Short Story

The Witch Who Came In From The Cold: A Long Cold Winter

This selection is an intriguing one: it comes courtesy of Serial Box, which appears to be a new publisher. With serial entertainment coming back into vogue–podcasts, television, documentaries–it seems a ripe time for traditional fiction publishing to hone in on the action.

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Serial Box only provided an ARC of the first installment of the multi-part series, so I am of course only able to comment on episode one.

I was particularly taken with the premise–1970s Prague at the height of the Cold War and espionage, but to make it a whole new story, the spies are witches and sorcerers. Besides the synopsis, the idea of a serialized story told by a handful of different authors was also intriguing. (Also, for good measure, I’m a fan of Lindsay Smith’s short story Doppel, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago).

For a first installment, the story didn’t do enough to completely draw me in until the latter half. It was a bit muddled and I found myself going back to the beginning and starting again.

Too many characters were introduced and flung around, and the nary bit of witchcraft that the title alludes to is opaque at best. I was also disappointed with the fact that Prague, an excellent setting for such a story, was not really part of the narrative (beyond the fact that it certainly was a place filled with spies and dissidents post-WWII).

However, with all that said, the story did clear up in the final third of this initial episode and moved more clearly at its already breakneck speed. I wondered if it was a hard start out of the gate because it’s a story told by multiple authors who then will have to pass the story off to another. Is it that they stuffed too much in to their introductory bit because they wanted so much introduced to the reader so they would keep reading? I think so. But I think it backfired. I wish the publisher would have provided another episode or two, so I could properly envelop myself in the story and dig deeper into the review, because, even with my critique, I still think it has the capacity to be an entertaining tale.

I would certainly recommend having a gander at the first episode (especially, since Serial Box is offering it on their website for FREE or for your Kindle for 99 cents). I’ve been in a magical mood lately and I was hoping for a bit more from this; although, it might pick up as the series moves along. With the first installment, the story is a general one of spies, and the sprinkling of the fantastic is too limited. If you subscribed to the story through Serial Box’s website or app, there is an audiobook version that accompanies the text. Much to my dismay, however, if you download the free app, there is no immersion reading (meaning you can’t read the text with the audiobook narrating).

Another concern of mine is, since the story had a hard time hooking me, I am feeling less likely to pony up the pretty pennies for the remaining episodes, which are priced at $1.59-$1.99 through their website, including the audio. It is a bit of a bummer for readers who have Kindles, because Serial Box does not have a Kindle app, and the only way to download is to pay Amazon $1.99, minus the audio. I like Serial Box’s premise, but certain logistics still need finessing.

I don’t ever use star ratings, but since this text was a bit more difficult to review and I think I came across harsher than I intended, I hope the star system will help those on the fence.

3/5 stars

In the Year 2889 by Jules Verne

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I must admit that I originally began reading this short story based solely on its title and that said title’s similarity to the song, “In the Year 2525.” When I began reading, the preface notified the reader that this Jules Verne story was in fact not written by the great Nineteenth century French science fiction/fantasy author, but by his l’enfant terrible son, Michel, who occasionally wrote fiction but published it under his famous father’s name.

The prose is not entirely eloquent, but the intrigue is found in how Michel describes his version of the future. At times, it is both amusing and oddly prophetic. Like me, I’m sure anyone fond of The Jetsons will enjoy the pneumatic tubes which people travel by or the flying cars that line up at your window (or the very George Jetson automatic dressing machine you just step into).

In the Year 2889” focuses on Mr. Fritz Napoleon Smith, an extremely wealthy newspaper magnate (apparently, in the distant future, newspapers are money makers with thousands of employees). He owns the Earth Chronicle that has 80,000,000 subscribers,

“Smith’s wealth went on growing, till now it reaches the almost unimaginable figure of $10,000,000,000.”

I wonder if the younger Verne would be disappointed in the state of newspapers in the year 2014. However, the newspapers of 2889 aren’t read: “Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, in interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen, and scientists, learn the news of the day.”

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Michel Verne uses what I assume is exacting technical language to give a futuristic feel to 2889. Besides being delivered by tubes and flying cars, there is a Skype of the future, which Mr. Smith uses quite frequently to speak with his wife when she’s away (“the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires”–this is how I assume Skype works). The above image is an artist’s interpretation of their shared meal, even though he is in Centropolis (one must imagine this is what NYC is going by in the future) and she is in France.

There is an oddness to it all, however, in that phonographs are often used in 2889. Every subscriber of the Earth Chronicle has one. It’s so endearingly antiquated as it’s mashed into the future.

The story might not have the same pizzazz of an authentic Jules Verne story, but the imagination is there. It’s pretty marvelous to read what Michel Verne was coming up with in 1889. “In the Year 2889” is definitely worth a read and especially so, because it’s free in the public domain.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The PBS Online Film Festival is going on right now and they have 25 short films available on YouTube (only a few days left for viewers to vote for their favorites). One of the contenders is a 3 minute long short experimental animation based on Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (you can it read it for free in the public domain). I’m particularly fond of the way the animators put the opaque wallpaper onto the woman’s body.

From PBS: Vote for this film at http://www.pbs.org/filmfestival/video…
The Yellow Wallpaper is an experimental animated adaptation of the eponymous short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story is about a depressed woman who descends into insanity as she struggles against the patriarchal institution that confines her. Through expressive movements and visual symbols, the animation captures the intersection between gender and mental health.

“Coral-red” by Helen McClory

I’m not sure how popular flash fiction is (or micro fiction, short shorts, or whatever we’re calling them these days), but I’ve always been a fan along with vignettes. Small impressions can be quite powerful. Many writers find the constraint difficult, but often with these miniature stories, stronger tone and detail crafting come across with starker strokes than longer stories. I find the best flash fiction pieces try to unsettle the reader or take an idea, mix it up like puzzle pieces, and reassembles itself all within the span of about 500 words (I’m one of those who tend to not consider anything of 1000 words or more flash fiction).

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I have always enjoyed the selections of Helen McClory’s work that I’ve been steered towards over the past few years. She has a new piece up on Literary Orphans, which I’ve read three times! I think with each new reading, I find something new or my focus is captivated with a different section of the story.

In “Coral-red,” we are introduced to Miriam’s house, which is often featured in stylish home magazines that reach readers all over the world. Yet, at the present moment the house is haunted. The children haunting the house are raucous and ever-present as they sing songs and walk between the walls.

Of course, when houses–especially, the haunted sort–are featured in fiction, there is usually a reason. What had once been introduced as a stylish home worthy enough to be photographed for magazines, has a deeper, more disturbing core. Houses in literature are structured to hold characters’ hidden histories, they are built to elicit fears and anxieties, and sometimes, they are crafted to hold the characters in from the rest of the world, leading them to brew inside without the infiltration of foreign touches. The house in “Coral-red” is not what we expect, nor, is Miriam.

“[S]he rarely leaves the house. In fact, she never leaves unless compelled. There is something terribly wrong with Miriam, and there has been for a long time, but she has no friends to gently tell her this, and the housekeeper Ofelia doesn’t see it’s any business of hers.”

McClory’s language is layered and pays special attention to the senses. She is able to entrance the surroundings by offering a mist of lulling prose to only lay out blunt more horrifying moments.

Lately, Helen has been writing about her consumption of horror shows and films, which no doubt are influencing her current writing. I hope to see more, because she is keenly able to capture gossamer places that keep the menacing tightly wound into it.

The  journal, Literary Orphans, has the story available for free. Besides, this story, take a look at the whole site. I’m pretty impressed by the entire scheme.

 

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Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

I first came across Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky in 2011 when The Letter Killers Club  was released by NYRB. It had a promising premise, but I think it came up short. But I still wanted to give Krzhizhanovsky’s short story collection a go when it was released this past fall.

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It has taken me quite a while to write about this book, my copy always just right out of my side view. Based on the two books I’ve read of Krzhizhanovsky’s, I’ve concluded that I like his writing 50% of the time. For all of the weird and wonderful he has to offer, there is a whole mass of stodgy pseudo-philosophy and ruminations that exhausts me when trying to penetrate it (let me assure you that I do enjoy philosophical literature–I’m a big fan of Maurice Blanchot, for Pete’s sake). When I could get past this latter 50%, I enjoyed the strange tales that Krzhizhanovsky offers, which include the fingers of a concert pianist making their escape during a performance, a series of lovers who end up living in a young woman’s pupil, to the story I shall detail below about a man who is intent on biting his own elbow.

In the book’s introduction, Adam Thirwell details that there were three different efforts to have Krzhizhanovsky’s work published during his lifetime, which also shared years with the Soviet regime. He was not published until 1989 and now only recently translated into English. The stories that I was drawn to were the more fantastical and were crafted, as Thirwell writes, “based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” In one of the stories, the narration concedes that “these jottings will work like that: sandwich — metaphysics — sandwich — metaphysics.” Krzhizhanovsky seems quite aware that he has a 50/50 split, yet, the metaphysics, as he puts it, doesn’t need to be so thick and unmoving. I’m curious if this is the translation or Krzhizhanovsky original language manifesting in this way.

The story that most stood out was “The Unbitten Elbow.” When the Weekly Review sends out a questionnaire to all of their subscribers, they are perplexed by only one form amongst the thousands. The person, when asked what their Goal in Life is, wrote in “clear round letters, ‘To bite my elbow.'”  The form is forwarded to many departments within the Weekly Review before it is finally brought to the public’s attention. The man and his unbitten albow become a cause célèbre as he is recruited by a circus as their closing act where a “professional philosopher” sees the performance and catches “the elbow-eater’s metaphysical meaning right off the bat.” What ensues is an article titled, “The Principles of Unbitability” and a philosophy known as elbowism. Elbow biting even becomes so popular that clothing styles have changed to incorporate detachable elbow patches and the like.

The writing is quite funny and vivid, and this story alone puts Krzhizhanovsky right up there with the other Slavic and central European writers who flourish with this sort of writing. The absurdity reminded me so much of how we regard celebrity. If you flip through the television at any part of the day, there are people there yelling at each other and giving insincere “confessions” to cameras (why are these people on TV?!). The snowballing effect of the elbow biter is also so poignant when it comes to how news is delivered to us today and how we react to it. Regardless of all that, however, this story can still be enjoyed for what it is. In this instance, the above-mentioned incorporation of philosophical tendencies served Krzhizhanovsky well; often, as elbowism flourishes, new thinkers are trying to sort the endeavor and have “concluded that the elbow was, in theory, bitable.” I feel very much the same way about this collection. There was a lot of teeth gnashing on my part, but some of the struggle, although not completely pain-free, led to a few peculiar delights.

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Added to The International Reading List

Among the Thorns by Veronica Schanoes

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A couple of months ago, I reviewed Veronica Schanoes’ novella, Burning Girls. She has a knack for reinventing folktales, giving them a fresh note while still retaining their centuries’ old roots. She does it again in her new short story, Among the Thorns. The story is a clear rebuttal to the Brothers Grimm’s most overwhelmingly antisemitic story, “The Jew in the Thorn” (Der Jude im Dorn).

As a child, Itte’s father never returns home. The family finds out that he has been murdered in the German village of Dornburg (this name literally means thorn castle in DE).

“They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him. I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that. They made him dance.”

Itte, her family, and the rest of the Jews are persecuted now in their seventeenth century village just as the Jews have been in the past centuries as well. Ten years pass and with her mother dead and her brothers off, Itte decides to take revenge on Herr Geiger, the man who is responsible for her father’s death. Herr Geiger, like his name suggests, is a fiddler, whose instrument when played will make anyone dance, even until they are worn out; he also has the extraordinary ability to make people do what he wants. Itte’s father was made to dance in the thorns until he was bloodied. As Itte sets off on her quest, she is accompanied by the disembodied presence of Matronit to assist her with her travels and, finally, to “watch the fiddler’s last breath.”

Although rooted in sadness, I do love a good revenge tale. Itte is determined and plain-spoken. Her narration is direct, which I think works quite well for Schanoes, who is portraying both a developed character and a reference to an older story. She is reinterpreting the straightforward voice that is often used in old Märchen.* The imagery is strong in this story. An especially vivid moment is when Itte’s braided hair unravels, stretching out into giant thorn vines (see cover image above). It takes her whole body to exact revenge on Herr Geiger, something that Itte imagined would be the case, albeit, not entirely as she expected before she set out on her journey. We can read the Grimms’ tale in its historical context, but Schanoes’ new story is one to be relished in as each spiky thorn grows from Itte’s head.

Like Burning Girls, I found this story to be wholly gripping. Once you start, you better clear your schedule, because you’ll want to finish it in one sitting and then probably read it again for any details missed the first go around. I don’t know what Veronica Schanoes is up to, but I hope her plans include writing a fabulous collection of tales with stellar illustrations by Anna & Elena Balbusso.

Among the Thorns is available as a .99 cent ebook (with beautiful cover included) and at the publisher’s website. In honor of Burning Girls being nominated for a Nebula Award this year, the publisher has made the ebook available for free.

 

*I always find it hard to reference stories like the ones from the Brothers Grimm as “fairy tales.” They are often quite beastly and not at all whimsical like I imagine fairies to be.

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“Doppel” by Lindsay Smith

doppel“Doppel” is one of those short stories where everything at first appears very much on the surface, but really, that’s not the case. Lindsay Smith’s story is told in a series of exchanges between a British spy embedded in Nazi occupied France, his “nanny” (the Special Executive Office, which he reports to), and his handler.

Posing as a German businessman who has been living in the UK for a number of years, Agent Keystone is tasked with getting close to the mysterious SS-Oberführer Albrecht, who wears a Totenkopf ring on his finger (Totenkopf being the word for skull in German; it literally translates as death head). 

Agent Keystone finds the Nazis despicable, but he must hobnob and be amicable with Albrecht, which leads him to feel like there are two versions of himself.

As I lay awakened, I felt—as I have been feeling since this operation began—as if there was another presence inside of me, stretching at my skin, tugging me, trying to subsume the me that remains.”

As he carries on a friendly relationship with Albrecht, Agent Keystone begins to see something completely different from what he had initially anticipated. The SS-Oberführer is up to something, but honestly, knowing many of the strange and horrifying things the Nazis did in real life, I’m really not surprised my any of their notions. 

The story was written in a really engaging way. The correspondence voice between each British player is wholly its own and when Agent Keystone goes missing, the messages between the SEO and his handler point to the worst. Lindsay Smith mixes history, thriller, and mythology to pen a fun tale filled with suspense. The story is very approachable for any reader, but I advise you to pay close attention to what’s going on, even if it seems odd, because otherwise you might just miss the fantastical outcome.

This story is available by the publisher as an e-book for .99 cents and online.

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“Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe

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Time for a throwback to a classic short story by Edgar Allan Poe. “Metzengerstein” was Poe’s very first published short story. He sent it as his entry for a contest held by the Saturday Courier magazine in Philadelphia. It wasn’t chosen as the winner, but the magazine still published it a few months later. It might not be as well-read as his other stories we are more used to these days, but it still has the foundations of many of his later Gothic tales of death beyond the grave and noble families with old roots whose lives are crumbling.

The Metzengerstein and the Berlifitzings are two rival families in Hungary. They have been bitter enemies for longer than anyone can tell. Of course, the story starts off with a doomed prophecy,

“A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.”

The prose that Poe employs is in the style of its Gothic predecessors, mostly notably German tales, which inspired him to give it the often removed subtitle: A Tale In Imitation of the German. The language is of course quite adorned, but this is the feel Poe was going for.

The tale is filled with mystery, but an astute reader will see where Poe is giving a knowing wink. The final surviving Metzengerstein, upon receiving the family fortune, begins to become a grotesque character. He is possibly a villain who has killed a rival Berlifitzing, whose spirit returns in the form of a mysterious white horse (a horse, who perhaps might have only just been on a large tapestry in the Metzengerstein house). Demon horses and castles catching fire are par for the course in “Metzengerstein” (the above illustration was included in a 1909 edition).

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I think readers who are familiar with Gothic fiction and appreciate a good Poe story will enjoy this one. I read it in an edition I own with gilded page edges, which I keep close to my bed in case of a night-time Edgar Allan Poe urge (we all get them, right?). The collection features many of his lesser known works, but I proffer the idea that many of them are known, yet, are not as widely read as others are these days.

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“Woman Fish” by Dorothy Tse

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Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse’s stories are always a mixture of the surreal and magical realism. There is something dreamy yet frightening about them. A threat or unbelievable angst is always hiding behind her words, sometimes coming out onto the page and other times, being hidden away again.

“Woman Fish” is the first story in her recent collection Snow and Shadow (translated by Nicky Harman)–a collection I urge you to seek out. This story is only a small example of the strange you will find within the collection. Many stories deal with body parts mysteriously vanishing, a pregnant empress liquefying into the snow after giving birth, and an apartment building where the tenants can’t find their own front doors when they return home.

In “Woman Fish,” a sort of Gregor Samsa metamorphosis is happening,

“One morning he realised his wife’s sleek, pale head was completely without hair. Her mouth was huge, protruding like a ship cleaving the still waters of the sea. Her eyes had slipped to the sides of her face. Her breasts were two melting glaciers, slowly sinking into her body. When she walked naked towards him, all that was left of the woman were her smooth, muscular legs. Apart from that, she had transformed completely into a fish.”

The woman’s husband, whose point of view the story takes, is often in an inky dream state. The events are mostly at night, in dreams, or waking up. When he is awake, his wife is usually working at her computer making collages out of the husband’s “watery dreams.” There is constant mention of water and water that flows giving the story’s imagery an obscured view.

The frightening element of the story comes when they visit a Japanese restaurant and the husband notices the sharp knife the sushi chef uses to cut the fish filets. He can’t help but get anxious over the idea of his wife being sold at auction to a restaurant, an idea that floats around during his sleep. It doesn’t matter if the husband is awake or sleeping, the entire story feels like a waking dream and it would be foolish to try to distinguish the two. Just let the imagery of the story flood over you like the oft-referenced waters.

I highly encourage you to check out the collection where this story is found: Snow and Shadow. More info: amazon |  the book depository. The Guardian newspaper has also printed “Woman Fish” in its entirety with the accompanying fish eye photo above. Because this story is translated, it’s also being added to the International Reading List.

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“The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” by John Chu

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Starting just a few weeks ago, any time a person utters a lie, water falls down from the sky onto them. It could be a light mist or a strong pour–it all depends on the strength of the lie. It isn’t necessarily the drench that cause great anxiety for Matt, the narrator of John Chu’s short story, it’s the idea of letting a lie slip out. He is keeping secrets and showing the truth is causing him great angst.

It is Christmastime and like many families, Matt’s is no different. He is invited to his parents’ house, where his sister, her husband, and her in-laws will be staying as well. Now over 30, Matt’s parents–described as traditional Chinese parents–are often poking him about when he will marry and give them a grandson. The problem, however, is that Matt has a boyfriend, Gus, and his family knows nothing about this. Even though he hasn’t outed himself, Matt takes Gus with him to the family Christmas.

There is much anxiety in this story, but Chu still maintains a level of humor about it all. When the two men arrive at Matt’s parents’ house, they are met with a bustling home readying itself for a large feast. Everyone speaks at least two languages, but the entire group doesn’t share one common language to converse in. When Matt realizes the trouble of it all, he thinks, “Repeatedly slamming my head against the handrail now would send the wrong message, so I don’t.” Besides being lost in translation, Chu occasionally places the original Chinese into dialogue, including retaining the characters and not transliterating into English. This makes the reader also feel lost like the characters.

Matt’s parents are not as stereotyped as one might first think when they are told that the characters are “traditional Chinese.” They are more layered, especially his mother, something that Matt learns throughout the story as he worries about revealing his relationship with Gus.

The idea of water falling on liars is an interesting one. Matt explains ways people have gone about getting around the possible waterfall, but these are not foolproof. People might still know that you lie.

“Phrasing things in the form of a question. That and weasel words work as insurance against the water that falls from nowhere. They just make it extremely obvious that you’re hedging against the truth.”

The added dread of being totally soaked with even the smallest white lie is enough to add panic. I really enjoyed this being a foreboding presence. However, it would’ve been nice to see the author use this hook a little more. After a while, it felt merely like that–a hook. Yet, it was quite an interesting take on the idea of a dreaded family gathering. Chu was able to use the device somewhat to show characters’ actual meanings beneath their words. However, this fantastic concept and John Chu drawing Matt with struggles sprinkled with humor were delightful.

According to the author’s bio, he “designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night.” I’m sure he is extremely happy to have this story nominated for a Hugo Award this year. In honor of the nomination, the publisher has just provided a free e-book edition and it can also be read in its entirety online and through Zola Books.

**Anytime I read the title of this short story, I can’t help but imagine it being the name of a Star Trek episode. Captain Kirk would be drenched immediately while surrounded by green sexy aliens.
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