Tales of the Unanticipated #30 — 2010

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“A Twenty-first Century Fairy Love Story” by Jason Sanford
“The Egyptian Cat” by Catherine Lundoff
“Diminuendo” by Cornelius Fontaine
“Right There” by William Ming
“What Goes Around” by Stephen Dedman
“Personal Jesus” by Martin A. Hood
“Beginner’s Luck” by Patricia S. Bowne
“Tacklesmooches” by Douglas J. Lane
“Ashes, Ashes” by Matthew S. Rotundo
“Peeper, Hunting” by Barbara Rosen
“Guess Who’s Coming to Gotterdammerung” by Terry Faust
“The Danger of Her Muse” by T. J. Berg
“Myths and Messerschmitts” by Kurt Kirchmeier
“Sticky” by Patricia Russo
“Patrick and Mr. Bear: A True Story” by Eleanor Arnason
“If You’ve Enjoyed This Story…” by Sarah Totton

Reviewed by C. L. Rossman

The annual anthology Tales of the Unanticipated or TOTU, as it is familiarly called, has come out and is just packed with stories and other good things. With a once-a-year publication, TOTU’s editor Eric Heidiman obviously has to be selective about what goes into it. And here he and the staff have selected 14 pieces of fiction which appeal to a wide array of readers. There are a number of repeat contributors to this issue, including Sarah Totton, William Mingin, Patricia Russo and Eleanor Arnason. They repeat quite often in past issues.

“A Twenty-first Century Fairy Love Story” by Jason Sanford, one of the anthology’s four novelettes, is the poignant fantasy of the love between Aithne Glaistig and Gilliam Dhu, two fairies who have moved from their ancient land in Scotland to Chicago, living happily, until one day Aithne is struck down by a mugger’s iron crowbar and Gill cannot save her. In her last act, she gives him her fairy heart, to implant in a worthy mortal so he can find love again. For six months he mourns, then one day, happening to be in a hospital looking at the newborn babies, he sees a little girl dying of cocaine withdrawal, inherited from her mother’s habit.  Gill cannot understand humans’ cruelty; and he saves the baby girl by giving her the fairy heart. His next undertaking is huge: he finds the addicted mother and tries to redeem her from her fallen ways. Ria stoutly resists, believing no-one can be kind who doesn’t want something from her, but Gill persists, until finally he has won Ria’s heart, too.

Yet while the baby (named Aithne like his late wife) grows normally, she will remain almost ageless as an adult—as will Gill, who still has his fairy heart. But Ria ages normally, and Gill has to face a hard decision—will he lose another woman he loves? The solution is neat, poignant and satisfying—and the story itself worked out how the fey could live in a modern city and still avoid the deadly kiss of cold iron.  There are vivid images of Gill dressed in his suit of leaves (normally hidden from human eyes through a glamour) sinking down into his private enchanted pond to re-gather his strength and spend his time in mourning.

“What Goes Around” by Stephan Dedman. What goes around in this short science fiction story is an artificial comet, which has returned to near Earth’s orbit. It bears a lot of data, gathered out there at the edges of the Oort Cloud; and scientists Leila and Allen (estranged husband and wife) are eager to get the telemetered data. One problem: the United States now has a totalitarian government (complete with a bureau of revisionist history) and will not allow the data retrieval to be triggered. When Leila goes to her military chief, he promptly decides to use the comet for target practice! Now Leila and her new girlfriend Jordan have to figure out a way to get some secret missile codes and disrupt the missiles from hitting their target. In return, they would like a small favor from Allen. This is a tightly-woven little story which only gives us a few glimpses of what it might be like to live under a totalitarian religious regime.

“Personal Jesus” by Martha A. Hood. I’ve read a number of  “Jesus” stories lately in speculative fiction, both pro and con, but none so nicely handled as this one. A statue of Jesus at a local church has the priest, Father John, rather nervous. He senses there is more to it than plaster.  It’s quite convenient when the statue explodes and flies away. Instead, the pieces land in a neighbor’s yard—Deborah, who, though not a believer, feels compelled to glue the statue back together again.  She’s just been listening to Johnny Cash’s song, “Personal Jesus,” which has affected her. What happens after she has a full-blown statue of Jesus in her living room is a lesson in religious intolerance. Both Father John and her devout brother Thom criticize her for it, especially when she lets a pair of local ladies come in and worship. Deborah doesn’t feel it’s a big deal, and immediately we see that Deborah’s tolerance is far greater than theirs. Until finally, its mission accomplished, the statue departs via a mysterious wind, which doesn’t harm another thing in the house, and is tossed back through the living room window to the church it came from, where Father John has to make another decision: does he really want a statue infused with Jesus back on the church’s lawn? Or would he rather have his nice, orderly religious doctrine again? Bet you can guess the answer.

One of the most interesting “sidetracks” in “The Egyptian Cat” by Catherine Lundorf, is the main character’s profession—she edits anthologies of Lovecraftian cat tales. She’s currently doing Hairballs Over Innsmouth! The last one was Catnip and Hashish.

And because her writers are all cat lovers, they take rejection personally and she has to be careful about opening her mail. When she gets a box in the mail and can’t hear any ticking, she opens it to reveal a black stone statuette of an Egyptian cat—probably Bastet.

Life takes a quick twist when her long-lost friend and lover, Rashida Simmons, appears on her doorstep, and claims she has to perform a special rite and needs the cat statue to continue. They have to go to Rashida’s family mausoleum and fend off the servants of Set—as demanded in the late mother’s letter to her daughter. It certainly is an interesting plot turn to get the two young women together again… A little terror tale with a flavoring of humor deftly overlaid, I found myself intrigued as to where someone could get those strange cat anthologies like Kitties in the Witch House!.

“Beginner’s Luck” by Patricia S. Bowne takes us to a fantasy place she’s written about before: academe with magic. Anders Regan, a member of the International Society for Arcane Biology, represents a middle-ground in demonology between the Old Guard and the New Herbalists, despite his conservatism, and he’s been popular enough to be immortalized in the Society’s annual T-shirt and poster printings. That is, until the day an inspector shows up at his door and says they’re investigating a plant pornography ring—and his name came up—in regards to those t-shirts and a calendar featuring dryads with his picture on it.  Regan explains these are merely door prizes given away at the society’s annual get-together.  But later, he does something that puts him smack in the spotlight as the accused. Finding a dryad weeping over her storm-split and dying birch, he offers her a new tree—she can choose any potted one in his greenhouse and live with it all its life.

But then a harmless-enough idea comes to Regan: why not take the dryad to the society’s next meeting and introduce her around?  Tell of what a good deed he did? Oops, bad idea, since the group thinks he is using the (female) dryad for nefarious purposes and promptly shun him.  The dryad herself is intrigued by the  occasion, until she discovers the “forestry” section of the displays–with its model axes, chainsaws and other tree-murdering devices—and promptly disappears. The kicker of the story comes when Regan’s supporters find a way to restore his lost credibility—and maybe make him a god as well. I was wondering if another title wouldn’t serve this story better. “Beginner’s Luck” is kind of hackneyed and it doesn’t really give us insight into the complexities going on here.

I thought the most unusual part of this story was the concept of “green slavery” and the outcry against dryads being abused like human women, only with no law to protect them. Distasteful as that thought is, if we lived in a world with tree spirits, you can bet some deviant would have thought of it.

“Tacklesmooches” by Douglas L. Lane—yes, you read that right, the word is “Tacklesmooches.” And the story starts out with the typical smaller, wimpy kid being bullied in school. Joey is being bullied by Donnie and a group of his friends, with a little twist—Donnie’s girlfriend Claire seems to have it in for Joey, even though he doesn’t like to talk to her. She tells Donnie that Joey’s insulted her; and Donnie acts on it. After one particularly rough session, Joey learns that there is one girl at school, nicknamed Tacklesmooches, whom nobody dares bully.  She launches herself at her tormentors and knocks them down and kisses them. This is bad?  Well, afterwards, it seems, the victims’ minds are gone. This is somebody I’ve got to know, Joey thinks.

This short vampire-like tale has a unique solution to grade school bullying, which every bullied kid has wished he or she had….not that they’re likely to get it.  I found the title most inventive, but the situations—those of most school bullies, like urinal dunking, etc. a rehash of old information. We could stand to see a motive for Claire’s behavior, too.

“Ashes, Ashes” by Matthew S. Rotundo—is a kind of poignant ghost story. Five years ago, the Window opened on Earth to allow a limited number of dead to return. Nobody knows why. But a beautiful dead woman appears one day in Daniel Branigan’s law office and asks for his help.  Amelia Evers is not someone Branigan knows: he misses his own departed wife, but has never seen her among the returned dead. Yet the woman’s plight attracts him. She wants custody of her (still-living) children. But if she doesn’t agree to put the children on the witness stand, she has no hope of that, Branigan tells her. Depressed, she thinks of exorcism—which will banish her from Earth—but no-one knows whether it will destroy her as well. She has nowhere to go.  Branigan manages to talk her out of it. And so she and the lonely lawyer eventually seek comfort in each other’s companionship. Perhaps that’s the message here: that we must take what little happiness we can from the ashes of our lives.

“Peeper, Hunting” by Barbara Rosen. Cat owners know what odd “gifts” their pets bring  home sometimes, not only birds and mice, but creatures like shrews, moles, the occasional snake. In this short, lighthearted fantasy, John’s cat Peeper brings home  something he can’t identify. It’s small, dark, and strangely flat. Over the next few days, John finally identifies it—a small shadow of some kind. We’re partly prepared for this because the writer tells us there isn’t much to hunt in John’s loft apartment, But once they’ve identified it, John and his friend James have no idea what the shadow is from….until  John sees a strangely listless sparrow hanging around outside and he lifts the thing carefully and put its out. Sure enough, the bird regains its shadow, becomes more energetic and flies off. But if the intrigued cat-owner thinks he’s solved the problem, wait till he sees what Peeper brings home next. A sprightly and imaginative tale.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Gotterdammerung” by Terry Faust.  What would it be like to have the Norse god of thunder living at YOUR house—and eating you out of house and home with his appetite for meat and mead?  Or casually dropping his hammer down the stairs? This entertaining short fantasy based on mythology supposes the mighty Thor has been staying at the home of Harold and Barbara Barnard, long-suffering humans who are playing host to him. What would be the tactful way to get him to move out?

Ah, but there’s a secret here: Thor may not be welcome back among the Aesir—since he had to dress up as Freya for a frost giant’s wedding (in order to ambush them) and well, he got to liking the feel of soft feminine fabric. This is quite an unexpected turn of events and if you take nothing else from this short story, I guarantee the picture of Thor in silky skirt and high-heeled pumps will be one you cannot dislodge from your memory. It does seem to reconcile wife Barbara with the fact of husband Harold’s less-than-perfect physique.

“The Danger of Her Muse” by T. J. Berg. Writers live intensely the lives of their main characters—if they’re any good at what they do; and we’ve had some novels in the recent past where the writer plays with the “what if” his characters became real and stalked this world: Peter Straub with “Mister X” and Stephan King with “The Dark Half,” and “Lisey’s Story.” Now meet Helen Singh, who writes the fearsome Green Monkey Comics—which she has been doing since shortly after she lost her baby, and which her husband Joseph hates. He doesn’t think the Green Monkeys are good for her—but she insists that she has to write them—or something horrible will happen: the stories will get loose in our world. Suddenly his wife winds up in a hospital, getting chemo and facing surgery—but all she can worry about is the Green Monkeys getting loose. Her husband lays it to mental instability.

And then something wonderful happens with this story: the ending takes a turn into another reality—and then another—and so skillfully is it done, that you find yourself buying into it—until you aren’t sure just exactly where the real world is…now that is good writing!

The half-SF, half-fable tale, “Myths and Messerschmitts” by Kurt Kirchmeier takes the old Japanese legend of the Kappa demon, and turns it into a high-tech robot lurks in the alleys of the future. Now, the legendary Kappa  was a demon which could suck out your brains—but could be defeated by a quick-thinking victim with a polite bow—which dumped the demon’s latest cache of brains and made it unable to move—so the victim escaped. This version of the Kappa is a robot with a kind of positronic brain “gel” in its open skull—and the Messerschmitts come in with the main character’s historical interest in them.  Alas, she stays too long at a friend’s house discussing the topic one night and on leaving, is stalked by the demon robot. She opens totally unexpected wings—but it can outfly her.  Once trapped, she tries the old bowing trick—but that doesn’t dislodge the goo. What can she do? And so begins an aerial dogfight as intense as any among the old Messers and Mustangs of WWII. I thought this a highly imaginative story—wherein the author managed to combine the objects of several past cultures and successfully merge them into the story.

Next we come to “Sticky” by Patricia Russo, a horror story about a “stupid little girl” (as her abusive mother calls her), a wise fat lady, and crawling, shadowy, sticky monster stuff. Weird as it is, I salute this one daring to make a fat lady the smart one, and giving the local yahoos exactly what they deserve. I was waiting for the mothers to (spoiler) get scarfed up, but too bad, didn’t happen. We never even get to know the little girl’s name, because, rightfully, the author thought it was more important for us to know what her mother called her. Russo is more or less a regular in TOTU anthologies and her work ranges over a wide array of topics.

“Diminuendo” by Cornelius Fortune, is one of the most creative works in this volume. It addresses Music, the origins and creation of music in the context of a fantastical story about a conductor, Ivan Dolcetta, his orchestra, and a piece of music which he just doesn’t comprehend. It leads us to something completely new—a new idea in a story—which could only have been written by someone who knows music himself.

Conductor Ivan Dolcetta is trying his orchestra on a new composition, written by an unknown. The orchestra is having a lot of trouble playing it, particularly one part. In the midst of this the composer himself appears and asks that the orchestra not play that part until the night of the concert—an unheard-of request.  He then tells Ivan a story, about how a demigod named Canosius-Lim once created Music as a living woman from something called The Wondrous Tide. Music ruled over early humans, forcing them to do her bidding. Then the humans became enraged and killed Music, and all her children were doomed to spend their lives as musical instruments, waiting on humans to give them voice.

When the orchestra finally plays the entire piece, Music is reborn into the world and a triumphant and wondrous tide of now living instruments marches down the streets to reclaim their ancient power.  This is a beautifully-inventive fantasy novelette as abandoned and free as anything Clive Barker has ever written.

“Patrick and Mr. Bear: A True Story” by Eleanor Arnason, is a short-short, a one-pager about a man, Patrick, who works trying to find homeless people to give them medical care and a place to live. One day a homeless man gives him a Teddy bear, saying he “has one already” and Patrick should keep this one. Patrick names the toy Mr. Bear and sets him up on a chair in his home. When Patrick moves to a new apartment, he finds that the bear has the same anxieties as many homeless people: “Are we going to be evicted? Are we going to lose our home?” and the bear is happy.

I looked at this as a rather pointed analogy between sympathy for the stuffed bear extending to the homeless people. If the writer can get us to feel for the bear—which is easy—then perhaps she can get us to extend that feeling toward real, homeless human beings.  Astonishing what we accept as a society, and what we allow to happen to our fellow beings…

And now we come to something completely different: “If You Enjoyed This Story…” by Sarah Totton, a totally experimental piece which begins “This story is sponsored by Meme men’s Vodka,” which says “Jesus turned water into wine, We turn people into drunks…”  and along with its co-sponsor Bloddmans’ Pumice—offers a few weird chopped-up pieces of story which lead nowhere except to a piece about vodka and pumice. It comes across as something like a TV show, where the main program is chopped up every few minutes by advertising. In print, it’s just as annoying as on television.

“Right There” by William Mingin is a truly weird tale, like an Alice-in-Horror-land—or somebody’s very bad dream. But it conceals a simple and heartbreaking truth—how little we think of our loved one until they are gone. It opens with Dan in the Museum café, plotting one of those nitpicky little vengeances for his wife Barbara, because he’s mad at her. He’s been charged for two soups. He makes sure Barbara knows how dissatisfied he is and she goes up to the cash register to protest the bill. And never comes back. When Dan finally gets worried, he tries to search the restaurant, but isn’t allowed in the kitchen. No-one ever comes out of there, he’s told. The story takes off into a cartoonish fantasyland of demon chefs, tiny crab-people and guards with a thousand eyes, as Dan becomes more and more frantic; he can’t find Barbara and she has become incredibly precious to him. Why did he act like a jerk—he didn’t know that was the last time he’d ever see her.

Bizarre as this story is, it ends on a genuinely heart-breaking emotion…something everyone in a relationship might experience—and remember.

Tales of the Unanticipated can be found here.