Short Stories 365/332

“Syndrome” by Eric Mathieu from Glitterwolf: Halloween (October, 2014). Edited by Matt Cresswell.

A black tail. Pointy ears. Claws. Where had I seen this before?

That’s what the main character of this story wonders during a sleepover at his boyfriend’s house, after he spies a strange creature during the night.

I don’t know where he’s seen that combination of things before, but I have been reading stories like this all year long and let me tell you, I thought I knew where this particular story was headed.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

Just what the heck is going on in this story is never really explained, but that was okay. I took it at face value and was completely creeped out by it, at a time of the year when that was precisely what I was after.

Short Stories 365/331

“Halloween Parade” by Tom Cardamone from Glitterwolf: Halloween (October 2014). Edited by Matt Cresswell.

My intention was to purchase a digital copy of this issue and review the stories in it in advance of Halloween, only a digital format wasn’t made available in time. (Actually, the last time I checked it still wasn’t.) I was able to read seven of the stories via a “free taster” floating around social media, and was absolutely blown away by the strength of every one of them. Still, I wasn’t going to review a partial edition here. When I ended up with seven slots to fill, though, I took it as a definite (and eerie) sign….

It’s the Halloween parade in New York City and Stephen is teeming with nervous energy, at once praying for something exciting to happen to him and dreading it won’t. He’s been this way all his life, relishing the “maintainable fear” that horror movies deliver while trying to rein in the almost unbearable sexual longing that threatens to pull him within the reach of a very real killer in the form of disease.

As is his Halloween custom, he’s counting the number of Freddy Kreuger, Jason and Michael Myers costumes he sees, in order to ascertain the zeitgeist, when a particularly authentic-looking Michael comes into view. Stephen watches, transfixed, and then attempts to follow the man, but bumps into someone dressed as The Flash. There’s a strange, highly improbable similarity between the two strangers that flusters and excites him. It should be noted that the pacing of the piece is excellent. It steadily builds up the suspense and sexual tension, so that when Stephen, rattled, at last staggers into a bar and meets yet another character oddly similar to the first two, we believe it’s all the convincing he needs to indulge his most dangerous desires.

I did not anticipate the turn of events at the very end of this tale and found it thoroughly unnerving.

Short Stories 365/330

“The Wagers of Gold Mountain” by Steve Berman, (Lethe Press 2011).

San Francisco, the Gold Rush days. Ji Yuan’s brother Chen is sick with fever. The food and medicine Yuan has been able to purchase with his meager wages from the shirt factory haven’t made his brother any better. It seems likely Chen will die, and soon, unless Yuan can either obtain stronger medicine or secure divine intervention. Well, maybe not divine. Amita Buddha hasn’t responded to any of his pleas, but Yuan has heard of a strange shop run by a pair of evil spirits who are said to grant wishes for a price.

Yuan finds the shop and confronts its two strange occupants – a woman and a man, Manchu and American, respectively. Right away he knows they aren’t ordinary humans:

 Hang-ne reached out with cupped hands and caught a measure of smoke drifting off Buren’s cigar. She molded it with her nimble fingers until the wisps took shape. She then blew across her palms and a grey swallow ruffled its feathers.

What a great analogy for the written word. Recently I had occasion to listen to an audio recording of this author’s story “The Price of Glamour”. The actor who provided the narration did an excellent job, and I highly recommend downloading the file and listening to it. Still, a little ways in I caught myself comparing the recording to a fully produced stage or screen performance, and realizing I didn’t need anything more than the written words. As much fun as it was to listen as the performer created different voices for the characters, it was superfluous. I’d already heard the different voices when I read the piece, just as I’d seen the clothes the characters were wearing, though no costumer had sewn a stitch. I’d seen the snuff box and the glamour without the aid of a prop person. I’d watched Lind scale the wall of Bluebottle’s rag shop without a scene designer, cinematographer, or cameraperson. Though there was no CGI team I saw imprisoned fairies, freed, fly from cages. Sitting in my car, utterly rapt, I found myself thinking, over and over again, “This is better magic.”

It’s true. The written word lets you connect directly with another person’s mind, across time and space. It lets you walk in many other people’s shoes. It allows you to craft entire worlds from nothing—from smoke, from ink—and those worlds don’t last for merely a few weekends or even a few years, they exist forever. What else is that, if not magic?

The evil spirits Hang-ne and Buren give Yuan a magic key and send him on a quest to find a hatchet which turns out not to be a hatchet at all. Nothing they say can be taken at face value, it’s all a trick. The thing I like most about the story is that Yuan has nothing with which to work except an honorable nature and his wits. In other words, he’s the perfect everyman. Don’t have a gun, endless cash, or superpowers? That’s okay, neither does he, but he prevails, and it’s fun to watch and see how he does it.

On a side note, unless I missed something or have forgotten an earlier story, this is the first story I’ve read by this author which did not contain an LGBT element.

Short Stories 365/329

“Straightening Up” by Jeffrey Ricker, published by Untreed Reads, 2012.

Michael and Greg have been living together for awhile. They’re a couple, but only certain people know that, or even know that Michael is gay. For instance, he hasn’t yet found a way to tell his mother. His father figured it out on his own and asked, and Michael did muster up the courage to tell him the truth, though he then swore him to secrecy.

It’s the holidays, but Michael’s father has to work, so his mother is coming to stay with him and Greg for a week. Michael sees nothing wrong with putting on a charade (the “straightening up” of the title), pretending he and Greg are nothing but roommates. He ignores the fact that it really bothers Greg. Greg’s friend Gina knows how much it does, though. She’s beyond over Michael’s insecurities. In her opinion Greg should’ve dumped him long, long ago.

As with the last two pieces, this must have been intended as the beginning of a longer work*. Personally, it’s the one of the three I’d most like to see get fully fleshed out. Yes, the single conflict introduced here does get resolved by the end, but it feels like a start, not a whole story. I want to see these characters overcome other obstacles. And yes, I do mean all of these characters. Michael’s mother is a hoot, Gina kicks butt, and from what we’re told about his dad, he’s a good guy.

 

*See Short Stories 365/327 for a comment from the author about this.

 

Short Stories 365/328

“New Normal” by Jeffrey Ricker, published by Untreed Reads, 2010.

Let the record show that this story pre-dates the similarly-titled television show.

It’s funny, I didn’t remember these as being fragments. I first read them almost two years ago, and recollected them as complete stories. They’re not, or at least this one and the previous one aren’t. I’ll let you know shortly about the next one.

Jess wakes in a hospital room of the future, only to be told he died sixth months earlier.  Under the right circumstances now death is just another symptom to be treated. All the professionals have to do is download a person’s personality onto a chip and then grow a duplicate body for them in a lab. In half a year or so, voila! A brand new start.

If only it were that simple. Poor Jess feels unmoored from the man he used to be, similar to someone with amnesia. Intellectually he knows the facts of his previous life, but he can’t feel anything about them beyond a mild curiosity. It’s worst where it concerns his partner, Gary. He’s been an angel through the whole thing, hardly leaving Jess’ bedside. The last thing Jess wants to do is hurt him, but the truth is he feels nothing for the man.

These are familiar themes in the author’s work: A person who has undergone a physical transformation, who keeps contrasting the similarities and differences between the person they are now and the one they used to be; an old self that fit into its surroundings, and a new one that does not.

As with the last selection, it’s a great set-up and I wish there was an ending to this story.

For more from this author see Short Stories 365 / 62, 95, 110, 175, 254, 309 and 327.

Short Stories 365/327

“Maternal Instincts” by Jeffrey Ricker, published by Untreed Reads, 2011.

Lisa Weiss has a problem. A teenaged employee of her local grocery store is a vampire and he’s bitten her. Now she’s a vampire too. The thing is, though, she’s a married woman, a mother of two. How can she also be a bloodsucker?

The author mines a good bit of humor from the absurd situation while setting up the parameters of Lisa’s new reality. Just after we get situated there’s a complication, but the story ends before even attempting to resolve it. This piece must actually be the opening chapters of a vampire novel that hasn’t yet seen publication.

Short Stories 365/326

“Little Red and the Elf Princess” by Sarah Lyn Roger from Iris Brown Lit Mag, inaugural issue, April, 2014. Edited by Adriena Dame, Charlene Luck and Julia Crittendon.

It’s one last hoorah for modern takes on fairy tales before we close out this project. The Little Red of this tale is a strong, independent young woman living in a cottage in the woods with three male roommates. She crosses paths with a witch one day, refuses to buy her goods, and finds herself cursed to say only inappropriate things. The poor thing doesn’t mean to offend anyone, but when she opens her mouth, she says things that drive everyone else away. Her roommates, for example, exit in a huff.

It is, of course, a nice parallel for realizing that you’re LGBT. Red tries to modify her behavior so that others will accept her, first by writing notes to her family proclaiming she’s sworn off modern technology (i.e. the telephone), and then by segregating herself from the rest of humankind. It’s no surprise that she becomes terribly lonely. One day while wandering in the woods looking for flowers to press into a book, she hears a woman’s voice, singing. Compelled by the sound, she approaches the cottage and sees a beautiful elf-like young woman in the front yard of a cottage. Red tries singing a few notes and discovers she can use her voice in that capacity without repercussions. The stranger is kind to her, and intrigued by her, but what kind of relationship can they have, really, with Red being unable to fully express herself? When the other young woman starts pressuring her to speak, it seems Red will lose the only friend she has, the one she wants most of all.

The author made smart use of several different fairy tale tropes to tell her story, and Red’s very contemporary voice is refreshing. It’s also worth noting that this was the sole piece of fiction chosen for the magazine’s first issue.