Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

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“Our Town’s Talent” by Simon Strantzas

Disappointed that the town’s children’s talent show was not competitive, and so did not crown her son the winner, Mrs. Parker holds her own talent show with a trio of judges. The winner is a surprise, though not as surprising as the effect it has on the town’s mothers, who decide to hold their own talent show that showcases their own baffling and disturbing gifts.

There’s an unsettling, uncomfortable mood that runs through the whole story. Told in the first person plural as a sort of chorus, the mothers are largely indistinguishable, until the third talent show happens. This feels a bit like a Shirley Jackson story in its ominous mood – at every turn I was expected something dark to happen, and often there are subtly disquieting moments, like the ventriloquist act, that let us know that we’re in a world that isn’t quite the one we live in, though perhaps it intersects our own in a few places. This sits somewhere in that interstitial space between literary and horror fiction, weird and not quite resolved.

“The Frame Between Us” by Ethan Luk

A young man reflects on moments of friendship with two other boys; there is both an intimacy and a distance in their relationships. An air of melancholy suffuses the story.

This story was one of the winners of the “One Story” teen contest, and it certainly has a teenage angst feeling to it. The scene of the three friends driving at night put me in mind of the Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (peak teen angst for my generation); intense emotion, unrequited and confusing longing, and the desperate need to connect with someone run through the story, and even decades past that kind of fierce yearning “The Frame Between Us” makes me remember that age.

That it was written in the opening months of the pandemic (described in the Q&A at the end of the story, though it isn’t explicit to the story) gives it an even sharper poignancy. That the fumbling efforts to reach out to their peers would be interrupted by something as tiny yet massive as a virus is one of the many losses of the last two years.

“Crawlspace Oracle” by Richard Gavin

A woman has dinner with an old acquaintance who has gained a reputation for financial wizardry, hoping to get some advice for how to invest some money her husband has recently acquired. The acquaintance takes her to a grotesque mannequin cum radio receiver that she insists has been her family’s advisor in all matters for three generations and locks her into a basement room with it. When the woman emerges three days later she finds that she has been transformed herself into some sort of oracle channeling the arcane messages of the idol, and is pressed into service dispensing unintelligible answers to an endless stream of supplicants.

This is another story from Gavin’s “grotesquerie” collection, and it might be even more disturbing than the last. It leans into the squalor and neglect of the acquaintance’s home, and the grotesqueness of the idol, and wraps it all in a story with nothing but nightmare logic.

“One of the Good Ones, or: It’s a Gas!” by Gordon B. White

During a hot summer of protests, a young cop participates, somewhat reluctantly, in an unauthorized experiment with an old psychoactive substance that some of his fellow cops intend to use on the protesters. The results are not what they intended.

I found this story in the collection “Antifa Splatterpunk,” so I went into it knowing pretty much what I was in for; and the story certainly delivered on its promise/threat. There is a good deal of gore, some over-the-top police brutality, and an undercurrent of solidly anarchist disdain for authority. It’s largely setting things up for a punchline that is telegraphed very early on, and it’s just a matter of working its way toward the inevitable climax. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though; anyone who would read a collection called “Antifa Splatterpunk” has expectations, and this story meets them.

This is not to say that this isn’t an artful story, because it is. It frames its sections in “X walks into a bar” jokes (the setting is the back room of a cop bar), and it has some nice hard-boiled turns of phrase (I especially liked the description of one character’s tacti-cool pants as having “more pockets than Grady’s lopsided pool tables”). It plays around a little with gender and sexuality expectations – the young cop protagonist is gay, and his brother-in-law is surprisingly supportive of that; the young punk who’s the subject of the brutality has “they/them” pronouns, but that’s the extent of the cops’ supportiveness. And when all hell breaks loose, the violence is presented in “Green Room”-level poetry.

Not a story for everyone, but if you’re the sort of deviant who would be drawn to “Antifa Splatterpunk” then this is a solid read.

“In This Twilight” by Simon Strantzas

A young woman meets an itinerant young man in a deserted bus station and tries to avoid conversation with him. When he gets on the same bus as her, and waxes rhapsodic about the wonders of darkness, she shares a terrible story from her past, which helps her to integrate the good and the horrible in that trauma.

Strantzas was recommended to me as a writer working a similar vein to Robert Aickman, and this story is certainly Aickman-like in many ways. It inhabits interstitial spaces – the deserted bus station, the dark bus with its windows turned to mirrors, the protagonist’s feeling of being caught between home and college, past and present. While it’s never explicitly “weird” or supernatural, there’s a strange dread to the story that seems to be more than just the protagonist’s understandable discomfort about this strange man who may or may not be stalking her with the intention of extracting a dark story from her. The man’s name is always “Charlie Hand” – never “Charlie”, never “Hand” – which put me in mind of “Arnold Friend” from Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”; while Charlie Hand is never overtly menacing, there’s something more than a little disquieting about him.

“Napier’s Constant” by ArLynn Leiber Presser

This is a fun and lighthearted take on the theory of multiverses and the end of the universe, set at a wedding where a “virtuous but not sober uncle” has fallen asleep on the eponymous character’s shoulder as he contemplates whether to succumb to his fiancee’s marriage proposal ultimatum and imagines the multiverses of their happiness as he too drifts into sleep. It’s not exactly dense with ideas, but it’s playful and enjoys its characters and its language – good for a quick morning read.

I selected this from the latest issue of “Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet,” always good for a story or two.

“Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty” by Richard Gavin

Well, this is a grim little story to read with my morning coffee …

Richard Gavin - "grotesquerie"A down-on-his-luck blacksmith is approached to create a medieval torture device; the requester is a teacher, who claims that it’s going to be an educational tool. The blacksmith is wary, but needs the money, and goes about making the device with some gusto, adding a few details of his own. The mask haunts him, though, and he goes to the teacher’s house to discover how it has been put to use.

This is a brief story, almost a fable with its scant characterization and sketchy details, but it successfully explores the sense of culpability the blacksmith feels and provides some jarring jolts; I would recommend this for fans of Robert Aikman and Brian Evenson, and also as maybe the second or third story of the day rather than the first.

I chose this from Gavin’s “grotesquerie” collection (the title of the collection was fair warning, I suppose, but it’s one I’ve been nibbling at for a while).

2021 Reading Overview

I logged 65 books read last year on LibraryThing, starting with A.K. Larkwood’s fantasy novel “The Unspoken Name” (finished January 22) and ending with Catriona Ward’s un-shelvable “The Last House on Needless Street” (finished December 28). This is a slightly higher number than 2020’s count (56), and a bit more than a book a week.

The books ranged in length from novellas like Joe Koch’s “The Wingspan of Severed Hands” and Eric LaRocca’s “Things Have Gotten Worse Since Last We Spoke,” to a couple of doorstoppers like R.J. Barker’s “Bone Ships” and Kirby McCauley’s classic “Dark Forces” anthology.

I’ve been trying to read more books by women; this year, 27 of the books I read were by female authors, one by a non-binary author, and 37 by male authors; I hope to do better on gender equity in my reading diet this year.

2022 books by author's gender

My reading was overwhelmingly fiction – 60 of 65 books. I could probably benefit from a little more non-fiction in the mix, but since I prefer fiction I don’t feel obligated to increase it by much.

2022 fiction vs non-fiction

Of the fiction books I read, most were novels; 11 were short story collections (anthologies or single-author collections). I’ve started a goal of reading a short story a day for 2022, so I expect this year that the story collection number will go up.

2022 Novels vs Stories

Genre-wise, my fiction diet was largely horror and horror adjacent this year. Probably I should diversify a bit, but I feel like there have been some really terrific horror novels published recently – “My Heart is a Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones, “The Blade Between” by Sam Miller, “The Ancestor” by Danielle Trussoni – so reading lots of horror doesn’t necessarily mean reading poor quality (though there were a few less than stellar, largely older, horror books in the pile).2021 books by genre

My reading this year also skewed toward the recent. Broken out by decade, almost half were published in the last two years, and three quarters in the last ten. I only went back to the 19th century for one – a re-reading of Henry Miller’s “Turn of the Screw”.

2021 books by decade

Most of my books came from a library of one sort or another last year. 31 were from the Hennepin County Library, and 4 were from neighborhood “Little Free Libraries”. The recency bias is probably due in part to how easy it is to check out new e-books from the library. I’ll likely keep roughly the same ratios for 2022.

2021 books by source

Most of my books this year were e-books – again, partly because of the convenience of getting them from the library, and also because I find e-books easier on my eyes. They also take up less space, and I can keep a few books going at once (I’m typically reading two or three at a time). I also listened to a few audio books last year – 9 in all – which are convenient for when I’m walking the dogs or doing chores. I expect this breakdown to stay largely the same in 2022.2021 books by medium

“What the Forest Remembers” by Jennifer Egan

This story feels a bit like a mid-century John Cheever story – middle class professional men of the buttoned-up cul de sacs encounter a proto-hippie commune in the redwoods and partake of marijuana and music – with a subtle undercurrent of suggested science fiction, implying something a little like Black Mirror’s “San Junipero.” It has some lovely, lyrical moments – the river swim, the awkward flirtation between two of the men, the walk through the woods in inappropriate shoes – and an air of melancholy, of a world that has been lost to fire, divorce, and death.

I’m not sure that the science fiction thread – the ability to externalize memories and upload them into a virtual “Collective Unconscious” to allow anyone to experience anyone else’s perceptions – is entirely successful. It seemed at first like a clever dodge to introduce the narrator as a character, a person who could not have known the details she describes of the encounter in the redwoods. Then it suggested a theme of the sadness of knowing things that might be best unknown – the narrator is not her father’s favorite child, and perusing his memories makes that unavoidably clear. There wasn’t enough of the memory collection technology in the story for it to be as interesting as it could have been: the themes could have been handled with more realistic tropes, and even an acknowledgement that the narrator is engaged in her own imaginative invention could have delivered the themes of consciousness, loss, and the mystery of others’ minds. It felt a bit like the tendency of contemporary literary fiction writers to sneak some genre trappings into their stories without engaging in the genre’s ideas – science fiction as color, not content.

Overall, though, this was a good and enjoyable story – well-written (as one expects from Egan), rich in description and emotion, suggestive without being overt in exploring some interesting themes. A good start to the story-a-day challenge for 2022.

Lake Bodom

Two teenage boys who are obsessed with a 30-year-old campsite murder trick two teenage girls to visit the campsite to re-enact the killings. But there are a few more tricks to come.

The location of this movie is gorgeous, reminding me of wilderness campsites I’ve used, and the violence set against the placid lake is quite jarring. The movie takes a surprising twist, and for a while feels a bit like “High Tension” (with all of that movie’s problematic issues). Overall, it was good, if a bit uneven and odd, with the first 30 minutes and last fifteen definitely better than the middle.

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