alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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Zombies vs. Unicorns (Review)

"Unicorn Drops," ca. 1853. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Let me state for the record, that I am solidly Team Unicorn. From the ages five to, oh, eighteen, I had unicorn stuffed animals, unicorn T-shirts, unicorn notebooks, unicorn puffy glitter stickers and unicorn daydreams. Possibly also a unicorn Trapper Keeper and a purple rainbow unicorn pencil with a scented eraser. Since I was still in the throes of this fascination well into the 1990’s, albeit somewhat ironically by then, I should probably count myself lucky that I didn’t end up with a unicorn tattoo. (It was this close. Truly.)

I am such a unicorn girl that when I moved to a new school in the 2nd grade and the music teacher (a lopsided troll of a man with a penchant for green suits paired with coordinating green ties) bade us cease tooting our plastic recorders and join him for a rousing sing-along of “The Unicorn Song” — I actually cried. Have you heard this song? It’s so appalling, and so Christianity trumps magic-pagans-and-all-things-fun that it should give the Potter-is-AntiChrist sect divine ecstasies. I’ll leave you to look up the full lyrics for yourself, but try this verse on for size:

The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide
The unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
That’s why you never see unicorns to this very day

THE UNICORNS CRIED! Because they’re GOING TO DIE. Not only that, they’re going to DIE FOREVER, all of them, GO EXTINCT. Yeah, great song for 2nd graders. Especially sensitive horse-lovers who live a little too strongly in their imaginary world. And my new classmates? They LOVED this song. It was, like, their favorite song ever, right up there with “Little Rabbit Foo-Foo,”(which, oddly enough, didn’t bother me at all. Look, I never said I was consistent.) We sang this song at least once a week for the next 6 years. I managed to get the snivel response under control, but the zeal with which my fellow students happily belted out the celebration of the extinction of an entire species may well have been the seeding of my continuing DISTRUST OF THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE.

Later on in high school, I had a summer job at a Miniature Horse Farm – which is sort of like a circus crossed with a riding stable  – where I was paid minimum wage to braid colorful ribbons into pony hair, lift sniveling kids on and off the mechanical pony ride, be abused by illiterate shift supervisors, scoop (miniature) poop, and walk in the performance show three times a day, leading the unicorn (whose foam horn I attached with an elasticized shoelace backstage, right after I painted her hooves with silver glitter glue). Fascinating Gender Note: Though there were male and female employees, only girls were allowed to lead the unicorn. No such bias applied to leading the bad-tempered quick-spitting llama, thankfully.

So you can see, my unicorn credentials are SOLID.

That said, the stories I enjoyed most were the (cringe) zombie stories:

  • “Bougainvillea,” by Carrie Ryan
  • “Cold Hands,” by Cassandra Clare

Best unicorn story?

  • “A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan

Honorable Mentions go to:

  • “Prom Night,” by Libba Bray for use of Zoroastrian funeral rituals
  • “Princess Prettypants,” by Meg Cabot for the cameo by my most-favorite-ever summertime ice cream shack of social equalization, “The Chocolate Moose.”
  • The cover and endpaper art!

So, I did it. I read an entire 415-page anthology of short stories and it didn’t kill me. I even liked some of the stories. But if it had been 415 pages of novel, I would have had a much better time.

Maybe next time, I can try reading by the light of a unicorn’s horn. If all else fails, I can still get that tattoo.

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“Beautiful White Bodies,” by Alice Sola Kim

Fashion model in dolphin tank

Fashion model underwater in dolphin tank, Marineland, Florida (Library of Congress)

I stumbled on this story via the website for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. I meant to read it after lunch, but once I had the page up in my browser, I read the first line. And then I read the first paragraph, and then…you get the idea. It did what a story is supposed to do – sucked me in and made me keep reading.

So what’s it all about, besides Busby Berkeley? Well, Justine’s a ‘boomerang’ twenty-something, living with her Mom and working at a coffee shop in her hometown when she notices that the local high school girls are coming down with an epidemic of preternatural anime-style beauty. Epidemic turns out to be the right word. Cue officials in face masks, and white isolation tents.

I especially liked four-eyed, snub-nosed, vintage-wearing, theater-kid Pearl. She was just the right mixture of attitude and self-pity. I liked the little interlude in Justine’s self-reflection when she talks about the “Different people marooned on different islands inside of you.” I liked the CDC guy’s line about “the beauty sickness no longer [being] co-morbid with popularity. I liked that I didn’t quite know what the end result of this epidemic actually was – just that it was a change, and a change with teeth (real or metaphorical, take your pick.)


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‘Childcare’ by Lorrie Moore

Paul sent me this story because, he said, the voice reminded him of my stories. Because I am trying to do my duty by the short story, and because I am desperate–not so much to know how my writing looks to others but how it would look to me if only I could see it–I read it over last Saturday’s breakfast.

Reading fiction I admire, I sometimes fall into fits of despair because I know, deeply, that I could never write sentences like the ones on the page. They just wouldn’t come out of me like that. The arrangement of words is unexpected, the content unfamiliar, the tone rotated 15 degrees, and it is a million light years from anything that would occur to me. I end up thinking ‘If this is good and I can’t do it, then what I can do must not be good.’

Children by josefnovak33/flickr

Children by josefnovak33/flickr

The first sentence of ‘Childcare’ is:

“The cold came late that fall, and the songbirds were caught off guard.”

This is a sentence I can imagine myself writing. Score one for Paul.

Other possible similarities I can see would be in the humor (I loved the bit where she uses her roommate’s vibrator to stir her chocolate milk. I would do that to a character.) and the way people talk across each other, making motions through conversations without ever really connecting, and possibly the end, where I was not sure exactly what had happened (or failed to happen) but I was sure it was bad. Long, sad, inevitable and to be endured. So, what do you think, Paul, were these the things you meant? (It will be perfect if you say ‘Not at all’.)

Other things I noticed about the story was how slow it started off, with the main character meandering around the cold winter streets, something I would be prone to do, but which I would feel was not permitted. I talked about this story with another writer this morning, and she had the same reservations. Because we are amateurs, we don’t know–is it still wrong if someone famous does it, if it is published in the New Yorker?

I was annoyed by the early passage describing the narrator’s Midwestern background, the menu & customs in the German restaurant, how the wines came in ‘red, white, or pink’.  It seemed not only too easy to make fun of these things (an amuse bouche of smug satisfaction for sophisticated New Yorker readers before the main course of yuppie adoption ennui?) but too knowing for the naive and protected voice of the narrator.

Did I like the story? With short stories I can never tell. I laughed a few times. I recognized the characters as people I have seen, if not known. But I don’t know if that adds up to enjoyment.


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Ideas of Heaven – Joan Silber

Manuel Muñoz recommended this to me as an example of a short story that covers a long period of time.

It starts with the narrator’s childhood, and puts her world in context. Her father is fighting in the U.S. Civil War and while he is away she dreams he speaks to her from heaven. Then it jumps through to her courtship and marriage, but each event, each stage of her life is given establishing detail and grounding before we move forward to the main events and location of the story — remote, provincial China, in a missionaries’ compound.

Manuel noted that despite the potentially alienating aspects of the story (the historical setting, the unfamiliar nearly unimaginable location, the strong religious mission of the narrator), his students were really into it.  These elements are told without exoticization, as matter-of-fact and directly observed (did the author read genuine missionary accounts? She must have.) This is a (long) short story, but the events had the inevitable flow of a novel: there is love and marriage, decision and travel, birth and death, friendship and betrayal, politics and disaster. It’s all chronological order, none of it is flashback, and none of it feels rushed or shortchanged.

But theme is always there, always surrounding the characters, from the ghostly father in the beginning, to the children discussing heaven (The daughter would have flowers in hers, the son would have goats), to the final image of carrying our own death within us like a pregnancy, waiting all our lives for our death to be born. Unbelievable. Beautiful. Kick-ass.

This story would make a fabulous film. So much must be cut from a novel, to make room for the slowed-down time of a movie. But this could be done scene-by-scene, all events included, only slightly elaborated, and it would come out at a smooth 110 minutes. Do I say this because of that last scene, because I can see it in all the shouts and dust and swirls of color, I can see the lush cinematography, the pathos of the dying shot?

Damn. I think I liked this story. There’s a lot to be learned here.


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The Black-Iron Drum, by Von Carr

For those of you who like your fiction bleak, this week’s story is a real no-hoper.
It’s also available online at Fantasy Magazine.

I’d call this story “mythical,” both in the subject matter it treats and the rhythm in which it is told.

A woman wades through a river of corpses to escape her war-torn province. Safe on the farther shore, she buries her hardened heart at the crossroads, leaving behind the scenes she has lived through. The people of the new province suspect she is a sorceress, but she refuses to perform spells or make charms. She marries the town’s executioner and bears him two children. Life goes on.

Until. Until the execution of a young boy is botched and his body must be buried at the crossroads with a stake through the heart, to prevent him rising from the dead. Soon the town’s cattle are spooked and the hens are laying hollow eggs. At night, the woman hears the iron drumming of her heart, calling to her from underground. Her heart, iron-hard and throbbing, is leading the vampire right to her door. After all the woman has been through, it is not the vampire that worries her, but her own heart. This isn’t how it ends, of course, but it’s all I’m going to tell you.

I chose this story because Von is in a writing group with me, and I really look forward to the days when we do her stories, so I wanted to read a story by her in its final clothing. After I read it, I asked her a little about writing it, and she said that the ending had been changed; originally it was more depressing. I’m not sure how that’s possible.

I really enjoyed this story. I thought it was well-written, and quite haunting. The drum-heart is chilling, all of the minor details ring true. I love that the province is called ‘Nuncia’. That’s a perfect name. I want to name a country that. (But I don’t think I want to visit).


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Lost Story Found

Thanks to a nudge from Robb, I tracked down last week’s missing short story.

It is (drum roll, please)…’A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road’ by Graham Greene. (1939)

A man named Craven is walking the streets of London. He wears a cheap mackintosh. He is seedy and alone. Soldiers and girls pass him on the wet pavement and he tells you that he hates the thingness of his body. He tells you that he dreams of caverns under the ground of a graveyard, where all the uncorrupted bodies lie, waiting and quiescent, in their little interconnected pods. (I’m pretty sure a capsule hotel would freak him right out.)

He goes into a cinema to get out of the rain. It is nearly empty, showing a program of silent films about the Roman empire. A piano plays in the darkness. A man shuffles past his knees and takes the seat next to him, brushing Craven’s face with his large beard. On-screen, a woman in a toga stabs herself. The newcomer objects that there is not enough blood.

The bearded man and Craven nearly get into an argument, ‘an absurd and meaningless wrangle in the dark.’ The newcomer continues to talk, and lays a hand, ‘sudden and confidingly’ on Craven’s. It is damp and sticky, and Craven hopes it is treacle.  The newcomer announces that he has forgotten his umbrella, and scrabbles out past Craven’s knees.

…I don’t know why this story made such an impression on me the first time. Maybe because I was reading it alone in my apartment before sleep, instead of over a bowl of soup at a brightly-lit dinner table with company just beyond the ketchup bottle.

Maybe because of contrast. I read it towards the end of an anthology of ‘Ghost Stories’; given the typical fare of such collections, Greene’s spare modern prose must have stood out:  Banal, urban setting. Repressed. Short, tight, story. No Lovecraftian furbelows.

Reading experiences are made up of at least 50% of the ‘experience’ portion – the experience of the reader, rather than the words on the page. A story isn’t fixed until it is read and intersected. This explains not only why some books are loved by some and loathed by others, but also why I have read books and failed to feel them, or hated authors until I came back to them with a new idea of what I wanted. Just as a bad day can be vastly improved by a good book, I’m pretty sure that a good book can be wasted on a bad day.

(“Edgeware Road” appears in Twenty-One Stories, by Graham Greene, 1954.)


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The History of the World, by Veronica Chambers

This story is in the collection It’s All Love; Black Writers on Soul Mates, Family & Friends.

The ‘love’ angle is that it roughly parallels three Black couples: 2 in New York & 1 in Chicago. The main character is Panamanian and lives in Brooklyn; she speaks Spanish, dates a gypsy cab driver, and works as a nanny for the dissatisfied Evelyn Cooper, wife and mother-of-two, who lives on Park Avenue, “in a stadium-sized apartment with the same marble floors and well-appointed furniture you might find in a bank or an old-money hotel.” The nanny parts reminded me of this interesting NYT article about the politics of Black women nannying for wealthy Black families.

That’s 2 sets of couples. The 3rd couple? From Chicago? When they appeared I thought, hmm, I wonder if that’s supposed to…nah. But sure enough, they live in an “itsy-bitsy house in the suburbs”, and “his wife actually thinks Ann Taylor is a big-name designer.” Then there’s a speech at a political convention and the man starts appearing on TV. Then he announces his bid for the presidency.

As you might imagine, the presidential aspirations of this modest Chicago couple are the bend in the story around which all the characters must flow, exposing their ideas about friendship, love, class, gold-digging, the Peace Corps (“Please, travel in college hardly counts”), and mushroom risotto.

This was my first encounter with a pair of fictional Obamas, but I’ve got a feeling it’s not the last.