Reviewed by Emily Webber
Right from the beginning with the dedication (For everyone who got called “weird” like it was a bad thing) and title of Chelsea Stickle’s chapbook, Everything’s Changing, she signals to the reader what kind of stories they are going to encounter — delightfully strange and transformative. The flash fiction stories in this collection focus mainly on women and girls, along with some ghosts and crazy animals, who face the world’s unfair and dangerous realities. But Stickle gives her characters strength through their oddities and shifting shapes and gives her readers new insight into our world. Magical realism at its best, and what Stickle accomplishes so well in this collection, is that even though the stories hold a strangeness, they still feel real and show us what it means to be alive in our world and how we can reclaim power in a world that seems to want to hold us down.
Even though some of these stories are very brief, and the longest ones only a few pages, these stories present whole worlds. I didn’t read them and wish I had more information. I read them, hoping I could stay longer with Stickle’s sentences and unique way of perceiving the world. In titling the collection, Stickle makes a choice I see less often. Instead of pulling the title from a story within the collection, it stands on its own. In the first story, “Worship What Keeps You Alive,” a family huddles in the bathroom during a hurricane.
Hurricane Florence is barreling toward us. To prepare we buy sandbags, candles and non-perishables. We hide out in the bathtub, the four of us—Mom, Dad, Gretchen and me—with the floral couch cushions over us like grass over a grave.
“Worship What Keeps You Alive” embodies Sitckle’s overall theme well and does what great flash fiction does. Stickle presents a small moment in a family’s life. They huddle in the bathroom, and nothing really happens, yet this moment opens up the family’s entire world to the reader.
A thread through many of these stories is focus on the things we do to regain control, particularly from the viewpoint of women and girls. In “I Told You I Would Take Your Hand,” when girls get their periods, they also begin to grow weapons like knives under their skin:
They poked through skin and worked like new limbs. Now boys and men stared at them for different reasons. Their objectified bodies became objectively terrifying. The new girls adopted the first girl’s rule: Three strikes and you lose a hand.
Similarly, “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream” explores the expectation of perfection placed on women, causing them to repress any real emotion. But even if sometimes just in inches, the women and girls in these stories wrestle some power and change. Stickle delivers razor-sharp writing, reflecting how girls need to be in this world.
Then there are the ghosts that stalk through this collection. I love stories that present the afterlife because it gets messy when you really start to think about the logistics of being around for eternity. “Modern Ghosts” shows us that if we take our souls with us, the essence of what makes us a unique person, the afterlife could be as petty and boring and maddening as life sometimes is, only endless. This story is both funny and horrifying. It makes you question if hoping for an afterlife is a good idea.
Sometimes you’re stuck to the place you died. The side of the road can be boring as fuck. But the more you separate from the life you once knew, the more you can move around. Overhearing conversations about pointless shit becomes fascinating. You’ll still reach for your smartphone but adapt to reading over other people’s shoulders. You start to learn who watches what, so you can keep up with the news and even binge whole shows if you’re lucky. If you haunt the right people. Without them you just wander or curdle. It’s the ghosts that stop thinking and growing that become poltergeists. The poor bastards are just trying to prove they exist by scaring the shit out of the living.
Young, dead ballerinas haunt “Ghost Girl Ballet,” endlessly striving for the perfection they couldn’t achieve in real life. Stickle does her ghosts to perfection.
In addition to ghosts, you’ll encounter drunk raccoons, raging peacocks, and a cunning fox. A woman discovers her double in a marionette doll, and Medusa turns all the men to stone. A town is frozen in time for a postcard. And you’ll meet a woman at a first house party after pandemic isolation who literally falls to pieces:
My DD breasts, one by one, plopped onto my legs before toppling onto the floor in two loud slaps. “What was that?” my friend mouthed. Everyone looked around. My eyes chose this moment to pop out like ping pong balls and bounce across the table.
Every story is wonderfully strange, showing how we adapt and transform and make sense of what we cannot fully understand.
What I love about a collection of flash fiction is that I can sit down for an hour or two and read through all the stories just to enjoy the flow of the words and the magic of the sentences. Here’s one of my favorites: With three fingers, she held the onion up to the florescent lighting like an offering, and thrust it past her ribcage and into the cavity that used to be her ravaged heart.
Then in hardly any time, you can go back and take a second look to let the full weight of the whole collection sink in even further. Stickle’s stories are full of life —funny and smart with sentences I want to read again and again— and busting with energy and insight even in their brevity.
Everything’s Changing (37pp) is available from Thirty West Publishing House.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she lives with her husband and son. She has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Read more at www.emilyannwebber.com.