This week, special for Christmas, we’ve got Chop Shop by J.B. Park.  This was Park’s debut piece and didn’t get nearly enough attention, probably because Nightmare is still a relatively new venue (especially when this was published) and doesn’t yet have the volume of readers it deserves.  Oh well, the world is unjust, such is the nature of Christmas.

This story plays on the classic descent into madness horror trope, but breaks from it in a really interesting way by combining it with a self-discovery and empowerment plot.

He was an artist, that one, and she wants him all for herself—was she not a worthy canvas?

This is our starting point.  She’s cheerful, enthusiastic, and brand spanking new to the whole thing.  She has no agency in her virtual mutilation, though the extent to which that’s true at that moment only becomes clear later in the story.  She’s the object being worked on, he’s the worker, and, as it turns out, the only one up for the job.  She’s completely dependent on him for her gratification and her education on how this works.

But she doesn’t stay that way.  By the aftermath of their second session, she’s already starting to, er, take things into her own hands.

She puts her ring-finger in her mouth, sets her teeth, slowly bites down.

Having more experience, more confidence, she’s experimenting with taking agency over her dismantling herself.  That taking a harmless, virtual simulation into the real world where it’s quite dangerously gruesome isn’t so much a good thing heightens the tension, making this particular step perform the coveted multi-function work that marks good writing, but still.  Sure, it’s unhealthy to start taking baby steps toward chopping off your own fingers, but there’s also something psychologically gratifying about taking the power to have your needs met for yourself.

That first step develops.  She rejects a suggestion from her artist that she’s not comfortable with, exerting the power she has within their relationship.  And by their fifth date, she’s broken away from her complete dependence on him far enough to get even more assertive.  She’s not comfortable with it – we get her note of insecurity when she wonders whether he’ll leave her, but she’s also not sitting still for his power-tripping, either.

She resets herself. Stands whole, neither bleeding or cut. Upset. She logs off and the man stares at the puddle of blood on the floor before he sighs and leaves as well.

I think it’s important here that she doesn’t just log off, but resets herself and faces him first.  There’s a lot you can read into that – she could just be buying time to see if she cools off enough to stay, or might be so upset it doesn’t occur to her to leave right away.  But given her progression, it reads to me like a mini-defiance.  She’s asserting her control over her virtual image, facing the artist who’s doing what he can to make her feel dependent on him, and functionally saying, “Hey, I’m an equal partner in this, and I don’t need you.”

The fact that she does, if she wants a partner, is unfortunate, but alas, this is a good Christmas story which means it’s about how the world fails to meet our needs and generally sucks.  Also, as I said, the journey in this story is a two-fold one, and it wouldn’t be a very good descent into madness if she got what she wanted on her path to self-agency.

The penultimate section of this story is what really grabbed my interest the first time.  I was listening to the podcast of it while driving and actually replayed it twice before going on to the last section because I was so convinced it hadn’t actually been a virtual projection and wanted to confirm that before going on.  Do you know how hard it is to move around in an audio file on your phone without looking at it?  Not recommended.  (My conclusion, after actually listening to the whole story is that obviously was a virtual projection and I should learn some damn patience)

What’s awesome about this section, though, is the expression of complete ownership.  She has become the artist and the canvas, and to keep the act from being entirely onanistic has involved an audience.  This is also an act of sheer insanity, and Park chooses to change perspectives, back away from his close focus on her and the artist to give us the external perspective, just to make sure we understand that yes, even in this future full of virtual worlds, this is not normal.  But prior to this, intestines haven’t even been an element.  She’s breaking new artistic ground!  We, the readers, should be so proud of her, even as we’re rather worried.

Which gives us the last line which, like so many last lines we’ve talked about, really benefits from the dual setup going on prior to the story.

She aches for it. One day, she’ll take a knife and cut herself a hole. She’ll climb in, a hole for her and her alone, and it will swallow her.

So, that’s grisly foreshadowing of a gruesome suicide to come, but it’s also an affirmation that she is in control, she’s in charge, and she’s getting stronger, working her way up to asserting that in a clear, incontrovertible fashion.  Henceforward, all the agency is hers.  Unfortunately for her that means all her agency is in the hands of a self-destructive madwoman, but that’s the beauty of this story.

Speaking of indulgence, I’m spending next week playing all the board games and not stopping for literary analysis of anything, so we’re taking the week off.

After that: Helen Keeble’s A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc-or-A Lullaby.  It’s as long as the title would suggest, and also engrossing, so make sure to make time for it.

Then Brief Candle by Jason K. Chapman.

The story I was going to put up next apparently only has audio available online.  (Insert railing against print only media here)  If somebody has a story they want to do, go ahead and toss out the idea while I sulk and you’ll get this slot.

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