|Art by Denis Corvus|
"Damnatio Ad Beastias" by Kristi DeMeester (7000 words)
This is a story of transformations and sins and monstrosity. Of hungers and curses. I like how the story really never says explicitly that this is a werewolf story, but I can't imagine that it's not. The main character, Madeline, is a woman who has been attacked. Who has been infected. Who takes pills from a rather shady connection in order to try and keep her transformation at bay. It's an interesting take on the idea of werewolves, that they're known about and pose a real danger. There's a lot of really loaded imagery and wording surrounding the condition, where Madeline is the victim but also blamed for it, blamed for being attacked while out running. Blamed and then unable to escape the violence that follows. Where she doesn't want to face what happened or what it means. There's also a layer of sin-eating involved, where as a werewolf Madeline is compelled to open up people who have done violence. Who have murdered. That in some ways her hunger is not exactly for death but for a sort of justice. That her lust seems to be in some ways a projection of her inner rage at what has happened to her and directed at those people who would make a victim of her, who wish to use violence against others. And in that it's a deep and wrenching story about how this condition has effected her, robbed her of the life she had. And I think it's fitting then that the biggest threat to her isn't being killed by others. Isn't being hunted. [SPOILERS] The biggest threat is the urge to self-annihilate, to remove herself from the pain of life and knowledge. That she keeps going is both, to me, a triumph and a defeat, because she is obviously a victim of this, doesn't deserve the horror she is subjected to, and yet at the same time can't really escape the violence, the harm. Because the world is how it is, because people don't care to work at a way to make things better. There's a lot in here that can be read as about mental illness, about the failures of society to treat those who suffer with respect and dignity. The defeat is that people could do something but would prefer to just throw drugs at it in hopes that those effected will just kill themselves. It's a difficult but powerful story and definitely appropriate for the month.
"Pagpag" by Samuel Marzioli (5200 words)
This is an incredibly dark tale about violence and about family. About loss and about wanting to do something to see someone again. To be with someone again. The story unfolds in Manila, where the mythic aswang have ravaged all those too poor to flee. Hungry, dead, these creatures appear as dead loved ones in order to infiltrate families in order to feed on them. Only…only the line between the monster and the dead are blurred here, and the story focuses on Jay, a man who spends most of his time looking for meals out of the trash, which seems to tie into the title of the story. And, beyond that, to its core. Because there's the feeling for me that the story is looking at how people have to live and what that does to them. That in some ways these people are looked at as refuse, as discarded, and their return is a way of something picking them up, dusting them off, and reusing them to feed. It's a situation that is allowed by the conditions of the people, by the sense that they can't really escape from their place. That they are stuck, families depending on each other and that relationship here being exploited in a horrific and brutal way. And Jay, who recently lost his wife, is torn between his hatred and his hope of seeing her again. Of being with her again. I like how the aswang are handled here, how they seem to be almost-perfect mimics. How the love seems to have been copied as well but like the food that Jay finds there's something off about it. The descriptions of rot are especially well done and fitting for the story, where the relationships and love have rotted into something dangerous and unhealthy. It's a wrenching story with a heavy darkness but it's also a great read!
"American Dreams" by Allie Nelson
This poem looks at the ways that forces mix in America, in the landscape of religions and folktales, in the hearts of the people striving to live up to the dreams of what America means, even when for some what America means has nothing to do with the country of America. The poem mixes folktales and mythology from many different and often quasi-opposing religions and myths. From Chinese to Norse to Native American stories. That these all are presented side by side in some ways introduces a tension to the piece, this…clash almost of invasive, colonial beliefs and persistent indigenous ones. It fits, though, as this is the foundational conflict on which the nation has been built. With older beliefs crushed, with many immigrant beliefs crushed, so that the gods and folkloric figures from those not dominant are pushed out into the places where they can be ignored by those who are more dominant. What results, like the poem, is a tapestry that doesn't exactly flow seamlessly. A melting pot that never really melts. A cauldron that bubbles and burps and promises conflict but also, maybe, hope. It's a poem that captures a lot of the feeling of reaching out, of wanting to be free. Of wanting to make good on the promise of America, that was supposed to be more than it is. That, maybe, might be. Never untethered from the violence and wrongs of its history but able perhaps to dream of something better and more just. It's an interesting poem and a fine read!
"Winged Beings of the Necropolis" by Gary Every
This poem leaves the myriad gods and beliefs of the last story and chooses instead to focus on one set of stories. On Egyptian religion and dogma and the practice of making animals into mummies. The idea that everything has a soul and so humans have chosen to make sacrifices out of birds and cats, have decided to fill an entire city with animals only to take them, only to make mummies out of them. The poem flits about a bit like the birds it depicts, moving from the stench of death to evocations of Santa Claus to the magic of seeing a sky full of souls. I like how the poem approaches the idea of the birds, of the necropolis, of the desperation that people might have felt to lead them to such a scale of mummification. And I like how the poem bridges past to present, first speaking to a history of practice and then tying it to the narrator's own experiences in the long shadows of those events. Caught in a moment when the past is rendered is a stunning clarity and scope. It's a poem about visiting something and being moved, about feeling linked to something huge and vague but still there, revealed in what is unearthed and pieced together from what's been studied. And lived in that moment of birds which must be like it existed back then, full of magic and wonder and darkness and light. An interesting poem!
"Starfields" by Andrew Gilstrap
This poem speaks to me of the names that we put on the unknown and unknowable to comfort ourselves. To find something familiar in that which is not, in that which is so vast and so uncaring that it threatens a part of us that balks at the infinite. That in order to go out onto the sea, or into the sky, or into space, we must first conquer it linguistically. We must first put it in terms that we know, in terms that aren't so terrifying as shooting ourselves into an endless dark. And I love that it can't help but fall victim to its own idea, because poetry in many ways is the attempt to put to words that which cannot really be expressed. It hints at things and talks around things and eludes to things and builds metaphors. Which is all an act of trying to make familiar something foreign. Which is all an act of trying to convey something to someone else, this act of translating experience into words. It's a great use of a rather meta idea to show something as huge as space travel, to imagine this frontier that we can't fully imagine. And it builds up a nice world, a world where people had to escape into space because there was no other chance at survival, that now there is this distance between the narrator and their love and it's yearning and its strong and I just love how it's accomplished here. The poem flows with a great style and voice, looking at the fixed stars in a sea of uncertainty and distance. A great poem and a terrific way to close out the issue.