The latest issue of Lackington's has a theme of Animals to it. And while it does feature a number of precocious and mischievous characters, this isn't exactly an issue I'd recommend giving to a young child as a diversion on a rainy day. Unless you want some very interesting conversations (and maybe therapy) later. The issue is full of stories that twist the unexpected, that show that just because there are talking animals in a piece doesn't mean they're all going to be sweet. Many of these are dark. And violent. And beautiful. The prose flows in good Lackington's style and the themes approach justice and human (and animal) nature, as well as loss, and dissolution, and expectations, and roles, and…well, you get the idea. It's a big issue full of characters and beasts great and small. And it's time for me to get to my reviews!
|Art by Pear Nuallak|
"One General Law" by J.J. LaTourelle (3455 words)
This is a lovely and FUCKING DARK story about a lizard on a quest. The story is cyclical and almost fairy tale-esque in its construction, showing this lizard befriending and then…replacing a series of progressively bigger creatures. [SPOILERS] And okay I love the way that the horror works in this story, the way that the lizard starts small and then begins to get bigger and bigger, using his wit and coldness to get close to other creatures and then take their skin. It's magically done so that he's able to act as the creatures the more he understands them, the more he is them, and as he moves his way up the food chain his aims seem opaque, limited by his animal understanding of the universe. He wants to progress upward because there is safety in that, and he goes about his business with a brutal efficiency but he never really considers what he is doing. I like the implied commentary on humanity that once the lizard "becomes" human he is able to access more than he was able before. With this new skin comes t he skills and capacity to imagine larger and more complex things. And I love what the lizard-man does with that, which is that he loses his drive in many ways. He walks from the world without much of a point because while he has made it to the top in some ways it's not what he hoped. It does not release him from this desire to be more, and really only makes that worse. Which is how he ends up latching onto the idea that there is a higher thing yet, and I won't spoil that but it is amazing and makes sense given the progression and violence of the piece and OMG IT IS CREEPY when the ending finally happens the implications of it sink in. It's an amazing piece of horror wearing the skin of a fairy tale and you should read it immediately! An excellent start to the issue!
"The Horse Road" by John Linwood Grant (2232 words)
This is an action-packed and darkly magical story of a pony and the creatures of beyond. The dark people who steal into the world of humans in order to sate their hungers and their mischiefs. And okay I love that his name is Mr. Bubbles. The story takes a very somber and brooding tone as it reveals the main character-pony in a silent war with the night, with the creatures from beyond. Trying to keep these threats from the one human he cares about. From Sandra, the girl who named him who is a girl no longer and has quickly learned how to fight. And this would be a delightful story if it was a horse and his master, but there's something even more amazing about it being a pony and young woman, their wills matched and their violence palpable. It's a story that imagines the world in transition, more and more dangerous as creatures from beyond slip into the woods to do their dark work. And Mr. Bubbles stands ready for them, thinking that he is protecting Sandra from them, not quite ready to face that she is grown and can protect herself. There's a pride to this little pony that just fits, that fits his fierceness and his frame and his everything. It's both humorous and heartwarming to see his bond with Sandra and his sense of independence and his own loyalty. I really just want like a whole novel of this pony fighting against the monsters of the night. What's here, though, is intensely satisfying and fun and dramatic. The pacing is solid and the little breaks are creepy and set the mood masterfully. It's a story that snuck up on me a little bit, that made me laugh but also believe in this pony and his human. A great story!
"The Compassion of the Pheasant Lord" by Leena Likitalo (4888 words)
This is another story that shows that just having talking animals doesn't exactly make for the cutest of stories. This piece, indeed, feels much more at home as a sort of knight story rather than a talking-animal tale, but really what it does is show that the two aren't exclusive. This story revels in the darkness of the world it reveals, one where a lordly Pheasant is on a quest to end the life of a fox terrorizing his land. He rides a dangerous rabbit that is really only controlled thanks to the compassion of a small she-troll. And he story explores these characters, the way the pheasant cares for his subjects and for the rules of the forest. The way that the rabbit cares only for the person who shows him compassion. The way the she-troll fights against her fear in order to find justice. The story circles most prominently (to me) around the idea of natures. The fox and its violence. The pheasant and his fealty and dury and short life. The she-troll and her compassion and weight. They are all bound by their natures in some ways but defined instead on the choices that they make. It might seem merely their natures to do as they do, but to me the story reveals that it goes deeper than that. That regardless of their natures, how a person should be judged is based on their actions. And it's a lovely and moving story with an interesting flavor of chivalry and a great and bloody ending. It's a story of a quest that ends, not precisely in failure, but also not how anyone was expecting, giving lie to an early sentiment in the story that the only options to those in the forest are to be a hunter or a hunted. This is another great addition to the issue!
"The First of Her Name" by Elaine Cuyegkeng (1803 words)
Well the issue certainly shows no signs of getting less horrific. In this insectoid-flavored animal story, a colony is infiltrated and a single princess finds that there are something things that come before loyalty to her people. It is a deeply disturbing story in part because it shows just how devious nature can be, just how truly fucked up animals and insects can be to each other. Now, I'm not sure what species exactly is being showcased here, but I'm guessing it's some sort of ant. [SPOILERS] And the ants live out their lives according to a specific order. One that is disrupted when something invades the nest and plants some of its own larva inside, to be raised by the ants who are exploited into thinking that these intruders are their own. Even to their death, which is what happens. Which is what happens and what lends the story so much of its horror. That idea that the main character is being manipulated in such a way that they can't tell what is friend or foe, where they believe and love this intruder despite everything, despite the desperate situation—it's terrifying. Because we all rely on our senses and instincts and to have them be used against us in that way is something that sends a chill up my spine. For creatures like ants, who are so much more driven by their instincts and the chemical and social signals that ensure they survive, to have that hijacked by a predator is something that undermines the whole point of having these instincts to begin with. It's a difficult read in part because that implanted love the ants feel remains even after the damage is done and it lingers with this really creepy adoration and yeah, it's all sorts of squicky. But it is a testament to the story that it gets under the skin like it does, that it reveals this deep and uncomfortable truth and fear—that we can't fully trust ourselves. And fuck, yeah, give it a read!
"The Visit" by Subashini Navaratnam (3525 words)
This is the first story of the issue with a solely human main character and the transition would perhaps be more jarring but for the fact that it keeps things decidedly part, slightly bloody, and ponderously disturbing. The story is to me a sort-of autopsy of a marriage, of a relationship, where the main character is keenly aware that her husband no longer loves her and that she doesn't really love him, and the passion and adventure that kept them together and relatively happy have faded. The story is told both in the present and the past, showing how their relationship got to where it is and how it in some ways is like the dhole that seems to be stalking the area around their house. This dog is big and seems alone, but there is the feeling from the story as a whole that maybe it stands in for some part of their relationship. That earlier on they saw a dog, or at least the main character did, that was similar but not dangerous. That as long as her and her husband were together and in love then the world outside, however fearsome it might have been, was manageable. Part of some story or game hey were playing and winning. [SPOILERS] With the loss of their love, however, the world has become more dangerous, has been able to slip past their defenses. The story does a great job of chronicling the shift that leads to this, the way that their love is at first this wild, free thing that becomes something feral, something that gets out of their control. And it's a story with a great sense of pervasive darkness, of being surrounded by something and not sure what, and then having to confront it. A fine and sensual story!
"Zoopoiesis, with Mountains" by Rhonda Eikamp (4803 words)
Well this is probably the most surreal story of the issue so far, and another that deals more with humanity than with animals, though humans here are part animals. Or made to be part animal. Each has a small creature that lives with them, inside of them, and turns their head a certain shape. To reflect some inner nature or limit. And Ann is a woman who can't seem to take a new shape any more, a new limit, and so she's at something like a sanitarium for "treatment." The imagery of the piece is striking, everyone walking around with animal heads, but I also like how the story treats this transformation. For some it's a comfort, being in this cycle, having this shape to define them. For others, though, including Ann, the faces just don't fit. To me this speaks to a frustration with labels in general, with having to be placed in a specific box that you aren't really encouraged to leave, though if you do you have to pick another right away. This works into the idea of sanitariums and treatments for disorders because often people can be labeled deviant and disordered because they don't agree with the labels that others put on them. And the way the story breaks itself between Ann and her husband is interesting because they circle around similar ideas but from very different positions, and while her husband has his doubts and wants Ann to be happy, more than that he wants her to fit in. To have a face. And that he puts his own desires for her above her is something that gets between them and rots their relationship. It's a fascinating world that the story reveals and a great examination of this central relationship. It's also another uncomfortable read because of how Ann is treated and the very limited ways she can fight back. A fine story!
"The Hedgehog and the Pine Cone" by Gwynne Garfinkle (1531 words)
Aww. The issue has waited for its last story to turn absolutely adorable, losing much of the darkness to give way to some warmth and light. Not that the story is overwhelming joyous, but while many of the stories in the issue twisted the innocence associated with animal stories, this one maintains it. At least, it begins and ends with friendship, compassion, and stories. And I like how the piece deals with stories, with expectations, with tragedy and with hope. I must admit that I kept waiting for the story to just eviscerate my feels, and what it did instead was slip around my expectations to provide a story that is mired in darkness, yes, and definitely treats with themes of loneliness and loss. But the story is also, to me, about trust and what stories we tell and what we keep back, and how the stories we conceal can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and further loneliness. [SPOIOLERS AND SPECULATION] The hedgehogs of the stories, Purple and Green, are storytellers first, and throughout the piece the reader is teased with the thought that maybe they won't get to find out what happened to Green. That there is a mystery surrounding her disappearance and that what happens after that might just be a lie the story tells us. That Green disappeared and Purple might have been eaten by an owl before she found out why, and the rest of the piece, as surreal as it gets, might be her trying to find the best answer, the answer that will make whatever happens next okay. It's a story with layers that seems in some ways bright and happy but in other ways might be hiding something dark indeed. Whatever the case, it does put hope first and the power of stories to heal and transform reality. It's an excellent piece and a great way to close out the issue!