“Seeds of the Strangling Vine” by Michelle E. Goldsmith
Reviewed by Jennifer Burroughs
Issue 30 of SQ Mag is the first issue of their new quarterly cycle, with eight stories spanning dark fantasy, light fairy tales, and old fashioned weird fiction.
“Seeds of the Strangling Vine” by Michelle E. Goldsmith
Helena and Johnathan are taking a vacation, trying to escape the despair that filled their home after a miscarriage. It's unclear whether Johnathan is hurting from their loss or the lag in his writing career. He rents an expensive cabin in the jungles of North Queensland, telling her repeatedly during the long drive out there that he is doing this for her. The awkward tension between them is palpable, and an empathic reader will cringe as the tension rises with each passing day. Helena finds herself drawn to wander the jungle, with or without her distant husband. Strange discoveries among the trees, including a mysterious corpse flower and a towering strangle vine, begin to haunt her, waking or sleeping. And something may be outside the cabin at night. When Helena wakes up one dawn in the jungle, confused and bloody after strange erotic dreams, the story makes a shift from a tale of tragedy into weird fiction.
I found “Seeds of the Strangling Vine” to be weird and sensually disturbing; I thoroughly enjoyed it. Editor Sophie Yorkston categorizes it as magical realism, but I disagree; “Seeds of the Strangling Vine” is a solid piece of dark fantasy. With themes of loss, self-discovery, and seduction, Michelle E. Goldsmith gives us a dark tale worth reading, perhaps with a glass of wine.
“Who Blooms in Darkness” by Anjali Patel
“Who Blooms in Darkness” is much lighter fare, something of a palate cleanser following “Seeds of the Strangling Vine.”
Patel’s story, a quick flash fiction of about 1500 words, has the tone and cadence of a simple fable; a young girl has been magically shrunken so small that she sleeps in a thimble. The little girl, who tells the story from a first-person perspective, is never given a name. Her aunts declare that the sun is stealing her magic. To engage with the world of “Who Blooms in Darkness,” we must accept this simple belief in the sun’s thievery. To restore the girl to full size, her aunts douse her with baths and potions for several weeks, and forbid her against going outside into the sunlight, until she is large enough to sleep in a normal bed again. The story then takes a different turn, and unfortunately becomes a bit harder to follow, with the rules of the world established earlier no longer seeming to apply. The established truth at the beginning of this very short piece is that the sun was harming her, and she has regained her size after weeks without sunlight, but she seems to be growing weak in the darkness. I reread the last third of the story a few times, looking for some missing piece of information that would explain the drastic change from what is true in the story’s beginning and what is true at its end.
The overall tone and feel of “Who Blooms in Darkness” will appeal to those who enjoy the simplicity and face-value magic of bedtime stories. The lack of a name for the first-person character adds to the sense of a simple children’s tale, less a character and more a shell for the reader to insert one’s self.
A quick and undemanding read, its placement between “Seeds of the Strangling Vine” and “Conflict Calories” by the editorship making for a nice transition.
“Conflict Calories” by Frederick Obermeyer
“Conflict Calories” is set on an alternate reality Earth where people do not eat food as we know it, nourishing themselves instead on “conflict molecules" that manifest when people argue or physically fight. This is a terrible world for mild-mannered Greg, who finds violence and disagreement disgusting. Greg, scrawny and malnourished because of these feelings, finds himself at a catered lunch put on by his employer. Greg must survive the event while dealing with well-meaning coworkers who think he needs a few good fights to fatten him up.
Obermeyer builds out enough little details to make this strange universe believable, such as the catering service, which brings in boxing rings, mouth guards, and other safety measures for controlled violence. He’s taken a very strange idea, asked, “how would that world really work?” and found an answer in this story. Greg is a well-rounded character, and I was cheering for him at the end. “Conflict Calories,” is, over all, a fantastic example of weird fiction that can take the strangest setting and tell a great story driven by strong characters.
“The Essence of Flow” by Rhoads Brazos
“The Essence of Flow” is a darkly surreal story of one man’s complicated relationship with water. There are some truly beautiful scenes throughout the piece, and a love story spanning decades. Brazos goes for a minimalist effect and seems to expect the reader to fill in important details, but unfortunately this leads to weaknesses of story logic that distract from the tale.
The story begins with main character Thompson as an old man, floating in the ocean and slowly dying. He drifts through memories of his past, while in the present a disembodied voice is speaking to him. He remembers watching some friends drown as a boy, and thinks about the great contradiction in his life, having spent 30 years in the Navy despite an intense phobia of water. The voice he hears in the present is Nammu, a spirit of water who may have killed his childhood friends and may be drowning him now. Each flashback feels significant, but there is no real thread tying them together and weave the chain of events that lead to Thompson talking to this voice in the ocean.
Overall, Brazos builds a beautiful, dark dream that reaches into physical reality but lacks a strong enough anchor to hold the story together. It’s a pleasant enough read, but don’t ask too many questions.
“Delicious, Delicious” by Karl Bunker
“Delicious, Delicious” follows the new friendship of Dorotéia Fernandes and Dr. Kailee Cheung in a future where Hong Kong is an “open-bioforms city.” Dorotéia is a classical musician visiting the University of Hong Kong where Kailee teaches. Kailee is a music professor at the university, and is also a three-foot-tall bioform bat woman.
Their friendship begins one evening when Dorotéia is walking home at night from a concert, and she hears a voice somewhere above warning her that she will get mugged if she stays on her current path. The voice belongs to Kailee, who was at the concert and reveals herself to be a huge fan of Dorotéia. They have a friendly conversation, then Dorotéia heads home on a safer path. The next evening, Dorotéia waits for Kailee in the same area, and they end up at a restaurant Kailee frequents. They drink and flirt, finally going to Kailee’s apartment. Things get awkward shortly after becoming intimate, when Kailee reveals that, as a vampire bat bioform, she has unique sexual needs that involve biting and drinking her partner’s blood. Dorotéia has mixed feelings about this situation, and the way Bunker handles the dynamics of the situation feels very real.
I loved “Delicious, Delicious.” It’s a unique and amusing twist on the “seduced by a vampire” trope. Dorotéia and Kailee are warm and believable characters. This is a piece of speculative fiction asking the “what if” question about the bizarre potential of genetic engineering and how it’s going to affect the daily lives and relationships of real people, and Bunker finds an interesting answer.
“Casting Nets” by Rebecca Fraser
“Casting Nets” is the tale of a young fisherman, Tino, who loves Delice, a rich man's daughter whom he is forbidden to see. Warned repeatedly against fighting the will of Delice's father, warned against using magic to get his way, Tino is shocked when all those warnings turn out to be true. Delice is the daughter of a rich man, and Tino from a fisherman’s family. After flirting with Tino in the market, Delice invites him to a secret spot, where they begin their relationship. The teenagers grow ever bolder until inevitably caught in the act by her father. The story grows increasingly predictable from here; Tino seeks a magical solution, Tino ignores all the warnings about that magic, Tino uses this magic to abduct Delice, Tino is shocked by the unsurprising consequences of using the magic.
“Casting Nets” starts off strong, with Tino bloody outside Delice's home after being caught by her father. We're right there with him, full of empathy and cheering for this guy who just wants to be with his love. But the story immediately falls into simple language and plot, never regaining the power of that opening scene.
“Your Questions Answered” by Blaize M. Kaye
“Your Questions Answered” is a flash fiction piece that feels like a very long joke with a punchline that I found neither funny nor interesting. The story is almost entirely dialogue, following a conversation in a flea market between the unnamed point-of-view character and an old man who is charging one dollar per use for a machine his wife created that will answer any yes or no question truthfully. There is some back and forth about the machine and its history, until the old man mentions that a philosopher of religion once asked the machine a question, which resulted in him retiring, feeling that “his job was done.” The point of view character is inspired by this, and asks his final question of the machine. The ‘answer’ to that question is the punchline to the joke the rest of the story has been setting up.
Appreciating this story may be a matter of personal taste and sense of humor. I am not among the people who find this sort of thing amusing or worth ten minutes of reading.
“The Devil’s Bloom” by David Cleden
“The Devil’s Bloom” ends this issue of SQ Mag on a strong note, another well-done piece of dark fantasy balancing against “Seeds of the Strangling Vine.”
Main character Jaran begins his story as a nightmarishly awful little boy, who ruins his sister’s initiation into adulthood with a carefully planned and executed prank. Jaran’s village practices a very physical religion; to confess and repent of their sins, villagers considered to be adults are taken by a priest into the woods, where they vomit up a thick black bile that has been filling up a pool for generations. Spying on his sister’s first confession after the fallout of his prank, Jaran learns this dark truth years before he is supposed to. He touches the stuff, which changes him into some sort of host or carrier. Now obsessed with the secret, he begins to ‘help’ villagers along in their need to confess, triggering fights, framing people of theft, and in general growing into a terrible person. At night, his skin transforms into something corpse-like.
On the eve of his initiation into adulthood, Jaran runs away to avoid being confronted about any of the things he did not have to answer for as a child. He wanders for years, noticing slowly that every village he stays at changes for the worse, with more fighting and misery manifesting suddenly than the village had seen in years. Other villages do not practice his people’s faith, and have no priests to help them vomit away their sins. One day, years later, he decides to go home, having matured enough to feel ready for confession, wanting to free himself of his dark burden. But when he goes home, he finds the village gone, the pool of black bile dried up, and no priest to help him confess. He returns to wandering for long years.
“The Devil’s Bloom” is an interesting concept, with a story and character strong enough that I find myself wanting more of this world. Jaran, terrible human being that he is, is a fully-fleshed out character who spends his life wandering the world, seeking redemption. We see him grow and mature, becoming better than he was, until he finds hope again. I was immersed in his journey until the very end, and felt relieved at the conclusion. It’s worth reading.