THOSE FANTASTIC LIVES, strange stories by Bradley Sides, reviewed by Philip Clapper

When we read stories that contain both the beauty of the world and its gloom, we can see our reality for what it truly is. Bradley Sides’ new collection Those Fantastic Lives contains compelling pieces of fiction that use the speculative lens to terrify, delight, and aid us in pondering the true reality around us, and our relations to others within it. In these stories, a boy consumes the fireflies that come to him, children across the globe begin to sprout wings from their backs while their parents cling to the feathers they drop, and a polygamous pod of merfolk find their lives utterly changed when a new mermaid marries into the family. These stories use the fantastic and the frightening to evoke important emotional thoughts. They are works contemplative in nature, that use magic and the imagination to help us both to feel and to think about ourselves, those close to us, and all of our fellow humans.

One of the earlier stories, “The Mooneaters” follows a mother and her son, both without name, as they attempt to avoid being devoured at the hands of the creatures mentioned in the title. The mooneaters are beings who eat the very light from the sky, but still remain ravenous. Sides’ narration in this story supplies it with simplicity, much of it being explained from the boy’s perspective. He has never known a life without the mooneaters, and thus the explanation for the monsters’ existence comes off matter-of-factly, but still with a regret for the things he will never get to see in the world before. The ending, which will not be given away here, is a satisfactory conclusion that, perhaps in another context, may have terrified its audience. Here, however, Sides imbues a moment that should seem horrific with understanding and a strange kind of hope, despite the circumstances.

“Commencement,”the story directly following “The Mooneaters,” does not, by the end, contain much of a shred of hope. Instead, it is impressive and horrific in its own way. A seemingly normal commencement ceremony for a small group of high school seniors and their proud families is not at all what it appears. In this story, Sides slowly builds a feeling of abject dread as the students ask the terrifying question: “who is the valedictorian?” This story also contains possibly the best use of point of view in any of the narratives found in the collection. Normally, one might pick a single student to inhabit during a story like this, or at most flit between several students. Instead, the narrative is told using the first-person plural. We are grounded in the entire crowd of new graduates, and yet we are not inhabiting any of the students’ minds. This allows the dread a slow build through the progression of the story. We know something terrible is going to happen, but because we do not directly inhabit any single character with knowledge of the foreboding event, the mystery of what that terrible thing is keeps us turning the page for more.

Perhaps the only story that feels somewhat out of place with the rest of the collection is “A Complicated Correspondence,” an epistolary through the medium of an email chain between two teenaged werewolves. The voices of the two boys are uncharacteristic of people their age. While the email chain’s date is March of 2020, the textspeak they use, such as the line “bruh, u r 4 REAL trying my patience. u need 2 pay more attention in school,” would look much more at home in 2004. Similarly, the constant adding of a “RE:” on each reply is also out of place with modern email services. Still, anachronisms aside, the story itself has its merits, and does not pull any of the other stories down due to its presence.

This collection uses the imaginative to create the real. Can the stars and moon be consumed, eaten away entirely by terrible creatures desirous of the light of the world? No, but the feeling of the mother’s love for her son in “The Mooneaters” is nonetheless impressed upon us in its full force. It is due to the fantastical elements that the real emotions are felt so strongly. For me, the most striking story of the collection, and the one that demonstrates its most important aspect, is “The Creator.” Not even two pages long, Sides shares with us the grief of a man who has lost someone close to him, and his need to recapture the warmth of having a child. The melancholy contained within this brief, yet powerful story is illustrative of the true somber wonder Sides is able to write onto the page. The significance of emotional connection can be seen throughout the entire collection from start to finish. The losses, trials, fears, and triumphs that each of the many characters experience will resonate loud and clear in our hearts.

Those Fantastic Lives, by Bradley Sides. Blacklight Press, October 2021. 130 pages. $16.95, paper.

Philip Clapper is an avid writer and even more avid reader living in Charleston, South Carolina. A recent graduate cum laude of Winthrop University, he double majored in history and modern languages. The abstract to his research on medieval medical practices was published in Winthrop’s 2021 Undergraduate Scholarship and Creative Activity.

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