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, in 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 365/198

“The Cloud Dragon Ate Red Balloons” by Tom Cardamone from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

I cannot imagine that anyone, having read this story, would think it is a simple confection about dragons, but there is evidence that they do.

In Chinese and Japanese mythology, dragons are ethereal creatures made up of water and air, sometimes described as being gods, and at other times “creatives” and other accomplished men, like unto gods, who have been carried aloft by great winds. If you delve into it at all you discover that, according to the teaching, two disparate types of men can become “accomplished”. There are those of great character and intelligence, and those who possess no such desirable traits, but rise solely due to political machinations. It’s a warning, coming through the centuries clear as a bell.

Taken in the context of this particular anthology, if the passage:

Japanese monks had deferentially joked with Western Missionaries that cloud dragons were failed snow dragons that only had love for one another, never sharing their snow with Izanami, Mother Earth, and were thus unfettered, unproductive fantasies. The crawling pestilence of one religion consuming another was blight enough on the world, but that the monks had disparaged the cloud dragons to mask the guilt of their own nightly assignations had only hastened the exodus….

doesn’t make you think of smarmy Pat Robertson grinning into the camera as he levies the most asinine and vile statements imaginable against gay people as a whole; or of the anti-Christian antics of the Westboro Baptist “Church”, or, more recently than the publication of this story, but still applicable, the claim by Tea Party Republicans that the Ebola virus is the latest curse God has hurled at homosexuals (bad aim?); or of something, anything, beyond literal dragons, well, I’ll just be standing here shaking my head.

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 you’ve never heard it told quite as well as this.  

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.

Serendipity

You may think I planned this, and it would be pretty damned clever if I had, but it is merely a coincidence. The next story in the book I’m currently reviewing is by Steve Berman, and today is his birthday. Because of that, instead of simply skipping over it (because I’ve already reviewed it as part of his third collection of short stories, Red Caps) I’m going to do this instead:

If you haven’t before now, go check out the review of “All Smiles” by Steve Berman. It’s number 78. Or even better, pick up Red Caps or Wilde Stories 2012 and read it yourself. It’s great.

Next up, today’s review.

Short Stories 365/194

“Color Zap!” by Sam Sommer from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

Here’s a short story that truly is a short story, not a fraction of a novella or novel.

Spencer has a secret: his hair is periwinkle, not beige like that of everyone else on his planet. It’s more than an embarrassment, it’s mortifying, and possibly dangerous, so for his entire life his family has gone to lengths to keep those around them from discovering the truth. But when Spencer reaches his teen years he develops a teenager’s sense of invincibility and superiority, and rebels by refusing to again shave his head or dye his hair. Instead, he keeps his locks hidden beneath hats while they grow out, and then unveils his wild blue hair to a horrified citizenry.

Most people react cruelly to what they cannot understand and therefore fear, no surprise there, but there is one exception to the negativity. A mystery man appears who commends Spencer’s bravery before revealing that he is similarly afflicted (or blessed, depending on your perspective). His name is Gavin. Unfortunately, Gavin melts back into the crowd immediately after making his presence known to Spencer.

Armed with the knowledge that he is not alone, Spencer begins attempting to navigate the beige world while also trying to figure out how to find Gavin and any other people like them. He’s aided in this when, a short while after his big reveal, an invitation arrives.

Spencer faces choice after choice: cover up who he is and hope the beige world will ignore what they now know is true, or take a stand and strike out to find comrades (and, ultimately, to forge a better world)? It’s a lot of fun to watch Spencer make his choices, just as it is to root for his successes, and at the end of the story I’m not left with questions. I don’t wish there was more to the story. The author provides all the information necessary to enjoy his tale, and the moment in time that we’re shown is the one we need to be shown, the critical point in Spencer’s story. Once it has passed, the story is finished, which is just as it should be.