"In the Land of Two-Legged Women" by Huey Alcaro
"The Midnight Train, She’ll Take You There" by Hannah Wolf Bowen
"The Man With Hungry Eyes" by Mark Budman
"This Hand, Waving" by Simon Owens
Chizine #25 delivers a wide variety of styles and themes this month. In this issue you’ll find a creepy gender-relations fairytale, a surreal journey of a woman searching for her lost love on a train, an allegorical tale of a man whose eyes eat the objects around him, and an untraditional "idea" story revolving around the severed hand of a decease child.
"In the Land of Two-Legged Women" by Huey Alcaro, the author attempts to create an effective "gender-relations" story with mixed results. Unfortunately, her own biases undermine the ending of the story and transform what starts as thought-provoking into a more hackneyed "men are evil" tale. The story revolves around a "speculative" society in which women are forced to have one leg chopped off to appease their husband’s aesthetic tastes. Eventually, this transforms into a feminist diatribe in which women rebel against this male-dominated society.
The speculative idea of a leg-chopping culture has the potential to generate powerful themes, which is why the beginning of the story promises to deliver an original take on gender-relations. However, as the story proceeds, the prose and plot progression degenerates the story into a more simplistic understanding of gender. You can almost feel the story growing more heavy-handed with every passing paragraph.
Such lines as, "it was a miracle they had been able to exist without men this long. They needed to be taught a lesson. It was now certain they were being led by the crazy" are semi-tolerable, if not a little offensive to males by stereotyping them.
But when you get to lines like: "They must be shown the true power of men," I can’t think of anything that better defines heavy-handedness in a story. In that line, you can literally hear the author’s "angry" voice seeping into the prose, at which point it stops being an effective story and just turns into another author ranting about his or her beliefs.
Towards the end of the story, my sympathy started to wane for the one-legged women, particularly in the extreme method they choose to force their demands. It’s hard to explain why without including major spoilers, but let’s just say eye-for-an-eye justice sickens and annoys me. Not to mention it’s very hypocritical.
Despite the rather trite and offensive themes, the story still lays out a gruesome fairytale that garners brownie-points for freshness of style. The stylistic trappings are where the piece particularly shines; this ain’t your grandma or grandpa’s fairytale. Unfortunately, the deeply ingrained heavy-handedness poisons what could’ve been a much better story.
(For better "gender-relation" shorts providing more balance, check out Kelly Link’s "Travels with the Snow Queen" or "A Beggar in Shadow" by Holly Phillips in Alchemy #2.)
"The Midnight Train, She’ll Take You There" by Hannah Wolf Bowen is a story about a woman traveling on a train in search of her dead lover. But the reader also gets the impression this woman is really searching for her future. The story felt slightly derivative of "Down with the Lizards and the Bees" by Tim Pratt (published in Realms of Fantasy, August 2003). The mood of the story, however, varies greatly from the Pratt story by presenting much grittier and depressing details. I applaud the author’s ability to capture the perfect moody, surreal atmosphere with her prose; it’s clear from the onset this is one of her strengths as a writer. The beginning also prepares us for the mixture of 2nd person (how the dead lover is referred to throughout the story) and the third person protagonist.
Not to say there aren’t weaknesses.
The plot and tension lack in strength compared to the quality of the prose; this results from the overly introspective nature of the piece. Much of the conflict is internalized, perhaps too much. Thus, many spots failed to keep my attention, particularly the beginning-middle which grew boring and soporific.
However, somewhere towards the middle-end, the story picks up. You can’t help but be impressed with the way Bowen depicts real-life emotions and captures them in her net of words.
Paragraphs like these really pay off:
It hurts to watch you leave again, a hurt like cutting straight into my heart, but it’s a raw pain, will bleed clean and so I can bear it.
"The Man With Hungry Eyes" by Mark Budman is an allegory about a man who looks at things and makes them vanish. Eventually, the military arrives to deal with this threat to stability. There’s a lot of beautiful symbolism in this piece. I took the man and his hungry eyes to be symbolic of capitalism; since capitalism causes people to stare about them and want to consume and own everything in sight. Every character in the story has symbolic value, and for this reason, the author wisely avoids giving the characters actual names, but instead refers to them via their titles or sex. All of it combines to make a wonderful allegory about modern day America and our values, and the ending provides foresight of hope and change.
"This Hand, Waving" by Simon Owens easily tops the magazine as the best in the issue. A father chops off his dead son’s hand so he can keep a piece of him wherever he goes and won’t have to suffer through the pain of mourning the child. The scene breaks revolve around his three reasons for taking the hand, opening the scene with the reason and then exploring the particular reason in that section through concrete details. Despite leaning towards the experimental and appropriately fitting Orson Scott Card’s definition of an "idea" story, this one still manages to maintain personal conflict between the characters and a heavy shroud of tension. Something much experimental fiction forgets to do. Throughout the story, the hand symbolizes a link with death and we see how the outside world reacts to this inanimate object, along with how it transforms into a separate character. I often talk about authors doing their job when they manage to capture the emotions of an experience; well, this story swims with grief, despair, and sadness. Simon Owens makes me wish I had written this story.
Although some of the stories were a little heavy-handed and others a bit boring, this was still a pretty good issue of Chizine.