Review by Daphne Stasert
Content Warnings: Drug Use, Sex, Violence, Death, Suicide, Slavery, Assisted Suicide, Homophobia, Sex Work
With Unsafe Words, Loren Rhoads presents probably the most diverse set of stories that I’ve yet reviewed. Unsafe Words is not a collection of strictly horror, but explores fantasy and science fiction as well. Throughout, however, runs a thread of unease. Rhoads explores the darker sides of all her subjects. Regardless of whether the tales are set in a world of advanced technology, magic, aliens, or bad drug trips, Unsafe Words doesn’t flinch away from her examination of the human condition.
Drugs, sex, and music feature prominently throughout the stories. Frequently, they weave together. Drugs tint character reliability, blurring the line between reality and hallucination. Characters use drugs to escape their situation, to enhance it, and simply to exist. Rhoads attaches no value judgement to the use, but uses it to enrich the stories. Sex, in all its trappings, is a strong taboo for most readers. But Rhoads doesn’t shy from its use. Sex is good, it’s bad, it’s a fact of life for her characters. It’s a means to an end or an end all its own. Music is a driving force, akin to hypnotism, drugs, or religion. Music washes over the characters like a drug high. It transcends their motivations. Characters are willing to die for music, kill for it.
Drugs, sex, and music may be the vehicle, but many of Rhoads’s stories primarily deal with the concept of love—new, mature, and dying. When does infatuation cross from curiosity to devotion? What would you do for someone that you love? Who or what would you betray? What do you do when grief runs out and turns instead to exhaustion and despair?
These stories are uncomfortable at times, but they’re meant to be that way. They force the reader to explore their own values and assumptions about the human condition. Even within the horror narratives, terror takes a backseat to introspection.
Rhoads revisits tired tropes through a new lens. New worlds and ideas turn familiar stories on their heads. She seamlessly includes science fiction and fantasy world building to freshen up stories. These worlds don’t take over the story, but serve as a unique backdrop.
If I have one complaint about Unsafe Words, it is simply that some of the stories are too short. Rhoads creates complex, immersive worlds that are busting with stories, but only explores a tiny portion of them, sometimes cutting off the story before it really even gets started. So many of these could be expanded into full novels and I hope that Rhoads takes that step in the future.
If you have a wide range of stories with excellent writing, you’ll enjoy Unsafe Words by Loren Rhoads.