Category Archives: Reviews (Chapbooks)

Jack o’ the Hills

Jack o’ the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney is one of the inaugural publications of Papaveria Press’s new Wonder Tales imprint, a slim and lovely volume of the fantastic sure to characterize future installments in the Wonder Tales library. At 69 pages, rather than being one continuous novella, Jack o’ the Hills is a pair of short stories unfolding the misadventures and mischievousness of one Jack Yap, his stone-shod brother, Jack’s skinchanger love, and the local grave-minded monarchy.

“Stone Shoes” first appeared in Subterranean Press Magazine, but is more than worth revisiting here. It is a delectably odious tale of unchecked impulses as it follows the abused and debased lives of Jack Yap and his seemingly simple brother Pudding. Their mother is a terror, having once sewn Jack’s mouth shut for three days (and oh, he has the scars to show) and insisting her towering simpleton of a son Pudding always wear painful granite shoes so he can’t wander too far. Their good old Marm’s too busy satisfying her own impulses to watch over her boys every second of every day, and so they terrorize the local countryside and come to find a skinchanger’s egg to further horrifying results.

“Oubliette’s Egg” is original to this publication and is more than worth the cost of admission if you’re hung up on the fact that you can read “Stone Shoes” for free. This second story picks up three years after “Stone Shoes” left off, introducing us to Princess Oubliette and Prince Garotte, twins and two of the most wicked and disturbing monarchs-in-waiting you’ve likely met recently. We also reunite with Jack Yap, Pudding, and Jack Yap’s own Tam, his bright and vicious skinchanger beloved. There are literal hanging gardens here, and murders most fell, nettle shirts and perverted swan-maidens, and more besides.

These are stories that made me shudder with horror and revulsion, but also had me clinging to the pages with delighted wonder and avid hunger. Cooney is a master with the cadence and rhythm of prose, weaving sentences and paragraphs that bespell and entrap. Her characters, while homicidal maniacs and terrifying sociopaths, are captured with breathtaking precision and captivating monstrousness shot through with just the right hints of humanity. They’re people you love to hate, but also find yourself hating to love– and doing it anyway. These stories are dancing with the best kinds of monsters.

Cooney also proves herself a deft hand at retelling fairy tales, or rather understanding their essence and tapping it to suit her purposes. Her stories are infused with the stark terror of maiming and mayhem implicit in so many fairy tales, right alongside the narrative nudges toward insight and maturation. “Oubliette’s Egg,” particularly, offers illumination with its subtextual commentary on skins: skins that bind, skins that change, skins that sicken us, skins that free us. There are only two overt skinchangers in the story, but the reader can’t shake the feeling that we are all of us skinchangers in our lives. Or that we want to be, and, oh, how we tangle and tame those around us by the metaphorical skins we choose.

After finishing¬†Jack o’ the Hills, I found myself quite unable to put Jack Yap and Pudding and Tam and Princess Oubliette out of my mind. My dreams last night were actually Tam-colored, and that’s a captivating goldblack thing; today, I find myself impatiently wondering when we can expect the Empire of Leech to fall. These are tales written by a magnificent madwoman, full of rhyme and mischief, and all I want to do is ask her how much more blood she needs for her inkwell. Read Jack o’ the Hills, and you might just find yourself right alongside me.

If you’d like to find out more about Jack o’ the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney, check out “You don’t know Jack!” on the Papaveria Press blog. The post includes links to purchase information, news about the audiobook, and insight from the author on the origins of Jack Yap.

The Homeless Moon

The Homeless Moon, The Homeless Moon (2008)

(Featuring writing by Michael J. DeLuca, Jason S. Ridler, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, and Jusin Howe.)

The Homeless Moon the chapbook is described by its contributors thusly: “Five Odyssey grads join together like a piecemeal mutant Voltron to bring you a cache of eclectic genre fiction.” I couldn’t imagine a more perfect or descriptive blurb for the collection. There’s no clear and unified theme among these works– just an assemblage of sample fiction from a group of talented writers. Tangentially, it helps to invoke Voltron in your cover copy: it provokes a grin and nostalgia! (At least in me it does. My generation is potentially showing.)

“Construction-Paper Moon” by Michael J. DeLuca.

I have not yet met a Michael J. DeLuca story I didn’t like, which is an impressive feat considering how wildly different each story I’ve read has been. The first I encountered in Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writings: an intoxicating bit of magical realism of a ruined town fecund with God. The second was in Clockwork Phoenix: a searing piece of purification by angel and bicycle in the crucible of the desert. And this, the third, about a child in our moonless future trying to get into astronaut academy and breaking her father’s heart. DeLuca’s writing is about moments, about emotion; he casts out this net of words and gathers them — grief, impatience, love. He lays them at our feet, and they lap at the cuffs of our pants in a soft susurrus of “look, listen, feel.” I do. And I will continue to do so, as long as there are DeLuca stories to read.

“Impracticable Dreams” by Jason S. Ridler.

This story had quite an effective horrifying atmosphere: the horror of what one can become in pursuit of success and of the things one must do to get there. Specifically, this is a tale of a stand-up comedian and all the gross indignities he must submit himself to in order to find material that works and to carry it off. There’s a sinister magic hat involved and — I know what you’re thinking. Before you say “wait! wrong story!” just check your expectations and prepare to have them subverted.

For all that, I just couldn’t get into this story. The author is fond of choppy sentences and awkward imagery along the lines of “He lit a smoke and held it between his giant, yellow chompers.” and “Above him, a single bulb shot a cone of lemon light like a UFO tractor beam unable to carry his old fat ass up for a solid probing.” Definitely jarring.

“Colonized” by Scott H. Andrews.

“Colonized” is a thought-provoking piece of prose, deserving of the appellation “interstitial.” There’s a story in the text, but the entire piece is a news broadcast — the dialogue only — covering a shooting at a local college and the interviews with witnesses and experts that would naturally result. The conceit, however, is that the western coast of North America where this shooting takes place was primarily colonized by the Chinese rather than Europeans and the shooter belongs to a working class minority group — the British. The inversion is too straightforward and the story too subjugated to news reporting for it to be meritorious as a narrative in itself, but it certainly has the power to provoke discussion.

“The Recurrence of Orpheus” by Erin Hoffman.

Wow. It did not take me long to figure out the conceit of this story– yes, it is about a descent into the Underworld, and yes, it mixes a bit of Sumerian with its Greco-Roman which is completely fine, but it’s so much more complicated than that. To tell you how would be to ruin the surprise, and this is definitely a tweak that you want to let tickle your mind. It’s about stealing the moon and creating worlds and formalizing language to create reality. It’s about the fate of gods and those who would be gods. It’s something that I never thought would work while I was deep in its dark caverns, but when I emerged– well, it’s haunted me, a ghostly light slipping through my dreams. Well played, Erin Hoffman.

“Welcome to Foreign Lands” by Justin Howe.

This surprisingly enthralling, hot and dirty tale is about Protocosmo: a country at the center of the Earth, where the Earth’s molten core is their sun. It’s a story about getting lost to find one’s way home, which wasn’t quite where one thought they left it. It’s full of compelling details, about the ecology of the earth’s core, the society, the illnesses peculiar to that place (with such names as Conquistador, the Wilting Shivers, or Dewy Ague). A compact, remarkable bit of science fiction, this story has guaranteed that I’ll seek out more of Justin Howe’s work in the future.

You can actually read all of these stories for free by visiting Homeless Moon’s website, or you can send them a $1 to cover the shipping on a physical copy. Either way you do it, I recommend checking The Homeless Moon out.

This review was originally published at my blog on May 8th, 2009. To view the original postings or to discuss it, please visit this entry.

Wicked Fairy Apologist

Maria Nutick, Wicked Fairy Apologist (Spiderwise Press, 2005)

So, the other day, on the way to work, I found a promising padded yellow envelope waiting for me on the mail table as I walked out the door. I grabbed it up on my way out, and opened it as soon as I got a moment to at work. Inside, of course, was Mia’s chapbook, Wicked Fairy Apologist. I’ve been stealing moments with it ever since.

I enjoyed this debut without question: it’s well evident that Mia is a talented poet and has been practicing her craft for years. I like to call this a debut because it lacks a main theme beyond that of Mia, herself and her mind. It’s a sampling of poems I dare say she’s written over many years and has finally found the courage to put them where they need to be: into the hands of others.

Poetry is a highly subjective thing, so I won’t try to sell you on this collection. No, I’ll just speak of the things that spoke to me and moved me and maybe you’ll find something worthy in my thoughts to send you wandering off to take a look at this more than worthy chapbook. (If you do go, tell Mia I said hi, by the way.)

This collection opens up with a “Synaesthetic Love Song,” a poem featuring a combination of senses and phrases that just left me tingling. It inspires in me a city scene, dark nights, and the confusing flash of neon and stars, sandalwood incense trailing down a dark apartment corridor, limbs tangling in the sheets where a lover has lately lingered and is now altogether too long gone. A sense of drunkenness and desire, a delirium that lets the non-synaesthete have a brief glimpse of the synaesthetic world.

“Lightning People”, a poem written for Raven, conjures up many Southern memories for me: memories of home. She captures the lightning flash, the darkpurple thunderheads, the fireflies and mason jars and leaves me spinning in an emotional web of nostalgia and empathy, longing and understanding.

“Compass Love” is just a beautiful prayer of passion, while “In the Night Desert” echoes in my sun-bleached bones. How can I, who writes so often of my own soul-journeys, not respond to this one, a fireside connection and conversation with trickster which leaves one with such a cynical yet empathetic view of one’s place in the world?

“El Dia de los Muertos” paints in perfect metaphor the ever-changing topography of one’s inner life and relationships, all relevant to sugared candy skulls and rattling bones. “Vocabulary Lesson” evokes the limitations of language in a beautiful way, a song of longing for a language that does not exist and so explaining how and why the beloved cannot be depicted in such a limited language as ours. “Wormwood” is a haunting meditation on the attractive power of destruction oozing like absinthe through the veins of some people we can’t help but fall in love with.

And, of course, we have the scattering of poems that help give this collection its name: “Inheritance,” “Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards,” and “Beholden”… all either intimating the intentions behind certain fairies’ wicked deeds or painting quite a different picture of the motive behind fairy tale actions. “Inheritance” readdresses the wrongs done the Wicked Witch of the West, while “Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards” gives a new depth to the blood-red of the Queen of Heart’s heart. “Beholden” gives us more insight to how it feels to be rescued and what the rescuer may expect in return.

In closing, I’d like to say that I love the way in which Mia has chosen to present her first (of hopefully a long line of) offering: each book is decorated by hand, crafted into a heartfelt piece of art. I am particularly enamored of the silver ink she chose for the decorations (stamped pictures which grace nearly every page). It was truly inspired to have the title winking out at me, matte one way and brilliant with a tilt, with silver leaf crawling all over the edges of the cover and limning each page. And, while the glitter may be a poor choice for posterity, it’s definitely a welcome component in the present: these past few days, during my working hours, I’ve found a bit of glitter stuck to my skin, reminding me of the beautiful book and poetry I’ve been stealing time with. I’ve never known glitter to have such a heart-lifting effect on me before.

Wicked Fairy Apologist: you should look into it. After all, I’ve barely addressed one half of all the different gems this book has to offer, barely addressed how some poems echo in abandoned sensuality while others sting with the force of her caustic wit. And, for now, that’s all I have to say about that.

P.S. “The Raccoon as Harbinger of Death” wins a prize for being twistedly funny, yet appropriately cynical and entirely apt.

This review was originally published on my blog on July 31st, 2005, and later migrated to my website.