NFG, #6 Winter 2004/Spring 2005

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"The B9ers" by Neil Smith
Image"Never in the House" by Bruce Holland Rogers
"Strange Love, Doctor" by Mike Coombes
"Gangsta Massive" by Mark Turley
"Perdido" by Judith Beck
"Second Coming" by PJ Woodside
"Flies in the Morning or The Modern Man" by Jan Pace
"This Global Business" by John Leary
"A Fond Memory of Lovingkindness" by Antonios Maltezos
"The Great 69er Contest" 16 shorts by various authors

"Red Coat" by Terri Brown-Davidson
An undercurrent of darkness and despair ripples through the Winter 2004/Spring 2005 issue #6 of NFG.  The stories are horror, rather than speculative fiction, with few exceptions.

In the opener, "The B9ers," the protagonist, John Smith, has recently had a benign tumor removed from his left testicle.  He starts a support group for others with such tumors, hence the story’s title.  In this mainstream, cleverly-penned short story, Neil Smith outlines the exploits of an eclectic group of people who are simply nice.  So pleasant, in fact, that they feel the need to help persuade people who have strayed from a righteous life back onto a path of good citizenship.  Smith (Neil not John) examines the aspect of human nature that we all try to avoid: admitting our flaws.  As far as tumors go, a benign one is a relief, a piece of good fortune, after all it’s not the big "C."  But John Smith must come to terms with his body’s malfunction on his own terms.  The text is very simple and down-to-Earth, a man-on-the-street story about average people.  A hidden subtext provides insights of imagery that linger beyond the end of the piece.  It’s worth a first and second read.

Bruce Holland Rogers‘s short-short "Never in the House" packs a cohesive tale efficiently and cleverly into a small package.  Audrey graphs variables representing her ex-boyfriends, age, and marriage proposals against the variable time and discovers an alarming trend.  So she imagines her perfect lover and constructs him into her life.  Only after investing in this artificial man can she objectively judge the merits of the real men in her life.  The characters in this piece exude firmly believable qualities.  I wanted the best for Audrey and felt a sense of pride in her tenacious ability to gain power over the uncontrollable elements of her life.  The story packs a punch of concentrated human vulnerability and resilience.

"Strange Love, Doctor" by Mike Coombes takes a dark tour of two disturbed young souls.  Sarah is tormented by her solitary, insignificant existence and so takes to cutting herself.  She slices line after parallel line up her arm until "she is wearing a long red glove."  David surrounds himself with images of pain—from photographs to videos.  He works in an emergency room, reveling in the death and pain around him, stealing photographs of an autopsy from the pathology lab.  David discovers his neighbor, Sarah, in the hallway and their secret passions become intertwined in a tragic and erotic spiral.  Coombes switches point of view back and forth between Sarah and David, providing the reader an intimate view of the depth that a person will fall to relieve the numbness that permeates their psyche.  This story deftly combines desperation, yearning, and loneliness into a chilling tapestry of modern horror.

The short-short "Gangsta Massive" by Mark Turley is a study of the world of "gangsta."  From the language to the backdrop, from the names to the hierarchy, Turley cuts a frozen slice of life to examine on the microscope of judgment.  He makes a statement by the end of the piece that is inevitable and chilling, but it’s more of a situation than a story.  The heavy vernacular unfortunately slows the read.

Following on Gangsta heels, "Perdido" by Judith Beck is another short-short in the issue that paints a harshly real picture of the complexities of sex, intimacy, and teenage angst in East L.A.  Pricey loses her virginity then analyzes the act and all of its disappointments.  Beck poses the question: If your first experience is particularly unmemorable, then should your virginity remain intact?  Compared to the other "troubled youth" stories in the issue, this one comes up short with less emotional power. 

The most elegant and radiant piece in the issue is "Second Coming" by PJ Woodside.  Marty, that’s "Mary with a cross in it" is chosen to bear a genetically altered boy who may be the next Jesus.  For ten years she and her husband Raul nurture young Angelo in the hopes that he will be chosen as the new savior by the One Church.  The world is troubled by "Terrorists, the Genetics War [and] the Resurrections" and so the people are desperate for a new spiritual leader.  The tale is told through the eyes of Marty, who is torn between what is best for her special son and for the world.  Woodside’s prose is lyrical and intelligent, posing difficult questions and uncovering corruption and elitism in even the most righteous of clothes.  The story speaks of religion without preaching, capturing the essence of faith without commercialism.  It quietly reaffirms priorities that often are forgotten in our busy lives.  Woodside, like Robert J. Sawyer, has a knack for combining science and religion in a believable package.

Jan Pace‘s "Flies in the Morning or The Modern Man" is a psychological roller coaster ride through the life of Mr. Bosman.  The man stalks his blond neighbor, slacks off at work, and is preoccupied with the houseflies that populate his apartment.  Fastidious cleaning does not dissuade the filthy flyers, so Bosman gives in and names the critters.  When he gets up the nerve to ask the blond up to his apartment for dinner, the plot takes a twist in a darker direction.  Pace’s narrative is stream-of-consciousness through the eyes of a man who has abandoned reason.  Though the images are jumpy, the story flows easily—a quick read with a logical though somewhat random path to the surprising ending.  I didn’t see the twist coming, although I probably should have since Pace dropped enough clues.  I was too involved in Bosman’s idiosyncrasies to take a step back and view the whole image.  The darkness and simultaneous luminosity of this piece allows it to fit snugly into the issue. 

John Leary‘s "This Global Business" follows the narrator all over the world as he facilitates various negotiations.  Each time, his mail-order bride phones him to ask questions about the nature of various components of American culture.  She has decided she will stay in the U.S. until she understands all that interests her about the country.  Every place the narrator travels, he is approached by a local and asked a question about rumors of great and unimaginable feats of magic that they have heard occur in his home country.  The story has a broad appeal; I felt as though I had traveled the world along with the protagonist.  The progression of his bride from innocent to savvy adds a depth and realism to the piece that illustrates the true contrast between the U.S. and less commercialized countries.  The message at the end gives the story an extra quality; rejuvenating faith in the strength of the human spirit.

In the short-short, "A fond Memory of Lovingkindness," Antonios Maltezos describes the indescribable—the feeling of a child losing their innocence and the effect it has on the child’s mother.  I found the piece poignant, though it was more a vignette than a story.  With few words, the setting is laid out before the reader and the emotion peaks to a satisfying climax. 

NFG sponsors a contest each issue called "The Great 69er."  Writers submit a story of exactly sixty-nine words and readers are encouraged to vote online for their favorite.  The previous issue’s winner is printed on the back cover.  Issue #6 included sixteen entries.  My choices from the pile are: "Clean-up in Aisle Four" by Rebecca Wolfe (oh, the embarrassment), "Perseverance" by Jenny L. Collins (cute with gumption), "Purification" by John Borneman (DNA manipulation gone to the extremes), "Clean-up in Laboratory Five" by Bruce Holland Rogers (a great, twisted humor story), and "Temptation" by Swapna Kishore (biblical retelling).

The last story, "Red Coat" by Terri Brown-Davidson is the intensely personal story of Dianne, a photographer who lives in the New York City subway for days at a time, befriending the homeless so that she may capture their essence on film.  She meets a man in a red coat and extracts his story—his reason for living a life outside the world of normality.  Brown-Davidson has a knack for portraying the disposable members of society.  She intertwines the urges and art of the photographer and her subject, until the line between professionalism and obsession is blurred.  Layer upon layer of social injustice build as the story unfolds, until hope nearly evaporates, though the characters possess an inner strength that could one day be enough for them to shed their shackles of pain.  The atmosphere of the story is Gibson-esque, yet the promise of redemption is so subdued that the piece has a literary feel.

Overall, the issue highlights many dark corners of the human psyche.  "Second Coming" stood out as my favorite, likely due to its uplifting theme.  I love a good horror story, making "Strange Love, Doctor" and "Flies in the Morning or The Modern Man" disturbing entertainment for me.  Finally, Neil Smith’s "The B9ers" wins points for pulling off eclectic comedy; a difficult feat for any writer.