REVIEWS


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

It takes nerve, attempting a clever riff on a classic story, and genuine wit to pull it off. I thought Simon Barker’s The Non-Opening Window (7/16/12) captured the mood and voice of Saki’s (H. H. Munro’s) original perfectly and seamlessly updated it.

Saki’s characters live to take the mickey out of the credulous, unwary, or overbearing. That plot device can go off the rails pretty quickly if not steered with exceptional skill.

The frothy meringue of Saki’s humor didn’t disguise his contempt for an often vapid and hypocritical society. We laugh, but we get the point too.

Barker’s story has gentler barbs. His hapless victim is on a first date arranged via the internet, not an already fragile young man recovering from nervous prostration, but the storyline is faithful to its source.

With this sort of humor, either you like it or you don’t. Commenters familiar with The Open Window mostly enjoyed what Barker did here. Nine out of seventeen loved it. Those who didn’t know Saki’s story were mostly left cold. A couple of readers seemed offended that Barker borrowed his plotline, though he gave his source right up front.

The story certainly provoked significant response—33 readers took the time to vote. But it ended up with only 3.2 stars.

Take a look at The Non-Opening Window. I hope you’ll find it as tasty a confection as I did.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

My kind of horror story: a quiet progression towards doom. Nothing’s harder to write. One false note in the voice and the mood vanishes; built-up tension can’t be reclaimed. I haven’t seen it done better than in Lydia S Gray’s In Return (1/8/12).

Gray states the impossible right at the beginning of her story, which takes confidence and nerve. She doesn’t answer any of our questions but we can’t stop following, wondering and dreading right alongside the narrator.

I love when the writer respects the reader’s intelligence, knows that life doesn’t tie itself up in neat resolutions.

The story earned a respectable 3.7 stars after 57 votes; twenty readers commented, most of them finding In Return creepy and effective. A few found it flat, and some wanted more details. I think it’s considerably underrated.

The inexplicable is at the heart of horror fiction. Yet readers sometimes accept rampaging zombies and the inconveniences caused by monthly full moons without a quibble, but insist on being told the “why” of less gory but more atmospheric stories.

Remembering it this long after my first read, and revisiting it, my pleasure in Gray’s story hasn’t diminished. I think In Return is worthy of a place in any anthology of great ghost and horror tales–alongside masterworks by M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood.

Take a look for yourself–see if you agree.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI’ve always thought the best horror stories camouflage themselves with deceptive ordinariness, luring you in until it’s too late to escape the bad place you’re heading towards. The quiet anguish of Rebecca Schwarz’s The Horses (6/2/13) left my heart pounding.

Schwarz takes a subject that usually gets the full-screen spectacular treatment, so to speak, and with simple details of a workman’s duties gives us a vista of infinite loss.

Seven people commented, out of a total of 21 who chose to vote; five of them were strongly positive though only I specified my rating (five stars). The story ended up at an overall 3.8 rating.

The danger in making one’s points obliquely is that many readers won’t be enticed by the clues you drop for them. I didn’t feel that Ms. Schwarz was making us work too hard.

But the story does ask us to think. I don’t believe “flash” is synonymous with “quick read.” I tend to linger over phrases and paragraphs, to stick with it until I’ve gotten all the marrow from a piece that’s shown me it’s worth savoring.

To give further details here is to give away the game. Take a look at The Horses and see why I found it unforgettable.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI loved Wilma Bernard’s Vegetarian (11/4/12).

This little gem takes readers on a creepy road trip from youthful awkwardness to utter insanity, and I didn’t feel any bumps along the way.

One of fiction’s grand purposes is letting us indulge in the seriously anti-social without tears. It’s always cheering to see the bad guys flattened by karma.

Sometimes the bad guy is just heedlessly crass rather than an archetype of villainy. That plotline demands even more skill from the writer, since readers are likely to feel uncomfortable about overkill.

Despite that, Vegetarian earned a very respectable 3.8 stars after 24 votes. Most of the ten commenters enjoyed it.

I was reminded of the voice in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Plath is not a writer I admire—I found her poetry, and her manner of death, self-indulgent to the extreme. But the first-person narrator of The Bell Jar has a nice sense of gallows humor as she describes her own descent into the tar pit of mental illness.

Bernard’s narrator isn’t quite as clear-eyed about herself, and doesn’t need to be. She’s painting a different sort of portrait.

Take a look at Vegetarian. Perhaps you’ll consider it the perfect little bite too.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

by Rumjhum Biswas

Robert Vaughan

They say one should never judge a book by its cover. However in Robert Vaughan’s chapbook of prose,  Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits, it’s the cover that speaks for the book, announces what it’s going to be for the reader, eloquently. The cover design by Joseph A W Quintella, is a slick black and white collage of faces and captions, which one is tempted to blow up and display as a work of art. When you are done reading, you realise that you had been given a window view of what’s to come even before you’d read a line. Speaking of which, one (line) from the cover itself, seems to haunt, float through the twenty eight pieces in the book: “he’s a ghost. There’s nothing he can do for us.” There is a finality to it from one angle, the nothingness beyond death; but flip it over and a vision of a crowd appears, pushing its way forward, as if disregarding the keeper of a crypt. This to me is the crux of Vaughan’s whole text. The Janus-headedness. The simultaneous presence of dual possibilities. The presence of conflicting truths.

In the first, “10,000 Dollar Pyramid”, the story is trisected according to each word of the title, creating word panels that in turn present moving pictures from Cleo’s life, and yet leaves many things unsaid. The end result is a character etching that is as sharp as flint. The second piece is “Hexagon of Life” is a love triangle told in a way love stories are never told. To quote a line from the story “But some of love was hideous, like Roy’s slouched decline.”And another “ A paradigm of domination.” “Two Smiles,” the third story is a good example of Vaughan’s “Janus-head style,” where the smoke billows out along with the thoughts of a woman, indicating her addiction to more than one thing.

“ABC” is also portioned into three parts, and appears to be the disjointed musings of a man through various activities in a day, when he’s flossing his teeth or looking out of a window. His thoughts flit from Marie Antoinette to his own life, and the course of his thoughts reveals his nature, the person beneath. “Black & White/Colour” traces a surreal, an almost Escher like landscape to paint the tragic life story of its protagonist. And, like many of the flash fiction written these days, the lines are blurred between poetry and prose. “Reckless/Abandon” explores a man and a woman connected by their individual abilities to hurt and be hurt, with the man bungee jumping from sharp objects, and the woman skimming like an amoeba across quicksand.

“An Occupy Trifecta” is a poem. It’s a poem so intense that it almost crosses over into a state of consciousness. Not culminating in, but taking the reader forward with Take my hand before the wind blows you from the rampart. And in the very next piece, “A Time of Revolution,” love is the only way forward.

In “Part of Life: Two Ways” the story splays out in the form of conversations or little monologues, except that one gets the impression of being part of the group listening in, watching the horror unfold. “3 Cs” did nothing for me, though there are some sharp sentences in it. And “Spring is like a Perhaps hand: Two Ways” is a poem, which once read pans out, leaving some unnerving images inside one’s head. “Three for Carol” opens with a line from a Joni Mitchell song – Both Sides Now, and moves on at a lyrical pace creating a love song in its turn with fragmented images that come together like the blurred edges of a water colour… “this is how you left me, as night crashes down and the never heard song begins to play…”

“The Three Stooges” is a story in three panels about three characters – the stooges – Larry, Moe and Curly. Losers, all of them, with a spark of humour. In “Seven Shades of James,” Vaughan weaves unrequited love in seven tight paragraphs or stanzas. “Going to Reseda on the 405” is a story in four sentences chronicling the lives of five desperate people. “Ten Notes to the Guy Studying Jujitsu” is an unsentimental narrative about a failed relationship. “Modern Day Symphony” is a wry look at current society, with a Charlie-Chaplinesque cadence to the narrative flow. However, there is no happy or hopeful ending; it’s a bleak landscape.

The 16th story “Mother/ Father/Clown” explores relationships in a disjointed family, or is it just the mother with vengeance on her mind and callous about the impact on her child? In the next story, “Neighbours,” horror lurks in genteel neighbourhoods. It’s not canine fangs that one should be afraid of here, but gentle, guinea pig-stroking hands. In “Common Password Profile Users: God, Love, Lust, Money and Private” there are five password users, all of them with fractured lives and none entirely innocent.

“Plains, Trains and Automobiles” is as much about a woman’s sexual liaisons as it is about her engagement with cramped spaces. “The Thief” is a lyrical dreamscape where Vaughan seems to explore whole universes in molecules. And stanza three in this piece is a prose poem that needs to be read over and over. In “Betrayal” the narrator’s self-disgust spills out like a “pool hissing with piss.” If words could eviscerate, commit hara-kiri or clobber like a club, there would be perhaps less need for poetry.

“Elements of K” is a moving story of an unusual woman as narrated by her child. A woman who “could be kinder to strangers than loved ones.” A woman who represents more than fire, earth, air and water.

In the 24th story “Lawyers, Guns and Money” images like ‘they followed it like a piece of trash floating on a slender breeze” linger long after this morsel of a story is read. The 26th story, “Moving to Los Angeles A Screen Play in Three Acts,” is not one of the better pieces in the whole collection, despite its thriller movie pace. “Three Episodes: Myopic, Chains, Mission” is another evocative piece of prose that doesn’t quite carry it through to the end or provide a more lasting impression. “Gauze, A Medical Dressing, A Scrim” is the 28th and last is a metaphysical story of emotional abandonment; it resonates with the peal of church bells, except that it’s dark, dark, dark.

In many of the pieces in this collage like book of prose and poetic pieces, Vaughan’s mastery over words constructs sentences that continue to shine even after they’ve been plucked out of their narratives and set aside. This is where Vaughan scores, in spite of the unevenness of the whole book, and some pieces that leave an unsatisfied feeling after reading them. But then again, perhaps he meant it to be that way.

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