Walter Gourlay, Chris Kemp
& Frances Rossi, editors,
Monterey Shorts
(Thunderbird, 2002)

The introduction to Monterey Shorts makes a great show of the book's lineage. One foreword is written by a relative of Frank Herbert, as is one of the stories. So much was made of this that it scared me. Genes don't make a book great, and one contributing author doesn't make a worthwhile short-story collection. That depends on strong stories, a whole gathering of writers all putting on their best performance, and some shared vision for what the book is going to be. And the Fiction Writers of the Monterey Peninsula deliver that compilation with no debt owed to writers outside their pages.

Monterey Shorts is obviously focused on the Monterey Bay area; every story takes place there, or at least very nearby. Those familiar with the area will enjoy seeing their favorite haunts and scenery in these new stories. Luckily for those not from Monterey, none of the stories depend on knowledge of the area or its peculiar culture. These authors recreate their world without descending into travelogue descriptions, and newcomers will soon feel at home.

For a first effort, Monterey Shorts has some unexpectedly strong gems. Chris Kemp's "Resurrected" is a fine, polished tale of tension between mother and daughter, and also incidentally magic. Ariel, one of the few people in her family without magic powers, maintains a level of just anger without falling into whining. The relationship between mom Rosalind and daughter Ariel hits the perfect pitch to make them estranged without shutting off the possibility of connection. I was pleased to find out that "Resurrected" is only one of a series of stories; it left me eager for the continued adventures of Ariel and her family.

Walter Gourlay's "Reunion" isn't the most original story idea. Anyone familiar with the old Twilight Zone will pick up the telegraphed ending as soon as the retiring professor sees his old army club reopened. Pulling off one of the classic stories depends on how deftly the writer wields his craft, and "Reunion" is a triumph. "A Flash Of Red" also covers somewhat familiar ground: a woman seeking peace after a violent attack. Francis J. Rossi keeps this story ominous and driven, and hides the attacker well until the final confrontation. Lele Dahle sandwiches an excellent tale of childhood trauma and redemption between some rather weak exposition. "The Lizard Catcher" shows her powerful comprehension of the strange world of childhood, with all its heartbreak and politics.

Some writers seem constrained by the short-story concept. Shaheen Schmidt's "A Place to Heal" chronicles a busy businessman's conversion to a slower life at an ironically rushed pace. There's almost no time to know the "before" version of Steven Price, so the relief of watching him change is fairly nonexistent -- and that change itself happens so quickly it seems unreal. The writing is compelling, and Schmidt tries bravely to make up for her limited pace, but this story begs for more room to unfold. Mark C. Angel almost has too much room for "Mortuary Beach." Angel is an emergency worker and clearly cares about safe diving, and packs diving guidelines into every spare sentence. A shorter story might have kept out the instruction manual, and let the rather good disaster story of his divers speak for itself.

Almost all the stories in Monterey Shorts are at least entertaining, even when they fail to reach their full potential. "Monte-Ray Gunn" is by Byron Merritt, the much-heralded relative to Frank Herbert. It wants to be funnier than it is, and the narrator/protagonist's faux accented speech is grating. But an interesting future Monterey lurked at edges of his bigoted detectives' view, providing a promising locale for future stories. "Borscht in the Bay" may have been a little aimless, but Ken Jones made his prying old neighbor and lost Russian seaman sympathetic enough to carry the somewhat slow pace of the story. Pat Hanson may pour a bit too much morality down the reader's throat in "If the Tubs Could Talk," but her light, humorous style would redeem a much worse story than this, and the opening ode to off-road rest stops is a treat by itself.

The one story that just didn't hold my attention was "Dot's Dad Visits Dinosaur Town." It's an odd choice for Monterrey Shorts. "Dinosaur Town" lays proud claim to its status as bedtime story. It's got all the qualifications of a good bedtime story; some whimsical nonsense, adults as comic foils and small bits of tension that won't get the reader too excited to sleep. That makes it a very bad choice for a book directed to adults and children outside the family.

Taken as a whole, Monterey Shorts is a very satisfying compilation of firsts. The writer's group that put this collection together call themselves the Fiction Writers of the Monterey Peninsula -- or FWOMP, for the sound of a manuscript hitting the slush pile. If Monterey Shorts gets the attention it deserves, it's a sound that won't figure much in their future.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 29 March 2003

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