Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30 - "The Moves"

“The Moves”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* (Eh) Realistic

Before dying a father teaches his daughter the finger moves to pleasure another woman.

Um, yeah. I don’t honestly know what to say about this page and a half story. If there weren’t the few interestingly worded sentences, I’d have nothing to say about this story. It doesn’t even make sense to me, especially the end about one day passing on these skills to a future daughter. Huh?

Monday, June 29, 2009

June 29 - "Ten True Things"

“Ten True Things”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

Dana decides to join a beginner’s sewing class to meet the wife of her boss, a woman she feels a connection with through their phone calls and the lies she’s forced to tell.

The moments are few and far between in which I found enjoyment in this story. I did understand and appreciate the notion that one lie necessitates another and another to the point where one revealed truth actually reveals all hidden truths. And Sue, with her complete lack of understanding in the sewing class – doing the opposite of any given direction – led to some humorous moments, but overall, the story and I simply didn’t connect.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

June 28 - "Everything's Eventual"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Everything’s Eventual”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

Dinky Earnshaw has the ability to compose messages that compel people to kill themselves. This ability does not go unnoticed and soon Dinky is working for the Trans Corporation, sending emails and the occasional letter out into the world. Eventually Dinky begins to question his role in these deaths.

Ah, the introduction to a character I came across in the Dark Tower series. I’ve always been a huge fan for the interconnectedness of stories – probably why I enjoy comics, book series, and television as much as I do. Add to this the supernatural ability to kill people through letters and email (not in itself a unique ability – many other stories have done the same, or something similar), and the story is a winner. In fact, most of the story is just Dinky explaining how he lives, day to day, week after week. You wouldn’t think that to be a fascinating read, but King makes it all seem so real and engaging. Dinky becomes a character you are curious to follow, and with his eventual appearance at the end of the Dark Tower series, you get that chance to see how things worked out for him.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June 27 - "The Flints of Memory Lane"

“The Flints of Memory Lane”
by Neil Gaiman
Fragile Things (2006)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

The narrator recalls the moment he met the ghost of a gypsy woman one night when he was 15 and on his way to a friend’s home.

I’m intrigued with the idea of preferring to share only “story-shaped” tales. These would be stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Everything explained and neatly in place. I tend to prefer this type of tale, myself. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally mind when a story is just a rambling mess of amazing sentences. I’m sucker for interesting sentences, such as this:
“She was not my girlfriend (my girlfriend lived in Croydon, where I went to school, a gray-eyed blonde of unimaginable beauty who was, as she often complained to me, puzzled, never able to figure out why she was going out with me), but she was a friend, and she lived about a ten-minute walk away from me, beyond the fields, in the older part of town.”
But, the more “story-shaped” a tale, the more enjoyment I find, even if the tale is short, simple, and true thing with questions left unanswered and possibly not all that entertaining in the retelling to begin with.

Friday, June 26, 2009

June 26 - "Abraham's Boys"

“Abraham’s Boys”
by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Horror

After caught snooping in their father’s study, Max and Rudy are taken to the basement to practice the skills their father feels must be passed to his children.

Hill does a great job of introducing us to these characters before adding the extra layer of vampires and legacy. Add to this the fact the story doesn’t involve any actual vampires and calls into question the sanity of the boys’ father – what if there never were any vampires? – the tale is tremendously engaging and entertaining. This is a great story of fathers and sons, of brothers, and how a little horror – real or imagined or feared – can bring things crashing down.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

June 25 - "Pompeii"

“Pompeii”
by Leslie Pietrzyk
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Two lovers wake in the morning, embraced together and motionless as if entombed under the ash of Pompeii.

A beautifully written and conceived moment before time marches on and a couple must separate. The characters were a bit clich├ęd, with the woman being more romantic than the realistic man. What makes it work is that in the end, even though the man didn’t have as grand as notions as the woman, he was the one who realized that their time was over, begging for just one day, one hour, one minute more. It’s a heartwarming tale with just a hint of sadness; it’s a love story.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June 24 - "Julie in the Funhouse"

“Julie in the Funhouse”
by Jincy Willett
Jenny & the Jaws of Life (1987)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

The narrator recalls his strange life growing up with his recently murdered sister. As close as the two were growing up, they had grown apart with age and become less happy because of it.

This is another of those books that has been on my shelf for years, unread, and after just one story I can’t imagine why I hadn’t cracked it open sooner. Willet does a great job of taking the unusual and making it seem, not normal, but at least real. I’m sure there are kids raised today by parents less involved than those of this tale, but it is interesting to see the effect the upbringing had on this brother and sister. I guess what really draws me into the story are the misfit characters (see yesterday), especially Julie and her fascination with the All Too True – the tragic, ironic tales of death that foreshadow the conclusion of this story.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23 - "The Museum of Whatnot"

“The Museum of Whatnot”
by Kevin Wilson
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (2009)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Janey works in the Museum of Whatnot, keeping her life free from clutter and attachments until a doctor with a fascination for the spoon collection shakes her from her lonely, Spartan life.

Whimsical, romantic, and just strange enough to completely capture your attention. After finishing this story, posted as part of Harper Perennial’s story-a-week project, I find myself desiring Wilson’s collection of short stories. If all the other stories in the collection are only half as creative, half as entertaining, then I’m still in for an awesome reading adventure. I have a tremendous fondness for misfit characters – of which Janey is a prime example – and their unique jobs, interests, and lives. I particularly enjoyed some of the ordinary – yet strange – items stocked in the Museum of Whatnot, from the baby teeth in mason jars that start the story to the garbage bag full of rubber bands that wrap the tale up. Strange as it all was, it worked and was wonderful.

Monday, June 22, 2009

June 22 - "Happy Fish, Plus Coin"

“Happy Fish, Plus Coin”
by Scott Snyder
Voodoo Heart (2006)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

A man on the run from his wealthy family befriends an indestructible man and learns how to give up the fear and loneliness that kept him hiding from life.

A sure sign that writing has style is when you don’t even notice the words on the page. I’m not saying that I don’t recognize the cleverly crafted sentences and powerful images – I’m saying that it all works in such a way that I’m so completely lost in the world Snyder has created that I don’t notice the words, instead I experience the story. From L.J.’s conversations with Gay at the Happy Fish, Plus Coin and under the overpass to L.J’s job at the Home Wrecker, I was zipping along through the story, wondering what the imaginary Nancy would do next, listening to Gay’s discourse on the connection between the color green and longevity, and hoping alongside L.J. for the destruction of the indestructible inflatable house. How could a person not be enamored with passages such as this?:
“They had detectives out looking for me, detectives with real means, but in Florida at that time, for a short wonderful period not too long ago, it was easy to find employment without identification of any shape or sort. It seemed you could open a police station with just a few phony papers to tack on the wall. You could become whoever you wanted; that was Florida right then. I had a book of over fifteen thousand baby names, and I changed mine whenever I felt like it.”
Like the mysteriously named Happy Fish, Plus Coin restaurant and bar, the magic of the story is understood, even if at first it seemed a bit strange.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

June 21 - "Battleground"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Battleground”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

Mr. Renshaw goes to war in his apartment against a box full of tiny toy soldiers flying helicopters, driving jeeps, and armed for battle with bazookas, rocker launchers, and more.

This was my favorite adaptation in the TNT mini-series, Nightmares & Dreamscapes. This dialogue-free hour of television starring William Hurt was a load of fun and quite entertaining. I hoped the story would be as good, and it was. A person would think that fighting off a small army of tiny toy soldiers would be no big deal, but much like the debate about the deadliness of slow-moving zombies, give an opponent enough time – no matter how outclassed – and they will win the battle. And who wouldn’t be entertained with the images of little green army dudes taking it to a giant?!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

June 20 - "The Parrot"

“The Parrot”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A merchant purchases a parrot to tell tales to his daughter, keeping her inside their home and out of the reach of a king who wants to marry her.

I enjoyed the tales-within-the-tale the parrot told the daughter more than I cared for the main story. Each adventure the parrot sent the maiden of his tales on became more and more enjoyable, folktales themselves. And I don’t know if it was the result of the translation, or if the tale really went this way, but beating the wizards to death with crowbars was hilarious. Never did I expect to find in an ancient Italian folktale how to properly dispose of wizards. Harry Potter beware, all I need is a crowbar.

Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19 - "There, There"

“There, There”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A couple argues the merits of being here versus there.

Unfeth definitely has a way of articulating arguments to the point that they are something wonderful to behold. Part of what makes the arguments – the prose – so enjoyable is the back-and-forth play between characters. These are the kind of arguments we wish we could have – something lyrical and witty and not at all the fumbling speech of upset people.
“He is he and she is she and she can’t be him to know his there. And besides, he’s talking to her in a tone she hasn’t heard before so there’s even more to here and there and her and him than just space between them.”
Such a great use of he and she and him and her and here and there. There’s magic in the vagueness.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18 - "Feeling Good, Feeling Fine"

“Feeling Good, Feeling Fine”
by George Garrett
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

A boy and his uncle enjoy playing baseball before returning home to the news that will take his sometimes trouble uncle away from the family.

A very sweet, yet tragic tale of growing up. The descriptions of the boy and uncle playing baseball in the field are fantastic. The fact that the boy is out there reluctantly, yet still feels such pleasure in the compliments he is given for a sport he likes the least, is what gives the story its impact. It’s the little things we do for others that end up making us feel the most. Excellent “fiction” indeed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

June 17 - "The Replacement"

“The Replacement”
by Duane Swierczynski
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Noir

A man is sentenced to the Replacement Program after killing a young woman while driving drunk. In the Replacement Program the man must compensate for the loss of life by living the life he stole.

It’s such a crazy and fascinating idea, taking the death penalty and flipping it to a life sentence. It’s the kind of idea that only works as a story – nobody would make the effort the narrator makes at filling in for this lost life (and no right family would suffer the killer as replacement). Swierczynski is a master at taking an impossible idea and turning it into a fast-paced, enjoyable tale. And that final scene in which the resentful brother can take this intrusion no longer and ends up destroying the family is hilarious in its tragedy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June 16 - "Sunbird"

“Sunbird”
by Neil Gaiman
M Is for Magic (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Fantasy

The five aging members of the Epicurean Club head to Egypt in search of the fabled Sunbird after deciding they’ve sampled every delicacy known to them.

Even though we as readers know– and to some extent so do the four other members of the Epicurean Club – that Zebediah T. Crawcrustle is leading the group to its final meal, Gaiman has given us such an interesting quest, that we can’t not follow along. (Granted, without our lives on the line, it is easier for us to follow.) I found the characters to be so uniquely Gaiman-esque – which is a great thing, indeed – that I could easily picture them in my mind, worrying and wondering and salivating at the adventure they’d embarked upon. I do so enjoy a story in which I feel as thought I’m right there with the characters. Everything worked perfectly in this final story in collection.

Monday, June 15, 2009

June 15 - "Making Love in 2003"

“Making Love in 2003”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A young woman searching for the dark shape she loved when she was a child takes a job as a special-needs assistant and finds a boy named Steve who she believes to be the dark shape in human form.

There’s something frustrating with these stories by Miranda July. The writing is often very strong – unique and engaging – and the stories are quite original. But, I often find myself struggling to understand beyond this shiny outer layer. This particular story uses some controversial content (teenagers and rape) to essentially tell a tale of loneliness. For as much as I didn’t comprehend, though, the prose acted as a saving grace and (I think) I enjoyed the story.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

June 14 - "Gray Matter"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Gray Matter”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * * (Great) Horror

A group of old duffers leave the comfort of the local bar during a winter storm to take a case of beer to Richie Grenadine. Richie’s son, Timmy, had come to the bar for the beer, scared to return to a father that had transformed into something gray and monstrous.

I love the scary stories. The kind of stories that give you actual chills. The chance that a bad can of beer could turn a person into a dead cat-eating, gelatinous monster is enough to keep a person from drinking. King does a great job building the tension so that when the group finally reaches their destination, characters and reader are afraid to walk down that dark, smelly – eerie – hallway. And there’s even an Easter egg of a side tale about a man encountering a giant spider in the sewers.

June 14 - "'Tis the Season to be Jelly"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“’Tis the Season to Be Jelly”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* (Eh) Science Fiction

Luke is eager to propose to Annie Lou, despite the fact that everything in the world – including Luke and Annie Lou – is falling apart.

I don’t know what to make of this story. The thing is a confusing mess. An attempt at some messed up dialect has left the dialogue – most of the story – nearly unreadable. Sure, you can suss things out, but that’s no way to enjoy a story. And other than things falling apart, I can’t say much. I’m not even sure the characters are human. This is just not a story for me.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

June 13 - "Shock Wave"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“Shock Wave”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * (Okay) Supernatural

Mr. Moffat is convinced that there is something wrong with the old church organ. Moffat and his cousin Wendall listen with increasing fear as the organ behaves unnaturally during church service.

There really must be a sub-genre of possessed machines. That being the case, this story doesn’t quite measure up. The slowly building tension is so slow that when the organ does begin tearing the church down, you have little interest in the destruction other than its signal to the end of the tale. I did find it fascinating to learn a little more about those massive church organs; they are a lot more involved and complex than I’d ever imagined.

Friday, June 12, 2009

June 12 - "The Creeping Terror"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“The Creeping Terror”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

Scientists prove that the city of Los Angeles is alive, and spreading outward across the country. As this creeping terror covers the land the people exposed begin to act differently, sometimes dangerously.

Formatted to appear as a true scientific article – complete with footnotes – the story comes to us in bits and pieces. With as crazy an idea as we have here, the format works to frame the craziness inside a border of authenticity we understand, we almost believe. And then again, you could look at the whole story as a metaphor, and not as science fiction, and be satisfied on a different level. I particularly enjoyed the image of the lone citrus tree popping up among the cornfields of the Midwest, and the famer’s wife’s sudden desire to “drive in to Hollywood.” Sometimes an image just fits the story so perfectly and memorably.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

June 11 - "Mute"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“Mute”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

A mysterious German arrives in town looking for the young mute boy who survived the house fire that killed his parents.

The story seemed overly long for what little detail it paid to the point of the piece. The idea of raising a child to communicate telepathically is interesting enough that it might be able to sustain a story of 40 pages length; however, this story only hints at the idea for 30+ pages, cramming the “good stuff” into only few measly pages. This seems to be the pattern of the past few days: cool concept, mediocre execution.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

June 10 - "Clothes Make the Man"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“Clothes Make the Man”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * (Okay) Supernatural

A drunken man corners a guest at a party and tells him the tragic tale of his brother’s losing battle with his wardrobe.

There were moments when the story rose above silliness. In fact, in those brief moments the tale had some real potential for terror. In the end it was the drunken rambling that put me out of the story. Every moment away from Charlie and his increasingly finicky wardrobe was excruciating. Even the quote unquote surprise reveal at the end was wasted because of its proximity to the toxic narrator. So much potential here, squandered.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

June 9 - "Pattern for Survival"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“Pattern for Survival”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * (Good) Fable

The manuscript for a new story by Richard Allen Shaggley moves from author’s hand to reader’s enjoyment along a connected chain of increasing appreciation.

I hate the feeling of not quite knowing the point of a story. Even after two reads – I did go back and reread the story – I’m still left scratching my head. Did the manuscript of the story actually exist, or were each of the characters in contact with the manuscript simply different aspects of Richard Allen Shaggley? Even the characters in his manuscript appear to be aspects of himself (Ras and his beautiful priestess of Shahglee - from his name, Richard Allen Shaggley). But in between the confused thoughts, I found myself enjoying the story – even if I had no clue what it all meant.

Monday, June 8, 2009

June 8 - "No Such Thing as a Vampire"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“No Such Thing as a Vampire”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

A mysterious attacker collects blood from Madame Gheria’s neck every night. Her husband finally calls on the younger Dr. Vares in an attempt to solve the problem once and for all.

Oh, such a delicious twist ending. It’s a rare beast of an ending that sneaks up and surprises me. While the ending does come as a bit of a surprise – it was not set up from the start of the story – it works well with the story, so can be forgiven its abruptness. In fact, the title of the story serves its purpose well. It challenges you to at first believe its veracity, and then question it, leaving you primed and ready for the perfect ending. A nice little tweaking of conventions.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

June 7 - "Morality"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Morality”
by Stephen King
Esquire, July 2009

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A dying man presents Nora the opportunity to make $200,000 for committing an act of sin.

There is a great build up to the eventual act. King does a masterful job of surrounding the event in tension-building mystery. We know how the story should end – will end – and with a title of “Morality,” how else could it end? But it is like watching cars crash or accidents as we pass by, we’re fascinated by the destruction. This one act, designed to fulfill the dreams of a money-challenged couple, ends up driving the two apart. My only complaint is that Nora, while fully realized as a character, does not appear as original as King’s characters so often do.

[And I had to include the cover to this issue of Esquire promoting the story. Wow.]

Saturday, June 6, 2009

June 6 - "Love Far from Home"

“Love Far from Home”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

A man travels from village to village searching for the place and girl of his dreams.

This is a story about the grass being greener on the other side. No matter where you are, someplace else – the next village over – seems different, better. You travel there and it’s everything you dreamed you were missing until it becomes familiar and the idea of a better village grows in your mind. The same can be said of women, jobs, and dreams in general.

I also made connections with how the narrator lives his life, ignoring the world around him:
“Then there were the grown-ups, whose job it was to deal with things, real things. All I had to do was discover new symbols, new meaning. I’ve stayed that way my whole life, I still live in a castle of meaning, not things, and I still depend on the others, the “grown-ups”, the ones who handle things.”
And focusing on the imaginary:
“When I see a machine I look at it as if it were a magic castle, I imagine tiny men turning amongst the cogs.”
And by far the coolest name for woman I’ve come across – Mariamirella.

Friday, June 5, 2009

June 5 - "Burning Ring of Fire"

“Burning Ring of Fire”
by Hana K. Lee
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

After a woman finds her lover, J, dead, drowned in the tub, she takes her revenge on the men responsible.

Revenge tales are fun. The good ones aren’t clean tales. They are brutal, vindictive beasts. But, they make good entertainment. Never learning much about the narrator, the story leaves the reader wishing for the next chapter in her life. Tough and determined, this is a woman with adventures still unwritten. Sometimes an unstoppable force of vengeance trailing devastation in her wake is just the thing for a Friday night.

June 4 - "The Holiday Man"

“The Holiday Man”
by Richard Matheson
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1994)

* * (Okay) Fantasy

David dreads going to work, especially on holidays, when the death toll is higher and feels somehow more wrong.

The story is supposed to be slightly mysterious and ominous, but ends up just being a bit too oblique. In an attempt to never explicitly state David’s job – some lie about a job in advertising – Matheson leaves the reader with too many questions. There’s also an overly long scene that begins the story that has little link to the purpose of the tale. What took a quarter of the story could have been done in a paragraph or two, leaving room for more detail about David’s mysterious job.

[This story was read June 4th but the Chair of Unexpected Sleep claimed yet another victim, and this review was posted a day late.]

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

June 3 - "Dynamite Hole"

“Dynamite Hole”
by Donald Ray Pollock
Knockemstiff (2008)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A man living wild in the country comes across the two Mackey siblings doing things siblings should not do, and cannot resist the urge to interrupt the young children. As he later recalls the events of the day, he also remembers the days after he left home in an attempt to dodge the WWII draft.

I’m interested in how all the stories in this collection are going to tie together in the end. Here we are given a glimpse at a possible mystery – the disappearance of the Mackey siblings – that may rear its head again in a later story. I’m not sure if this is the case, but I hope it will be.

The wild man living in the country never became more than a boiler plate character for me in this story. He was slow, brutal, and damaged, which – to be honest – is nothing original for this stock story character. I did enjoy the prose, though. Very colorful language, unique expressions and descriptions.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

June 2 - "Like Riding a Moped"

“Like Riding a Moped”
by Jordan Harper
Sex, Thugs, and Rock & Roll (2009)

* * * * (Great) Crime

The narrator – a large woman – understands that Benny is using her simply to rob the jewelry store in which she works. The attention and hope he provides convince her to help, but she takes steps just in case.

Heist stories have always interested me. While this tale is not strictly focused on the heist, but rather more on the character of the narrator, it retains the feel – the building tension (will the robbery be a success?) – of a caper story. I think Harper does a great job putting us in the mind of a character with such image and esteem problems. We feel as though we can relate to her situation, her life. Those connections are what give the story its powerfully satisfying ending.

June 1 - "A Sleep Not Unlike Death"

“A Sleep Not Unlike Death”
by Sean Chercover
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

Gravedigger Peace is reminded of a time – a life – before his existence as a gravedigger. When that reminder shows up in his graveyard it awakens the killer inside he long believed dead.

Gravedigger Peace is a fascinating character. The back-story provided in this short tale does nothing but whet the appetite for further adventures with this character. (And as luck would have it, Gravedigger appears as a sidekick in Chercover’s novel, Big City, Bad Blood.) That’s the problem with some short stories: they are simply too short. The characters practically beg to be explored further, in more detail.

[This story was read June 1st, but the Chair of Unexpected Sleep claimed yet another victim, and this review was posted a day late.]