This edition of Straylight has everything: a life-like horror strike that comes on like lightning; a story that asks you to suspend your disbelief (and you willingly do); an amusing take on a bridge’s history; a travelogue of sorts; and a doppelganger in a poem. It gives the publication a sense of completeness rarely found in literary magazines. It made it, quite truly, a joy to read, and an honor to review.
Audrey Forrest’s captivating tale of a P.A.’s nightmare of a mistake, “Cold Shot” stands out amongst the pages. Mark, the story’s protagonist, and a worker at Pharm-N-Go’s flu clinic, knows that, “Unlike the preferable and more expensive single pack syringes, the foreign supplier packaged the syringes of groups of five so each plastic bag contained five syringes. The two PA’s had an informal agreement with each other that at the end of the shift, each guy would pull a new box down, cut it open, place it on the counter, and remove the plastic seals from about twenty of the five-packers. It was a simple way to prevent the morning backlog.”
This seemingly innocuous description of shared responsibility turns out to be the hook upon which the story’s disastrous end hangs. When Mark doesn’t see the hugely-scrawled writing of his partner’s warning that the syringes that are out are used – he didn’t have the time to dispose of them, and pull new ones down – Mark makes an even larger mistake. Taking one of the syringes and injecting the flu vaccine in an old, frail man, Forrest deftly sends horror to the minds of both Mark, when he realizes his mistake, and the reader herself.
Michael C. Riedlinger’s story is the next standout. He asks the reader to suspend disbelief, and when twelve-year-old Will goes on his first hunting trip with his dad, in “The Snow Line,” the reader does as well, nearly unconsciously so. After a gory description of zombie-like figures, and a litany of possible reasons for their otherworldly existence, you are compelled to follow through with the story. Even my own resistance to horror writing could not stop me from turning page after page, going along with Riedlinger on his strange and incredible trip.
As the story progressed toward its horrifying denouement, I was regretting with fervor every word as the author wrote what twelve-year-old Will, just a boy, has to do when his father is bitten by one of the zombies, “He raised the rifle to his shoulder, just as his father had shown him. It seemed like ages ago. He peered down the barrel through tear-clouded eyes. He aimed silently at his father’s head, clamped his eyes shut as hard as he could, and gently squeezed the trigger like a brave young man.” This story is as unsettling as it gets, and Michael C. Riedlinger deserves a nod from every reader.
Next comes Patrick Maguire’s delightful poem, “The Pont du Gard.” “The Pont du Gard is old. / Its piers were gold, / but now are stained with mould. // We know its raison d’être / was aptly met / in keeping Roman’s wet.” It is a lovely poem, a re-telling of history with clever wordplay and delightful turns of phrase.
A.D. Winans throws his own literary hat into the ring with “Going Back in Time,” recalling his youth spent “hitchhiking from California / to Arizona and places / further west / heading in so many directions / that it was like getting lost / in the trick mirrors / of the fun house.” The last lines I’ve sampled here describe the entire poem perfectly. I know my own youth was spent in an equally disorienting fun house.
Closing out this review, I can’t help but mention Kaitlyn M. Wierzchowski’s fantastic poem, “A Woman by Another Name.” Writes the poet:
You will not find me scantily clad
Acting bad in the back of a barroom
But I will pretend to swoon.
A romantic at heart, I play the part
Of damsel in distress
And I dress like a kinky librarian
Or schoolgirl, innocent and naïve at best.
There is a woman within me
Strong-willed and willing
to kick and scream, swear and act mean.
When the poem finishes with, “And later, in the morning / It will be me who feels the backlash,” I suspect that every woman who reads this will find herself astonished at Wierzchowski’s capturing of sheer femininity. And every reader of Straylight faced with a backlash of the literary sort. These stories and poem stay with you long after you put the magazine on your bookshelf. That’s another thing this edition of Straylight has found: a permanent spot on my very own bookshelf.