Transformative Art

A Review of OnSpec #91 Vol 24, No 4 (Winter 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of OnSpec (Art by Kenn Brown)

Cover photo courtesy of OnSpec (Art by Kenn Brown)

One of the key narrative threads running through Volume 24, number 4 of OnSpec is the transformative power of art and writing. This thread is most potent in Kevin Cockle’s Palimpsest, a short story about a man who learns how to transform the world and people around him through calligraphy, over-writing people’s personalities, histories, and selfhood with simple movements of pen and ink. The world becomes a transformative space, subject to authorial whims and transformative thoughts.

Gaie Sebold’s Sharali focuses on an artist who is resisting social pressures to devote his artistic energies toward capitalist means. In a society that is over-writing the natural world with the destructive industrialist enterprise, Charentin concentrates on painting natural scenes and scenes of natural beauty, capturing the numinous quality of the natural environment rather than scenes of industrial expansion and wealth. Through his artistic ability to overlay the natural, Charentin is capable of releasing himself and the prostitute Sharali from their lives of servitude and artificiality.

William B. Robinson’s poem Delta Theta Alpha Beta concentrates on the numinous quality of letters, the ability of letters to transcend the limits of simple meaning – the power of sigils to speak to more than their representative value but summon an eldritch quality that arises from beyond the mundane.

In Steven Popkes’ 10 Things I Know About Jesus, the transformation that occurs is on a mythical level, shifting the tales told from the past to illustrate how rumour leads to legend, leads to myth, and the mythical says very little about the original subject and speaks more to the ideologies of those creating the myth. Jesus in this story is far different from the character outlined in Christian belief. He plays poker with Satan and Lazarus, doesn’t attend a church, has little interest in performing miracles, and views the events leading up to his crucifixion as his last foray into the realm of politics. He resists the mythical structure that has been built around him.

David Gordon Buresh’s The Devil’s Eyes looks at the transformative power of consumption and hunger, the way that the act of eating can fundamentally shift something in the structure of human beings, pushing them into something Other, something mythical.

Leslie Claire Walker’s Ghost Ride explores the world of a driver for the dead, bringing the deceased to their new destinations (whether it be Heaven or Hell). Mack, the driver, seeks to change destiny, trying to find his wife (who committed suicide) a means of finding her way into Heaven, transforming the stigma and spiritual blight that was branded onto her soul by her act of suicide. The transformative quality of this story is huge, facilitated by the vehicle of travel (the car ride to the realms of the dead) and the transformative quality of death itself, moving between one state of being and another. The life (and afterlife) narrative of the passengers is in flux, determining what their next steps will be.

Kim Neville’s One Shoe Highway is a powerful transformative travel narrative. Like Ghost Ride, it is focused on the roadway as a place of transition and change. Women in this story disappear periodically from the road, leaving behind a symbol of their travel as well as of their previous lives – their shoes. These women have the option of giving up their previous lives (often marred by abuse) and separating themselves from the world that victimises them.  Bringing attention to the social issue of so many battered women disappearing, Kim Neville has her characters instantly be forgotten after they disappear (mirroring the social response to women who are victims of assault and abduction, which is often to forget about them and erase their memory). Instead of being abduction victims, however, the women in One Shoe Highway are given the option of changing their narrative future and instead of tolerating a future of spousal and societal abuse, they are allowed to move out of the world into a space primarily for battered women.

As a medium that brings the SF community short stories, SF artwork, interviews, and editorials in one volume, it was incredible to see OnSpec’s focus on the power of narrative and stories to shift and change and to alter the world around them. SF stories have the potential to bring social attention to issues in our world – they can shift our consciousness, help us see things that we ignore, and open our minds to new possibilities. Art and narrative really are transformative – they can change the world.

On a personal note, as a disability scholar, I was extremely excited to see the interview conducted with Kevin Cockle and his discussion of the influence of his own medical disability on his authorial work.

To find out more about OnSpec, you can visit their website at http://www.onspec.ca/ .

“Writers are used to building fantastic creatures. We call them stories. We construct them from the pieces of ourselves that make us who we are – all the accumulated detritus of a lifetime of experiences, good and bad, happy and sad, remembered and imagined.”

-Douglas Smith – “Author’s Introduction” to Chimerascope

Quote – Building Fantastic Creatures Called Stories

Textual Bodies

A Review of Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine, Forthcoming November 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo courtesy of the publisher.

Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side is a textual body in itself. Each of the short stories contained in the volume is named after a body part, and her work focusses on the body as a textual entity, as something that is written upon, written about, and that writes itself. She shows a fascination with defamiliarising the body, making the body (once something familiar and known) into a foreign territory full of questions, ambiguity, and terror. The reader is hyper aware of their body at the same time as they are driven to question its very nature.

Helen Marshall’s passions as a scholar of antiquated texts comes through in her stories, illustrating a passion for ideas of past and memory. Her characters are haunted by the past, objects and bodies from the past infiltrate the modern, texts from beyond the grave write themselves on the living, researchers are haunted by past atrocities. Marshall illustrates that the past is only buried by a thin layer, a skin of present-hood that contains a deep, living body of history. Memory is something that haunts the living, returning and reminding us of things that have been lost, buried, or broken. Objects, physical things, come to embody memory and hold feeling in Marshall’s work, and the body is an object that is inscribed with layers of experience. People are manuscripts of memory.

Hair Side, Flesh Side encompasses a wide variety of stories and is not bound by one genre, but rather the general “Weird” category that orbits around Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and all of the genres in between. Marshall illustrates her strengths in each of these genres.

The stories in this volume vary around the theme of the unfamiliar. A man is compelled into a perpetual flight due to his fear of home and settling, the ghosts of dead authors haunt living experiences, speaking to and acting through modern bodies, a woman exists only at the moments that others approach death, angelic narrators of death are forced to question the permanence of things and the lack of narrative in God’s plan, the social desire for perfection results in mass transformations into statues, the desire to consume runs rampant and becomes a vehicle for change, hearts torn out in mourning return to haunt the melancholy, ghosts seek oblivion in the urban rush, things forgotten fade, and skin is written upon, haunted textually by the past. Death, memory, forgotten things, and the past are always writing themselves on our experiences. Marshall illustrates for her readers that death is an ever-present part of life, haunting us in memory of place, relationships, bodies, and objects that surround us.

To read more about Helen Marshall’s work, visit her website at http://www.manuscriptgal.com/ . To explore Hair Side, Flesh Side, visit ChiZine at http://chizinepub.com/ . You can also check out the website for Hair Side, Flesh Side at http://hairsidefleshside.com/ to check out the book in detail.