The Withering Gaze of the Earth

by Emily Worm


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Spring Thing 2023: The Withering Gaze of the Earth, May 7, 2023
by kaemi
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023

The Withering Gaze of the Earth wastes no time leaping for the gothic. You wander ashore a strange island as the ship the brought you here recedes, leaving you to explore an abandoned house: “You carefully climb the stairs, slippery from the rain. There was a railing here once, but its been broken by a fallen tree limb. The windows of the house are almost all broken, blown out by the storm. The back door hangs ajar, the latch torn free from the frame.” The gothic, since Victorian ingenuity and a bit of bureaucratic recordkeeping first defeated Dracula, expands easily into occult tech, and The Withering Gaze of the Earth dutifully follows suit with evocative gadgets like an “ethereal radio” and an “ontological engine”, which grant the space an implied field of connectivity, which we monitor nervously through Geigeresque PPM as the anomalies intensify.

These aesthetic gestures don’t envelop the reader, however, because they’re kept at an arm’s length by a pervasive streak of flippancy. The narration isn’t immersed in the mood it’s creating, a cynical detachment resonant with the protagonist’s anger at the occult machinations of her mother. In perhaps the most telling example, the climactic confrontation with your mother as cosmic destroyer remanifesting in blood, which could be the moment the tropes apotheosize into gilded miniature, quickly dissolves into moooom you always do this bickering: ““What are you even doing? We can tell you’re trying to claw your way back into the world, and probably attain godhood, but…” / “Oh that’s simple, you’re correct about both,” your mother says. / “I mean that wasn’t really my question,” you say. “But you’re just going to be an unhelpful dick about it, aren’t you?” / “I’m sure you think that’s my greatest sin, not bending over backwards to cater to you.”” This gap between the notional material of the conversation and its emotive affect typifies much of the character’s relationships. Conversations are disjointed laconic, burbling quickly from ““I’m fine,” she said, wiping some more blood off her face. “And I didn’t murder anyone, either.”” to oh-yeah-and-also swerves like “Despite the circumstances in which we met, or, in many ways, perhaps because of them, we got married three months later.” Reader, first I spent about three hours in the shower trying to scrub the gore, then I married her.

This kind of disconnect can be a useful twist, building a parallel logic which suddenly moebiuses bizarre when you’re forced to reencounter it from an external perspective, a tactic with which The Withering Gaze of the Earth does feint, creating little air pockets of humanity in the horror extravagance: “Death calls to death, and I was only dead for a few days before a fragment of a dead god lodged itself in my heart, and I awoke screaming, with a maelstrom of blood as the fire of my rebirth” transitions starkly into “My family, of course, did not really want to be known as the family with a nightmarish creature as a daughter, and hurriedly sequestered me away from public life, while my mother poured herself into her research on how to fix me; subjecting me to numerous painful rites in an attempt to banish the thing I had become.” There’s a compelling pathos hinted here, one that sets up the mother’s antagonism while also providing a complicating nuance of her desperation to help her daughter with some unfathomable condition. Whether this heightens or cheapens the twist, that the mother actually caused the condition, depends on which way you’d rather pull the story, more into the mother/daughter angst or more horrorcore. The story can’t quite choose either, which is further alienated from the reader with its moue monotone: as reality breaks, causing text to crash across the screen, the tone goes for both the grandiose “The world writhes in pain” and the mundane “”Have I ever mentioned your mother is a huge asshole?”” Indeed, the game almost seems to undermine itself with a kind of disinvested contempt. The finale, escaping this pocket dimension as your mother collapses it in her rebirth ceremony, is handwaved away with a snort and eyeroll: the protagonist asks what just happened, and the reply is ““Uhhhh, based on your description, and the extremely high breach contaminants, I think the combination of her divine weight and the unraveling of reality broke open the barriers between worlds and like… You know how that sea you saw yourself on? Its what the death infused water here comes from, and I think that got pulled in and she just was destroyed by a deluge of the rain or whatever.”” Whatever indeed, whatever else?

Which is saddening, because when The Withering Gaze of the Earth cares about its imagery, it shimmers: “Behind you, a sigil of fire hovering over the bridge. It flickers and shifts between a dozen different forms in the span of a second. Rocks hover in the air around it, screaming of the endless wake for the rotting god. The abandoned car has sprouted roots that writhe upward into the sky.” The succinctness propels its vividness into a genuine urgency. With all the time jumps and exposition swipes pumping a techno beat, that urgency keeps your motivating condition raw and anxious: “Breath has been denied to you, since your death and rebirth. / Your body still kind of works like a living person, so you stop for a moment to see if you can get some of your energy back, but unfortunately the clawing music and the crushing weight on you only gets more intense when there isn’t the struggle to press onward to distract you, so you’re left with no choice but to struggle onward.” The pull to confront your mother, but also your own embodied conflictions, as well as the cosmic overtones whorling the whole thing into watercolor, creates some compelling thematic pulses, but alas, none of which the game seems eager to sustain.

On the Spring Thing page, the blurb admits the story was waylaid by Covid, ending up truncated and perhaps a bit first drafty. Certainly, there are many places where details run sparse, like our shotguns-out marriage or the lore of creatures like the ataxic sigilites. One wishes the author health and serenity, and perhaps in a better situation this story could be revised to fulfill the full colors of intention.

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