Thursday, January 12, 2017

The West Topeka Triangle, by Jeremiah Tolbert

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(Horror) Jason struggles with a bully in elementary school, a stepdad who hates him, and he thinks the local equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle is causing local kids to disappear. (8,482 words; Time: 28m)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ Average

"," by (edited by John Joseph Adams), appeared in issue 80, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: The way Jason and Brendan go from enemies to friends has a very authentic feel to it. The different ways the “triangle” manifests itself are creepy--all of them making Jason more violent.

Con: There’s no closure to the story. Are we supposed to believe he disappeared at the end?

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10 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Here be spoilers!

    Following on from your comment on my blog, it's interesting that you ask what I thought was advantageous about the present tense in this story and your "con" for the story is that "there's no closure" when that's exactly what I felt was one of the advantages: I didn't feel the need for closure. Unfortunately, I don't know if I can articulate why. If the story had been written in the past tense, I think I would have responded exactly the way you did. Past tense could be taken as saying, "The narrator is recollecting this at some time in the story's future. He knows not only the beginning, middle, and end, but also the aftermath." That could lead to, "Why did he stop the narration there? I don't feel a sense of closure, but of an artificial stoppage." What the present tense did for me was give it the sense of a movie that ends in freeze frame or something. The character is narrating what's happening to him and doesn't know the future or what it all means. We just stop at this point in which he's gained a new existential state and is facing a threat with a new attitude and even a companion. As far as what we're supposed to believe, I think it's in keeping with the whole story. One approach is to take it rationally and say it's just literally a foggy day and the two boys will reach the school and all will be normal and they'll go about their normal day. Taken as a fantasy, yes, they might be entering a mystic fog that will swallow them up and it could be a supernatural event that will inflict great loss. But there's still a third option that perhaps the narrator will translate into some mystic and wonderful new place or state. I think Tolbert specifically wanted to leave that open-ended. To narrate past where he does would be to close down the possibilities and define the story's world as one thing... which the kid probably won't do in the story's sense until years later, if ever.

    Not sure if that makes any sense, but that's why - in a rare example - I thought the present tense was called for.

    (In a less significant sense, at least one other thing it does (I think) is remove some of the nostalgia-vibe a story set in 1987 might have. By making it present tense, it makes it current and doesn't try to trade on the temporal setting too much.)

  2. It's an interesting idea that first-person present tense narration lets the author end the story abruptly. Supposedly there's a Victor Hugo story in which the narrator is still writing in his journal even as they walk him to the scaffold. I suppose that's more a criticism of first-person.

    In the case of "The West Topeka Triangle," though, I just don't feel like it works. It's almost as though the story ends right when it was starting to get exciting.

  3. That's a good point as far as first person goes - I'm ordinarily opposed to such things, but was just speaking regarding tense and closure and not person and plausibility. Not sure why first person works for me here beyond the fact that it works much better for the story as a whole. It may be that it's a similar sort of thing to tense, though: a third person narrator would have some level of omniscience and then could be seen as holding out on us. So both first person and present tense work to reinforce "limited knowledge" and "freeze frame." But, no, neither idea addresses plausibility in the sense you raise. That is a problem.

    As far as ending right when it's getting exciting, I felt like the main issue was the protagonist and his connections to others so I felt like it had covered things pretty well. If the triangle, as "real fantasy," and the disappearing kids are key, though, then I can see where you're coming from.

  4. This smacks of having autobiographical elements to me. My reading was that although there were probably no genuinely supernatural elements, the author was showing that for a child lacking an anchor to the world all these events could easily appear supernatural. Taken as a whole the piece was very atmospheric and quite disturbing at times.

  5. Was anybody else thinking about that Netflix show "Stranger Things" while reading this?

    I suppose I read the ending as: he got his closure when his dad finally showed up (I think that part was important but I can't really put my finger on why), and then he got to confirm he was friends. You could take the running into the fog as the narrator being the next disappearance too, but really I think it was a growing up story not a SF story

  6. Good story. Too bad it's not complete. Light speed has been doing a lot of incomplete stories. Is this a new trend in the genre? I don't get it. Very disappointing. I now only listen to LS when I've run out of other podcasts. Or when I'm in the mood to be let down and frusterated (which is never).

    1. I used to give 2 stars (at most) to stories without endings (or even without plots) but I found that there are just too many of them, and I wanted to reserve 2-stars for stories that are genuinely painful to read.

      I'm not seeing it as a new trend, though.

  7. I'm with Jason that I liked the ambiguous ending. All the strange instances can be seen as overactive child's imagination or actual brushes with something otherworldly. I thought it really conveyed Jason's thrill at wondering if he would wander in the fog forever, if he'd wind up in some other dimension, or if he'd fetch up at the school with his new friend in great relief. I like to think they do get to school, but that it was a close call.

    The story gets some nostalgia points from me because I'm probably just a few years older than the kids here.

    I agree that the enemies to friends relationship feels very authentic. The author spotlight admits to some influence from his own childhood so I suspect that may be one of the things from the author's actual experience.

    1. The trouble is, his solution to the problem of the ambiguous ending makes the story not SFF at all.

    2. I think the ambiguity keeps both possibilities open -- just kid's imagination or influence from the mysterious triangle. I like that it can be interpreted either way and that the reader can decide. As I said, I choose to believe that they make it to school, but almost slipped into the triangle. Any ideas for an ending you would have found more satisfying? Not being flip with that question, honestly curious.