Book Review: Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape by Joshua Chaplinsky

“The tremendous talent of a storyteller unafraid to challenge himself through alternative narrative structure, or point of view, or subject matter. No matter the challenge, Chaplinsky knocked it out of the park.”

 

Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape by Joshua Chaplinsky - coverPerhaps best known in literary circles as the Managing Editor of litreactor.com, and in horror circles as the brilliant brain behind self-published cult mash-up Kanye West—Reanimator (originally published in 2015, reissued in 2018 as a Re-Reanimated Edition), Joshua Chaplinsky is an extremely talented author of short-form fiction. His short stories have been featured by publishers such as Unnerving, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and Pantheon Magazine, to name just a few. He has now collected the best of this work together to release his first collection.

The opening story, ‘Letters to the Purple Satin Killer’, is told in epistolary form, as letters received by a convicted murderer during his time in prison. The letters are from a wide range of people, from his mother (who offers a sympathetic voice, not shared by her husband, as detailed in the letters), to a lonely admirer, to a college student and more. Chaplinsky not only creates some very unique characters with very particular characteristics, but he manages to convey so much in such short letters, and captures the individual voices of the letter-writers with great humour. It all makes for a wonderful opening story, and gives us a taste of the author’s style.

‘Twice Amputated Foot’ begins with a bizarre miracle, before turning into a slice of life story about one man’s relationship with his father, and his family. What begins with an absurd premise quickly develops into some heartfelt and deep retrospection from the narrator as he recalls memories of his late father and the effect his death had. In all the ways it is different to the opening story, it is similar in the author’s ability to craft a concise story, while seemingly giving the narrator all the space needed to deliver an engaging and beautifully-written tale. Full of wonderful passages, yet not a word is wasted.

It would be reasonable to assume that the vast majority of people know what a black hole is, in general, astronomical terms. The informal definition, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “a place where money or lost items apparently disappear without trace.” This description certainly fits the bill in ‘The Black Hole’, as Max crosses an event horizon, which also happens to be the threshold of a local bar. He begins a discussion with the bartender that very quickly loses all sense of time as it is consumed by the black hole that is the bar. It makes for a rather poignant story about absent parents and the way time can just slip through our fingers. Beautiful language and some nice flourishes along with a perfect and unique narrative style make for a great read.

Written in the style of a column from a near future gaming magazine, ‘Homunculoid’ explores the “classic” 21st century MMORPG game Homunculoid and its lasting effect. Through typical headings associated with this type of column (“Gameplay”, “Environment”, “Walkthrough”, etc.), Chaplinsky relates a game that bears more than a striking resemblance to 21st century society, complete with all manner of injustices and prejudices. For example: “At the onset of gameplay, a random Ethnic Aesthetic is assigned, determining your Social Status.” This should leave us in little doubt as to the nature of the game and the direction of the story as it holds a mirror up to the inequality of our so-called civilised society. A story that manages to deliver a heartfelt message while also entertaining.

‘Maison D’oeufs’ is certainly one of the stranger stories in the collection. A clearly well-to-do woman of great wealth arrives at a clinic that is under siege by protestors. The interior is clean and fresh and, well, clinical. She flashes back to another clinic that she was forced to visit when she was younger, and draws parallels with this visit. The ending is quite strange and, as the title suggests, eggs play a part in what transpires, both in real-time and in her memories.

‘Mummer’s Parade’ feels very much like a dark fantasy, complete with a feudal, medieval setting and monarchy. At the opening of the story, Triboulet, a jester – possibly based on a jester of the French court who lived between 1479 and 1536 – sits on the throne, having relieved the King of his ear and now wearing it around his neck. Whenever he wishes something done, he whispers it into the ear and it is carried out by his mummers – animals with human faces. It is a strange tale, totally removed from the other stories on offer. But it is also completely dark and engaging as Triboulet, using sorcery, seeks to carry out a most foul deed.

Jack is a reformed catholic in ‘The Hand of God’, meaning he had religion once, but has managed to escape its clutches. However, he is not in the clear as he continues to be haunted by visions and ghostly visitations of a preacher. When he opens up about it to his girlfriend, she suggests he seek help from an old friend of hers. As well as the completion of this story, he also must contend with questions that arise about his relationship with Esther, and her relationship with Cousin Frank. Great characters, great dialogue, and great descriptions make for a great story.

Chaplinsky takes the word “cipher” and seems to explore all of its connotations in ‘Supreme Mathematics: A Cipher’. The story is told in parts, each with a heading and a numerical value in some code as adhered to by the main character, “A girl with a sword”, a former student who ventures through a hostile landscape while recounting lessons from her master. Here the author experiments with the structure of the story, and it really works. Of course, it takes more than an interesting structure to make a story work and, thankfully, Chaplinsky proves he can combine it with great content and interesting characters to deliver an entertaining tale.

While ‘Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape’ opens with a distinctly cosmic vibe, it soon adopts a more straightforward narrative style, told in first-person and recounting the protagonist’s relationship with an enigmatic woman. It is the story of two lonely characters who share many things in common, yet seem to drift out of each other’s lives. It is less about things happening, and more about love and friendship, over a vast timeframe. By the end of the story it has gone full circle, returning to the cosmic vibe with which it opened. It is a widely held belief that, if an author chooses to title their collection after one of the stories included, it ought to be a strong one. To that we can only say this story only seems to get better with multiple reads.

With ‘The Whole Infernal Machine’, the author again seems to be taking great care to give his work a meaningful title. As a machine is comprised of multiple parts which, when used properly, performs some function, so too does the environment in the story. A boy lives in a prison-like environment, governed and run by robots. He lives in a tiny room, attends School and Church and Therapy, and is allowed brief periods Outside, in a small garden with a tiny view of the sky. The entire compound is surrounded by an unassailable wall, and he lives there alone. Until The Girl arrives. Soon he begins to question his reality, and begins to consider what lies beyond the wall. However, by the time he reaches the end of his story, we discover that life has a habit of repeating. This story has much less hope than the previous offering, is somewhat bleaker, but it is no less entertaining.

‘Aft Lavatory Occupied’ has an Outer Limits feel to it, almost science fiction but not quite. The protagonist of this story awakens on a flight during turbulence and is immediately disoriented. He is bombarded with sensory information from the cabin around him while trying to determine who he is and where he is going. Unfortunately, throughout the story, he awakens again and again, each time apparently on a different flight. This doesn’t seem to register with him whenever he awakens, but he does seem to experience moments of déjà vu as he hears sounds he heard the previous occasions, or witnesses people he recalls from before. The story develops a nightmarish, never-ending quality that soon has the reader spiralling out of control along with the protagonist.

‘The Gospel of X’ is written as though it is verse from a bible, detailing a prophet. Yet, it does not concern anyone saintly or angelic. It tells the story of a strange being who is cast out by his siblings, only to land in the desert of mankind, and gain a saviour-like following. What follows are passages that seem to mirror events that could have happened to Jesus Christ or some other religious icon, yet have a much darker intent. Some readers may consider it a challenge to read a whole story written as though it were from the bible, but Chaplinsky does an excellent job of keeping it light and entertaining enough that it never feels like a chore to read. In fact, some of the description and character interaction is so horrific it keeps us gripped right to the bitter end.

In ‘Nobody Rides for Free’, we are introduced to Trisha and Rake, stranded on the side of a highway and trying to hitchhike. They are shown to be desperate and fleeing from something that happened in a nearby town. They are so desperate, they are prepared to pay just about anything for their passage. But the driver that picks them up will really put that to the test by the end of this story. Chaplinsky does an excellent job of effortlessly peppering the story with seemingly innocuous description that actually comes back to play a major part in the development of the plot. This is no coincidence; it is the mark of a thorough and meticulous storyteller. Also, some of the imagery later in the story is the mark of a writer with a dark and twisted sense of humour, but it really works for this type of story.

 Thirteen stories, each more different than the last, each showcasing the tremendous talent of a storyteller unafraid to challenge himself through alternative narrative structure, or point of view, or subject matter. No matter the challenge, Chaplinsky knocked it out of the park. Given his aforementioned cult hit, Kanye West – Reanimator, which demonstrated his ability to meld a dated horror story with pop culture to hilarious results, and now such a varied collection (varied only in subject and delivery; the end result is unanimously high quality fiction), the question we now need answered is: what shape will Joshua Chaplinsky’s next long-form work take? Whatever he chooses to showcase next, we will be front and centre. And, if you enjoy this collection as much as we have, we know we won’t be alone.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: CLASH Books
eBook: 182 (pps)
Release Date: 15 October 2019

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