A Review of Kathy Fish’s “WILD LIFE: COLLECTED WORKS FROM 2003-2018” by Dan Crawley

A colleague at a university once said to me in passing, “Why do you creative writers teach others about writing stories? All of the stories have been told, right?” I wish I can travel in a time machine back to that hallway, and instead of walking on by, waving off the sarcastic comment, I would turn to this professor and hand over Kathy Fish’s newest book, Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018 (Matter Press, 2018), that I’d be sure to bring along with me. “Not all of the stories have been told yet,” I would say.

For close to a decade now, I have studied many of the stories Fish has published in online journals and her previous books. And this newest book, a greatest hits of her successful writing, is overflowing with an abundant supply of the lessons from her past work, along with recent examples of Fish’s mastery and revelatory prowess displayed in the flash fiction and micro fiction genres. It is a pure joy to attain even more understanding from her words regarding how her characters try to exist with each other in a world that only Fish can conjure. I marvel, absorb, and I am inspired.

My first lesson with Fish’s writing was back in 2009, when I read the flash fiction “Tenderoni.” Thankfully, it appears in this collection that showcases her sustained production of creative work between 2003 through 2018. I remember the reaction I had (still have) when I read this flash fiction: How does she do this in such a tiny story? Over time, I surmised the this is Fish’s ability to portray such heartbreak revealed by a couple riding their bikes through the rain to a parade, only to have their way barred by the mangled reality of life. And, more aptly, the narrator admits about her boyfriend: “I hate watching him struggle, but he struggles a lot so I’m getting used to it.” So there is more than just the mess of life that must be cared for, life that still must be lived and loved despite the struggle and canceled parades. For me, Fish’s instruction here is note-worthy every damn time I come to this flash fiction.

What is most striking to me about this collection is Fish’s handling, so perfectly, of family dynamics in all of its forms: siblings, parent/child, extended family members, neighbors, strangers, really, all of us together in this human family. We fight each other, we love each other, we up build and tear down each other. Fish knows all of this and more. You will note her astounding interpretations of “family” in such varied stories as “The Once Mighty Fergusons” and “Everything’s Shitty at Price King” and “Five Micros” and “Grip” and “Swicks Rule!” and other gems. I am obsessed with the meaning of family, especially in suburbia where I grew up. Why are we fated to be with some people and not others, their blood our blood, enmeshed beyond all reason whether we like it or not? And what about those who do not share a biological connection? Are they just as deserving of familial love or hatred or indifference or forgiveness? Fish answers these inquiries from me with such expressiveness, at times brutally, other times lovingly.  

“Wren” is a flash fiction that lays bare a sense of longing and concern for another that I have not read in any other story. The narrator and her family full of esprit de corps cease their rough play in the yard at the command of their mother to show a moment of awareness, a quiet respect toward the Chu family. And then there is an epiphany that only Fish can put into words:

Mother stopped struggling and Father loosened his grip and we all turned to see Wren and her parents on their nightly walk. Mother gathered us all around her, hushing us…. Mr. Chu nodded and Father nodded back. Wren’s mother glanced at our mother. Some maternal understanding, like heat lightning, flashed in the space between them.

Next comes the narrator’s desire “to cross the street and touch her [Wren’s] white cheek. I wanted to tell her my name.” Finally, for me, it is the narrator’s dream of a distinct care for fragile bird-like Wren that solidifies Fish’s astonishing intention regarding this story.

For a lesson on those of us who are not biologically connected, but are connected all the same, this collection begins with a seminal piece of writing titled “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild.” This work originally appeared in Jellyfish Review, where I first read it along with so many other readers around the world. It does not surprise me that this revelation in writing is a Best Small Fictions winner and I am so pleased it appears in this collection. Only Kathy Fish could have created such a tragic, thought-provoking, enraging, stirring, relevant call for everyone reading to open her or his eyes and ears and hearts. It is well past the point that our collective futures must live with “[h]umans in the wild, gathered and feeling good, previously an exhilaration, now: a target.” Fish instructs yet again with her virtuosity of the written word.

In my moment of time travel, I would further say to my fellow snarky professor, “Go ahead, open any page. Learn, my friend. Study Fish’s magnificent word choices, her unique descriptions of us like we’ve never been described, learn her distinctive translations of love and struggle and togetherness and separations. Learn that she has written the new stories of our time, any time, in a fresh, original voice that we are blessed to read.”


Dan Crawley’s writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Wigleaf, CHEAP POP, Bending Genres, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and New Flash Fiction Review. Along with teaching creative writing and literature courses, he reads fiction for Little Patuxent Review. Find him at https://twitter.com/danbillyc

‘It’s a Secret to Everybody’ by James Edward Schier


“Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly late last night
Now they blew up his house too”
– Bruce Springsteen

Some days, I’m fine.
Other days, I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska over and over again, and play video games from the 1980s.

Zelda, like Laura Palmer, had secrets. Move the block, get the dopamine rush of the tingle-jingle chime (the ‘official lyrics’ to this iconic piece, I learned, are apparently something along the lines of ‘ho-ot sau-uce’ in Japan. I don’t hear it, or get it, and don’t quote me on that, but there you go).

But I’m starting to wonder if she, or they, didn’t have other kinds of secrets, too. Bomb a wall, you might find a secret shop, or even an old man asking you to pay for repairs on the door you just blew through; that’s fine, that makes enough sense. You just destroyed his god damn house, even if he’s inexplicably living in a cave, coordinates 36°45’13.63”N & 3°50’4.57”W from the nearest 7/11 with the old lady who sells potions and kinda looks funny at you if you keep buying the blue one, like are you hooked on this stuff kid? behind a sheer cliff of solid rock, with only two completely exposed balls of flame to his name… it’s still his house.

But some of these caves contain monsters. And they are not hostile. Not friendly, but… under some kind of treaty, perhaps, both sides observing a kind of wartime diplomacy in these select meeting rooms, maybe because these aren’t foot soldiers, they’re accountants, moneylenders, specialized units, etc. Kind of like a medic is supposed to heal both sides in a war. They’re willing to talk, to deal.

But why? If we take these games as fact, which is about the only thing we can take, every monster in the game is an embodiment of evil; this being why every Zelda game ends with crushing, I-wanna-go-back finality, and you cannot continue on, because to continue on would be to adventure in peace, every monster exorcised from the land. Presumably, this is how the citizens of Hyrule et al. experience the place most of the time. Even the outside-the-box, throw the box away, get on top of the box and sail it across the water Breath of the Wild doesn’t let you go on… it would be defeating everything Zelda has ever stood for and the main story that runs through each and every game. Evil is gone, and, well… good just ain’t that interesting without it.

That means, as far as I can see, that we cannot treat these beings as wild animals. They are Evil, Ganon’s Evil, down to the last Octorok, the last Gel, the last Tektite, even though they don’t really attack you; they generally mind their own business jumping around in the mountains. They are part of Ganon’s Army and thus scorched from the Earth when the game is finished. No sympathy is allowed, and no-one in this game has a choice.

Which leaves me with, as I see it, a couple of explanations here. The first is mundane: Ganon’s creatures surely can’t be domesticated, beings of pure evil that they are, but can they defect?

It seems improbable. They are, of course, extensions of Ganon himself, spawned to protect him and block the way, thru labyrinth after labyrinth, FBI men at Death Mountain surrounding & protecting the President on the Grassy Knoll… trying to protect the president… how many Arrows of Light? Just one, or… rerun the tape, reset the machine… find Miyamoto’s original Zapruder scrolls of A4 paper, the whole game laid out on it in squares, for real & not a Kerouac self-myth… find that secret sheet of A3 with the rest, & the Second Quest on the other side of the ROM… might tell us who truly shot Liberty Valance… and Miyamoto will always print the legend…

The second option is much more sinister, as it implies underhanded dealings with the Enemy and perhaps even conspiracy on behalf of the Hyrule government, which I believe to be some sort of monarchy.

If Hyrule, or the King of Hyrule (who is never seen) is in fact working with the enemy, it utterly shatters the presumed reason for the mission. Link’s just following orders, sure, but he’s 12 years old, a real child soldier… and sure, the Princess had to be saved, but was that rookie, green, the best agent they had? (Did she want to be saved?)

Again, this place is supposedly used to peace, so maybe they didn’t train too many pitched fighters. There was no Achilles by the beaked ships to call upon when it was time to go and get back Helen… there was only you.

“Through the badlands of Wyoming
I killed everything in my path”
– Bruce Springsteen

Every time the boulders roll down the cliffs of Death Mountain, I think it’s Shigeru Miyamoto doing it. I don’t think of him, or the other designers (Tezuka-san deserves his own article, but who really knows who did what…) overmuch while playing the rest of the game, but every time I walk those cliff sides suddenly He’s there, the clearest sign of the Hand of God in the game, Zeus throwing rubble off of Olympus or maybe just Mount Ida to screw with Herc or some young upstart…

So maybe, like Herc’s famous trials, this whole thing is a controlled scenario to get a man into fighting shape… ah, but now I’m just describing the game, and all games. A dead end. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a way around it…

This game, the first one, is Zelda, or rather Hyrule, before it turned into Twin Peaks. This game is part of a lineage of Cosmic Joke stories, Seinfeld’s NYC where everybody but you is crazy to the point of outright hostility for no apparent reason at all, Scorsese’s After Hours (screaming ambulances chasing you ‘round every corner of that black wet night-street, bloodred Octoroks with no rhyme or reason), maybe even A Confederacy of Dunces, depending on how much of a reasonable person you think this Link kid really is… & did his mother or grandmother approach the archaic printing press and say “you gotta hear what my son did, what he did before, you know, before he passed…”

It’s 3 miles of, no, it’s many more than 3 miles of bad road… it’s all bad road. It’s a never-ending trek thru the baddest of the Badlands, and one day you’re gonna spit in the face of ‘em, maybe throw an arrow of light in for good measure…

“There’s no love in your violence”
– Ichi the Killer [2001], dir. Takashi Miike

It’s a game of unspeakable violence, your only chance at getting through this sun-baked, hostile environment… they say Zelda is about exploration and adventure, and it is, but I think this game is really about survival. You’re your only friend. Your only friend. I don’t trust those old men, those old women, not really. Do you? They are distant, cold, you will not break bread with them. They dispense their advice—”good luck out there kid, you’re gonna need it”—and then sometimes, quite literally, fuck off completely and disappear, leaving only darkness, if that, or a pair of uncontrolled fires that do not sooth your bones, standalone Burning Bushes without the bush, empty balls of red that do not quite brighten up the corners.

The only thing you can trust completely, besides your wits & violence, is the fairy. And even she’s skittish, turning up at complete random, sometimes in that white-hot split second you find yourself burning the candle at both ends, walking that tunnel, and she’s the sudden burst of light, and you offer your praises, but you know it was just luck, not something you can count on… unless you visit her where she lives, introduce yourself properly.

Even then… as an immortal, does she take some kind of twisted pleasure in reviving this kid over and over again, as many hearts as he can take, full to bursting, right thru the IV… maybe she gets a rush out of it. Considering later fairies in these games and their suggestive eccentricities, proclivities, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Nowhere is safe. The safest place in this game, to me, is in one of the labyrinths, which features four, maybe five of these big jelly guys. This is the safest place in the game because the walls are mental-hospital slate grey and I am in a position of power. They are slow, and I am fast. With a powered up sword, they are just about the easiest enemy in the game. I feel safe here, because even though, in their tiny, Ganon-possessed brains they don’t know it, I can kill them any time I want. And, ya know? Sometimes I like just having them around. For company. Better than that old man again, who I can’t even kill if he gets on my nerves.

And yeah, the second game (Zelda 2), is pretty harsh too. Pretty hostile. But even that pointed towards the Twin Peaks future of the series—not quite the idyllic towns full of decent folks, farmers and tradesmen and friends, along with, of course, a mixture of sinister and bent folk, Outside and Unknown weirdness and Fear, and the necessity of fighting—but there are actual towns in that game, barebones as they are, and women on the street will actually say “Hello!” to you, if you chat them up. I don’t know about you, but that cheers me up.

Men will invite you into their houses, and sure, their hints are still cryptic and strange, but they’re actually trying to communicate, to help you, to give you a roof over your head, even if only for a moment. There are women who will stand in front of their houses like Bob Dylan on the Street-Legal sleeve, and let you in… come to think of it, they must be related to those questionable fairies…

Which brings me, finally, back to the first one. To the, let’s say, Hyrulian psyop that might be going on in the shadows…

Could someone, a 007-like agent, have snuck in and turned these money-giving monsters, inserting a little help along the way to our unwitting friend, about to run this hellish gauntlet to rescue the princess? Does Hyrule have that kind of power? Are the Gods involved? How high up does this go?

There’s no way to know. Could these monsters, really, not be monsters at all? Maybe they are in fact Hyrulians, waiting in caves in their Nixon-masks, government stipends for the hero, write-offs… a secret war economy operating underground in case of an event like this, a red alert, an APB suddenly put out on a giant pig up on Death Mountain by the King, maybe that’s why taxes went up, think the good citizens, after this is all over (after having thought oh, it couldn’t happen here)… It’s a Secret to Everybody.

But of course, this is the legend. They say that once a great hero saved the princess, and it’s taken as fact. This would, incidentally, happen over and over again, but that comes later… or before.

Perhaps it really happened the way they said it did. Maybe this young man was officially supported by the King (unless Link, en-route, was somehow captured by the Enemy, in which case I’m sure they’d have had to Deny All Knowledge, not that there’d be any knowledge left to deny), and perhaps the Princess really was terrified, up there in that cold, cobblestone room, hearing the breathing, pawing of that invisible monster just outside the door, hoping but never really believing the hero would come… or maybe she laid there, open eyes, going over the plan in her head, getting up occasionally to shoot the shit with the man in the pig mask next-door, wondering idly whether that little kid in green was still alive, gambling on his odds… wondering if this little stratagem would work out, if they’d have a Plan they could put into operation against this happening again in the Future, or if it could be made to happen again, improving & complicating it each time like a well oiled machine, a machine that prints legends…

“There’s a white diamond gloom on the dark side of this room
and a pathway that leads up to the stars
if you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise
just remind me to show you the scars”
– Bob Dylan

The talking monsters remain unexplained, unexplainable. I never promised you an answer that doesn’t exist. Why am I so obsessed by them? Well, it’s one of those nights… tomorrow will be different. Maybe. But one more thing:

Shigeru Miyamoto, director and producer of The Legend of Zelda, has said, time and time again, that he was inspired to make a game based on his experiences in Kyoto, as a boy, wandering around and adventuring through fields, rivers, caves, forests.

Now, when little Shigeru was traipsing about, having the time of his life, fantasizing that he was on an adventure, not dreaming of video games and code but of those things every boy dreams of, pretending, telling brand-new stories in real time, projecting a better world on top of the real one in a way we somehow forget how to do… then needing a rest, maybe sitting in one of those little caves for awhile, a little scared, a little excited…

Did he talk to the monsters?

Follow James Edward Schier on Twitter

WORK: Beautiful Blood


the book is ‘work’ by bud smith and every moment of relief, every moment bud’s head comes up for air, feels like an invitation for catastrophe. jobs are lost, cars are crashed, bones and car radios break, fireworks are set off in newly finished kitchens, and in their midst is bud smith, writing books on his phone and living from job to job, interaction to interaction, victory to setback, soaking in every inexplicable chaotic detail with a big smile and hands in the air. “jesus, how much fucking blood is in the world and how much of it is in this book?” he writes. there’s a lot of blood in both, and bud seems to have a lust for it — not for the blood that pours out of us in meaningless accidents, but the blood racing through our bodies for all the years of our lives propelling us to make something of it. ‘work’ zigzags through bud’s life of sublime mishaps and revelations and draws a conclusion: that life is blink and you’ll miss it, it’s all or nothing, it’s turn the page and the teenager fucking around in the woods has morphed into a married man typing a story on a bluetooth keyboard in the back of an oil refinery because his blood is too precious not to. this isn’t just a collection of anecdotes. it’s a high functioning philosophical novel that’ll teach you to laugh when life hits you over the head with a club and spills your blood everywhere. you’ll learn to pick up all the blood and put it back where it belongs and make everything you do a little more magical while you wait for it to happen again.


‘The Dinosaur Sounded Like Arlene Dahl Screaming’ by Mario Fenech


Sometime last year I was searching YouTube for something to watch that would not tax the grey matter too greatly. It was after work around midnight and I thought it had been a long time since I had last seen an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. As with most Irwin Allen TV series the best episodes are in the first season. I remember being dismayed as a young fan of the series, watching each new episode as it degenerated into ever more bizarre stories with pathetic aliens and assorted monsters. Watching it again after so many years I had to agree with my younger self but he was not yet familiar with the concept of something being so bad that it was actually good [ e.g. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room]. A strong point of the Irwin Allen series was that the characters were well defined and engaging and played a big part in making them hugely successful. Even if some of the stories were ridiculous you would still be subconsciously empathizing with the characters, if, for instance, Kawolski was walking along a corridor of the Seaview and there was a monster waiting for him around the corner, you would find yourself muttering, ‘watch out Kawolski, ya big lug!’. But sure enough Kawolski walks straight into it. While Kawolski puts on a good show of being knocked about, your sympathy should be with the flailing green monster, or more to the point, the poor actor in the tight rubber costume who probably can’t even see Kawolski and is saying to himself, ‘if I have to do another take I’m going to die of heat stroke!’

It seems that Irwin Allen produced science-fiction he would have liked to have seen when he was a ten year old. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in particular seems to be very much like a Jules Verne adventure. Irwin seemed determined to have more monsters than Star Trek or The Outer Limits, but I noticed he had other obsessions as well. I lost count of the number of episodes that featured an island with an active volcano that is sure to explode in the last ten minutes of the show. Paranoia and Possession were other popular themes the writers kept returning to, sometimes with interesting results. One particular episode had a puppeteer (played by Vincent Price) entertaining the crew on the Seaview with puppets that look uncannily like the crew. As it unfolds it becomes clear that the puppeteer has a sinister plan for his ‘living dolls’ to take control of the Seaview from their human counterparts. This episode, which I might have dismissed as too bizarre on a previous viewing, I found to have other levels to it with some surreal dialogue from the puppets. The writers used many other storylines to keep the show going. Admiral Nelson became a werewolf in two episodes and he had to rely on Chief Sharkey to lock him in his cabin whenever he sensed a transformation was about to happen. After swearing he would not open the door under any circumstances Starkey stood outside the cabin listening to the commotion as the Admiral made animal sounds and smashed furniture. Sharkey is about to open the door but remembers his promise, shrugs and walks away. (I think he shrugged, but it was such a priceless low key reaction)

The relationship between Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane was an important thread in most stories but there were a number that focused on the Nelson, Sharkey dynamic. On one occasion they crash land the flying sub on an island (possibly with an active volcano) with numerous dinosaurs. Sharkey’s foot gets wedged between two rocks. Sharkey who is usually protective of the Admiral reluctantly has to rely on the Admiral to save him from the prehistoric beasts. In one of the shots of the monster, instead of a dinosaur growl, a woman screamed. This was confusing as there were no female characters in this episode. My mind tried to solve the mystery of the scream as Sharkey and Nelson tried to get to safety. ‘Voyage’, was produced at Twentieth Century Fox studios and I assumed Irwin would be able to access a lot of stock footage to cut production costs. I remember the Fox Journey to the Center of the Earth which used lizards dressed as dinosaurs and I also remember Arlene Dahl screaming in that movie as a dinosaur moved in her direction. I could be wrong, because Irwin also made ‘The Lost World’, for Fox and he used lizards for that one to save money, much to the disappointment of Willis O’ Brien who was hoping it would use stop motion as did his 1925 film version. Anyhow,  whichever film it was taken from you would think there would so much footage to choose from, yet they included the one with the scream. Such sloppiness only adds to the enjoyment, and, in episodes such as the one where a search party is swallowed by a giant Sperm Whale and they continue their search in the well lit innards of the Whale, trudging over squishy whale matter, the facts are no barrier to the adventure.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was made in the early 60s a time when great science-fiction shows such as Star Trek, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone first appeared. The Twilight Zone came about primarily due to the frustration Rod Serling felt in his efforts to write stories that referenced current events yet was stymied by the sponsors and the network who deemed his ideas too controversial for their audience. Using science-fiction as vehicle for some of the ideas that were previously rejected Serling was able to somehow make it palatable to the sponsors.

In comparison to such trailblazing shows, Irwin Allen’s science-fiction was more anachronistic, borrowing more from the previous two decades of film and television. Irwin even used a device of the ‘40s serials with Lost in Space in having a cliffhanger ending to every episode then freeze framing it with the words, ‘to be continued’.

Irwin Allen’s shows remain popular for a number of reasons. For those who watched the shows as kids, sentiment is a big factor, but for many who are seeing them for the first time it must be refreshing to see the studio sets with their paper mache’ rocks and plastic flora with painted backdrops and no CGI. Most of the characters were well written also but with Irwin you knew there was going to be plenty of action and adventure. Whether it was the crew of a submarine being tossed from side to side with pyrotechnics happening all around as a giant squid wraps its tentacles around the Seaview or the Jupiter Two being buffeted by meteors.

‘Cursed Dreams’ by Matthew Spencer

soft cartel april 2018

Spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. The cherry trees have come into blossom, here in the Pacific Northwest, where I am writing, and in Japan, where the esteemed director Isao Takahata has died at the age of 82. In 1985, he cofounded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki. Together they are responsible, they perhaps more than anyone else, for making anime a force in global popular culture.

It feels strange to me, news of Takahata’s death, having recently watched The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, the 2013 documentary on Studio Ghibli, filmed during the making of The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the last feature made by each of the directors, Miyazaki and Takahata respectively.

The latter is portrayed as a somewhat shadowy figure, his presence more alluded to than shown. Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki constantly fret about their colleague, about whether he will complete his movie at all.

The documentary ends with Miyazaki announcing his retirement. The last scene shows him strolling along a leafy street, his work behind him. Nothing more is said about The Tale of Princess Kaguya or its director. It’s as if Takahata has vanished from the earth.

Thoughts of mortality often attend the death of public figures, but watching The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness also got me thinking about anime itself, about my own conflicted feelings toward the artform.

Continue reading “‘Cursed Dreams’ by Matthew Spencer”

‘A Film That is Sort of Like the Book: Review of Annihilation (2018)’ by Mike Kleine


If you are somewhat familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky, you know that his films can be very long and very slow. A few critics have already compared ANNIHILATION to Tarkovsky—and in that regard, I would have to completely disagree. Like, 100%. While yes, there are a few moments (that in Hollywood time) might seem slow to the lay viewer, they are not slow to the point of actually being painful to watch. (Some Tarkovsky films contain scenes that are so long, I seriously believe he is doing this on purpose—to test the patience and endurance of the audience; and that’s great, but ANNHILLIATION is nothing like that). (On the flipside, a wonderful example of a film that is absolutely & truly insufferable is Wavelength by Michael Snow. I don’t think I can ever in my life watch the film again, ever; it is pure torture).

All in all, ANNIHILATION is a fair film. The direction is impressive enough and the soundtrack really is brilliant. At its core, it’s a science fiction film littered with moments of philosophical quandary and existential dread (just for good measure). It does get a bit reflexive at times (which is fine) but everything sort of comes full circle during the final twenty minutes. (If anything, stay until the final twenty minutes of the film—absolutely one hundred million times worth it). I read the book when it first came out and I loved it. I thought it was amazing. I’d never read anything else quite like it. I gave it a 5 out of 5. (I still would give it a 5 out of 5). The film is sort of like the book, in the sense that it’s about the same thing, but not in the same way. Or, let me put it this way: it feels like the director read the book when it first came out and then tried to make a film of the book, but only from memory. So there are a few similarities, but there are also a lot of differences. And this is okay. No, really, it is (I promise).

The book only made about 30% sense to me (and I loved that). The film made about 90% sense to me (and I also loved that). The film tries to explain the story more than the book, and with that, there comes a lot of deviation. At the end of the film, it tries to sort of explain why everything happened the way it happened and I did not necessarily like that—even the very last scene sort of hints at something that the book never even alluded to. But again, that’s fine. I don’t think a film adaptation should always be true to the book. As a matter of fact, I would say I encourage that films based off books be nothing like the books, only similar thematically. Another thing the book does that is so great; yes, the team is still made up entirely of women but none of them actually have real names (or, rather, we never learn their real names)! The characters are simply: biologist, psychologist, surveyor, etc—and this creates a great effect. In the film, they have names. And it makes sense to do that in a film (since it would totally alienate the average film viewer—if each character did not have a proper name. You gotta have someone you’re rooting for, right?).

I urge that you read the book tho, if you can, someday (just so you can understand how truly strange and unadaptable a thing like ANNIHILATION is). I have never truly felt anxiety-induced dread like I did while reading the book. The film is different, in that it creates a different sort of anxiety-induced dread. You truly never know what is about to happen next. The world of ANNIHILATION is never safe. And there are two sequences in particular that stood out to me (illustrating, perfectly, this sense of knowing that whatever you do, you can never truly be safe, anywhere, no matter what). One sequence takes place inside of a house and the other, within a lighthouse. (Notice how both occur indoors?).

In most films, the characters are able to anticipate what is about to take place or what is about to happen, based on where they are spatially, or, they use what they are seeing—what’s right in in front of them (usually paying attention to their surroundings)—as a way to prepare for the unknown. And since most of what these characters are going off of this is based on previous experience and a familiarity with the real world, the viewer also, is able to deduce what might happen next (based on how a bunch of other films may have handled, for instance, a similar situation. Like, a forest scene at night, for example). All of this is thrown out the window in ANNIHILATION. What happens, without ruining the film—the two sequences that stood out to me—when they take place, they force the viewer to keep asking, “Is what I am seeing right now really happening in real life or is it all in the characters’ heads?” And even that term, real life, in ANNIHILATION—it means absolutely nothing.

Early on, the team determines that the members from the previous expeditions probably went insane (at some point) and killed each other. And it is only after one has entered the shimmer that the craziness happens—and the shimmer, essentially, is a cloak around Area X that functions as a visual marker to denote how far the alien landscape has expanded onto our normal Earth. The thing that makes all of this so excellently creepy is the idea that everything in the film feels so eerily familiar, yet at the same time, there’s always something that feels off. I do want to say, I did have problems with the CGI. Some of it is stunning, other parts feel like we are back in 2007 (for instance, there’s these two antelope-like creatures that appear at one point and their movement is so unrealistic-looking, it completely took me out of the experience).

There’s a chance you haven’t heard too much about ANNIHILATION (from mainstream press) or even seen any or many previews (or know that it is based off a book). Hell, if you don’t live in the United States, you can’t even see the film yet (unless you live in Belgium, then you should, by now, already have access to the film—as of the printing of this review). Here’s the thing tho, ANNIHILATION is releasing via Netflix, exclusively (not that that’s a bad thing) but there’s a reason for that. ANNIHILATION is a film that actually takes a chance at doing something different and unique with the science fiction genre. And to the studios, this screams bad and scary and no money. Studios are afraid of new ideas (that aren’t sequels or reboots) because they think this means the movie is going to flop, especially when the average film viewer has no idea what they are paying to see—hence the Netflix international distribution, as opposed to attaching it to a bigger studio name, ergo: releasing in worldwide theatres.

Having read the book, I was super-excited to see how ANNIHILATION would translate to the big screen. NB: I want to emphasize, this is a film that is sort of like the book so not everything that’s in the book makes it to the film (interesting, also, to note that this is pretty much going to be a standalone film—there are no plans to expand and continue with the rest of the trilogy—yes, there’s two other books after ANNIHILATION). While a lot of material (from the book) was left out, for a film that doesn’t try too hard to be like the book, it definitely feels like it has purpose. There’s a heft & weight that carries the acting and moments of terror truly stand out as moments of terror. If anything, ANNIHILATION offers a glimpse into a very different type of science fiction film—one that is more interested in the haunting than the science and / or fiction.

Mike Kleine is a writer and film critic.

‘On Dissociation: An Anesthetic Aesthetic’ by Milvaspectre


Much has been made of the relation of certain writers and their affinities for drink or for various intoxications. Most often, besides liquor, one is likely to hear of a writer or philosopher partaking in opioids or in psychedelics. A vital strain, I aver however, that is missing in this discourse is that of the class of drugs known as “dissociatives”.

Dissociatives or “dissos” are a class of hallucinogen (the others being psychedelics and deliriants) characterized by antagonism of NMDA receptors. Drugs of this family include: ketamine, dextromethorphan, PCP, and nitrous. Their effects on humans include but are not limited to: a sense of confusion, lack of balance/proprioception, distortions of time and space, increased appreciation of music, closed eye visuals (including geometries as well as roving eye landscapes and immersive dramatic scenes). One has remarked that they feel like “it’s 72 degrees in your head all the time”. Dissos also are known to lack hangovers and instead supply afterglows and antidepressant properties. At higher doses they can induce “k-holes” or “holes” wherein one can lose one’s sense of place and have surreal ego death-like experiences.

The importance of these substances to the arts is perhaps not obvious immediately due to the dissociative family seeming relatively recent as far as drugs go, as well as seemingly never occurring naturally. This would make one think the disso is relegated to the niche, to being a weird class of “designer drugs”. We must remember, however, that LSD was a designer drug at one point.

The figure who looms largest over this legacy is undeniably John C Lilly, the scientist most famous for his development of the sensory deprivation tank and for his experiments on dolphin intelligence. After the illegalization of LSD, Lilly began experimenting with ketamine and later PCP. His work navigated everything from science to philosophy and spirituality and was often inspired by his entheogenic experiments. Tributes to Lilly can be found everywhere from the cult film, Altered States, to Serial Experiments Lain to Ecco the Dolphin.

Continue reading “‘On Dissociation: An Anesthetic Aesthetic’ by Milvaspectre”

‘The Sacred Vomit of Martianus Capella’ by J.B. Usher

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A year ago, I wrote a brief essay where I reflected on creative ways to instruct and teach such as The Compleat Angler with its Socratic Dialogue on fishing or the injection of poems and anecdotes into David Arora’s mushroom identification handbook All that the Rain Promises and More. These peculiar alternatives that provide enlightening and entertaining ways to teach beyond rote memorization is what perked my interest when I came across a description of  De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii or “On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury” by fifth century writer Martianus Capella (translated by William Harris Stahl with E.L. Burge). As its title suggests, the book tells the story of the god Mercury marrying Philology, a mortal woman who ascends into godhood at the beginning, and the following marriage ceremony featuring the various members of the Greek pantheon in attendance. It’s in the ceremony where Capella’s intentions for this story are revealed; the narrative itself being a framing device to expound on the learning found in the seven liberal arts: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and harmony. Each chapter introduces a personification of each art as a goddess attending the wedding who then gives a speech on their respective allegorical representation; i.e. the goddess Grammar gives a speech on the lessons of grammar. Such a creative pedagogical method enticed me to hunt down the complete text.

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‘Blood-Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal: The Finest Attitude Pamphlet’ by Toom Bucksaw


Philosophical writing sucks, and reading it often feels like wading through a molasses of obscurantist bullshit from another planet. Which is why when Noah Cicero quotes the likes of Sartre and Nietzsche in his newest book, Blood-Soaked Budda/Hard Earth Pascal, I could hear a mental train that used to be running so smoothly come grinding to a halt.

Blood-Soaked Buddha is a Buddhism-flavored collection of philosophical musings by someone who is essentially an average Joe. Noah Cicero quotes and refers to several texts of Buddhist and Western origin, but a reader of philosophy doesn’t become a worthwhile philosopher because of how many books he’s read. Noah Cicero knows this. Blood-Soaked Buddha is a brief, physically unimposing, unpretentious and, most appealingly, self-conscious book.

“I am writing this for no reason.

I don’t know if I have a right to write this book, or if it’s even permissible.”

These are the first lines of this book. This is the perspective from which it is written. And it is our perspective.

Noah dispenses blasts of thoughts and insights whose occasional lack of novelty is always charming, never frustrating. The lack of conceit in his voice renders even his intellectual duds endearing rather than insulting. Blood-Soaked Buddha is the philosophical book we would write, if we had to. But could most of us deliver the most pedestrian of platitudes in such a way that it feels like a rejuvenating breath of cold air coming down from a mountain, as Noah does? I don’t think so.

Blood-Soaked Buddha isn’t an abstract book about bodies and spaces and the fundamental matter of human existence, at least not when it’s at its best. It’s an attitude pamphlet. It’s the voice of a friend who read a lot of interesting books and has a new mindset he’d like to share with you. Rarely do Noah’s findings cut deeper than learning to appreciate the world around you for what it is, while it is; allowing things to pass; and having respect for perspectives other than your own. But when it comes to these kinds of ideas, I can’t think of a better medium to absorb them through than a modest 4×6 book of 191 pages, written by a voice that strikes such an incredible balance between the knowledgeable and the humbly knowledgeless, the spiritual and the tangibly applicable.

Occasionally he gets lost in a rabbit hole of his own design, attempting to codify various cliques of people and set in stone their universal traits, attempting two proofs of God (though still with the disclaimer that he’s doing it “for fun”), or declaiming lengthy fables to illustrate easy-to-grasp human weaknesses. Can we blame him? These aren’t the failings of a professional philosopher, some lofty, powdery intellectual. These are the failings of one of us. I’m much more interested in watching one of us try and fail two proofs of God than I am in reading anything in any philosophical canon. Not every writer can skate by being light on revelation by publishing in pamphlet-size and downplaying their own significance in a prefatory note, but Noah Cicero has done it.

“What if you had to live for eternity with your current shitty attitude?”

This is the only thing it says on the back cover of Blood-Soaked Buddha, and the central question of one of its most compelling moments. What if you got to heaven and could only find things to complain about? What if you got to Hell and met a new friend?

A copy of Blood-Soaked Buddha in your bag is a good step on the road to becoming the person who meets a friend in Hell.

‘Smith’s First Book of Poems Too Good for Snappy Headlines’ by Ray McKenzie


Has anyone ever told you a story that failed to impress? They probably tried to save face with something like, “you should’ve been there” or “you’d get it if you knew So-And-So”. Among the stories told in this collection, there is not one such failure. This book takes you there, makes it so you know So-And-So. This book is the barstool, low lighting, and neat whiskey that facilitates—nay, necessitates—good storytelling.

Unruly is a spirited introduction to Elysia Lucinda Smith, who she is, what it means to be her. It chronicles the halcyon days of youth, and juxtaposes them with the challenges that, upon reflection, make us who we are. In terms of VH1 programming from the 90s, this book is equal parts Unplugged and Behind the Music.

Unruly gets you familiar with Elysia in a transparent way. I wish more people I know would write books like this so that I could keep them on my shelf and give them a read through at my leisure. If I’m a creep for wanting to keep my friends on a shelf like one of those Christmas elves with the spindly limbs and the painted face, then so be it. If I share a few lines, maybe you’ll understand my obsession with Smith’s work.

Continue reading “‘Smith’s First Book of Poems Too Good for Snappy Headlines’ by Ray McKenzie”