This is my first issue reviewing The Sockdolager, and I'm definitely glad I've added it to my list. The goal of the publication is to provide stories that are fun to read. Not stories that are shallow, but stories that breathe life into the reader. That provoke a smile, or a grin, or a laugh. That are full of energy and style. And it delivers. The stories tend a bit more toward the fantasy (and especially contemporary fantasy), but there's some science fiction here as well, and some horror. There's enough variety that nothing gets old, that each story hits well, bows, and clears the stage for the next act. So let's get this show on the road, because it's review time!
|Art by Paul Starr and Alison Wilgus|
"Gull" by Mel Kassel (2300 words)
This is a story about transformations, about magical familiars. About animals and how people go looking for partners. The relationship between a magic user and their familiar is an interesting one, with the animal gaining intelligence, a sort of humanity, and yet under the power of the magician. Davra is a woman looking to prove herself, newly risen to be her own mage and ready to change her first animals into a familiar. When a dog doesn't work out, though, she sets her eyes on something else. And I love Davra's character, the brashness of it, the overstepping. The story is broken into two lines, one where Davra is talking to her former teacher and one where Davra is creating her second familiar. And the story does a nice job of building up Davra between the two lines, revealing a woman willing to push boundaries but wary of being seen as a failure. I love that the story is about failures, about trial and error, about having to make your own decisions and learn from them. For many, that's the only way to learn, and part of the learning for Davra is that the power she has doesn't give her unlimited power. Even over the animals that she can change. It doesn't make her a villain, but it does mean that she has a lot to learn yet, about seeing familiars as, well, as people and not animals. About respecting sentience. It's a fun story with a sharp edge to it, and it's a nice way to open up the issue!
"Passage" by Michael Milne (4300 words)
This story is about alternate dimensions and alternate possibilities and, in the end, to me, about home and certainty. In the story Rowan is a traveler of universes. Alternate universes, seeking a cure to a deadly disease sweeping through her world. By plunging into parallel places, parallel heres, she hopes to find a place that has already won, that has already solved the problem. The problem is when she gets home, when she thinks she gets home…she can't really be sure. And I love that aspect of the story, that in some ways Rowan is always coming home, because the universes are often very similar to her own. There are only small shifts. So even with all the precautions, sometimes she doesn't know where she is. Which means that all the time she doesn't know where she is. I love how the story complicates uniqueness, how it throws doubt onto home. How, once she leaves her home dimension, she can never be sure of ever getting back. Because new dimensions are created in between when she leaves and gets back, and that's…well, it's complex and it makes for this tension that never leaves, the feeling that the rug's going to be pulled out from under her at any moment. And the tension of that is where the story lives, where it works. It's a romantic story, too, fun and with a nice momentum. Another good story!
"Sugar and Spice" by Jennifer R. Donohue (1560 words)
This is another story about magic, and about being neighborly. It features Helena, a woman with enough sense and experience to know when someone's trying to take advantage of her. Like when Mr. Sharp, her neighbor, arrives claiming to be locked out of his house and in need of some assistance with an…experiment. What follows is a delightful exchange as the two people take each other's measure and, well, one of them is completely wrong about the other. And one of them is completely right. And it's great in part because it twists expectations, because the appearance of normalcy here is the illusion. Mr. Sharp at first seems to be the eccentric, the more powerful, but…[SPOILERS] I love that the story is about his surprise, his shock to find that his tricks don't work, that he'll actually have to conceded, that he's not going to get his way. That he's made a mistake and will have to pay for it. And I love the voice of Helena, wry and patient and canny. I like the idea of this setting, magic in the heart of this sleepy town, a situation that worked very well for Mr. Sharp and now, well…I imagine he's going to be become blunted pretty quick by Helena's no-nonsense approach. It seems like the beginning of something fun, and it's a delightful read!
"River of Styx Leads to Athens: The Nearly Complete U.L.O. Story" by Nathaniel Williams (2680 words)
Okay so a zombie tribute band is rather great. The idea, the image, the everything about it. Which is what this story features, a group of bandmates who die in a traffic accident and then…come back. And keep the band together, though they make it a tribute band to R.E.M. Which, okay. And there's a lot going on with this story, actually, aside from the kind of fun feel of it, the way that these zombies finally get their slice. At its core I read it as commentary about music, about commercial music, about tribute of any sort. About taking something that might be art, albeit commercial art, and making into something that's even more commercial. [SPOILERS] There's a moment in the story where the band has a viral (heh) success thanks to combining two songs. It goes big online and the story says that their biggest fame came not from their zombie-ness. Which is great, because it works into the story, that what I see as the stories biggest point isn't about the characters being zombies. It's about music and love of music and hearing songs for the first time. It's about tribute and loving something and then about having to make money doing it. It's about success and the exhaustion, the time and the stress and the everything. It's an interesting, complex story, that you should certainly check out.
"Demon Clown Diary" by Shaenon Garrity (3370 words)
It might seem a little odd to say that a story about demon clowns speaks to me of age and aging and performance and art, but here I am, saying just that. The story centers on an old demon clown. Past their prime, though still with a lot of material they've never used. But there's a sense that, in some ways, they feel out of place in the world. Like it's passing them by. And that's sort of the grim humor of the piece, that it takes these trappings of horror and death and violence and terror and makes them into something about having a midlife crisis, not being sure why you're doing what you're doing aside from the resolution not to stop. Like you’re working so hard because it's all you know. And for the narrator it's all they know. It's all they know but the world is changing and they don't know if they have a place anymore. They're being hunted by a younger demon clown, one that won't give up until it proves its dominance. And so the story is also about the struggle between the old and the new, the classic and the edgy. It looks at comedy and it looks like art and it asks if there's no value in the old, in the classic. And it sort of answers that question, answers it by showing that there's a reason some things are classics. And that forgetting your roots means losing a connection to something meaningful and impacting. And the story pulls it off quite well, proving that clowns are still scary and funny and well worth reading about. Indeed!
"The Spark Will Travel" by Alter S. Reiss (3440 words)
I like the connections this story has to a clock or a radio. The way that it's wired, the way that it's connected and constructed, everything just so, just in its place, to get the desired result. To hear a voice from the air. To experience the satisfaction of that last scene. The tale focuses on Keilan, a young girl, and Beorlo, an older man, foreign to the country the story takes place in, there to complete one last task. The story sets itself up very well, slowly building things up, making connections, getting everything into the right place. Each piece in the story is vital to a plan, a plan that Beorlo seems to have all along, and everyone plays their part. Keilan is there to be a witness, to learn, to close the book on the story, which is really Beorlo's. It's his experience, his cunning, his bravery and sacrifice that carry the day. But it's Keilan's story to witness, and she does a good job of that, bringing with her a sort of wary pride and will to survive. Growing up very poor, she believes in paying debts, and her final lines do just that, pay Beorlo back for his kindness but also for using her, because he must have known from the start how it was all going to go. They both were just fixes to a broken machine, stripped wires twisted together to make a connection. And for that the story works quite well, is entertaining and, while bleak and gritty, shows a hope, an escape at least from a worse situation, a worse fate. Another fine read!
"The Journey and the Jewel" by Rebecca Campbell (4770 words)
This story sobers things up a bit for the issue, with themes of loss and guilt and inner turmoil. Ani is a girl when her parents die in an accident, leaving her orphaned and with a world of conflict. They created books that had puzzles, that directed people to treasures, and their last one still haunts Ani, who has grown up a bit directionless, defined in many ways by that last book, where she was the model for the main character. All her grief and loss and guilt and insecurities are wrapped up in it, in the house it was made in, and when the time comes to have to sell the house, things…well, things get weird. And I love the story for how it blends the realistic with the surreal, for the way it operates on dream logic, or a sort of dream logic, where everything is metaphor and misdirection. The house and the force that haunts it, that demands to know where the treasure is buried, to me reads like Ani's unconfronted feelings. The ghosts of her parents. The ghosts of her guilt and shame. The ghost of this story that has never really left her. It's chilling and lyrical, the prose moving, the character work emotional and hitting. There are layers going on, connections between the story of the puzzle book (which I want so bad, fyi) and Ani's real life. And the ending is soft, poignant, and makes for a nice coda for the issue as a whole. A great end to a great issue!