REVIEW SUMMARY: This week I review two recently published short stories available on the Tor.com website
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: “A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill” offers up the kind of creepy, backwoods tale where the reader’s imagination supplies the real terror; “A Window or a Small Box” is a surrealistic alternate-world, couple-on-the-run story, liberally wrapped in the fantastic.
PROS: Imagination-grabbing description; skilled use of genre elements; page-turning prose (if such a thing were possible with online reading); quality storytelling.
CONS: Wished for a more drawn out ending to “A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill”; need help interpreting clue near the end of “A Window or a Small Box”.
BOTTOM LINE: The folks over at Tor.com are utilizing top-of-the-line editors to procure stories that demand that readers tune in twice a week to see what is new and fantastic, a word that both describes the content and quality of their selections. The two stories chosen for this week’s review are highly recommended. They inhabit different ends of the genre spectrum, offering variety to the reader, and each story accomplishes what its author set out to do. If you have not heard of these authors, these stories are the way to experience them for the first time.
“A Window or a Small Box” by Jedediah Berry
Jim and Laura, a young couple with plans for a wedding, find themselves on the run from semi-amorphous goons in a surrealistic alternate America. Armed with the knowledge that their way home lies either through “a window or a small box”, Jim and Laura travel from one slightly-off locale to the next, occasionally stopping to get a bite to eat or to catch a movie, as they struggle to stay one step ahead of the pinstripe-suited goons. Along the way they discuss their pending wedding, making plans for it to be out of the ordinary, while wondering quietly if they really do love one another. The couple is unaware of exactly how they crossed over to this version of the United States, but they cannot help but be charmed and amazed at their weird and wonderful experiences while at the same time battling the anxiety that accompanies being on the run for one’s life.
Jedediah Berry’s novel, The Manual of Detection, won the Crawford Fantasy Award and Hammett Prize for his unique noir homage to Hammett’s novel, The Thin Man. The skill with which Berry pieced together a host of the interesting bits of various genres to tell that tight, tension-filled mystery is present and accounted for in “A Window or a Small Box”. Berry’s prose paints an imaginative surrealist landscape held together by this couple who are every bit as mysterious as their present surroundings. “A Window or a Small Box” is the kind of story that could easily go off the rails, getting lost in its fantastical descriptions, sacrificing story for spectacle. Instead Berry provides the reader with a familiar narrative thread–that of a protagonist on the run from an identified threat–and wraps it up in description to delight the imagination. The story is populated with many unexplained certainties, like the fact that the appearance of the goons is preceded by a “smell like fried eggs”, which the reader just accepts, smiling and nodding because he/she soon realizes that this makes perfect nonsensical sense in the (alternate) world that Berry has created. What Jedediah Berry does so masterfully here is ground the absurdity in the mundane, ensuring accessibility while offering up wonder.
This is a version of the United States that was fun to escape to, if even for a brief moment. Juxtaposed against the current political and social and economic landscape of America it seems strangely less absurd and oddly comforting. In the end Jim and Laura experience their own light-bulb-over-the-head epiphany as to the answer to the cryptic clue taken as the story’s title. Laying aside any claim to cleverness, this reviewer awaits enlightenment at the hands of his fellow readers.
“A Window or a Small Box” is a worthy introduction to Jedediah Berry. Read it. Then do yourself a favor and pick up The Manual of Detection. Both come highly recommended.
Victo Ngai‘s illustration of a Chinese Box provides a beautiful visual clue to the reader about the intricate merry chase he/she is about to go on courtesy of Jedediah Berry’s prose. One of the many impressive things about the art direction at Tor.com is the way in which the artists use details of the story to inform their work. Victo Ngai incorporates elements that the reader will pick up on as the story progresses and his subtle color palette embodies the charm of Berry’s imagery.
“A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill” by Elizabeth Knox
The year is 1953. Tom Teal and Albert Barnes are government employees tasked with visiting a hard-to-reach house to convince its reclusive inhabitant, a member of the Zarene family that controls the entire valley, that a large dam project is a good idea for both him and the greater community. But the Zarenes have their own way of doing things, and they don’t take kindly to outsiders. The house they seek is so remote that it takes them the better part of the day, by car and on foot, to make their way to the front door. As the story begins the reader is informed that the agents will be staying the night. This was not part of the plan, but both men see the advantage of having another chance, come morning, to persuade their host of the benefits of the government’s scheme. It is apparent early on that this is a story in which things will go bump in the night, or rather one that will produces midnight screams. When morning comes and one of the two men is missing, the other goes on a search that will lead him to a window seat and some deep, claustrophobia-induced, confession.
There are scenes in the old black and white dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant, that are chilling. Those feelings arise from what is implied and from the viewer’s imagination more than what is shown on screen. Elizabeth Knox uses a similar approach, and a prop that evokes memories of the classic film, to provide just enough information to have the reader crawling with discomfort as she ratchets up the tension. As the focus of the story shifts to one particular character, his increased stress and tension transfer to the reader and the longer the scene lasts, with the digressions of the protagonist, the more the tension mounts. The reader will be forgiven for wanting to turn on the lights or go outside for a deep breath of fresh air. This reviewer experienced those same sensations. Many reading this will be experiencing the onset of summer temperatures. The heat of the summer may not feel like the most common time to partake of a nicely-crafted fright, but it is worth reading it for the chills alone.
“A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill” is written in a way reminiscent of the time period in which it is set. Knox emphasizes the horror elements with subtlety, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps to create frights that are implied, but not supplied, by her prose. This kind of horror story can resonate more deeply than the style that relies on explicit detail as it compels the reader to bring their own fears to the experience.
The story ends with a feeling of completeness while leaving the reader with enough questions to provoke ongoing contemplation once he/she steps away from the story. While the final scene could have been drawn out to greater benefit, “A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill” provides a satisfying reading experience with retro stylings that hearken back to an earlier storytelling tradition.
The illustration for this story was created by Pascal Campion. His work represents the story to great effect, evoking the comforting feeling of evening in a remote country home while hinting at something darker with his choice of rich blueish hues. The larger images shows the protagonists approaching the house, unaware of the night that awaits them.
The Stubby the Rocket image featured at the start of this review is a fourth anniversary gift to Tor.com from artist Gregory Manchess. On your many treks through the internet, a weekly visit (or two) to the Tor.com page should be on your itinerary.