Beyond the Latch and Lever Review by Author and Creative Writing Professor, Michael G. Hickey!

Edited by Susanna Skarland and Elle Blackwood, the eleven stories in Beyond the Latch and Lever are equally captivating and charming. Each tale, in its own unique way, taught me a lot! They are compelling, page-turning, white-knuckling adventures into what’s possible vs. what’s not, and when I was finished reading, a light switched on in my brain. I finally realized that attempting as I had for years to delineate the lines of demarcation between science fiction and speculative fiction, between fantasy and magic realism, was an exercise in futility. Those literary constructs are for agents, publishers, and literary critics. The real question for readers is, does the story grab you by the collar, pierce your heart, and rearrange what you thought was your imagination? Does it make you reconsider what’s real? And for me, the answer is a resounding yes!

The characters are multi-dimensional, the plots unpredictable yet thoroughly believable, and the poetry unmistakable. Like this line from Elle Blackwood’s protagonist in Esterbell, an elderly woman who revisits the château where she grew up in post-WWII France. It is an enormous, long since abandoned edifice that tests and reimagines the complexity of “place.” Ester had her very own gargoyle to fight off the demons roaming her past. And this dialogue with her driver: “Have you ever lived in the past?” she asks, searching his face. “Could it be that the past trails after us?” Clearly, Ester and her driver have a complicated, sometimes adversarial relationship with the ghosts from their respective pasts. Ester folds her arms as if she’s trying to hold herself together.

Bobbie Peyton’s Between Heaven and Fire is the harrowing, haunting story of migrant farmworkers and with all due respect to Mr. Steinbeck, the plot is far beyond anything in The Grapes of Wrath. My eyelids sag as I stand on the deck. I grip the knife in my pocket. A radio warbles a familiar song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” I close my eyes and imagine the sun setting on the blue horizon. I taste the ocean air and see the andadasi and mimosa leaves folding closed.                

By the end of the first page of Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez’s exquisite The Two Lives of Agapito Cortez, the senses have been assaulted, and the reader tossed headfirst into the deep end of the Civil War. This hallucinatory hike through history was perfectly complete and left me trancelike. Amazing writing throughout. Agapito’s ears rang from the thunder of cannon fire. His skin was clammy and hot, the chills wouldn’t stop, and the pain—his left arm was on fire, torn to shreds by Confederate bullets.

And in Erik Amundsen’s Home to Skjolden, the question is not just, can you go home again? The bigger conundrum is, can you make up for lost time? This story is a cocktail of reflection and nostalgia with a dash of hope, and the ending was so… so… well, I’ll let you see for yourself, but it gave me a reason to live! I scramble up the hill to the house, and my lungs hurt like hell. I come up over the ridge and see the car still in the driveway. It gives me a surge of energy, but a few meters from the door, doubt crushes me again.

The writing is brilliant in every story, and every page, but to say these pieces are well-written misses the point. Beyond the Latch and Lever challenges the reader to reconsider the word “real.” Each story is replete with multi-faceted characters worth rooting for (or against), and the narrative arc starts with a quagmire that is almost imperceptible at first but upon closer examination, abundantly real. (Or is it?)

I loved this book!

The book’s theme revolves around the concept of doors: where they lead us from, where they lead us to, and the limitless possibilities in-between. As I hungrily consumed one story after another, I couldn’t help but think about the William Blake quote, the one for which Jim Morrison famously named his band in the 60s. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is. Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” And that’s exactly what this book did for me—allowed me to open the door of my mind and see the infinite possibilities outside the confines of my sequestered little cavern.

A few years ago, I saw the Canadian speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson do a reading and Q&A. Afterwards, a colleague introduced us, and I blushed when I admitted I don’t accept fantasy fiction from my creative writing students because they’re cheap knockoffs about zombies and vampires. But Nalo’s book had nothing to do with those cliches, and neither does Beyond the Latch and Lever. This book is alive. This book makes the impossible—possible!

—Michael G. Hickey, Professor of Creative Writing at South Seattle College and the author of How to Talk to Girls, Counterclockwise, and A Dress Walked by with a Woman Inside.

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