September Staff Picks: Intern Picks!

Eliza Browning

As autumn approaches, I’ve been enjoying listening to Lili Anolik’s podcast Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College. The podcast focuses on the intersecting lives of three literary Brat Pack writers, Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, and Jonathan Lethem, at their remote liberal arts college in the 1980s. A fictionalized version of Bennington appears prominently throughout their later works, making a closer examination of their college years critical to tracing their literary trajectories. Anolik’s extensive research and engaging voice, along with interviews with the major writers and their friends, classmates and professors, makes this a fascinating listen. The isolated setting, literary intrigue and unsolved mysteries of their shattered friendships also make this the perfect podcast for spooky season.

Sam Burt

Granted, I’m seven years late to the party but I have to say that the first season of Master of None gave me more feels than any other cultural product I’ve consumed of late. Despite my initial doubts—Ansari’s public fall from grace? A show about funny people with nice clothes and attractive New York apartments? Netflix comedy?—I loved the loose feel of the opener and was won over by the second episode, which manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and strike a poignant note on communication difficulties within families between first- and second-generation immigrants. The characters are so well-written and acted that they make great company, but Noël Wells’ Rachel stood out for me as the love interest who manages to steal scenes even from Ansari’s Dev—their on-screen chemistry and the slow-burn unfolding of their romance felt fresh and authentic. Many have praised the show’s formal experimentation and willingness to take risks, such as the second episode’s extensive use of flashbacks and digressions to give us the backgrounds of fairly minor characters. The makers have a firm grasp of how the Netflix platform allows for narrative innovation. It’s by no means perfect—the second season drifted for me, and I think it’s fair to question the squeaky-cleanness of Dev’s character (not because of the actor’s off-screen behaviour but just because it makes him less rounded). Nevertheless I found the first season a much-needed daily caffeine boost (with extra dopamine).

Azalea Acevedo

Ever late to the hype, I’ve recently started and finished The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It follows a young, Jewish woman, Midge, in 1950s New York who accidentally begins doing stand-up comedy after her husband leaves her for his secretary (he was not the most original man!). From seedy bar to seedy bar, her astute and sometimes crass observations of family life and social convention earn her either applause or arrest. Every episode drew me in, as even Midge’s life outside of her stand-up routine is full of comedic material. She has nosy in-laws, parents who are both nosy and astoundingly clueless, wild children and a curmudgeonly manager. The show is a brilliantly funny and irreverent look into what life in the 1950s was like for women who bucked social convention and carved their own futures.

John Legarte

While I haven’t read many works under the genre of horror recently, I do believe that one aspect of life that is often scary as it is sudden to face and process when it arrives is grief. In my current binge of reading and exploring different poetry books, Anis Mojgani’s In the Pockets of Small Gods truly stands out for the way its poems effortlessly permit readers such a personal look into how Mojgani himself has faced and processed grief. From mentions of Greek gods and goddesses and references to the status of our very broken, complex world to thorough insight into the deaths of a friend, a marriage, and even peace and reason, readers are afforded the opportunity to process their own grief in a space filled the beauty and vividness of poetic language.

In this book, the poetic language is not firm or forced but rather flexible, almost sounding like a natural conversation at times that enhances the authenticity of what Mojgani is communicating. Yet, simultaneously, there is an appropriate softness and lull that blankets the whole book as if providing that silence to grieve while still acknowledging the hope naturally embedded in the future. Ultimately, I really admire the authenticity that shines through every poem and these worlds that Mojgani so willingly invites us into, all the while displaying the power of poetry as space for both mourning and movement into what lies ahead.

Sarah Westvik

I’ve been enjoying the recently-released The Rings of Power on Prime Video. It’s a visually stunning, musically luscious, and incredibly well-acted interpretation of the Second Age in Middle-earth, a period set thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. I choose the word “interpretation” rather than “adaptation” given the sparse material in the books that can be directly adapted, which has generated a lot of conversation about the relationship between faithfulness to source material and plain old good storytelling. For my part, I tend to privilege the latter, and I can say that anyone comfortable with doing the same will find that—beyond some teething problems with pacing—the series achieves that.

After watching my favourite realm (Númenor) and favourite characters (the eventual king Elendil and his son Isildur) come to life in ways I did not expect to see in my lifetime, I’m sold on the show’s ability to incorporate the Second Age’s themes of mortality and power through moving and complex character moments building towards both heroism and tragedy. And of course, the heroes aren’t the only thing done well—the terror and horror of the villains and the more morally uncertain characters is being chillingly realised. I always return to Tolkien because I love my fantasy full of heart with compelling characters, beautiful worldbuilding, and resonant storytelling, and Rings of Power has thus far been a much-needed return to magic.

Meet Our Fall 2022 Interns!

If you’ve ever met one of our wonderful F(r)iction staffers, you’ll quickly learn that almost every one of them was once an intern in our Publishing Internship Program.

This program is run by our parent nonprofit organization, Brink Literacy Project. While our publishing internships are a great way to get a crash course in the literary industry, they can often provide a path to what can become a long and rewarding professional relationship. For more information, please visit the internship page on the Brink website.

Azalea Acevedo

she/her

What is your favorite place to read? 

Curled up in bed or by a window. 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

I approach it slowly, scoping it out. What’s behind the door? It could be Narnia. It could be a trap. The ornate carvings of fairies, elves, and ivy pull me closer. It’s more likely a trap. I back away and leave as fast as possible. 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual. 

Always with milk and sugar. There must be enough milk to turn the coffee from black to beige, and exactly 1 tablespoon of sugar. Any more is too sweet, and any less, too bitter.  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language? 

Supercilious. For one, it sounds made-up. Real words that could easily be fake are my favorite, as it keeps everyone guessing. Also, the fact that it sounds silly adds deeper meaning, as it highlights the ridiculousness of the person described. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why? 

I have a really hard time picking favorites as my taste is varied, but if I had to choose, they would be Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous album and Jane Eyre. I find the album aurally interesting enough to want to hear over and over. As for Jane Eyre, part of me connects with her awkwardness and growth into a braver character. I also admire that she sticks to her convictions, so I enjoy reading her as a character. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

This is a hard one to answer, but I think I would raise its profile and make it more accessible. Literary fiction and nonfiction has a reputation for being stuffy or elitist, which it can be at times. However, I think this is a space that has the potential to uplift marginalized and lesser-known voices in a way more commercially-minded publishers cannot. 

Eliza Browning

she/her

What is your favorite place to read?  

Curled up in a window seat or hammock outside! 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead?

I would open it to discover a network of winding, interconnected tunnels leading deeper into the mountain. Whether I would be brave enough to explore is another question…

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.   

I love lattes with fun flavors like matcha, jasmine or lavender.

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?  

My favorite English word is sarsaparilla (also my favorite flavor of soda)! My favorite word in another language is pamplemousse.

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

Phoebe Bridgers’s Stranger in the Alps and Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai – both witty, layered, nuanced and worthy of returning to again and again. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

Greater mentorship and opportunities for students and young professionals and equitable pay. 

John Legarte

he/him

What is your favorite place to read?   

My favorite place to read on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus has to be Caffe Paradiso, one of the many cafés in the area. While I enjoy reading at cafés in general, I especially enjoy Caffe Paradiso because I consider the place to be beautifully rustic and quaint. There is a sense of the warmth of home in the atmosphere. The coffee sounds are also nice background noise as I read a good book. In addition, Caffe Paradiso does hold poetry open mics throughout the school year, and I am planning on performing at some of them in the future! 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

As I scan the door embedded in the side of the mountain, I inch closer to its location. The only sounds that pierce the silence are my footsteps on the gravel and the strong breezes breaking against the leaves of the surrounding trees. The brass doorknob, the slightly chipped wood, its curious location—my intrigue only grows as I place my hand on the knob, taking one last look around me to see if anyone else has seen what has transpired. Pushing forward, I step into what seems to be a blinding light before I stumble onto some pavement in a place I do not immediately recognize. However, amidst the darkness around me, a pillar of light protrudes through the shadows, and I notice it—the Eiffel Tower, a glowing crown in the royalty that is Paris, the city of love and light. Meandering around and taking in the full beauty of the tower, I nearly run into what must have been a high school boy and soon realize the boy’s brown skin, the not quite long black hair, and the grey shirt—this younger me that traveled to Paris four years ago, a walking memory I still grasp close in my reflections of who I once was. I soon note another door in the side of a brick wall that does not match the design of the other doors and approach it, the light of the tower leaving a soft glare in the distance.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.   

I feel like I’m one of the few people who love my coffee without any sugar or cream! I just really enjoy the strong, even bitter taste of black coffee that provides a great energy boost in the morning or whatever time I decide to drink it.

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language? 

My favorite English word is entropy, which broadly defined by Merriam-Webster is the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system. This is my favorite word because I once had a poetry Instagram account called @unspokenentropy. (I now post everything poetry-related on my personal Instagram account.) For context, I consider the words I have yet to write on paper or in a Word document as exactly that—unspoken entropy floating in the recesses of my mind and thoughts. From there, I then see the creative works I write as entropy that is mostly harnessed since I do believe there is always still a degree of entropy within any individual’s writing, with that back-and-forth between entropy and order creating opportunity for beauty and reflection.

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

The one book I would have is Anis Mojgani’s In the Pockets of Small Gods, and the one album I would have is Before We Go by Brasstracks. I would choose Anis Mojgani’s In the Pockets of Small Gods because Anis Mojgani explores grief, the beauty and pain of memory, and the uncertainty yet opportunity of the future in such a personal, authentic, and captivating way as he weaves together his own experiences. More generally, I am a big fan of Anis Mojgani’s work, and he is one of the poets that influenced me to start writing my own poetry. I would choose Before We Go by Brasstracks because Brasstracks integrates brass instruments into their songs that span and combine hip-hop, R&B, soul, and even other genres of music. I feel like Brasstracks’ songs would keep me energized and even upbeat on the deserted island. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?

One change I would like to see and work toward within the literary industry is the provision of a greater number of opportunities for people of color to break into the industry itself. With so many people of color like myself seeking to be published and pursuing opportunities to work in the industry, I believe that this shift is essential to reflect the growing number of diverse voices within writing, publishing, and editing overall. 

Sam Burt

he/him

What is your favorite place to read?   

Definitely at home – I get too easily distracted. On the bed or sofa, anywhere I can lie down – so there is no discomfort to distract, however small. I live in east London but my street is quiet and residential, providing a thin veil of white noise – frequent buses and cars, infrequent passersby making inaudible conversation – while sparing me from either loud music or excessive, expectant peace. The only problem is getting coffee refills while recumbent, but I’m working on that.

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

I try to open it, but at first it seems to be sealed shut with some kind of magic (actually, I just missed the ‘please pull’ sign). Inside is a corridor and a dishevelled man in rags – who might be anything from 40 to 60 years old – races towards me, then drops to his knees and kisses my hands vigorously. He thanks me, over and over, for setting him free: he tells me he is the architect of this secret retreat, and that he’s been trapped here ever since. For twenty years he had pulled and pulled with all his might, but no luck! 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.  

By the cafetiere/jugful. Preferably max-strength with oat milk and – a recent development – ice cubes (you can drink more, in less time, when it’s cold).

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

At the risk of seeming facetious, I find a well-placed ‘the’ very pleasing. For example, the English post-punk band ‘The The’, ‘The Red and the Black’, and ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion’. I’m not sure why, but it lends the work a sense of gravity; perhaps it signals self-confidence on the writer’s part, which can be infectious.   

Otherwise…‘greengages’. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

Album: ‘Glassworks’ by Philip Glass. It’s somehow both calming and stirring, which I think I would need in order to get anything useful done.  

Book: Maybe the Gormenghast trilogy. It has a huge cast of characters (to stave off loneliness) and Mervyn Peake was really a genius at finding dramatic potential in tedium.

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

It needs to advertise itself more to kids at a young age, and especially those from backgrounds underrepresented in the industry. Speaking as a pupil from a working-class background who went to a prestigious university, I’m not sure how I remained unaware of this career option for so long…  

Sarah Westvik

they/them

What is your favorite place to read?   

It varies! Sometimes I read from bed to unwind after a long day of studying; other times, I go to my favourite cafe and read a few chapters over an ice latte. I like to take notes in a little notebook while I read, so the latter is often preferable as there is a table!

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead?  

I would probably look around the door for clues as to its origin first, and I think I would actually knock before trying the knob–after all, a closed door, whether appearing abandoned or not, can be assumed to signal someone on the other side. If there is no response, I think I would try it, and I would hope it is a (two-way) portal to somewhere bright and magical. 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

Milk no sugar! If it’s a hot day, then ice, too. If I’m brewing it myself I tend to add cardamom and cinnamon and just a bit of honey, because it makes the coffee that much more cosy.   

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

This is a bit of a trick question as my favourite English words tend to be Greek loanwords, chief among them being “anonymous”. I adore the cadence of it as well as its written aesthetic (the “y” intercepting four letters–two consonants and two vowels–on either side). I’m also partial to the words “nuclear” and “adrenaline”.  

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

This question is forcing me to complete the impossible task of choosing between The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion, both by J.R.R. Tolkien, but I would probably choose the latter for the flow—if not the completeness—of the narrative, which has been deeply important to my life. As for the album, it’s probably Florence + The Machine’s Ceremonials. Every song on that album is a gem that is both transformational and transporting. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

Barriers to entry in traditional publishing. There needs to be more openness to a variety of stories (thematically and genre-wise) by authors from historically underrepresented groups, so that they don’t get boxed in to writing just one kind of story or gatekept to toe the line of one kind of perspective, particularly as regards their individual marginalisations. On top of that, there should be more support (especially regarding marketing) for authors who aren’t bestsellers, especially debuts and, again, those who are underrepresented in the industry.   

August Staff Picks: The Sandman, Anime, and YouTube Makers!

C. E. Janecek

As my final year of graduate school begins, I’ve been enjoying the melancholy nostalgia of watching Fruits Basket (2019). This beloved childhood manga and anime series follows Tohru, a homeless high school student grieving her mother, as she’s taken in by the mysterious outcasts of the Soma family. She soon finds out that the family is cursed by the spirits of the Zodiac, making them turn into animals at very inconvenient times, rupturing their relationships with their fully-human parents and loved ones. While much of this story is comprised of mythical elements, anime tropes, and running gags, the heart of the series is in finding community and heart to face past traumas in a tender, hopeful story.

Asmaani Kumar

I have been listening to a lot of OSTs of TV shows recently but the one that’s been stuck with me for more than a year is the OST of Nevertheless. A drama centred around the lives of students in the art department exploring different kinds of relationships, there is a beautiful indie-vibe to the tracks featured and exclusively made for the show. Almost every track from “We’re Already” to “Heavy Heart” to “Love Me Like That” has the softest vocals, each artist singing their own unique take on love and what it means to love. As beautiful as the cinematography of this drama is, every scene is elevated by the tracks playing in the background which emphasise the emotions our characters feel and for me, listening to all of these songs reminds me of my own internal confusions, anxieties and heartbreak. The OST of Nevertheless is as much about the wonders of youth as it’s about navigating the choices that we make in the search for love and intimacy.

An additional bonus of this OST was that it made me discover RIO, who’s this brilliant indie artist and every time I listen to her, I feel this sense of comfort and validation because her music is a tender testament to the trials and tribulations of young love in the most brilliantly romanticised way. There’s a certain courage and vulnerable honesty to the way she sings and produces her music.

Amber Sullivan

It’s difficult to describe Omori without spoiling anything, so I’ll just gush about it instead. The art is a playful and seamless blend of 8-bit and colored-pencil anime with settings ranging from pastel playgrounds to neon space camps and vibrant suburbs to black-and-white voids. And those juxtapositions are not only aesthetic—something dark is lurking everywhere in this cutesy open-world. Beyond the art, though, this game is about understanding friendship and grief and how to accept the dark unwanted things inside of yourself. I love the interpretation of turn-based combat in the game, and it has the most realistic anxiety-attack-as-a-battle approach that I never asked for. Omori has so many hidden secrets and made me feel so many unexpected feelings from start to finish. I’ve never cried at so many checkpoints, and not because I was about to lose all progress; it’s just always nostalgic to have a picnic with your friends.

Jaclyn Morken

Instead of catching up on my ever-growing list of TV shows and movies, I’ve found myself turning on YouTube in my downtime. One of my favourite creators lately is Rachel Maksy. She drew me in with her video on making a book nook (another topic frequently appearing in my recent watch history), and I kept coming back because she is just so talented and delightful. Most of her videos center around creating vintage outfits, but she also does cosplay, crafting, and more, and I always appreciate her references to some of my favorite movies (especially The Mummy). I love to make things when I can, and watching Rachel bring her wild ideas to life at every step—from sewing a transformable dress from scratch to dressing like Jane Austen characters for a week—is so fun. Her silly humor and advocacy for being unapologetically yourself makes her channel such a comforting and cozy place to visit. Bonus: her adorable pets often make cameos in her videos!

Dominic Loise

I am on my second watching of The Sandman on Netflix. It is a strongly faithful adaptation if you are familiar with Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic book work. The stellar casting and mind-blowing imagery was one of the reasons I needed a second viewing as I found myself making connections in my head of the spot-on page to screen comparisons on my first viewing. The vision of writer Neil Gaiman and comic book artists Sam Keith, Mike Drizenberg & Dave McKean is on the screen.

For those unfamiliar, I still recommend a first and second viewing as the world of The Sandman is rich and layered. The Sandman is an anamorphic personification of Dream and he and his siblings (Death, Delirium, Desire, Despair, Destiny & Destruction) are called The Endless. The show also deals with magic, demons, serial killers, a talking raven and most importantly—regular old human beings (one human in particular is very, very old).

But like a dream affecting the sleeper in the waking world, I found the influence of the show in my life as I stepped away from each episode. The veil between reality and the show slipped as I learned more from The Sandman with my rewatch. Episode “The Sound of Her Wings” where Dream spends an afternoon with his sister Death fell on the day of my uncle’s passing and brought with it a comfort about my time here on Earth, the unknown of the afterlife and finding satisfaction in the life I do have. The rewatch had me look past The Endless, demons and nightmares and listen more to what they were saying in each episode about being human and how to wake up from my dreams to enjoy this amazing gift called today.

July Staff Picks: Action-Adventure Games, K-Drama, Grim Reapers, and Podcasts!

Jessenia Hernandez

Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Hollow Knight, a 2D action-adventure game that has been as frustrating as it has been fun (frustrating in a motivating way, like any good video game, of course). You play as the Knight character navigating through the vast underground depths of Hallownest, an ancient fallen kingdom plagued by disease. Many of Hallownest’s inhabitants are bug-like creatures that you must defeat with your trusty needle-sword, and I’ve loved the Knight’s quick and agile fighting style. This game is heavy on exploration and the map upgrades only at save points, so sometimes you have no idea where you are or where you’re going next. While I’m not usually one for uncertainty in games—point me in a straight line to my objective, please—this has actually been a great practice in patience and simply enjoying the journey. I’ve had to repeat certain paths and boss fights for hours as I’ve gotten used to the mechanics and navigating the map, but overcoming hurdles has been that much more rewarding because of it. I also absolutely adore the aesthetics of this game. The characters are somehow both eerie and extremely adorable, and each unique section of the map boasts beautifully hand-drawn backgrounds with a distinct air of otherworldly magic. Hollow Knight does an amazing job of balancing the light and dark in every regard. As I experience the highs of defeating a boss after dozens of tries, I also wonder what sinister secrets the game still has in store.

Asmaani Kumar

My Liberation Notes is one of the most stunning testaments to the exhaustion which comes from a mundane, routine existence. Following the lives of three siblings trapped in hour long commutes and a mysterious neighbour, it’s about each of their journeys towards understanding what they want to be liberated from and how they can get there. The story is so grounded, real and even painful at times because of how close it mirrors reality by touching upon urban loneliness, feeling out of step, longing to be understood, trying to find purpose and even opening up past wounds. One of the things I’ve discovered of late is that there are some narratives that are in-built with grandeur and the hope of achieving something unbelievable, but narratives like My Liberation Notes are so much more about the limitations of our life and how we can make peace with them in our own ways.

With a brilliant cinematography and OST, a gentle plot pacing and relatable characters earnestly trying to understand their own motivations and intentions, this is one show that makes you want to live life differently, to do better for yourself. What stays with me after all these months is how liberating yourself and finding peace is a process, there is no end to it but it’s a journey that’s so important for us to take. And if this isn’t enough to get you started on it, here’s one of my favorite lines from my twin character, Yeom Mi Jeong: ‘Five minutes a day. If you have five minutes of peace, it’s bearable. When I hold the door open for a kid at a convenience store, and the kid says “Thank you”, that makes me happy for seven seconds. When I open my eyes in the morning and remember it’s Saturday, that makes me happy for ten seconds. Fill up five minutes a day like that. That’s how I survive.’

Dominic Loise

GRIM is a new comic book series about death and reapers from Boom Studios. It is about the working world of reapers, and writer Stephanie Phillips creates a rich inner mythology for this series that brings to the page something beyond people who punch a time clock in the afterlife. Artist Flaviano’s inviting style seamlessly blends not only different death concepts like the River Styx and Day of the Dead into the world of GRIM, but reapers who lived in different time periods all doing their part to collect the souls of the recently departed. Colorist Rico Renzi masterfully shifts the palette tones of each different world we travel in when reading GRIM while not shifting the focus off of the story.

What will keep me coming back to GRIM is not finding out the mystery of what happens after we pass away; the main story of GRIM is that reaper Jessica Harrow does not remember how she died. Or how she can be seen by the living at times. Phillips does an amazing job of setting up Jessica’s dilemma in the first issue while also world building the series. Jessica is also given a multi-dimensional supporting cast of fellow reapers to help her discover the secret of her death. I enjoy that the tone of the book is not all doom and gloom. These characters care about one another and show that there are friendships to be made no matter where you go in life or beyond.

Jaclyn Morken

I’m notoriously bad at starting things and not finishing them—books, TV shows, knitting projects, you name it. Most podcasts fall on that list too, just because I come in late and have so much content to catch up on. I’m someone who likes to consume media in chronological order, and I never seem to have the time or attention span to catch up on dozens of hour-long podcast episodes. But for You Can Sit With Us, I’ve been making the time. Ariel, Becky, Maggie, and Rachel are such delightful hosts, and it is so wonderful to hear a group of women speak so honestly—and hilariously—about their lives and experiences. It truly feels like being welcomed into a conversation between best friends. With discussions ranging from skincare and relationship advice, TV shows, and pets, to more serious topics like self-advocacy in health care, sobriety, and women in the public eye, this podcast has a little bit of everything. It’s the perfect way to take a break and wind down from the day!

June Staff Picks: Modern Myths, Fire Island, and True Crime!

Eileen Silverthorn

Along with many other true crime aficionados out there, I have been watching Under the Banner of Heaven on Hulu. The show is based on the true crime nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. Set in the ’80s, it takes place in Salt Lake Valley, Utah and tells the story of a young woman and her infant who were gruesomely murdered. The pool of suspects consists of a prominent Mormon family, some of whose members have been spiraling into the fundamentalist branches and history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though I am not a member of the church, I spent my late childhood and teen years within the Mormon community, given that most of my friends were a part of it. This show has brought up all kinds of memories and feelings for me as I reflect on growing up in that culture, even as an outsider within it. But despite the show hitting close to home, I’m eager to keep watching—the storytelling is riveting, and the crisis of faith explored through Detective Jeb Pyre (played by Andrew Garfield)—a Mormon investigating the history and principles behind his own church—is intensely emotional.

C. E. Janecek

Whenever I decide to learn something new, I inevitably try to read a startling number of books on the topic. This summer, I signed up for classes with Queer ASL and before the semester even started, I was reading memoirs and novels by Deaf authors to absorb more about the culture and language I wanted to start learning. The book that I devoured fastest of all, True Biz by Sara Nović, is very likely to be the best novel I’ve read all year (trust me, that’s saying something). True Biz takes place at a Deaf school, following the stories of the headmistress and her tenuous marriage; the school’s golden boy, who comes from a multigenerational Deaf family (until his new baby sister is born hearing); and a girl who’s come to the school as a last chance to acquire a fully-fledged language, after her mother’s resistance to accepting she has a Deaf child. Full of multimedia interludes, Nović incorporates the worksheets on ASL grammar, lesson plans on historical events like Deaf President Now, and Wikipedia articles on the French Revolution—immersing us in the materials the characters themselves are reading and sharing with one another. This book is a keen exploration of education, ableism, and agency and I highly recommend it (as much as I recommend learning American Sign Language with the Deaf teachers at Queer ASL).

Dominic Loise

Joel Kim Booster successfully transplants Jane Austen to the Long Island, NY queer resort community in his romantic comedy Fire Island. The film does much more than plug Austen into the modern day via this iconic setting. Booster and director Andrew Ahn present characters with their own depth and a cast who all click together with memorable performances. Where Fire Island merges with the spirit of Pride and Prejudice best is Noah (Joel Kim Booster) learning to step back from helping/meddling in matters of the heart for the people that he loves as family so that they can start the next chapter of their self development and relationships their own way.

The heart of the movie isn’t just the Elizabeth/Darcy through line of Noah and Will (Conrad Ricamora), but the “family we choose,” especially the relationship of Noah and Howie (Bowen Yang) and the introspection Noah gains in developing his own relationship with Will by allowing Howie to finally take intimacy at his own pace instead of instilling the hedonistic reassurance techniques that work for Noah. Fire Island is about learning to admit to yourself that maybe what worked for you in past intimate encounters may actually be a protective shield, which hinders having an open and honest relationship with yourself or with someone else.

I enjoyed my time watching Fire Island, as Noah finds himself and his Mr. Darcy—or to paraphrase Jane Austen, “but for my part, if a book (or in this case a movie) is well written, I always find it too short.”

Craig Hartz

I’ve been a huge fan of Matt Bell ever since I read his breathtaking In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (what a title, right?!), a brilliant and beautiful and aching modern myth, so when I heard his second novel, Appleseed was being released earlier this year I was absolutely stoked about it. Due to my graduate student budget, I wasn’t able to pick up a copy for a little bit, but was able to snag a copy from Powell’s last month. It’s a hefty tome, but I blew through it in three days. The braided narrative, following three nuanced and arresting characters and spanning well over a thousand years, is part mythological retelling, part climate fiction, part hyper-incisive critique of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, and all gorgeous. His characters grip and sing, the way he evokes flourishing, dying, and reborn landscapes is nothing short of masterful, and his interweaving of three seemingly disparate narratives together left me in awe. I can’t recommend this book—or really any of his fiction—highly enough.

Erin Clements

I’ve been a fan of everything Shakespeare for years, and I love all things dark academia. A friend of mine has been trying to convince me to read If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio for months, and I finally cracked. I devoured the text and even annotated as I read, and I’m so happy I did. It instantly became my all-time favorite book, and I can’t wait to read it again to pick up on all the foreshadowing and plot intricacies I missed the first time!

Without giving too much away, If We Were Villains follows Oliver Marks—who has just finished doing ten years in prison for a murder he did not commit—as he takes the now-retired lead detective on his case through the truth of what happened that fateful night ten years ago. Set up in the format of one of Shakespeare’s plays, the novel introduces a motley crew of seven, who fit the archetypes of Shakespeare’s works—the hero, the villain, the tyrant, the temptress, the ingenue, and the extra—as they complete their fourth and final year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory. When one of the actors is found dead, the line between art and life becomes irreparably blurred.

Green

Flash fiction winner of the Spring 2021 F(r)iction Literary Contest.

Kate says it’s easy. All you have to do is pucker your lips. Push them out like a duck’s bill. Squeeze them together tight. Then suck the air in slowly, like drinking through a straw. That’s kissing.

I want to kiss Lauren. Her red lips. Her hair, black as empty space when you look between the stars. Long and straight and tied back with a pink velvet band. I like velvet. The feel of it on your hand, smooth and soft as a gerbil’s coat. And pink is a good color for me. Red too. Not like green. I hate green. The alien in charge of second year wears green: green jumpers, green ties, green jackets. I wish he’d go back to whatever planet he came from.

Lauren said hello to me on Thursday on the bus after swimming. It made me feel all funny inside. You get these feelings when you like someone. It’s called attraction. When we’re attracted to someone, we experience emotion. 

I’m learning about emotions. Joy is a primary emotion. Then there’s anger, fear, and hatred. Kate says it’s from these primary emotions that all the other more complex emotions branch out. It’s easy for me to learn the facts about emotions because I’m very good at facts, like I’ve no trouble understanding Euclid’s theorem that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides. That’s not a problem for me. But knowing what I’m feeling is difficult, which is why I have to be taught how to relate to people. For example, I have to learn how to relate to Lauren. And I’m practicing how to kiss, too. Just in case.   

Kate says the reason why people like me have a problem with feelings is maybe because there’s something wrong deep in the brain, in my amygdala. The amygdala is so good at detecting emotion, she says, it responds automatically even before the conscious part of the brain has worked out what is happening. Like if you see someone’s eyes wide showing lots of white, then you know they’re scared, and you should watch out too.

Because my amygdala is likely switched off most of the time, I don’t know for sure if Lauren likes me or not. Take last Thursday on the bus on the way home. There I was telling her all about my new telescope and how, when you point it to the night sky, you can see Venus. I told her how I was going to be a scientist when I grew up, like Einstein who was the greatest genius that ever lived. How I sometimes imagine he’s talking to me when I’m trying to figure out why nothing travels faster than light. How he wondered what would happen if a man traveled alongside a light beam with a mirror in his hand and got the insight that there would be no reflection in the mirror.

I look in the mirror now. Pucker up my lips. Push them out like a duck’s bill. Squeeze them together tight. Suck the air in slowly. Just practicing.

Kate says it’s important to look at eyes. That’s how I noticed that the snake’s eyes were green. Usually, I don’t look at eyes. I’m far more interested in noses or mouths. I would like to kiss Lauren on the mouth. John Paul Connolly says when you kiss a girl, you’re supposed to stick your tongue down her throat. I wondered about all the millions of germs we would share if we did that, so I asked Kate about it. She said best just stay with the lips for the moment, to see how things go.

I pucker up my lips. Push them out like a duck’s bill. Suck air in slowly. I can see my reflection in the mirror because the light bounces from my face onto it. It takes the light, travelling at one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second, eight minutes to reach my face from the sun. My mouth is open wide now and turned up at the corners, which means I’m happy. Like the happy face on one of Kate’s flashcards. When I think about relativity, space-time, and black holes, I’m happy. Sometimes I wonder why we have to bother with emotions at all, when thinking makes us happy. But Kate says it’s because being human doesn’t only mean thinking. We are also emotional beings, and it’s important to get the balance between the two. She says scientists have produced computers now that are able to beat humans at chess so very soon the only thing that will make us unique as humans will be our emotions. That’s a worry because I’m very good at chess.

On Thursday, after I was done explaining the theory of special relativity to Lauren, I noticed she had her back turned to me.  There she was leaning across the aisle, talking to Liam Keogh. Keogh has green eyes like a boa constrictor. I don’t like constrictors and if I saw one on a dark night, I’d tear it apart with my bare hands. Kate says that’s jealousy.

A Review of Every Word You Never Said by Jordon Greene

Published April 26, 2022 by F/K Teen.

“I’m not looking for your voice. I’m aiming for your heart.”

Every Word You Never Said is a romantic dream come true for YA bookstagrammers. There’s Jacob, a broody drummer from an evangelical family who has recently come out. And there’s Skylar­—who’s used to being an outcast because he’s gay, disabled, adopted, and gender non-conforming (GNC). When Jacob invites the new kid to his favorite local bookstore (one of the few safe places away from his homophobic family), Skylar wonders if he should harbor some hope for their friendship as they’re “browsing the books, seeing what Jacob’s hand gravitated toward.” This novel is full of quiet noticing as the two teens navigate their first queer relationship in a conservative small town, but also because Skylar is nonverbal.

Jordon Greene puts a lot of care into representing Sky’s disability, the way it’s shaped him, and how the people around him adapt to be more accessible. Skylar lost his voice after a childhood illness and was in the foster care system for most of his life. At the beginning of the novel, he’s resigned himself to being an outsider and doesn’t expect his peers to hold a conversation with someone who uses an AAC device to speak (Augmentative and Alternative Communication), which in his case, is an iPhone. In many ways, he’s right about the ableism he continues to face throughout the novel. Teachers who don’t bother to learn about his accommodations single him out in class or in detention, when Skylar has his only means of communication taken away: “. . . it’s literally my voice. And I almost had a mini-panic attack when the first teacher took it. That dead look in the man’s eyes. I shiver.”

However, for the first time, Skylar meets peers who are unfazed by his disability and are willing to communicate with him, rather than putting the entire burden on Skylar. Imani is one of the few people who can lip-read, so Skylar doesn’t always have to use his phone to tell her a story, which is much less frustrating for him. Jacob, who struggles with reading lips, finds out that Skylar is also fluent in sign language and begins teaching himself because he knows that Sky prefers it to the monotone voice of his AAC, which limits his expressiveness. With his friends’ acceptance, communication stops feeling so isolating for Skylar, but friendship doesn’t erase a lifetime of ableism either as Skylar admits: “[Romance books] are the only way I’m ever going to experience it, you know?” Little does Skylar know that he is the protagonist in a YA romance. Alongside the awkwardness of a teen relationship, Every Word You Never Said also explores different approaches to sex and sexuality. Most importantly, sex in this novel isn’t the enigmatic, coming-of-age moment or a moment of consummation with “the one.” Instead, one of the characters puts it quite succinctly: “Sex doesn’t mean you love him or that he loves you. People just do that. It’s sort of weird, actually.” Disability and queerness intertwine deeply with regards to sex and romance as well; particularly the ways society desexualizes disabled people and Skylar’s femininity as a GNC guy. I really appreciated the candid conversations about disability and desirability, making me think back to the times I’ve felt un-sexy when I go non-verbal from overstimulation, or how autistic folks are infantilized and what that’s done to my self-esteem in relationships.

Jacob’s character development focuses on his overcoming his biases and becoming an advocate (sometimes awkwardly). In the beginning, Jacob sees a separation between Skylar and the British-accented voice on his phone: “I find myself wishing I could hear his voice, like his actual voice, not his phone. As cute as he is, I bet it would be amazing.” We see the change slowly in Jacob as he realizes that Skylar’s AAC isn’t a burden or separate from him, the same way many abled people will say “I’m sorry” when someone uses a wheelchair, but other disabled people will see it as the freedom to move around painlessly. Most importantly, when Jacob and Skylar’s relationship experiences some turbulence, Jacob never stops advocating for Skylar’s causes and continues working with the local Pride Center to challenge the dress code that prevents Skylar from wearing skirts and dresses when he feels like it. Even Jacob’s friends at first are surprised to find out that he’s still making calls and participating when the issue doesn’t affect him directly, but then join him when they see it’s a cause he cares about.

While Jacob and Sky fall head-over-heels for each other relatively quickly, I wasn’t constantly lamenting about the obliviousness of the characters or their bad decisions, which was a relief. I know that I­—and many readers/moviegoers—feel frustrated with friendship dynamics, like in Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda, in which the friends all turned against Simon for not coming out to them sooner. Instead, the friends in Every Word You Never Said stand in for the rationality of the reader at times. When they see Skylar making a bad decision, Imani and Seth gently tell him where he’s right and where he’s wrong, even though he wants them to wholeheartedly take his side. What I valued most was that Skylar’s supposed “overreaction” to conflict didn’t frustrate me—Greene makes the character’s backstory seamlessly lead up to this confrontation in which he realizes the extent of his abandonment and trauma. But this novel isn’t all struggle and conflict. Actually, it doesn’t even come close to being a “sad” book. While there are scenes of homophobia and ableism, there’s so much joy in this novel. The characters aren’t particularly witty—their teenage flirting is awkward and sweet, feeling much more natural than most Netflix high school dramas these days. We get to see everyday happiness: Skylar celebrating his birthday with his new family and friends, getting his first kiss in a corn maze, and a group of friends fawning over a bottle green dress that Skylar wants to wear to prom. We see Jacob carving out his own identity in his religious family, introducing Skylar to his favorite music, and even finding that he likes wearing skirts himself sometimes. For all the depressing LGBTQ+ YA I’ve read (especially in the late 2000s) it’s a joy to read the words: “I feel comfortable, and it’s been so long since I’ve been able to say that.”

A Review of If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

To be published April 5, 2022 by Graywolf Press

Noor Naga’s novel If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a masterclass in complex characters and incisive writing. It is a novel deeply aware of itself—just when you think you know what the writer is trying to do, she surprises you. It is as though the book is consistently conscious of its ambitions as well as its shortcomings, harboring some secret knowledge that the reader is not always privy to. Operating from this knowing distance, it presents difficult notions of identity, otherness, gender, and race, splaying all these themes out in their entirety and asking us to look and closely examine what is in front of us. And in participating in this active examination, the reader becomes an inextricable part of the novel itself. Because so much of the novel interrogates notions of power, it becomes important who gets to tell the story, and who gets to read it, too.

The novel is centered around the story of an Egyptian-American woman and a man from Shobrakheit who meet in Cairo and the pain, love, abuse, and power that is ever-present in their dynamic. Products of their histories, the two cannot extract themselves from what precedes them. And yet, Naga is not writing a story merely about identity, but instead how our ideas of identity might be limiting. Her characters are not one-dimensional, nor do they defy or uphold stereotypes as if to make some sort of statement. They just exist in all their multiplicities. And her writing is at its best when she lets the interactions between her characters speak for themselves, allowing us to fill in the gaps. In one scene, the boy from Shobrakheit—always unnamed—calls the girl “a whore in ten different ways” and then suddenly he is “crying on [her] living room floor” in child’s pose. Naga frequently juxtaposes moments of absolute vulnerability and abhorrent power like this, so that the reader—and the characters too—reckon with the ways human beings can inflict immeasurable pain on others while also being in pain themselves. In the same scene, Naga then inserts the girl’s thought: “Why is this pity I feel so frightening?” and the sharpness of this sentence cuts through the paragraph with such intensity I had to take a break upon reading it.

Consider also the weight and painful beauty of these two sentences: “She wouldn’t let me kiss her like I used to. When I tried, she bowed her head into my chest and that was all, my hair dripping on her like a tree after good rain, and the two of us fragile as birds.” The novel thrums with such precise yet poetic language. And for all their shifting power (his because he is a man and knows the city well, hers because she is American and rich), in the end, the two really are fragile beings caught in a complex web of inadequacy and powerlessness.

The novel works less when the writing becomes obvious and Naga is directing us into exactly what to think. For instance, at one point, the girl launches into a series of rhetorical questions. She asks “Why did he choose me in the first place? Was it because I was neither of him nor truly other?” This kind of writing can sometimes feel as if it is leading to a place already obvious to the reader. Such instances, however, are far and few in between. As a whole, the novel does justice to the intricacy it explores. It is wholly captivating and will challenge you in ways you don’t see coming.

A Review of What We Harvest by Ann Fraistat

Published March 22, 2022 by Delacorte Press.

“What good is a legacy if it’s always been a lie?”

What We Harvest by Ann Fraistat is, first and foremost, tight. It’s limited to one all-American town, Hollow’s End, a handful of key characters, one primary plot that the primary character needs to solve, and one major subplot (as well as smaller issues and character dynamics). There are other unsolved mysteries and questions—but they’re not distractions. This story is constrained, clipped—and it works. The format is refreshing, especially when most YA books are a series. This story is a one-and-done, a quick read.

Hollow’s End feels like a fully realized, all-American town with lots of farmland, familial pride, history, and strange fruit. There are the ghost melons, which glow blue; the rainbow wheat, which, when baked into unicorn braid bread, tastes like a variety of different fruits and vegetables, which are also Wren’s, the main character’s, family crop. There is magic in the soil—the crops are unnatural; their effects, nothing short of supernatural. I’m sure their taste is (literally) magical, too. The magic turns sour in the Quicksilver Blight. It’s a lovely twist on the idea of magic being ethereal: instead, it’s carnal and physical.

Tourists come, and in flashbacks, we get a sense of how the town was once, and what it’s since become. The Quicksilver Blight, the strange sap that leaks from the ground, has turned animals and people into zombie-like creatures. The crops are dead. The town quarantines, severed from the rest of the world. Strange government officials are investigating it. Nothing changes. Life has been leached from the ground, and it’s up to Wren to save it while learning about the town’s, and her family’s, past in the process.

Legacy is one of What We Harvest’s primary themes. Family ties, ancestors. Their farms. Their history. Wren is a sixteen-year-old girl who cares deeply for her ex-boyfriend (whom she may not yet be over), Derek. She’s tethered to her family, the farm, and, of course, her dog. She learns of the dark secrets of her family history—and reading it, I found parallels back to America’s stolen and scrubbed histories, the farms built over indigenous peoples’ lands; the things taken, not received. While the story doesn’t develop the true horrors within legacy enough to me, it leans into it—and in a fantastically strange way.

Wren is a great character. She’s young but has matured quickly. She isn’t spectacular, isn’t a genius or a supernaturally gifted girl—she is, rather, persistent. Her resilience and care are what keep her going, which I adore. She feels fully realized, understood—she grapples with questions about the future. She’s also still full of feelings for her ex, Derek—he’s a sweet, strong guy who was very communicative and loving. Their relationship is the B-plot, and I thought it was a great compliment to the very heavy A-plot, the Quicksilver Blight. Other characters, like Derek’s sister, Claudette, and her girlfriend, Angie, stole my heart too. Claudette is rough-n’-tough; Angie softens her up. The parents also play a role, and they all deal with loss in different capacities, different ways. I wonder if this book changed through COVID-19. The Quicksilver Blight, the idea of anyone being contagious; those themes run parallel to everyday life in the pandemic, and What We Harvest carries those themes realistically and well.

This book has a pulse. It’s alive (or perhaps undead-ish, like the blight of Hollow’s End), and jerks between visceral, tense action and necessary slow moments for character development. Those places where you catch your breath. It’s well-balanced, well-constructed. Things continually get worse, and worse, and worse. I genuinely had my mouth open for a few parts. This story gets truly, and meaningfully, horrifying. I shuddered, I feared, and I loved every moment of it.

“Every person, every animal we’d lost was down there right now. Blight seeping into their every inch.

Gnawing away.

Melting them into more of itself.

If I went in, no way would it be me that crawled back out.”

Fraistat’s lyrical writing is why the book remains in my mind like an echo, even after I’ve set it down. It’s cinematic—she doesn’t skimp on the drama or the details. Again, the pulse: long and short sentences, gorgeously horrifying details. If you’re not a fan of gore, I would suggest staying away. If you love horror that gets down to the guts, literally, this is the novel for you. The writing is never dull; Fraistat truly takes advantage of every sentence. She crafts the world through her writing, having a great sense of where and how to stop. The lyrical style lends itself to magical realism as well.

My primary gripes? The conflicts settle a bit too easily for convenience’s sake, since Wren is such a driven person. While the conflicts’ resolutions underlined the importance of familial and interpersonal relationships, I wish that Wren was the one to coax the solutions out, rather than for them to have come to her. It’d give her more agency and establish her as an even stronger character because of her spirit. Lastly, the ending is rushed—satisfying, yes, but it feels like it’s gone too fast. The book had built tension up so well; I wanted that cinematic ending. I wanted the cooldown to be a bit longer, to take its time out of the blight, the ending, and into what happens later.

I also wish that we could learn more of the town’s past, since What We Harvest interrogates legacy. I’d love to see more of the past of the town, the family, and to understand more of the magic as well. Not to explain it, but just to envelop me into it. As it stands, the magic still feels too distant and underdeveloped. I want to see more of it in action since it was one of the weirdest and most fascinating elements of the story.

(Also, I want to try their unicorn braid. I’ll take a lightly toasted slice, please.)

This book is a fantastic debut, satisfies and surpasses my expectations for a weird, wild, and exciting horror story. With a cast of well-developed characters, gorgeous writing, fascinating world, and strong themes, it’s easy to slip into and hard to disconnect from. It is a standalone piece (or seems to be so); I’m glad it’s on its own. It is satisfying in a way that any piece with sequels can’t be. Unearth this book and see just how fast quicksilver can spread.

A Review of A Far Wilder Magic by Allison Saft

To be published March 8, 2022 by Wednesday Books.

I should start by saying that I read Allison’s Saft’s A Far Wilder Magic in one sitting. I haven’t done that in years, which leads me to the primary adjective I’d use to describe Saft’s sophomore novel: unexpected. This novel follows Margaret and Weston, teenagers whose families practice the Yu’adir and Sumic religions respectively; this makes them both outsiders in the heavily religious country of New Albion, where most follow the prominent Katharist religion. Margaret’s mother, Evelyn Welty, is a famous alchemist who has disappeared—as she often does—on one of her obsessive research trips. Aspiring alchemist Wes has shown up at the Welty Manor looking to become Evelyn’s apprentice. Wes wants to prove his alchemical abilities after being kicked out of several apprenticeships, and Margaret wants to prove herself worthy of her mother’s return. The two, therefore, decide to join the Halfmoon Hunt, a sacred event at which alchemists and hunters pair up to hunt the last living hala, an elusive beast seen as evil by the Katharists but revered as a divine being by the Yu’adir and Sumic people.

The heavy religious elements in this novel were something I didn’t anticipate, but it imbued the character’s motives with importance. With constant discrimination from their community, Margaret and Wes are working to prove not only themselves but also that success is not contingent on identity or background. Saft doesn’t shy away from showing the ugliness of bigotry, nor the hardships the main characters must endure simply for the identities they were born into. She interestingly shows how their ingrained fear of rejection and hatred even affects their relationship with each other, as they dread the repercussions of being honest about who they really are. Throughout this struggle, Saft returns to themes of self-love, self-acceptance, and proudly believing in yourself in the face of hatred. I especially appreciate that she juxtaposes these with related themes, such as the importance of accepting love from others and learning to differentiate between love and dependence. It is impressive to see how Saft explores the complexities of love in relationships beyond just the romance that blossoms throughout her novel, including love for family, friends, neighbors, and even pets.

I believe that A Far Wilder Magic is, at its core, a love story. While the back cover hints at a burgeoning romance set against a fantastical world, the relationship between Margaret and Weston was much more gripping and satisfying than I had expected. That being said, I am a sucker for cheesy romance every now and again, and this book definitely hits some of the common cliches (i.e. simultaneously reaching for something and brushing each other’s hands). Even as I found myself identifying these tropes, however, I couldn’t stop myself from adoring this romance. Their interactions are funny and endearing, the kind of back-and-forth banter I could read for hours. I also found their romance to be beautifully paced, a slow burn that remains subtle even as it becomes increasingly palpable. Margaret and Weston understand each other on a level that most in their lives don’t, both having experienced prejudice their entire lives. The traumas they each have endured at a young age—neglect, death of loved ones, discrimination, etc.—make for two dynamic characters whose walls slowly break down through Saft’s storytelling.

Perhaps what I admire most about Saft’s writing is her careful attention to her characters. While the world Saft presents throughout her novel is brimming with fantasy and magic, it’s also grounded in reality by its inhabitants: people influenced by their long-held beliefs and customs and the consequent kinship and tensions between them. I came to care deeply about Margaret, who has shut out the world and learned to fend for herself due to a mostly absent mother. I found myself rooting for Weston, who is told repeatedly that he’s a failure who can never achieve his dreams. Saft seems to suggest that he struggles with something akin to dyslexia, resulting in being kicked out of all his apprenticeships for his difficulty retaining information. This is just one example of the admirably diverse cast Saft includes in her novel; she also features religious and ethnic diversity, as well as queer representation. Mentions of characters’ sexuality don’t feel like attempts to meet some queer quota, but rather honest depictions of real diversity. Honesty, in fact, is something with which I felt Saft approached all her character depictions. The characters’ dialogue feels natural and real, and many of them are morally ambiguous. As Saft expertly crafts these complex characters, there are times you question the heroes and times you understand the villains.

Margaret and Wes’s character evolution and romance are aspects of A Far Wilder Magic that were beautifully paced. Fortunately, this made the novel very enjoyable despite some sections of the story that I felt were a bit rushed. In the introduction, for example, there is quite a bit of what feels like info-dumping about the hala, the beliefs surrounding it, and the sacred hunt to kill it. While this is all pertinent background information to the story, part of me wished I also got to learn more about Margaret or experience more of her lonely life in the eerie manor her mother left her in. Furthermore, the hala shows up in the flesh very early in the story, something that I felt took away from the mystical nature of the beast. When it came to the culminating event of the story—the Halfmoon Hunt—I felt that it could’ve been a longer, more involved section of the book. After so much build-up, spending more time on the hunt could have made the outcome feel more impactful and satisfying.

I truly enjoyed A Far Wilder Magic, as evidenced by the way it captured my attention from beginning to end. If you enjoy YA romance, fantasy, and a touch of eeriness in your books, Allison Saft’s novel is probably for you. Saft uses vivid language in her books, imbuing Welty Manor and the woods surrounding it with an atmosphere that is at once beautiful and sinister. This seems to mirror her novel’s balance between the at times heavy subject matter and the delicate excitement of first love. For a novel that will continue to pull at all your emotional strings, keeping you truly immersed, I highly recommend A Far Wilder Magic.

The Bonds of Earth

Winner of the Summer 2019 Short Story Contest.

I

*

“There!”

Second Lieutenant Yoshimura adjusts the camera lens, twisting the blearing green into a sprawling jungle. 

“Pitch right!”

The Nakajima Gekkō turns languidly in the cloud-flecked azure. Below, the verdant New Guinea highlands curl and crest.

A gap in the foliage drifts into Yoshimura’s crosshairs. He sees the sandy vein hemmed with lean-tos, barrels, and palm clumps. The Americans scatter like exposed roaches.

“Bastards,” he snarls through his rippling scarf. “We’ve been shelling the Huon Gulf to desert while they’ve been building under our noses.”   

He hammers the camera trigger as if the whirring little box might hurl down bolts of lightning.

“Sir, are you sure it’s not a hunter’s camp?” Warrant Officer Iwaki calls back from the pilot seat. “Hinode reported seeing a few straw hovels on his last run.” 

Yoshimura leans back into the plexiglass bubble.

“Of course! How could that shit worm mistake an airfield for a few hovels? Get on the horn and re-route Tsukahara and Juhei Company to Tsili-Tsili. Tell them…”

Flashes.

Flickering constellations trail up from the canopy and dissolve into the stratosphere. Some of the little stars burst as they rise, splotching black cumulus amidst the white.

Yoshimura steadies his camera. He sees the sparking barrels where the palm clumps had been. “Dive!”  

Iwaki rolls the Gekkō into the raking embrace of a fresh salvo. The sun emblazoned on the starboard wing is maimed to a sucking crescent.

With numb resignation, Iwaki pulls to correct. The right propeller issues a fiery death rattle. The plane dies screaming, marring the sky with an acrid plume.

II

*

Iwaki inhales.

His dilated pupils are made manifold by his fractured goggles.

Gradually, his flight suit inflates with a prickling sensation. The reek of sap and fuel congeals in the cockpit.

Slowly, the doubled shapes coalesce and he can see a dense shroud of earth clods and fronds. Pushing aside the leafy branches that have pierced the glass, he probes the crystal-powered Toyo transmitter and the miniature transceiver beneath. He coaxes out a brief and muffled fizzing. Nothing more.

“Fucking round-eyed dogs.”

He turns to see Yoshimura picking the shrapnel from a wound charred and deep.

“Iwaki,” he grunts, “are you injured?”

“No, sir. Your leg…”

Iwaki fishes a wad of bandages from his knapsack.  

“Never mind that. The enemy will be here soon. Transmit the coordinates at once.”

 “Radio’s dead, sir.”

“Both of them?”

Iwaki swallows dryly.

“Yes, but I have a map of the ranges. Squad four from Tsukahara Company has a forward base not too far from here. Shouldn’t take more than a three-day trek. Think you can move?”

Yoshimura snatches the bandages and proceeds to bind the gash. “Without question!” he winces. “I’d gladly crawl through the sixteen hells to get these coordinates to Wewak.”

With agonizing haste, they kick and tear at the green limbs that have transfixed the plane. Gradually, the undergrowth is unveiled – a vine-choked hall of ferns and splintered trunks.

Its unseen denizens chirp and chitter, indifferent to the arrival of the great bird and the ragged apes it has delivered.

**

They keep to a wary gait with Iwaki on point and Yoshimura hobbling behind on a beech bough crutch. Lordly thickets of maple silkwood fall before their blades. The peg trees do not give so easily, drawing deep cuts and curses with their serrated bracts.

They lumber down hillocks and ford gullies nebulous with mosquitoes. Packs atop their heads, they slosh through shallow pools. Pompadoured hornbills cackle at the ungainly waders below.

At night they light no fire.

***

Dawn.

Another hillock. More thorny sentinels to slay.      

“Yoshimura, sir. I heard you were with the Third Field Kempeitai in Manchukuo.” Iwaki’s voice strains as he stretches his back and fastens his satchels. “That’s really something. How’d you end up on this shit heap?”

Yoshimura fixes him with a jaundiced scowl.

“This is no time for frivolous talk. Have you forgotten that these highlands are swarming with Americans? Australians too? Want to draw them to our position? Eh? Remember, if the enemy emerges you must be prepared to kill yourself without hesitation. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes up. I thought I heard some monkeys chattering earlier.”

Iwaki nods. He helps Yoshimura over another mossy crag.

“Yes, sir. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know monkeys made for good eating. Wouldn’t we be better off foraging?”

The crutch slips on the wet grass and again Yoshimura tumbles to a gasping heap.

“I guess the brass don’t expect you pilots to live long enough to need field training,” he says as Iwaki lifts him. “Remember, what a monkey can eat a man can eat also. Forage blindly in the scrub and you’re sure to be poisoned. As for me, I want to die a good death.”

****

“Water… Water…”                                                                                             

Iwaki sets Yoshimura down beneath a milkwood tree and hands him his canteen. He sees the maggots pulsing through the purpling bandages and the thought of rice makes his belly quake hollowly.

“Iwaki…” Yoshimura wheezes, his face as haggard as his field cap. “It’s been eight days. We should’ve reached someone by now… A camp… A dugout…”

The canteen falls from his scabrous lips.

“We’re close,” Iwaki insists, unfastening the leather binds of his map flask. “This is hill 3093. I know it. Squad four may have been annihilated, but that’ll mean reinforcements…what is it?”

Yoshimura’s eyes have grown wide. He extends a quivering finger.

“Look…”                                                                           

III

*

He hears them click and murmur before he sees them.

Their spectral arms and legs sprout from the gaps between the cycads.

They emerge, taut and cautious, broad noses pierced with grass stems. Their scarified bodies are daubed with a shimmering, chalky resin.

Most carry smoking bowls. Some flex bows of bundled reeds.

“Headhunters…”    

Yoshimura wrenches his Nambu from its holster and levels it at the nearest phantom.

“Wait!” Iwaki hisses, pushing down on the barrel.               

“Idiot! They’ll eat our flesh!”

“They would’ve killed us by now if they’d wanted to.” 

One of the men bearing the bowls ventures nearer. He keeps his deep-set eyes fixed to the earth, as though the pair emitted a blinding luminance. After genuflecting, the man points timidly at Yoshimura’s wound. He takes some of the smoking powder between his fingers before gesturing again.

“They want to help us.”

“It’s a deception,” Yoshimura barks, but when the man applies the healing balm, he can only whimper.

Emboldened, several more figures step forth offering leafy bundles of papaw and sago. Tears burst from Iwaki’s eyes and he bows low before his chuckling saviors before tearing into the bounty.

**

When every morsel of the sweet pulp is consumed, the painted men beckon towards the trees. Four more men arrive carrying palanquins laden with orchids and straw pillows.

“They want us to go with them,” Iwaki says, jumping to his feet.

“Warrant Officer Iwaki! You’ll not move from this spot and that’s an order!”

A brown and frothing liquid is pressed to Yoshimura’s lips. He splutters as it courses down his gullet. Iwaki is given a calabash of water.

“With respect, sir… I don’t think we have much choice. It looks like they’ve dressed your wound alright. They may even be able to tell help us find Tsukahara Company.”

Yoshimura stabs the earth with his crutch.

“You dare disobey!”

Seeing his floundering efforts to stand, two of the painted men lift Yoshimura effortlessly and set him upon the palanquin like a sore child. Iwaki cannot suppress his laughter.

***

The singing procession bounds across the ridge.

Below them, traces of the valley can be seen through breaches in the drifting mist. There are signs of habitation also. Thatched roofs. Tiered spires. Totems, winged and regal, their features smeared by the haze.

 “Looks like quite a village!” Iwaki exclaims.

“Beautiful,” Yoshimura slurs, taking another swig of the brown potion that has banished his terror and replaced it with cheerful inebriety. “Just like Shirakawa in late summer.”

They descend and cross a rope bridge over a vaporous chasm. A river thunders somewhere below, charging the air with fecund odors. When they reach the other side, the singing of the painted men breaks into a whooping and the echoes that return are not of their making.

IV

*

Slit drums rattle beyond the earthen palisade.   

At last, the gate is shunted open and the ecstatic populace rushes at the procession like dam waters to a fissure. They cheer and weep and redden the air with dancing. Their pink-palmed hands stretch out toward the bemused khaki aliens swaying in the palanquins, as if their touch might confer a blessing. Bawling babes are held aloft and passed toward the front.

“A fine reception!” Yoshimura declares. He raises his slopping gourd approvingly before downing another gulp.

“Yes, sir,” says Iwaki, waving to the crowds and receiving a fresh coating of bladderwort confetti. “Perhaps they think we’re gods or spirits.”

“Gods? That’s intolerable.” Yoshimura buries his chin in his chest. “We must make it known to these brutes that there is but one heavenly being in this world and he resides on the immortal isle of Honshu.”

A battalion of warrior sentinels keep the heaving throng at bay. Their plumed headdresses whip vicious rainbows as they caution with clubs barbed with crocodile teeth. Gradually, the petal-caked procession makes its way deeper into the village. They pass huts borne uncertainly on stilts and trample groves of smoke bean. Lean swine watch them pass indolently from their sties. The high wigmen watch also, their painted faces stern beneath their quilled crowns. 

**

After much clamoring, the crowds begin to abate and the great court at the heart of the village broadens before them. It is guarded on either side by bristling towers enclosed in creeper scaffolding. The land divers atop welcome the procession with whooping exaltation before plummeting, arms crossed, to the earth. The vines fastened to their ankles snatch them from death by mere inches. Iwaki and Yoshimura do not see them. They stare slack-jawed towards the center of the court.

“But… how did they move it?”

There, perched upon a stone altar, the Nakajima Gekkō looms in resurrected splendor. Its crumpled body has been plastered with clay and decorated with speckled cowries. White-circlet motifs of animals and plants bloom from nose to tail.

Around the craft, a small squadron of wicker airplanes has assembled. They too are finely worked fetishes, with wings adorned with geometric bands, wavelets, and wide-eyed grotesques. When the men that sit in them see the palanquins approach, they leap to prostrate themselves.

Yoshimura and Iwaki are helped down and led over to these men who proceed to speak in hurried, anxious tongues, gesturing first at the Gekkō and then the sky.  

“We don’t understand,” Iwaki intonates.                                                           

They are ushered closer to the Gekkō and the gesticulations grow more urgent. Yoshimura recoils.

“I think they want us to help them get their model planes into the air,” says Iwaki, his voice quavering. “I think they believe our plane can get theirs to work. That’s why they brought it here. That’s why they brought us.”

A sobering dread hardens Yoshimura’s features.

“But that’s ridiculous,” he says, draining his gourd dry. His attendants jostle with one another to refill it.

“Sir, look at these charms and trinkets. They may think that aviation is all a matter of magic. I bivouacked with a fellow in Salamaua who told me there are tribes in the highlands who have no knowledge of the world beyond the sea.”

 Yoshimura grabs the back of Iwaki’s collar.

“You fucking rube. Still think it was a good idea to put your trust in these apes? Stall them! If they find out we’re powerless to help, they’ll butcher us for sure.”

The beseechers advance further, forcing the men from the sky up onto the altar. Though a great scroll of options and angles unfurls behind Iwaki’s eyes, he can settle on no solution save a placating grin.

Then he hears it, sputtering feebly within the cockpit, and his thoughts interlock like rifle parts.

                                                                           ***                                                                          

“I thought you said both were dead…”

Iwaki shoves past Yoshimura, plunging into the cockpit and yanking the battered miniature transceiver from its casing. He works with a surgeon’s finesse as he pores over the calibration charts and makes minute corrections to the dials. Upon the seventh configuration, the current meter glides slowly to the green and a steady whine emanates from the headset.

“Signal!”                                                                                      

Iwaki throttles the Morse key.

IMMEDIATE AERIAL BOMBARDMENT REQUESTED IN TSILI-TSILI. COORDINATES…

He fumbles with the map, carefully tapping in the grid digits as his sweat forms dark pools across the crumpled paper.

An agonizing silence follows. Expressionless faces stare down from the canopy dome.

“Damn it all…”                                                         

Before Iwaki can adjust the tuning knob, the reply trills through the wire.

‘SENDER. CONFIRM AUTHORIZATION.’

His thumb darts. He gives his name, rank, and unit. He conveys the orders relayed to him and Yoshimura at Wewak and cites the proper signal codes of the 41st. The reply is almost instantaneous.

COORDINATES RECEIVED. JUHEI 283 ENCAMPMENT WILL RELAY DEPLOYMENT REQUEST IMMEDIATELY. CONFIRM CURRENT POSITION.

The watchers hear Iwaki’s whoop of jubilation and begin to mutter keenly.

PRECISE COORDINATES UNCERTAIN. CURRENTLY RESIDING IN VILLAGE APPROXIMATELY EIGHT MILES SOUTH OF HILL 3093. REQUEST IMMEDIATE EVACUATION SUPPORT. POTENTIAL HOSTILE NATIVE PRESENCE HIGH.

The current meter begins to quiver.

AFFIRMATIVE. AWAIT SUPPORT. JUHAI 283 TO PROCEED…

A sparking belch cuts short the communication, filling the cockpit with an acrid stench.

****

Iwaki ascends through the canopy dome and stands atop the airplane. The crowd erupts.

“Wait! Please wait a moment!”

He moves his arms in a wide, scooping gesture of placation.

“We’ve called more planes! More planes will come soon! Please be assured!”

Yoshimura watches the futile pantomime with growing anguish. His fingers drum against his holster.

“Useless.”                                                                           

Unsheathing his pocketknife, Iwaki clambers down from the altar and proceeds to draw in the dust. He etches first the plane and then a chain of concentric arcs arising from it. 

“The planes you have built. No good.”

He motions to the wicker idols and crosses his arms before returning to the drawing.

“Our plane will bring more like it. They come soon. Four or five days.”

The blade furrows the crumbling likeness of sun and moon before connecting them with curving arrows. Iwaki then draws more planes, indicating their trajectories deeply in the earth before holding up his fingers.

“Four or five days. Then they come. See?”

The men begin to smile.

V

*

Blazing torches carve the twilight. The procession ascends to the great lodge, parting a flickering mosaic of faces. Some are squinched with weeping. Some are blank, exhausted. Each adds to the solemn canticle portioned long and even by the drums.

“Four or five days? That’s what they said?” sprays Yoshimura. He throws his arm over his comrade’s shoulder and leans into him with unwieldly urgency.

 “Well… no sir,” Iwaki smiles awkwardly, cautiously nudging his reeking superior away from his palanquin. “After I told them where I believe we are, they said to await support. Then I… I was cut off. In any case, it shouldn’t take them more than three days to sweep this area. We’ll need to make sure our hosts are happy until they arrive. Keep an escape route open. Even if they think we’re gods, we’ll need to be vigilant if we want to prevail. That’s my assessment, sir.”

Yoshimura gives a snort before slumping back onto his grass pillow.

“You insult me! Don’t think that I’m neglecting my martial duties just because I’m drunk. I’m as vigilant as ever! The stuff’s made my leg feel just swell. Don’t believe me, eh? I’ll kick your ass, you millet muncher, then you’ll see.”

The stars swirl and eddy until the night seems to teem with great unblinking eyes.

“Besides, we’ve already prevailed.”      

**

The young headman speaks no word of greeting to the two perspiring divinities raised above his throne. Though the corner of a sneer rises from the scallop shell that hangs from his nose, his eyes betray his apprehension. One by one, the wigmen rise to approach their sovereign. Their whispering petitions intensify until his scepter scatters them back to the corners of the throne room. Then, as if compelled by burning brands, the headman discards his kumul-feather headdress and kneels before the palanquins.

“That’s good,” Yoshimura beams, raising his gourd. “The Imperial Army graciously accepts your obeisance. Welcome to our sphere of co-prosperity. Kanpai!

***

A third trencher is passed before the gods, piled high with boiled sweet potato and river fish crowned with taro stems.

“Not bad, eh?” Yoshimura declares through a mouthful of puce flesh.

Iwaki nods, surveying the banquet. It is a solemn affair, attended only by those with apparent rank and status. Harlequin wigmen sit nearest to the thrones. Tattooed chiefs and warriors kneel like courtiers around the perimeter. The headman is among them. Unlike the rest, he keeps his gaze fixed firmly on the exalted pair and drinks from his gourd slowly.

Iwaki savors another mouthful of sweet potato. The smoky flavor casts his mind back to his childhood visits to Tanegashima, where his great aunt would prepare Anno-Imo for him and tell stories of the old days. Tanegashima, where the barbarians had first brought the musket to the immortal isles and ended the way of the bow forever.

Before Iwaki can speak his nostalgia, a cacophony of paired flutes and slit drums shatters the muttering calm. Trains of tattooed dancing girls enter from either side of the hall, their rhythmic movements encouraged by the high and frenetic singing of women elders. The tallest and fairest of the dancers are painted white from head to foot. The rest are painted red, and upon their shoulders hornbill wings have been grafted. They assemble before the far wall on which a great mural has been woven thickly in shades of brown, white, and black. It depicts a walled village surrounded by a jagged inferno. Grinning fiends lurk within the flames, clawing out towards the huts and spires. Like ants, the people swarm towards two giants at the center of this village. A light emanates from these giants. It is a light that transforms the villagers closest to them into half bird creatures. The blessed transfigured soar up to the curling heavens where other villagers await, their arms spread wide in joyous welcome. With rhythmic precision, the dancers intertwine. They stand upon each other’s shoulders to form a groping mass and mimic the clutching skyward motions depicted in the mural. Quaking shadows add life to the wicker apocalypse.

Iwaki marvels at the acrobatic feat, but as the dancers turn to direct their outstretched arms towards him, he is struck by a pang of sorrow.

He looks over at Yoshimura, who has taken to bellowing encouragements at the rhapsodic performers as if they were a Kabuki troop.

The speed and urgency of the music intensifies until the singing slurs into a wailing. The red and white dancers part from one another, moving to either side of the mural and grasping out to one another as if some force were separating them. It is then that three men with mud masks emerge with a thick and looping vine under their arms. Iwaki gasps amusedly when the men stretch it out, revealing it to be a glistening python.

“Incredible! I never thought they could grow that large.”                    

Yoshimura sucks the last portion of flesh from the skeleton and throws it over his shoulder.

“Of course they can, you greenhorn. You don’t know the first thing about the jungle. Are you a queer or something? Why look at a reptile when you have these bare-breasted tennin arrayed before you? I bet they could teach our chink whores a thing or two.”

As the music reaches a piping crescendo, one of the masked figures whirls forth with a machete and cleaves the python in two with one stroke.  

VI

*

“Batter up!”

The boy adjusts his loincloth before brandishing the stick. His brow is furrowed with concentration. Iwaki pulls down his field cap and prepares to pitch with exaggerated motions that send the other children into fits of laughter. Finally, he lobs the ball he has stitched together from marsh reeds and the boy sends it flying over the rooftops. The children scatter after it, shrilling with delight.

“Not like that! Protect the bases like I showed you! He’s going to steal home!”

At length, the wiry little army returns. They pass the ball back and forth in triumph, as if it were a rare bird captured after an arduous hunt. The mothers applaud from the porch of the great lodge. One of them feeds the tree kangaroo perched on her shoulder with pumpkin seeds.

When Yoshimura emerges, shirtless and pale, the women drop from the bench to bow before him. The tree kangaroo springs into the brush.

“Ah! Good morning, sir. These kids sure are slow learners. We need an umpire.”

Yoshimura hobbles to the edge of the deck and vomits loudly into the dirt.

“Warrant Officer Iwaki! Is that the conduct of a Japanese soldier?” he groans, wiping the corner of his mouth. “You should try to enlighten these savages instead of playing barbarian games with them. It’s shameful.”

Moving stiffly, Yoshimura unfastens the gourd from his hip and shakes it accusingly at the kowtowing women.

“Useless cunts. Can’t you see I’m in agony? Eh? Fill me up!”

The children scatter. The stick falls heavy to the gouged earth. Iwaki stares at it unblinking. He wonders how many blows it would take to reduce Yoshimura’s head to pink mush. As his chapped hand curls around it – feels its weight and roughness – the terrible implications of discovering the answer bloom starkly in his mind. He resists the urge, though the sight of the woman extending the gourd in trembling supplication tests his resolve.

“One does not kill a god,” he mutters.

**

The mottled fowl part in Iwaki’s wake as he makes his way towards the limits of the village. A cool breeze shakes the acacia trees and carries the sound of pounding pestles and scolding mothers. Once more, he scours the jungle line, searching for the slightest trace of movement in the undergrowth. He considers venturing further. To gain some clearer vantage point. The unwavering gaze of the plumed village guards dissuade him.

“They should’ve been here by now,” he mutters darkly, fishing the last Kinshi cigarette from his satchel.

“Fucking Juhai Company.”

He flicks the lighter repeatedly, his frustration growing with each failed attempt. Spitting a curse, he prepares to hurl the empty container towards the trees. The sight of the old man stays his hand.

Though he is hunched and wizened and bears a terrible burn scar across his silver-haired belly, his gait is brisk and eager. He chuckles lyrically, exposing what few orange teeth remain in his haggard maw. In his left hand he holds a long flute, and when he reaches Iwaki he pipes a few verses before gesturing at the lighter.

Iwaki, struck by the man’s boldness and calm, eventually comes to understand.

“No.” he says, “It’s a lighter. Fire. No instrument. Cigarette. Need fire.”

He places the cigarette between his lips, waggling his fingers to suggest the presence of smoke. At length, the expression of confusion melts from the old man’s face and he sits down, gesturing for Iwaki to do likewise. After creating a circle of dust around a small pile of leaves, he picks up two dark rocks and smites them together repeatedly. In a matter of seconds, the small pile is ablaze, and the old man takes his own pipe from his loincloth and lights it.

The words stick in Iwaki’s throat. Delight and gratitude quickly give way to shame. He lights the cigarette, bows, and places his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Thank you. Thank you, my friend. Of course. It’s so simple, isn’t it? When our comrades get here, I’ll see to it you and your people are repaid well. The co-prosperity sphere rewards those who assist the Imperial Army. We can learn much from one another. You’ll see.”

The old man takes in the incomprehensible words with a contented grin, and points to the sky with a gnarled finger.

“Yes. Yes.” Iwaki says, as tears sting at the backs of his eyes.

The code he had hammered into the transceiver with insectile velocity blazes hard against his conscience.

POTENTIAL HOSTILE NATIVE PRESENCE HIGH.

***

The flames seethe across the jungle horizon.

All the village has assembled atop the hill to witness the conflagration blooming up towards the sanguine moon. They sing against its strange rattling thunder.

Savoring the odor of seared wood, Iwaki scours the ruddy vista.

“Mortars. Think they’re ours?”               

Yoshimura looses a long bolt of saliva before lolling back between the two young girls who are fanning him.

“I’m sure of it. Our brave men are forcing those white devils back into the sea. None have defied our Emperor and prospered.”

There is a commotion. The steady hymn frays into a tumult of angry shouts as the crowd heaves and buckles. Yoshimura opens his eyes. Bedimmed as his vision is, he can see plainly that the face of the abdicant headman stood before him is as red and raging as the horizon.

“What do you want?”                

The man gestures in disgust towards the fanners before pointing towards the distant battle. His irreverence succeeds in provoking Yoshimura.

“Insolent cur,” he barks, “lower your head in my presence!”

Before Yoshimura can rise, the wigmen erupt from the masses to envelop the blasphemer. A few tarry to scrape repentantly before melting away.

****

“I’m telling you, I don’t like it. Did you see how he approached me? To show such effrontery before an officer of His Majesty… It’s unforgivable!”

Yoshimura spits out the last words as if they rested bitter on his tongue. With a grey and trembling hand, he lifts the mango to his lips. After taking one bite, he throws it away.

“What’s worse, he was not alone. I’m telling you, insurrection is bound to spread. We must cut it out without delay.”

Iwaki shields his eyes from the blistering white sun and surveys the sky. A flock of swifts rises from the acacia trees beyond the village limits.

“If I may speak freely, sir. Juhai Company will be here imminently. It could be any day now. If we don’t make waves, it will make their reception an easy one. At least…that’s my view on the matter.”

With a viscous wheeze, Yoshimura rises to his feet, clutching his wound. Two more guards rush to steady him.

“I expected you would say such a thing. After all, you’d rather play baseball. Next, you’ll be teaching these savages how to swing dance and kneel to the carpenter god. The Americans will be delighted!”

Yoshimura’s high, derisive tone kindle’s Iwaki’s anger anew. He finds himself on his feet, his face an inch away from his superior’s.

“Well, at least it won’t get us butchered. If you treat these people cruelly and accuse them of treachery, what chance do you think we’ll have? There are hundreds of them!”

Yoshimura reaches for his pistol, but something in the expression of the guard to his left stays his hand. “Fool!” he booms. “One member of our divine race is worth ten thousand of these creatures!”

“These creatures saved our lives!”

Seething, Iwaki takes Yoshimura’s collar in a white-knuckled grip. He lifts, and when the frail body gives easily, icy horror wrenches him back to sanity. He sets his coughing superior down, steps back, and begins a series of deep bows. He makes to speak, but the words catch in his throat and he flees as the onlookers marvel and mutter.

*****

The glint of the midday sun catches on the tantō’s edge. The masses clamor and point as Yoshimura runs the blade across a chapped palm and lets the claret stream descend to the gourd beneath.

“And lo, the droplets that fell from the heavenly spear held aloft by the goddess Izanami fell upon the waters of chaos, blossoming into the blessed isles. Shining jewels to light the benighted east.”

A series of jagged coughs give an intermission to the sermon. The wigmen scowl as they chew betel nut. Cicadas whir metallically.

“Soon, all the nations of the earth will be gathered to the bosom of the sun. Our resplendent Emperor guides the way. The white hordes shall soon repent of their mischief.”

Yoshimura smites one of the kneeling attendants and he is lifted up upon the snout of the Gekkō. The thick matting of flies loosens from the maggot-sown scabs around the bandage in a bombinating vortex. He surveys the multitude and recollections of the Kyoto parade grounds coax tears from his yellow eyes.

Tennōheika Banzai!”

Yoshimura throws up his hands as he brays out the declaration. After repeating the gesture a third time, the crowd begins to mimic the motion, raising their hands and searching the heavens eagerly.

VII

*

For the fourth time, the boy tightens the vine knotted around his ankles. For the fourth time, his legs fail to obey the command to step beyond the creaking plank and plunge to his manhood. His brothers lean out from crevices in the stooked and slanting tower to jeer at him. They tell him to crawl back down and go grind rungia leaves with the rest of the women. He can hear the voice of his father below, vowing to disown him if he fails to do his duty before his ancestors.

“You can do it, son!” Iwaki calls, standing on the nose of the Gekkō to better view the ritual. “Take courage!”

The boy stares down at the sea of upturned faces until the vertigo draws him rigid and he fastens his gaze once more upon the tranquil sky. He bends to tighten his chords again. Then he sees them, glittering like a string of pearls over the hills. A deep empyrean hum silences the jeering. The boy whispers prayers of thanksgiving.

**

“They’re not ours! They’re not ours! Shit!”

Iwaki howls fruitlessly against the approaching engines. His flailing arms cannot corral the rapturous dancing. The men and women who climb atop one another to be the first to make the long-prophesied ascent.

Wait!”

The American B-25s scythe the clouds above them like great astral pelicans. The villagers watch their celestial chariots depart, and when they see that they will not return, their euphoria turns first to confusion and then fury.

Iwaki runs.

***

Wood splinters.

The bolted door and the press of the wigmen cannot keep the mob from breaching the great lodge. They tear through, exposing Yoshimura in a broadening oblong of daylight. He is slumped atop his throne, naked save for his field cap and the bandage that scarcely conceals half of the suppurating mass that has consumed his leg. Above the throne, Yoshimura has hung his yosegaki hinomaru – a flag bearing a red sun emanating rays of kanji scrawled by his friends and relatives. All wish him success, happiness. Victory above all else.

The former headman leads the livid horde.

“You again,” Yoshimura says. “Still got a problem?”

The most daring within the mob rattle their spears in accusation. Iwaki is brought forth, limp and bleeding bound in creeper shackles.

“Hey… That’s high treason.”

The deposed headman strides towards his restoration, a club in his right hand and a bundle of ropes in his left. Cheers compel his advance.

“Fucking mountain monkey. I said that’s treason!”

Yoshimura stands, raises his Nambu, and blasts four oozing craters in the would-be usurper’s chest. The mob flees shrieking as he totters forth to empty the chamber.

“Fucking Roosevelt lackey. Still dare to raise your head?”

After pissing on the corpse, Yoshimura drapes himself back over the throne. He quaffs greedily from the bowl passed to him by his trembling slave, and when his tongue has sponged up every drop, he flings the vessel into the darkness.

VIII

*

Flies.

Their murmurations dredge Iwaki from blissful nothingness into agonized waking. He sucks in ragged breaths, the taste of copper heavy on his tongue. He sees that he is alone and, hissing with agony, wills himself to his feet and makes for the door. Continents of flies form and drift across the dead headman’s mottled skin.

Outside, the world is saturated in a ruddy glow. The pealing of artillery is closer, more distinct. Iwaki crosses the baseball diamond marked by river stones and rushes. Not a soul moves in the leaf-strewn yards. Here and there, hunkered forms shiver in the doorways of the huts and peer out from behind the keeling palm trees. He passes the sties where the lean sows feast greedily upon their young.

“Quick march!”

With a start, Iwaki whirls to see Yoshimura rowing himself along on his crutch between the smoke bean groves. He is dressed in full uniform, leading a train of painted men who trudge on unblinkingly. Each shoulders a length of sharpened bamboo as if it were a carbine. Before Iwaki can form words, Yoshimura proceeds to wretch up a parade song from his fever-wracked lungs.

“Filled with Yamato spirit, we march ever onward

utterly resolved to liberate the east.

We may all die like insects in the grass

but to die for the Emperor is splendid indeed.”

The platoon repeats each line, mangling the words and melody into a strident din.

“Warrant officer Iwaki!”

Yoshimura halts the march and stabs his baton at his bewildered comrade.                                    

“Join the formation at once! The great hour of our victory is at hand. We shall march to Delhi. To Sydney. To Washington. Heaven shall brook no cowardice! Tennōheika Banzai!

The army echoes the war cry, throwing up their arms in unison. Seeing that all sanity has fled, Iwaki makes for the palisade.

 **

Juhei Company. Must be trying to push through. Can’t be more than a few miles. I can reach them.

Iwaki loops the mantra in his mind as he sprints through the gate and toward the trees that loom dark against the burning sky. Before he can reach them, a high blast of phosphorous momentarily casts the jungle in brilliant white and what he sees sends him pelting back the way he came. A great tide of refugees gushes at the palisade; the inhabitants of countless villages sheltered from the wide earth for millennia by steaming calderas and implacable valleys. They come now stampeding, singed and mortified, roused by rumors of sky boats and salvation.

The gate is bolted before Iwaki can reach it. Looking up, he sees the sky darken with bamboo spears and arrows.

“Sir! Open the gate!”

A grenade detonates wetly within the multitude, sending limbs and torsos pinwheeling amidst the floating embers. The survivors press on undeterred.

“Keep firing, men! Heaven watches!”

Through a gap in the palisade joists, Iwaki can see Yoshimura limping before his arrayed forces, brandishing his baton. He salutes them before pulling the pin from a second grenade.

“We shall all meet again at Yasukuni Shrine!”

***

The weight of the threshing host sends the gate down upon Yoshimura before the grenade can leave his clutch. A suppressed detonation transforms him and three of his warriors into a fine pink dust. Still the refugees rush onwards, springing over the dead and dying, crushing the defenders underfoot. Iwaki watches them, the whining in his ears making their yelling advance sound as if it is being transmitted from a great distance. From a radio transceiver.

Juhei Company. Must be trying to push through. Can’t be more than a few miles. I can reach them.

****

Another squirming babe is lowered into the Gekkō’s heaving innards. The shaman overseeing the exodus leans down from the canopy and beckons the last mother forward. She pecks kisses over every exposed inch of her gurgling legacy before handing him over, her body convulsing with sorrow. Once the child is lowered, the shaman covers over the cockpit opening with a tasseled cloak of quoll skins. He casts possum bones before the Gekkō’s snout and prepares to commence the dance that might bring life to the grounded arc. As he rolls back his eyes and begins to converse with the spirits, he feels an earthly tug upon his shoulder. He turns to see a man, his hair bedraggled and hanging in greasy locks. In his arms, he holds the tiny mummy of a girl. Icy shock clouts the shaman when he sees the eternal shriek that contorts the child’s sunken visage. The petrified arms that dangle like nascent creepers either side of the bloated belly. Then he sees the father’s eyes, and he is moved to compassion. Curling back the quoll skins, he places the mummy among the wailing saved that writhe within the boiling canopy.

IX

*

“There!”      

The Mitsubishi G4M reduces its altitude and pitches towards the smoke rising from the distant ridge. In tentative phases, the dive bomber squadron behind it follows suit.  

“But sir,” the pilot calls back over his shoulder, “Juhai Company gave coordinates for Tsili-Tsili.”

“I’m telling you, there’s nothing there but scrubland and a few hovels. We’ve done five runs now. I don’t see why we should waste any more fuel.”

Second Lieutenant Hinode clambers down from the dorsal gunner port. He leans over the pilot’s shoulder, pointing at the wafting column of grey.

“That’s coming from somewhere near hill 3093. Am I not right?”

The navigator nods, pointing out the position on a translucent map.

“Well, Juhai Company said Iwaki and Yoshimura could be in that region.”

Hinode sets his boot upon the first rung leading back to the port when the pilot stops him.

“Sir, forgive me, but Lieutenant Abe gave no instructions to survey that area. Tsukahara Company got torn to shreds not far from that hill and…”

“Coward!” Hinode’s voice roars metallic in the rattling canopy. “There are men of the 41st who are in peril. The least we can do is fly in for a closer look. Would Lieutenant Abe want us to ignore the opportunity to retrieve imperial soldiers? Hell, there could be a Yank convoy down there we can light up. An airman should show some initiative.”

The pilot nods apologetically before pressing down hard upon the stick.

**

Iwaki calls to the oncoming aircraft from the top of the spire, numb to the splinters that jut from his hands. He wheels his flight jacket above his throbbing head and shouts until the ash thickens in his throat and leaves him stooped and hacking. When he rises, he sees the rumbling planes turn above the hills and his heart leaps.

“Yes! Here! Over here!”

***

“That smoke is coming from a village. It’s crawling with those headhunter blacks.”

The tail gunner presses his binoculars against the plastic bubble.

“Looks like there was a skirmish. I… wait…”

He swivels in the turret as the portside wing dips smoothly.

“There are planes down there. Small fighters. Haven’t seen the make before. Australian probably.”

Hinode slides down the chute and gives the order for another pass. As the plane circles, the navigator jolts against his straps and presses a gloved finger to the windshield.

“Sir, I see them also! Yanks must be using the village as cover. We haven’t got anything like an aerodrome in these parts.”

A grin momentarily cracks Hinode’s solemn expression. He pats the navigator’s shoulder.

“Typical Juhei Company fuck up I’d wager. Must’ve have gotten their coordinates reversed. Iwaki and Yoshimura are likely still stranded somewhere in Tsili-Tsili. Poor bastards. Kozuki!

The chief bombardier materializes against the bulkhead and bows curtly.

“Ready the tubes.”

****

Birds.

They glide above the bulbs of cleansing white fire that blossom amidst the huts.

Still more join the rising formation, twittering and squawking, weaving about the blast clouds. 

The flock cuts through the sulfurous air above the sties. The wicker planes. The roiling bodies that grope toward them, hoping that their passage might herald the parting of the vault and that all their fathers since the world began might be revealed, awaiting them on high, arms spread wide in joyous welcome.

Iwaki watches as the world below rises to meet him in a torrid spume. The jacket whirling above his head bursts into flame, and still he waves.

X

A cassowary builds its nest atop a mound of embers where once a great lodge stood. Its beak tills the scorched debris, retrieving the litter with which it would warm its trove of jade eggs. The great bird retrieves strips of cloth bearing the kanji for ‘prosperity’ and ‘victory’. Singed fragments of a mural bearing smudged winged figures that run on and on to nothingness. Venturing further from the nest, it proceeds to peck at soiled bundles of kumul plumes and clay fragments embossed with cowries.

When at last the eggs are housed sufficiently, the cassowary nestles beside them. It watches warily as the featherless green bipeds pass by, clicking and grunting to one another, marching steadily through the bleached wilderness. When the last of them passes, the smallest egg begins to stir.

An Interview with Daniel Kraus

Your book tours for both the hardcover and paperback releases of The Living Dead have been affected by Covid. What’s it like promoting this all-encompassing book of George Romero’s zombie apocalypse in the midst of a global pandemic?

George had the worst luck with movie releases! The copyright mistake of Night of the Living Dead, the bizarre way Season of the Witch and The Crazies were promoted, and, of course, the perennial curse of being so ahead of his time! For example, Diary of the Dead felt flat to some people when it came out and now looks like a goddamn crystal ball. So it seems par for the course that the book would run across roadblocks too. It’s hard to get too down about it. It’s a gift that the book exists at all and there are more serious things to worry about. The book has done well regardless and people will continue to find it over the years—and I bet they’ll think it must have been written after COVID-19. That’s George’s genius.

Growing up on horror films, what was your first “aha moment” that Romero’s movies were actually saying more about the society we live in than the dead?

Ben’s death at the end of Night of the Living Dead. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen as a kid. The protagonist, who did everything right, gets killed? And not heroically but in a cruel, offhand way? It made me think about what kind of person would end their movie that way. And that led to thinking about authorship in art. When you’re a kid, art is just art, born of nothing. I started thinking early on that this “George A. Romero” was up to something. He killed Ben for a reason. And then Dawn of the Dead, it all exploded when I saw that. Dawn taught me what a metaphor was. 

A moment I found very informative during the hardcover virtual tour was when Suzanne, his widow, mentioned that George wasn’t a fan of the internet and he foresaw people splintering into like-minded tribes because of it. What was something you wish to share which you learned about George Romero, the man not the filmmaker, going through his archives and talking with his family for this project?

A big chunk of The Living Dead comes from a previous attempt at writing a zombie novel that George made around 2000 on his personal website. He was idealistic about the web at that point; he saw it as a way to slough off the bullshit of Hollywood and bring his movies directly to his fans. It spoke to his indie roots. But the forums on his site got ugly quick and he became disenchanted. He recognized instantly the dark side of the web’s open spaces—it can be a field of wonder but also a gladiator arena. He thought tech would kill us. And I think, looking at Facebook and Twitter, you could argue it’s well on its way, a slow death by division.

In your own writing you have middle grade books with Trollhunters and the They Threw Us Away series; teen books with Rotters and Scowler; and general adult books like The Shape of Water. What is it like writing horror for readers at different maturity levels?

It feels instinctive; I have a good recollection of how I felt reading at different ages. Simply as a mechanical thing, working on projects that are vastly different in voice—and age ranges necessitate that—make each project a perfect palate cleanser for the next. Exercising all the muscle groups make for a stronger overall writer in general.

Recently, you had a comic book series come out from Vault. Tell us about The Autumnal and how horror comics are having a new Golden Age.

I don’t know enough about comics to know if that’s true. I’m a real newcomer—I didn’t grow up with comics and wasn’t a regular reader until the concept of The Autumnal came to me. It’s possible that having no sense of what had been done before gave me a somewhat liberating perspective. Now, of course, the dam has broken. I’m catching up on the last half-decade of comics and it’s a wild experience.  

What is the George A Romero Project and how can people support it?

The George A. Romero Foundation—the GARF, for short—is rapidly becoming one of the most important horror organizations in the country. They were pivotal with The Living Dead, they got Romero’s lost masterpiece The Amusement Park re-released, and they’re bringing to light what a wide-ranging artist George was—not the solely horror-focused guy he was made out to be. More importantly, they’re using the George A. Romero Collection as a base from which to build a support network for new voices in horror. I’m thrilled to be a part of it and that’s not PR-speak. It feels like a calling. 

Thank you for your time and work, Daniel. Any upcoming projects we should know about?

By my count, I have eight projects that haven’t been announced yet, some of which are finished and some of which are just getting started. There will be a steady stream of announcements starting shortly.