Electricity & Other Dreams: New American Press; 2013 (the collection of 26 stories were published individually from 2010 to 2012); 224 pages; cover design and interior art by Liz Green. Micah Dean Hicks writes "magical realism, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories." Per our rules concerning story collections, I read the most recently published stories until I had read a total of 25 pages, which happened to be three complete short stories. No "spoiler alert" endings are revealed.
"The Alligator Guides" -- Story two in this short-fiction collection is a bizarre tale about three southern backwoodsmen Mitch, Sawyer, and James who hunt alligators while philosophizing about the nature of God. Their catch, muddy alligators, are tied to the outside of the truck, then the guys roll into a car wash to clean off the mud. No character in the story, just me the reader, was surprised that the alligators turned into alligator men.
"Ladybaby's Chickens" -- Here we have a fantastical story of old chicken-keeper Ladybaby who buys herself three chickens, more like roosters with their sharp spurs. Old neighbor Bubblegum tells her that ferrets are better. And he's right because the new chickens, real bawking chickens, turn the "playhouse" into a meth lab. Ladybaby takes the blame. "I drink that meth all the time," she says to the Corrections Officer.
"Dog Summer" -- Lijah works on his car while dreaming of leaving the drudgery of his life at home in the rural south. His mom and brother have jobs at the plant. His sisters are home with their dad who seems unable to do much of anything except watch TV. Lijah finds temporary jobs picking peas, beans, or okra. With his meager salary, Lijah buys parts for his car, working hard, until he finally gets the engine to turn over. But then the unthinkable happens to thwart Lijah's plans.
The Returned: Harlequin MIRA, September, 2013; 338 pages; cover art uncredited. This is Jason Mott's first published novel. Mott's two poetry collections are also published.
Lucille and Harold Hargrave have been listening to the news. Apparently, people who have been dead for years are alive and returning to their loved ones. "They're not people," says Lucille. "They’re devils…." The doorbell rings.
Harold Hargrave opens his front door to reveal Bureau Agent Martin Bellamy and a young boy. "Jacob?" asks Harold. The boy rushes to Harold and wraps his arms around him. This boy is the spitting image of Harold’s 8-year-old son who died in 1966, not having aged a bit in these many decades. Agent Bellamy reveals that Jacob was found by a river in a small Chinese village.
Things calm down as Jacob settles in with the Hargraves. Lucille picks up where she left off back in 1966. Harold takes up chain smoking and harbors a feeling of unease.
Other reports pop up about more dead people returning to life. Kami Yamamoto, wearing a war uniform, walks into a convenience store, saying, "I surrender."
Agent Bellamy is now part of the Bureau of the Returned, dealing with those "people" who were dead but now show up alive. How many of the "returned" are out there? Agent Bellamy answers, "not terribly many… a small phenomenon, a modest number… only enough to remain miraculous." Yet more and more "revived" people appear.
The Battle: Having a fantastical short-story collection battle a mainstream fantasy/horror novel made my decision very difficult. Not because I had to compare a short story collection with a novel, but because both books were well-crafted and entertaining!
With my love of short-shorts, I found that Electricity & Other Dreams offered powerful stories that left me hankering for more. These stories were concise and complete with twists and turns, including a touch of magical realism.
The stories included characters from rural Americana with settings fashioned so real that the magical elements brought in seemed to flow as a matter-of-fact, daily occurrences, as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary was happening. However, out-of-the-ordinary is precisely what we read: the sane mixed with the insane.
I enjoyed all three stories, and I felt sorely tempted to read more than the twenty-five pages. The plots for each of the three stories were unique and bizarre, and I felt a hunger for more. However, near the end of the third short story, I felt that I knew what would happen, but the ending still broke my heart. Despite any foreshadowing, the story’s ending remained gut-wrenching and frustrating. The other two were stories so unique and bizarre that my attention was riveted to the pages until the end. The stories in Electricity & Other Dreams masterfully dragged me along with familiar setting and then plowed me under with their fantastical elements and crazy endings.
The Returned offered a plot that was easy to follow and engaging. The characters seemed authentic with their interactions and responses. The fantasy/horror book - with the returning dead - presented a mystery that I wanted to read to the end. This premise holds much promise! We don't know much about the dead who have returned, but they seem as confused about their situations as the living relatives and communities they have returned to. The little boy Jacob and the WWII soldier Yami have been dropped into unfamiliar locations with their minds, seemingly, unchanged from the time right before they died. We are left supposing that maybe more people have returned than Officer Bellamy is disclosing.
Fortunately, this grim but hopeful story gives us humor, too, such as the familial bantering between spouses Lucille and Harold.
A mystery built up in The Returned, and questions a journalist might ask arose: who, what, when, where, and why. Why are the dead people returning? Are they really the same people who died? Will the revived-dead be a joy or a sorrow? "What are they?"
Mott’s book was turned into a TV series titled "Resurrection."
As a side note, while searching for the name of the American TV series, an Internet search found a French TV show called "The Returned," based on a 2004 French movie titled They Came Back by Fabrice Gobert, which has a similar theme.
In conclusion, having read 25 pages, I (Jackie) must give these two outstanding works of art very high ratings. Unfortunately, the battle rules say I must choose one book to continue in this Battle of the Books. Maybe my love of short fiction and appreciation for magical realism comes into play with my selection.
THE WINNER: Electricity & Other Dreams by Micah Dean Hicks
Electricity & Other Dreams advances to the second round, to take on either Fiend by Peter Stenson or Never by K.D. McEntire.
To see the whole bracket, click here.