In His Father’s Place » Lars Schwed Nygård

As his lunatic father dies and bequeaths to him the family mansion, ambitious barrister Pollonius Ambrose sees an opportunity to once and for all escape a career-murdering legacy.
But first, Pollonius must confront the true mystery of his birthright – a mystery that runs far deeper and many shades darker than his lawyer’s mind can comprehend. —From Amazon

In His Father’s Place, by Lars Schwed Nygård, is a darkly madcap horror tale about a man returning to his childhood home after his father dies. Pollonius Ambrose can’t decide whether he wants to know the truth of his inheritance or to destroy it forever. The feverish spree that ensues is equal parts Poe, Gaiman, and Old Greg.

Nygård’s description of Pollonius’s father, Aldus Grim, as a lunatic in the summary is a bit misleading, probably intentionally so, as I discovered. The man may have been eccentric and was no doubt embarrassing, but he is also devilishly clever. By his son’s account, Grim’s life work was a series of theatrical productions known as the Wise Trout Dialogues, which bring unending shame to Pollonius. As a boy at boarding school, he was humiliated by the following review in the local paper:

From this day on, let not a single enthusiast of the thespian arts live in ignorance of the name Aldus Grim. Knowing the name should serve as inoculation against suffering the pox of absurdist infantilisms that bleed from this undeservedly self-proclaimed playwright’s pen.

As an adult, Pollonius changes his surname to escape the unfortunate association and spends his career seeking exactly the serious respect he never found at Blackpond House, the family mansion, after his mother’s tragic (and suspicious) drowning when he was a child.

The night of the story, Pollonius is revisiting the ruined estate for the first time in decades to set free his father’s macaw and parakeet. The birds, though, won’t leave, and more bothersome still, they follow him from room to room squawking the delirious words of Aldus Grim. Not until the parakeet warbles, “Pollonius Grim was never my son,” does it dawn on Pollonius that any logic might be at work in their utterings. The possibility that some proof exists to sever his connection with Aldus is too tantalizing for Pollonius to ignore. As this is a horror story, unlocking the birds’ riddles leads Pollonius to a bait and switch worthy of Papa Justify.

Nygård brilliantly captures the tension between Pollonius and Blackpond House, both long ignored, both bowed under heavy secrets, both unable to banish the demons caged within. It is a physical struggle from the opening scene in which Pollonius fights his way through thorns to reach the front door. Nygård fills the space with bizarre details that ride the sharp edge between chaos and cunning: faux-Egyptian columns, Chinese demon’s head knocker, an ebony desk, a barnacle-ridden ship’s wheel chandelier, a crystal ball, a skull inkpot for Pollonius to smash against his father’s portrait (Hamlet twofer). There’s even a creepy, nearly-perfect recreation of his childhood bedroom featuring a photograph of his dead mother.

Sigils, runes, and other nonsense scarred the ancient oak boards. Had his father intended them to ward off ghosts or evil spirits? If so, he should have carved them into his own deranged head.

The most curious artifact is a trophy rainbow trout mounted above the drawing room door, which is singularly dust-free. He’s been told it is a reminder of a happy father-son fishing expedition on Black Lake, but as we learn, he would be wise not to trust his memories. The symbolism of “luring” a fish is noteworthy.

All of this is surrounded by effective descriptions of the humidity, the moldiness of the ramshackle structure that infiltrates with each breath. Under such circumstances, it seems only natural that Pollonius expresses himself with a series of sharp-object metaphors (axe, scythe, whip, chain of fire). It is exactly this fixation—on destroying his father—that makes Pollonius so vulnerable to Aldus’s machinations. All the son ever wanted was to be taken seriously. Perhaps he is not so unlike his father after all.

In His Father’s Place:

  • Writing: 5
  • Plot: 5
  • Technical: 4
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Ring of Winter » Jonathan Sulzbach

In a society that euthanizes its elderly, James McGregor has been given a second chance. He is one of a few select citizens living at a remote facility in the Cascade Mountains, receiving skills for social reintegration. But Officer Packet, a young man assigned to oversee James’ progress, is determined to kill him. —From Amazon

In an enlightening afterword, Jonathan Sulzbach admits he originally wrote Ring of Winter during his university days to subvert his professors’ bias towards literary fiction that explored the human condition. His real goal, he says, was to write a dystopian science fiction screenplay. In my own experience, there’s really no way to write in defiance of the basic premise of literature yet within its forms and structures. As a result of Sulzbach’s experiment, Ring of Winter, marries the best aspects of literary and genre fiction. It has art enough to elevate it and plot enough to keep it interesting—a formula that delights me as a reader.

Sulzbach has created a world in which people are judged by their value to society. For those judged to have no value, the penalty is stiff: euthanasia. As you can imagine, it’s not a hospitable place for the elderly. The main character, James, is a 65-year-old former boxer with very little motivation to make himself useful anymore. Why hasn’t he been euthanized? He has an important advantage: his son, Daniel, a politician, got him into a facility where elderly people train to increase their value. To Daniel’s chagrin, James has shown no interest in becoming a painter or potter or any of the other “skills” on offer at the facility, and, despite Daniel’s efforts, James is on track for removal. James, though, is not without strengths. His strength happens to be strength. He’s lost only a quarter of his fitness. As a former boxer, we’re to believe that even at a quarter strength, he’s a formidable 65-year-old. Though it’s an accomplishment of sorts, his fitness is of little use to anybody but James himself.

Jules, another resident at the facility describes James thusly:

‘You’re a rebel, I get that. But a rebel’s got to have a cause, and you don’t.’

Turns out, long ago, in the boxing ring, James accidentally killed the father of one of the guards. That guard, Harold Packet, is bent on revenge. This just might be the motivation James needs.

Sulzbach details this dystopian world and navigates us through the emotional obstacles in a compact eighteen pages. He tells the story in present tense, which gives it an immediacy that is vital to its tension. In the afterword, Sulzbach says he intentionally avoided any interiority, concentrating only on physical details and dialogue. I noticed immediately when I started reading. The first two sections are in slow-motion, selectively focusing on the minutia of the facility and James, the man within it. I read it as a reflection on the narrow focus of James’s life. By the third section, once James begins to interact with others, the aperture opens up, and the story finds a regular pace, which increases as Sulzbach raises the stakes. Though James starts the story in slow-motion, by the end, he’s advanced to a run.

Sulzbach’s use of the color white—white snow, white hair, white eyes, white gloves, white uniforms, white blur, white-hot energy—seem to signal death, the light we advance toward. Weighed down with guilt and regret, over time, James began to accept it. Though death may seem acceptable from a distance, up close, it’s unbearable. When confronted with his mortality, that old boxer’s instinct takes over, and James fights. The bright red blood that comes of it represents life. James hasn’t lost the battle yet. He may not have been training to increase his “value” to society, but luckily for him, he’s been training for the fight we all face eventually. He’s found his cause, and he’s prepared.

Ring of Winter:

  • Writing: 5
  • Plot: 5
  • Technical: 5

Meat » Foster Lenox

When Simon helped his friend Fred escape from prison, his only worry was paying back the man who broke them out. Low on gas on an empty highway and desperate for money and food, they stop at a small restaurant with a plan: eat, grab the cash, and go. Inside, they meet a small family – a husband, wife, and teenage daughter – struggling to get by in a world that has deserted them. As Fred’s mood turns dark, Simon begins to worry that their quick meal will dissolve into murder. Now, Simon must figure out a way to get Fred back on the road before things turn bad. What Simon doesn’t know is that this family has a secret, and either way, this meal ends in blood. —From Amazon

I love the title of Foster Lenox’s story: Meat. In addition to the obvious reference to the barbecue served at the restaurant where the story takes place, Meat, is the substance beneath our human façade. It’s at the heart of the story—discovering what others are hiding from you and what you are hiding from yourself. Ultimately, a façade is a trap.

It’s a little difficult to get too deep with Lenox’s symbolism without also giving up some of his plot. Realistically, though, like his characters, he doesn’t seem to trouble himself too much with keeping it a secret. I had a sense for the plot twist from reading the blurb before I even bought the story. What happens isn’t much of a surprise, but I wanted to know how it happens.

The story is told in third person from the point of view of Simon, one of two murderers who’ve escaped from prison and are running from the cops. He and his partner-in-crime, Fred, represent two types of criminal. Fred is a remorseless sociopath totally lacking in empathy. Simon not only knows right from wrong, but he feels guilt about past crimes and anxiety about future crimes. He has no agency in his own actions, though. His body controls him, his thoughts control him, and Fred controls him. Lenox personifies Simon’s individual body parts as if to say he is not their sum. “Certainty clamped down” on Simon’s thoughts, his heart jumped, his abs tightened, “smell clawed at his nostrils,” beer gagged him, his “insides ground against each other.” Lenox is telling us Simon isn’t the whole pig—he’s the cuts of meat.

No wonder it’s so hard for the guy to make a decision. For Simon, everything is a question. He needs constant validation. On the other hand, Fred’s decisive. They have no money and nearly no gas in their stolen car. Fred instructs Simon to stop at Patty’s Best Barbecue, the only open-for-business establishment for miles. Fred’s idea is to eat a fine meal and steal some money on their way out the door. If they have to kill someone, he’s prepared with a bloody butcher knife he kept from a previous murder scene. Simon doesn’t want any more violence, but he’s powerless. His body controls his rational mind.

He knew, deep down, that he should be screaming at himself. That he should be running inside to stake the cashier to the wall, grab the cash and book it out of there. These thoughts flowed into him with the certainty of natural order.

But he was hungry. Tired. He wanted rest.

What comes next is a cautionary tale of what happens when you let a sociopath take the lead.

Lenox, as I mentioned, foregoes subtlety in describing the logo on the side of the delivery truck parked in front of Patty’s Best Barbecue. “A cartoon pig dressed in overalls wielded a spatula and waved.” It’s humorous foreshadowing of the most literal kind. What business does a pig have selling barbecued pork? When Simon meets Patty, the proprietress, and notes her resemblance to the cartoon pig, it becomes an even more pointed metaphor. Like a cartoon, Patty is hiding something dark behind a façade of childlike levity.

For a deserted restaurant in the middle of nowhere run by a family of three, there’s a lot of personality contained within its walls. Becca, the moody teen, warns the men away. Her insults (ass-face, dickbird) are meant to make the place seem unappealing, to reveal the reality behind the guise. She retreats into her Gameboy to block out the world in which she exists. Yet, she does what she’s told no matter how wicked the request.

The real standout character, though, is Patty herself. The smiling cacti pattern on her clothes is perfectly suited to one who is friendly from a distance but prickly up close. She is delicate in her care for Simon and Fred—placing the plastic utensils, calling them gentlemen, blushing when she smiles—but she bellows like bull to her husband and daughter and lays down some pretty coarse insults when defied. In his Amazon blurb, Lenox refers to a family “struggling to get by in a world that has deserted them.” While it’s true they are operating a business in a remote area, I don’t buy the struggle. She exudes an undeniable pleasure in her work.

The joy of reading the interactions of the two convicts and the wholesome-looking family is all in the dialogue. Lenox gives it an easy rhythm and irreverence with just a touch of folksiness. There’s no one to like in this story, but that can be sweet pleasure when done well. As a writer, Lenox trusts his gut in the way Simon can’t. This story is quite like the bloody, undercooked meat Patty serves the men—it leaves you a little queasy.

Meat:

  • Writing: 4
  • Plot: 4
  • Technical: 4

In the Garden of Giants » A.Z. Anthony

Honor be damned, there’s glory at stake. It is the duty of great men to explore the wild unknown, to go where others will not. Harper fancies himself just such a man as he leads an expedition into the perilous Ghairkhan range. Often called the “Garden of Giants,” it is a sacred land meant only for the honored spirits of the ancestors, or so say the locals. But it’s the place of lesser men to fear the dead as Harper seeks to claim his title as the conqueror of Ghairkhan. —From Amazon

In the Garden of Giants opens with a man standing before mountain range more massive than any he’s ever seen. It is untamed and formidable. Its legend towers over all others in a world where legends reign. Harper is an explorer, and he has a single goal: to expand the limits of the known world for the sake of “glory, fame, and a name that will live on after one’s death.” The story may be a fantasy, but we all know someone with Harper’s ambition. He is determined to be the first to conquer the mountain, Ghairkhan, no matter what he must sacrifice. It will establish his legacy. There is no warning stark enough to stop him. A man willing to risk so much must, by necessity, be convinced of his own superiority. It is what compels him to ignore all the warnings—he believes they come from lesser men. Harper believes all men to be less than him, even those he leads. In fact, the porters who’ve undertaken the mission with him are uncommonly idiotic, willing to risk their lives for mere gold.

Crude as they might be, he much enjoyed the company of simple men. Just as a bowl was most useful when empty, prepared to be assigned any variety of tasks, so were the minds of men like Sterne. The prospect of good pay compelled them to any amount of toil more civilized men would find unbearable. And besides, it was the duty of those of means to improve the situation of the less fortunate.

With such a set-up, it’s hard to imagine Harper will receive the kind of glory he seeks before the story’s end. To think so, you’d have to be a bigger idiot than Harper.

“The Garden of Giants is no place for the living. It is a sacred land, inhabited only by the spirits of the honored dead.”
“So you insist on telling me.”
“And yet you do not hear.”

In just 18 pages, A.Z. Anthony weaves a new world only to unravel it. He has a decisive, unwavering voice that maintains total control over the story even as it descends into chaos. Extreme mountaineering is always a risky proposition, so I was expecting tension, but Anthony taunts Harper with a series of trials that left me nicely unsettled. Anthony is skilled at plucking out disturbing details and buffing them to a shine, as when one porter falls to his death:

The man was silent as he fell, spinning end over end over end and looking increasingly tiny in the seemingly endless open air. Harper averted his eyes at the last second but there was no escaping the sound. A faint crack, quiet at such a distance, but as clearly shown on their cringing faces, heard by all.

It’ll give you shivers. In the Garden of Giants is dark, as promised. It is clearly a set-up for further exploration of the world Anthony has created, and he says as much at the end. However, it has a pretty giant footprint of its own.

In the Garden of Giants:

  • Writing: 5
  • Plot: 4
  • Technical: 4

Moving Day » George Ciardi

 

A short story about a couple forced to move after their landlord sells the house they have been living in for twenty-three years, told from the point of view of a neighbor who has been helping them move into their van. The house, a dilapidated rental sandwiched between an interstate freeway and a Seattle city park, exists in a surreal world of odd and troubled characters from the neighborhood, who stop by on moving day to offer assistance or solace to the evicted couple. —From Amazon

George Ciardi’s Moving Day opens with a nostalgic scene of times past followed by a description of the destruction time has wrought. Neighbor Dave who used to sing God Bless America in his doorway, is a stand-in for a nation in turmoil. Those patriotic performances of the old days are long gone, and since then, not only has Dave, a Vietnam vet, fallen into decay, but so has his home, and with it, the neighborhood in which the story’s narrator, George (like the author), has lived for decades.

The metaphor could hardly be more precise:

I have asked Dave, on rare occasions when I’ve run into him, if he needed anything and he’s always answered no, gruffly, as if offended, and that he’s fine, and he seems to mean it, or maybe I just wanted to hear it that way. He laughs easily in general conversation and has bad opinions about the world, some of which we share. He has told me never ever to give Julie Newmar [his cat] any food or water when we see her sleeping in our garden. He shall be her only provider.

If, as narrator George tells us, “Dave was a man of his country,” then Ciardi is depicting an America that was once productive, but has lost its way, doesn’t know how to ask for help or accept it if offered, is convinced of it’s own righteousness, yet ineffectual in the care of those for which it bears responsibility.

Moving Day is rife with such commentary. Ciardi’s rich descriptions of a neighborhood simultaneously in decline and in the throws of gentrification are masterful. He nails the details that bring the neighborhood to life: a rusty bedpan, a stripped bike, “siding that couldn’t have defended itself against a package of Saltine crackers,” “constellations of long ago shattered glass,” fencing held together with bungee cord, “the grape vine that spent the summers snaking around the supports of our carpenter ant infested deck. This was our home.” It is both beautiful and structurally unsound.

George, the narrator, and his wife observe the changes with a mixture of fear and uncertainty. Sound familiar?

The story is centrally supported by layered characterizations of eclectic neighborhood regulars. Like the United States, the neighborhood isn’t its state of progress or decay, it is the people who live there. In this case, Ciardi weaves a multicultural melange of immigrants, Native Americans, white people, black people, drug addicts, homeless, mentally ill, the lost, the hopeless and those who, against all odds, are perfectly satisfied with their lives.

A former physics professor turned “unintentional destroyer of houses” from Bangladesh named Dr. Islam (though he is a converted Christian) asks George and his wife, Elise, if they are moving each time he sees them. “To him, we represented sanity in the neighborhood, something to preserve and sustain hope. We gave it dignity. Either that, or he wanted to buy our house.” George and Elise don’t have plans to move, but they hang onto letters from real estate agents eager to help them sell out to apartment and condo developers “just in case things got too wild.”

Their conflict is at the heart of our current social and political unrest. Like George’s neighbors, Walter and Sylvia, who’ve been evicted and must move, our problems paralyze us.

Sylvia was a pain in the ass most of the time. She lamented nonstop her myriad of troubles, but seemed to seek them out, to hunt them down with lasso and microscope, to find what misery she could to add to her pile, as if there was nothing she could do about it, as if the reason she couldn’t get her shit together was all this damned misery that seemed to follow her everywhere.

The house Walter and Sylvia have inhabited for years has finally been sold out from under them, but no one knows if the new owners are another developer ready to raze it to the ground or a rumored young couple who want to renovate it. And, really, which of these scenarios is preferable?

Ciardi is not hinting here. He is screaming at us to look at our world and take action. Life in the neighborhood for George and Elise is a constant effort to manage the delicate balance between diverse people and their environment, to find mutually beneficial solutions. The pair could just scrap it and move on, but they aren’t ready to give up. We know Ciardi is right: problems don’t solve themselves, addicts don’t quit by themselves, houses don’t maintain themselves. It doesn’t take an heroic effort, but it takes some effort. In the end, George finds no sweeping, grand solution to these issues. It is a piano—something simple, something old, something considered worthless—that ultimately gives George hope.

Moving Day:

  • Writing: 5
  • Plot: 5
  • Technical: 4

Porce’s Constrictor » W&W Sawday


 To save a young boy’s life, a doctor invents a contraption that will stimulate the child’s heart. Everything is fine, until the boy falls in love. —From Amazon

Porce’s Constrictor, by brothers W & W Sawday is an engaging, light-steampunk morality tale of the conflict between God and Science. The opening characterizations of Martha and Lawrence Gladstone set the tone of the story. Martha, compared to a serpent, represents temptation, a role played by both of the story’s main female characters. Lawrence, who cannot water a plant without soaking his crotch is the embodiment of male emasculation. The two give birth to the story’s main character and God’s abomination, Simeon (rather like “someone” as autocorrect points out).

Man’s choice between faith and science is presented in the beginning when Simeon, born prematurely and under dire circumstances, is found to have an underdeveloped heart. The two doctors on hand at the hospital present the Gladstones opposing options. Dr. Moray, older and religious, sees nothing to be done and suggests prayer. The younger Dr. Porce, “possessed of some fairly radical notions that are not completely…tested,” informs the Gladstones that he has a device that can save the boy. By the Sawdays’ description, the schematic of the device is panic-inducing. Dr. Porce diverts attention from the horror of the thing and tucks it away in a folder. No one wants to see the innerworkings of salvation, of course. The beauty of God’s miracles is their invisibility. Porce’s man-made apparatus can only compete by emphasizing the small scar and rather minor inconvenience his procedure will leave behind. The skeptical Dr. Moray’s warning—I would recommend against listening to those whose promises seem too good to be true; who offer the world for nothing in return—though prescient, doesn’t hold up against the hope of salvation.

The procedure is a success, and the boy, representing Man, grows to be healthy though not without weakness, and brings both great joy and occasional pain to those who gave him life. At the age of seventeen, and at the peak of his fitness, the real consequence of Martha and Lawrence’s choice comes to bear. The boy falls in love, but can his heart take it?

The Sawdays are pretty blunt with their authorly opinions of women in the narrative. Martha is an “autocrat,” Alice (the love interest) is a “harlot,” and Connie (a minor character with only a blip of a role) is “something of an unwedded shrew,” whose “sole area of advantage lay in facial hair growth.” Ouch. Martha, Alice, and to a lesser extent Connie, are the orchestrators of Simeon’s eventual downfall, like Eve and the temptation of Adam. Their roles are very clear. Though ostensibly, Martha and Lawrence share responsibility for tinkering with their son’s heart, the Sawdays put all the conniving dialogue in Martha’s mouth, and the mushy go-along dialogue in Lawrence’s. The power structure in their relationship is well-defined.

Alice, Simeon’s first love, is like “the dark, tropical flower in the depths of some as-of-yet unexplored jungle.” She has an intoxicating beauty and scent that Simeon can’t resist, though I was bothered by the lack of scenes of interaction between the two that would offer some insight into their relationship beyond the extensive discussion of the above-mentioned physical and emotional mysteries she evoked. It is nowhere indicated that Simeon was attracted to anything in Alice’s intellect or personality, and likewise, I had to take Alice’s love of Simeon at the authors’ word. Are we taking for granted that a young woman must want a smart, popular, accomplished young man who unequivocally wants her? I guess.

Despite how clear it is that the two women are responsible for Simeon’s downfall, it is, in fact, Porce who both installs the constrictor, and then, against his better judgment, tweaks it to dial back the entanglement between the two teenagers. Though it seems Porce has largely dodged the blame he deserves, in the end he gets his punishment, as do they all in their various ways.

There is some accomplished and fine writing in Porce’s Constrictor. The climax and denouement are worked with confidence and pathos. The Sawdays have a knack for balancing quirky details, dramatics, and philosophizing in this thoroughly readable, entertaining tale. I love stories like this that can be enjoyed from the surface to their depths. The rough treatment of women is the most troubling aspect of the work. The men are not heroes here, I know, but I don’t think the story would have suffered if the writers had shuffled the gender stereotypes somewhat. Can it not be the father, Lawrence, who is dogmatic and manipulating? In other words, why must it be the men who stand in for Man, and the women for serpents?

Porce’s Constrictor:

  • Writing: 5
  • Plot: 4
  • Technical: 4

Every Little Death » Bax Foxbite


Bruce’s wife repairs sex dolls for a living. She works too much and rests too little. With their first baby on the way he fears her job could be the end of them all. —From Amazon

Every Little Death is an intriguing title for Bax Foxbite’s story about man struggling to come to terms with the imminent birth of his first child. There is no birth without death, of course. In this case, there are metaphorical deaths of increasing magnitude as the story progresses.

Foxbite uses unadorned, observational language to mix sympathy with just-below-the-surface resentment and raises unsettling questions about the haze between romantic and filial love.

The story opens in a banal way, with Bruce greeting his pregnant wife, Barbra in front of a big box home improvement store where the couple will choose a paint color for the baby’s nursery. It is an intentionally universal rite of passage, drawn directly from advertising and Hollywood movies seeking to stereotype characters for the benefit of the audience. But from their first dialogue, Foxbite sets his characters up in a struggle with stereotypes that turns into a struggle between the two of them. The tension is quickly apparent in their conflict over nursery paint colors. Barbra’s preference, sage, “brought to mind motionless hours in the woods, Realtree coveralls; hard, gritty survival” for Bruce. These may be typically male activities, but on their face, nothing about them excludes women. Yet, “this was no color for his little girl’s room.” His choice: sweet taffy. It may seem a minor conflict, but it establishes their characters. Bruce strives for conventionality, Barbra rebels against it.

Bruce is a traditional guy—he hunts, drives a truck, watches football with his buds, drinks Jameson, drives a lift at work—and he has specific ideas about what a woman should be. Barbra defies type in ways that make her husband uncomfortable. She doesn’t cook, she isn’t particularly maternal, doesn’t dress up, and most awkward of all, she’s what Bruce calls a “love doctor” (a euphemism easily decoded). She fixes up used and broken sex dolls.

It’s interesting to note Bruce’s contrasting descriptions of his wife and a particular sex doll soon to be known as Jolene (a deft reference to the red-headed vixen Dolly Parton pleads with not to steal her man in the iconic hit of the same name). Barbra, “blond hair clipped into a messy heap, one nostril stuffed with wadded Kleenex, wearing a lime-green rubber work apron that no longer fit around her belly,” does not compare favorably with his first impressions of the doll:

The angles of her face were precise and feminine, surrounded with tresses of golden hair. Her blue eyes virtually ignited behind heavy black liner and a faint spray of freckles stretched from one cheek to the other. Then there were her lips. Red and slightly parted, they looked wet enough to drown in and die happy.

Bruce’s immediate obsession with Jolene can’t be helped. Foxbite lays the blame for Bruce’s lack of control on the doll itself.

She was hot-blooded sex on a stick. Not slutty and overdone like other dolls he’d seen, but beautiful in a way that caught your eyes and wouldn’t let go. Everything about her was purposeful and enticing. It was almost impossible to look away from the French manicured toenails, perfectly tweezed eyebrows, immaculately groom pubic hair.

I mean, the guy couldn’t help it, right? Jolene, the inanimate object, “caught” him and “wouldn’t let go.” It’s a nod to the absurdity of rape culture, the tendency to blame women for their own victimization.

Trouble starts from the moment Bruce is left alone with Jolene. He immediately personifies the doll, opens a conversation with her, imagines the damage other men will surely inflict on her once she leaves his house. It mirrors the possession and protectiveness he is beginning to feel for Cimone, his unborn daughter, who he imagines smiling contentedly behind the bars of her princess crib in her pink bedroom.

Bruce makes half-hearted attempts to have sex with Barbra, but she has her own physical needs—many of them side effects of gestating a human life inside her body. A real-life lady is so much messier and more complicated than a silicon one, so he succumbs to the doll’s attractions. Over the next few days, he battles the guilt that he’s betrayed his wife with Jolene, but ultimately, Jolene exerts more and more power over him, and becomes more and more human in the process.

Things can’t go on this way indefinitely, as you might guess, and before long, Bruce has to face up to his actions. He has an excuse—the birth of his daughter has required him to make sacrifices. He’s had less sex with his wife, he occasionally eats microwave dinners, he’s called upon to be supportive, to ensure his wife is healthy and cared for. He even has to put his beloved gun in storage because Barbra’s uncomfortable with having one in the house with the baby. Barbra, who has literally given up her body to the baby, is not particularly sympathetic to Bruce’s perceived sacrifices. His betrayal cuts deeps. “You fucked my work, Bruce. It’s the only part of my life that hasn’t been turned upside down by this pregnancy and you fucked it.”

The sex doll, Jolene is a powerful image for women and indeed humanity, but ultimately, Bruce is guided, always, by his own needs. The story climaxes with an astonishing act of violence that left me questioning who is the true victim of Bruce’s actions, his wife, his baby, or Jolene. This might be Foxbite’s point. However you see it, women are the victims.

Every Little Death:

  • Writing: 4
  • Plot: 5
  • Technical: 4