"Happier Days" by Jan Lars Jensen
"Bay" by David Erik Nelson
"In Dreams We Remember" by Ursula Pflug
"The Plum Blossom Lantern" by Richard Parks
"Definitions" by Lena De Tar
"Spirits of Sage, Wind, and Sun" by Jennifer Rachel Baumer
"The Fishie" by Philip Raines and Harvey Welles
Sooner or later, I am going to have to give up this great gig, and let some other reviewer have the pleasure of doing Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Surely more than a few TangentOnline readers are sick of my opinions about this literary journal. For all I know, editors supreme Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link want a new voice, too. Maybe next year.
Here I am with the twelfth issue of this little oasis of fiction, and unless the quality somehow drops, they're going to have to pry it out of my cold, dead fingers. Honestly, I was almost worried, for a moment, that such would be the case–the quality dropping, that is, not the bit about my cold, dead fingers. "Happier Days," by Jan Lars Jensen, just didn't seem an auspicious beginning, to me. I wanted to like this story, with it's rich vein of nostalgic symbolism. In it, characters attend a high school reunion themed around the old sit-com, "Happy Days" (or maybe that was obvious). The narrator attends dressed as Mr. Cunningham; his wife dresses as Joanie. Like everybody who attends the reunion, they become obsessed with their roles. The idea is a fairly clever commentary on living in the past, but the developments can be seen coming all the way down Sixth Avenue, making the story ring a bit flat at the end.
If "Happier Days" reads a bit like an Outer Limits episode, David Erik Nelson's short story "Bay" could be a subtle offering from The Twilight Zone, or even Stephen King in a refined mood. This eerie encounter is literally a ghost story swapped late one night in a bar. To make the story even darker, the man on the receiving end, Dan, is an old widower whose lone daughter, Janey, is also dead. The young man telling Dan the tale of is a stranger, possibly a friend of Janey. The story-within-a-story itself is almost a laughable concept: a haunted dog. But there is really nothing funny about this terribly creepy, unsettling tale.
Ursula Pflug may well have the coolest name in the writing world, and her short story "In Dreams We Remember" has a similarly classy title, to which the rest of the story sadly can not quite live up. The narrator dreams of a past life as a druid, when she and sisters were schooled together in divination, poetry, medicine, and arbitration. The druidess was advisor to the great Celtic queen Maeve, who went to war over a bull. She pines for her lost queen, and because of the bloodshed she witnessed and the magical age that is gone. The concept is quite nice, but the prose is rambling and over-wrought as frequently as it is evocative. The ending has an emotional weight that almost saved the story for me: sometimes, a good story is ruined by an awkward ending, but this one suffers from the opposite syndrome: its lovely conclusion would have been better served by a tighter progression.
Following Pflug's dreamlike fantasy, Richard Park entertains a similarly mystical premise. "The Plum Blossom Lantern" is another ghost story, but this one is told hauntingly from the point of view of the ghost. Michiko, with her servant girl Mai, roams dark streets in medieval Japan. Like Mai, Michiko is dead. She is visiting her living lover, Hiroi, but a monk blocks her way, determined to protect Hiroi from the demon. Their meeting is both tense and charming and their dialog both powerful and wise. It is possible to feel for every character in this story, and the carefully measured but poetic prose and perfect ending leave you wanting more.
A great contrast is created by "Definitions," by Lena De Tar. This very brief story about the interplay between light and dark is told through little metaphorical descriptions of family life in a far future. It has a beautiful final line, but on the whole I found the story completely incomprehensible.
"Spirits of Sage, Wind, and Sun," by Jennifer Rachel Baumer, returns Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet to very gritty earth. A young woman named Sukie is staying in a nameless, western town, photographing the desert. The small town has a convenience store, run by a family-for some reason, I picture them as Indian, although I do not recall Baumer labeling them thus. The little store is convincingly described, as are the quietly haunting landscape and the mysterious presences that appear in Sukie's photographs of the nearby ghost-town, American Flats. Sukie has a flirtatious relationship with the oldest son, who runs the register, until the store is robbed one day while Sukie is away and the family is driven away. This nameless, small-town tragedy is just another ghost in the American west.
I have known since I started reading it that I would have a hard time describing LCRW #12's final story, "The Fishie," by Philip Raines and Harvey Welles. Quite frankly, this is one of the best short stories I have read in years. And I do mean years. Rarely do I encounter a dizzying premise married to flawless execution, but then, never before had I read these authors. "The Fishie" opens with a young girl, Catchie, hearing the noises of a great stone fish under the earth, and is written in a quasi-Scots dialect. (I said it was one of the best short stories I had read in years, not that it was easy!) Throughout this dreamy tale of Catchie and the fishie, the strange and alien mixes with the familiar just enough that I was constantly caught off-guard, thinking that I understood completely, or that I knew where things were headed. But nothing here is obvious or predictable, and I did not understand until the authors wanted me to understand that the setting was a universe in which the elements have become separated, and that Catchie and her people, made of stone, were in a constant, frightened and ignorant sort of warfare against the worlds of sea, wind, and fire. And that revelation is but one aspect of this amazingly deep story. In part end-of-the-world and in part origin myth, with staggering prose, near-overpowering imagery, provocative concepts, and an ending that had me hiding my teary eyes from my coworkers, "The Fishie" is simply majestic. If it were up to me, Raines and Welles would already be dusting their Hugos.
Had LCRW #12 been a sheaf of blank pages around "The Fishie," I still would have felt compelled to give it a good review. But with its usual assortment of quietly compelling fiction hovering somewhere around the nexus of ghost story, fairy tale, folklore, fantasy, and magical realism, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet continues to define-and redefine-for me why we read, write, and take risks on new writers, new ideas, and new ways. Quality.