Illustration from 'Reaper Nine One'

TAC correspondent Mike Gray has landed two short fiction stories in the latest edition of the very good literary magazine The Southern Literary Messenger.

The online magazine tends to have real stories with actual things happening, not the kind of impressionistic or overly psychologizing approach common to contemporary literary fiction. Most of the stories in TSLM are reasonably short, with straightforward but sufficiently deep characterizations. Background information on the characters is limited to what is important to tell the story.

Thus the stories move quickly while conveying what the reader really wants to know.

In the current issue, Gray handles current-day political issues in an unusual and interesting way in the scifi story "Reaper Nine One."

Set in the near future in a united North American political entity that has apparently gone entirely socialist and ruthlessly suppresses political dissent and any attempt by citizens to live differently from government-mandated rules, the story deals with a family of three trying to escape over frozen wastelands into Indian country. They’re pursued by a helicopter, the two-man crew of which is assigned to obliterate them on sight.

Gray does an excellent job of switching between the crew members and the escapees to build tension and suspense, and provides a good twist at the end. Rather amusingly, the story turns the current concern about immigration in the United States around, making it about the U.S. government trying to keep people from emigrating, as in the old Soviet Union and other communist countries.

In addition, there are good observations such as Gray’s name for a prison camp–Pelosi Rehab. In all, "Reaper Nine One" has the flavor of a 1950s scifi story, where a strong concept, direct literary style, and straightforward story line make for an insightful look at life today and where it might lead.

Gray’s second story in the issue is a Sherlock Holmes parody, "The Adventure of the Natal Treaty; or, A Fight at the Opera." It’s amusing in a zany style reminiscent of the great S. J. Perelman. (Perelman is one of the top masters of American humor, and you really should read him.)

My favorite line from Gray’s story: "You may rest assured, Humes, that such secrets are safe with me and my editors and three million readers of the STRAND."

–S. T. Karnick