Sneakers by Marc Laidlaw Vs. Basilica in Lyon by David Albahari
Sneakers by Marc Laidlaw: A little boy is hassled by a wisecracking boogeyman who travels across the threshold of dreams and reality to torment kids in their beds. Sound familiar? If the story reads like a spec audition for some Nightmare on Elm Street franchise work, it has the pop-fiction virtue of briskness; Laidlaw's got storytelling skillz, though his lightly-sketched boogeyman is less surreal than pre-sequels Freddie. Instead of Elm Street, Laidlaw ended up writing video game materials for the Half-Life franchise and getting retweeted by Neil Gaiman, which is further than I've gotten in life, so mazel tov, Mr. Laidlaw.
Basilica In Lyon by David Albahari: A young woman has a cruddy time of it hitching a ride to Lyon and getting hassled or deceived by everyone she meets. A Lynchian vibe pervades. Finally she solves her problems in metatextual Gordian Knot fashion by announcing to a crowd of supporting characters that they're free to abandon this track, since they're unbeholden to the story their "careless" storyteller has put them into.
Compare/contrast: Both stories play with the fuzzy boundary between reality and dream/fiction.
Verdict: Both were diverting, but felt like reiterations of other storytellers' more robust efforts.
The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands by Stephen King vs. Prompter by Peter Kristufek
The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands by Stephen King: King's duplication of the old Club Tale style (in which the denizens of an old-school sexist men's club gather around the fireplace and relate strange tales) is clearly the product of having delved deep into the source material. King doesn't pastiche 19th century genre material as vibrantly as Gene Wolfe or Russell Kirk, but he doesn't shame himself either. It's the second story I've read for this series of posts where a white westerner goes to the East and gets cursed (the first being Lindsay and the Red City Blues, which is more suspenseful). The narrator goes in search of the cursed man, and finds out that the indignities heaped upon the Victorian poor are as appalling as any hoodoo.
Prompter by Peter Kristufek: Robert Coover's spirit enriches this lip-smackingly cynical satire in which a rundown town pulls Potemkin Village shenanigans to bamboozle visiting pan-European VIPS. A dignitary unwillingly gives a dopey speech that the titular prompter feeds him, drop by drop. Kristufek skewers shallow civic-mindedness. It's an excerpt from a longer work, and feels more like a fragment than some other excerpts in Best European Fiction 2010.
Compare/Contrast: Both tales involve deceit and secrets in a vexed milieu of multicultural cross-pollination. In King's story the initial problem of a curse sets the narrator down a path which reveals to him the horror of poverty and stymied financial mobility. In Kristufek's sketchy but entertaining excerpt, Potemkin Village chicanery and knee-jerk provincial pride form a thin cover over civic dilapidation. Also, there's an element of heightened style to both stories: King pays tribute to an archaic mode, leaving his familiar modern locutions behind, while Kristufek maintains a sneering drollery.
Verdict: I suspect that first-generation club tales are probably more intriguing, if less concerned for the poor, than King's overlong pastiche. I'd like to read more of Kristufek's whimsically snotty civic protest, but I hope in long form he's able to infuse his gags with a bit more depth than is presented in this sliver of his work.
At the Bureau by Steve Rasnic Tem Vs. Do You Understand? by Andrej Blatnik
At the Bureau by Steve Rasnic Tem: An office worker is creeped out by a mysterious figure lurking outside his door, so he goes to lurk outside the figure's office door; it's a Moebius strip. Heavy, man. Such gamesmanship can resonate in the hands of, say, Edgar Allen Poe or John Barth, both of whom have played similar Doppelganger games with far greater richness. Editor Charles Grant writes a wayward rough-drafty introduction; I had more fun poking holes in it than in reading this remedial story.
Do You Understand? by Andrej Blatnik: Flash fictions about (mostly failing) relationships. Stuckness, hopelessness. Also , in one vignette, transphobia, although it's not clear whether transphobia is being enacted or mocked, since the transphobic character is cheating on his wife with a person of uncertain cis-ness, and his unease simulates, without being, guilt.
Compare/contrast: Both stories involve conflicts with no likelihood of happy resolution.
Verdict: Tem's story is a clunker; you, dear reader, can come up with a more interesting doppelganger story in the time it would take me to find out which letter of the word "doppelganger" should have an umlaut. Blatnik suits my post-election gloom, but not my post-election need for agency and faith in human potential. And that's probably just how he likes it.
Macintosh Willy by Ramsey Campbell Vs. Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime by Julian Rios
Macintosh Willy by Ramsey Campbell: Some wayward boys run afoul of a scary tramp; or is it the other way around? This is a story about being haunted: haunted by regret, haunted by fear, haunted by sexual failure. Also, being haunted by a dead tramp.
Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime by Julian Rios: Deal with the Devil story meets Time Travel Paradox story, but not to the benefit of either. A certain density of historical detail adds texture for those who like density of historical detail.
Compare/Contrast: Both tales feature guys getting into long-term conundrums with creepy maybe-supernatural strangers. Campbell's story reads like a rueful memoir of misspent youth, while Rios' is more concerned with the literary trick of turning two thinly connected events (the taking of a photograph and the reprinting of that photograph in a book) into a predestination/doom situation.
Verdict: It's not often that a story from the Horror side of this project trounces a story from the Euro side, but in this event I think Team Genre enjoys a clear victory. Ramsey Campbell is an artist of the sort that commercial horror fiction doesn't always deserve. His passion for language and his passion for people form a double helix.
Following the Way by Alan Ryan Vs. Noir in Five Parts and an Epilogue by Josep M Fonalleras
Following the Way by Alan Ryan: A young male narrator keeps getting recruited by his genial Jesuit instructor. Ryan's protagonist submits stories to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and Ryan writes like someone who aspires to such markets; his well-manicured gentility and cultivated humility is clearly modeled on upmarket lit fic. SPOILER WARNING: Priests are all vampires. Oh Alan Ryan.
Reading stories like this has gotten me thinking about twist endings, and why most of them suk. Here's my rule of thumb: if you'd rather read a story that begins with that twist, the story is probably a dead loss. Wouldn't you rather read a story about vampire priests doing vampire/priest stuff, rather than a story about polite discussions with a priest that ends with the vampire reveal? Note that Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Ransom of Red Chief, two icons of twist ending excellence, pass my little test; they wouldn't be improved by beginning with the stings in their tails.
Noir in Five Parts and an Epilogue by Josep M Fonalleras: A guy hangs out in a brothel but mostly just makes awkward chitchat. Meanwhile, his ex researches a story by rolling with a (dirty foreign devil) truck driver who's running some horrifying contraband. What do these two narrative threads have to do with each other? Is it possible to rub up against the vilest crimes and remain untroubled? Dread of immigrants brings a regrettable touch of Lovecraft/Le Pen/Trump to the mix. Weird lingering questions and troubling clues mean you'll have to read this one twice.
Compare/Contrast: Both stories circle around shocking revelations. One follows a familiar setup/punchline approach. The other staggers and layers its revelations, weaving horrors and banalities together in ways that reveal the secret crimes that are just outside the door if we only knew when to peek.
Verdict: Ryan's homogenized New Yorkerish style lacks the peripheral observations and sly wit of the real stuff, and his big reveal is a groaner. Fonalleras upset me and compelled me in equal measure. THAT is horror.
Next time: the final installment. *PHEW*