Words for Thought #117 min read

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It’s spring, a time to consider the cycle of death and rebirth, new life emerging from the blanket of winter. Some of these stories do feature literal rebirth, but what really ties them together is the question of what it means to be alive in the first place. What does it mean to control your own destiny, what does it mean to simply be a character is someone else’s story?

If We Survive the Night by Carlie St. George from the March issue of the Dark (https://thedarkmagazine.com/if-we-survive-the-night/) tackles the question of agency head-on. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of a group of young women – Heather, Harper, Megan, Cindy, and Abby. They are living tropes, horror movie final girls caught in a hellish cycle of resurrection in a strange afterlife.

“Yup. It’s Resurrection, then oatmeal. Tuna sandwiches, then Contrition. Lasagna, then Penance. The angel runs a tight, blood-spattered ship. I swear, if I could just order some fucking pizza, it wouldn’t…oh. Oh, tell me you went for the phone. You did, didn’t you? That’s so precious–“

Each night the girls die violently in slasher movie scenarios. A stone angel resurrects them every morning, and asks them to repent their sins. Cindy is a true believer; she’s certain she’ll be forgiven someday. Heather thinks the whole thing is bullshit. Each girl has her own perspective on the situation, her own private struggle to live out in the background of the killings. From the start, St. George elevates the girls above their tropey origins by making the violence unflinching and real. The girls deaths aren’t for titillation, or public consumption. They are painful, and told from the perspective of the dead and the dying. Further setting the girls apart from being mere tropes is their relationships – they fight each other, but they also fight for each other, and eventually they learn to fight back. By her nature, a final girl is alone, but when they learn to stand together, they become stronger than the stories that birthed them.

Continuing the horror movie theme, The Girl Who’s Going to Survive Your Horror Movie by Barbara A. Barnett from March’s Flash Fiction Online (https://flashfictiononline.com/main/article/girl-whos-going-survive-horror-movie/) offers a more light-hearted take on the final girl trope. The story adopts a conversational style, as the “final girl” addresses her would-be killer, skewering standard horror movie beats, characters, and settings one by one.

So far we’ve passed an Indian burial ground, an abandoned town, an abandoned hospital, an abandoned carnival, an abandoned summer camp, hillbillies, a hitchhiker, a cabin in the woods, and some silver-haired kids peering out from behind cornstalks.

The story is reminiscent of Cabin in the Woods, and in fact seems to be in direct conversation with the movie. However, unlike Cabin in the Woods, the characters (except for one) utterly refusal to play by the rules. Like St. George’s final girls, Barnett’s characters transcend their origins be refusing be lone survivors. Each of them sees themselves as the protagonist, and no one is the expendable “plucky best friend”. Even at flash length, the story makes a strong point about throw away characters only there to support someone else’s plot, like fridged girls and characters of color who die to inspire the white protagonist. Along the way, the story offers cute nods to various horror movies and books without ever being cheesy. 

Moving away from horror to offer a science fictional take on the question of identity and destiny is Auspicium Meloris Aevi by JY Yang from the March/April issue of Uncanny (https://uncannymagazine.com/article/auspicium-melioris-aevi/). The fiftieth Harry Lee is one of a series of clones training at an organization that specializes in tailor-made copies of world leaders, military geniuses, and scientists. Rich clients can order themselves a clone in the mold of Hillary Clinton, or Vladimir Putin, with each clone undergoing a series of tests and training to make them as much like the original as possible. The story opens on a simulation, where Harry is supposed to escape death, talking his way out of being transported with other soldiers to a beach to be shot. Instead he tries to warn the others, believing that the training AI will reward him for original thinking. Instead, he is killed within the simulation, and ends up with a score of zero. After his friend Volodya, a clone of Vladimir Putin, is murdered by one of his fellow Putin clones, Harry sets out to confront the facility’s Administrator. He wants to know that all the training and competition has a point, and whether there’s more to him than his genetics and programming. Yang touches on questions of destiny and predetermination on a genetic level and an environmental level. What makes a person who and what they are, and can similar circumstances recreate that? Despite both nature and nurture trying to fit him into a template, it’s clear the fiftieth Harry Lee has free will, and a mind and personality of his own. It’s like the question posed by the story of the Garden of Eden in the Judeo-Christian tradition – without the knowledge of good and evil, without the capability to choose the good over the bad, can a person be said to be good at all? What is preferable, willful good, or untainted innocence? Yang ultimately leaves the story open-ended. The clones are meant to use their free will to choose to conform to their template. However, being bred for that one choice his entire life, leaves Harry to realize the possibility of freedom – when it is ultimately offered to him – can be just as terrifying as constraint. Faced with infinite possibilities, Harry is paralyzed. Where he goes – back to conformity, or to earn his own destiny, as Volodya once suggested to him – is left to the reader to decide.

Come See the Living Dryad by Theodora Goss, published at Tor.com (https://www.tor.com/2017/03/09/come-see-the-living-dryad/), provides a historical/fantastical take on the idea of a character expected to fit a certain ideal. Daphne Merwin has a rare genetic condition, Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia, making her skin appear bark-like, and causing growths like tree branches. Her story unfolds through a series of diary entries, newspaper articles, and the research of one of Daphne’s descendants, who shares her condition. As a child, Daphne’s brother displays her on a street corner for pennies. She is “rescued” by a man who professes love, but who is ultimately a charlatan, wanting to use her for his own academic sideshow. He makes her into living mythology, displaying her as a dryad to classrooms of rapt students. When Daphne is brutally murdered, a man named Alfred Potts is arrested and executed for the crime, but through her historical research, Daphne’s descent uncovers something closer to the truth. The story makes effective use of alternating voices and points of view, with Daphne’s voice being the most poignant.

To them, I am merely a curiosity, and sometimes I wish that I could speak—he has told me not to speak, that only he is to speak, ever. My speaking would destroy the illusion. But I wish to tell them . . . what? That I am real, flesh and blood, not wood. That I am a woman, not a fairy tale. I have a soul, as they do.

In being made to fit a certain mold, Daphne’s humanity is stripped away. She has literally lost her voice, and even history remembers her as others wanted her to appear. Illustrations of Daphne accentuate her condition. She is asked to pose with her arms held out like a tree, sitting on a Corinthian column to evoke Greek mythology. Even her gravestone lists her as the Living Dryad; as a person, she is all but erased. Daphne’s situation can be seen as a metaphor for the lives of women silenced through abuse, exploitation, or even by being idolized and put on a pedestal. Daphne is all three. Class also plays a role, as Daphne’s poverty makes it easier for her husband to exploit her. There are similarities between this story and Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s The Orangery, reviewed in January’s column. Both are stories of living legends reclaiming their individuality and retaking their story, though in Stufflebeam’s story, Daphne is an actual dryad, and here she is human. In the end, this Daphne’s voice is finally heard, though sadly not in her own lifetime. It’s a melancholy story, but one that is beautifully told.

To round things out, The Last Kiss by Mario Milosevic, published at Daily Science Fiction (https://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/aliens/mario-milosevic/the-last-kiss) is a bizarre, and surprisingly bittersweet tale.

I don’t know what made me want to plant that initial kiss. He had crashed in the hills above my house. I had seen his craft cut the sky open, a luminous wound like a surgeon’s scalpel track, oozing light instead of blood.

The kiss is chaste, and following it, the unnamed protagonist takes the wounded alien in and cares for him as best as possible. While the alien isn’t a typical archetype, it is a blank canvas upon which the narrator projects their desires. The alien can’t  (or won’t) communicate, so the protagonist knows nothing about him, save his appearance, which is something like a purple lobster. Unlike Daphne’s husband in Goss’ story, the projection of desire here is benign. The protagonist doesn’t try to make the alien into something it’s not. They accept the alien as unknowable, leading to a companionable relationship. The story offers no great revelations or moral. It is a slice of life, two beings sharing time together, watching old movies, and keeping each other company. It’s an oddly touching story, with some evocative writing, painting a picture of loneliness and acceptance, which makes an interesting companion piece to both Goss’ story, and E. Lily Yu’s story from last month’s column. Here, the alien is accepted and left alone. Its arrival is treated as simply a fact of life, as is its eventual death from injuries sustained in its crash. The Last Kiss is a story of little moments, quiet moments, offering a sweet take on the idea of first contact – peace might be achieved through everyone letting each other be and, of course, through watching old John Wayne movies.

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