Farthing, Issue 4, September 2006

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"Dead Languages" by Merrie Haskell
"Brains" by Matthew S. Rotundo
"God’s Madmen" by Robert Devereaux
"Touchdown" by Tim Baer
"Auf Widdershins" by Marsheila Rockwell
"Help Desk" by Phoebe Wray
"Sara and the Telecats" by Lucy A. Snyder
"Willy and Topsy" by William I. Lengeman III
Issue #4 marks Farthing‘s first full year of publication. Congratulations and have a virtual beer or two on me, Farthing staff!

Vampire stories are my least favorite subgenre, especially heavily cliché ones with stakes, heaving cleavage, and oodles of Dracula references. Fortunately, "Dead Languages" by Merrie Haskell, a vampire story by all means, is in its own category of vampire story. Annabel has convinced Lillian, a 28-year-old English teacher, to take an acting role in a local, low-budget film. Though Lillian worries that the film might be making a joke of fat women, it’s an easy five hundred bucks. Everything goes fine until she reads from a prop Roman scroll which contains a charm that turns folks into exactly what they’re pretending to be, but eviler: ninjas, vampires, even Santa Clauses. It’s up to Lillian, now a true vampire hunter, to make things right again.

There’s something special about a vampire story where the vampires, even the fear of them, isn’t a factor in the adventure. Instead, we have Lillian who’s a real hoot and capable of holding her own when it comes down to action. The dialogue is fun and engaging, and the humor right on, reminiscent of the perfect first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Well recommended.

The new Brain that Rob recently purchased off the black market is, not surprisingly, problematic in "Brains" by Matthew S. Rotundo. Rob is preparing to take an exam for an open position in the Marketing division of his workplace, and his old Brain just isn’t cutting it. To exceed beyond average, Rob will have to get his Brain illegally modified, a procedure that could overload him with myriad information and data, potentially causing permanent damage.

The desire to replace one’s gray matter with some sort of artificial intelligence is a staple in science fiction, and "Brains" could have been a tired retread. But what is enjoyable about Rotundo’s story is how Rob realizes the error of his ways over time and through believable mistakes. It makes for a well-rounded character, gaining sympathy from the start. The ending is unexpected but not without its pinch of humor to ease its impact.

"God’s Madmen" by Robert Devereaux is difficult to summarize. A nameless physician receives a parcel containing a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde along with a note asking for an audience. What then follows is a slew of divergences: letters sent and responses received, pages of deep thinking and pondering, all moving at a crawl’s pace. Devereaux’s prose is wordy, which fits the time period and style of this piece, but makes for awkward reading. It was difficult to finish, and even then, what was happening and why was still indeterminable.

The year is 2294, and Stone Edwards and crew are preparing for touchdown in, well, "Touchdown" by Tim Baer. Preparations are underway, orders are shouted, and complaints are made that things aren’t done like they were in the old days. You know, without light speed maneuvers. Then everything shuts down. Both the setup and structure of "Touchdown" are immediately satisfying, but the twist ending felt out of place, as if there was nothing better to put there. Still, everything leading up to it is fun, which for flash fiction is saying a lot.

A faerie ring has appeared in a campus courtyard in "Auf Widdershins" by Marsheila Rockwell. Katie is determined to learn more about it, dragging William into circling the ring on the night before May Day. The ritual leads to unexpected outcomes. Unfortunately, "Auf Widdershins" suffers from spots of exposition, jumpy pacing, and a feeling of disappointment at the story’s outcome. The reader never really learns much about either the faerie ring or the flirtatious relationship between William and Katie. All in all, not a favorite of this issue.
Two plagues have overtaken the world in "Help Desk" by Phoebe Wray, Literality and Orwellian. A woman who said "I’m all eyes" is now suffering the consequences and seeks help at a local clinic. The cure, at least in this far-fetching future, is anything but simple. This odd piece of flash fiction is effective, even though there is plenty of material within to tell much longer stories.

In "Sara and the Telecats" by Lucy A. Snyder, the President of the United States declares that "we can make our own reality" simply by deciding upon things to be. Jobless and depressed, Sara decides that she would like her mother back. Then she’s off to the graveyard with her reluctant hubby to make her reality real. But will it ultimately make Sara happy?

I struggled with "Sara and the Telecats," mostly due to Sara being a hard character to connect with. Initially, she is reflecting on the loss of her mother to cancer, how she watched the woman who gave her life deteriorate and eventually die. Serious subject matter. The dialogue is facetious, almost to the point of irksome. And by the end of the story, it seems as if there’s a not-so-well-hidden agenda underlying Sara and her telecats’ actions. At least, that’s the reality this reader believes.

Set in Coney Island, "Willy and Topsy" by William I. Lengeman III opens with Willy bringing a shirttail’s worth of peanuts to his favorite elephant friend, Topsy. A crowd has gathered, though; it seems that Topsy’s been a bit violent, killing up to five men. She’s been sentenced to death.  What will Willy do now that the one friend who never laughed at him is dead?

This horrific tale of a troubled man starts out safely with a stroll down the boardwalk on a beautiful day. But with Topsy’s passing, Willy becomes dangerous, driven by friendship and the whispers in his mind. I found the ending upsetting, but I doubt I’ll ever forget it.  And maybe that’s what scares me the most about "Willy and Topsy." It has a way of getting under your skin. Just read it, you’ll see.