Carrie Vaughn’s bailiwick appears to be the werewolf tale, and here she tells a rural one in "Looking After Family." Teenager Cormac Bennett goes to live with his cousin, Ben, and his family after Cormac kills the man who killed his father on a hunting trip. While it was an animal that attacked Cormac’s father, after Cormac shot it, he reverted to human form. Cormac is a mysterious, quiet boy, while Ben is a sickly asthmatic whose parents won’t let him go outside. On the night of the full moon, Ben accompanies his cousin on the werewolf hunt.
Told in lean yet vivid strokes, Vaughn makes the rural setting so real you can easily imagine yourself in it. While the plot is rather predictable, the humanness of the piece shines through in the end. I especially enjoyed the way the author round-robined back and forth between Cormac and Ben. The two boys are really night and day, and that gave the story an added dimension it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Chuck Rothman offers a science fantasy in "Spare Change." Roger was a successful banker until one day he offered a beggar woman a fifty-dollar bill and she accidentally tagged him as the next down-and-out victim perpetrated by the Great Conspiracy known as Them. Nowadays, Roger takes her place as a homeless panhandler, and life couldn’t be worse. Enter Smith, one of Them. Smith takes Roger to lunch at a soignée restaurant and tells him it’s his turn to pick who will replace him in the world of pauperdom. What will he do?
This is a brisk, well-written tale with a sympathetic hero who’s easy to care about. I consider this science fantasy only because the Great Conspiracy (known as Them) implants a computer chip in Roger’s nose. Since RoF typically eschews SF tropes, I was surprised by this, but that’s more of an editorial decision than an artistic one. And while the ending was gratifying, I found there to be a leap in logic with regard to how Roger ultimately deals with this fellow Smith. It’s just one of those instances where the perfect ending is impossible to achieve. How does one overcome an omnipotent force? Still, Roger’s punch line is satisfying.
A wisecracking sleuth narrates his latest case in Graham Edwards’s "Syren." Forced to work for utility kingpin Theo Carr, our nameless detective’s task is to find out where the dying man’s son, Donny, has been spending his nights. After the sleuth visits a criminal friend, Jimmy, a time-hopping safecracker hiding in the realm of Enigma, he learns that Donny Carr is frequenting Club Molpe. Bad news, as that means only one thing: Syrens. Back at his office, the sleuth finds Donny waiting for him, begging him to drop the case and not tell his father. The sleuth figures out pretty quickly that the kid’s problem is a dame. And she’s not human.
With all the high-tech gadgetry and extrapolative invention, this has the feel of science fiction, but due to its fantastical nature, this is sheer fantasy. The tough-guy PI cant is well done, though it still bears the limitations of that shopworn convention. Yet the story works quite well, as the author adroitly employs his fantastic gadgetry to aid the sleuth, much like a James Bond movie. The tongue-in-cheek narrative offsets the gritty realism well—a difficult balancing act where Edwards never falters. Entertaining with innovative world-building.
Eugie Foster’s title alone, "The Devil and Mrs. Comstock’s Snickerdoodles," is one I won’t soon forget. The setup is fairly routine, however. Byron Lewis is a reporter for the Daily Gazette, assigned to report the outrageous. His editor has sent him out on another wacko assignment to investigate some supernatural claim by the typical loonies who report such impossibilities. After Byron is shown in, Mr. and Mrs. Comstock, who live with a fat, tortoiseshell-colored cat the size of a basketball, tell him that the Devil himself is residing in their house. They’ve called him Mr. Bane ever since the day he followed them home from a homeowners association meeting. The only reason they’re upset is that Mr. Bane insists they not leave the house for long, so it’s impossible for them to go on cross-country trips to visit family. Seeking help, they were considering posting something on the Internet, but are leery of the sort of loonies that might attract. Therefore, they called the Daily Gazette.
I figured out pretty quickly who the Devil really was, and frankly I was expecting this story to end with a dull thud. But Foster is too clever for that. Unfortunately, I can’t spill the ending, but in the last few paragraphs, this story takes an unexpected turn, and the whimsicality of the tale turns dark and ominous. Most stories of this kind end with a droll punch line that often backfires. This one ended with a world-shaking roar.
Next is Jay Lake’s "Number of the Bus." Eleutherio is a transit wizard, or he will be someday. Now he’s only twelve years old. Eleutherio is bound to the metropolitan bus he has a magical relationship with, as is Pretty McTeague, a drunken pedestrian who was run over by it and whose spirit now resides there. In the opening scene, she asks Eleutherio why he’s on the bus, but when the boy exits out the back to get a taco for lunch, a live version of Pretty McTeague is getting on in front. He tries to chase after the bus, but is left behind. Since Eleutherio is the bus’s wizard, he should always know where his bus is, except now it’s vanished.
Lake is one of the most imaginative and prolific writers around, but this one didn’t work for me. The story gets off to a rocky beginning due to excessive exposition and infodumping. I found myself having to concentrate too much on how the magic was supposed to work. Frankly, the magical numbering of the buses and other esoteric references seemed forced. So much time was spent covering it, I never felt like I was viscerally on the bus. This story would’ve worked better without all the explanation, as I was left with only a vague idea of how the world worked anyway. While the title is "Number of the Bus," the numbers only served to distance me from the characters.
"Circus Circus" by Eric M. Witchey is about a boy who doesn’t want to grow up to be in the circus; he wants to be a circus. Witchey gives the circus human qualities, so when the boy asks it how he can grow up to be a circus, the circus’s answer is to smile and laugh. Then three village bullies kill him for smiling and laughing at them. Told with omniscient distance, all the characters are kept at arm’s length, but once the story is underway, its magic takes hold. I even grew used to thinking of the circus as a character. The sincerity of the storytelling makes this more than it might have been; the writer had a story worth telling, instead of just a unique framework to hang a narrative upon.
Rural magic dominates Josh Rountree’s "In the Thicket, With Wolves." Maggie is an uneducated, pregnant twenty-year-old who learns that her son will be born with Down’s syndrome. Determined to keep the child, but wanting a healthy baby, she visits her grandmother just outside the east Texas town where she lives. Maw Maw is a herbal witch, of sorts, who warns that though the thicket wolves can give her a healthy baby, the price they’ll exact will be too great. But Maggie doesn’t listen and goes at night to the thicket, lies naked in the foliage, and waits for the wolves to come lick her. No surprises here, but still a compelling tale that had me hooked till the end.