Talebones, #30, Summer 2005

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“Still Life With Boobs” by Anne Harris
“Treats” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
“One Day, in the Middle of the Night” by James Van Pelt
“Take the Stairs” by Ray Vukcevich
“A Whole Man” by David J. Schwartz
“Mama’s Lightning Bugs” by Brian Scott Hiebert
“Ask Not For Whom” by Jason D. Wittman
“The Wooden Mother” by Michael Poore

The Summer 2005 issue of Talebones turned out to be somewhat of a surprise to this reviewer, who had been expecting a darker sort of fiction from this zine. Instead, the predominant mode is the absurd, with some of the pieces edging over into outright humor.

This tone is set with the first story, “Still Life With Boobs,” by Anne Harris. Gwen’s boobs, George and Gracie, have taken to going out partying at night without her. We can hardly blame them, for it is clear that this is the only way they are going to get to have any fun. Ever since she broke up with her lover, Gwen has been spending her evenings with a carton of peppermint ice cream on the couch in front of the TV. Gwen needs to get hold of her life. She certainly needs to get hold of her boobs, before they cause her even more embarrassment, running around loose.

Harris handles this unlikely situation with sufficient subtlety that the reader can manage to pretend suspension of disbelief, and this story is too much fun to be much marred by the occasional slips into pathos, when Gwen is tempted to feel too sorry for herself.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman has also written of boobs on other occasions, but here “Treats” proves a disappointment. Lisa has some kind of alternate personality problem, triggered by chocolate. Lisa has a crush on the boy who sits in front of her in class.  What is she going to do when the boy offers her a chocolate truffle?

Unfortunately, the piece is too short to resolve the situation to this reader’s satisfaction. As soon as it begins to get interesting, it is over. “Treats” is a sketch of a story, not the complete thing.

James Van Pelt’s contribution might have been a straightforward piece of science fiction, but it gains an extra, paradoxical dimension from the poem which frames it, and from which it takes its title:
    One Day, in the Middle of the Night
    Two Dead Boys Got up to Fight.

The two dead boys are Redmond and his twin brother, Grant, suspended in coldsleep a thousand years into their voyage to colonize another world. But Redmond is awake now, because Grant is awake and meaning to kill him. Or so Redmond has reason to believe. Grant has been trying to kill him all their lives—or so Redmond informs us. But what scheme has Grant devised this time, and can Redmond find him in time to strike first?

Van Pelt’s framing device doubles the tension, for besides the deadly hunt through the dormant spaceship, the reader is always being reminded that Things May Not Be What They Seem. Both strands of the story tie off together neatly at the end, but if this reader could ask for anything more, it would be for Things to be not quite As They Seem as they turn out to be.

“Take the Stairs” by Ray Vukcevich is another piece too sketchy to be called a fully-realized story. It is a Cautionary Tale, a warning of how things might come to be If This Goes On. The scenario strikes particularly close to current reality in these dark days when the news tells us the nation’s elected leaders are advocating equal time in our schools for creationism. Vukcevich must have been writing this one from his desk in the time machine.

David J. Schwartz moves us further away from reality with “A Whole Man,” the tale of a traveler who refuses to board his flight when he suspects that his jacket and shoes are engaged in some sinister terrorist plot. Why else did airline security make him take them off for inspection? But what if the x-rays missed something? The jacket is clever, it gets away, and it must be stopped before it can board the plane!

Schwartz’s premise is not particularly original, but the voice of its unhinged narrator makes it entertaining. “I took that jacket to all the best clubs, to movies, to concerts. There’s no point in doing nice things. No one’s ever grateful.”

Brian Scott Hiebert has a novel premise in “Mama’s Lightning Bugs.” The bugs are the survivors of near-fatal lightning strikes, almost immortal as long as they can feed on electrical current. Mama is the eldest of them, their guardian, their mentor, who considers all the bugs her children. But Mama has another child, and he is jealous, and deadly.

This story feels closer in tone to conventional horror than the other pieces in this issue, in part because the condition of the lightning bugs reminds the reader of that more venerable member of the undead: the vampire. The plot has little to distinguish it from the usual tales of vampires and their hunters, substituting Juice for blood at the appropriate points.

Jason D. Wittman’s “Ask Not For Whom” is a very short but effective dark fantasy that might not have been out of place in the original Weird Tales. Andrea’s megalomaniac father, in emulation of certain ancient kings, has commissioned the biggest, most magnificent clock ever built. And to ensure that it will never be superseded, he has the designer murdered. But when the clock begins to toll . . .

This reviewer believes that she ought to say no more.

The most memorable story in this issue is the last, Michael Poore’s “The Wooden Mother.” It is a variation on a fairy tale of the nineteenth century, but its roots lie in “Hansel and Gretel” and the universal stepmother story. The children have been naughty again, and now they must have a wooden mother, “The new mother with the awful tail and glass eyes.”

The wooden mother arrives, but the children have already fled screaming through the window. No children means no pay, so the wooden mother leaves to find work in a school in the city. The children in the city are hardcases, but the wooden mother is more than a match for them until she swallows one particularly nasty delinquent. At this, the children’s mothers make such a fuss! They mob the school with lawyers and demand the wooden mother’s dismissal, and the children run unrestrained in the streets with “torches and lighters and cans of red spraypaint.” Only the wooden mother can save the city from anarchy, but how can she discipline the children if their mothers refuse to allow it?

Many fairy tales qualify as true horror. This one uses darker tones for effect, to scare the children, but the overall tone is light and ironic. There is no real harm done. The children swallowed by the wooden mother are regurgitated whole, if sometimes unreformed. The story has some of the same reactionary charm as Mary Poppins [the original, mind you], though Mary Poppins did not have to contend with permissive mothers as well as drug pushers in her schools. As long as we remain within the magical world of the fairy tale, we know that everything will turn out happily under the wooden’s mother’s care. Occasionally, however, we have a moment of suspicion that Poore might also be seriously advocating some of the less charming aspects of nineteenth-century pedagogy, such as the birch and the strap. This would be real horror.