CLUBHOUSE: Review: Parallel Prairies, Stories of Manitoba Speculative Fiction

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

PARALLEL PRAIRIES: Stories of Manitoba Speculative Fiction

Published by Enfield & Wizenty, an imprint of Great Plains Publications, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in 2018.

Edited by Darren Ridgley and Adam Petrash.

The Uncanny Road by S.M. Beiko

Premise: 

Kate, having attended her Grandmother’s funeral in Winnipeg, boards a Greyhound bus to get back to Brandon. The bus, like the weather, is hot and sticky, turning her trip into a journey through the nether regions. The bus crashes, everyone disappears, and Kate is left at the mercy of a sinister guide in a fantasy realm filled with peril.

Review:  

The ending left me puzzled. A disjointed horror/fantasy constructed of random elements? Is that all? I sat and thought for a while (something I normally try to avoid). Eventually I realized her relationship with the male characters was a dance between eagerness to please and paranoia. Aha! A metaphor for any woman coping with men. Suddenly it all made sense. The message of the story is that loss of innocence and betrayal of trust will lead to strength but at a price. I suspect female readers identify with this right away because Kate’s experience mirrors their own, whereas I was blithely focused on the obvious monsters. I see this story as reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland but with an ending more sobering and less hopeful than the original.

They Just Want to Play the Game by Sheldon Birnie 

Premise:

Jake Shipley lives in Manawaka. He gets kidnapped by aliens. Turns out all the aliens want is to win the Manawaka Golf Tournament. Jake, being a local pro, is in a position to help them out. Roy, his best buddy who caddies for him, is a bit dubious about Jake’s story.

Review:  

When I was sixteen-years-old I played golf on a full-sized course with my Uncle. Got a hole-in-one. My Uncle told me to keep quiet and not tell anyone because it was against the rules. I didn’t know it was his way of avoiding the tradition of buying drinks for everyone on the course. Haven’t played golf since. So, because everything about golf is fresh and new to me, I have no problem accepting the premise. Of course, traditionally the concept of aliens among us is presented for the sake of drama. In this story they are here purely for the “exotica” of what is for us mundane activity, which seems more an opportunity for the Chamber of Commerce than a threat to Norad. Yet, if they remain hidden, their presence is meaningless. That be the reassuring message of this pleasant tale.

The Comments Gaze Also Into You by David Jon Fuller

Premise:  

“The Herald” is an anti-troll troll who has the ability to cause hateful online trolls to reveal everything about themselves. He naively believes this will bring an end to trolldom. A few individuals, yes, but collectively all he has done is awaken a sleeping giant.

Review:  

Can’t get much more topical than this. How often we dream of getting trolls to shut up. And how incredibly naïve we are to think that mere exposure to truth and facts will defeat them. Thus we fall into their trap. Facebook isn’t a debating society. For every truth or fact you offer, they bludgeon you with a lie. You can’t win; a fact this revenge fantasy of a story shows very well.

The title is a nice reference to a point appropriate to this story originally made by Nietzsche.

Hunger by Christine Steendam

Premise:  

Justin is a young man who spends his Friday nights in Winnipeg drinking beer and playing pool. There’s been some unexplained assaults on people walking alone at night recently, but he’s not going to let a minor upsurge in crime spoil his routine. Unfortunately, the changing statistics hit hard at his local pub and spoil his beer.

Review:  

Difficult to comment without giving away the plot. Most natural disasters, being predefined in people’s minds through countless hours of news coverage and movies, are something people can cope with relatively easily. They understand what’s happened. They know what’s liable to happen next. Unnatural disasters, on the other hand …

Cod Liver Oil by Lindsay Kitson

Premise:

Giraud doesn’t ask for much: a wife with flesh on her bones, a wife who can cook. It’s a pity Marie is none of these things. She’s a slow, drab, talentless mouse of a woman. Till he buys her an elixir that is mostly cod liver oil with some bark and leaves and lemon juice mixed in. Marie perks up. Fills out her bra. Starts cooking, in more ways than one. But gosh darn it, starts thinking for herself. Drastic measures are called for.

Review:  

When I was a kid, people with bow legs and/or curved spines were a familiar sight because lack of vitamin D caused rickets. Today, vitamin D is a common additive in our diet, but back then us kids routinely took cod liver oil to stay healthy. Hated it. So, when I saw the role of cod liver oil in this story, I anticipated an element of parody. However, Giraud’s “Lord of the Household” attitude is too heavy-handed to allow for humour. Granted, the story takes place in some timeless period hard to pinpoint, but his misogynistic instincts seem excessive even by 19th century standards. The credibility of the premise is at risk. Or would be, were it not for the fact I’ve known “gentlemen” just like him. Ergo, his character is credible. Problem is, I don’t understand the ending. It strikes me as unexpectedly surreal and imprecise. My uncertainty about the resolution spoils the story for me.

Vincent and Charlie by Patrick Johanneson

Premise:  

Vincent, a retired farmer with dementia, rescues a classic “Grey” alien, whom he names Charlie, from a crashed spaceship and takes him to his farmhouse. Then government agents show up.

Review:

Quickly apparent this is inspired by the film “Men in Black.” Even Vincent is aware of the comparison. What makes this story fun to read is Vincent’s determination to protect Charlie from the agents. Turns out his dementia isn’t such a handicap after all, and the agent’s technology not as much of an advantage as they had thought. One of those “crazy old coot disrupts bureaucratic routine” stories. Amusing. With a tinge of sadness.

Seven Long Years by Jennifer Collerone

Premise:  

Every seven years a perpetually fourteen-year-old woman returns to her family home to meet up with the Coyote Whisp, a fellow pack member. Then they go down to the river to offer up their memories, and possibly their lives, to the voracious river which might otherwise destroy the town.

Review:  

I doubt this is meant to be interpreted literally. Marcus Aurelius famously commented that time is like a river in which events are no sooner seen than are swept away in a never-ending sequence. So, I assume the river in this story represents life ever onrushing, and the ritual sacrifice a commentary on the difficulty of coping with grief. Because of the focus this story strikes me as morbid. On the other hand, unanticipated loss is one of the foundations of tragedy, and tragedy one of the foundations of drama. So, this fantasy in which the emotion of loss is vividly examined is a perfectly legit piece of sophisticated fiction, but not something which appeals to me. A matter of individual taste.

Reason 4,286 by J.M. Sinclair

Premise:  

The assistant works for a witch who lives in a seventh-floor apartment in modern Winnipeg. She has a list of reasons why she prefers employing him over anyone else. Number 4,286 is his willingness to search dumpsters for useful things. On Christmas eve, in the dumpster in the alley below her apartment, he finds the corpse of a murder victim. The witch comes down to take a look and rifle the dead man’s pockets. Things get interesting when the corpse starts talking.

Review:  

A bit silly this, a bit of fun. It actually imparts a useful lesson on how to deal with other people’s problems. So, while a minor story, a dose of whimsy, I think it worth including in a high school anthology for the edification of young people. Entertaining and practical, if you want the kids to mature as decent folk.

All That Cold, All That Dark by Keith Cadieux

Premise:  

A young girl on the edge of puberty lives in the woods with her parents and Uncle Laird. Winter has come, and her father is dying. So Uncle Laird takes the girl on a months-long trek hunting and trapping. Trouble is, the animals eventually disappear as if the forest is now completely empty apart from, possibly, the Wendigo.

Review:  

Hunger conquers all, would seem to be the moral of the story. Even to the point of an unpleasant act I never imagined could be a thing. As for the ending, it seems to suggest doing the unthinkable can actually be quite satisfying, as if in fulfillment of a long dormant desire. A rather bleak, horrifying tale.

We Draw the Lines by Will J. Fawley

Premise:

Terry has two problems. First, he discovered his boyfriend having sex with another guy. Second, every time energy bursts out of his skin and he steps outside himself there’s a guy stalking him. What’s a dutiful son still living at home with his mom to do? He’s confused.

Review:  

On the surface this appears a story about a young guy with mutant abilities to manipulate space and energy being mentored by a more experienced shaman-like character. But I think the title says it all. It’s basically a coming of age story where a young man begins to redefine his self worth by learning to embrace his homosexuality. In the broader sense this implies that self-acceptance, no matter what one’s gender, preferences or nature, is key to fulfilling one’s potential. Then again, maybe it’s just a story about two mutants with supernatural powers who happen to be gay. Up to the reader to decide.

Judith by Jonathan Ball

Premise:  

Scott and Judith are going to get married. She insists they go to the mall and have him sit in one of the ubiquitous death machines. They’re never wrong. One told her long ago she would be killed by a bus. There’s nothing else to fear, which she finds very liberating. She wants him to be equally free. So he takes the test. The answer is very disturbing.

Review:  

An age-old question. Do you want to know how you will die? I don’t. Centuries ago Montaigne pointed out that people who fret over how to cope with death when they are still healthy and full of life are fools. Death is the most natural thing in the world. How you plan and prepare for it is only relevant to you up to the moment of death. Then the guy with the scythe takes over. Nevertheless, as this story demonstrates, if you do find out how you’re going to die, and the method turns out to be hugely inconvenient, that’s a problem for the remainder of your life. This is why it is best not to know.

Eating of the Tree by Chadwick Ginther

Premise:  

Marie is the sole nightshift security guard for the Union train station in Winnipeg. The rotunda roof blew off in a storm, and rather than have it replaced a wishing well was constructed around a tree that had somehow sprouted in the floor. Said tree is now the home of a bothersome squirrel, plus some dragons. Turns out the squirrel can talk. Marie learns the tree’s name is Yggdrasillsson. The nightshift is no longer as boring as it used to be.

Review:  

If you’re in the right mood this tale of Nordic mythology made real is a lot of fun. However, I think it’s a tad too light for the premise, that the movie references and bantering dialogue take away any genuine sense of threat. Given the dark undertones of Norse religion, it’s treatment here seems superficial. Then again, the story is meant to be a light-hearted lark and does work as such. It is entertaining. I’m just left with the vague feeling it could have been something more.

A Fistful of Wool by Darren Ridgley

Premise:

Dawn and Nellie are sisters. Nellie is younger, but was the star athlete of the two in school. Always got better marks, too. Turns out she had made a deal with the Devil who is now in the mood to collect. Dawn figures it’s time once again to protect her little sister.

Review:  

I like “deal with the devil” stories. I particularly enjoy the conversations with the Devil and what I always look for are signs of originality in the Devil’s point of view. This story doesn’t disappoint. I like it.

Insectum by Adam Petrash

Premise:

Mark has inherited his grandfather’s cabin. It’s been derelict for some time while grandad was in a nursing home. Mark brings his Wife Beth and their dog Molly to visit. Beth is creeped out on discovering all the dust-covered jars and display cases full of dead bugs. Grandad had been an entomologist. Turns out not all the bugs are dead.

Review:  

As someone who suffered from an intense insect phobia much of my life this is definitely an unpleasant horror story. Makes my skin crawl. More of a vignette than a story. The threat just sort of happens. Needs a better buildup, a growing sense of dread. What there is of it is too subtle. I feel the dramatic potential is not fully realized. Still scary, though.

Limestone, Lye, and the Buzzing of Flies by Kate Heartfield

Premise:  

As kids Tom and Daphne loved to bicycle to Fort Garry and hang out with the reenactor staff. Eventually they are both hired to work there. Tom becomes the blacksmith and Daphne demonstrates various crafts for the tourists. She develops the habit of singing while working. They aren’t songs. They’re spells. Tom and Daphne are no longer reenactors. They have become the real thing.

Review:

A rather charming fantasy at first, till the old prejudice against witchcraft kicks in. When I was a kid I used to fantasize about becoming a reenactor in one of the Ontario War of 1812 forts, so this story has great appeal for me. Quite enjoyed it.

Wisagatcak’s Journey by Wayne Arthurson

Premise:  

Vianne is in a state of suspended animation aboard a space ship. She is annoyed the Trickster Wisagatcak has chosen to visit her mind in a tableau illustrating the false reconciliation period before the First Nations recovered their territory and expanded to the stars. Normally he wouldn’t intrude, but it seems someone else is playing tricks and he wants to protect her.

Review:  

This is a cracking good alternate reality yarn. Wisagatcak isn’t some hologram aboard a starship, but an actual Cree Trickster deity interfering in a violent flareup of First Nations interstellar politics. The mechanics of the story, though good, are not the attraction. It’s the background culture that is refreshingly different. For decades it has always been assumed expansion through the galaxy would be the white man’s gift to humanity. This story postulates otherwise.

Anne Blaine by Craig Russell

Premise:  

Anne discovers an uncatalogued pamphlet in the library of the University of Manitoba. It refers to a mysterious mound out on the Prairie. She borrows a Land Rover to check it out, only to discover two Librarians have preceded her.

Review:  

This is Lovecraftian science fiction. Consequently, I greatly enjoyed reading it. I like how all the elements tie together in a coherent premise that raises questions about humanity’s ability to cope with alien contact first, second, and ongoing. And it was nice to see it wasn’t what came out of the mound so much as the mound itself that was the threat. An original touch, that. Fun story.

Summer Friend by Chris Allinotte

Premise:  

Michael is a young boy trying not to be bored during a weekend outing with his dad at a lake where no one else is around. Along comes a girl named Karen. She seems a bit mean at first, then kind of fun to be with, then sort of stimulating, what with her beginning to fill out her T-shirt. Maybe he’s finally old enough to be interested in girls. Only one problem stands in the way of true love. An insurmountable problem.

Review:  

Despite tensions and fears this is actually a pleasant coming of age story. Michael sets himself the task of helping Karen while ignoring the prospect of a high penalty to pay. Good to see a selfless kid determined to do the right thing. I like the matter of fact way he goes about it. The supernatural elements don’t faze him at all. He’s got what it takes.

My Mother’s Familiar by Gilles DeCruyenaere

Premise:  

Normal people have familiars. In this case an eleven-year-old boy has a fox, his brother a deer mouse, his father a turtle, and his mother a lynx named Myriette who unfortunately shares the mother’s psychotic episodes.

Review:  

The old saying goes “you can choose your friends but you are stuck with your relatives.” And, it appears, stuck with your familiars, for life. Something more than pets, yet less than family, they nevertheless tend to dominate your emotional state for good or ill. Quite a conundrum, especially when a family member dies and the familiar becomes unattached. Opens up a whole new set of family life problems I’d never thought about till now. Most interesting. Inventive.

CONCLUSION: 

This anthology features a collection of stories ranging far wider than I anticipated. There is, perhaps, a Canada-wide tendency to underestimate Manitoba. Even the editors were surprised to find such “a wealth of talent with deep ties to the province.” Indeed, that is one of the delights of this book, that every one of the diverse stories illustrate what is like to live in Manitoba. The overall impression I get is that the province is a harsh, demanding land but not without its beauty and rewards. Amazing what stories the contributors wrested from its soil. I confess this book exceeded my expectations. Well worth reading.

Check it out at:    < Parallel Prairies >

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