Strange Horizons, May 4, 11, & 18, 2020
“Martian Cinema” by Gabriela Santiago (May 11, 2020)
“The Death/ Grip Challenge” by Johnny Compton (May 18, 2020)
Reviewed by Seraph
Heartbreak is possibly the single most elusive and confounding part of human existence. Try to define it and the words likely escape you, but its doubtful you could find a single person who hasn’t felt it or been affected by it. Vida Cruz’s “Have Your #Hugot Harvested at This Diwata-Owned Cafe,” set in a sort of parallel version of the contemporary Philippines, does an admirable job of asking the right questions, even if it doesn’t exactly offer a definition. The concept revolves around the idea that mythics live alongside humans in everyday life, an uneasy truce that has resulted in a lot of distrust, violence, and loss on both sides. Mythics, or creatures of power and mythical origin, are responsible for this café, where humans can give up their memories of pain and suffering for others to indulge in. Those who are applicants are paid in forgetfulness and relief from their suffering. Those who are customers pay for the opportunity to experience those memories as they eat, and their money is put to use furthering social justice initiatives to help those afflicted by the drug wars and governmental violence. It is an interesting take on the idea of supernatural creatures living alongside us mere humans, and what that world might look like. Oddly enough, it doesn’t look all that different from our own, which makes it all the more intriguing.
Nothing has quite captured the collective human interest and imagination like outer space. Set on Mars at some indeterminate point in the future, Gabriela Santiago’s “Martian Cinema” has a few horror elements, but they are mild and give way to much more of a science fiction feel. I would argue even the mild horror elements are much more about the unknown and the mystery of unexplored places. While those are staples of a lot of horror literature, there is a lot more excitement and almost delight in the adventures of several children beneath the surface of the desolate Martian landscape. True, there are inexplicable paintings that practically come to life, and a mysterious presence observing the children from the shadows. But throughout the entirety, told from the children’s perspective, there is a sense of discovery and exploration that relates some of the greatest, most beautiful facets of human nature. Right before the adults find out, of course, and put an end to it all, as many childhood adventures are doomed to end. The story ends on a sort of open-ended note of mystery, but a great deal of potential for imagination and further writing.
In Johnny Compton’s “The Death/Grip Challenge” there is a building sense of the macabre that really only reveals itself fully towards the end. Set in a non-descript city during what could be now plus or minus a half dozen years, it feels a lot at first like a satirical commentary on the Instagram challenge phenomenon that has resulted in such stupidities as the Tide Pod challenge. Dig a little deeper, and it becomes a story of a hurting, fractured family just trying to hold it all together. Dig further, and the depth of the pain and misery that are hidden beneath the jokes and smiles really start to set in. By the end, you’re facing down a psychological commentary on not only the type of psyche that is drawn to such harmful, even suicidal foolishness… but the impact that seeing perfectly healthy people doing stupid things for “likes” and “relevancy” would have on someone who has truly lost a part of themselves. This has layers, and a depth to it that is going to reach out to certain people, and completely miss for others. That is not to reflect poorly on the writing, which is well conceived and delivered, but more so upon the human psyche. I get that the best art imitates life, or so they say. In this case, it just felt a lot less like horror and a lot more like the kind of news you just fear seeing in real life.