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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 236

At Winter’s End

Issue 236 marks a kind of seasonal change at the early, supposedly energy-saving but actually sleep-losing shift to Daylight Savings Time. I’m reminded of a children’s joke: “If a rooster laid an egg exactly on the ridgepole of a roof, which way would it roll?” Thus, issue 236 finds itself poised neatly between grin and gloom, dancing and doom.

The serials can’t really be considered in the mirth vs. mope calculation: they’re all set to conclude in issue 237 and have reached the stage of darkness before the dawn — or before doomsday; stay tuned. However, four of the contributions to this issue are in comic mode.

  1. First, a little quiz. Match the titles on the left with the descriptions on the right:

    Crystalwizard, “Stryker’s Tail
    Katherine Allen, “For Want of a Mango
    Karen Bradley, “A Breach in Interdimensional Security
    Mary B. McArdle, “Ribbons
    a comedy of manners
    optimism in rhetoric
    an existential joke
    slapstick comedy

    Bonus question: Explain what constitutes the “optimism in rhetoric.” Hint: the work is in the form of a demonstration: “how not to do it” followed by “how to do it.”

  2. The more downbeat contributions vary widely:

    1. Why would it be a mistake to read Jean-Michel Calvez’ “Afterland” as a science fiction story? Who are “they,” and what do the blighted world and barely breathable atmosphere really represent?

    2. Donald Schneider’s review essay links Carmen Ruggero’s “Last Tango on a Wintry Day” to other works with which Mr. Schneider is familiar:

      • In what way is the comparison to Scarlett O’Hara’s starvation in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind appropriate? In what way does Carmen’s memoir depict the opposite of Scarlett O’Hara?

      • William Golding’s Lord of the Flies depicts the bleakest pessimism and despair about human nature. The Nobel committee, in one of its all too frequent flights of insanity, awarded Mr. Golding a literature prize for his extended cliché. In what way does Carmen’s memoir reflect a viewpoint opposite to that of Golding’s novel?

    3. How does Byron Bailey’s “The Stinging” resemble in some ways Luke Jackson’s “You Are Alien”? In what way do the insects relate to each other and to human beings in both stories?

    4. Germán Amatto’s “Cardboard Heart” has a double focus: it depicts a young boy on a subway ride to Hell; at the same time it depicts the futility of his distrbuting religious icons on little cards. Does “Cardboard Heart” implicitly denounce superstition or religion itself?

    5. Michael Lee Johnson’s “In This Place, Poverty Falls” characterizes Linda’s living in poverty as a crucifixion:

      Torment bristles with each morning.
      Nailed to a cross within her house,
      Linda lives.

      The end of the poem follows up the image indirectly:

      Being held accountable
      in God’s attic she smiles.

      But what is meant? That poverty is physically painful? Or that someone — perhaps God, it’s impossible to tell — has deliberately reduced Linda to poverty? A crucifixion is organized evil: a judicial murder inflicted by a worldly power. Is that is the case with Linda? Or is Linda in the same straits as Nahuel in “Cardboard Heart”?

    6. One of our unofficial mottoes: “There is no story so truly Bewildering as reality.” B. J. Bourg’s “Bear Illegal” shows two conspirators who are both incredibly stupid and lucky. Bear — pardon the expression — in mind that B. J. is a veteran police officer and SWAT team instructor. Do you think we should write to B. J. and ask whether this story is taken from real life?

    7. Eric J Kregel’s “The Trouble with Sitting” depicts a clairvoyant similar to Johnny Smith of the TV series The Dead Zone. The main difference is that Smith’s visions come from touch; Terrance’s come from sitting in other people’s chairs.

      Now, in literature, the act of sitting down is almost invariably associated with comedy. Why?

      “The Trouble with Sitting” is a straightfoward action story in Dead Zone style. Using the same premise — sit in a chair, peek into another’s soul — write us a story in comic mode.

[Editor’s note] My thanks to the review editors for comments and questions that I’ve gladly borrowed for the official Challenge.

Responses welcome!

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