— March 2015

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting., March 2015

“The Shape of My Name” by Nino Cipri
“The Thyme Fiend” by Jeffrey Ford
“The Museum and the Music Box” by Noah Keller
“Dog” by Bruce McAllister

Reviewed by Martha Burns

“The Shape of My Name” by Nino Cipri is about a transgender time traveler. It succeeds on its own merits and, in addition, succeeds as a reimagining of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1958 “‘–All You Zombies—’,” which is about an intersex time traveler. Cipri’s story centers on the protagonist’s troubled relationship with his mother that is, to a degree, resolved when the protagonist’s former self, a young woman named Miriam, travels through time and becomes Heron, who is a man. The focus of the story is very much on young Miriam’s gender dysphoria, for which time travel is the fix. Time travel is, in Heinlein’s story, also the gimmick that solves a gender paradox, but it has a more comic tinge. Heinlein’s goal is to do Ray Steven’s “I Am My Own Grandpa” one better by being one’s own mother and father. It’s a clever conceit, a fun read, and intentionally has the shape of a shaggy dog story. In Cipri’s story, Heinlein’s mock PI tone becomes melancholic and his silly gender paradox becomes welcome gender salvation. Recommended.

In the novelette “The Thyme Fiend” by Jeffrey Ford, fourteen-year-old Emmett Wallace sees demons unless he has his nightly cup of thyme tea. The necessity increases after Emmett finds the remains of a local man, but the supply runs low and prejudice mounts after the town discovers Emmett’s dependence on the herb. Let me say, at this point, that the story is in no respect a parable about marijuana use, so get that out of your head. Instead, it is a murder mystery mingled with a coming-of-age tale. It’s most successful in crafting an atmosphere akin to Ray Bradbury’s stories in October Country. Emmett has an innocence about him that is harder to pull off in contemporary YA and it is always a treat to see small-town creepiness done lightly. For those reasons, the story is gripping in the early stages yet, even though it is a novelette, the later moments feel rushed. Ford includes a romance/friendship that is sparsely developed and feels like a cheat when we see why it is there. In addition, the pace of the mystery and the tone shifts in the later stages of the story so that we move from October Country to the 80s kids-in-peril movies like The Goonies. Those films are triumphs in their own right, and though, like Bradbury, the various writers of the films utilize innocent characters to brilliant effect, the focus of those 80s films is action and good, clean peril with a few fantastical elements thrown in. I would have been happy with one or the other, but the combination felt bumpy. Recommended.

A man searches through a museum for information about a lost lover in “The Museum and the Music Box” by Noah Keller. His lover has left to find the key to a mysterious music box and the clues he discovers about her whereabouts provide an organizing principle for the story, but not a plot. The discovery of each text doesn’t build and we’re in no suspense about what comes next. In addition, neither the character of the lover nor of the beloved is developed in any detail, so it is hard to care about why the search matters so much to him. This need not be a damning criticism in a work devoted to imagery. A work such as, for example, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities uses an organizing principle rather than a plot, yet Calvino also uses a device—Marco Polo telling Kubla Kahn about strange cities—that allows the reader to have a simple way to reference the images. Each set of images is linked to a distinct city and the oddity of them builds as the story progresses. Here, the diary entries and map don’t provide enough of an anchor and so, ultimately, none of the imagery in this story focused on imagery is likely to stay with the reader.

“Dog” by Bruce McAllister is a satisfying horror story with an old-school feel. Overly sincere white people travel to Mexico and make an ill-advised purchase. Although an anthropologist warns them, they do not listen with predictably disastrous consequences. Part of the enjoyment of the story is that readers most likely know this form by heart, so we wait with anticipation for each beat and congratulate ourselves along with the author when each element (yes, even the Native American connection) shows. The only respect in which the story falters is that the author appears to be embarrassed by his tale of white people doing foolish things with indigenous artifacts. McAllister goes to great lengths to note and reinforce the privilege of the husband and wife, but while the touches are nice, I doubt readers will need to be repeatedly told what they mean. The form of the story alerts the reader to the couple’s hubris. There is no need for apologies for white people doing the sort of foolish things they’ve always done in horror stories.