Friday, November 13, 2015

13 More Short Stories for Friday the 13th

Like I said the first time I posted a Friday the 13th short story round-up, I don't believe in the superstition of the day. But I'd like to share stories I've read that have some combination of dread, distorted thoughts, strange phenomena and/or horror.

Title: A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or the Devil’s Ninth Question
Author: Andy Duncan
Where I Read It: Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008

This coming of age story, set in the 19th century American South, reads like the set-up to a novel, or maybe a computer game; but it feels complete too. The main character, Pearleen Sunday, was dumped as a baby on the doorstep of an unscholarly museum. It's run by a man who likes to use magic tricks, sex, tall tales, and eye-catching visuals to draw a crowd. As she's growing up, Pearleen has a variety of chores, like working the diorama of the infernal regions - a huge moving strip of canvas that depicts all kinds of hellish torture to museum visitors. But whenever she stands behind it, cranking it into motion, Pearleen sees different images from what appears to be another world.

One day, a visiting magician, Farethewell, needs a last-minute replacement for a young female assistant in his magic show. When he asks Pearleen to step in, and she sees the humiliation in store for her, she flees and leaps into the back of the diorama, which leads her to the ghost-filled mansion of an old widow, Mrs. Winchester. And though she isn't in the infernal regions as depicted by the diorama, Pearleen will still meet the devil's son-in-law.

Pearleen chooses between a coming of age experience that would turn her into a sex object and one where she discovers where she might belong and what her powers could be. It's an odd adventure and hints at more to come.

Title: The Dried Witch
Author: A.S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Duffy)
Where I Read It: Sugar and Other Stories

The valley mounted steeply amid rustling yellow bamboos, harbouring insects with scraping monotonous songs and the occasional rush of sooty wings.
This story is set in an ancient, primitive culture, where the middle-aged main character, for all intents and purposes widowed, feels the loss of her vitality and wonders what she can do to restore it. She has lost her husband; she has lost all her children. In her village, women who aren't wives and mothers seem to live on sufferance. She's scrutinized and keeps mostly to herself. She knows that others will see in her powers she doesn't possess (but maybe powers she wishes she could possess).

The writing is rich and raw; each color and scrap of dryness stands out. The character seems fully alive even when her body goes through its final torturous disintegration.
Her eyelids: a last desperate prickle amongst the lashes and then the fine skin began to lift away into blisters as she saw her own veins boil bloody on her retina.

Title: A Family Supper
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

There's an undercurrent of dread in Ishiguro's story. A Japanese widower eats dinner with his adult children: a son, who is visiting from the US, and a daughter, who is thinking of moving to the US. His wife, their mother, died of poisoning from improperly prepared fugu fish. His former business partner committed suicide and killed his own family.

The widower acts as if he's made of stone. He produces a chilling, silencing effect on his children and seems deaf to them, as if all he needs from them is to stay under his roof saying polite things and behaving in a mechanical way; he also appears profoundly lonely. What's going on his mind, and what are his plans, if any, for the rest of his life? In some ways, the widower is like a fugu fish, the children trying to handle him delicately. Could a misstep prove fatal?

Title: The Heroine
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Where I Read It: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

Lucille is a nanny, and she wants so much to belong to her new household. She hopes her employers and their children will love her, really love her, and need her. She wants them to know that she'll die for them.

Early on, I could sense where this story was headed, but it doesn't matter if you can guess what happens. It's all about the build-up - the obsessive thoughts mounting, the good intentions warped beyond recognition.

Title: The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Where I Read It: Lord Peter: The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories

Sayers wrote several novels and a bunch of short stories featuring Peter Wimsey, an aristocratic amateur detective with a sharp mind, a monocle, and a strong tendency to run off at the mouth.

This mystery involves diabolic marital abuse, and to save the day, Wimsey puts superstitions to good use. Plus it helps that he's wealthy and can stage elaborate getaways.

Title: Light
Author: Kelly Link
Where I Read It: Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008

This is a story that could have felt unfinished but didn't. It's one thread lifted from a tangled, unstable world with fuzzy boundaries. All kinds of stories could spin out of this one. There are many questions left unresolved. Strange occurrences get treated matter-of-factly, as if they're unremarkable features of daily life (and they are in the story, if not to the reader).

The main character, Lindsey, is a roll-with-the-punches sort of person, and the main interest in the story is watching her negotiate a terrain of shadow twins, pocket universes and general chaos that includes a vicious imminent storm and the mystery of a sleeping epidemic that's led to people getting warehoused. Also, Lindsey has to figure out what to do with second (third, fourth…) chances. Does a second chance become meaningless when you can just slip into another universe? In any case, can you ever really escape from your personal problems or yourself?

Title: Mama’s Boy
Author: David Alexander
Where I Read It: Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

A psychopathic body-building gigolo loves to hurt the middle-aged women he relies on for money. He imagines himself as an adherent to a cult of health that promotes a clean lifestyle and sculpted body. The story follows him on an evening out, as he heads to a bar to find an older woman to attach himself to. But there are complications this time. He's made the mistake of attacking a younger woman for what turns out to be only a couple of dollars. And he feels in him a rage, a need to hurt, more powerful than before.

Title: Mortmain
Author: Miriam Allen Deford
Where I Read It: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

Cora Hendricks works as a private nurse for an old man. She hopes to speed along his death so she can nab the money he's squirreled away and make off with her lover. But the old man is on to her and the story ends in a gruesome way.

Title: Nor Iron Bars
Author: John Macdonald
Where I Read It: Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

Sheriff Commer stands between a lynch mob and a jailed man. Along with the uncertainty about whether the mob will break in or back down, there's the question of Commer's strength of mind. He spends his life putting on a tough, cool act; inside, he's badly shaken. He has a feeling that one day soon his mask will crack open and everyone will see his intense fear. The pressure he feels is nearly unbearable.

Title: Nothing Personal
Author: Pat Cadigan
Where I Read It: Other Worlds Than These

In recent days, Detective Ruby Tsung has felt a dread creeping over her. It could be the effects of a brutal case and needing to deal with her old partner's retirement. Or maybe it's her new partner, who fiddles with computers and withholds critical information from her. The story's sense of mounting dread is spectacular, and even more interesting than the revelations at the end; the depiction of the psychological state of unspecified fear was the best part of the story. There's the sense that Tsung can see something out of the corner of her eye, but every time she turns her head it's gone.

Title: Public Safety
Author: Matthew Johnson
Where I Read It: Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008

Officier de la Paix Louverture works in law enforcement in a society that's ostensibly based on rationality (modeled on secular principles of a French Revolution in an alternate history). The authorities assume that their reasoning abilities will always lead to effective solutions and consistent order and efficiency. However, a series of strange events takes place - including bus breakdowns and threats of terror - with the potential to cause widespread instability. Officier de la Paix Louverture investigates who's behind the attacks and discovers that complacency about rationality is the chief threat to rationality.

Title: The Splintered Monday
Author: Charlotte Armstrong
Where I Read It: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

The resolution to this story isn’t shocking, but what I like is how the main character, Sarah Brady, stubbornly follows her instincts to figure out why family members are behaving strangely after her sister’s death. There's something suspicious in the circumstances surrounding the death, and it’s not clear what happened and who's in on it. Sarah isn't a detective, but she feels like she's being managed and she senses that something's wrong, so she doesn't ease up on her questioning.

Title: The Stranger in the Car
Author: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Where I Read It: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

Carrol Charleroy is a well-meaning family man and successful in business. He leads a contented life, until it turns out his youngest daughter, Julia, might be embroiled in a criminal scandal involving murder and blackmail; meanwhile, Carrol's wife is in the hospital, and though he would ordinarily want to discuss such a troubling matter with her, he's afraid he'll set back her recovery by telling her what's going on. The force of the characterizations is strong, and so is the feeling of deep unease the story conveys as Carrol questions how well he knows the people in his life.