Reviewed by Colleen Chen
“Red String” by Cassandra Khaw is a flash fiction tale of a Chinese immigrant woman who is being courted by the mortician who helped her care for her husband’s dead body. After he finally wears her down with flowers and fresh produce, she has him in for tea, where she speaks of her undying devotion to her husband, and of how she can’t betray him. Only at the end of this story do we understand that the mortician’s motives have an influence from beyond the grave.
Stories about Chinese people always hit a little too close to home, since I’m quite uncomfortably familiar with certain aspects of the culture. This story shows the nuances of language and traditional attitudes quite accurately, and the woman’s behavior reminded me of some of the more irritating aspects of my relatives. As a cultural depiction, I found it striking. It’s also effective as a flash fiction piece for its tight, beautiful, highly visual prose and an appropriate punchline. The mortician’s place in the story didn’t work for me, though–because the woman wasn’t portrayed as being attractive, and the two of them had no chemistry. The explanation of his motivations wasn’t enough for me.
“One for Every Year,” by Dawn Vogel, is narrated by a ghost who lives in a hotel. The ghost is kept in existence by an annual painting made of her by a woman who in turn is kept eternally youthful by taking one soul per year, stolen by the ghost. This year, when the ghost goes to steal the soul of a hotel guest, she stumbles upon a memory that changes her pattern.
This flash fiction piece combines several horror tropes–the painting that keeps a soul alive, and acts as a portal for spirit-travel; the person who consumes souls and stays youthful as a result; the creepy haunted hotel. These elements work together well in this story. Since there’s not much space in flash fiction to develop characters, I don’t expect that, but my main problem with this piece was that I just didn’t get what happened in the end, so I lost out on a crucial part of what ties the story together. It’s a quick, atmospheric read, though, and maybe I’m just being dense by not understanding.