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Reed Alexander’s Horror Review of ‘Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women’ 2020, Edited by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

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Roots, bloody roots…

In order for me to consider an anthology good, it needs at least three solid stories that are worth the purchase. The only exception, my review of the Creeping Corruption Anthology, where I mentioned that The Being by J. M. Striker, was worth the cover price, alone!

And yes, the first three are worth the cover price. They’re not just good, they’re fantastic! Even the second, Kapre, which I had the most difficulty with as a critic, was marvelous in its own right and is arguably the best of the first three. Though, I favor the first story merely as a personal preference for its stylization of science fiction.

Importantly, there wasn’t one story I didn’t like. In fact, the whole collection is fantastic and I made every effort possible not to spoil them or even swear if I could help it. But fuck’s sake, I tend to swear even more when I like something this much, and I had to work it out of my system.

I absolutely recommend this anthology! In fact, I can’t recommend it enough. My few complaints are easily ignored and wholly irrelevant. Most importantly, this anthology has a power to it! Every story is a gut punch that’s hard to recover from!

Pick up a copy: Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women


SPOILERS!!! (While I did my best to avoid them, take care reading beyond this point.)

THE GENETIC ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER by Elaine Cuyegkeng

A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ~ Arthur C. Clark

The depiction of this technologically advanced society sounds more like a work of fantasy, as well it should. We can grip to every detail with scientific plausibility, and yet it will sound like pure fantasy. It had a master-crafted setting that defines magnificent details but doesn’t labor on them.

The tense is a little jarring. It’s like someone reciting present tense from memory. Not a third person present tense, or a narrator describing it to the reader, but like a person describing a memory like it’s happening right now.

The premise is simple. What if you could correct independent and disobedient women with modified clones. Kinda like The Stepford Wives. No spoilers, it will leave you shooked!

KAPRE: A LOVE STORY by Rin Chupeco

The opening is difficult to digest and a bit rambling. I had to read it more than twice, and each attempt caused more confusion. Thus, it bucked me from my reader’s trance. Most of the first paragraph was a mess and didn’t flow naturally until the fourth sentence.

However, I will implore you to read on, as I did. After, I consumed each word no less eagerly than the previous story. It’s so rare to get a glimpse into the nightmarish tales of other cultures. Certainly rare enough to be able to immerse myself in those nightmarish machinations.

Outside of its initial hangups, this is a fantastic story.

A PET IS FOR LIFE by Geneve Flynn

A few word choice issues here. I know it’s difficult to stand out without being poetic, but you can lose the reader. Statements like “…prickled with recognition” made me tilt my head and caused me to stop reading. I know we mean goosebumps, and I know statements like “feeling eyes on you” are cliche’, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and no need to reinvent the wheel with words. Though, as a writer, I’m guilty of this, myself.

I’m also not sure if the perspective hopping worked. I didn’t struggle with it, but it did stumble at least once. However, neither this nor the prior mentioned word choices were reason enough for me to stop reading.

The rest of the story is quite compelling. It’s a creature feature of a sort that pits two mythological supernatural beings against each other, only one I’m particularly familiar with. Either way, it was a fun read.

PHOENIX CLAWS by Lee Murray

This touches me so deeply. Being married to a Filipina woman, I had to formally request her hand in marriage from the father. So much cultural significance went into this, my (eventual) wife was a nervous wreck. I remember the inward sigh I took when my (now) father smiled and asked me to tell his wife, my (now) mother. While I remained stoic, I wanted to faint!

I especially love this story’s focus on food. My father seemed especially excited about my generalist appetite and eagerness to try new things that would make most white guys turn green (like Balut… look it up)!

Is foodie horror a thing? Yeah, it works. Shows like Bizarre Foods International wouldn’t exist if it didn’t. This even has deep cultural significance and if horror is for anything, it’s calling out existing power structures. In fact, I found myself deeply offended when the character Fin turned his nose up at Luce’s culture. At one point, even pulling that reverse racism crap. Which I must flatly state, is not a real thing. Racism requires a power structure, a system to enforce it. Outside of that, it’s just white people being whiny.

I mean seriously, would eating one fucking claw have really killed him?

OF HUNGER AND FURY by Grace Chan

Writing you can feel on your skin. If you don’t feel sticky and icky after the first few pages, you ain’t human! It’s so assaulting on the mind, I swear I could taste it. That’s a solid form of body horror; making the reader’s body feel grimy. Every descriptor in this short is about texture. The kind that repulses, but penetrates primordially.

This story’s refusal to praise the male protagonist for “not being an asshole,” is just so right. He does the minimum and is even condescending about it. He doesn’t treat Fang like an equal and he certainly doesn’t treat her culture as equal. There is a lot of complicated layers here. The main character feels like she abandoned and was simultaneously abandoned by her culture. She’s so estranged from her family and her heritage, it seems that she doesn’t know her own father has died.

It’s hard to place the spirit that haunts her. Is it the spirit of a dead girl lost from an unsolved murder? Is it the spirit of the main character’s existential dread? Is it the spirit of her severed heritage yearning to be recognized? Maybe all of the above. Maybe the spirit of that dead girl felt so deeply for that existential dread, for the yearning to be recognized, it just became about that.

SKIN DOWDY by Angela Yuriko Smith

This reminds me of the YouTube short, Doll Face, and for context please watch it: Doll Face

I’m not against body modification. Quite the opposite. There is no better or more obvious way to show control over your own body. And through this, one can easily express how they feel, how they want to shine. However, it’s important to remember the heightened social standers women are systematically expected to hold. Often for the pleasure of men.

Absolutely brilliant how this story depicts that concept in such an interesting cyberpunk setting.

TRUTH IS ORDER AND ORDER IS TRUTH by Nadia Bulkin

Okay, don’t get me wrong, this is a FASCINATING exposition on a foreign, almost alien culture. It did become a bit of a slog, though. I felt like I should be taking notes. However, the slog seemed sort of understandable. This story does begin with an epic pilgrimage- a literal slog. Perhaps an exposition slog is perfect to depict the sensation of a literal slog.

My god, all I can say about this is that it’s a fascinating epic. It’s downright biblical. Much as the concepts are all foreign to me, they are all easily digestible in ways I can understand. Concepts I read for the first time flowed naturally when they should likely seem strange. A fantastic read!

One final note, I’m deeply happy the foreign cultures H. P. Lovecraft so dismissively pissed on, are taking their culture back from the blaggard. Don’t cancel… re-appropriate.

RITES OF PASSAGE by Gabriela Lee

The idea of ‘future tense’ is always a bit of a struggle, but I thought it was fun how this reads like a prophecy. It was a bit of a stumble when it landed in the now, and again when it further moved to past tense. It’s actually interesting as the tenses are reversed. The future tense depicting “when the child was born,” the present tense being “What the child did,” and the past tense being “what the child will do?”

While this is extremely experimental for English, it really worked well. When the future tense describes the past, I didn’t lose sight of that, even when the tense changed again. And while it made me tilt my head contemplatively, it didn’t stop me from reading, nor jar my reader’s trance.

THE NINTH TALE by Rena Mason

This story did seem to stagger on even though it felt like it was over. I kept reading, wondering what more there was to say, being pleasantly surprised that what was said next made needed to be said.

I’m a little familiar with the legends of fox spirits, though, this expanded on them beautifully. I love how well the myth is depicted as terrifying, even unforgiving, but somehow fair. It’s not good, but it’s not even evil, and though a little serendipitous, still seemingly natural and without malice. Like a fox eating a mouse for sustenance. It’s good that Xin and Zhang seem to deserve their fate, but even if they didn’t, it would still seem oddly appropriate.

I also love how this is a commentary on traditional Japanese foot binding. As mentioned initially about the story SKIN DOWDY, it’s important to remember the heightened social standers women are systematically expected to hold.

VANILLA RICE by Angela Yuriko Smith

Every moment of this story made my heart ache. This mother just wants her daughter to be loved and accepted. Unlike the first in the collection, which was about modifying women to control them, this is about how existing social controls already modify them. It’s like the Chinese practice of eye-widening so that women and men seem more ‘Caucasian.’ The prevalence of western domination has deeply scared these cultures where even levels of white supremacy psychologically affect them.

This woman was so psychologically sacred by cultural erasure, she seeks to erase it from her own daughter. I can think of no better name to spoof than Vanilla Ice, a white rapper who tried to appropriate black culture. White culture basically appropriated this woman’s daughter, after all.

An absolutely beautiful read with elements of body horror. Bravo!

FURY by Christina Sng

This one also starts off with a full paragraph of awkward sentences. This time it was almost enough to make me stop reading. Were it not for my duties as a critic, I would have. Importantly, I did not regret that I kept reading or I would have stopped, duties be damned (it might not be fair, but it’s honest).

Beyond the awkward opening is a somewhat generic zombie horror. However, it was still pretty good. It had all the right elements of survival, struggle, and a sense of sacrifice. It was good, and that is good enough.

This was a little long though fast-paced enough to keep me moving. A lot of it reminded me of 28 Days Later (2002) with the pulse-pounding stylization. The ending, which I won’t spoil, reminded me of I Am Legend by Richard Mathison.

THE MARK by Grace Chan

There’s a constant theme in this anthology about white men who ‘land’ Asian women, only to become bored and dismissive of them by the time the story opens. This must be a consistent issue with their culture, something I’ve had first-hand experience with. I married my wife because she was the perfect partner. Our personalities meshed well, we came from similar backgrounds, had similar likes, and a similar sense of humor. I felt it vain at the time that I was marrying the female version of myself. I was shocked to discover that even my more liberal friends were more preoccupied with the fact that I’d ‘landed an Asian.’ Enough so, over time I even systematically cut those friends out of my life. This is so pervasive, it still comes up to this day and I’m never sure how to address it. Though I’m sure I’m always visibly annoyed when it comes up. People (primarily men) often treat my wife as a fetish, when I see her as my best friend.

The protagonist in this book describes her husband as an imposter, and I think I know why. Far too often are women treated like trophies, conquests that the shine has faded from. I can’t imagine how this reflects on ‘exotic’ trophy wives. This woman’s husband was always an imposter. James was the fabrication, replaced by the robot that was always there.

FRANGIPANI WISHES by Lee Murray

This is like a poem, with emotions and meaning made visual through word. Actually, it’s a fantastic expression of emotions and visual things through word. This is broken by short little poems that separate each moment in the body of the work. The story flows beautifully. There is even a rhythm to it.

Here’s the thing, the story is fascinating, gripping in fact, but it’s not horror in the classical sense and isn’t my usual jam. However, the rhythm, flow, and illustration through the written word were so damn compelling, it hardly mattered. I didn’t just consume this story, I devoured it. I don’t even consider it the best of the anthology, but I clung to every word of it.

That being said… the ending. GOOD LORD that ending hits like a freight train. The rhythm builds up this force and when it finally stops, it’s like a bullet to the sternum.

LITTLE WORM by Geneve Flynn

I’m not sure if anyone reading my literary reviews is familiar with my movie reviews, but I’m kinda well known for one specific review… well, a rant really, about The Taking of Deborah Logan and how it missed the point of its own story. Deborah is succumbing to dementia and as her mind leaves, something else begins to take over. The problem is, the whole concept of isolation and loss is completely destroyed by un-fucking-watchable shakey camera. They had this beautiful thing, wrapped up in a compelling story, and ruined it with a silly gimmick.

This story gives me what The Taking of Deborah Logan, should have given me. It gives me the full blunt force trauma of that loss and the slow isolation of being robbed of one’s faculties.

But what’s eating this woman isn’t dementia or just some random demon. Its a spirit of all her deepest regrets, her hopes, and dreams that have been lost over the years, made manifest.

Closing

Once again -and seriously, I can not stress this enough- this collection is fantastic. It’s beyond worth the cover price, it’s an instant classic and I’d be damned shocked if we never hear from these writes again.

Please read these stories. If you have any regrets after doing so, you need to take a good hard look at your life.

~Reed Alexander

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Getting Over

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If you know me personally, or if you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m a huge wrestling fan. I don’t get to watch it as much as I’d like these days, but I still follow AEW, NWA, and WWE pretty closely. Mostly, I listen to podcasts and watch highlights. I admire the art so much as a form of storytelling. The character work, when done right, can be even more effective and believable than what we see in movies, on TV, or inside a book.

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Fighting As Storytelling

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Photo courtesy of Showtime Boxing

I’ve been watching lots of fights lately. Boxing, UFC, and even the bare-knuckle stuff (which I enjoy, but also can’t believe it’s legal). People often ask me why an intelligent, literate dude like me enjoys watching people beat the crap out of each other. They say my love of combat sports runs in contradiction to my personality. An easy answer would be to simply say people are full of contradictions, and then just put it to bed, but this is a blog, so let’s dig a little deeper.

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Horror Canon

This is a blog post on a publisher’s website, so what I’m about to say may or may not seem that shocking. The majority of kids today profess a dislike of reading. I’m an English teacher. I hear this all the time. Of course part of my job is to make students read. 

There is a set course of study that every state has put in place. In English, this includes works that need to be read. Teachers have some leeway with what they pick, but boundaries still exist. Early American literature has to be covered. World literature is on the curriculum in certain grades. British literature is usually reserved for seniors. Within those boundaries, schools oftentimes have already chosen what is to be read. This selection is usually what is in the textbook. Sometimes English departments get together and decide novels or plays to be read by certain grade levels. 

What is lacking from most of those lists? Horror. It’s because of a variety of reasons. Horror literature in education has a stench about it. The odor of festering corpses permeates any room in which the idea of using horror to bring in reluctant readers is mentioned. 

In a rather old article, but education hangs out in the world of old research, Randi Dickson, who at the time was a doctoral student in education, wrote about how kids loved reading horror fiction, but that it provided nothing to edify them (Dickson, 1998). 

The ironic thing about this article is how often Dickson discusses children’s love of the Goosebumps series. Again, this is a 20-year-old article, but there is a fundamental issue overlooked then as it is now. If you want kids/students to read, they have to like to read. 

Forcing students to read stories they find boring can damage their relationship with reading for the rest of their lives. Once we lose them; we probably aren’t getting them back. This is where horror comes into play. Kids like a good safe scare like Goosebumps or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Here in Alabama, kids devour “true” ghost stories recorded by the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. None of her books are under 30-years-old, but kids still love them because they have a spine tingling aspect to them. Adolescents love scary stuff too. There is a reason why slasher movies exist. It’s not because 40-somethings like me watch them. Teens like them. They buy the movie tickets. That’s why so many characters in those movies are teens, and why so many are no rated PG-13. Guess what, teens will like horror novels too.

Later in her article, Dickson mentions that reader choice, even if it’s horror, might be a way to lure kids into a love of reading that will translate into reading books that she says are edifying (1998). 

There it is. As an English teacher, I believe in letting students have some liberty in choosing what they wish to read. I still run into the kids who have no desire to read. This is when I mention graphic novels. (A blog for another day perhaps). When students have difficulty deciding what they might like to read, I suggest horror titles. 

A quick story. I had a student who was a notorious troublemaker. He was smart. He read well, but he was caught up in the whole I need to be bad to be cool mindset. It came time to select a book to read. He couldn’t come up with anything. I escorted him to the school’s library, and together, we looked through the shelves. I was not his main English teacher. I had him in a remedial course, which he didn’t need to be in. He was a fluent and thoughtful reader. His problem was motivation. I knew he didn’t like his actual English teacher very well.

On the bottom shelf in the part of the library where the horror, fantasy, and sci-fi novels were kept. I saw the perfect book for him: Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin. I grabbed it and told him to check it out. 

“What’s it about?” he asked.

“A group of kids kidnapping their English teacher,” I replied.

“All right.”

He read the book and loved. (No English teachers were harmed in the reading of that book.)

A student engaged by using horror novels. Did this kid go on to become the model student? Of course not, this isn’t fiction, but he may very well have learned to love books. So teachers, parents, etc. should encourage students to pick books they want to read. If it’s horror, good. They will get something out of it; even if, it’s just learning they like books. 

Now some technical stuff:

Work CitedDickson, R. (1998). Horror: to gratify not edify. Language Arts, 76, (2), 115-122.