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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

The 3rd Alternative, #42

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“Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow (The Coming of the Autoscopes)” by Paul Meloy
“The Word ‘Mermaid’ Written on an Index Card” by Douglas Lain
“The Vegetable Lamb” by Matthew Francis
“House of the Rising Sun” by Elizabeth Bear
“Lago di Iniquità” by Darren Speegle
“Reality Interrupted” by Jason Erik Lundberg


Issue #42 of The 3rd Alternative offers up a fun mix of horror and humor, myth and legend. Editor Andy Cox has selected a number of memorable stories.

In Paul Meloy’s “Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow (The Coming of the Autoscopes),” the aptly named English village of Invidisham-next-the-Sea plays host to a battle between the rival forces of Entropy and Recreation (as in re-creation; and if creation is remade, what happens to all of us? These are the good guys, by the way). Among the colorful cast of characters are Rory, a supermarket grunt, and his brother Mick, a stand-up comic and Paladin—a Recreationist, in other words.

As you might guess from that thumbnail, Meloy has taken the good vs. evil story and made it his own. His mythology feels both familiar and novel. I had loads of fun reading this story, so much so that I feel curmudgeonly griping about anything. But the critic in me has a few nits to pick . . . and then I’ll tell you why Meloy’s story rocks.

The story shifts back and forth between first person (Mick) and third person (Rory) points of view. That took a bit of getting used to, but I’m a big boy. When, towards the end, Meloy introduces a third person (Mick again!) point of view, I felt a bit miffed, and began to wonder why the author was playing such POV games. He’s also guilty of a bit of misdirection (in the title, and in the first scene) which I thought detracted from the story somewhat.

Now for the good stuff. Meloy’s a master of description:

    . . . under baking lights beneath a glass cloche lay a slew of computer-grey turkey slices and a few brittle rinds of pork gleaming like infected wounds. There was a well scummed-over, meconium-coloured gravy.

and characterization:

    [Mick] sent Rory one of his reviews, cut out of the local paper: Some people burn with an incandescent blaze of talent. Mick Reeks smoulders like a tyre-dump fire: slow and remorseless, giving off low-slung clouds of bitter, toxic fumes. Rory wishes he had talent.

Meloy is also funny as hell:

    [Rory] could still hear Dean, who was informing the others in fond tones of his little stepdaughter: “She’s made a hole up between her Cindy doll’s legs with a ballpoint and’s using my roll-up filters as tampons. Growing up so fast these days.”

It’s an awesome triple-hit, one which makes Meloy’s world come alive. He loads just the right amount of detail into his characters and his setting, taking plenty of time and care with both, so that when the ichor hit the fan, I knew these people and their town, knew them like I’d been watching them on the screen for the last two hours. I’ve chosen that simile on purpose; the climactic scenes felt especially cinematic.

If Meloy isn’t working on a novel set in this wonderful universe, he ought to be.

Douglas Lain’s “The Word ‘Mermaid’ Written on an Index Card” concerns the love of two wrecked souls transformed by magic: a boy and his mermaid. The boy, John, got himself thrown out of the U.S. Navy’s basic training for psych reasons. One day in class, “I listened to the CO but I couldn’t connect his words to the room I was in, to the way my legs felt, to the way my back bent. Total disconnect.” He flips. Now he tries to reconnect words to the world by writing them down on three-by-five cards and sticking them to the object in question.

The mermaid, Annie, bottomed out in the drug world. Hunger drove her to eat a dollar bill, which made her a new woman, one who can breathe water and eat garbage.

My knowledge of mermaids derives from movies, from the whimsical (Local Hero) to the saccharine (Splash). Let’s not talk about The Little Mermaid. My point is that there’s certainly room for a grittier, more urban retelling of the mermaid legend, and for me, Lain’s story amply fills that need. I enjoyed Annie and John’s off-kilter romance, cared about John’s transformation (healing? redemption?) and found myself wanting more of both. But the story has its flaws.

The central image of John trying to ground himself using three-by-five cards, while initially poignant, eventually felt overdone. At times, John’s character comes alive, as when he hassles (and is hassled by) his mother’s realtor, and, also, in this passage:

    I’m smoking in the condominium unit and watching the evening news. I breathe out puffs, watch the smoke stream away, up to the vent in the ceiling, while, on television, a smart bomb is filming its target as it comes down. The Gulf War as Candid Camera.

At other times, John felt less than real to me. In particular, I had trouble believing in the details and development of his psychological breakdown. Since this material occupies much of the first third, I thought this story was a slow-starter. I liked it a good deal more by the end.

Some folks might like the lush, adjective-laden prose of Matthew Francis’s “The Vegetable Lamb,” but I found it stilted and wordy. Here’s the story: in the far-off land of Tartary, the wife of the British Consul seeks out a rare delicacy known as the vegetable lamb. Her local contacts have, until recently, led her a merry chase. Tonight she’s hosting a big dinner, and the main attraction will be that rarest of items, a whole, fresh vegetable lamb.

I wanted to like Mrs. Crawford. She’s sort of a British colonial Tony Bourdain, a foodie’s foodie, someone for whom the marketplace is everything, has been since her youth:

    At sixteen she ran away from home with an unsuitable young man, the first of what she refers to as her semi-elopements, and they lived in France for a long autumn, looking for truffles with a rented pig.

I liked the Consul’s wife already, and continued to like her, even though Francis gives us lots of reasons to feel otherwise: her indifferent reasons for marrying; her snottiness to her staff; her petulance to her lover, Rodericj; and, finally, her growing paranoia as her dinner party falls apart. Nevertheless, she’s a foodie, I’m a foodie, and I wanted to be in her corner. And I would have been in her corner, except that the writing kept getting in the way of the story—particularly, Francis’s convoluted and passive sentences, such as

    It is the vegetable lamb that has brought her to Tartary.

Or,

    One of her strangest experiences on arriving at the Consulate in Xanadu was to be taken by Dolgiz to the cellar and shown, in a small alcove beyond the racks of port and claret, a pyramid of cans, many of them rusty and missing their labels, gleaming in the light from the bare bulb.

The escalating paranoia lends a nice tension to the story, but in my opinion it didn’t go anywhere—undoubtedly because I didn’t understand the ending. The usual caveats apply: was I too inattentive in my two readings to figure it all out, or has Francis written an unclear tale?

As a postscript, Francis provides a long description of the vegetable lamb. It’s the sort of thing the Consul’s wife might have written, but aside from that, I didn’t see the point. Is this intended as a metaphor for the protagonist’s life? I don’t think so. And if it’s not that, why is it here at all?

“House of the Rising Sun” is a small but glittering gem by Elizabeth Bear. Sycorax and Tribute are vampires, Sycorax the dom in this relationship. As Tribute explains, Sycorax has a problem:

    Old as she was, she had to have blood more often and she couldn’t take it straight from a human anymore. She needed someone like me to purge the little taints and poisons from it first—and even then, I had to be careful what I brought home.

That’s right: Tribute feeds off of humans, and Sycorax feeds off of Tribute. I don’t read much from the vampire sub-genre, but I understand it’s getting harder and harder to come up with something new. This twist felt fresh enough, but the story soon takes a wickedly humorous turn. Tribute is someone old and dear, and when you figure out who he is, you’ll surely smile.

Darren Speegle’s “Lago di Iniquità” is one of the strongest stories of the set. Though not as funny or exciting as Paul Meloy’s “Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow,” I think Speegle’s story will be sticking in my head a lot longer.

The story begins with an unsettling image. Lovers Tim and Lily are retracing a tragic vacation Tim took with his wife and children five years before. They’re traveling through the Italian Alps; Lily, looking out at the view, proclaims that “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” The unsettling part is Tim’s reaction:

    I had the brief inexplicable urge to press my palm against the tanned arch of her back, to cause her to have a flutter of doubt about my intentions as I forced her to look at the stone building below.

Tim sees himself as “a widower with a portfolio and a phobia for deeper attachments.” He is dually possessed: haunted by the fate of his family, and also claimed by the legend of Saint Laguaro, “a wandering monk who had wept tears of olive oil into a secluded Alpine lake in what he termed a valle di iniquità—valley of iniquity.” While Lily sees this trip as a prenuptial honeymoon, Tim sees it as a way of finding peace. Peace which he thinks Saint Laguaro might bring.

This story isn’t so much told as peeled back, layer after layer, with the core of the story saved for the very end as a terminal rabbit punch. The effect is powerful.

What Speegle is after, I think, is an exploration of Tim’s darkness; it seems a massive understatement to call it a guilty conscience. Nor would it be accurate to claim that “in this story, an inner demon becomes all too real.” That would suggest a bogeyman, whereas the truth is far more complex and disturbing.

Jason Erik Lundberg’s “Reality Interrupted (A Jackson Pollock Gone Horribly Wrong)” is a fun tale of the supernatural. Goran has led a charmed life ever since he had sex with Blue, an—oh, I won’t ruin it for you. Let’s just say she’s not human. Goran has absorbed some of Blue’s magic, and now, she wants it back.

The writing is smooth and crisply visual, and the dialog sparkles. I could just about hear Goran’s Serbian accent, as with his reaction to a cup of chai:

    “This shit,” he said. “They do not know how to make chai in this country. Kod Konja in Belgrade, now there was a place could make you think you were drinking Heaven.”

Interesting surprises pop up in this story, such as Blue’s identity, or the nature of the place Goran goes to after he loses the magic. Pay too close attention and you’ll ruin your enjoyment with plot nits (why does Blue have sex with humans if it diminishes her magic? Why has she waited so long to reclaim what is hers from Goran? And why does she need the magic back now?) Go with the flow, and you’ll meet an interesting character (Goran) who ultimately is given a thought-provoking choice, one which comes with a unique sacrifice.

[Editor's note: And so we bid a fond, and tearful adieu to the wonderful and eclectic blend of fiction which we have known as The Third Alternative.  Phoenix-like, it will return next issue, renamed Black Static. See the TTA Press Discussion Forum for full details.]