The sweaty Mondays of summer are here, beating us down and threatening to break us before we can reach our air conditioned homes and offices. The sands of The Writer’s Arena take these solar rays in, becoming like a broiler for our authors to test their metal. Welcome judgement day, dear friends.
In what may be one of the timeliest prompts we ever received, our authors were tasked with writing about farms. These fertile patches make civilization possible and reflect a bygone way of life. Centuries before the average person lived and died in office buildings, we held our own tools and crafted our own food. It was rarely an easy life, but almost always fulfilling.
Let’s see where our authors took their farm stories.
Tony Southcotte made some sparks with “It Won’t Catch.”
Jarrod Withers blew us away with “The Persistence of Dust.”
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our first judge this week. On top of being the current TWA Champion, Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).
It’s a happy coincidence that I write this vote with a purring cat on my lap. As noted in the brief for this week’s prompt, farms have been connect to human culture since the very beginning. In fact, the very word culture is related to the Latin word for a tilled field. Nor would we have our friend Felis catus without the rise of agriculture. As easy as it is to forget in the over-urbanized developed world, farms are important.
A great topic for an Arena prompt. Let’s see what our combatants did with it this week. You know how we work: a few comments on the two stories before moving on to the vote.
“The Persistence of Dust” — This is a delightfully atmospheric tale of suspense. The sense of place Jarrod manages to evoke is very strong, and I definitely feel for Peter as an individual trying to make a new life for his family. I don’t care about the scientific question as to why red earth should cause crops to grow so abundantly (or how the red earth relates to the revelation at the end). The oppressive nature of the dust, the power of the darkness, and the forces that those two together awaken leads to some very strong moments.
My biggest issue with the story is that I feel a little too much like I’ve seen it before. It struck me just a little too much “Children of the Corn” meets “Sleep No More” (from Peter Capaldi’s second season as Doctor Who). As striking as individual sections are, I was wanting something maybe just a little more original from the story as a whole.
But definitely some very strong writing here.
“It Won’t Catch” — This story came out of left field for me, if I might be excused the mixed metaphor. I’m used to seeing some form of speculative fiction in the Arena; we don’t have that here. I’m used to Tony stories like “Endless Rite” with its pro-masculinity Valhalla, or his world-ending-with-a-whimper romp in “Dust Bunnies.” But we don’t get a story like either of those here either.
Instead, we get a quiet meditation on coming of age in middle America. Jon is an almost perfect character to me. One can almost taste his longing. He finds himself at that weird betwixt and between point too many teenagers find themselves in. In so many other cultures historically, he would already be a man; in ours, he isn’t, but he longs for adulthood. We readers on the far side of his age might read his story with a certain nostalgia. Jon himself may never have another day more perfect than that July 4th night.
Yet he had that perfect day, and through Tony’s skilled prose, we enjoyed that day right along with him. Not what I expected, but it made me happy to read it.
Two extremely different stories this week. I’m throwing my usual criteria to the wind this time. I just have to vote for the story I enjoyed more. With no offense meant to its competition, I can’t help but vote this week for
“It Won’t Catch” by Tony Southcotte.
The world of farms and farmers may be one of the most iconic American cultures. Movies, books, and TV shows have embraced the small towns and large farms that make up this culture. Farms themselves go way beyond this culture however. It can be said that civilization only truly began when humans started to farm crops and we have depended on them since for reliable food sources. What stories did our authors reap from such fertile ground? Let’s see:
“The Persistence of Dust” by Jarrod Withers – As is the custom in the arena, our first story is what I was expecting when I saw the Farm prompt. I love that about this place.
Set on an unnamed moon, this story follows a farmer who is among the first colonists to a strange and dangerous place. The day/night cycle heavily favors the night and the darkness holds unknown dangers. Colonists disappear and leave behind strange symbols. Parents and schools teach children rhymes to remind them to fear the dark. This is not a nice place to live. It is, however, a fantastic place to grow food.
The dust, which at first seems like just an annoyance, applies another pressure to the colonists. It gets everywhere and destroys everything from harvested food to machinery to light bulbs and electrical panels. Much of the colonists time is spent fighting back against this dust.
I loved the first part of this story. It felt like the first Pitch Black movie and it was great. When the missing people showed back up it steals some of the terror from the story. I would almost have liked it better if we never saw the “zombies”.
The end was good, although I wondered what caused the dust to ramp up its attack and take over the colony. I liked Peter’s escape and his choice to go out his own way.
All in all, this is a strong, inventive entry to the Arena.
“It Won’t Catch” by Tony Southcotte – This story is much like “Build-A-Knight” in that about halfway through the story, when I realized that there wasn’t going to be a big twist at the end, I said to myself “Who is this author and what have they done with Tony Southcotte??”
A well-timed piece about farmland Americana and the Fourth of July, this story speaks to anyone who was a little awkward growing up (weren’t we all) and who wanted to fit in a little better. It is a bit of an oddity for the Arena in that nobody dies or goes mad or really even has a bad day.
Jon is that awkward young man and like young men do, he pines for a girl he thinks is beyond his reach. He is not handsome enough or coordinated enough or funny enough etc. He makes up for his “shortcomings” by bringing fireworks to the party. This seems like a great idea, and it starts off really well, but when an accidental discharge starts a hay fire everything seems to be ruined. Or is it.
Stripping to beat the fire out with your clothes, running from a farmer with a shotgun, fleeing through a cornfield to a neighbor’s barn and all of sudden you are sharing a night of passion with the girl of your dreams.
I liked the way that Jon compared lovemaking to dancing and how for the second time tonight he was learning the moves as he went along. I enjoyed the humor in the farmer finding them in the loft the next day and the comment about his firstborn.
Two very different stories this week for a prompt that seems pretty simple on the surface. As long as I have been a judge here I have always favored two kinds of stories: one that takes the prompt as far as it can and shows us something really unexpected and one that gives us exactly what we were thinking in a way that captures the heart of the prompt. This week I have one of each kind to choose from and it’s not making my job easy at all. In the end, I chose the story that resonated with me the most. That story is “It Won’t Catch” by Tony Southcotte.
Tony Southcotte has a unanimous judge’s decision and has officially won TWA 79! Does our audience agree with the judges?
Oh, this will surely cause some controversy. It looks like the audience vote is a landslide victory for Jarrod Withers. Take heart, Jarrod. You may have lost the overall round but you are most definitely the people’s champion this week.
Come back next week for the return of D.M. Slate and Eric Petty! They are going head to head in a battle of magicians.