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.

Short Stories 365/193

We are having a connectivity issue. If the format of this is a bit strange it is because I am typing it in via my phone app.

“Hoffman, Godzilla and Me” by Richard Bowes, from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

This next piece feels like memoir but by all accounts is a fictionalized version of the past. Whatever the case, it has some very interesting things to say about the art of writing fiction.

The narrator relates being approached by an anthology editor at a speculative fiction conference and asked to write a piece for the upcoming volume. To be polite he says he will consider it, then promptly forgets all about the conversation until the end of the weekend. When the younger man corners him again he agrees to contribute, then prays that when the time comes nothing will be needed from him. He has absolutely no idea what he would write for it because he has a phobia about New York-based tales. He loves them, but always fears the one he’s just finished will be his last. He worries that writing about a Godzilla-style destruction of the place will ensure that it is the final one.

It’s not until some months later when he receives an email reminder from the editor that he really begins to think about what to write, and then he comes up blank. All of his ideas seem trite or inane. Meanwhile, we are told some key details about his past and the ability he has to mentally retreat from an unpleasant situation. He ponders what it is that constitutes a tragedy. When he runs into a character from his past the reader becomes aware that various, seemingly unrelated threads introduced along the way have all just been brought together into what, essentially, could be a first person, literary entry to a collection entitled Godzilla Does Manhattan. It’s very nicely done.

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.

Short Stories 365/191

“Fairy Tale” by Justin Torres from Wilde Stories 2012 (Lethe Press). Edited by Steve Berman.

I’ve mulled this brief story for a long, long time, yet still feel that I barely have a handle on it, but here goes. It’s told from the perspective of a youth, and the visceral descriptions capture a fascination with the adult body that’s common to adolescence. The narrator is writing to his absent father, telling him about a curious development in their family: the men have begun to sprout wings behind their ears. The narrator is fascinated by the wings, but his uncles’ reactions are mixed. Uncle Ramon is proud of what, for him, is an indication of virility, though he is careful to cover them up when in public. Uncle Miguel’s wings are much smaller. More than anything else, he’s unsettled by their presence, and covers them even in private. Uncle Gabriel’s wings are smaller still, but also newer, and the family hopes they will continue to grow. That’s curious, considering their treatment of Uncle Tito, who has the largest wings of all. He’s been all but shunned because they disapprove of the attitude he displays concerning his wings. Tito isn’t conflicted or embarrassed by them. He’s comfortable with himself, and even worse in their eyes, he doesn’t hide that fact from his nephew.

There’s a lot going on in this tale. It’s a treatise on sexuality, gender roles, and sexual orientation (the narrator realizes that he feels about wings the same way that his Uncle Ramon says women always react). And, of course, the fact that the narrator’s father is removed dredges up the tension felt between fathers and gay sons.

You get all of that in a handful of pages. It’s astounding.