Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle
Thirty West Publishing House, 2023
37 pages, $11.99
Review by Alex Carrigan
Chelsea Stickle’s flash fiction chapbook Everything’s Changing is a collection of stories about how encounters with the surreal can change and reveal hidden layers within individuals and in their communities. In this collection of 20 flash pieces, Stickle shares brief glimpses between the wrought iron bars that surround seemingly idyllic spaces. In many cases, Stickle’s use of surrealism threatens the surface image of these spaces, revealing them to have merely been a façade, and haunted by specters that never truly went away.
How Stickle chooses to show these moments ranges from bizarre realism to the uncanny and surreal. Some, such as “A Plague of Peacocks” or “Party Animals,” read like news reports discussing wild peacocks harassing members of a wealthy community, or observations of raccoons going through the narrator’s garbage, respectively. One story, “AITA for falling apart at a dinner party?” reads like a post on the popular Reddit board “Am I The Asshole?” but turns into body horror as its narrator experiences a literal physical collapse from anxiety as parts of her body fall off her as the evening progresses.
Many of the stories in Stickle’s collection are about women who are harmed and victimized and the ways they try to heal or overcome painful experiences, such as how the narrator of “It Always Happens When You Least Expect It” recovers from heartbreak using a red onion to literally replace her old heart. Stickle examines this theme from multiple angles in contrasting flash pieces. Both “I Told You I Would Take Your Hand” and “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream” deal with women who suffer mistreatment from men. The former story is a surreal take of reclaiming power when young ladies in a small town begin to grow blades from their bodies in response to unwarranted touches. Meanwhile, the latter focuses on how the misogyny and abuse of women can drive apart communities, depicting one such community where women are strictly forbidden from expressing anger or rage and have to flee to a field to engage in a primal, destructive release of negativity.
Stickle also haunts her communities with literal and figurative ghosts to examine various forms of trauma. Both “Modern Ghosts” and “Ghost Girl Ballet” examine the experience of becoming and existing as a ghost, with the former serving as a cheeky introduction to the afterlife as the story is presented as a detached introduction to ghost life. “I’m sorry to report that if you can hear me, you’re dead. Such a shame. But don’t worry. We’ll help you adjust,” the story begins. The latter tale presents a rumination on a type of ghost haunting a singular space by speaking of the ghosts of ballerinas in theaters, continually dancing on stage even though no one can see them.
However, in many of Stickle’s stories, the ghosts take the metaphorical form of childhood abuse and how the hauntings continue to affect the characters in the pieces. “Hiss, Clack” follows two women who got tattoos to move on from their trauma, but both experience a bout of PTSD when the tattoos cause them to experience auditory and sensory memories of traumatic moments, showing how much more growth and care is needed to move on than simply getting a symbolic tattoo. Others like “Another Night” and “There’s a girl stuck in a block of marble” present abuse in body horror experiences, where the victims are physically changed and altered because of what they experience, such as the former’s narrator turning into a small animal due to their mother’s abuse, and the latter story presenting a mother’s abuse akin to a sculptor chiseling away at marble until a broken mess remains.
Everything’s Changing is a brief, but effective examination of all the ways abuse and trauma can be viewed past the manicured lawns and picket fences of idyllic communities. Through her succinct and evocative imagery, Stickle demonstrates how communal perception of the individual is constantly changing and that no one agreed upon image can fully show the depth and complexity of its subjects. It’s a collection for those who crave greater dimension in their lives and struggle to fully develop it in their current spaces, with each story a roadmap for how to bridge to that other side.
Alex Carrigan (he/him) is a Pushcart-nominated editor, poet, and critic from Virginia. He is the author of May All Our Pain Be Champagne: A Collection of Real Housewives Twitter Poetry (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), and Now Let’s Get Brunch: A Collection of RuPaul’s Drag Race Twitter Poetry (Querencia Press, forthcoming 2023). He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Barrelhouse, Sage Cigarettes (Best of the Net nominee, 2023), Stories About Penises (Guts Publishing, 2019), and more. For more information, visit carriganak.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @carriganak.