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The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future cover

The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future by Christi Nogle

(Flame Tree Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Steven French

This is a collection of seventeen unsettling and often deeply weird stories, all but one previously published elsewhere. It is bookended by two that offer new twists on werewolf and zombie tales—in ‘Unschooled’ a female werewolf gives birth while yearning for a different life and in ‘The Old Switcheroo’, a man tries to convince his partner that eating a zombie’s brains will confer immunity. The rest cover a series of distorted and disturbing perspectives on families and relationships.

So, in one of the strongest, ‘Resilience’, the survivor of a family massacre exhibits behaviour that increasingly undermines the account she’s been telling her therapists. ‘In the Country’, on the other hand, shifts to the perspective of a mother who has lost a child but whose perception of events is very much askew. ‘The Gestures Remain’ likewise takes the point of view of a mother whose son is threatened by the vague, gesturing shapes seen through the windows of her parent’s desert house. As the title indicates, windows and doors and the nebulous distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are also a concern of ‘A Children’s Treasury of Windows and Doors’, in which a daughter cares for her father in a dream-like dystopia. Here, again, isolation is a prominent theme. Relatedly, in ‘Mirrorhouse’ the narrator becomes entranced by a cabin in the woods which is covered in a glass mosaic, whereas in ‘The Pelt’ the delivery of some garish artificial turf pushes a home-alone wife to resist the lure of soft furnishings.

Other stories are about grotesque changes, as in ‘I Came Back’, when a returning father comes to realise that his daughter is not who she was. Similarly, ‘The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future’ begins with a Bradbury-esque summer-before-college vibe before sliding into something off-kilter that is more akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A bizarre transformation also sits at the heart of ‘The Porches of Our Ears’ as a dying man recalls memories of how his grandma emerged from her own corpse’s nostril and took up residence in a dolls’ house.

Dreams and altered states feature prominently as well. In ‘Swarm of Pan’ a teacher dreams of her students and then encounters the body of one of them after she awakes. ‘I Entered Veda’s Dream’ wears its content on its sleeve, as the narrator enters her sister’s dream for unexplained diagnostic reasons. ‘Cinnamon to Taste’ on the other hand could be about acute agoraphobia, or, alternatively, about the pull of familial ties again, as Marnie, who works in her aunt Cindy’s bakery, tries to leave but once outside loses her grasp of reality.

In contrast, a family works happily together in ‘Packet C’, building an anatomical model from a kit bought from Woolworths. Less happily, ‘Move-In Weekend’ is narrated by an apparently doting daughter whose thoughts gradually reveal her true nature. Finally, ‘You Will Make Me Strong Again’, while also about a mother and her child, apparently survivors of a plane crash, is one of the strangest of a very strange collection.

All of these stories are suffused with a sense of dread in one form or another. In some the source of that dread is made apparent but in others, it is only implicit, so the reader is left unsure about what is going on or what has happened. Several originally appeared as podcasts and perhaps are even more effective when read aloud. Certainly, taken together, this is a collection that it might be better to dip into, rather than devour in one go!

Review from BSFA Review 21 - Download your copy here.


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