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Stories by Theodore Carter. Queen's Ferry Press, 2012.
The twelve short stories that make up The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob and Other Matters of Importance, Theodore Carter’s new collection, display a remarkable range of motifs and styles, making this a difficult work to pin to one category. In some stories, Carter entertains slipstream concepts with a dose of imaginative science. In others, he playfully toys with such horror staples as midnight intruders, zombies, mummies, and voodoo dolls. While stories do occasionally delve into emotional territory, ably exploring romantic relationships and family duty, it is Carter’s expansive imagination that provides the pulse to this collection.
The collection could fall under the broad category of weird tales were it not for the fact that about a third of the stories, while somewhat quirky or dark, have no bizarre elements to speak of. “Lurking” is a second person vignette that explores how the familiar becomes a source of horror, particularly late at night. In “Burning Bush: A Christmas Miracle” an abused wife seeks holiday revenge. “Sonya’s Insatiable Hunger” is a solid exploration of how a successful career becomes an obstacle to romance. At first glance, “The Canary in the Coal Mine” is among the odder pieces in the collection, as it is narrated by a canary, but the story the canary has to tell turns out to be quite grounded in human concerns and realities.
On the other side of the slipstream-mainstream spectrum, Carter dances across strange territory with the aptly titled “Little Miss Strange,” in which an enigmatic, seductive woman somehow turns her unsuspecting victims into—well, let’s just say she has a lefty fetish. “I Used to Love Her” is a wry, unapologetic look into the zombielike nature of stale relationships. Old secrets are mysteriously unveiled in “The Unwrapping Party.” The “Who Doin’ Doll” explores the nature of love and loneliness when a man receives a doll in the mail that does exactly whatever its unknown, living counterpart is doing. These pieces are playfully conceived and rendered, with just enough earnestness to keep them probing at familiar emotions at the same time that they explore the unexplainable.
For this reader, Carter’s writing is most appealing when he supports his forays into the bizarre with scientific backings, however superficial. In the opening piece, “Jesus Lizard,” a precocious prepubescent learns to walk on water through an intense study of the basilisk lizard. In this story and others, such as “The Life Story of a Chilean Sea Blob,” “Eight,” and “Max’s Colossus Proboscis,” Carter explains the bizarre as an imaginative possibility of science. In “Eight,” the scientific reference is exemplary tongue and cheek, and Carter displays a sense of humor so laid-back and understated that in other pieces it can be easy to miss. For example, after a serious bout of “Animalian Regurgitian,” involving the vomiting up of a cocker spaniel, ant eater, and sundry other still living things, the suffering character asks his therapist in the finest of deadpan tones, “Don’t you think that’s unusual?” Unfortunately for the therapist, she does not believe him until he vomits up a panther in her office.
The title story, originally published in A cappella Zoo, is both a weird story and a story about weird stories. The main character in this story, Milt, is not a believer in the fantastic—in aliens and sea monsters—but he is “frustrated by… disbelievers.” To keep Milt company in the hospital after his second heart attack, his wife makes up her own fantastic tale about a Chilean sea blob. The scene suggests a larger, quaint theme of the collection as a whole—we need the fantasies that imaginative fiction gives us to counter the cold truisms that often pass for factual reality. We need modern day dinosaur sightings, sea monsters, zombies, voodoo dolls, and the occasional upchucked panther for disbelieving therapists. We need these things, this collection suggests, and Carter delivers them to us.
— Hayes Moore, assistant editor, A CAPPELLA ZOO