The Bottom of the Sea by Zachary Jernigan

“In the kitchen Mom pours four glasses of wine. The bottle is half empty, which tells me she and Dad have been at it.”

When I first heard about Zachary Jernigan’s work in short stories, I knew I had to pick this up as soon as possible. He was kind enough to send me an ARC of the five works, to which I am always grateful for.

To begin, I thought I might make the warning that this plays with the present tense a lot. I know a few readers don’t like that, which is about as mind boggling as people not liking first person. But I digress. He has composed a variety of short stories, teeming from Dystopian to Weird to Fantasy to Sci-Fi to even what you might call Literary Fiction.  I’ll do an in depth review of each of these shorts, but know that they are all amazing. Really.

The War Is Over and Everyone Wins

“Arguing with him is like arguing with a religious fanatic. You have no chance of winning the argument.”

This story first and foremost tackles race. It may have a terse style and quick pace, but the theme, as in all of them, really sets Jernigan apart from a lot of short story writers. Told from the perspective of a black sheep, (pun) we see a dystopia that has waged a war on whites because they were infected by a death inducing plague. I can’t fathom why that would be the tipping point, maybe with fear of contagion, but after a while when no other skin color was killed by the disease, they may have stopped.

No such luck.

What this racism shows is the effects of forced change. Minorities, to which white people are funnily enough becoming, begin to hate the Caucasians. They stay rich, do nothing, conform to this stereotype of straight white male. So war ensues, but instead of creating an equal world like you would expect (crazy idealists) the land is subjected to harsher racism by the Indians who have taken over.

Themes aside, this story benefited from a strong internal conflict. The narrator married a woman who resembles a white woman, who is “too white.” His father, a bigoted man who fought in the war, doesn’t approve. We get great tension whenever they walk into the room.

This started us off great.

Rating: 7/10

Fear of Drowning

“My history is inconsequential, my understanding of creation no greater than that of an infant. The God-Queen has built world. Surely, the details of my life are merely a source of amusement to her. I do not like to be reminded of this.”

Unfortunately, this short story proceeds to let me down. It may be because it had a tough act to follow, or that the ending fell flat. I’m not exactly sure. I know it’s not because this story most resembles his debut in terms to Weirdness.

This starts blaringly with purple prose. It’s a nice contrast to the simplicity of TWIOAEW, and works really well with the massive amounts of world-building we see. My only problem is there was little emotional attachment. The narrator falls in love with a God-Queen, goes along for a revenge ride, and then learns she will fall out of love with the murderous woman.

It felt a little bland, but with his writing style, the pace kept on, there was enough to entice me, turn my mind off and ramble through the space of magnificent cities and hell hounds swimming.

This is a strange story about loving gods and dog souls. If you want a novel closest to his debut in relation to strange ideas, No Return, save okay characterization, then this is your fix. This short isn’t bad, per se; it just didn’t click for me. Nothing wrong, really.

Rating: 6/10

The Bottom of the Sea

“The boy’s footsteps will be sure, his eyes will be wide and receiving always, will always see the blind man for what he is. A fool and a coward, a ward of the kingdom. A leech. Pathetic. Useless.”

Ah, the namesake.

This was my second favorite of the five. A strong, sad, touching story about two disabled people not coming together to help each other. If that doesn’t touch original, add in a fish market and flying dragons.

This is the first time we see third person past tense compared with the other two before. And it nicely works with the perspective of a blind man. If we had first person, I don’t think it could’ve been pulled off the same, the emotion, the tough, uncaring, unflinching attitude of our main character. He’s a grumpy old fellow, but at the same time you can commiserate with him, being blind and helpless.

That’s were the kid comes in, resulting in additional pay along with the chance to lead him through the streets, the only thing the idiot kid can do. But unlike the previous two shorts, the world is only hinted at, beautifully done with such a subtle style that you focus on the grimy aspects of the city, on the fish market’s smells which are never mentioned, on the trash that is never shown. And why does this work? Because Jernigan lets you fill in the blanks.

It’s an artful and risky style that works. This is the shortest of them all, and it’s the characters that really do it justice.

Rating: 7.5/10

Pairs

“Pain is often more compelling than joy, in my experience—and usually more salable.”

Quite possibly the weirdest of them all, Pairs is what you want to truly see Jernigan’s style.

Jernigan opens with a great, humorous, and possibly cold, psychotic opening paragraph. It’s crazy, detached, and shows the real set piece of this short: Voice.

We are led through a story about the last human, a soul that has been uploaded as a ship, as many things, crazy as it sounds. And truthfully, I don’t think I grasped it all. That’s fine. It was a fun ride, showing off different planets, reptilian men, transporting souls everywhere.

This short plays with ideas the most, picks apart imagination. It’s hard to explain; fun, but really weird.

You just have to read it to understand the revenge story and the insane woman who’s a bird.

Rating: 7/10

All My Ghosts

“Take out that compass and make sure, again and again and again, cause one foot may wanna bring you back to where you were, but you can’t go back. Don’t even look back, cuz a line goes forward. It can always be turned and misled, but it only goes forward.”

This is, simply put, an amazing short story. Words cannot describe how much I enjoyed it. The beginning is cold, harrowing, and hopeless. The tale is sad, fathers reasons death for his child, knows it can’t be prevented.

It’s heartbreaking, watching an immortal walk through the snow with his son bundled in his jacket, baring the elements all for a surprise that will surely kill him.

This was powerful, moving, and beautiful. I can’t dissect this, can only tell you to experience it yourself. Not to ruin it, Jernigan ends with a bang, adding this to the list of my favorite short stories.

If you only pick this collection up for one story, this is the one to read.

I can’t recommend it enough.

Rating: 8/10

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

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