Short Stories 365/128

“Sample Day” by Jerry Rabushka from Saints and Sinners 2014: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books).

Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.

Here we have two characters who have been through respective wars and survived. Hank’s war was literal; a decade ago he served and was injured, and now walks with a limp. The man he loved, Keith, was killed. Hank still sees his ghost during PTSD-triggered flashbacks and hallucinations. Lila was blindsided by a figurative bomb thrown by her lover, who declared she was straight and walked out of the life they shared for twenty years.

They are each doing their best to soldier on. Lila ladles out mashed potatoes and gravy at a shelter Hank visits as a diner. He’s described as having an expression of innocence, while Lila is said to have volunteered to re-connect with her own innocence. They’re wounded birds – kind, loving people who refuse to let the wrongs done to them make them bitter, but who also have chosen to insulate themselves from any future romantic prospects in order to avoid further hurt.

On the day of the story Lila has accepted Hank’s offer to accompany him to “sample day” at Whole Foods Market. Her encouragement gives him the courage to take the first tentative steps toward a new life with Deesh, the deli guy he’s been low-key flirting with for a year, and just as importantly, to finally share the story of exactly what happened during the war, and after it, too. For Hank there was friendly as well as enemy fire. Opening up is cathartic for him, of course, but the reader also gets the sense that helping him take a second chance on love is cathartic for Lila as well.

I haven’t yet read the author’s novel, Star Bryan, but I look forward to it.

Short Stories 365/127

“Eleusis” by Robert Hyers from Saints and Sinners 2014: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books).

Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.

Once again, I am left feeling that this must be an excerpt from a novel. Main character Adam is preparing to go to a rave with his boyfriend Justin, who is a DJ for the event, spinning a genre called “uplifting trance”. At the start of the story they are in a Wal-Mart, picking out last-minute essentials before heading to the field where the rave is being held. When they run into another gay couple, Thomas and Vinnie, heated words are exchanged.

I love that this is not Manhattan and they are not urbane, wealthy, and completely put together. These four guys are lower middle class, stranded in the heartland of America. Adam and Vinnie came up together in government subsidized housing, and Adam’s mother is a bonafide alcoholic. Her drinking drove him away a year ago, and he’s been living with Justin ever since. Adam has a lot of issues because of his history, and we are told that he has been trying to get his head together. At the event he does Ecstasy and drops acid. Not surprisingly, especially given the title of the piece, the rave is used as an allegory. Adam isn’t sure what is actually happening and what is a hallucination, and the story ends without resolution. If it is a fragment of a novel I would be interested in reading the complete work.

Short Stories 365/126

“Mum’s the Word” by Jeff Lindemann from Saints and Sinners 2014: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books).

Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.

Something is definitely going on here. Either I’m getting accustomed to this sort of over-the-top humor, or Jeff Lindemann is light years ahead of others in this form, or maybe it’s both. I thought this story was hysterical right from the get-go. Getting a chance to hear him read a selection from his story at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival was a delight, just as it was last year.

Poor young Peter Boggs has been summoned to the office of the Reverend Bosco Byrd, Dean of Bible Studies at the East Texas Bible College where Peter is a student. I chuckled when Reverend Byrd was described as resembling a chicken hawk, and at all the subsequent avian references, but it wasn’t until his “pipe organ began to swell” and I laughed out loud that I realized just how much my reaction to this sort of humor has changed.

This is a really funny story for a long while, but it has a rather dark ending. I didn’t expect that and at first found it disturbing, but now I feel it works. The world described is melodramatic; it’s all good vs. evil, the devil made me do it, and eternal consequences. When you deal with people who believe they answer to a higher moral authority, you risk running into ones who are acting out against the same, like a petulant pre-teen, and you risk getting burned.

Note: I have a photo I wanted to include with this entry, an image from the French Quarter that I feel exemplifies the author’s “East Texas Gothic” style, but it is stuck on the camera’s memory card because I (still) cannot find our card reader. I’ve never posted any photos from last year’s trip for the same reason. The photos are trapped on the three cards we own. Today I broke down and bought a 50-in-1 reader but discovered when I got home that even it cannot accommodate our outdated technology. Sigh.

Update: I found the photo! Turns out it’s actually two photos. Here they are:

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Short Stories 365/125

“Voodoo John” by James Russell from Saints and Sinners 2014: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books). Contest runner up.

Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.

I really enjoyed this story. For one thing, it’s set in New Orleans, and having been to many of the locations before I read this, it was great fun to “revisit” them on the page. Rooftop pool at the Hotel Monteleone? Check. Carousel Bar in the same? Check. Bourbon Pub? Check. Voodoo shop in the French Quarter? Check. 

From the title it wasn’t clear if this was going to be an actual spec fiction piece or if that was meant as a little local flair, but I was primed for either outcome. Early on it seemed the story was going to go one particular way; the fact that it did not I found intriguing and playful.

Jack is a trust fund baby who hangs around the Quarter picking up tourists and the staff members of various establishments, and eliciting jealousy in the locals with whom he regularly interacts. They resent the fact that that he’s good looking and young, doesn’t have to work to earn a living, and has nothing better to do but preen and play all day, every day.

And then it gets bizarre, in a really good way. If you like the sort of deliciously creepy story where things shift so subtly that you don’t notice anything is happening until you look around and—BAM!—find that everything’s changed, you will enjoy this story. If you’re a fan of the Twilight Zone, you will enjoy this story. If you like a well-crafted tale where every element that serves to set up the beginning simultaneously sets up the end, you will enjoy this story.

What a great way to open the anthology.

Short Stories 365/124

“Sky Blue” by ‘Nathan Burgoine from Saints and Sinners 2013: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books). Contest runner up.

Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.

I had the good fortune to spend parts of the past week with ‘Nathan during the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, and also to have read several other stories he’s written as well as his debut novel Light, which is a Lambda Literary Award finalist in the LGBT Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror division.

Those are very important key words: Science Fiction. Fantasy. Horror. This was the first story of his that I encountered, and so I didn’t know to expect his unique vision. In fact, I wasn’t expecting there to be any speculative fiction at all in this collection. None of the other stories in it were written in that vein. Some were over the top, certainly, but not truly beyond the realm of possibility. Therefore this took me by surprise, and confused me for awhile. First, though, I was impressed and oh-so-envious of the author for coming up with this kick-ass opening line:

The woman they dredged from the bottom of the falls is my brother.

Probably the best way to describe this story is as a mystery with supernatural elements. At the opening the main character, James, and his ex-boyfriend Ryan, a police officer, are at the scene of what may be an accident but might just as easily be a murder-suicide. One of the deceased is the main character’s brother. The other is his father.

Like many of the characters ‘Nathan creates James has a paranormal ability. He can see auras, which he calls “colours”, emanating from people. They change moment-to-moment, giving James the ability to know what sorts of things a person is thinking at any given time.

The author deftly alternates scenes from the present with ones from the past, and we discover that James’ brother Sky, whose birth name was Warren, also had the ability to see the colours radiating from people. Also, that they were unable to talk about it with their parents. We’re told that their father was a tyrant, their mother under constant fear of physical and emotional attack. Their aunt was the only one who understood or intervened on their behalf. While we’re getting up to speed on their whole situation, we’re also getting further details about the murder-suicide, first from the forensics unit and then via James’ ability to see the echoes of strong emotions, which can play out like wispy movies.

It sounds rather bleak, I know, but I promise you, it ends on a hopeful note. I highly recommend this and the rest of the author’s body of work. Check out Short Stories 365/64 and 97 for reviews of more stories by him as well as a few words about Light.

Next up: stories from this year’s Saints and Sinners anthology.