Glitter And Mayhem – 7.5/10

Glitter and Mayhem, a Kickstarter ‘glitterpunk’ collection, is a veritable party-bag of urban fantasy and sci-fi which celebrates the alternative and the other throughout, challenging boundaries of what it is to be normal, celebrating the variety of the human condition in all its glory. As all party-bags, are, however, the stories on offer are very much a mixed bag.

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Some tales use traditional fairy-tales and twist them around on their head. The opener, Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster, reads as if the Brothers Grimm had really got into the Rocky Horror Picture Show, with princesses bound by courtly life and the necessities of political marriage escaping into a Narnia-esque underworld of nightclubs. The closing tale, All That Fairy-Tale Crap, reimagines Cinderella as a bratty teen joining her step-sisters on a kleptomanic bender in a piece of metafiction that is so self-aware that it even acknowledges its own pretension.

Many others in the collection centre around nightclubs, to varied effect. Among the better offerings are:

Of Selkies, Disco Balls, and Anna Plane, which draws on the mythos of the selkie-wife bound by a stolen pelt, and culminates in a harpoon-gun shoot-out in a nightclub. What’s not to like?

Subterraneans: a cautionary tale of drugs, temptation and the dangers of breaking the rules when you start playing games with the supernatural, with a clever play on the origin of ‘nightmare’ as being controlled by a demon.

The Minotaur Girls, in which the Cretan labyrinth becomes a vampiric sentient nightclub feeding on the young it draws in.

Inside Hides The Monster, a mournful tale of one of the last of the Sirens, failing to draw any victims to her embrace due to the competition of a nearby nightclub. While dark, it is also witty in the protagonist’s disapproval of the modern music she is aghast at being bested by.

Science Fiction also provides inspiration for the authors on display here, often in conjunction with roller-derby (I knew nothing about roller-derby as a sport before I picked this ebook up. I now consider myself fully educated). Apex Jump is a fun tale of a team’s abduction into an intergalactic and transdimensional roller-derby league, while another stand-out example is one of the better stories in the collection: Bad Dream Girl, in which a cryptozoologist who is keeping tabs on various succubi, chimerae and other cryptids who inhabit the derby league to slake their needs in a safe environment, must play the game of her life when a new creature enters the fray that has no regard for the unwritten rules – it comes together like X Files meets Van Helsing meets feel-good sports films, in a wonderful way. This X-Files vibe is also present in Star Dancer, in which a lesbian affair with an out-of-this-world belly dancer leads to some interesting questions from the military for the MDMA-cooking protagonist. Another fun sci-fi skit is Two Minute Warning, which takes place inside a virtual-reality game with life-or-death stakes. It’s Tron spliced with The Hunger Games, and hints at a wider dystopian world that I would be more than happy to read more about.

While many of the stories in Glitter and Mayhem are basically fun, some have more mature moods at their centre. Sooner Than Gold is a dark and horrific tale of magical control and blackmail that really gets under one’s skin, although the ending provides few answers to the reader’s questions. Likewise, Unable To Reach You is an unsettling tale of a man whose phone is hijacked by dark forces to spread misery. Conversely, A Hollow Play is a genuinely moving exploration of the importance of love and friendship, and of the importance of letting go. This story, which carries the message that one must sometimes sever the past to move forward, is one of, if not the best, in the anthology. This is not to say that the grittier stories are not fun – the bumbling of two cops in Blood and Sequins into a cryptid-and-ecstasy-smuggling ring while attending a steampunk cosplay convention borders on the pornographic with a real CSI vibe, but manages to raise a wry smile.

Some stories work better than others. Weaker stories in the anthology include Such and Such Said to So and So has potential that is never fully realised in its film noir tale of a gumshoe sleuth investigating the murder of an anthropomorphised gin-and-tonic that has got mixed up with an old flame. Just Another Future Story begins as a dark and confusing tale about dementia, but descends into confusing hallucinatory sequences. The wonderfully-named The Electric Spanking of the War Babies takes its silliness slightly too far for me in its funk-based dystopia. The central premise of a young disco-skater taking his destined place among the stars to defeat the funk-hating Afronauts and bring the joy of funk to the universe is amusing enough, but the telling of the tale can be very confusing and alienating, relying on stream-of-consciousness narrative in a voice that I am sure would make more sense to fans of funk.

Glitter and Mayhem, like all anthologies, is a mixed bag – but this is to its strength. There is something for everyone here. Just as it celebrates LGBTQ+, polyamorous, alternative and extra-terrestrial lifestyles, so it celebrates all forms and styles of sci-fi and fantasy. A highly recommended collection for the ultimate in escapism.

 

 

Surface Tension – Sarah Gray – 8/10

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Sarah Gray’s Surface Tension is a fine collection of dark weird and speculative fiction. Across six stories Gray explores the dark things in life, that lie beneath the surface of humanity’s day-to-day existence, and indeed beneath the surface of the veil between worlds. The tensions explored are many – the tensions within relationships, within individuals, within the expectations of society and the realities of the infinite variety of the human experience. She feeds us just enough to keep the reader hooked but consistently managing to pull off her twist – a rare achievement in a debut collection. With a range of themes and styles, there is something for everyone, from the unconventional tale of a house haunted by a mysterious light switch that illuminates the murky past in “Switch”, to the dark and rambling monologue of “Cherry”, to the life-born-anew hope expressed in the titular “Surface Tension”. Loss is explored extensively, especially in “The Pier” and “Last Post”, in both cases to great and emotive effect, with characters we come to genuinely feel for. It is in the final, longest story, however, where Gray shows her greatest skill in her mastery of the sinister. “Bruised” manages to grip the reader in a truly harrowing journey of spousal abuse from beyond the grave. It is a tale that gave me genuine chills, which has become increasingly difficult to do in recent years, and while the other pieces in Surface Tension are all well-accomplished and thought-provoking, it is worth picking up a copy for this tale alone.

The excellence of this debut bodes well for her second upcoming collection, Wooden Heart – certainly one to look out for!