The 3rd Alternative, #38, Summer 2004

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"Has Anyone Here Seen Kristie?" by John Grant
"Nails" by Jeremy Minton
"Pictures on a Café Wall" by Damian Kilby
"The Opposition" by Daniel Kaysen
"Facing the Wall" by Joel Lane
"Golden" by Al Robertson

ImageI'd call this a guy issue. The writers are all men, and the stories are from a male perspective. The guest editorial is by a man, the superb writer Graham Joyce, who riffs off the previous issue's editorial (by Liz Williams), exploring most engagingly why the New Weird is really the same Old Peculiar that many of us have been quaffing, with great enjoyment, all our lives.

The stories range from magic and myth to nifty sfnal concepts, but the themes explore similar mental terrain: loneliness, violence, isolation. The will to work when the world does not make much sense outside of what one can do with one's hands. Walls, mazes, bars, are shared motifs. The stories are all well-written and entertaining, many with ideas that stay in the mind after one has reached the end.

The longest story is the novelette by John Grant, "Has Anyone Here Seen Kristie?" The protagonist is a widower who, after a year of angry, frustrated grief, is sent to the Edinburgh Festival by his co-workers in hopes a vacation will break his destructive pattern. We're slid expertly into his backstory when he recollects his dead wife's sexual passion. It's as well that Grant writes so well about sex because Helen, the dead wife, seems to have no personality whatsoever–after a single throwaway line about how bad a painter she was, the rest of his memories of her are about her insatiable sexual appetite. At Gallagher's Music while buying CDs he bumps into a young woman named Kristie who quickly makes friends with him, and end s up spending the remainder of his week with her leading him all around Edinburgh. The last day of the festival, and his last day of vacation, is reserved for a special treat: they will hear the Tattoo from Arthur's Crag, a rise behind the castle, leading to an unexpected crescendo. The story is generous in spirit to lost, lonely men, but this reader couldn't help wondering if there's a place in magic for lost widows.

Stark contrast follows in "Nails," by Jeremy Minton. The protagonist, enhanced by the mysterious technology of aliens called the Staaln, goes to a church to see the nails that had been used in the crucifixion of Christ, "plucked from the swamps of history by the magic of the Staaln time nets."

The protagonist and his friends make a plan to steal the nails because they believe the world needs them. Thus, with the very best intentions, they– and the world–start accelerating straight to hell, and the story jumps back and forth showing all the mines along that road. Well written, imaginative, bleak, this story's images linger like the backflashes of a cosmic crash.

My favorite story is Damian Kilby's "Pictures on a Café Wall." It's structurally interesting, written in snips that evoke the glimpses of dragons the protagonist paints after finding a crack in his basement that leads to another world. Again, the girl in the story is on her way out; the protagonist is thrown back on his own resources, which includes danger in one too many visits. The café of the title comes later in the story. It's where the paintings are exhibited, and many are curious, but not everyone can see the dragons. The ending is wonderfully unexpected, the writing so stylish and the structure so fascinating I had to go straight back and read the story all the way through a second time. Knowing what is coming opens the story to a fresh perspective, forming an impressively subtle whole. Bravo.

Daniel Haysen's "The Opposition" doesn't start in a bar, but a diner. It's a popular diner, where radically different sorts of people ("It is the only place in town where a cop will, politely, ask a hooker to pass the sugar and the hooker with comply without irony.") come to relax. Al and Ray, the men who run it, work together well, though their communication is limited to the job-and to Ray's very occasional Bad Feelings. The Bad Feelings usually turn out to be true, causing the men to act on them.

This time Al acts by offering his company on her walk home to the woman about whom Ray gets his Feeling, instead of calling the cops. Al's been lonely behind his own wall; Ray's walls are different. As we go outside with Al, present tense, we discover that the diner appears to lie on the border between various gangland and political territories, though as yet we do not know just how many territories there are, or rather, what they mean. Al goes with one customer who causes the Feeling; later, Ray awaits another, leading the story into swift examinations of alienation and the dangers of connection and how balance derives out of cooperative negotiation. I don't know that the final pairing is convincing, but the story buckets along so fast the reader falls into the ending with an effective snap.

"Facing the Wall" by Joel Lane really concerns mazes more than walls, or rather a certain maze, a classical palimpsest over a grim city setting wherein the bodies of men slashed to death have been found. The protagonist has been a cop for eighteen years, his wife recently left him and vanishes from the story, leaving a depressed, lonely man who takes on the solving of this case, a pursuit that obsesses him past limits of job, health, sanity. When I say this brooding, hard-hitting story is full of testosterone poison I do not mean it in the usual feminist-pejorative sense. The ancient myth still holds power because there are some aspects of the male psyche that draw men into this particular maze–o either reward or punishment as depicted, leaving us wondering which one is which.

Al Robertson's "Golden" starts off with a guy in the Museum Tavern, waiting for his girlfriend. It becomes clear right off that Lex, the first person protagonist, has had a complicated relationship with Sophie, who is always jetting off to exotic locations for filming. But the story isn't about Sophie, or even about Lex's relationship with her, except tangentially to his own life. His own world.

He meets a guy named Arne at the Museum Tavern, which, we are told in passing, sustained a bomb in 1941 that curiously did not detonate. Arne is a big friendly guy, who tries hard to convince Lex to invest in moon mining. Right, moon mining; Arne's life story includes many trips to the moon, but oddly enough he doesn't seem to know much about World War II other than the fact that the USA had poached von Braun. At first Lex avoids looking at the moon, which Arne says is scarred with new patterns that are named, like constellations, after their shapes as perceived from the Earth below.

One day he sees those constellations, and feels he's slipped at last from his own directionless, hopeless world into Arne's, and on the strength of that exhilaration tries to talk his boss out of the old computer software rut and into investing in the new world of extra-planetary mining. Only can one really escape one's world? Robertson leads us on an evocatively written, sympathetic trip into the weird maze of Lex's life without once letting us guess what we may find, or not find, at the center.

Not mentioned are the interviews and articles, but those, too, are well worth reading, bringing to a close another strong issue.