"The Penultimate Riddle" by Richard Parks
"A Statement in the Case" by Theodora Goss
"The Queen’s Wood" by Josh Rountree
"A Bedtime Tale for the Disenchanted" by Amy Beth Forbes
"The Secret of the Broken Tickers" by Joe Murphy
"Countless Screaming Argonauts" by Chris Lawson
"When the Dragon Falls" by Patrick Samphire
The first story, “The Penultimate Riddle” by Richard Parks, while not the strongest piece, sets the tone for the rest of the issue nicely. It is the story of Leontas, a man with questions. He seeks out the sphinx, Helena, to answer his questions fully aware of the price of meeting a sphinx.
Helena and Leontas verbally dance around one another in a kind of accelerated courtship. He answers a riddle, always with the possibility of death if he answers wrong, then asks Helena a question to which she must answer truthfully. With each round, they become more comfortable with each other.
The story works as a metaphor for the early stages of a romantic relationship. The metaphor fails in the end due to too much reality intruding on the careful back and forth between the two characters. The transition is too abrupt. I did like the reference to Oedipus. And though Parks doesn’t offer it as a part of the story, I had to wonder if Leontas might end as badly.
I’m not quite sure what it is about Theodora Goss’s writing that I like so much, but every time I read one of her stories, I am drawn in. “A Statement in the Case” is no exception. It is told as a statement to a police officer by a local guy, named Mike, after a fire decimates the corner pharmacy. The pharmacy is owned by Istvan Horvath, a Hungarian immigrant who is a friend of Mike’s.
Istvan’s wife is a younger woman who cared for Istvan’s mother in Hungary. Istvan brings her to the United States after his mother dies. Their relationship is uncomfortable and Goss illustrates their differing philosophies of life in the New World effectively. The ending is beautiful and a little horrific. The focus on the Horvath’s relationship made the revelation at the end all the more chilling. And the end is truly disturbing in a way that questions our carefully structured reality. I really enjoyed this one.
“The Queen’s Wood” by Josh Rountree did not draw me in as quickly. Marabelle and Nicholas the Witness are on a religious quest. Marabelle is to travel to battle the Turion, and then sacrifice herself so that her king will have everlasting life. The pair support each other.
“A Bedtime Tale for the Disenchanted” by Amy Beth Forbes is an odd little tale. The main character, Jeta, asks a shaman to turn her wayward lover into a tree, but things don’t turn out as she planned.
Forbes’ tale works on many levels. On the surface is Jeta’s attempt to hold on to her man in spite of what he wants. Underneath is the question of consequences for fundamentally altering the nature of a person. Forbes is able to manipulate these complicated ideas into a lushly magical and compelling story.
“The Secret of the Broken Tickers” by Joe Murphy is my favorite story of the issue. Is it just me, or are clockwork farmhands and cars universally appealing—especially in Texas? It is the story of Sprokly Maezel and her extraordinary family. Her mother has a bad ticker, her grandfather always says the opposite of what he means, and her brother has just brought his college girlfriend, Sylvine, home against orders.
I loved this story from the first sentence to the last. It has a hint of fantasy, science fiction, and tall tale all rolled into to one. Murphy captures the essence of country folk who are clever enough to invent their own solutions to problems, independent of the outside world. The Maezel family are crafty, and, in their way, more advanced than Sylvine is capable of believing. This is a bittersweet story about what being a family means, and the sacrifices one makes for someone they love.
"Countless Screaming Argonauts" by Chris Lawson is a long tale that intertwines the destruction of the Kolossus of Rhodes, the fate of Polyphemos, the Kyclops blinded by Odysseus, and the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. To attempt to synopsize this intricate story would only do it a disservice. Much like its source material, "Countless Screaming Argonauts" unfolds over a long period of time, with elements and characters who influence the outcome from decades earlier and miles away.
In the middle of all this is Jason. While not the brightest of men during quieter times, during the heat of an adventure he becomes a hero. What is a hero without an adventure? Lawson’s answer seems to be that there is always an adventure somewhere and all the hero has to do is find it. The setup is a little long, but essential. The end is uplifting, in a not quite perfect way that I enjoyed.
"When the Dragon Falls" by Patrick Samphire is a quiet story that examines the transformation of a child into an adult. The main character, Tam, is on his summer vacation. He’s discovered the fossilized remains of a dinosaur, that his little sister insists is a dragon, in the bank overlooking the lake they are vacationing on with another family.
This isn’t a flashy story, and the subject matter isn’t groundbreaking, but it is well-written and deeply authentic. Its strength lies in Samphire’s ability to evoke the strong sense of regret of Tam’s growing up. I’ve read many coming of age stories that glory in the accomplishment of catapulting out of childhood. This isn’t one of them. Tam’s grim determination to do what he must is not a joyous conquest. It’s something more important than that; it is true.