The summer sun is beating down on the sands of the arena, but it isn’t the hottest thing in the ring this week. A scalding black liquid rises from below and judgement comes from on high. The way this works is we have two judges and the audience vote. If the judges are in agreement over the story, then the winner is decided. If they choose different stories the popular vote gets the final say.
This week we brewed up a couple stories about coffee. This mysterious godsend of a bean gives life, energy, and has probably raised more college GPAs than the internet. Coffee is love to us here at the arena, so we decided to twist that love into literary combat.
Joseph Devon couldn’t find the black stuff in “Withdrawl.”
Michael Landry brewed up some trouble in “Tunda.”
Let’s pick a winner.
Coffee is one of three beverages that I cannot live without. I have spent many hours with various implements performing the necessary rituals in order to receive my morning brew. I am hardly alone, the overwhelming majority of the US drinks coffee, and I am willing to bet that the authors in our arena consume more than their fair share. Stories about coffee, though, those are more rare. Let’s see what tales woke up in our author’s minds this week.
“Tunda” by Michael Landry – Journal entries. I love this format for a story but I am pretty sure things will not go well for the people involved, happy endings are few and far between when we are reading someone’s journal.
I enjoyed the way that the background of the story is shown here. A recalled story from the narrator’s youth gives us a location and the general feel of the place. It also helps later to compare present day to the safer, saner past. The journal framing also allows the narrator to explain his current motivations and sum up news from the plantation without seeming out of place.
In this news briefing we first learn of the titular monster of this story, a shapeshifter who lures victims off to consume them in some way. Sounds right up the arena’s alley. I especially enjoyed the detail about the imperfect disguise.
The rest of the story unfolds as you would expect. The monster picks off the remaining people one by one (or more) and the survivors go from hunting to hiding to fleeing as it happens. I liked the explanation we got of sorts in the clearing with the standing stones. Details like the unrecognizable writing, the oddly warm carving and the stone sitting askew hint at a possible origin for the Tunda in this story. I would have liked to see it used more, though. Maybe a callback to the artifact our narrator pocketed.
The ending was done well, I liked the reference to the imperfect shapeshifting with the wounded legs and our narrator’s steely resolve in killing them both to be sure. The loss of the pack animals was to be expected, but it will not sway Tomas’ choice to leave the plantation. The cliffhanger ending was ok, but I was left wondering if he didn’t make it, how are we reading his journal?
All in all, a strong entry.
“Withdrawal” by Joseph Devon – Coffee, withdrawal, I thought I had an idea of the kind of story this was. Right up until the first sentence. “The world before”. That’s a pretty ominous phrase as far as phrases go. Clearly some major stuff has gone down to require a delineation of before and after. I was intrigued.
As we get into the story we see that there has been a wholesale collapse of the world in pretty much every way. This story takes place in a dystopia brought on by, of all things, a mutation in the coffee bean. Many of us say that we need coffee to function (I did myself in my introduction) but this story makes it physically real. When the coffee plants mutate again and the supply dries up, anarchy sets in.
As far as post-apocalyptic stories go this is a very imaginative cause. The aftermath is the same, however. Factions, fighting for supplies and territory, wary of any outsider that approaches. There is a distinct Mad Max feel to Jones that I am pretty sure was very deliberate. As a loner, he needs to work with both sides of every conflict in order to survive. He has gotten pretty good at it and doesn’t really fear much.
I like how he is nonchalant when confronted by Those Who Went Without, allowing himself to be brought into their settlement even though he had no need or intention of doing so. I liked even more when that seems to be his downfall. After he fails the aroma test, he is smart enough to be very afraid, but is it too late? Of course not, thanks to some prudent planning and cunning, Jones lives to wander on, his cavalier style not allowing him to be concerned about his lack of supplies but only his need for a motorcycle.
Another solid contender.
The arena is a strange place. It welcomes the pushing of boundaries and stretching or prompts with arms wide open. I am willing to bet that this week it was not disappointed. It asked for a cup of coffee but instead got a supernatural killer and a java-pocalypse. Now it is left for me to choose which one should prevail. Both stories this week seemed complete and polished, a non-trivial task given the time frame, so I cannot use that to decide. Both stories embraced the prompt in their own special way so I cannot use that to decide. I just plain liked both stories this week so I cannot use that to decide. It comes down to which story evoked in me a stronger reaction. Which story had me wanting to read more stories from that world? This week my vote goes to “Withdrawal” by Joseph Devon.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our second 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).
Ah, coffee. Elixir of the gods. That without which all too many of us cannot function. Given the long association between writers and coffee, this week’s prompt seems a natural fit for the Arena. Which of our combatants produced this week’s Kopi Lowak? Let’s find out.
As is my custom, I’m going to comment briefly on the two stories before moving on to my vote.
“Tunda” — Probably the most powerful thing about this story for me is its voice. Michael has hit the tone of a 1930s weird tale almost perfectly. The word choice comes from another era. The first person narration and the diary format certainly are of an age with the style. I can easily imagine it side by side with a tale from Lovecraft.
For me, however, the story’s greatest strength is also where I had difficulties with it. It is a very dense style, and at times a bit too lush for my personal tastes. I’m also not a very big fan of the first person point of view; in this case, I wonder if it perhaps muted some of the suspense that helps a story like this work to its best. We know that the narrator survives at least until the last diary entry.
Still, I think these are relatively minor quibbles with a very strong story.
“Withdrawl” — Joseph’s story in many ways in on the completely opposite end of the spectrum from Michael’s story. The other tale dealt with coffee at its point of origin; this story looks at post-apocalyptic post-coffee world. The other story feels like a tale out of time; this story depends on a certain post-modern sensibility for the narration to work to its fullest.
The world Joseph paints is very textured. In the best of the passages, one can almost taste it. I think intercutting between Jonses’ world with the story of how it got that way works very well; certainly up my alley at any rate. My biggest quibble with this story is that it feels perhaps a little too much like a novel squeezed into a short story. But that is a very minor criticism.
Another very strong entry.
Both of the stories this week were really strong. I think a case could be made for either to be triumphant. In the end, I’m going to cast my vote for the story I enjoyed just slightly more. This week, my vote goes to:
“Withdrawl” by Joseph Devon.
Joseph Devon has pulled a unanimous Judge’s Decision! Great job Joe, now let’s see if the audience agrees.
It looks like Tunda won the popular vote by a narrow margin, but was not able to win either of the judges’ votes. It was a well fought week Mister Landry, we hope to see you again soon.
Tune in next week as Lu Whitley fills in against Albert Berg. The results will be explosive!