David Herrle reviews Monterey Shorts 2: More on the Line
published by FWOMP Publishing
"So what is it about this chunk of rock jutting out into the Pacific that continues to draw woo-woo creative types who just can't stop writing and sharing their stories, no matter what the odds?" - Joyce Krieg, foreword author of Monterey Shorts 2
Anthologies are passive competitions. They present various works by various authors in a single volume, and each work is at the mercy of the other works. No hiding, no singular authority - just bare comparison. A story may have given strength on its own, but it can weaken next to more formidable pieces. And readers' judgment shifts from the particular story to the accompanying array. So authors who deliberately brave anthologies deserve commendation right at the starting gate.
Raise your hand if you remember 1980s breakdancing. Think of breakdancing showdowns. Competing groovers would take turns flaunting their contortionist/rhythmic skills, flexing complexity and coolness. This has continued in hiphop duels. (Great substitutes for violence, by the way.) Anthologies remind me of such harmless displays of prowess. And whether they're meant to be passive competitions or not, readers make them so. Certain works are preferred over others according to readers' tastes and scholarship.
Also, folks aren't as prone to read anthologies straight through as they would novels. Collections run the risk of tediousness and the curse of "too long" - and, worse, of being set aside and forgotten. This isn't exclusive to short-story collections by different authors, of course. There are few things less daunting than a comprehensive volume of a single author's works. When I see THE COMPLETE WORKS OF whoever, I flee. A complete Shakespeare anthology can double as a New Orleans levee. (I have an Oscar Wilde Complete Works that I seldom open. I prefer separate, wieldy copies.) Other single-author anthologies show just how little he/she actually produced in a lifetime, which is just depressing.
Monterey Shorts 2, written and published by the Fiction Writers Of The Monterey Peninsula (FWOMP), bravely faces the odds of negative reception on two counts: it's an anthology of different authors and it's lengthy (394 pages of text aside from extra material). To shy readers this can be a deal breaker - if they are too wimpy to give the book a chance, that is. If you give the effort, Monterey Shorts 2 acts as a matching fund of sorts: it will help you with momentum and interest that might usually flag during most anthology reads.
Why and how? Primarily because of what this book is and who it's from. Many collections merely feature selected stories from prominent authors. Sometimes they are related under a certain genre at most. But MS2 adds a special consideration by centering the stories around the Monterey Peninsula. More importantly, the stories are by residents and lovers of the region. So the book is more than its components - it's a roundtable of invested writers who are as present in their fiction as hiphoppers are in their raps. Here's a breakdancing display for readers to enjoy: writers essentially saying to each other, "Good move or nice riff. Try this one!" Though there is no evidence of competitiveness, the authors seem to have had fun manifesting their own fictional permutations within a common regional history and geography. Even the visual artist who provided the book-cover image, Dan Koffman, is incorporated into a story, if I'm not mistaken, through the mention of a Blue Nude.
This is what I favored about MS2. Moving on to the next story, I thought, "Time for Chris Kemp to bust a move" or "Okay, Linda Price. Let's see what you came up with." I felt privy to the group in the photo on the back cover; I imagined pre-production discussions and workshops between them. Monterey Shorts was originally presented as a project, and the project "feel" stays in the very stories. That's not a weakness but a strength. The Fiction Writers Of the Monterey Peninsula are very present in their work. The FWOMP project itself is as stark as the back-cover photograph of the authors.
"Look, mom! Real Peninsula people!"
A fundamental treat is the frequent contextual inclusion of local legends and historical facts. Chris Kemp, one of the authors and one of the three editors (next to Byron Merritt and Ken Jones), describes MS2 as "steeped in the myth, mystery, and magic of the Monterey area."
Some characters recur in other authors' stories, compouding the group effort at world creation, a device mostly familiar in John Steinbeck and Faulkner. Something other than a character also recurs: A twice-stolen, charmed snakeskin jacket is later acquired by a vampire. Yes, a charmed snakeskin jacket and, yes, a vampire. More on that later.
I must admit that my appreciation for the book might have been higher if I'd been previously acquainted with FWOMP's debut release, Monterey Shorts. I'm sure those fresh stories are more foundational (at least one source has claimed better). Regardless, the fact of a second book shows that the first was not only a success but inspirational enough for the authors to do it again. I'm sure a deep pride has settled in the group by now, and MS2 shows confidence - and genuine enjoyment - in the latest combined effort.
The book doesn't lack negative aspects. I could do with less physical description of characters and do with more dramatic dialogue or psychology in some stories. Some spots in the shorts seem to dry too quickly on the line, but no story fails. Though I grant gimmicks their place in print and film, some readers might not dig one or two twists in MS2. M. Night Shyamalan rode gloriously through his first two flicks on well-oiled gimmicks, but his concluding zinger in The Village was squeaky and annoying. Other directors hopped onto the bandwagon with The Others, Secret Window, the horrible horrible horrible Hide and Seek, etc. (The only post-Shyamalan twist flick I sincerely appreciated was Swimming Pool.) Short-story collections tend to gravitate toward twists and revelations, however. Look at some of Maupassant's, Poe's, or O. Henry's pieces.
Byron Merritt originated FWOMP. Though I usually find it tacky to identify folks by their famous relatives, I'm compelled to share the fact that Merritt is Frank Herbert's grandson. "Frank Herbert?" folks living in bubbles might ask. He was the esteemed author of the Dune novels. Frank's son, Brian Herbert (Byron's uncle), is a current author responsible for Prisoners of Arionn, Sudanna Sudanna, some Dune sequels, etc. [Read Merritt's touching piece on Frank here.]
The way of the world dictates that George Clooney's cousin is known as "George Clooney's cousin," alas. But I doubt Merritt is bothered by the lifelong association. He seems genuinely proud - and his own worthy endeavors mark him as an achiever and not a derivative. One might say his own authorship is based on (dare I say it) merit. In my slight experience with his work so far (mainly in the two stories in MS2) Merritt proves his own brand of writing. And though he "came from good stock," as the vulgar say, the name Byron Merritt needs no genetic credentials.
Out of the initial thirty-three folks from Merritt's debut meeting of critical writers, ten currently remain: Merritt, Chris Kemp, Shaheen Schmidt, Linda Price, Mike Tyrrel, Ken Jones, Walter E. Gourlay, Lele Dahle, Mark Angel, and Frances J. Rossi. [Brief profiles on each writer are available here.] Chris Kemp called their collective product "a labor of love..." In this case the cliche is excused and appropriate. There are two stories from each author, providing the opportunity for me to cheesily say each author gets to hang a pair of shorts on the line. Let's peek at the following teasers. (Non-inclusion does not mean inferiority. I'm only doing a cross-section with pieces that immediately leap to mind.)
Lele Dahle begins the book with "Monkey House Inn." Titles, for me, are crucial. They are as important as character names, paint colors, perfume, breakfast, and first impressions. "Monkey House Inn" is a good hook (and not because it may remind one of Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House). I like the quirky setup: A trio of pet monkeys mourning the death of their owner, a prostitute mother, an orphan girl who turns out to be a Lizzy Borden, a woman who wakes from a coma to find that she is a whole other person (body and all) with a whole other life - 81 years later.
"Gods and Ghosts" by Chris Kemp is a weird story that starts out with a despaired writer considering suicide - who apparently meets a sexy incarnation of his favorite female character. The rest is best left to curiosity, but I'll applaud an original and humorous moment: to test her corporeality, the writer throws an ash tray at his character to see if it hurts. Is this a metaphor for writers' fundamental, masturbatory solipsism? (After all, isn't suicide the ultimate self-centeredness?) Neil Gaiman-ish strangeness meets the Twilight Zone.
Kemp and Byron Merritt are the most similar of the FWOMPs. Merritt's "A Break in the Trail" surpasses his other story, "Finding Anna" (which offers a unique twist on fairies). Both stories show Merritt's knack for the odd, but "Break" adds a Heinlein irony to true history. To preserve the story's effective revelation, I'll only say that it involves an imaginary private awakening of a historical stagecoacher from the mid-19th-Century. Merritt achieves suspense, handles an intense scene of horrible crime, and presents a field-day case for Ziggy Freud. (A partnership between two stagecoachers and a heavy secret evoked Faulkner's Light In August and Joe Christmas' mystery.) Intermittent plots create a cool illusion of simultaneity. Broken trails fill this story: trails of parenthood and trust, trails of gender, actual trails, and trails of convention.
Mike Tyrrel is a father of two precocious daughters. His pride in them extends into fiction in "Time Pieces." (This is one of the the two stories his daughters selected for MS2.) The two main characters are named Dot and Katy (Tyrrel's daughters' very names), sisters who are knowledgeable and inquisitive. When they find "a most peculiar device" among the things in their adopted grandfather's old trunk from WWII Germany, a mystery unravels. I'll only give two peeks: Think Time Movement Machine and what 12- and 13-year-old girls would do if an infamous Austrian guttersnipe appeared in their house. Dot's and Katy's adorable studiousness steals the spotlight, though the fun plot turns out to be entertaining as well. This is a modern-age Nancy Drew adventure, complete with Google searches and Trojan-horse computer worms. Keeping a baseball handy "for emergency shutdown" during a machine experiment is just too cute!
I mentioned a snakeskin jacket earlier. The jacket is introduced in Mark Angel's "Snakeskin Jacket." Angel bravely offers a premise that seems difficult to keep from sssslithering into sillinessss. But, though I had my doubts, he succeeded (no more hiss jokes, I promise). Simply put, Al, a rather ordinary garbage man who could use some exercise, finds an anaconda snakeskin jacket amidst some useful trash destined for the Last Chance Mercantile. He slims down enough to fit into the jacket - or for the jacket to fit around him - and gradually develops odd urges and feelings, "reptilian thoughts," including beheading of his pet parrot and squeezing his wife, Betty, to death. The jacket is alluring and so powerful that it also attracts Trish, a Macy's associate. (My only complaint is the choice to have Al and Trish stretch their S-es.) Campy? Indeed. Works? Yes. Angel seems confident in his seemingly intended gimmick, and tells the story with ease.
Ken Jones' "Charlotte's Light," a period piece, is based on fact, taking place in the mid-1800s. Charlotte insists (with the noble help of fellow townswomen and a petition) on taking over caretakership of the crucial Point Pinos Lighthouse after her husband is shot and killed. Though probably colored by modern standards of so-called "feminism," Jones creatively portrays the historical inheritance of important duty by Charlotte Layton.
"Donya's Spices" by Shaheen Schmidt (who also did illustrations for five stories) presents recognizable family politics surrounding the reserved and insightful matriarch Donya: a woman of Iranian descent (like the author) nourishing her cultural talents amidst American society and in tension with an adverse daughter-in-law. Donya's expert cooking is both a metaphor for her patient wisdom and a potential catalyst for redemption. She and her neighbor return in Schmidt's "Love Potion" (a lesser work).
Other highlights in MS2: A complacent family learns "to take responsibility for [their] inactions" and pride when they forcibly moved to a neighborhood of lazies; there is more to Stephanie than meets the private eye; a man slips through a legendary time portal back to the 1960s, where "[t]he pangs of tension, the undercurrent of worry flowing out of people - the feeling that something bad is inevitable - don't hang in the air;" Donya concocts a love potion for her neighbor's ailing marriage that doesn't even need to be ingested; an aging conductor, going deaf, survives hostility and despair; a woman learns that's she dead; a man finds the Lost Mine of the Padres; a woman's male-nude painting makes trouble for the male model; a lighthouse tour guide exposes a cruel "canned hunt" ring; a man learns to divine water; Darlene's dead husband pays an unexpected visit; a vampire woman modifies her lifestyle so she doesn't need to murder or take advantage of humans (and Al's snakeskin jacket reappears and helps change a rogue vampire's attitude); and a cigar-smoking, Harley-riding "proto-fairy" introduces a girl with bone cancer to a whole new existence.
Each author signed my review copy of Monterey Shorts 2, emphasizing their grass-roots care and personal investment in the project. And each signature is as unique as each story. If readers would like a Monterey Peninsula keepsake, I recommend getting this book. After all, as Joyce Krieg writes in the Foreword, "you don't really need another T-shirt or refrigerator magnet, do you?"
- review by David Herrle 10/2005
© 2005 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved