Indie Comic Review: RAGS #2m

It’s that time again! Another stupid face, another comic review! As I have previously admitted, I don’t read a ton of comics. But I really love RAGS and I’m super excited to be able to review the second issue (which actually comes with the Prologue and the Issue #1 included, a sweet deal!)

I’ve already raved about a lot of what I love about RAGS here.  They have recently been picked up by Antarctic Press, and are beginning to gather a pretty solid online following. For good reason, too. The series handles some serious issues (PTSD, social isolation, depression, etc) all while delivering a fun, tongue-in-cheek zombie comic with AMAZING artwork! Be sure to check out their Patreon to get access to tons of great bonus content and fan art.

This is the Patreon variant cover for issue 2, done by @miss_sashi on Twitter. There is additional fan art in the back, as well.

One of the things I love best about RAGS is the use of colour to guide the reader through the story. The majority of the artwork is done in a gritty grey scale, with pops of colour highlighting important people and places. For example, the green tent above becomes a physical embodiment of Regina’s oppressive mental state. Confined to the tent, isolated from the survivors at Balmart, Regina is forced to confront memories from her past that drop some hints about how she got to be the prickly loner she appears to be. (This flashback ties directly into some intensely emotional bonus content on Patreon!)

And, of course, the artwork itself is brilliant. Luigi Teruel is a master of facial expressions and body language. The characters move so fluidly from frame to frame you almost forget their really still images. Regina Ragowski’s face is based on that of twitter personality Liz Finnegan (@TheGingerarchy) and you can tell that there is a real person behind the character. Her emotions are absolutely stunning to behold and really drive the storyline.

RAGS is full of Easter Eggs and meta jokes for those who are paying attention. I’m not going to spoil too many here (I had a pretty good giggle at black Bob Ross, though). That said, knowing that colour is important and knowing that the writers of RAGS like to drop hints for us, there are some interesting scenes in Issue 2 that really make me excited to see how the story is going to play out. Take the contrast between Regina and the mysterious zombie slayer in the background, for example (above). I have read the script for the upcoming issues, so I know who this is (and you SHOULD be excited, because it’s going to be awesome!). But I love that they’ve decided to drop future characters into the current story line, and really build up a sense of how all these players are operating around one another.

If you aren’t familiar with RAGS, I encourage you to read my review of issue #1. If it sounds like something you’d like, don’t just take my word for it! Head over to the Patreon and get in on it for yourself. If you have already dived in head first, let me know what you think in the comments! Thanks for reading 🙂

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Indie Comic Review: RAGS

So, this is new for me. I’ve never reviewed a comic before. I don’t actually read a lot of comics, to be honest. I’m not sure why that is. I love art and I love a good story. I guess I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the sheer scale of the medium and the ferocity of the fandoms. It’s not a place for dabblers, or so I have told myself. Which was probably for the best, because I can see how easy it would be to fall down the rabbit hole…

Just call me Alice.

I “discovered” RAGS in a round about kind of way, when I met one of the co-creators–Brian Ball–in an online writing group. Initially, we discussed our frustrations with traditional publishing and ways that writers/artists can support one another get more exposure in a super-saturated indie market.

When I realized Ball was a comic writer, I was pretty excited. I know lots of writers, but I had never met anyone who wrote comics. In my naivety, I never actually realized that comics had writers at all. I always imagined the artist was also the one who wrote the story (and maybe that’s true in some cases). Thus my education in comic production began. I’d love to ramble on that; I find it fascinating. But I’ll save that for an interview with the RAGS team sometime in the future.

You’re here for the review…

I was a little nervous when I downloaded the teaser. Although RAGS: Prologue won the 2017 “Best Overall Comic” award from ComixCentral, I was worried that I wouldn’t like it. That might sound silly, but when you hit it off with a potential future collaborator there’s a bit of pressure to actually like one another’s work. At first glance, the premise of RAGS is really not my cup of tea. It’s about a half-naked woman running around trying to find pants during the zombie apocalypse. Trite, right?

Wrong.

RAGS is the story of Regina Ragowski, a veteran of the US Marine Corps, who finds herself running from a hoard of zombies, through a ransacked podunk town, wearing nothing but a bikini. How did this come about? Issue 1 begins to untangle the threads of Regina’s tale as she begins the hunt for something–anything!–to wear.

Some critics have gotten hung up on what it looks like this story is about, to wit: tits, ass, guns, and zombies. To be fair, there is a healthy dose of all of the above. Ball himself jokes that it is “the dumbest thing ever written.” However, this is not what RAGS is about and the story is anything but dumb.

There’s a lot of skin in RAGS, but the absurdity is superficial. I would even argue it is necessary. RAGS needs that little bit of kitsch to rescue it from being too dark. Peel back the bikini, and there’s a really raw, gritty story being uncovered.

So let me tell you why I like this comic.

First of all, the art is incredible. Luigi Tuerel has an undeniable gift. In particular, his ability to use facial expressions and body language to move the story. There is a physicality to the artwork, and I don’t just mean nudity, that transforms the reading experience. Regina Ragowski is portrayed as physically powerful and emotionally vulnerable. I absolutely love the way she moves through the panels. She is a force. Just look at this!

Yes, she’s beautiful. And yes, she’s naked. But Tuerel’s treatment of her is almost visceral. It’s sensual without being sexual. The nudity is somewhat ironic, too. RAGS uses the trope knowingly, having a laugh at the way women are often portrayed in comics and movies, while simultaneously exploiting the “sex sells” adage. Not only that, but it’s a nod to some of the ridiculous situations men and women in the military often find themselves in during combat. Ball writes from experience, too, with twelve years active service in the US Army and four years in the National Guard.

Come on. Just look at these facial expressions. The art is SO GOOD!

And it’s in the art that we get glimpses of the “real” story going on underneath the surface. It would be easy to read RAGS and see Regina as a bit of a bitch. The other characters certainly see her that way. A lot of critics have, too. I think these reviewers missed the complex interplay between the dialogue and the art in RAGS, though. As with all good writing, the story isn’t being handed to you in a neat little package. The characters say one thing, and the imagery says something else. There’s so much tension between the lines it’s almost painful to read. As a reader, to really get the full experience, you have to do some work to unpack the truth.

And it’s well worth the effort. The scene between Regina and her fiance, Sean, with its hints at her backstory, is heartbreaking. On the surface, it’s a couple having an argument and generally being awful to each other. Dig a little deeper and you see that Regina is struggling with PTSD and Sean is struggling with how to support her. This adds a depth to her character that is only beginning to be explored in the first issue. I’ve been privileged enough to read some of the upcoming story, and I am confident in saying that this is a comic worth following.

I highly, highly recommend becoming a Patreon patron for this project, not just because I think RAGS is great and I really want to see this team succeed, but because becoming a patron gives you access to loads of additional content and backstory that really enhance the reading experience. I have said that RAGS is sensual without being sexual, but the bonus content is definitely sexy!

RAGS has just been picked up by Antarctic Press which will help with distribution in the future. But the project is still funded out of pocket by Ball and his team. So if you are even remotely curious, please download the digital copy (it’s only $1.00). If, like me, you fall in love with Regina–boobs, bad attitude, and all–you can get some pretty cool gear from the RAGS Swag store at TeePublic, too!

Once you have a read, let me know what you think in the comments!

Fantasy Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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I just finished reading My Soul to Keep, a supernatural suspense novel from 1997, written by Tananarive Due. I had never heard of Due or her African Immortals series until stumbling upon a suggestion from a “Women of Horror” reading recommendations list. My Soul to Keep is not what I would call a horror novel, exactly. It is pretty scary, but not in a gory gross-out kind of way. Due masterfully integrates the supernatural into a vividly realistic story about Jessica and David, a seemingly perfect middle class African American family with a 5 year old daughter, as they navigate successful careers, marital bliss, and a series of devastating losses.

I’m torn on how I feel about this novel, and I think I’ll have to continue in the series to decide for sure. On one hand, I love Due’s take on the theme of immortality that has been so popular for the last twenty years. If you love vampire books but are tired of vampires, this is a great place to start. Due also tackles some interesting aspects of human history that most popular titles gloss over or avoid entirely, with a focus on African and Middle Eastern history rather than European.

However, the focus of the novel seemed to be on the inexplicable love between Jessica and David, which I just could not get into. From the very beginning, David’s character really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s controlling, condescending, and emotionally manipulative. Jessica is a bright, driven young woman who seems to have fallen for a guy because he’s good looking and good in bed (which–SPOILER ALERT!–he should be after 500 years experience).

The true horror of this novel is their relationship, and I’m not sure yet whether or not that was Due’s intent. I’m a bit cynical after the barrage of novels that romanticize abusive relationships in recent years (and, lets face it, these kinds of stories have a long history–from Wuthering Heights to Twilight and on). As the novel progresses, David gets more and more abusive, and it gets harder and harder to understand why Jessica puts up with it. But we all know people in relationships like this; Due’s story is frustratingly believable. What makes me uneasy is that, even by the end of the novel, it’s not clear whether or not we are supposed to love David like Jessica does or if their love is the horror of the novel.

It wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I could say whether or not I liked it. Due’s writing is lush, and often brilliant. Her characters certainly evoke an emotional response. But when the novel ended, I was still angry. I wanted redemption for Jessica and some kind of punishment for David, and while Due hints that this is where the series is going, you have to read on to find out for sure. But there was enough resolution that I did end feeling like there was hope, and this makes me want to read at least the next book in the series.

I suspect that Due intended for Jessica and David’s relationship to be unsettling. If she did, she executed it beautifully, and my own discomfort is testimony to that. Her depiction of David from his own POV is unequivocally selfish and greedy even as he is professing his love (obsession) for Jessica. I doubt very much that a writer of Due’s skill would make this mistake. But we never really learn how much of this Jessica sees for herself by the end of the novel, and so the emotional arc of Book One feels incomplete.

I’ll definitely read on, though. And I think I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, supernatural suspense, paranormal thrillers, and yes, paranormal romance. Have you read it? What did you think? How about the rest of the series? Let me know in the comments!

SF Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

“I’ve always been fascinated by candles. Looking into the flame calms me down. Here in Nigeria, PHC is always taking the lights, so I keep candles in my room just in case.

PHC stands for “Power Holding Company of Nigeria,” but people like to say it really stands for “Please Hold Candles in Nigeria.” Back in Chicago we had ConEd, and the electricity was always working. Not here, though. Not yet. Maybe in the future.” – from Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

When I sat down to read Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor last December, the power went out. Literally, the moment I finished reading the above passage, the very first two paragraphs of the prologue, my house went dark. I didn’t need a candle to keep reading. I dimmed the background light on my e-book and kept going. Yet, I can’t deny a moment’s hesitation. I felt something significant had happened. This book was going to be special.

Our power outage lasted nine hours which, in the dead of a Saskatchewan winter, on one of the coldest nights of the year, is a little unsettling. I stayed up later than usual, waiting for the heat to come back, reading the story of Sunny—a twelve-year-old Nigerian girl who discovers she is a Leopard Person, a person with natural magical talents—and eventually, I had to crawl into bed with my own children while the house got colder and colder around us. I fell asleep thinking about magic.

Magic is what brought me to Akata Witch, somewhat indirectly. But I’ll get back to that.

I first read about the author, Nnedi Okorafor last year when I belatedly realized that October was Black Speculative Fiction Month, and I read a slew of articles recommending books and authors who are often overlooked in the genre. Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death was on nearly every one of them.

For reasons I don’t recall, I never ended up downloading Who Fears Death, but I did download Akata Witch and Binti—a SF novella about a young woman who gives up her life on earth for a prestigious opportunity to study at the intergallactically famous Oozma University. Now, I have said I don’t recall why I downloaded these two other works and I didn’t download the much-lauded Who Fears Death, but in retrospect I think I can guess. Let me explain.

The realization that there was a Black Speculative Fiction Month came with the dual realization that there was Black Speculative Fiction. Not just that there were black SF writers which, as a fan of Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemison and others, I was aware of—oddly, I found these writers while seeking out female writers in a male-dominated genre without acutely realizing the significance of their race in a historically white-dominated genre. What surprised me, though, was the sheer volume of SF by black writers, entire sub-categories of my self-professed favourite genre, that I had no idea were out there. It was very exciting to me, and also very overwhelming.

After studying English Literature for five years in university, I’ve read a lot of the classics and the critical theory that has come out of them. I’m quite well-versed in the Canon of English Literature. After I graduated, though, I swore off the classics. I had had enough of the stuffy European white dudes over-analyzing “their” world. I re-discovered my love for Science Fiction and Fantasy, where I continued to read mostly white dudes, but at least there were sometimes lasers and spaceships and the occasional fantasy race in which women had power and there were side-characters with “exotic” names and descriptions of skin-colours that made everyone sound edible. (Note to Writers: Please stop describing characters of colour with words like chocolate, coffee, caramel, café o lait, etc. The trope is tired, and your effort is lazy—Yes, I have been guilty of this, too)

It didn’t take me long to realize that much of my frustrations with the Canon were repeating themselves in the genre fiction I was reading. I attempted to remedy this by reading more women writers. I started with Margaret Atwood, whom I have loved since high-school, and branched out from there. Ursula K. Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, Doris Lessing, Sheri S. Tepper… I researched lists, and spent months tracking down new-to-me writers and the massive potential for SF&F exploded before me once again. I was absolutely dumbfounded by how similar and yet how different these genres could be when the stories were told by women.

These lists drew me to other lists: I started reading queer writers, aboriginal writers, Canadian writers, writers who were immigrants or refugees, non-English writers whose works had been translated… The more I branched out into these different intersections via the lives and identities of the writers’ themselves, the more I found how much I had been missing.

The trouble is, when we stick to the classics, and the best-seller lists, we only see a tiny sliver of what is out there. Big publishers tend to stick to what is safe and easy to sell, and has mass-market appeal, and often—unless potential readers have been primed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey—this means it is very similar to something else people have read and bought and loved on a massive scale.

But I don’t read science fiction to feel safe. I read science fiction to explore vastly different worlds, different social and political systems, different sex and gender and sexuality norms—to push human potential for good and evil to its extremes. Right?

Well…

I remember how magic brought me to Akata Witch. It was this preface to the book description by the publisher,

 “Affectionately dubbed “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” Akata Witch weaves together a heart-pounding tale of magic, mystery, and finding one’s place in the world.”

Jumping into the world of Black Speculative Fiction has been exciting. And overwhelming. Without even realizing that I was doing it, I rejected Who Fears Death and downloaded Akata Witch, instead. Because the description for Who Fears Death was a little outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t sure what to expect of it (despite numerous credible sources telling me it was wonderful and right up my alley). I was immediately drawn to Akata Witch, the comparison to a well-loved children’s classic, just different enough to be fresh but familiar enough to be safe.

After I finished reading Akata Witch, and loved every word of it, I enthusiastically recommended it to my friends and family using this exact same description: “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” Which is precisely what the publisher intended, I can only assume.

The problem is that Akata Witch is nothing like Harry Potter, a fact that I didn’t even consider until a friend and fellow writer, Jelani Wilson of Pages Without Paper, called it to my attention. Not only is Okorafor’s novel nothing like Rowling’s, the comparison ultimately places the books in a hierarchy where Harry Potter automatically reigns supreme.

Okorafor tweeted about this problem in January, saying “Thanks to the #BlackHogwarts hashtag, The Akata Books will probably never get away from the reductive label of “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” … I mean, I am flattered and happy to see people excited about the series, but I think my books have a foundation that is quite different from the Potter books. They are their own thing, not the African version of something else that gets to be its own thing.”

And it’s true. My initial impression that there was something special about Okorafor’s Akata books was bang on.

Akata Witch is a brilliant, original story about an exceptional young girl’s journey toward self-discovery. Although there are magical elements to the story, Okorafor explores issues of racism, colourism, poverty, classism, sexism, and violence without shielding her readers with euphemism and fantastical allegory. Sunny and her friends have remarkable abilities, but they are operating in the real world which, in my mind, elevates Akata Witch to something beyond “Black Harry Potter.”

Having a background in English Literature means that my instinct when reading is to mentally compare a book with other books that I have read. I think this can be a great way to explore stories, actually. But stepping outside of my comfort zone of classic/white/Western literature means I have to rethink the way that I do this.

For one thing, I need to read a lot more! I can’t critique a writer like Okorafor the way I can Margaret Atwood. I don’t have the foundation yet. Or, rather, my foundation is the same but I’m trying to build on different terrain. Atwood I understand within the context of the Canon. I studied her in high school alongside Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence (Canadian women writers), and George Orwell and William Golding (Science Fiction classics). Even while Atwood has resisted classification as a feminist or science fiction writer, I feel comfortable viewing her work through those lenses and her own definitions of those terms. Comparing and contrasting Atwood’s work to other white “classic” authors has never felt reductive to me. In a sense, classic writers are all talking to each other and about each other and these comparisons come easily and naturally.

What do we do with writers, and genres, that are a part of a different conversation, though? Ones that have no interest in speaking to the so-called Canon except, perhaps, to reject it. Ones that have their own Canons to explore? If I’m going to venture out of my comfort zone, into new-to-me literary worlds, I need also to be prepared to let go of my old-world assumptions and expectations.

Of course, I can compare Okorafor to writers like Atwood (or J.K. Rowling), and these observations would be valid. But if I only compare her to white western writers, I am missing out on the other myriad intersections of her work. Comparing Akata Witch to Harry Potter has some merit. But implying that Akata Witch is a Nigerian iteration of Rowling’s story completely negates the rich history of black women writers, Nigerian writers, Afro-futurists, magical realists, etc. that Okorator belongs to, and reduces her work to a mere reflection of a single pop culture phenomenon.

I’m writing this review-cum-essay to unpack my own goals and motives as I attempt to expand my reading experience. But I also want to encourage other people to do the same. Whatever your reading niche has been, no matter how vast or varied, I guarantee there is something new out there for you. I hope you’ll seek it out, and be ready to explore these new worlds on their own terms, to allow them to be their own stories.

Horror Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

Horror Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

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“The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle is one of the books that came up when I was reading up on Black Speculative Fiction Month last October. This wonderful novella is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook,” one of the most notoriously racist of Lovecraft’s oft-bigoted tales of cosmic horror.

Now, I have to admit that I haven’t actually read “The Horror at Red Hook.” Critics seem to almost unanimously agree that, while much of Lovecraft’s fiction has strengths that elevate it above the author’s ugly prejudices, “The Horror at Red Hook” is essentially without any redeemable qualities. And, I also have to admit, while I have studied Lovecraft, and actually do enjoy a handful of his tales, for the most part I find his writing painfully archaic and obtuse. Even while his Cthulhu Mythos has inspired some of my own fiction writing, I have had to force myself through the majority of his work. So, without any redeeming qualities, I doubt I’d be able to finish “The Horror at Red Hook” if I did try to read it.

Now, it’s hard to get around the fact that Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror writers of all time, even while modern critics are finally acknowledging and deconstructing his unapologetic asshatery. How much are we willing to overlook in the name of art? This is something that a lot of horror and science fiction writers are considering.

“Lovecraft. . . opened the way for me,” writes Stephen King, “as he had done for others before me…. it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

And it’s true. It seem inescapable. Even for those who have never read Lovecraft, it is impossible to read modern horror that has not been in some way influenced by his writing.

Reading “The Ballad of Black Tom” has really made me think about how much harder it must be for marginalized horror/SF writers to reconcile this influence in a positive way. LaValle’s dedication in his novella is poignant. “For H.P. Lovecraft,” it reads, “with all my conflicted feelings.” But “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a perfect example of how such a reconciliation might be accomplished.

“The Ballad of Black Tom” revisits the world of Lovecraft’s Red Hook neighbourhood from the perspective of a black man, Charles Thomas Tester, living in Harlem in the 1920s. My understanding of the Lovecraft original is that it’s basically a screed against brown people, immigrants, people who don’t speak English, and especially brown immigrants who don’t speak English.

LaValle actually does an excellent job of retaining the bigotry of some of these characters, while looking at them critically through the eyes of Tommy Tester. The horrors that Tester experiences are as much a product of racism in 1920s New York as they are the more cosmic horrors that his counterpart and erstwhile employer, Robert Suydem, is courting.

Tommy Tester’s experiences as he moves from Harlem, to Suydem’s upscale white neighbourhood, to the immigrant centre of Red Hook demonstrate the horror of being an outsider, of being othered by society. It is only when Tester has been completely isolated, after his own personal horror and loss has released him from his sense of humanity, that he becomes Black Tom–embracing inhumanity as a path to freedom. Even still, the true monsters in “The Ballad of Black Tom” are all-too human.

Ruthanna Emrys sums it up nicely in a review for Tor. “The task of today’s cosmic horror—if it seeks to touch on readers’ real fears, and not simply reflect the squids of particular authors—is to connect the vast inhumanity of an uncaring universe with the vast inhumanity of entirely banal humans,” she writes. “This, LaValle accomplishes admirably. Cthulhu is a metaphor for us; we become, if we aren’t careful, a metaphor for Cthulhu.”

 

SF Review: Absolute Valentine by Tom Haswell

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Absolute Valentine: Memory Green” is Season One of the first fiction mini-series released by the Monolith, set in Crushpop Production‘s Goremageddon universe. The series was inspired by an 80s synth band by the same name, who teamed up with the Monolith to create the series (check them out on Facebook here!) This is my second venture into the world of Goremageddon; I explored “Chinatown” with Chris Reynolds last week. I’m loving the varied landscapes and characters available in this universe, and I can totally see why the game appeals to so many! Where “Chinatown” was like a gritty hard-boiled detective story set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles safe zone, “Absolute Valentine” is a sci-fi tech spin on vigilante justice in a post-apocalyptic New York.

Tom Haswell’s “Absolute Valentine” is anything but sweet. “Memory Green” begins with Valentine after he wakes up in a back alley, blinded, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Bits and pieces of his old life slowly start to filter back to him as we progress through the episodes, and we learn with him as he meets friends and enemies and discovers who he really is.

The beauty of “Memory Green” is in how seamlessly it blends genres and SF tropes into something truly unique. Military super-soldiers, Re-Newed York City crime-family terf wars, cyborg mercenaries, and twisted medics combine into the perfect storm of ultra-violence and non-stop action. Warning: blood and guts abound!

“Absolute Valentine” is definitely more action heavy than “Chinatown,” though I think there will be some crossover in the audiences. “Chinatown” isn’t lacking in action by any means, but it’s plot is more character driven. Valentine is pushed more by his circumstances. “Memory Green’s” action is plot driven and relentlessly paced as Val is forced to kill or be killed. He must defend himself against an onslaught of attackers and try to stay one step ahead of the one who wants him dead.

While there may not be a lot of time for Valentine’s self-reflection in “Memory Green” I found the ending of season one to be a very satisfying revelation of his true character, and I think that revelation is what is really going to propel the mini-series in future seasons. Revenge is sweet, in the end, but even better is the promise of Valentine’s rebirth and what that’s going to mean for Re-Newed York City.

I, for one, am looking forward to it. If you haven’t gotten on board with serialized fiction yet, either one of the Monolith’s mini-series would be a great place to start. You can read them as they’re released (monthly) or jump in and binge-read them once a season is complete. Either way, it’s a pretty addicting medium to read it, and I’m loving it!

Horror Review: “Let’s Play White” by Chesya Burke

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Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke was one of the short horror/dark fantasy collections I grabbed after researching Black Speculative Fiction Month last October.

From the publisher, Apex Book Company:

Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke builds dark fantasy and horror short stories on African and African American history and legend, playing with what it means to be human.

White brings with it dreams of respect, of wealth, of simply being treated as a human being. It’s the one thing Walter will never be. But what if he could play white, the way so many others seem to do? Would it bring him privilege or simply deny the pain? The title story in this collection asks those questions, and then moves on to challenge notions of race, privilege, personal choice, and even life and death with equal vigor.

From the spectrum spanning despair and hope in “What She Saw When They Flew Away” to the stark weave of personal struggles in “Chocolate Park,” Let’s Play White speaks with the voices of the overlooked and unheard. “I Make People Do Bad Things” shines a metaphysical light on Harlem’s most notorious historical madame, and then, with a deft twist into melancholic humor, “Cue: Change” brings a zombie-esque apocalypse, possibly for the betterment of all mankind.

Gritty and sublime, the stories of Let’s Play White feature real people facing the worlds they’re given, bringing out the best and the worst of what it means to be human. If you’re ready to slip into someone else’s skin for a while, then it’s time to come play white.

 

And it is all it is cracked up to be. I enjoyed Let’s Play White so much that I couldn’t put it down, even when I knew it meant I wasn’t going to sleep. None of these stories is scary in a gory or violent kind of way, not really, although there is some of each peppered through the pages. What makes Burke’s collection so frightening is how human it is. The scariest parts of these stories are not the supernatural elements, but the human reactions to the supernatural. If you’ve ever wondered who you can trust in a changing world, the answer in Burke’s world is no one, except yourself, and even then you must be careful.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of horror, and what makes a story scary, ever since I started reading the genre in earnest. And I think there is something about being “The Other” that is terrifying, on an existential level. This is why, I feel, the best horror of our generation is being written by Othered people: women, people of colour, LGBTQ writers, etc. People who write from the fringes of their society (this shifts depending on the society, of course) Burke does a wonderful job of illustrating this kind of fear, what I consider the real horror of the human condition, in her collection of short stories.

All of this comes to a head in the finale story, “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason,” the longest in the book, and certainly the most haunting. “The Teachings…” follows the titular character, a Hoo Doo woman who finds her way to Colored Town, Kentucky to save two young girls that might follow in her footsteps. The horror of “modern day” Colored Town in contrast to the Underground Railroad of slavery from a few generations earlier is an excellent reflection on the vulnerability of marginalized people in North America today. And you won’t be able to shake some of these images, I promise you.

Chesya Burke is a writer to follow, not just for the horror/dark fantasy crowds, but for anyone looking to slip into another person’s skin (and for some, to really feel what it is to be The Other) even for a little while. Her characters are deep, true, and wonderfully, unapologetically  human. She’s written some of my favourite women protagonists in a long time. Check her out!