“The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth” by Catherynne M. Valente
“Love, &c.–From 506 JB” by Toiya Kristen Finley
“Under the Beansidhe’s Pillow” by Sarah Monette
“The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth” by Catherynne M. Valente is a tale of the Loros, those descended from the sailors of the wrecked HMS Beagle, and the parrots, sunning themselves so brightly and beautifully on the shore, that the sailors fell upon.
Their leader, Mr. Mouth, is indeed sinister, and his ballad too. The title tells you as much, yet the joie de vivre of the story’s beginning—“Ah, the parrots of Macaw! No man may speak of their wingspan without falling into a swoon, no woman may dream of their colors without blinding her heart to all other shades!”—engenders a false sense of security, where it is too easy to think that perhaps this will not be so sinister a ballad after all. Lush descriptions of the island and the history of the Loros are followed by Mr. Mouth’s murder of a ramshackle ship’s captain in order to free the girls in the cargo hold, bound to be wives on Trinidad. Yet "free" is not a good fate, especially for Miss Clare Lamp—a beautiful, bright-haired girl with a good singing voice. This is not a happy tale.
Valente deftly conjures her setting, using words as building blocks rather than aiming for transparency; her careful use of similes that match the locale—“Miss Lamp looked up with pride in her light eyes, a peculiar shade of green not unlike a messageless bottle bobbing on the sea.”—add particular flavor. Her skill extends equally to the portrayal of her titular character. Mr. Mouth is quite unlike any other character I have encountered; though easily despisable, his desires are also understandable, and he has quite a flair.
“Love, &c.–From 506 JB” by Toiya Kristen Finley is a piece of bizarre metafiction. Esperanza, assigned office space in a library, is the desk-side part of an operation to hunt down a boundary breaker: a character from one of several inter-connected story worlds, all created by Our Mutual Author, who has found a way to move between the worlds and poses a threat to the stability of the story worlds. Throughout, Esperanza is working with two characters from the story world while communicating with her brother and another operative.
The search for the boundary breaker is the foundation here, but its meat comes from the interaction between Esperanza and Nat Turner, a ghost who appears in the library against the usual rules of the story worlds. Nat Turner’s fixation on an uprising that he believes has yet to take place—although it has already happened and is the cause of his death—leads Esperanza to question her role and also the aims of the most wanted boundary breaker, who writes stories about the worlds and distributes them. Esperanza is a sympathetic, interesting character, and her internal turmoil is skilfully conveyed.
The ending leaves some questions unanswered. Perhaps they are for another story (Finley has written at least one other tale about this milieu, “The Avatar of Background Noise” in Text: UR, The New Book of Masks) or perhaps they are simply for the reader to chew over. In all, another very good story.
In comparison to the first two stories, “Under the Beansidhe’s Pillow” by Sarah Monette is far shorter—but no less sweet. A Beansidhe, who cries the deaths of those in the O’Meara family, has been drawn across the Atlantic by James O’Meara’s dream but finds that the voyage is changing her. A touching tale, well-told.
This is an excellent issue of Lone Star Stories: three stories with unique and strong flavors, and the poetry, too, is very good.