alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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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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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.


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A Nomad of the Night, by Rupert Holmes

Edgar Allan Poe, 1848, Library of Congress

Edgar Allan Poe, 1848, Library of Congress

This is the story that caused me to add On A Raven’s Wing to my already overburdened bookshelf. I read a Rupert Holmes novel once before. It was Swing. It had a CD bound into the back cover, with music the author had composed and which was supposed to contain clues to the mystery. This automatically made me think it must be a bad book. (One song was called ‘Beef Lo Mein’; this made it 1% better.)

I was interested in the setting – murder at the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition- and went bravely ahead. Pretty good mystery. So….”A Nomad in the Night.”

Set in 1969, young filmmaker Andris Riga bangs on the door of his hero, schlock horror impresario Canaan Twill, armed with the eighty-one minutes of badly-dubbed grainy footage that is his NYU master’s thesis, A Nomad in the Night, a film that he ‘privately referred to as a Catcher in the Rye in which Holden Caulfield is searching for truth while also drinking other people’s blood.’ This may be the best sentence in the story. That’s kind of genius.

Other sentences aren’t so blessed. The first paragraph contains the following clause: “The long-limbed chestnut-maned graduate student…”. Whoa, nelly.  It doesn’t matter to the story what the guy looks like. It’s graceless, and it’s not even necessary.

The neat angle is that young Riga has been a quick study of how other filmmakers have ridden Poe’s coattails to decent box office by splashing his presence on their posters and advertising, no matter how tenuous the connection to the actual film. Before visiting Twill, a Poe fan and collector of Poe-abilia, Riga invents a heretofore undiscovered Poe story entitled ‘A Nomand of the Night’, and adds Poe’s name to the opening titles.

Twill listens to Riga’s spiel, and when Riga produces a torn corner of the supposed ‘Nomad’, Twill not only believes Riga’s faux-Poe story, he believes him a little too well, with — what did you expect?–Poe-ish consequences.

I didn’t like the very end, the final shiver. I thought it was a cheap shot. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think in a lot of ways, my offense is summed up in this article about Battlestar Galactica. To be fair, no one claims Holmes’s story is feminist, but my complaint is still the same. Maybe even a little of this. Oh. Did I give it away? 😦 Bad me.


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Fat, by Raymond Carver

I read this story because Robb insisted. He thinks Carver is good. I think Carver has the sheen of cool around him so much that he’s gone a little greasy. The last time we had this discussion about 6 months ago, I dragged out one of my undergrad anthologies and started reading the one about the blind man (‘Cathedral’). I didn’t finish it. But now I’m all resolved, what with mini-challenges and all. I got specific. I said, What story? And he said, Fat.

I got ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” out of the library on Saturday morning, and finished my current novel Saturday afternoon, which meant I didn’t have any more excuses. I was thinking maybe I would read it over Sunday morning pancakes or something, and I cracked the cover to see exactly how much I was in for, and….six pages. That didn’t seem so bad. Even I can handle that.

So now I’ve got Reason #1 to read short stories. It’s called ‘Fast-Track To a Sense of Accomplishment & Triumph.’ In no time at all, I had finished what I set out to do. And you know what, Robb? You were right. I did like this one.

Since the story was so short I hesitate to do a normal summary. What could I say without giving it all away? A list instead, I think:

–There is a waitress.
–There is a fat man.
–The fat man would like the Special, but we may have a dish of vanilla ice cream as well. With just a drop of chocolate syrup, if you please.

The story is so compact that anything else I could say would either be wrong, or give something away. It is so tight, and so seemingly matter-of-fact that certain lines ring and ring with significance. The bit I liked best of all, was the last 3 lines, mostly because I wouldn’t have thought to put them there. Because I didn’t expect to find them there. The story had already closed, and those 3 lines opened. Suggested a whole different story had taken place before I joined the story on the page.

I was so reconciled by this point, that I even read the next story in the collection, ‘Neighbors.’ It was seriously weirder. And I kept wondering what would happen to the Kitty.


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The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue – Manuel Muñoz

This is the first book of stories in my personal short story challenge. I have long suspected that the brain-parts that allow one to *enjoy* a short story rather than just appreciate it at a slightly perplexed distance are deeply missing from my literary make-up. It’s very possible that I will read what is someone out there’s favoritest story in the whole word and dismiss it with a mild “eh” and a shrug of the shoulders. If that should happen, remember –before you throw soft fruit–that I’m the one who’s missing out on things.

That said…(deep breath)

munozI read about half of the stories in The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. The characters live in a shop-worn California town. They’re Mexican-American. They didn’t spark recognition in me – that’s not my home–but I was comfortable with them, content to rub along with them for a few episodes. But allá–now that was something I recognized.

Allá (‘over there’) is an elegant shorthand for a whole way of not-belonging, of outgrowing your home and your family and your place in the world. Allá is what the father calls where his son lives in Tell Him About Brother John. Allá means: that place I don’t understand, that place I don’t see why you had to go, that place of strangers, that place where I would mean nothing, that place I am so afraid of I’m not going to call by its name.

Everybody who grows up in a small town and goes away to college, has spent time in allá. Anybody who has blue-collar parents and grows up to get a desk job, knows allá. Anybody who falls in love with a boyfriend, when their parents were expecting a girlfriend, is a permanent exile to allá.

In the title story, the one I liked best, Emilio works the 3rd shift at the paper mill. A pallet of copy paper falls on top of him and crushes his legs. After the accident, his father takes care of him — wiping him, turning him, lifting him, dragging him. Emilio has no allá. It’s more of an ‘in here’ than an ‘over there’. But to his father, he is just as inexplicable and just as disappointing as the son who goes across the country to mingle among white Americans in a faceless city, to waste an education writing stories that don’t make any money, to live and love with other men.

Emilio doesn’t in any way choose his fate, but he ends up just as estranged from his father, his family, his community, his own life. He agrees to go to the curandera because his father believes. Because his father wants Emilio to be better more than Emilio wants it. Because he owes his father. He knows the boxes didn’t fall on him because of the evil eye–and yet, and yet.

Does the trip to the witch woman help? The answer is actually in another one of the stories.