspired by early modern bubonic plague victims whose lymphatic swellings caused them to raise their arms and shuffle with their heads tilted at unusual angles).

These narratives remind us of our vulnerability, our porosity, our dependency on one another and, just like works of horror, function as a kind of release valve, confronting us with these fears in part to allow us to contain them. Ultimately, the kind of barriers and borders that the illness overcomes are redrawn at the end of these narratives, which are reassuring in their portraits of resilience (although in their rejoicing, survivors almost invariably forget the promises and vows they had made to live better lives and return to their old ways).

Spec Can: How do pandemic narratives relate to social fears and anxieties that are not necessarily about viruses?

Kelly McGuire: These narratives are always about xenophobia and the fear of the other on some level. We tend to align an idea of the self with health and associate disease with an idea of the “other” (other ethnicities, other countries). Many outbreak narratives like Albert Camus’s La Peste and Philip Roth’s Nemesis (which deals with an outbreak of polio in 1944 New Jersey), can be read on some levels as metaphors for the Holocaust or anti-Semitism more generally, and in this sense invoke ways in which Jewish peoples have been scapegoated historically (in times of plague in particular). These works often reflect anxieties around immigration, and, in more recent times, around globalization (see the film Contagion from 2011 for an example). In the 1990s, Africa was the target of a good many of these narratives, whereas Asia has been the focus since SARS.

 

Spec Can: How are viral narratives related to ideas of borders and border policing?

Kelly McGuire: My students and I always talk about how Western thought has encouraged us to see ourselves as bodies with clearly defined boundaries in keeping with the idea of the “sovereign self” and the ethos of individualism that pervades North American culture in particular. Viral narratives disrupt this idea of the “bounded body” by reminding us how we act on one another constantly and imperceptibly. What these narratives do (again, this is a central thesis of Priscilla Wald’s book), is render visible not only our movements through space but also our multiple and varied points of contact with one another.

In a geopolitical sense, these stories also expose the idea of the national border as a mere construct that viruses certainly do not respect and, on the contrary, traverse at will. In that way they reveal as illusory all of these arbitrary lines we draw to mark off territory we occupy as settlers from other areas.

Spec Can: How might the Coronavirus pandemic change the way that fictional pandemics are presented?

Kelly McGuire: That is a really good question! So far we have manifested much of the same behaviour and tendencies we see in a lot of outbreak narratives, but inevitably the role of social media in overcoming isolation and perhaps even facilitating the conditions so vital to the containment of infection will be an important addition to the kinds of stories we tell about epidemics. The language of “flattening” or “planking” the curve and the emphasis on collective responsibility is even more pronounced than that which we find in most stories of this genre, and I suspect this will become entrenched in the popular vocabulary of pandemic writing, as will the language of social or physical distancing. It is fascinating to me how quickly we have embraced these terms and have come to read historical events like the Spanish Flu of 1918/1919 through these practices. The direct experience of having lived through a pandemic and in some cases lost loved ones, or dealt with hardship and privation in varying ways, will shape how these stories are told in the future. Perhaps we’ll tell them through a more intimate lens, and one marked by mourning, (rather than by the ghastly intrigue of following a disease event that has spiralled beyond our control). Most outbreak narratives talk about the “leveling” effects of illness, but, as many people have remarked, this pandemic has exacerbated the structural inequalities within our society and disproportionately affects groups that are already marginalized: people with disabilities, people of colour, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ people, and women. One desirable outcome would be that these experiences will be highlighted more in subsequent narratives that will move significantly beyond some of the tropes and characteristics I’ve discussed above.

 

Spec Can: Many pandemic narratives (especially zombie narratives) tend to present the image of a society that becomes hyper individualistic and libertarian in focus. How might characteristics of the current Coronavirus pandemic shift this image? Or will it shift that image?

Kelly McGuire: I think in many pandemic narratives we actually see both tendencies.  Most of these works represent the individualistic drive to self-preservation that manifests itself in hoarding tendencies or the refusal to sacrifice our comfort or pleasure to safeguard the vulnerable. But these stories also commonly trace the emergence of a kind of ethos of collectivity as contagion in some ways helps foster a sense of community. At the end of these stories, the inevitable triumph (often scientific in contemporary works) over the disease in itself is also imagined as a triumph of the human spirit. I see these same patterns being reproduced as this event unfolds. But my hope is that ultimately a more collectivist mentality and concern with social equality will prevail that will in turn allow us to confront other pressing concerns (like the climate crisis) that remain to be addressed when all this is over.

 

—-

Dr. Kelly McGuire is an associate professor in the department of English Literature and the current chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Trent University. Her research interests include Eighteenth-century literature and cultural history; medical history; plague writing and public health; biothrillers and biopunk; disease and national character; women’s writing; and sermon literature.

 

Slavic Myths and Human Monsters

A review of David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother (ChiZine, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother brings together snippets of strange lives into a tale that hints at connections between these individual stories and provides shadows of a larger narrative tying them together. Each of Demchuk’s tales ties in with a snapshot shown at the beginning of the story and diverts into the mythical, magical, mysterious, and monstrous. These images of the normal are interrupted by tales that Other them, transforming them into something complex and uncertain. The unexpected is a stream that runs through Demchuk’s narratives, complicating them to illustrate the way that stories always hold complex truths that are always part fiction.

The Bone Mother features fairy tales turned dark and infused with the mechanical, featuring an ever present factory standing as a symbol of industry intersecting with myth to create a landscape of smoke and shadow. Demchuk tells tales that connect the mythic to industry, proving that the mechanical can’t fully succeed in chasing the creatures of the human imagination back into the dark, and may, in fact, give them a space to thrive. The Bone Mother brings together Rusalka, ghosts, golem, mirror monsters, Baba Yaga figures, and other manifestations of Slavic myth and makes these figures into family secrets, hidden differences that dwell in the blood rather than the imagination. He ties these fairy tale figures in with circus freaks and those who defy social and biological norms, bringing out the diversity of the human form. The most dangerous quality of this mythical world is normalcy, which tries to turn everyone into simple, uncomplicated forms, denying diversity. All of these figures who could be called monsters only serve to show a mirror to humanity, illustrating that we are the monsters for trying to enforce conformity. 

To find out more about The Bone Mother, visit ChiZine Publications at http://chizinepub.com/the-bone-mother/
To discover more about David Demchuk, visit http://daviddemchuk.com/ .

Performing Pontypool?

A review of Tony Burgess’ Pontypool radio drama script (Playwrights Canada Press, 2015).
By Derek Newman-Stille

I should start out by noting that the 2009 film Pontypool by Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald is one of my favourite films, so I was extremely excited to hear from a colleague, Cat Ashton, that Tony Burgess had written a radio drama version of the story. Admittedly, I didn’t enjoy Tony Burgess’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything upon which both the film and the radio drama were based, but I was impressed by the radio drama and its potential for performance. I have directed and performed radio dramas in the past, and therefore took a look at the script both for its literary quality and its performability. 

The characters in this radio drama were rich and complex, with intentions that could be sketched out through their dialogue, but they also allowed a lot of room for actors to bring out the complexities of these characters and add their own voices and perspectives.

The setting for the play allows a lot of potential for it to be performed. Since all of it takes place in a radio station, and most of it occurs in the sound booth, a lot of the complexities of space and setting changes are unnecessary. 

I should mention that my first day on the air occurred after watching the 2009 Pontypool and it heightened my experience of being in a sound studio, watching the various dials change, my voice oscillating on the screen, and adjusting dials to the performance of sound. I couldn’t help but think of myself as inside of the film. Performing Pontypool on air could increase this potential, letting the radio drama performers feel the setting of the station influence their delivery of their lines. 

Pontypool is a radio drama about the power of language to turn people into zombies. It is an outbreak story, situated in the small Ontario town of Pontypool where certain words in the English language have become contaminated, and where these words are spreading, transforming people into zombies who seek out voices and infect the host. It is a play that is about the power of words and the power of the radio for spreading words like viruses The play makes the reader hyper aware of the way that they are speaking and understanding language, allowing the reader to feel the potential of being infected by the words they are seeing on the page (or, if it is performed, the words they are hearing). There is a sense of danger about reading the script, a feeling that one’s mind, one’s language is potentially dangerous.

It is a play that evokes the concern that even our inquisitive nature is a danger to us because the star of the play, shock jock radio host Grant Mazzy perceives it to be important to investigate and share information about the virus even after he realizes that speaking in any way would allow the virus to spread. He has to balance his need to deliver news… with the fact that the delivery system (him) is contaminated. 

This is an infectious play, one that needles its way into your brain and invites you to keep contemplating it, keep questioning it, even as you realize that the content of the play is telling you that investigating and contemplating can be infectious.

To dicover more about the Pontypool radio drama, visit http://www.playwrightscanada.com/pontypool.html .

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 72: An Interview with A.C. Wise

On this episode of Speculating Canada, I Interview the fabulous A.C. Wise about The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves The World Again. We discuss trans narratives, femininity and femme identity, Lovecraftian fiction, monstrosity, unspeakable horrors, weird literature, horror literature, resistant texts, diversity, representation in literature, making our fiction match the diversity of our own world, memory, the power of speculative fiction to evoke new thoughts, and the power of discomfort to evoke change.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files. 

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play. 

Frozen Wooden With Steampunk Horror

Frozen Wooden with Steampunk Horror

 

A review of Kate Heartfield’s “The Seven O’Clock Man” in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction, edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

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As much a horror tale as it is a steampunk story, Kate Heartfield’s “The Seven O’Clock Man” evokes the powerlessness of youth. Heartfield constructs a community where the late mayor had built a clock with a clockwork automaton in it who seeks out any children who are awake past 7 o’clock to turn them into wood. The mayor had viewed order and control to be central to his city, believing that the best means of exerting control was to create a persistent threat to the children of the community, punishing them for disobedience of community rules that are imposed on them. Like many communities that use fear as a means of securing power, the mayor made certain that any of the children who were turned to wood would become part of the clock, peaking through the clock’s doors when the clock struck the hour. The children held within the clock were frozen in horrified immobility, able to see the world, but controlled by the mechanisms of the clock, exhibiting the horror of absolute powerlessness.

 

As much as “Seven O’Clock Man” is a discourse on the powerlessness of childhood it is also a narrative about systems of colonial power. The mayor of the city was particularly interested in controlling aboriginal children, viewing them as a threat to the order of the city. He constructed the clock in order to force his notion of decorum onto the population of aboriginal children, symbolically representing the horrors visited upon aboriginal children in the residential school system where children were similarly taken away, locked up, and subject to threats and violence all in the attempt to force children to conform to colonial cultures. Most of the children frozen in the clock were Mohawk and the man who the mayor forced to wind the clock was also a man who came from a Mohawk family – Jacques. Jacques is forced to continue to wind the clock because his son has clockwork gears installed in him that wind down if the clock is not wound.

 

Heartfield brings attention to the depression and post-traumatic stress that comes from systemic colonial control and threats when Jacques’ wife Marie-Claire (a former slave) experiences regular depressive episodes, freezing in catatonia while her husband winds the clock. Her life of horrors shapes her ability to interact with her family and her frozen state mirrors the frozen state of the statues subject to the punishment of the figure in the clock.

 

Heartfield creates a sense of creeping horror with “The Seven O’Clock Man”, evoking the fear of being made powerlessness, subject to someone else’s will, and the emptiness that flows from being denied expression.

 

To find out more about Kate Heartfield’s work, visit her website at https://heartfieldfiction.com/

 

To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

 

 

And Dominik Parisien’s website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology

 

 

 

The Horror of the Sense of Wonder

A review of A.C. Wise’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” in Lackington’s, 2015 (https://lackingtons.com/2015/02/12/the-lion-and-the-unicorn-by-a-c-wise/)

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

Wonder is something that shapes much of speculative fiction, propelling us to imagine new possibilities and new ways of interacting with the world. But, a sense of wonder can also contribute to a constant desire for the new, the unique, the special, and the never-before-seen. A.C. Wise’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” examines the horror of that sense of wonder, that desire for the strange. Wise introduces us to a unicorn boy who is kept as a sexual slave in confinement. The unicorn boy is regularly visited by people who sexually assault him out of their desire to experience something new. They have a compelling need for him and objectify him as a sexual toy to be played with. In their ardour for the new and unique, they have sought out other wonders, disempowering them – chaining them, removing teeth, and otherwise rendering them defenseless – so that they can be used as objects of gratification, figures of desire. Their monstrous desire makes them seek out the figures that myth defies as monsters.

 

Wise tells a sexual assault tale that reverses the narrative that we have been trained to expect within a patriarchal society. Instead of presenting a woman as the object of desire, Wise presents a boy who is sexually assaulted by women. The unicorn boy was born out of a sexual assault by his mother on his father and he, similarly, has led a life of repeated sexual assaults. Wise extends the question of sex and disempowerment by including a new vulnerable figure and one who is subject to horror because of his beauty. As he says in the tale “Beauty can be terrible, too”.

 

“The Lion and the Unicorn” takes us into the realm of wonder and reminds us that wonder has historically been used as exploitation – it has been used as justification for colonialism, scientific experimentation, freak shows, and the control of those with wondrous bodies.

 

To discover more about the work of A.C. Wise, visit her website at http://www.acwise.net/

 

To read this story on Lackington’s visit https://lackingtons.com/2015/02/12/the-lion-and-the-unicorn-by-a-c-wise/

 

The Watcher on the Shelf

For all that you readers have done this year to support Speculating Canada, I thought I would write a story for your enjoyment as a way to celebrate the passage into a new year. I hope that you enjoy the story. 

The Watcher On The ShelfBy Derek Newman-Stille

Staring, staring, always staring.

They made sure of it when they dipped me into the cauldron, pinned my eyes wide open with merry thorns of holly. I was meant to be a silent watcher, a judge, a surveillor. They created all of the Watcher Elves the same way. I say “they”, but i suppose i mean “we”… or more specifically “he”, since none of us really have any agency of our own. We are toys, motivated by the whims of he who pulls my strings.

He makes each of us wear red, the same colour as he, and stained through the same process. We are beaten into our smaller elvish size by his cane, reduced with each strike of the cane as our blood is struck from our bodies, and it stains his suit deep crimson. No one seems to think about this “right jolly old elf” as a redcap because they are too focused on the beneficence of his gifts, but those of us who experience his beatings know that the red he wears is the paint of victimization. 

Most seem to have forgotten the term “redcap”, so invested are they in the Disneyfied fairies of modernity. They have forgotten that the magical encounters with the fey have often been marked with tragedy. The term redcap comes from the crimson colour of their hats, dyed in the blood of humans who have strayed into their homes. They need to kill regularly to sustain their own lives, feeding their caps with new blood or their hats will dry out and so to will their vitality. I suppose i can stop saying “they” because he made each of us his kind. 

When he beat the blood out of us, we became like him, needing it to stain our own caps and coats to keep us “Watcher Elves” alive. Everyone needs blood – needs the vital fluid running through them to keep their bodies moving. We need it more than most because our bodies miss it, deprived of it for so long. We can only move at night, when the moon’s own fluidity surges through our bodies, and only for a few moments before we are frozen again at rest, motionless surveillors frozen in watchful silence, unblinking eyes wide for anything that can justify that blissful moment where we can sustain ourselves and stain our caps anew.

Unlike his mythical brothers, mostly extinct now due to human interventions of iron, this redcap is beloved, invited into human homes and fed on cookies and milk that are but dust and ash in a mouth that is sustained by crimson sap. He is so beloved that we, this new breed of redcaps, are equally invited into their homes (so like the homes we once had), stared at with glee and excitement.

And how does he achieve it? How do we all achieve it?

Admittedly, part of it is human greed – an ironic twist of fate because we punish greed at the same time as we rely on it to gain entrance into homes with the promise of gifts on a midwinter night…

But greed is not all we rely on. Greed only does so much to permit people to allow themselves to be perpetually watched. There is something that they don’t want to admit…. They like to be watched.

They feel comfort in the touch of a watchful gaze. They feel that our eyes keep order, sustain normalcy, and prevent acts of rebellion. 

And they justify the idea of punishment too. They convince themselves that punnishment will only come for the wicked… and who genuinely thinks that they are capable of wickedness? Who isn’t able to justify any actions they take as “for the better good”? Who doesn’t convince themselves that they only hurt the guilty, that their acts of harm to others are because “those people are lazy”, “it’s really their own fault”, “they had it coming to them”, “they would have done the same to me”…?

They invite us into their houses to watch their children, to become the omnipresent threat of the deprivation of presents on a midwinter morning… but we are only partially watching the children. Most of their acts of wickedness are wrought from a lack of understanding, and we generally think of them as excused from the crimes they commit because of their lack of experience… such a short number of years to learn the world around them. The people we pay the most attention to are the adults, the ones who justify bringing us into their homes as a threat to their children, using punishment to achieve control. They are the most interesting.

Children focus on the little sparkle in our eyes, seeing magic. They don’t know enough to see hunger there. Adults rarely look into our eyes, viewing them as vehicles only for a child’s imagination and therefore beneath their notice. They would be able to see the hunger in that persistent glance if they looked deep and long enough, but they justify ignoring that hungry gaze because they are too busy to look deeper. They don’t want to waste their time on frivolous things. 

The frivolous things are so often sustaining.

If any person stared at their home and their children with the intensity of our redcap eyes, they would feel threatened. They would feel a compulsion to protect what is theirs. But we are immobile things, lifeless. They have forgotten how to fear lifeless things. They have forgotten that predators freeze before they pounce on their prey, making themselves seem like just part of the scenery, part of the landscape.

And so we become part of the landscape of their home, hidden in plain sight. They even give us the perfect predatory view of their home, perching us up high so we can survey everything beneath us. Silently waiting.

It is amazing how easily we learned to be predators, we Watcher Elves. I would like to pretend that it was part of the process of being turned into a redcap, part of the abduction by the jolly man in red, the beating until his sack of toys and corrupt people turned red, the pinning of our eyes with holly, and the dip into the icy cold cauldron of the Northern Pole… I would like to believe it.

No matter how strong I imagine myself and my fellow humans to have been innocent, to be anything other than predators, I have to admit that these traits were easy to uncover and that the beatings just give us cause, justification to want the things that we are convinced were taken from us – blood. Hunger can justify a lot of actions that we pretend we aren’t capable of, and the feeling of loss, the desire for what once was, can sharpen that justification.

Without blood, so many things become hollow. I watch the children dance around in front of the fireplace, looking gleefully up at me, perched near their stockings, calling me – ironically – Holly, a name that they rhyme with “jolly” in a persistent sing-song of joy that I only hear as mockery, feeling the pain of that herb in my eyelids, holding them perpetually open in staring horror. I feel only emptiness and pain, hollowed out partially by the ceremony that inducted me into this madcap menagerie of joy and pain, but more painfully hollowed out by my remove from the holiday cheer, my watchful distance, forced to re-live again and again the moments so similar to those that led up to my incarceration in this hollowed out body, my imprisonment on the shelf. 

I wonder sometimes if my children look up at me and see their daddy or if they forgive me for the horrors i subjected them to before i was taken away one Christmas Eve and stuffed in a sack, made more spacious for the gifts he left for my children. Parents buy all of the toys, but he leaves deeper gifts, gifts of learning and understanding that children unwrap through their own imaginations. 

I stare and stare and stare at the hollow thing that hatched from wrapping paper, tape, and imagination and has taken my likeness, the perfect dad that they always wanted, that they dreamed about as I struck them. 

I stare and stare and stare at what I could have been and I wait for someone else to be naughty, to bring them into my huge family of Watcher Elves. I wait and watch.

Multiple Faces of Identity

A Review of Kate Story’s “Show and Tell” In Playground of Lost Toys (Exile Editions, 2015)by Derek Newman-Stille

School can be a horror story. It is a space where identity is controlled and regulated and where normalcy and conformity rein. Anyone who doesn’t belong is firmly aware that they are the school’s monster and those who enforce that normalcy treat those who don’t belong monstrously. In “Show and Tell”, Kate Story’s narrator was punished constantly as a child for daydreaming and was treated regularly as a social outsider. She was subjected to gendered expectations for women about “attractiveness”, having her facial features policed and told that certain facial features were unattractive and therefore inappropriate. 

When Story’s narrator has to return to her school as an adult before the building is demolished, she collides with her own identity and the multiplicity of options her life could have taken. She finds her old school cubby hole still intact with her old Saucy Doll shoved away at the back of the cubby. The doll has the capacity to shift through different expressions as her arm is pumped and as the narrator takes the doll through the different facial features, she sees a world of different possibilities, underlying the different masks that people wear at different times of their lives. The Saucy Doll underscores the idea of roads not taken, possibilities missed, and opportunities taken differently by the narrator – the different worlds that she could have inhabited if she had made different choices. 

Story’s use of the multi-faced Saucy doll underscores the social perception of childhood as a time of multiple potentials, a world open to possibilities and choices and the idea of adulthood as an experience of choices already taken and options limited. “Show and Tell” is a narrative about memory and the discovery of different aspects of selfhood. In the multiple faces of the doll, we can see the multiple masks that we, ourselves, wear throughout our lives, shifting expressions to express different aspects of ourselves. 

Story plays with the notion of the uncanny valley, the idea that as something approaches looking human it looks cute until it gets too close to human appearance and then it causes discomfort. In this case, the Saucy Doll embodies ideas of attractiveness and prescriptive femininity, attempting to shape the way that women are allowed to BE in this world. The Saucy Doll and its presence in the school embodies ideas of memory, trauma, and the passage of time. The narrator finds herself mimicking the expressions of her doll, shaped by her doll, illustrating the way that dolls shape the identities of young girls and the expectations about how they are able to present themselves in the world. Dolls are normally things that mirror us as we project on them, instead she is mirroring her doll and being projected upon by the doll. 

To find out more about the work of Kate Story, visit her website at http://www.katestory.com

To discover more about Playground of Lost Toys visit Exile’s website at http://www.theexilewriters.com