The 3rd Alternative, #40, Winter 2004

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"We Must An Anguish Pay" by Steve Mohn  
"Black Static" by Paul Meloy 
"Breaking Glass" by David J. Schwarz  
"Sugar Cream Pie" by Darren Speegle  
"The Cajun Knot" by Melanie Fazi, translated by Brian Stableford 
"Thirst" by Vandana Singh 
"Running on Two Legs" by Eugie Foster

ImageThe Third Alternative #40 has the most stunning cover (by Vincent Chong) ever. The golden hues and dreamlike imagery do a nice job of priming the reader for the marvels of story-telling that lie within.

The fiction is a bit of a mixed bag—from dark and edgy to surreal to conventional, and every story offers something different. Even the more conventionally structured stories are fresh and appealing. That's the thing with TTA—their stories are very much like chocolate truffles. Even the poorest of the bunch is still pretty darn good.

The first story is Steven Mohn's "We Must An Anguish Pay," and it is a beautifully told tale of the ultimate desires of two siblings. It reminded me of the film Cement Garden—both approach incest without excessive moralizing and horror, and both manage to find beauty and human warmth in it. Mohn handles sex, drugs, murder, and other touchy subjects expertly. The protagonists are not presented as deviants but as people, and their choices are understandable, albeit in a strange way. The narrative follows a series of embedded quests—to obtain drugs, to obtain sex, and finally to come to terms with one's deepest and most passionate obsessions.

"Black Static" by Paul Meloy is probably my favorite story of the lot. It is difficult to write about dreams—after all, this is something we all know quite a bit about, and the stories that manage to capture the elusive dream-logic, the shifting and shimmering worlds, are few. But Paul Meloy never strikes a false note, and I was engrossed and believing throughout the story. Be it strawberries under the dark, immobile water, or a hot air balloon shaped like a tiger's head (a gorgeous illustration, too), every image rang true, every sentence pulled me deeper into the story.

This smart, dark, and magical tale weaves back and forth between two people, both traveling through the dream realm. As Leslie battles the malicious Nurse Melt, Dr. Mocking, The Firmament Surgeon, is waging a losing war against the devil-in-dreams —a dark creature most of us encountered in one nightmare or another. The two threads twine together in an emotionally wrenching resolution.

What to say about David J. Schwartz's "Breaking Glass"? It is visceral, it is engrossing; and it reminded me a bit of The Fight Club. The story starts with a man fantasizing about breaking a pane of glass—not any old pane, but a giant picture window. He has just moved to Chicago after breaking up with his wife; he works a temporary job, and his housing situation leaves much to be desired. Thoughts of breaking windows are his only release, and soon lead to the actualization of the fantasy. Some would call it vandalism, others—revolution. It is a stifled scream of a man who thinks that there's more to life than daily work-home routine. He finds himself in the role of John the Baptist, who ushers in the coming of a terrible Messiah. The story cuts right to the bone, and I am pretty sure that glass will never be the same for me.

While I normally enjoy Darren Speegle's work, I found "Sugar Cream Pie" a bit flat, a bit lacking in the whimsy and dark beauty I came to expect from this writer. The man is driving from Tennessee to Florida, still reeling from a recent personal tragedy. Along the way, he encounters two female blues musicians, who are not what they seem. The plot felt secondary to language and imagery, and the protagonist left me rather indifferent to his trials. At the same time, the story is finely written, and the imagery of the hot, humid, insect-ruled night is quite stunning. For that alone, the story is worth a read.

"Cajun Knot" by Melanie Fazi is a mildly interesting tale of voodoo and unfortunate pregnancy. The plot and the characters seemed somewhat underdeveloped and familiar; the narrator provided little more than a willing ear for the protagonist, Eugene Ellis, who finds himself in a highly unusual predicament involving his wife's pregnancy. This piece is saved by the atmosphere—Lovecraft meets Flannery O'Connor. The tendency of the events to be recounted in dialog rather than presented as they happen is also quite Lovecraftian. While this is probably my least favorite piece in the issue, it is still quite enjoyable.

"Thirst" by Vandana Singh is a story of a woman who lives an ordinary life with her husband, her son, and her mother-in-law in an Indian town. But Susheela is not happy—ever since she was a child, she has felt a certain emptiness within her that yearned for something unknown and refused to be filled with the usual lot of a housewife. Moreover, Susheela has always been drawn to water, just as her mother and her grandmother before her. It takes a monsoon for Susheela to realize her destiny, to comprehend what she really is. The tale is lovely, and quiet tension that Vandana Singh builds carefully from the very beginning kept me enthralled. While this tale is quite dramatic toward the end, its unhurried pacing and attention to detail leaves the reader with a wistful, nostalgic feel. What else can one ask for?

Eugie Foster's "Running on Two Legs" is a positive tale, and the beauty of the language carries one along with the story. The protagonist is a woman who has just found out that her cancer, in remission since her childhood, has returned. And with it, her forgotten childhood ability to understand animals. While I found the talking animal characters a bit too cute, the story is worth reading and re-reading. Despite some Bambi-esque moments, the protagonist is deeply sympathetic and believable. I especially liked her understated, quiet resolve. It is difficult to write a thoughtful story that features a terminal disease without melodrama, and Eugie Foster achieves it with style.

All in all, an excellent issue, and a continued testimony to Andy Cox's superb taste and keen editorial vision.