Those Fantastic Lives by Bradley Sides is a wonderfully curated collection that hones in on the concept of family as each story expands and converses with its neighbouring tales. Through tones that seem folkloric, Sides tells stories of grief and loss, the whirlwind nature of families, and of being an individual as a part of one, through a contemporary voice. Each story draws a connection in theme to others within this collection, but each presents these familiar themes and ideas through the lives of fantastic people and beings.
The first story in the collection is the eponymous “Those Fantastic Lives.” Nellie, a psychic—a real psychic—must conform to the stereotypes and social expectations of fake ones—crystal balls, draped walls, candles littering the floors—to stay in business. On the day before her retirement, she encounters a mishap during her last reading, with a woman named Moira seeking to contact the spirit of her passed son. Nellie's grandson, Sam, disrupts the session but seeks to repair the damage. The story then takes an unexpected turn as Sam carries on Nellie's legacy, becoming a psychic himself. Not only does this story touch upon themes of authenticity, but at its core it is a tale concerned with aging, the waning of abilities, and the coming of age. This is a tale of loss and grief centered on a son who has lost his parents and a mother who has lost her child: both Sam and Moira struggle to hold on to what—or more accurately who—is no longer there, and with connecting through shared pain.
In “Losing Light,” meanwhile, the narrator is not a grandmother, but a brother—of a boy named Gresh, who draws light to himself in the form of fireflies. The elusive character of Gresh is removed from other children; indeed, at the conclusion of the story, Gresh disappears with the light he continues to collect throughout the story. The story shapes itself around a strange premise about the mysteries of the elder sibling in the eyes of a younger, with tones of cosmic horror and the unexplainable. But perhaps some things don't need to be explained, and perhaps those are the tales that haunt us more.
Hauntings are front and centre in “Back in Crowville,” a story told in the form of a list narrative. It centers on a town named Crowville, where most residents produce scarecrows for a living. As the story progresses, there is a sudden appearance of ghosts within the town. The premise is both absurd and humorous. The residents of Crowville attempt the unconventional method of warding off the ghosts by placing scarecrows around town. However, the plan backfires and the inhabitants are forced to flee the town. Some leave forever, while some choose to return and live among the ghosts, who seem to do no harm and only float around town. This story is one about unwarranted fear and the acceptance of something different—where difference does not necessarily mean danger, or evil.
“The Mooneaters,” too, shares themes with “Losing Light"—but this time in how it presents light as a dangerous and ominous thing. The story is told by an unnamed and ill mother to her son: the myth of the mooneaters and the madness that individuals who become mooneaters fall to. The story highlights the dangers of overconsumption of light, which seems to be something we can never gain enough of and perhaps should not be harvested. The story’s nonlinear timeline allows for an insistent but quiet and confined present, and this is contrasted with a brief but painful past of freedom. In this story’s world, darkness is something comforting. Sides in this way subverts the trope of the dark, evil forest and presents the dark forest as something safe, echoing the benevolent ghosts of “Back In Crowville.” Underlying the story is the gruesomeness and pain of growing up, of resistance, and of freedom.
In “The Dolls for The End of The World,” we see growing up through yet another lens. A boy, Patrick, who carries around a doll named Theodore, has a tense relationship with his father until the young boy abandons his father amid a disaster brewing outside their home. The only comforting voice within the piece is one we never hear as readers: Theodore's. Patrick wanders, giving dolls to each person he encounters on the verge of death. The dolls as a symbol represent people that the holders once knew and loved; or perhaps they are thinking of the dolls as themselves—clutching onto a comfort in their last dying moments. Perhaps what this story is really trying to say is that there is a child within each of us, a great fear of death, a desire to grow up but never truly feeling like we have.
“Commencement” also focuses on lost pasts and children, asking questions of parents who use their children to achieve what they couldn't themselves when they were younger. Similar to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, the story is wary of the worship of technology, and presents readers with a moral dilemma: the unwanted sacrifice of the individual for “the greater good.” A slow-burn story, it introduces the readers to a flurry of names and a setting in which everyone knows everyone else. In this place, those who are not familiar with a given individual will have trouble following and distinguishing one person from another. The genre is not immediately apparent in the piece's opening, but, when it reveals itself, it exposes an horrific technology and the way it is being used to pervert the human body. In the town’s school, an appointment to the role of valedictorian, though seemingly an honour to the parents and teachers, is something undesirable for and feared by the students; yet they have no choice but to accept their potential fate in fear of disappointing their parents.
In “Restored,” too, characters make sacrifices for others. In this story, Ms. Simone's tears heal others in her community. Though her community is thankful, acknowledging Ms. Simone for her pain and sacrifices, they do nothing to stop it or curtail them. There seems to be an innate selfishness at work here, which causes people to look in the other direction as long as they themselves live comfortable lives. It is an act of selfishness, however, that up-ends the arrangement. Marcus, the narrator's brother, takes an extra vial of Ms Simone’s tears—though he isn't supposed to—hoping to heal their mother. But not only do they not heal their mother, the theft halts Ms. Simone's tears, throwing the community into chaos. The story seems to tell its readers that greed makes us unsympathetic, unseeing of the reality in front of us. It strips us of our emotional ability to feel for others, care for others, care for anyone other than ourselves. Yet the courageous narrator sacrifices themself, taking on the weight of Ms. Simone's responsibility so others may once again return to their comfortable lives.
Comfort is left behind in “In The Hollow,” when Walt and Joseph leave their old home in hallowed land, following the passing of Walt's mother. However, their new home, though fruitful at first, slowly becomes barren and unsettling occurrences begin. There is something foreign and strange about the hollow, and the story draws on gothic haunted house elements. Walt becomes ill, but Joseph refuses to return to hallowed land. Walt and Joseph's family returns to haunt them as animalistic beings, consumed by grief and loss; trauma manifests as paranormal beings that take Walt away from Joseph because of his desire to return to his mother. There is in this story the inability to escape the past, and the rootedness of an individual in their past which is by this point in the collection a staple theme.
“Comet Seekers,” for example, ends in a flashback to when the protagonists’ father was still alive. He tells them he is like a comet that always “'come[s] back'.” The narrative of “The Trapper,” meanwhile, shifts between the past and present as we come to understand the protagonist’s background and how he wanted to trap his father's spirit at its passing, but didn't because it was not his father's wish. This inability to let go of what wants to be free strips away the choice of the dying—and speaks to the difficulties but necessities of letting go. “From Hiemslandia” also comments on parenthood and the disconnect between parents and their children, in another of this collection’s characteristic coincidences: in it, the character Vida takes Miki—a small being the size of a fingernail from Hiemslandia—as a son, and in this act it is the child (not the parent) who has no choice. We see the narrative through the eyes of Vida, who cherishes Miki as a child, but also through Miki’s, who views his new parents as giants he must battle in order to return home.
Elsewhere, “The Merpod” features a polygamic family—its members include Herman and his two wives Olga and Elaine. They add a further member to their stalling relationship—a mermaid named Alice, who is widowed. Alice keeps secret that she has a son from her previous marriage; but, once this is exposed, Herman tries to kill the child while the other two wives are supportive of the boy's induction into the family. Herman dies at the hands of Alice, but the three women live happy lives with Alice's son developing into a proper young man, of a sort Herman never was or could be.
But Herman is far from the only example of a bad person to be found in these pages. In “What They Left Behind,” the treatment of children born with wings is comparable to animals, and otherness is something to be condemned or feared rather than embraced and accepted. Rather than guiding these children through turbulent times, their parents leave their flying children behind bars, shedding from their back feathers which get swept away and disposed of almost immediately. Feathers, in this case, seem to be a metaphor for stories: unvoiced stories, lost stories, missing stories that should be heard. By the tale’s end, the winged children break free, their feathers fluttering everywhere—their stories, pain, and trauma finally heard.
Not all of these stories have happy endings, however. In “The Galactic Healers,” spaceships that Lian has prayed for land on a barren earth. Within these spaceships are healers, otherworldly beings. Though Lian believes the aliens are the saviours of the dying human species, his father believes otherwise and ends up driving the visitors away. The story seems to comment on the human mind and its resistance to anything different, foreign, or other, only because of a lack of understanding and familiarity. Humans find comfort in stasis, even if it means greater pain, death, violence, and damage. During the interactions between the humans and healer, the humans show their greed and desperation in animalistic instincts when faced with life-threatening circumstances. There is a desperate clutching, a grasping of faith in moments of desperation. The story reflects on humanity’s tendency towards its own self-destruction, born ultimately of distrust.
And ultimately, this collection argues, we must all—families and communities, individuals and other beings—trust each other. In “The Hunt,” the narrative follows Zoey, who immerses herself in an obsession with everything sasquatch, but also jumps to the perspective of her parents and their worries about her endless hunts. Even when Zoey finally finds what she's looking for, rather than being in awe of her achievement her parents rip Zoey away from her new discovery. The story focuses on many heartwarming and reflective themes, illuminating the sense of wonder that children lose when they become adults; but the worries of Zoey's parents prevent their daughter from going after the sasquatches once they go missing from the cave in which she discovered them—and Zoey rebels by running off on her own in search of her new friends. “The Hunt” seems to be a tale of caution.
Now, all of this is, of course, only what I took from the stories, and perhaps you may not feel the same when you read them. This is a collection filled with strange tales and happenings that will make you wonder what they are truly trying to tell us. Sometimes clarity is the last thing we need in a world filled with chaos, where explanation only causes greater confusion. In this collection, Bradley Sides explores the ever-changing nature of the human mind, the way it switches on and off, and makes decisions based on emotionality rather than logic—or a careful balance of the two. In his stories of grief, loss, identity, and family, I am sure all readers can find themselves—and perhaps also their families—in the bits and pieces of each character and story.