Zahir: Unforgettable Tales, #4, Summer 2004

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"Next Sunday at the Bazaar" by David Evans Katz
"Old Ferry Crossings" by Kiel Stuart
"Bell of the Clan" by Mark Mellon
"Abraham's Guest" by Sonia Taaffe
"Perdition of the Carp" by Gryffyd Eamonn Dempsey
"Song of the Frog Prince" by Karen Simpson Nikakis
"The Adventure of the Stone-God" by S. Sarkar
"The Silver Rain" by Stephanie Stigers
"Wrath of the Wind" by Fank Andreotti

Holy disjointed literature, Batman! Rather than sputter and soap box in the first paragraph, let's just dive in, shall we?

Editor Sheryl Tempchin made a good decision leading Zahir with David Evans Katz's story "Next Sunday at the Bazaar." It is, by far, the best story in the issue. Near Salzburg there exists a secret Bazaar known to and frequented only by the very rich in search of treasure. It is there that the protagonist, Falsch, a discriminating man, happens upon the long lost piano of a famous composer and burns with desire to possess it at any cost. The piano comes with a warning from its original owner, which Falsch ignores, to his near ruin. This is a masterful ghost story about the power objects hold over not just our imagination but also perhaps our soul. Katz's writing is top-notch, his story engrossing, learned, and skillfully executed.

"Old Ferry Crossings" by Kiel Stuart is also about the power of objects. I agree with Stuart that objects do connect us to our past. When viewed or held, objects that belonged to a grandparent bring childhood memories flooding back. Objects can feel like friends and their familiarity make us feel safe. Unfortunately, this idea is not a story in itself and Ms. Stuart fails to make it one. The writing felt self-indulgent. By that I mean it felt as if it had more to do with the emotional needs of the writer than the demands of the story. Worse, since Stuart was apparently unsure that she'd gotten her theme across to the reader, she placed it in italics within the body of the text.

Mark Mellon's story "Bell of the Clan" is steeped in the folklore of Ireland. Mellon either knows Gaelic or did a respectable job of convincing the reader that he does. The story is packed with references to Irish myths: the house of the Red Branch to which Culchulain belonged; Tir na Nog, the land of youth where the fairy Niamh lived with the bard Oisen for 300 years; and, of course, the land of the Sidhe beneath Loughleagh. Stolen by the daoine sidhe (fairy people) it is beneath Loughleagh that the bell of clan Ua Niall has been taken. Lord Eochaid sends his nineteen-year-old son, Diarmuid, to retrieve it. This is the bell of St. Patrick's will, and it was Holy Padraig "…who brought death to the eternal Sidhe with his cross and new faith." The boy falls in love with Niamh and she offers him her love and eternal youth upon Tir na Nog but he refuses, as it is his duty to return the bell. In the end, the Lord of the Sidhe's disgruntled brother purposely unveils the bell before Diarmuid can remove it, and it once more brings death to the "good people." The story remains true to the style of the original Irish tales. (It also harkens back to a story published in Dublin and London magazine, 1825, called "Loughleagh (Lake of Healing)" in which a widow's dun cow is stolen by the fairies and taken beneath Loughleagh, and her son is sent to retrieve it.)

On the one hand, I would say this piece was scholarly and well integrated. On the other hand, the writer (and more unfortunately, the editor) does not know how to punctuate dialogue correctly. Worse, the text sported an abundance of mixed metaphors, point of view shifts, inconsistent time references, and "as you know, Bob" dialogue. The reader was alternately bored and then bludgeoned, as in the next to last paragraph when Mr. Mellon states: "The power of Saint Padraig's bell dissolved the Sidhe magic." Er, dah. To say that this story would have benefited from another editorial pass would be a gross understatement.

I enjoyed Sonia Taaffe's vignette "Abraham's Guest" primarily because I prefer a light touch, and her writing is very smooth. A woman opens her front door during a snowstorm to find a lost angel on her doorstep. She knows, without question, what he is when she invites him in and offers him cocoa. Why is she allowed to recognize him, she wonders? It breaks the pattern of Abraham, who did not know his guest was an angel until the next day, and of the Roman tradition of Baukis and Philemon, who offered hospitality without knowledge that their guests were the gods Jupiter and Mercury. In both instances the gods/God reward these mortals' hospitality and generosity. Perhaps, the reader speculates, her recognition is the point. A changing pattern implies an ongoing interaction between "the universe" and man. The lingering scent of the angel, long after he's gone, is like a reminder of an unseen presence.

Things pick up a bit with Gryffd Eamonn Dempsey's lively "The Perdition of the Carp." Dempsey manages to integrate some pretty wacky, imaginative ideas, while alternating points of view between an alien and a human woman. Alternating viewpoints in a short piece is risky, but his success creates an entertaining story. I liked the alien's dilemma, the strange situation, and that he gives humans the survival tenacity of cockroaches. We infest our conqueror's planet like vermin. Yeah.

I found "Song of the Frog Prince" by Karen Simpson Nikakis disappointing. It could have been a good piece. The story is told from the point of view of the frog, which was interesting, and the descriptions of his watery world were lush and convincing. She provided motivation for the frog's actions, etc. Unfortunately, the reader is moving happily along with the frog in the frog's present when Nikakis suddenly shifts to the frog telling us his experiences in past tense while he speculates about whether a wizard has enchanted him! For the reader, this shift occurs while the frog is still a frog. This knocked me completely out of the piece and caused me to flip pages thinking I'd missed something vital.

"The Adventure of the Stone-God" by S. Sarkar emulates a 19th century travel log (i.e., paradise and a lot of description). Okay, the description is nice, but we are told this story rather than shown it. There is no tension. There is nothing at stake. The science fictional element is presented as an end in itself rather than as a tool to express some idea, point, or insight.

In "The Silver Rain" Stephanie Stigers expends a lot of effort creating symbols and rhythms through the repetition of words and colors. There are hints at a past trauma that is never completely revealed. The reader is in the head of someone who may or may not be nuts. There is a flood, which may be real or simply a metaphor for the need to wipe out the past and start anew. Or perhaps it's simply a dream, with the disjointed images a glimpse of the subconscious at work. It's left for the reader to decide.

"Wrath of the Wind" by Frank Andreotti reads like an episode of the Twilight Zone. A "weird for weird sake" story that only works if you don't actually think about it. In short, a Greyhound passenger gets off a bus in severe weather and goes into a bar. While in the bar he confides in the bartender that two years earlier he fell while ascending the Matterhorn. During the fall, the four winds appeared to him as beautiful sisters and made him swear that if they saved him he would remain with them the rest of his days. He swears, he's saved, and then thinking he's experienced a fear induced hallucination leaves the mountain. Since that day bad weather has followed him wherever he goes. Thus, he's enroute (I inferred from somewhere in the Midwestern US) to Switzerland to return to the mountain to fulfill his promise.

If you have talent and technical prowess you can make anything work. (I once read a story by Lucius Shepard in which he had the equivalent of flying apple fritters attack a village. How he got that to work I will never know, but work it did.) Andreotti on the other hand is still struggling with some basic skills. First, "Wrath of the Wind" is told from the bartender's point of view. This is a mistake. The bartender has no stake in the situation and is unchanged by the encounter. Second, the story does not survive the most basic questions of logic, and the result is an inability on the reader's part to suspend disbelief. Third, the writing is not as tight as a five-page story requires. Andreotti devotes nearly half a page to an exchange between the bartender and mountain climber about the weather stopping when the bus pulls out that could have been accomplished in two sentences (maybe one). He awkwardly inserts the definition of "crampon" as if without that information the reader would not be able to understand the situation. I could go on, but I won't.

In all fairness everyone is looking for something different when reading a story. I've read brilliant stories which other reviewers found pedestrian. However, that said, my overall opinion of this issue is negative. It's not good enough to be in love with language and be able to turn a pretty phrase, it's not good enough to have a clever idea, it's not good enough to be well read, to be a writer you have to be able to tell a story and for a piece of writing to be a story something has to be at stake. There has to be tension. Something or someone has to change. There should be a point. Please God at least let there be a point, or some illumination of the human character, or a question raised for the reader to savor and ponder. The thing I most love about science fiction and fantasy is that they are tremendously powerful vehicles for examining concepts, beliefs, and feelings that can't be dealt with or illuminated in other ways. With the exception of the Katz and Dempsey stories, you're just not going to find much here.