writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Author: Michael Hartford (Page 2 of 15)

“Union Falls” by J.S. Breukelaar

A dive bar in an upstate town hires an armless piano player whose gifts are more than musical.

This is a quiet and haunting story about grief, wrapped in what could easily be the setup for a much more satirical and lighthearted story – not only the armless pianist, but also the demise of a previous resident in a racoon incident and the general oddness of the bar’s band. That it manages to be moving and strange against such a strange backdrop is quite an achievement.

“The Trickle Down Effect” by Annie Proulx

A desperate rancher, a trucker chronically behind on his bar tab, and a Wisconsin farmer who wants to go to film school walk into a burning hay bale …

Like the last story from this collection, “The Trickle Down Effect” feels more like a shaggy dog joke than a short story. But with its broadly drawn farce and outsized characters, it’s a fun read with a (drought) dry Western sense of humor.

“The Box” by J. S. Breukelaar

After a terrible car crash, a man keeps his wife alive through virtual reality. The outside world continually intrudes, breaking the illusion, while she tries to break free herself, forcing him to take drastic action.

This is an odd an ambiguous story, shifting in and out of the world that the protagonist has fashioned (sometimes carefully, sometimes cutting corners), and featuring voices that may or may not exist. It’s also a terribly sad story, about mortality and the consequences of refusing to accept that things end.

“Red Brick” by Cynthia Gómez

An ICE agent is haunted by an apparition of a man who died during a raid on a restaurant, driving him further and further into paranoia and madness.

This is a slippery story, starting off with what appears to be a home invasion when the protagonist first encounters the apparition, slowly spiraling into chaos as he becomes more and more unhinged. He seems to be afflicted with the sort of paranoia that is endemic among some Americans, expressed in home security cameras and an ample home arsenal, with flashes of fear and violence, which gradually becomes dangerously unhinged. For a story in “Antifa Splatterpunk” (based on my experience with the first three stories in the collection), this is a surprisingly subtle and even sympathetic exploration of the psychological effects of pathological vigilance and fear.

“Book of Veils” by Keith Rosson

A white supremacist who runs a flea market stall selling Confederate and Nazi mementos is approached by a strange man to acquire a mysterious occult book. In a series of double crosses he gains possession of it, and finds it to be a transformative (figuratively and literally) experience.

Another one from the “Antifa Splatterpunk” collection, this is a nice little horror story. The dread that the protagonist feels on his quest for the “Book of Veils” is palpable, and when all hell breaks loose at the end it’s quite satisfying.

“The Haunting of Esther Cox” by William Meikle

After an attempted rape, a young woman is haunted and possessed by a malevolent poltergeist until she finds a way to free herself from it.

This story is told in alternating diary entries, by Esther Cox and by her brother-in-law Daniel Teed. We get a somewhat fractured and incomplete account of what happens as Esther is first troubled by unexplained rapping sounds, then assaulted by flying objects and unexplained fires. She is taken advantage of by charlatans who try to capitalize on the haunting on the era’s spiritualist circuit (the story takes place in 1878-1879 in rural Nova Scotia), and in the end is able to liberate herself only by embracing the fire that has tormented her.

The story is inspired by the “Great Amherst Mystery,” a poltergeist case made famous by Walter Hubble’s book “The Haunted House: A True Ghost Story.”

“Fireworks” by Graham Swift

A World War II bomber crew veteran goes to the neighbors’ Guy Fawkes celebration the week after the Cuban Missile Crisis and his daughter’s wedding. He is reminded of his wartime experiences by the fireworks and a cup of Bovril.

This is more a character sketch than a story – there’s not a lot in the way of plot or even action. But it does deftly pull together several strands of history, and makes of a cup of beef tea a Proustian madeleine that transports the main character back to the mornings after his wartime bombing missions.

“Hostile Architecture” by M. Lopes da Silva

A homeless person, their sanity destroyed by sleep deprivation due in no small part to efforts to make rest in public places impossible, succumbs to madness or possession (it’s a little ambiguous as to which) and does violence to cops and politicians.

I’m dipping back into the “Antifa Splatterpunk” collection because (a) it’s late and I need a quick read to keep the streak going, and (b) it’s been a long day and nothing makes me happier than some righteous indignation coupled with vengeful violence. While certainly not a literary masterpiece, “Hostile Architecture” succeeds in its apparent goals: it draws attention to the blight of “hostile architecture” (making park benches, stoops, and other resting places impossible to use with spikes and sharp angles and other efforts at discomfort for fear that the wrong sort of people might pause for a moment) and tells a simple story where the perpetrators of violence are the victims of violence.

“The Hellhole” by Annie Proulx

While arresting a poacher, a Wyoming game warden discovers a secret spot that will save him a lot of paperwork. Alas, its popularity among other game wardens leads to its loss.

This story has the feeling of a fairy tale, with its fantastical central event, three-part structure, and a Rumpelstiltskin-like tantrum. It also feels a bit like a shaggy dog story told in a bar, with playful names – Reverend Pecker, Orion Horncrackle, Plato Bucklew, the Pinchbutt drainage – and a long setup to a not especially witty punchline. All in all, a fun little story; I could imagine it read in a gruff Western drawl or performed as a campfire sketch.

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