Skeleton

PHOTO PROMPT © Bill Reynolds

A decade, Clem thought. That’s how long the skeleton of a building he was about (perhaps) to buy had been abandoned.

Only the roof’s ribs remained, no evidence of its former covering. Discolored and torn plastic sheets hanging from a few standards seemed improvised, temporary. A few long sheets of ribbed metal laying on the ground were the walls’ more likely remnants.

The interior was a bric-a-brac of weeds rising above disheveled piles of cinderblock and palettes. Near the absent front door, a mountain bike, incongruous except for its disrepair.

“Gone in two weeks,” Clem said, deciding on the purchase.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.

The Glass Table

PHOTO PROMPT © Fleur Lind

“Odd construction for a table,” she said as the waiter left.

His head was turned toward the window to his right, attention focused somewhere outside.

“The curved glass-block windows,” she continued. “Not a typical base. Unique, but expensive.”

Two women at a nearby table erupted in laughter. He continued looking out the window.

“Is the top glass or some…”

“Composite,” he said without turning his head. “Glass would be heavier.” An acknowledgement, finally.

“There’ll be other opportunities.” She had to try again. “You’ll get there.”

He turned to her, smiling. “I admire your faith,” he said, as their waiter returned.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.

Horriblement Reussi

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

Now that he was home, perhaps he could figure out what happened.

A typical day, until the sky’s darkened mid-afternoon. His office lost electricity. Fifteen seconds of black void, then power returned as the skies cleared.

Everything seemed normal until he drove home. That’s when he saw the altered traffic signs (Arret, not Stop), billboards, and business names. English had been replaced with French, everywhere.

Geography hadn’t changed, fortunately, making his journey home uneventful despite the altered signage.

After several hours of Internet research (thanks, Google Translate), he discovered the truth. An experiment in parallel-universe travelling had been horribly successful.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.

On Stranger Things and the definition of “genre”

I’ve been late in expressing my appreciation for Stranger Things. The Netflix science fiction/horror show had completed its second season two years after my initial and only review, and I didn’t comment on the third season. With the fourth and penultimate season having just aired, I got some catching up to do.

But before I talk about those kooky kids from Hawkins, I’ve got to rant fairly extensively about the use of the word genre in the world of prose fiction.

Among aspiring short story writers like myself, fiction is often divided into two broad categories – literary fiction and genre fiction. For literary fiction, think of the classic authors you were assigned to read in school – Hemingway, Parker, O’Connor, Baldwin. Think of the high-brow magazines: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s. The predominant style of writing in literary fiction is realism, although surrealism and nonlinear narratives are also prevalent. The diction tends to be erudite, the significance multi-layered.

Genre fiction is… everything that’s not literary fiction. That’s a smart-aleck comments that’s actually more or less accurate. There are really many different genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror (these three are often assigned to the umbrella category speculative fiction), mystery, romance… the list goes on. Think of the authors you read outside of class, and the few remaining popular magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Can the difference between literary and genre be expressed in a single sentence? Several definitions have been offered, one I see quite often. It goes something like this:

Literary fiction focuses on character; genre fiction focuses on plot.

I absolutely hate this definition, and I want to use Stranger Things to validate my hatred.

Yeah, I’m mixing media here. For television, the literary vs. genre distinction in fiction translates into highbrow and lowbrow programming, with Downtown Abbey in the former category and The Simpsons in the latter. Few fans or critics would consider Stranger Things highbrow; its use of familiar science fiction and horror tropes makes it a genre show.

But as for focusing on plot… as I said in my initial review of the first two seasons, the plot of Stranger Things has all the complexity of a Scooby Doo cartoon. I honestly can’t provide a coherent summary of the show’s primary events; something about secret government experiments and parallel universes and dogs without faces… a group of teenagers saving the world multiple times with the aid of a girl with super-powers… oh and there’s Russians.

The plot of Stranger Things is preposterous.

Then why is this the most popular show in Netflix’s history?

It’s the characters. That aspect genre fiction and lowbrow television supposedly neglects for the sake of plot.

I’m drawn in by Eleven’s vulnerability, Mike’s heart, Will’s longing, Max’s grit, Dustin’s spastic ingenuity, Lucas’ calm intellect. Joyce and Hopper’s romance is as awkward as it is touching. The rest of the supporting cast is equally engaging. No television show has portrayed geek culture as accurately and honestly; the dialogue, relationships, and emotions, both positive and negative, are spot-on.

They are characters you root for because they are fully realized. The threats they face hardly matter; the humanity of the Hawkins gang is what’s important. I have never cheered for a fictional character as much as I did when Max ran for safety at the end of the fourth episode in the latest season.

Genre/lowbrow only cares about plot? Show me a speculative story with bad characters and I’ll stop reading halfway through. I’m hoping writers and producers take note of what makes Stranger Things so phenomenally successful and bring fully developed characters into their stories.

Permafrost

This series of reviews of literary journals and genre magazines has become quite irregular, yet I’ll keep it going until it no longer interests me. As of today, I’m still interested.

Permafrost is a literary magazine founded by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 1977. The journal publishes an online and print edition every year.

What They Say About Themselves: “As the editors of the farthest north literary magazine, we’ve chosen an unconventional, expansive place to live. That, too, is what we seek in your submissions… Like many people, we’d rather read an interesting failure than something safe and boring, but interesting successes are really what we’re after here. Engage us. Challenge our perceptions. Increase our capacity for empathy. Make us aware of prejudices we didn’t know we had. Teach us how to see beauty in the way that you do.”

Issue Reviewed: 42.2 (2021)

Genre: Mostly literary realism, although there’s a good deal of speculative work as well

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Elevation,” by Alfredo Lafarga. Alex struggles to hike up a mountain after receiving a cryptic voicemail message from a woman who knows his brother. A convincing tale about two people who love a man they know doesn’t deserve to be loved.

Exploding Helicopters: Three Explosions. Most stories were very engaging.

Profanometer: Dammit. Not as many four-letter words as I find in other literary journals.

Rejuvenation

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

The major cities had grown in size while shrinking in number, each its own benevolent dictatorship. Outside the cities civilization had stalled, like a car out of gasoline.

Those wanting to live outside of authoritarian rule went to the towns, where resource rationing was necessary. Liberty required sacrifice.

Technology not requiring electricity was rejuvenated. Bicycles, watermills, typewriters, spinning wheels, smithies, spring-driven clocks, agricultural use of domesticated animals. Humanity needed a generation to re-learn how to use technologies it had ignored for centuries, but the knowledge and skills returned.

Some saw it as social regression. Others as humanity’s return to sanity.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.

Scholarly Debate

PHOTO PROMPT © Jan Wayne Fields

Aldainian researchers debated the purpose of Christmas Trucks for months.

Scholars hadn’t even agreed on the tradition of installing and decorating a dead tree, a custom more prevalent in the planet’s northern hemisphere. The trees somehow functioned to increase both religious observance and non-essential spending.

Unlike those curious trees, the plants delivered by Christmas Trucks were alive. They were generally unadorned, and served no observable ritual or commercial purpose.

Penance for the tree’s death? Inspiration for purchasing activity? Agreement proved impossible.

The debate raged until Aldanian scholarship turned attention to the role of chicken eggs in northern hemisphere spring rituals.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.

Day 835

For a few weeks in May, the color-coded map used by the state of Ohio to identify the spread of COVID-19 showed my county in green. Yet by the middle of the month we migrated up to yellow, then orange, and all the way to red. We’ve since eased down to yellow and have remained there most of June.

The community college where I tutor lifted its masking requirement in the middle of May, re-instated mandatory masking in June, and has now made masks optional. I check my college email account before going to campus to check the current rule because that’s the only way I can keep up. There’s far fewer students in the tutoring center during summer session, so most of the time I’m alone with another vaccinated tutor. Most staff I see on campus are masked, but since I typically have little direct contact with anyone I only wear a mask when a student comes in.

Masking isn’t required for my grocery store job, but I wear one anyway as I’m in close contact with hundreds of people during my eight-hour shift. Only 10% of our customers and employees are masked.

Both of my sons were infected recently. My wife and I quarantined the son who lives with us and we had to cancel a trip we’d planned to visit our other son. Both sons were vaccinated and boosted; they also take reasonable precautions. Their cases were mild and they came out of isolation five days after testing negative. Infection seems almost inevitable for my wife and I, and our hope is that by staying up to date on our inoculations we’ll get through our illnesses as easily as our sons.

I’ve decided not to return to my fencing club until I’m reasonably certain our county won’t turn orange or red on Ohio’s COVID map. At this point I have no idea when that will happen.

No Longer Liked

PHOTO PROMPT © John Nixon

“Can I help you?” asked Clem. The elderly man wasn’t blocking anyone, but he’d been standing in the doorway long enough to make Clem uncomfortable.

The man didn’t acknowledge the question as he stared into the antiques store. Clem asked again. “Is everything all right?”

“That dress,” the man finally said. Clem changed the mannequin’s dress at the entrance every few days. “Where’d you get it?”

“I dunno,” Clem replied truthfully. “Some people donate or sell us stuff from an estate. My aunt goes to yard sales. Do you… like it?”

“Used to,” the man said, backing away. “Not anymore.”

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.

At Least the Flowers Were Worth Keeping

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

“It arrived at 4,” she said. “The delivery driver said the senders chose to withhold their information.”

He walked into the kitchen and saw the present on the table. “The flowers are nice,” he said. “We should keep those. Balloon’s gotta go, though.” He began untying the red ribbon from the vase.

“Who sent it?”

“My co-workers.” He envisioned their sarcastic grins tomorrow morning. “I apologized for my recent surly behavior at a staff meeting today.”

“Seems a little passive-aggressive to me.”

“Another day at the office,” he replied, picking up scissors from an end table and stabbing the balloon.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction challenge.