"Music Lessons" by Douglas Lain
"Sitting on a Bench in the Park" by David Nahm
"Ragdog" by Susan Mosser
"Two Stories" by James Sallis
"Pete and Earl" by Richard Butner
"A Conspiracy of Dentists" by Jay Lake
"Felix Soutré, Puppeteer" by Matthew Latkiewicz
"The Half-Fey House" by J. Cox
"Beer with a Hamster Chaser" by Devon Monk
"Sun" by V. Anne Arden
"Careless Liza" by Bret Fetzer
"The Enchanted Trousseau" by Deborah Roggie
I may have to give up the pleasurable job of reviewing Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet: I'm running out of adjectives. There is a good side and a bad side to writing these reviews. The good side is knowing that I can look forward to a free semi-annual outburst of wonderful literature; the bad side is finishing each issue and thinking "what the hell am I going to say about that?" Co-editors Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant are a boon to readers, a curse to reviewers–putting together something nameless, indefinable, and fantastic with every effort.
Douglas Lane's "Music Lessons" is a long story, by LCRW standards, but with a very loose structure and ambiguous story-line. Told in interview snippets and first-person narrative sections, this tale describes a composer's rather odd daily life and even stranger influences. With a wife who worries that Jesus is a zombie, a strange fixation with bees, an encounter with a man in a gorilla suit on his way to a guest appearance on the Mr. Rogers Show, and an alien abduction, John does indeed lead an odd life–but one well-suited to this mysterious examination of creativity, eccentricity, and the dissolution of the boundaries of personality.
David Nahm's "Sitting on a Bench in the Park" has a somehow similar tone, as it tells us, in a step-by-step process, about the development of an artificial intelligence with a strange and sad personality disorder, created by an obsessed scientist. I remain unsure about the author's use of numbered paragraphs, a technique that seems to me not to have worked very successfully for anyone since J.G. Ballard. But the concept of the story, the careful, clever wording, and the emotional depth are all triumphs.
"Ragdog," by Susan Mosser, comes as close to approaching the "normal" as any story in LCRW ever does. At least, the writing and the structure are conventional. It's an interesting tale of an alien investigator–perhaps an ethnologist–on Earth, running from superiors with her half-breed child. Her motivations are profound, but telling the story from the child's point of view makes it even stronger, with a devastating ending.
James Sallis complicates my life by collecting two stories under the title–surprise–"Two Stories." The first of these, "Telling Lives," is a gorgeous idea, about an author who makes his name–and the names of his neighbors–with a series of biographies about the people of his hometown. In the second tale, "The Museum of Last Week," Sallis continues to explore the existence of the bizarre or fantastic in the mundane, albeit in a much less accessible way. I can't claim to have understood the brief chain of unusual (to put it mildly) encounters related here, but I was affected by the melancholy mood.
"Pete and Earl," by Richard Butner, takes me back to more familiar SF ground. In this story, a young woman visits her mother and Mrs. Stone–the mother of a late childhood friend. The two, vastly different, families are linked by an act of heroism performed by the narrator's father, and by the exchange of "special friends"–emotionally incomplete clones used as servants. Pete and Earl, the two special friends owned by the two aging women, are eerie mechanisms for exploring charged personal and class relationships and the terrible force of guilt.
I have heard a lot about the writing of Jay Lake, but had never actually read any of it until "A Conspiracy of Dentists." I'm not certain if I was disappointed or impressed. The story is a brief reminiscence by a fourteen-year-old boy about his grandfather, a dentist, and is awash with fantastic imagery. The piece seems adrift in time–the imagery is too fantastic for an adolescent, it seems to me, yet also too erudite. Still, it is beautifully written and very evocative. I won't hesitate to read more by this author.
"Felix Soutré, Puppeteer: an Abandoned Article" is even more puzzling. Matthew Latkiewicz certainly has an ambitious and adaptable theme on his hands in this examination of the life and achievements of the greatest of puppeteers, but I'm not sure if the prose style meshes completely with the subject. Felix's forays in the world of puppetry are revolutionary, leading to first an emphasis on the strings between puppeteer and puppet, and then their destruction. His interaction with the audience–one member of it, in particular–is even more ground-breaking, but the combination of personal anecdote and academic essay through which the story is told makes it needlessly complicated.
In "The Half-Fey House," J. Cox constructs an attractive, if not exactly groundbreaking, fantasy. His descriptions of coastal Scotland made me sappily nostalgic, though, so I enjoyed the story of an ailing man finding an unexpected succor in the land of his ancestors.
Devon Monk's "Beer with a Hamster Chaser" is an even lighter entry, but a funny one. A couple of physics students use a "hamster-bulb-reality-blur contraption" in an attempt to create a hamster-powered "blink" into an alternate reality–one in which Gerald is guaranteed free beer by being able to set his sister up with a favored bartender. While Gerald doesn't exactly get what he wants, he fares pretty well in the aftermath of the experiment, as does his friend Carla. The hamster, on the other hand, doesn't.
"Sun," by V. Anne Arden, is as fleeting as its subject–a young boy straining for a glimpse of the sun, chastened by the well-known warning that if he looks directly at the sun he will go blind. In simple words and just a few sketches, Arden conveys many moods and images successfully.
Brad Fetzer tells a disturbingly offbeat story in "Careless Liza: a Fairy Tale." He certainly has the tone of children's fairy tales down right, but his "heroine," Liza, who is so careless that the baby in her care is literally devoured by a badger, is no Snow White. A traditional fairy tail might have ended with Liza's negligence repaid by a trip to some witch's pot, but in this one Liza compounds the situation by stealing new babies to replace the one she has lost. The fact that this solution pleases Liza's parents (although not working out well for Liza) gives the story the quality of a fable about political-economy.
Issue 14 of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet comes to a close with a more traditional fantasy, "The Enchanted Trousseau," by Deborah Roggie. Rather predictably, the wise mother of the tale is the only person who senses that her daughter's upcoming marriage to a charming sorcerer will turn into a disaster, and she saves the day with her homey spells. The conclusion of the story does add a new wrinkle to the formula by following up on the "happily ever after," exposing its dark underside.
Exploring the dark underside of traditional story types, in many ways, is what Grant and Link do so well. In Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, nothing is ever as it seems.