"Basement Magic" by Ellen Klages
"The Refuge Elsewhere" by Robert Sheckley
"Protect Yourself at All Times" by Bruce Jay Friedman
"The Incredible Steam Man" by Ron Goulart
"Luz" by Arthur Porges
"Incursions" by Kit Reed
"The Curse of the Von Krumpelsteins and Other Horrors: Contents of Volume I" by John Morressy
"The Retriever" by Harvey Jacobs
"555" by Robert Reed
Ellen Klages on stage is a riotously funny woman. I defy anyone to sit through one of her stints as auctioneer for the Tiptree Award and not end up gasping for breath from laughing too hard. When she puts a pen in her hand, though, Klages goes after something quite different. I have yet to read a story of hers in which one or more of the characters did not touch me on a deep emotional level. "Basement Magic"–in which a little girl confronts a modern version of the wicked stepmother with the help of a rather different kind of fairy godmother–is no exception. When Klages writes "Mary Louise sits very still and doesn't turn the page, because it is stiff paper and might make a noise" I can feel the girl's fear. "Basement Magic" is full of moments like that, all woven into a satisfying story.
Two authors named Reed (who are, as far as I know, unrelated) tell disturbing stories about modern life. In "Incursions," Kit Reed gives us a man yelling into his cell phone on the commuter train into New York. But Dave Travers is not a regular commuter; he's a man sick of his life traveling into the city to interview for a ridiculous job for which he is in no way qualified. Sitting there, thinking that being in a void would be nice, he suddenly gets off the train when all the doors pop open.What he discovers after that will make you think uncomfortably about your own feelings of being trapped and looking for a way out.
Robert Reed gives us another relative nonentity in "555": Joan, secretary to an important woman in what seems to be a soap opera world. Opportunity comes knocking for Joan, and she does something surprising with it. Reed's story will make you reflect both on office politics and what really makes a person alive. The tone of this story is quite lighthearted, but I found it haunting me all the same.
I came to Robert Sheckley's "The Refuge Elsewhere" having recently read Michael Moorcock's rave about him on the Night Shade Books Discussion Board. (To see what Moorcock and other Sheckley fans have to say, go to http://www.nightshadebooks.com/discus and click on "Robert Sheckley".) After reading the story, I can see why Moorcock is a fan. Sheckley manages to merge corporate crime and the Witness Protection Program with the world of faerie, and ends up in a place you were not expecting. In lesser hands, these improbabilities might founder, but Sheckley makes them all hold together nicely.
Bruce Jay Friedman's "Protect Yourself at All Times" is the summary of a man's life, told as he watches a hard-fought boxing match on television. Philip Collins has been a serious boxing fan all his life, and he gets completely into the match. These few pages tell us a lot about the man, and the bend in reality makes the story more real, rather than less.
Ron Goulart's "The Incredible Steam Man" is a pleasant romp that pays homage to various tropes of the late Victorian era in which it is set. We get a British inventor producing an automaton, a spunky young woman, a magician who perhaps isn't a charlatan, spies from suitably obscure Eastern European countries, and an intrepid American detective. It's a nice way to while away some time.
Arthur Porges's "Luz" uses the veneer of scientific rigor to play with the religious concept of free will. Set up as the diary of a medical examiner who has figured out something that has always puzzled students of human anatomy, the story plays with old tales out of Jewish theology (or possibly mythology). Porges's twist is a bit different from the classical idea.
"The Retriever" by Harvey Jacobs is built around a man who can retrieve those things we all lose along the way: the missing earring, the special toy. Joe Luna is a rather disgusting man with a sports fetish; his client, Aurora, isn't especially likeable herself. But Joe finds Aurora's high school necklace, and sets things in motion. I found this story very intriguing, but I didn't understand the ending, which took a lot of the pleasure out of it for me. I could see what happened, but I couldn't figure out the why. Perhaps other readers will have better luck.
I really wanted to like John Morressy's "The Curse of the Von Rumpelsteins and Other Horrors: Contents of Volume I." The story consists of one-paragraph summaries of each chapter of the first volume of a fantasy (or is it science fiction?) trilogy. Even fans of these books know that over-stuffed trilogies are just begging to be satirized. But, alas, this satire suffered from the same problem as many of the trilogies: It was boring. I'm sure it was part of the point to mention a large number of things in one chapter summary that were never seen again in the others, and I'm sure it was tempting to use lines from Form 1040, but after the first three summary chapters, my eyes glazed over. I think this could have been funny at something under 1,000 words, but 2,500 were way too many.
Nancy Jane Moore has stories forthcoming in 3SF and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and in three anthologies: Imaginings; Mota 3: Courage; and Imagination Fully Dilated.