“Magic with Thirteen-Year-Old Boys”, Robert Reed (F&SF, March 2007)
This story seems a bit uncharacteristic for Reed, exploring more overtly fantastical underpinnings of an otherwise mundane premise of a group of young boys who discover an odd collection of pornographic pictures stashed in an abandoned backpack in the middle of the woods. Told in a series of flashbacks by Ted, one of the now-grown protagonists, the present-day parts are a lengthy series of back-and-forth dialogs that don’t seem to do much other than make the story take up more space. The real story with Ted as one of the 13-year olds, mixes up the discovery and keeping it secret with the gradual realization that they recognize some of the people in the pictures, which leads them to figure out who is actually taking them, even though it hould be impossible for one person to have taken them all. Reed’s idea seems to be to juxtapose the magic inherent in sex from the perspective of young teenagers with real magic, neither of which they can really understand and probably can’t even completely distinguish. At the end, when they are confronted by the man behind the camera (as well as in front), it all gets a little creepy in more of the manner of a horror story. Everything appears to resolve itself, except one last shift back to the present allows him to end on an uncertain note. Definitely well executed, with some unsettling imagery you’d just as soon forget.
“Memoir of a Deer Woman”, M. Rickert (F&SF, March 2007)
Rickert has kept a low profile in SF circles and didn’t even really know anything about the genre when she started trying to sell stories. But they consistenly distinguish themselves as original and worthy of more attention. This story spins together several disparate ideas, a woman who hits a deer with her car starts to gradually turning into a deer herself, although the doctor’s diagnosis equates her condition implicitly with cancer. Instead of treatment, she joins a writers group. Eventually her husband mourns her death and seemingly disseminates her words on scraps of paper for others to find. The woman who led the writers group is compelled to find him and ultimately uses some of these words to write about herself. There’s a lot going on here in a short amount of space, but the story is always very readable and the fantastical elements and shifts in action don’t distract. Rickert raises questions without providing any answers, but her evocative narrative style wins you over anyway.
“Strangers on a Bus”, Jack Skillingstead (Asimov’s, December 2007)
Two strangers meet on a bus, and the man, Neil, starts telling the woman, Freya, about he can make up stories about other people and they actually become true. It’s sort of a gift he has, but he mostly does it out of boredom. There’s more than a bit of authorial imposition here as Skillingstead is playing around with the notion that writers, of which Neil is one, have this control over their characters, and can consequently know them better than real people, to the extent that the line between the two becomes blurred sometimes. Freya is very skeptical of the whole idea, but is taken in by Neil’s sincerity and eventually he has some impact on her own personal story too. The whole bus idea fits in well with this story, too, since on this type of long bus ride you can feel taken out of time and can engage in this sort of inner exploration and self-analysis either by yourself or with the person next to you. Skillingstead dramatizes how people-watching can be fodder for stories, and how if taken to an extreme the people being watched can take on a life of their own that may not have anything to do with their real lives. If they even exist at all. Some nice insight and well worth pondering.