My latest subscription Interzones and Black Statics:

INTERZONE 253 and 254
BLACK STATIC 41 and 42

Fiction by Nina Allan, Vajra Chandrasekera, Matthew Cheney, Ral Cluley, D.J. Cockburn, Julie C. Day, Kristi DeMeester, Caren Gussoff, Stephen Hargadon, Andrew Hook, Carole Johnstone, David D Levine, Thersa Matsuura, Sam J Miller, Ralph Robert Moore, T.R. Napper, S.L. Nickerson, Jay O’Connell, Sara Saab, Leah Thomas, E. Catherine Tobler, James Van Pelt, Tim Waggoner, Noah Wareness, Neil Williamson, Alyssa Wong.

I hope to real-time review the fiction in these magazines in due course as a single gestalt.  THIS REVIEW WILL GRADUALLY APPEAR IN THE COMMENT STREAM BELOW.
My previous TTA reviews are linked from HERE.

ToTAl Reviewing. The New Gestalt.

32 thoughts on “ToTAl TTA


    None So Empty by Tim Waggoner
    “A plastic spoon, a splintered chicken bone, a stained paper plate that’s folded in half.”
    This is unarguably a genuine classic. After a while having a break from TTA reviewing, I only return surreptitiously to discover straight off a terribly haunting deadpan story of people in their lonely mid-sixties, a sort of old-fashioned Avant Garde art-cinema short film, one that, if I told you what happens in it, would be spoiled. Deadpan, trash pan. I am in my mid-sixties, too, but thankfully not alone, nor even lonely. But, after all these very many years together, we somehow hardly look at each other’s faces when talking. But we don’t need to.

  2. Caul by Vajra Chandrasekera
    “…the sea reaches up like a birth canal and hauls…”
    David Copperfield was born with a caul. A good luck charm to prevent drowning. This is a rarefied short short that I found very satisfying, one that sinks or swims as a separately poetic work, but it also deeply and significantly resonates with the previous story, but I can’t tell you exactly why it thus resonates as I would be drawing attention to things I have not divulged for fear of spoiling.

    A glass-rolling pin from 1917 said to contain a birth caul as a good-luck charm

    A glass-rolling pin from 1917 said to contain a birth caul as a good-luck charm

  3. Ghosts Play In Boys’ Pajamas by Ralph Robert Moore
    “His dad told him, never pet a dog while it’s eating. Even a dog that likes you.”
    The dad who is the pa in pajamas? – as the parallel between the cynical sex of our society’s regrouping adults is mis-reflected by their own mid-teenaged children, and this is a worrying story, an oh too too dangerous story of our times, too effectively written, where giving or losing slimy head under the azalea bushes resonates mutatedly with both previous stories. The ghost nested in the pajamas connecting friend with friend, boys who should be playing with better monsters in the fields outside, I guess, than with each other. Not an elbow fight or a wrestling match, but who’s the biggest monster? Being a year younger at a certain age is a thousand years at another age especially where growing out of things matter, till it’s too late.

  4. Equilibrium by Carole Johnstone
    A quite short work for this author, and a gentle double intertwining about ungentle matters that map outward as she in the telling story learns more about a riven head inside, a riven head outside, and another head that has been disguised by an old photograph. Her dying deadpan husband with whom she has this magazine’s earlier heedless deadpan contact, but at his dying bed, and an even more electronically deadpan interchange of surrogate sex on-line where text gives head. Except the head she can see is riven from within by tumour. As, from without, her own head is riven, too… And the other man now off-line later abandoned his avatar head for a fleshy one, the only way to transcend the text of electronic chat or of a poignant printed story like this one. A telling story. An old photograph is always younger, even if just a millisecond younger immediately after uploading it. There is much less than what I have just said is in the text, but there is far more in the printed story itself…finally making equilibrium.
    My previous reviews of Carole Johnstone work are linked from here:

  5. The Driveway by Leah Thomas
    “…and angry fits when his head had rolled off his shoulders.”
    Another old-fashioned Avant Garde art-cinema short film that is certain to haunt at least the old-fashioned reader that is me. This is deadpan, too, with, as taken for granted or as read, otherwise wildly surreal physical malleabilities and their need to fit in freezers as bodily recipes for we folk to recur or reincarnivorate, as it were, and play jumping rope in the driveway with other kids…
    heedless of the wintry drafts that whistled there.”
    Resonates particularly synchronously with the kids in the Moore story above and the kids in another cousin story read and reviewed also this morning as linked in the sub-comment above.

  6. The Hutch by Ray Cluley
    “With the hutch open, the smell seemed worse, which was silly because there was only mesh there before and that couldn’t stop the smell so now that it was open how could it be worse?”
    This is almost a Robbe-Grillet type anti-novel short story, constructively so, as the kids’ angst and diaspora of spirit reflect, as earlier in this set of fiction, their regrouping adults. ‘Pyjamas’ here, not ‘pajamas’. In such a relatively short space, the description of the hutch nevertheless seems slow motion, attritionally so. It is like a Duchamp ready-made – to enclose the ‘step’ relationships of families these days, rent not ownership. Including the final image of womanly ‘confinement’ and the crude ‘hutch’ enclosure. A very effective story where the real action is under the surface, unseen, beneath the mesh or caul, but where we can now park our bike.
    My previous reviews of work by this author are linked from here:

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  8. The Spider Sweeper by Thersa Matsuura
    “‘The more I travel the more I realise all things, even your perception of things, are only a matter of the words ascribed,’ Jin said. ‘Or so it seems.’ He looked Kumo-harai in the eyes. ‘People would be better off being quiet. Like you.'”
    And that quotation, quietly in its own way, tells you more about this beautiful love story with a satisfying sting in its tail, tells you more, indeed, about the love between those two men than any exposition by me about its equally quiet surrounding plot among the Temple’s monks including the delightfully adumbrated nature of Kumo-harai’s spider sweeper’s job, gratuitously oblique as such a job is with regard to the love story and the jealousy in another character that transpires…
    As in the first two stories above, I again dare not reveal how this story fits with them, for similar reasons … It simply IS.
    A perfect coda to this Black Static #41 section of fiction upon this thread of ToTAl reviewing….

  9. INTERZONE #253

    My Father & The Martian Moon Maids by James Van Pelt
    “The thing about getting old is that people talk to you, but you can’t follow what they’re saying.”
    …and I know that phenomenon is nothing to do with deafness.
    One of my favourite stories that I have read from Interzone (perhaps from anywhere) is the James Van Pelt story that I reviewed here. This new one, despite being relatively simply told, I am sure will become another favourite of mine. It is a highly poignant tale – echoing the fiction in Black Static #41 above – of the ‘regrouping’ of adults from the point of view of their children, a generational symbiosis, here a grown up child as well as visions of his younger self in interface with his father’s Aspergers routines and that paternal sense of wonder with regard to science fiction, to the extent, for example, of creating together a UFO Detector machine, even creating the UFOs themselves! The ‘regrouping’ here is by physical illness or Alzheimers, the second capital A in this review. Not only is the ‘care center’ a ‘way station’ but so is this highly charged but understated fiction. I created taped Daddy Lewis Shows full of intended wonderment for my own children many years ago, and I see myself as the father in this story but also as his son simulateneously, as in Wordsworth’s famous poem. I hope I am not a ‘flight risk’… A perfect story, a perfect moment of reading – before it is too late.

  10. Flytrap by Andrew Hook
    “…he found at the age of forty-seven that he could look at his wife and three children and not recognise anything of himself in them.”
    As above, so below; as below, so above; the regrouping of astrological influences, via three sketched characters, family man with dog, another obsessed by a flytrap plant or planet, and a woman always reading Finney’s Body Snatchers. This collage fits the amount of brainspace of thinking power you have available for it: little such space and you’ll get little from it but still be satisfied by it; a big space and it will keep on filling it forever if need be…

  11. The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson
    “…Felix had always believed, real skill, real art, should be indistinguishable from magic.”
    One of my favourite SF writers. I found this hilarious, Williamson-like, standalone, an old-fashioned Vienna hosting a nosearama on the new-fangled Internet, and manfully trying to keep his family life afloat (unlike others’ cynical regrouping) by means of smell and entrepreneurship by wielding a legendary nose… Absolutely brilliant, so much so, I gave up hope of its relevance in my current gestalt but then I looked back at Johnstone’s surrogate internetiana in Equilibrium and the Cluley Hutch’s [With the hutch open, the smell seemed worse, which was silly because there was only mesh there before and that couldn’t stop the smell so now that it was open how could it be worse?]. Even Van Pelt’s character creating false UFOs simply to warrant the creation of a UFO detector, like a false nose and smells that a false nose can smell!
    My earlier review of Williamson’s wonderful first novel here:

  12. Beside The Dammed River by D.J. Cockburn
    “The rope was so new it was slippery. Whoever tied it knew nothing about knots and had tried to compensate by tying several of them.”
    A very engaging scenario in Thailand, with, in a relatively short space, believably and satisfyingly characterised individuals, an ageing wreck (professor manqué) repairing a younger wreck of a truck (for a young woman down whose front he surreptitiously or accidentally looks), a truck that is carrying a landed asteroid – a transported finder’s keepers that makes me compare legal riparian rights (ownership of a river where a river runs) with such cosmic windfalls! – and that in turn makes me think of Van Pelt’s UFOs…the UFO detector, too, and then I think of this truck mending again…

  13. Chasmata by E. Catherine Tobler
    “Mothers, they had mothers, but there were no families – they did not stay together the way we did .”
    …which, ironically or not, conveys the gestalt so far of ToTAl as ignited by this review… But here the offspring (do) does (not) parallel (their) its regrouping parents, either growing taller without mortality or the exact opposite? The parents from Earth (a sort of delicate Martian geomance), adventurous like those who left England to cross the historic oceans, become metaphorically entwined with Mariner 9’s tour of Mars, where the slant of their kiss becomes a Martian chasm, echoed by an Earthen trench – and their being hand in hand, I guess, is meant to echo the vision of God’s finger reaching out for Adam’s in an attempt to prevent some melting or swallowing parthenogenesis? Those two fingers touched for us, but not for them?
    A highly rarefied piece of prose, very impressive, and it still resonates even as I write this. Never to get to the bottom of its chasmata or chiasmata. “They walked from one end of ‘Valles Marineris’ to the other (they did not, but I’m telling you this happened, so it happened)” – None of it existed … or all of it did but we don’t. “…your gloved fingers enclosed mine.” But who is Ray? I think I know.

  14. Continuing today these ToTAl chronicles, I still think I know to whom ‘Ray’ refers, but I guess many others don’t even have a clue!

    The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussoff
    Or through ‘the bars of a rhyme’?
    “But they say everyone has a twin.”
    Echoing the daughter who may have been a twin in the previous story and the care or non-care of the ToTAl regrouping of parents, here we have a memorable story, where that regrouping is now by multiverse, allusively depicting a man’s care of and for a 13 year old daughter, with his seeking, via therapy with a well-characterised therapist, the ‘safe place’ or the ‘target’ multiverse, a re-regrouping, as it were, toward the optimal wife as co-parent in the optimal multiverse. Homing in on your intrinsic self, your own unvarying name, the true self that regroups by knowing a previous you for someone else? Once finding that ‘safe place’, if you should ever forget it, you need to tap your knee, described in this story as a mnemonic and this generally reminds me of my own similar device: the ‘Armageddon Effect’ mnemonic described in the last paragraph here, an old blog post that also has a genuinely rare and forgotten mention of my Daddy Lewis Shows, serendipitously mentioned already in this review!
    As a standalone, this is another significantly resonating story. Full of open-ended poignancy to match that of the Van Pelt story, seeking that ‘safe place’ of parenthood, and a fascinating reference to a Dire Straits song, with at least one multiversionary ‘Armageddon Effect’ that is “Not black like night, but black like wrong.”

  15. BLACK STATIC #42

    Be Light. Be Pure. Be Close To Heaven. by Sara Saab
    “Yes, of course, it is God’s wish, but not all parents are so lucky.”
    Another story that really strikes me as something special, something watched on the backcaul of my mind, which is a far better place to project such images than some godawful cinema or TV / Computer screen. Stories chosen for TTA’s Black Static and Interzone seem incredibly ever such, taking into account these durable magazines’ dependable, yet ground-breaking, editorship being a phenomenon with which I have personally been incomparably infused, enthused, since the very early nineties when TTA first started with ‘The Third Alternative’.
    This story carries on my ToTAl review’s paralleling of parents and children, each side regrouping, and, in this Saab story, such respective regroupings startlingly echo the physical aspects of, say, the Waggoner and the Leah Thomas stories, a textual deletion or physical amputation or mental recess that become spiritual not by such subtraction but by paradoxical addition, cross-rhythmed in duty, in ritual, in hope, and the haunting occupational image of this young lady’s fingers selling railway tickets, her wavering temptations by dint of handsome contemporary or familial forebear, the physicality of the trains and their recessed platforms that feature in the stunning finale, and the meticulous or crystallised description of the freezer and what remnants are stowed there. Unmissable and, I predict, unforgettable.

  16. Scarecrow by Alyssa Wong
    “Your parents are already there, packed in near the front. It’s the first time in recent memory they’ve stood so close to each other, almost like a unit entire.”
    A funeral gathering, to mark the passing of your young lover, you just as young. And the inter-generational parallel here is by apocalyptic feathered-birdish human disfigurement echoing and flinging into ‘the sky sKY SKY’ a co-resonating trope I recall sometimes threading Joel Lane fiction (and that is of course an enormous compliment to this powerful religiously Christ-spoken stigmatic story upon the wing of Wong) … and echoing, too, the ghost in the earlier boy’s pajamas as told by the story reviewed above, now re-expressed as “His fingers brush you through your pajama pants, teasing you with touches too light” and indeed that last expression teases out this story itself, as a dark, yet flighty, story, the blending of teenage love and hate toward transcendence: a recurring faith, generation by generation, never to grow into people like your parents…?

  17. What Happened To Marly And Lanna by Noah Wareness
    “One time Mom left for a week and it took us two days to find the note on the back door corkboard.”
    Co-resonating with some stories above, particularly ‘The Hutch’, this story is another view of childhood’s point of view and parental diffidence – leading to the brother’s narrative of his sister and their sick dog, concerning the nature of life and death, that nature not only in living beings but also seemingly in lifeless objects… synaesthesic, also containing a sensitivity to structure as if pixelated, plus visions of common life things spread out into David Lynchian panoplies, for example yard sales and Salvation Army events of care – and we somehow wonder whether we will all be subject to premature burial one day, even to the extent of communicating about it when those who share this diffident world with us bring it back into active, non-reticent focus, by therapy or rituals with lit candles. What is special about this story is that its childhood vision, via childhood’s eyes, is, for me, highly original, not the usual skewed perspectives that children have, but something else that you will only understand by reading this story rather than by having it dissected or ‘pixilated’ like this by the likes of me.

  18. Patrimony by Matthew Cheney
    “The stranger rode into town in a horse-drawn Toyota, some husk he’d found in a junkyard, but instead of horses to draw it, he had a pack of dogs, dozens of them.”
    I feel we may now have reached the nub of ToTAl, not exactly with the parallel regrouping of parents and child, but with our race’s darkest optimum or brightest pessimum: a form of Ligottian Anti-Natalism that seems to be a growing movement in our accretively senseless world. Here, in this story, I contend, are such a movement’s seeds sown back when gravel pits needed overseers and communities needed variables such as a stranger in town who plays bookspines in the town library like piano keys, his own over-seeing force being to further the race, by dint of his own procreative acts upon the townsfolk and, like the creator of the pajamas story earlier, encouraging sexual congresses even to the extent of breaking taboos, the breaking of which all of us would spurn if it were not only in fiction. But, as arguably tutored by this fascinatingly oblique story, we are spawned by its procreator ironically into its plot. Unlike in Wordsworth, the Child is not Father of the Man but the Reader of his words?

  19. Goat Eyes by David D. Levine
    “…overstuffed chairs, light classical music, and free wifi.”
    Despite the urgent, now reclusive, cracked-door of a fear felt by the female protagonist about the fact of her having been attacked and stalked by something man-like with goat eyes, something she needs to fathom, putting two and two together to relate this to the Overpass Killer (for me, having a tenuous link with the previous story’s Overseer) – someone she may even later see in a bar hiding his eyes with glasses. The story enables a fascinating concept to be derived that among a barrel of bad apples there is often a good apple, one who is tutelary, ‘nonchalant’, almost, I sense, paternal, too, caring for us grown-up ‘children’ braving the city streets…?

  20. December Skin by Kristi DeMeester
    “‘…and all that’s left is that thing peeling you open, eating its way into you,’ she said. / ‘You read too many books, nerd,’ he said and smiled.”
    I sense this is darkly illuminating by becoming almost the exact inverse of the previous story, taking what is threatening you into a safe place instead of slamming the door to keep it out… Like stuffing my head with books of fiction, dark fiction such as this one that I read, that I digest separately, and later as a gestalt, in the way that a vampire metabolises blood ….then trying to spill it all out again, into your head, trying to exorcise what I voluntarily took in. This particular haunting story is fraternal / sororal, and if anyone is to have a paternal concern for these surrogate ‘children’, for the empty spaces between their heartbeats, it is the tutelary reader: an old man like me.

  21. The Bury Line by Stephen Hargadon
    “…he was either preparing for a sneeze or recovering from a sneeze. He had a disordered, ill-prepared face, a face that went best with pyjamas.”
    When I reviewed this author’s first story here, I wrote: “Just occasionally, you read a story and you suddenly say ‘yes’ quietly, later you say YES a little louder, but, at the end, you utter a big loud YES…” and today I add an even bigger YES for the current story, followed by one of my own customary sneezing fits that annoys my wife so much. This is indeed a hilariously convincing treatment of the world I once inhabited, and the characters that inhabited it with me – and Hargadon must have worked next to me, in an adjoining desk, possibly amid that smoky open-plan pit of colleagues before we all went out for a lunchtime pint or two. Did he know that I went home and wrote stories, over a thousand of which were published in Small Press magazines and some anthology books from 1986 onward? I then wondered whether I was the only eccentric-on-the-quiet. If only Hargadon had spoken up, revealed himself to me.
    This story extrapolates into the most frightening absurdist nightmare….one that had me laughing out loud, almost sobbing, too. To echo what I said about the DeMeester story, this Hargadon one is now the ultimate regurgitation, a vomiting in and the vomiting out, for me, about a once endless era of a deliberately slowed-down or speeded-up death process dealt by others upon souls like Hargadon and myself, something that, in parts, reminds me of Ligotti’s Corporate Horror fiction – and Hargadon’s story appropriately and powerfully also blends with Cheney’s earlier Ligottianism and the Anti-Natalism slant I described above, a philosophy encouraging parents not to have children in such a world as this. Meanwhile, I don’t need sleeping pills only dosages of Hargadon … or Oblomov. A text full of neatly cruel philosophicals, homilies, originalities, mind-opening sayings as collusive refrains…

  22. INTERZONE #254

    Marielena by Nina Allan
    “Human death is like a bruise – it soon fades.”
    I wonder about the earlier image I had of the old-fashioned Avant Garde art-cinema film, here now explicitly more un nouveau roman (I happened to mention Robbe-Grillet in connection with ‘The Hutch’ above and now this Nina Allan story specifically mentions that author’s name, too), the job as stoical spider-sweeper possibly before leaving to seek asylum in England where I live (Nina Allan’s story giving an effectively sad portrait of the situation for those who try to thread our Border Agency), the headless ones, the future ones, the body-snatchers, life as a flytrap, the reek of a bag woman spurned by any golden nose, UFO or the found art of an asteroid, God’s finger reaching out for Adam’s and now reaching out retrocausally just like Marielena or Mary does, the Armageddon Effect or just the tapping of your knee or even more stoically pushing the shopping trolley that holds one’s mnemonic or aide memoire like a passport, England’s natives crowding in like crows around the asylum-seeker in this story, sex-easy kids who worship the manifold screens while roaming the emptiness of shopping centres, kids who do not deserve the home we give them, the parents who do not deserve the kids to whom they give natality. The man in the story who seeks asylum, a so-called alien, is the only hope we have perhaps, carrying more than just an imaginary friend as he does with him from abroad, a friend who helps transcend time. This Nina Allan story is the ToTAl of the stories above or it is none of them, a poignant tale of our times where we live on some border between then and now, and simultaenously on another border between now and what will ever be – all of us human, but some of us more foreign than others whatever our origin. Retrocausality, I sense, is the only cure for Natalism as well as Nationalism. O Marielena, O Marienbad, do not be too hard on him when he opens something that the story’s end gives him to open, last year, every year.
    My previous reviews of work by Nina Allan are linked from here:

  23. A Minute And A Half by Jay O’Connell
    “Something tickled the back of my knee.”
    It seems apt that yesterday above I implied reference to ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ when arriving today at this seriously mind-stretching futuristic version of it, if unintentionally. Now, here, reality via ‘metaprogrammer’ drugs and virtual / unvirtual sculptures that play with mnemonic concepts evoked by ‘The Hutch’ and other Duchamp ready-mades in this cyberspatial paradigm of a story: a treatment of Nina Allan’s borders between places to live (“I’ll buy us Oceanian passports. We can’t be extradited.”) and fabricated identities to live within as well as further extrapolations upon that ‘regrouping parents’-child relationship (“You’ll be a better father than I was a mother.” ) that seems to have threaded this ToTAl review….all within a SF setting that I am only beginning to get my mind around. A SF story I shall need to re-read, that I want to re-read.
    “I hoisted her onto my shoulders, her pink pajamaed legs hanging down…”

  24. Bone Deep by S.L. Nickerson
    “My body is my battlefield, and my mind its captive.”
    A quote to end all quotes, I guess. None will ever exceed it, relating to the human condition. This story does fair unique justice to that, its own quote, while cohering that similar image in the Leah Thomas and Sara Saab stories above. A memorable theme of tattoos as bartering counters, sponsorships for surgery bills where bones grow where bones shouldn’t grow, love for exploring bodies rather than for Natality. Mania in the “TAtToory” (my caps).

  25. Dark on a Darkling Earth by T.R. Napper
    “Being gullible is one thing. But gullible in a world without memory is fatal.”
    The story is of an old man in this Chinese world who is called an Omissioner, but I wonder in this world without memory whether he creates omissions rather than curing them, but it seems as if a Toynbeean world of history without enough memory for a necessary audit trail of challenge and response becomes rife with complicated factions and anti-factions, memory cards, mementoes like security-entrance devices, memory rooms all linking back to the mnemonics, aide-memoires of this previous ToTAl review, and the mnemonic TAtToos in the previous story, including my own Armageddon Effect.
    The ‘Lines’ or Borders of Nina Allan, lines, lives, lies, Li. And the Omissioner himself is this review’s archetypal ‘regrouping parent’ seeking a way through a world’s memory loss and confused alliances to visit his sons, and play ball with them, i.e. seeking to transcend a Turtle’s version of Zeno’s Paradox as well as the ‘All Cretans are liars…’ syllogism. As a standalone, this story grows on the reader and eventually explodes into meaning. I loved it.

  26. The Faces Between Us by Julie C. Day
    “‘Brilliant parenting, Mom,’ Amber said […] ‘The same old parent shit – […] They like to snort it. Or she does, I guess. Dad did, too, before he cut out.'”
    Well, this is it, then. A highly strung story that highballs through this review’s main pitch, full of pithy meanings. If the previous longish story suddenly exploded into meaning, this shortish one jabs out a staccato sense that I “snort” straight through Neil Williamson’s golden nose into my brain, like ghosts or ashes of everything or everyone, ready-mades and people and all that I have read so far in this hugely satisfying ToTAl reading stint, making them real, standing up on the page. Pixie straws and Destros, notwithstanding.

  27. Songs Like Freight Trains by Sam J. Miller
    I know this often happens to me; perhaps I am blessed – but this has just turned out to be the perfect coda to my ToTAl TTA experience in this review. A great story, in itself, with so many quotable sentences that tell striking truths, ones you feel have always been said, but now they have been said for the first time. As a coda, it conveys its woman protagonist not only as a regrouping parent with her today’s child (a daughter), the relationship with her estranged husband (the daughter’s father), but also as the child that she was herself and the regrouping parent that she becomes as parent of the child that she once was – through the ‘time travel’ of music: those mnemonics and aide-memoires and Armageddon effects of the songs that can literally change one’s whole life. Not only songs by the Beatles or the Pixies or Prince, but also by Kurt Cobain, and the pervading philosophy as a telling suicidal ingredient of today’s growing sense of Anti-Natalism amid “the winds of software innovation or the shifting trade tariffs of faraway countries”



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