Short Stories 365/203

“The Duke of Riverside” by Ellen Kushner from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

As with the previous entry, this story is just the tip of the iceberg for an entire body of work based on a setting and characters. So if you like it, there’s plenty more to read.

How fortunate, because this is a great story. And a great entry point to the story world, too, I would think, since it describes the meeting of two of the main players. Not that it matters; the author says she wrote all of them to stand alone. On her website she puts all the novels and short stories in order chronologically per the story world, and this tale comes in at number seven on a list of thirteen. But again, in my opinion it’s a great place to start. By which I mean, of course, that I’m hooked.

A big part of the reason why is because the voice used in this piece is remarkably strong. The reader has confidence that the story will go somewhere and the journey will be worth his or her time because the voice promises it will be so. And it does. And it is.

The narrator of the piece isn’t named in it. He’s telling us a piece of a story he lived. This section chronicles the arrival in town of a mysterious scholar. The young man has the air of one of the wealthy residents who occupy a higher ground close by. The stranger also seems to have a death wish, kind of a much earlier version of the “death by cop” phenomena. The newly arrived young man, whose name turns out to be Alec, begins pestering a local swordsman named Richard St. Vier, trying to cajole or annoy him into slaying an unarmed man (the scholar). As you may suspect, that isn’t going to happen. What does happen, which I think no one would have guessed before this story was published in Wilde Stories 2012, is that St. Vier and Alec end up an item. They then find themselves under attack, but not for the reason that probably first comes to mind, and the ending is one of the most uplifting I’ve ever read. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adored this story all the way through, but the ending is definitely icing on the cake.

This was, too, a great finish to what is one of the strongest anthologies I’ve read. There’s amazing range to this collection, and simply fantastic storytelling all the way through.

Short Stories 365/200

“The House by the Park” by Lee Thomas from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

This is it, right here; the entirety of what is wrong with the human race is rendered in these few (very entertaining) pages.

Right from the get-go a nameless someone, on what seems to be a beautiful evening, looks up into the night sky, sees something sinister looming, and slits his own throat.

Not far away, main character Denis has just entered a grocery store, because he is determined to cook an actual meal rather than microwaving another frozen one. This is a crucial moment for him: he’s taking back his life following the sudden death of his partner of six years. He could easily have stayed home, again. He could have slit his throat. Instead, he’s choosing to go on. His reward? Almost immediately his gaze meets that of a handsome stranger, also shopping alone. They spot one another a few more times before the second man, Fred, takes the initiative and asks Denis to dinner.

What follows is a whirlwind, conflict-free romance. Denis and Fred are perfect for one another, so naturally, all hell is about to (literally) break loose and threaten them. They also aren’t hurting anyone, so naturally, they’ve evoked the ire of the character from the initial scene, whose suicide in reality was a ritual sacrifice meant to open a hell mouth and loose destruction upon humankind. And, happy-happy-joy-joy, he’s Fred’s neighbor.

It’s what I said at the beginning. This is the whole enchilada, everything that’s wrong, has been wrong, and ever will be wrong with the world. It’s not about the bad things that happen; bad things happen to everyone. It’s a person’s basic reaction to them that matters. There are folks who empathize with those around them, and pull together to make the best of it when the bad times hit, and there are those who feel threatened by everyone and every thing around them, and are in a perpetual kill-or-be-killed mode. Unfortunately, these basic outlooks seem innate. Institutions and philosophies can stoke or dampen them, of course, but we seem to be locked in this endless tug of war.

So, okay, Fred’s neighbor and the few others the hell mouth initially draws to him are people on the attack against enemies they imagine are plotting against them. And Fred and Denis are lovely people and therefore sitting ducks, because it turns out that the sacrifice Fred’s neighbor made is creating some sort of zombie-like horde, which is taking over the neighborhood. Still, the story has a something of an open ending, and I’m choosing to believe that, somehow or other, Fred and Denis are going to escape this nightmare.

Short Stories 365/199

“Filling up the Void” by Richard E. Gropp from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about people who are deeply uncomfortable in their bodies. This story takes a look at some of the issues inherent to that situation. In particular it explores how far someone might be willing to go to finally feel complete. This being spec fiction, it  can do so in a really intriguing way, by asking: What if you felt that you were, deep down, a wolf?

It takes two to tango. First, there must be someone so unhappy that they are willing to risk undergoing extreme surgery and even modification on a genetic level. We’re told that people have died or been disfigured, left with nothing like what they desired and no way to go back.

Rodrick took the risk, and his surgeries turned out better than anyone really thought possible. He’s not quite a wolf, but he’s definitely no longer a man. He has an elongated snout, pointy ears, claws, a tail, and fur.

Second, there must be financial backers willing to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to make someone into the species they feel they are, truly. These aren’t exactly benevolent souls. They’re cunning businesspeople looking to capitalize on the public’s fascination with people like Rodrick. Think Larry Flynt, the Girls Gone Wild enterprise back in its heyday, or whoever heads TLC.

Rodrick emerged from his many surgeries finally feeling like himself, but also straddled with a staggering, seven-figure debt. It will take a decade of indentured servitude to pay if off, where “indentured servitude” translates to appearing in dozens of x-rated films as well as being prostituted in the flesh, to extraordinarily wealthy clientele, men and women alike.

As you might expect, being constantly viewed as a commodity is a lonely life. Not that everyone flocks to him, or wishes they had the kind of money that would allow them to do so. There are plenty of people who don’t approve of what he’s done. They call him names, steer well clear of him, and keep tabs on him from afar, never missing an opportunity to convey that they view him as a monster.

What was a very lonely existence became much less so when he met The Linguist. Initially just one of his clients, The Linguist has become much more. Without veering into Pretty Woman territory, the story makes clear that he’s a true lover and friend to Rodrick. His nickname stems from the fact that he does some kind of work with languages and computers. Though The Linguist tries to explain it, Rodrick isn’t clear on just what it entails. Then the Linguist is murdered, and Rodrick is alone once again…or is he? The story continues to mine the territory of intelligence and personality vs physical manifestation. There’s enough material here that I suspect it could be turned into a successful novel, but does the job nicely in this format.

Short Stories 365/197

“A Razor in an Apple” by Kristopher Reisz from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

Phillip has just left a chance encounter with his old roommate, J.D. I suspect we all have a J.D. in our lives, a person for whom youth, good looks, and intelligence combined to create a mesmerizing level of self-confidence, at least for a few magic years.

Those days are long gone for J.D., who has turned “paunchy and balding”. He’s still funny, though, and he can still spin a yarn like no one’s business. He tells Phillip a doozy to explain his missing pinky finger. Over beers at a neighborhood watering hole, after an evening of stories about their old circle of friends, he confides to Phillip that there’s an apothecary’s shop nearby where it’s possible to re-capture moments from the past, for a price. Not quite a pound of flesh, but near enough.

Sure, it’s a trope, one that trades on the universal longing to relieve moments from the past. Whether we have regrets about actions we took long ago or simply miss people and places that are no more, I suspect everyone has a moment or moments they would re-live if they could. What elevates this story is its beguiling use of language. Take, for example, “Phillip had never thought his hands were beautiful before…the way fingers curled into pink snail shells, how his palm formed a waiting hollow, how so many muscles and tiny bones worked together so perfectly.” Or, “The doors stood open, leaking chatter and music.” Or, still later, when Phillip is inside the apothecary shop, catching scents from the past: “Hot tar, just a little. The ozone sizzle of power lines. The smell of the edge of the city.”

You may have heard a similar tale before, but I’ll bet it wasn’t told this well.

Short Stories 365/196

“Ashes in the Water” by Joel Lane and Matt Joiner from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

Last night’s story was the first co-authored one in the review project, and this is the second.

Josh is at a crossroads, facing life alone because his partner Warren is very ill. Restless, lost, he finds himself walking along the pier at the outskirts of the city, scanning the water and hoping to find the boat owned by his old school friend Anthony. Anthony is a troubled guy, moody and contemplative. When they were kids he studied the work of Aleister Crowley and Carlos Castaneda. More recently he tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists. Josh and Anthony sit drinking wine until Josh opens up about the fear that’s haunting him, that he will soon lose Warren. They’ve been together for nine years. There’s nothing Anthony can say to comfort him, but having someone listen proves cathartic.

The next scene is a fast forward to after the funeral. More lost than ever, Josh again wanders down to the water’s edge, looking for Anthony, and that’s when everything gets bizarre. I was already enjoying the dark atmosphere of the piece. When Josh’s reality started to slip, I realized something was going on, but couldn’t determine what. I was riveted the rest of the way trying to figure it out. And again, as with the last couple of entries, this is a true short story. At its end I have learned what I need to know about Josh. I can imagine what happens to him next, but don’t feel robbed of the chance to follow him and see it unfold.

Short Stories 365/195

“The Peacock” by Ted Infinity and Nabil Hijazi from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

I did a quick run through the list and I am pretty sure that this story is the first co-authored one of the review project.

This tale pre-dates the Spike Jonze movie Her by a couple of years (it was originally published in Strange Horizons in 2011). Surfing the internet and feeling sorry for himself while stuck working the late shift, the narrator is contacted by what he thinks is another lonely hearted guy in the Bay Area but turns out to be an Artificial Intelligence (AI) called The Peacock. The main character doesn’t believe it’s an AI, of course, and so engages him (it?) in a volley of emails. The Peacock’s erratic and often sophomoric responses confuse him and almost turn him off, but it isn’t until The Peacock reveals that he is a sentient computer program that evolved out of spam that he really tries to break it off. Too late. The Peacock has fallen in love with him (or with the idea of being in love?) and he has grown fond of the AI’s companionship, too. The only problem is that The Peacock is being held captive by the developers who wrote the spam. Can the narrator manage to free him so they can be “together”?

Again, this is a true short story. I know everything I need to by the end, and the story question is satisfactorily resolved.

Short Stories 365/192

“Thou Earth, Thou” by K. M. Ferebee from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

This story is written in the grand tradition of the sinister movies I used to watch in the afternoons and on weekends all during my childhood, back in the 1970s. Creepy yarns about young couples transplanted from the fast-paced city, looking to put down roots in a seemingly charming, bucolic village or sleepy suburb which of course, always turned out to be the home base for a Satanic cult, or aliens hell-bent on taking over the human race, or a corporation looking to do the same.

Mason and Dunbar are transplants from the city, but Mason still commutes to work there. He loves the city, and would never have left it, but Dunbar was unhappy. He needs wide open spaces and nature, not concrete, at his fingertips. They’ve moved into a house in a suburb, where Dunbar works on his Master’s thesis and fiddles in the overgrown garden, while Mason is off at work in a theatre costume shop. It seems like a fairly reasonable compromise until Dunbar begins digging up bones in the backyard, and Mason starts seeing dark shapes moving beyond the window.

The author built up a marvelous tension, and raised all sorts of questions, but the story ends without answering them. I’m left wanting to know exactly what the threat is and how it came to pass in the first place, and what becomes of Mason and Dunbar.