Here are a few of the short stories we read this week, all of which are free to read online.
“The Summer People” is the first story in Kelly Link’s new story collection Get in Trouble. Fran is a teenager living in a rural part of the American southeast. Her mother is gone, and she is neglected by her moonshiner father. While Fran is running a fever of 102 with the flu, her father informs her that he has to go “get right with God.” On his way out the door, he reminds her that one of the summer families is coming up early and she needs to get the house ready. However, that family isn’t the only group of summer people that Fran “does for,” and this is the point of Link’s exquisite, melancholy tale.
This story is about Fran and her mother’s heritage, and the arrangement they have with the people who live in the house up the hill, a house not everyone can see. It’s about Fran’s isolation and sense of being trapped, and it’s about her schoolmate Ophelia’s loneliness and kindness. It’s about knowing your heart’s desire. Ophelia’s family used to be summer people; now they’ve moved up to Fran’s town, and one rumor is that Ophelia kissed another girl in her old high school. Ophelia is an outcast; Fran is forced to be a loner because of her connection to the summer people, and as the story progresses, these two girls cautiously, tentatively become friends. Before that friendship can fully blossom, the consequences of Fran’s father’s actions crash back onto the scene.
Link captures perfectly the sense of strangeness of the “summer people”: they aren’t human; they interact with humans but don’t accept our values or mores. She manages to limn Fran’s character in a few precise sentences, and with Fran’s speech. The story is filled with beautiful bits, descriptions of the countryside, mostly from Ophelia’s point of view. Against a story where all the prose is beautiful, Link still gives us moments that both surprise us and deepen the setting. When her father wakes her up, Fran notes that “[h]er daddy was a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes. The bulk of him augured trouble.” Later, when Fran tries to go the school, “[h]er cough scared off the crows when she went down to the county road to catch the bus.”
If we’re lucky in life, we get to know our heart’s desire. If we’re slightly less lucky, maybe we achieve it. In this story, both girls find out what they want. I think, maybe, both girls also get their hearts’ desires, and I can’t say whether that ending is triumphant or heartbreakingly sad. I just know it’s beautiful. ~Marion Deeds
Elizabeth Hand’s “The Bacchae” is a take on the ancient Greek tragedy of the same name. I read it in her collection of short stories, Last Summer at Mars Hill, in which the author explains that this is also her attempt at writing a J.G Ballard story. According to Hand, the story generated some controversy and Interzone’s readers voted it the most hated story of the year. Certainly a reason to read it in my book.
The story is that of a young man living in a world in which solar shields protect a heavily polluted earth from ultraviolet radiation. The shields distort the colour of the sky and the normal workings of light, which Hand describes in her characteristically colourful, expressive style. In the opening scene, the narrator passes a woman in his block wearing the flayed skin of her own Rottweiler as a scarf. We later learn of riots in the city, which is now filled with “crime lights,” and are told that men are under constant danger from violent women. (This is where the Greek story comes in. In the Greek Bacchae women joined the cult of the god Dionysus. Typical symptoms included making love with each other, putting snakes in their hair and ripping animals to shreds with their bare hands; many of these elements are recreated by Hand).
The story co-mingles the two themes ― Ballardian dystopia on the one hand and wild, gruesome Greek tragedy on the other. Throughout the story the narrator awakens to the reality of the polluted world ― there is obvious symbolism in his comparison of a poisoned fish in the river and the priceless Venetian glass fish in his apartment. At the same time he comes into contact with the wild and dangerous cult of women whom he cannot control.
The two ideas didn’t meld seamlessly for me. It wasn’t clear why the women had turned to violence and how that linked to the dying world. Another gripe was the repeated use of the world “sanguine,” which popped up three times. In one short story that is enough to irritate.
Nevertheless, the reason I turn to Hand ― her ability to build atmosphere through heavy but flowing description ― was in full force. Thematically I was less engaged, but I imagine this story is open to wide interpretation and it would make a very interesting study piece. ~ Katie Burton
Verena is a teenage girl with a harsh life: her family is living in poverty since her mother and brother were killed and her father permanently disabled in an accident. And each year, one girl from their town disappears without a trace. Who, or what, is this Maiden Thief? Verena can’t stand that the town isn’t doing more to catch him, so she writes and distributes a tract, gathering the facts and calling for action. Three days later, her older sister Karis disappears. Verena blames herself, the way we often do for something that really isn’t our fault. It’s even easier for her to feel guilty when her father blames her as well … and when another of her sisters disappears.
This is a competent retelling of the Bluebeard folk tale, although it never quite rises above its roots, but Marr’s retelling does add depth to the story and makes some intriguing changes to the original plot. There are dark aspects to this version of the tale, including forced sex and other types of emotional and physical abuse, but there are also some nice “girl power” moments as Verena becomes more fully aware of the danger she is in and realizes that she has to rely on her own wits to save herself.
Certain aspects of the ending (in particular, the part relating to the prior wives) struck me as highly unlikely, like the author pulled her punches in order to give the reader a more upbeat ending. But perhaps the story needed a good cathartic ending after all of the bleakness that came before. ~Tadiana Jones
This story is another, very different take on the Bluebeard folk tale, also from the point of view of Bluebeard’s wife. In this version, Althea, the wife, has two prying sisters who have annoyed and badgered her all her life. As a result, Althea has a deep sympathy towards her husband’s demand for the one room at the top of the tower in their manor to remain private. So when he entrusts her with the key to the room, she informs him she really has no interest in peeking in his room, and drops the key in an urn … and just leaves it there.
Ursula Vernon (aka T. Kingfisher) commented on her blog, where she originally published this story: “I am honestly rather sympathetic to Althea here, because I would be the woman on camera going ‘No, I had no idea he was a serial killer!’ that nobody believes. You get used to things, you don’t have a suspicious mind, and…well. … Knowing someone has done horribly evil things doesn’t neatly replace all your knowledge of living with someone, does it? What are you supposed to feel, and what do you really wind up feeling instead?”
The twist here is an intriguing one, as Kingfisher explores the ramifications of Bluebeard’s wife having this type of personality, but otherwise this version of the tale is very quick and one-note. Kingfisher’s later retelling of Bluebeard, her YA novel The Seventh Bride, is much more imaginative and memorable. ~Tadiana Jones
This very short story with the lengthy title is part of the MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT fantasy series, which is set in a Victorian-like world inhabited by dragons. Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent, travels the world to study dragons in their native habitats, despite resistance from some men who look down on headstrong women who refuse to stay in the kitchen.
In this humorous story, related through a series of letters to the editor of the Falchester Weekly Review, Lady Trent tangles with Mr. Benjamin Talbot, a scholar who claims to have found a cockatrice, a beast with a dragon’s body and a rooster-like head. Lady Trent sends in a letter encouraging Mr. Talbot to publicize more information regarding his cockatrice, including the place where it was discovered. Mr. Talbot responds with his own letter, declining to make public the place of origin, and suggesting that her “feminine heart” should understand the concern with the effect of such a disclosure. The correspondence degenerates from there, as they (semi)politely exchange insults and question each other’s credentials and intelligence through their letters.
It’s always amusing when members of polite society exchange insults in well-bred language, and this story also gives the reader a brief glimpse of the challenges facing Lady Trent in her efforts to become a legitimate scientist. While I’m not certain that “From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review” is the best place to begin one’s acquaintance with Lady Trent, it does have the advantage of being both short and free online, and it has instilled in me the desire to search out a copy of A Natural History of Dragons, the first novel in the MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT series. ~Tadiana Jones