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2010 Stories 338 - 345

Continuing my review of the stories found in Steve Berman's TRYSTS:

338. Vespers  This story is a very frank look into a lonely mind -- a frat brother who has gained the name "Igor" because he sets himself apart in a small cave of a room in the frat house and is often lost in thought and highly anti-social.  He imagines that he is a monk living a cloistered existence, and much of his day-to-day experience is filtered through this fantasy (including the sight of frat pledges sleeping on the living room being transformed into the image of penitents sleeping on the monastery floor, etc).  Berman builds the tension well -- you know fantasy is going to converge with reality eventually, and since this is a horror story anthology someone is not going to fare well. However, you also see that convergence coming from a mile away, and the ending really is no surprise at all. Berman wisely cuts the story off just before the horrific event occurs and leaves the rest to our unsettled imagination.

339. Left Alone I appreciate the feeling behind this story -- the death of a loved one and how hard it is to recover from same -- but the execution left something to be desired. Fiction this short is hard to write purposefully and still tell a complete story (I don't think I've ever personally pulled it off) and while there's some great description in this story, I ultimately came away feeling like something was missing.  I also found myself wondering if the Dave in this story is the same Dave who later appears in "Resemblances," and if the Jarrod is the same character off-handedly mentioned in "Vespers" as one of the other frat brothers (and if that's true, one wonders if the off-screen conclusion of "Vespers" brings Jarrod to the fate described in "Left Alone").

340. Cries Beneath The Plaster Any form of artistic creation is all about the artist's ego; we all want our work to be loved and some of us will go to any lengths to get that love. The artist at the center of "Cries" in one of those. His life must be incredibly empty, from the sparse description given to it. It seems as though he has his sculpting (part of the "bizarro" movement, it would see -- extremely dark, outre subjects) and his random hookups with hustlers that infuse his work with a certain life's blood, for lack of a better term. Of course, the art we make can turn on us, and it's no surprise when the sculpture at the center of the story finds a way to turn on its creator.  Again, some great descriptions, but something in the story didn't quite click for me.

341. Finn's Night  It's been a long time since I last read Twain's Huckleberry Finn, so I'm not sure if this story is a twist on a part of the novel, or if it fills in a gap in Twain's narrative, or if Berman is just using the Huck character as a familiar touchstone. Regardless, Huck is really not the focus of the story, which is centered rather on the riverboat gambler Dupre and how he pulls a stowaway Huck under his wing in more ways than one. Huck's creativity shows through in the end, pulling the story's focus to him. As a bit of "what if Twain included gay characters in his work" experimentation, the story works. There's also nothing particularly supernatural in the story, although there are some moments that feel a bit on the horror side.

342. Resemblances is the first of the quartet of "Fallen Area" stories that close out the book. It provides a little bit of a link to the non-Fallen-Area stories (if the Dave in this story is the same as the Dave in "Left Alone") and introduces Berman's main FA recurring character, Caleb.  The more Fallen Area stories I read, the more I like the concept of a modern city barricaded off from the rest of the world because something had changed -- magic and some technology live side-by-side; normal people co-exist with Afflicted (people deformed by the Fall) and Talented (people who have developed unusual powers).  Dave is a Normal struggling to figure out why he has lost his ability (or is it just the will) to draw. The story takes place early on in the history of the Fallen Area; Dave is not even sure whether his apartment is in the FA or not. Caleb comes across as petty, arrogant, selfish, and incredibly powerful -- traits that will continue to manifest in future stories.  The story ends rather openly, although at least part of what happens next is described in a subsequent FA story.  Even for all that, Resemblances is perhaps the weakest of the FA stories in this volume; you get the sense Berman has a good idea for a fantasy world but has not yet actually developed it.

343. Tea Time With Corn Dolly is a stronger outing in the Fallen Area world. Caleb is a secondary character here (you get the sense people are mostly just afraid of him; that temper we saw in "Resemblances" rears its head here with almost disastrous results), and the focus is on an Afflicted named Corn Dolly. What was her name before the Fall? We don't know, and probably never will. This story is the first time we get the sense that the Fallen Area has been officially cordoned off from the rest of the world, and that adventurous souls (or those just at a loss for a life in the "real world") are allowed to cross into the FA -- it's sort of like the Hotel California, you can come in but you can never leave. Corn Dolly falls in immediate infatuation with a new arrival to the FA, a boy looking for his errant girlfriend.  It's obvious Berman has a stronger sense of his world in this story, because the theme of unrequited love plays out against the backdrop in a way that doesn't at all feel forced.

344. The Anthvoke, the third Fallen Area story, is strong on character. Caleb again puts in an appearance, and you start to get the sense that the willful, selfish, demanding, quick-to-anger boy of the earlier stories has begun to go through some kind of change. People are still afraid of him, but they also want a piece of him and he feels the pressure of being some kind of idol. But again, Caleb's story is background to the main story, about a lesbian couple who come to the Fallen Area so that one of them can "find what is special about herself." Both parties end up doing some soul-searching. Berman expands the Fallen Area's mythology a bit, gives us a sense that every Talent is a blessing and curse and which way your gift takes you depends largely on how strong of an anchor to yourself you have.  Which, when you think about it, is true of everyday life as well.

345. Hair Like Fire, Blood Like Silk concludes the collection and is the strongest of the Fallen Area stories (although to be fair, "The Anthvoke" is every bit as good). The focus is once again on a new arrival to the Fallen Area, a young man named Zane who comes under the wing of an only slightly older boy named Saj and learns firsthand just how dangerous the Fallen Area can be. This is the first story, in fact, where I really felt like the main characters were in danger of losing their lives (as opposed to "just" their individuality or ties to their previous lives).  Caleb puts in an appearance again, at just the right moment. Saj and Zane are both well-written characters experiencing the kind of first love / unrequited love / self-realization that lots of gay late teens go through, and that's what makes the story work so well.

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