Short Stories 365/260

“The Stone of Sacrifice” by Jeff Mann from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

American Ewan McDonald has come to Scotland’s Outer Hebrides to do research, work on some writing, and get in touch with his ancestors. He has no idea what that last will entail. Oh, and he’s also looking to get beyond his “long, intense affair with Thom”, a recurring motif in the author’s work.

Behind the place Ewan has rented for the summer, out on the beach, is the center stone of what once was a sacred circle. He has a few beers, pours a libation for the approaching solstice, and settles at the base of the stone, exhausted from his journey. When he stirs awake a little while later he thinks he sees a man bobbing about in the ocean, but once he blinks the image is gone. He convinces himself he was only imagining it.

Until, that is, the young man turns up at the base of the standing stone, weak as a kitten, apparently half-drowned. Ewan never seems to make the connection the reader does, that his encounters with the younger man, Johnny, always follow slumber (or at least efforts to sleep that he thinks were unsuccessful). Were they, though? Is anything that happens between the two real, or are all of Ewan’s interactions with the handsome stranger merely lucid dreams? It’s true Johnny completes him in a way only a being crafted by the psyche can. Then again, this is a tale about myth and magic, so who can say for sure?

Short Stories 365/259

“The Bloated Woman” by Jonathan Harper from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

It took me a little while to warm up to this story and the end felt disjointed, but man, oh man, the middle is filled with revelations that are like punches to the gut.

That’s most definitely a compliment. I love writing that makes me look over my shoulder or ask aloud, “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” By that I mean into my head, and my heart, and my soul. Writing that not only introduces me to other people, but exposes, as universal, thoughts I believed (or feared) to be uniquely mine. I love that.

Jeremiah is twenty-five, an aspiring writer in need of income. His former professor, Walter, who he knew as the co-director of the psychology department, is in failing health, suffering from dementia. The math doesn’t seem to add up until nearly the end of the tale, when Walter suffers a second stroke. Aha, got it. But that’s okay. It’s good.

Jeremiah’s there to be a relief caretaker, to lift some of the burden from Walter’s beleaguered sister Nora’s shoulders. When he’s not on duty he daydreams about writing a novel (but doesn’t do it) and goes looking for trouble down by the piers. He specifically searches for one of the locals, a married man nearly twice his age, named Amos. When the story opens the two have just happened upon the bloated body of a woman. She appears to have been murdered, rather than drowned. The author employs a bit of misdirection to string the story along and give the impression that this is a genre piece, which turns out not to be so. No problem there either. This feels like a fragment of a larger story, one I think will/would be astounding. I hope I’m right, but even if I’m not, I’m all in. I want to read whatever he’s written.

Addendum: There’s one thing I do not like at all, and that’s waiting. I have no patience whatsoever. Right after I wrote this I dropped to the internet and was thrilled to find that the author has a story collection. I was beyond ready to purchase it when I discovered that it will not be out for another four months. Four months, are you kidding me?

Arrrgggh!

Short Stories 365/258

“The Calm Tonight” by Matthew A. Merendo from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

Oh, I loved this story, and I was buoyed (no pun intended) by the fact that, just like the preceding story, it’s an uplifting tale.

Alex left his underwater home and came ashore in order to find a human mate, which, in fact, he has done. The problem is he’s fallen in love with a man, Hunter. There’s no precedent for it. Now all of his brethren are leading their women to sea, and he doesn’t know what to do. Can he take Hunter with him? Will the magic that transforms chosen females also work on him, and allow him to live underwater? Or will it fail because he’s a man? Will Hunter perish if he tries to return with Alex? And even if he doesn’t, how will the others react to the fact that he’s a man? Should Alex simply return alone? He’s certain that if he does, it will mean he’ll live the rest of his days that way, because the type of creature he is mates for life, and knows its true love at first sight. His true love is Hunter, there’s no doubt in his mind. What to do? What to do?

I was so worried that the characters would not take the course of action I thought they should that by the end of this tale my stomach was tied in knots.

Short Stories 365/257

“Time and Tide” by ‘Nathan Burgoine from The Touch of the Sea (Lethe Press, 2012). Edited by Steve Berman.

This is what I’m talking about. You will remember, I hope, that just a few days ago I was lamenting the fact that the teenaged main character in this author’s story, “Filth”, was the recent victim of attacks by a homophobic father (Short Stories 265/251), and at the story’s end I was left worrying about his future.

The protagonist in this story is on much, much steadier ground. In fact, it isn’t his sexuality that’s the issue (yay, progress!), though it is a trait he was born with that’s causing his unhappiness.

Dylan left his hometown of Fuca twelve years ago because his father insisted on it. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that he’s, partway at least, some sort of supernatural, water-based creature. Fuca is a port town, and the sea not only beckons to him, it reacts to his moods. His father’s decision to take him inland does seem like a smart one for all involved.

Except, that is, for Cary, the great love Dylan left behind.

Dylan’s done well for himself in the years he’s been away. He’s become a famous sculptor. He’s the closest thing the small town of Fuca has to a celebrity, and they’re happy to have him back, but sad because of the reason he’s returned: his father is dead. Dylan has come home for the funeral.

He sees Cary, and it’s as if nothing has changed. They’re still crazy about one another. But other things also haven’t changed, and they’re troubling. The sea still calls to him, and still responds to his emotions. The thing is, though, he’s not a child anymore. It might just be possible for him to learn to keep control of things, the way his mother, who was also part sea creature, was able to do. If so, he’ll be able to stay in Fuca and have not just a successful career, but a full, happy life with true love and the support of people who are like family to him. This is an uplifting, most welcome start* to the collection.

*Actually, it’s sort of its second start. You see, the introduction to this anthology is also written as a short story. It feels, actually, like the prologue of a play, setting the stage for the adventure to come and establishing the themes. It’s a device that works remarkably well, and should be employed more often.

Short Stories 365/256

“Ordinary Mayhem” by Victoria A. Brownworth from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

This isn’t a short story, it’s a novella. It takes up one third of the entire volume.

This story blew me away. It’s incredibly complex but the details are added in careful layers, using repetition in a way that never feels repetitive. We’re introduced to Faye, a student at a Catholic elementary school for orphans. Her parents died in a car crash, hit by a drunk driver. She lived with her grandparents for a short while before becoming a resident at the school as well as a pupil. She’s a thoughtful, inquisitive, sensitive, reclusive, and traumatized child. Everything she encounters gets filed away in the compartments of her mind, to be brought out and studied later on, as part of a quest to figure out the puzzle that is life and death.

The chapters about her childhood are interspersed with ones from her life now, as an adult. Her artistic skill and unflinching ability to look at life’s most grisly aspects have made her a revered photojournalist. The story takes the reader across continents and through time, watching as she collects atrocities. Faye photographs and interviews the “living ghosts” left behind by human monsters.

It’s that fact: that the monsters are not supernatural, that makes this an absolutely bone-chilling tale. It’s hands down the most frightening piece of the entire collection because it’s so grounded in reality. These are the stories we see on the news, about serial killers and genocide and mass hysteria. And though a deep undercurrent of religion runs through the piece, nothing seems capable of stopping the violence.

I first read this story the day the news story surfaced about the grisly murder at the Sirhowy Arms Hotel in Argoed, South Wales. That fact might seem coincidental, but after you’ve read this, it doesn’t seem that way at all.

Every story in this collection is worth reading, but if this were the only one, it would be worth the price of admission. It’s one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and one hell of a way to wrap up this anthology.

Short Stories 365/255

“Crazy in the Night” by Greg Herren from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

Danny and Matthew have been dating for a year and on the surface things are great between them, but deeper down they have issues that aren’t being discussed. The main one is that Danny wants them to move in together but Matthew has given no indication he feels the same. When Danny’s tiny, cramped apartment is rendered uninhabitable by a tree smashing through the roof during a thunderstorm, Matthew’s feelings on the situation are made painfully clear. Sure, he lets Danny stay with him full time after that. He has nowhere else to go, short of a hotel. But when the check arrives from the insurance company, Matthew is quick to start giving Danny helpful tips about finding a new place. (At which point he should start looking for a new boyfriend, too, but you know how characters are. If they acted rationally there would be no stories.)

Danny finds a big, beautiful apartment at a ridiculously cheap price and spends time moving in and getting everything arranged. Matthew is understandably skeptical of the deal but Danny chalks up everything he says to sour grapes, and they continue to grow further apart.

Then strange things begin to happen in the new place. It’s mostly related to light, though not completely. I wanted the odd occurrences to be explained, but they never were. I was left wishing that we’d come into the story nearer to what turned out to be the end, and that it had continued past the point where it stopped. I want to know what was actually going on in the apartment. I have a theory, but the text doesn’t let me know if I’m correct. Overall, it’s a pleasant read, but it feels more like the start of a novel than a short story.

Short Stories 365/254

“Blackout” by Jeffrey Ricker from Night Shadows: Queer Horror (Bold Strokes Books 2012). Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the recurring evil in this anthology is the villain from the Scooby Doo cartoons. You know who I mean. “Why, it’s old man Caruthers! He was trying to run you off so he wouldn’t have to split the inheritance with you!”

To which old man Caruthers invariably would reply, “That’s right! I was here first! It’s my money, not yours! And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids!”

Well, kids, he’s at it again in this story. Jason is holed up in the creaky farmhouse he and his partner David purchased a little over a year earlier. Almost immediately we’re told that David died a year after they moved in, which tells us his death was very recent, and this is the story of a man in the depths of despair.

There’s a second recurring theme to this anthology, and that’s that some people live too long. Old man Caruthers—in this story Dan Richards, who owned Jason and David’s house before they did—cannot adapt, and so grows brittle and bitter as his world inevitably changes with time. He lived happily in the house for forty years until his wife Abby got cancer and died. Her death destroyed him. Which begs the question: Will David’s death destroy Jason?

He has a support group, notably David’s sister Katie, who is not nearby, and Jane and Mark, who are. They live down the lane and are very nice neighbors. The trouble is, they were nice neighbors to Dan Richards, too, and it didn’t make any difference. He pulled away from them. Eventually they called the authorities, who found Dan in the house, dead for approximately a week. The real beast of this story lies within.

The story artfully re-visits key moments from the past to show the reader that trouble (whether real or all in Jason’s mind) started right after they began renovating the kitchen. Jason kept running into unexplainable icy drafts David never felt. He became uncomfortable being alone in the house. He perceived that another presence did not want them in the house, but he hung in there, for David. Then David was killed in a freak accident, only Jason doesn’t believe it was an accident at all.

Once you have that piece of information, you’re all set. Jason’s just returned from the funeral, he’s alone in the house, and there’s a blizzard closing in. Will he listen to Katie, Jane and Mark and leave the house to re-start his life? Or will he be inflexible, hunker down in his grief, and, depending on your worldview, either succumb to depression or be killed by a ghost?

A final thought. One line from this jumped out at me: “Jason wanted to believe he could feel David’s presence, but in truth all he felt was chilled, and it dawned on him that the house had grown colder since he started his task.” Another of the author’s short stories, “Tea”, was about surviving the loss of a lover, his novel Detours dealt with the benevolent ghost of the main character’s mother, and similar themes run through his second novel, The Wanted. The emphasis in the above sentence caused me to recall a recent moment from the PBS series “Finding Your Roots”, in the episode about filmmaker Ken Burns. His mother was gravely ill during his childhood and died while he was still young, and he mentions to the show’s host that a friend of his once remarked, because he’s made it his life’s work to dig up the past and tell the stories of people long dead, “Who are you really trying to wake up?”

I wonder.