“The Heart”, Neal Barrett Jr. (Cross Plains Universe)
This anthology of stories based in Robert E. Howard’s writings on the occasion of his hundredth birthday did not have enough standouts to get its own mention on the Locus list, but this particularly story made it, a different sort of take on the Texas tall tale without really having much to do with Howard other than its setting. The narrator goes to visit his old friend Harry Mack, who runs a sideshow in the middle of nowhere featuring “The Dead Man’s Heart that Lives”. He watches the show that describes the elaborate story of how this beating heart came to exist and why it can continue to beat outside of a man’s body. Later on he gets Harry to admit that it’s all a hoax after saying he did some research and couldn’t find any evidence that any of the characters in the tale ever existed. But the next day Harry says he made up the hoax story and that it’s all true. And then the narrator gets him to admit that some of it is true, but not the parts he thought. Even as he’s driving away he realizes that he still may not have reached the real truth. What’s clever about this story is how Barrett misdirects his narrator into thinking he’s finally uncovered the real story, only to be confounded over and over by new insights or information, to the point that he admits he can never know the whole story for sure, which is certainly true of many real-life legends and myths.
“Journey to Gantica”, Matthew Corradi (F&SF 1/06)
This low-key fantasy story is a children’s tale of a young woman named Adelia who finds herself literally outgrowing her surroundings, so she sets off on a long journey that takes her first to lands where she is a giant to the local people and then on to other places where she is no bigger than the insects. There’s a lot of simple allegory to this story, but it really seems to be pitched at a young audience, and it doesn’t wallow in heavy-handedness or get preachy. Ultimately she spends time working for a clockmaker and finds she’s good at it, and moves on once again only to end up back at her normal size and amongst her own village, even though she’s been travelling in one direction the entire time. The image of moving through a landscape that takes on different dimensions as she passes from one place to the next, without being sure if it’s the landscape that’s changing sizes or she herself, is an interesting one. The story is too short to be anything more than a basic fable, but it’s put together well and would make a good children’s book.
“Revelation”, Albert E. Cowdrey (F&SF 10-11/06)
Up until the last sentence this story could just be mainstream fiction, told from the viewpoint of a creative writing teacher who inherits as a student the patient of a psychologist friend who keeps having visions that the world is really a giant egg and that a dragon is going to break through any time. The patient/student, known by his first initial “U”, short for Uriel, sees recent natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis as harbingers of the imminent hatching. It turns out that U’s writing on this subject is actually fairly compelling, although Cowdrey goes a little too cutesy postmodern when the narrator suggests he submit it to Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF. The aforementioned last sentence is necessary for it’s chosen market I suppose, and indicates that U wasn’t completely crazy, but seems a bit perfunctory. I like how Cowdrey handles the interplay of the main characters and his chosen viewpoint character seems to make sense even though he’s more of an observer than the others. A well thought out, perfectly good story, but probably not award material.
“Killers”, Carol Emshwiller (F&SF 10-11/06)
Another dark dystopian Emshwiller tale, this one concerning an isolated town in a future where global warming has run amok and distant wars are being fought over the dwindling supply of water, but news of the conflict or anything else is hard to come by. All the men have left to fight in the war, there is no electricity, and the narrator is a woman who lives alone at the edge of town and comes upon a half dead stranger one night that she takes in and finds herself nursing him back to health. Although he represents some connection with the outside world, he isn’t very forthcoming with useful information, but even so she’s willing to keep him around. Until, that is, she thinks she sees him flirting with one of the other women, and after that his days are numbered. This kind of story is a bit of a throwback, it’s fairly lucidly told, I’m not quite sure what the point is that she’s trying to make, there’s not enough original going on to make it a standout on plot alone. Emshwiller leaves her opinion of her narrator ambiguous, is she weak to be taken in by this man, and isn’t she a little quick to judge at the end? The setting is evocative enough to support a larger story, but this isn’t it.