Escape Artists (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod)
Ed Ferrara, "Gig Marks": A wrestler on the independent circuit (cf. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler) is haunted by a new wrestler who--get this--had his feelings hurt by the old pro and then committed suicide. There's something so monstrously weird about that and it boils down to a very old sort of "guilty conscience/haunted by a ghost" story; but the detail and observation of the wrestling world probably sold this story. (It helped that the writer has authentic experience working in wrestling.) There's also some good thematic work about how people in the world fake everything--they lie to the fans, to each other, and to themselves.
Andre Harden, "The Curse of the Mummy": An unhappy woman with a bad man in her life gives the bad man up to an ancient evil--and gets cursed with having to drag around that ancient evil until she can find someone else to pawn it off on. I don't mind this structure (see also The Ring), but it doesn't seem that much of a curse and the steps leading up to it are pretty odd: here's a woman who thinks her man has stolen a semi-winning lotto card, so she gives him up to this ancient evil. Sure, there are other bad things about him, but this as the inciting incident seems odd--and also pretty much tells you how it will end.
Ferrett Steinmetz, "Dead Merchandise": A woman is on a quest to destroy mind-mapping feral advertising that has led to her dead children (whose minds were warped by political and military ads that led them to fight in foreign wars) and dead husband (who became obsessed with buying commemorative material about his children). A pretty good example of the "start with action, rewind to fill in back-story" structure, though what really sells this story is the theme of out-of-control advertising (which is something we've seen before on Escape Pod).
Lightspeed and Nightmare
Holly Black, "The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue": A secret werewolf pretends to be a waitress/actress, until she gets cast as a princess and a bear in a fairy-/folk-tale revue, in which her true self comes out. A boffo opening--"There is a werewolf girl in the city. She sits by the phone on a Saturday night, waiting for it to ring"--and a boffo ending--"There is a werewolf girl on the stage. It’s Saturday night. The crowd is on their feet. Nadia braces herself for their applause." There's a distance and archness to the story that keeps us from getting into the horror of being a monster, which is interesting, but not inviting.
Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project Pulp, Tales to Terrify, Starship Sofa)
Weston Ochse, "The Blue Heeler": A lonely kid is friends with a strange person locked in a concrete box--after his only other friend was driven mad, possibly by that same strange person. The core of this story is "parents take improper revenge on weird guy when kids go missing, weird ghost befriends lonely kid." So it's a slight twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street idea: the guy is innocent and he doesn't do anything harmful--he just helps the lonely kid learn the truth about his parents. But what about his loneliness? I really enjoyed the uncertainty--is the Blue Heeler a friend or a monster?--but I feel like the story needs a little more tying up.
Gene O’Neill, "Graffiti Sonata": Unhappy ex-husband sees graffiti, his wife and daughter die, he hears a knock at the door. Everyone loves stories that end with knocks on the door, right? This was the first of six stories that were nominated for the Bram Stoker 2011 from the Horror Writers Association. This story didn't blow me away, though I think the structure with its repeated episodes probably matches the standard sonata form. But that doesn't add much to my experience.
Adam-Troy Castro, "Her Husband's Hands": New technology allows remnants of soldiers to remain partly alive, which sounds great but can be stressful: our main character finds this out when her husband comes back as just a pair of hands. On top of that, he's got PTSD. There's a big subplot here about how some soldiers elect to have their memory erased and how the husband here chooses to remember because of all the good people he served with (he says). Haunting and nightmarish and ultimately happy; and for all the "wait, they can do what with technology?" moments, there are many human moments.
Kaaron Warren, "All You Can Do Is Breathe": A miner rescued from a cave-in gets visited in the mine and after by the thin man who sucks away part of his happiness. The ending is a stomach-punch where the miner commiserates with a child who was lost in a well and also saw the thin man, leading the main character to tell a bunch of children that life is empty. Is there a PTSD theme in the 2011 awards?
George Saunders, "Home": I'm fascinated that this was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, mostly because there's so much dark humor in this story, like when everyone thanks the main character for his service. The main character is a soldier returned from war after some terrible actions, who finds that many things at home have fallen apart in some way. For instance, he twice goes to a store selling some technological item that he can't understand and he keeps getting the same unhelpful response when he asks. Saunders does this amazing job of keeping the tone humorous when everything is terrible (or vice versa) by starting with a damaged but not malicious narrator who helpfully observes everything around him but remains uncertain about what's going on.
Ken Lillie-Paetz, "Hypergraphia": An insane writer fights with a story in some way. This story doesn't work as well in audio as it probably works visually, since the author seems to be having a conversation with some part of himself in a story. Ultimately, it reminds me strongly of "Graffiti Sonata": loss happens, revenge or punishment occurs. Note for self: do some little bit of experimentation with PTSD theme and let the Bram Stoker nominations roll in.
Stephen King, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive": This was the winner for 2011 and it reminds me that King is supposed to be a discovery writer, i.e., he writes without planning. Not that "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" is un- or mal-formed, it's just very simple: some depressed Northeastern dead-enders drive a van with all their kids to visit their parents, in order to get some money out of them; meanwhile, some old poets are stopped at a rest area for a picnic with plenty of nostalgia. So you have some people who seem to have no future (because they are socio-economically disadvantaged) and some other people who have no future (because they are old and also poets, which means an economic disadvantage of another sort). What's really amazing about King is how deep he gets into the characters' minds with their present-day reflections, both on their future hopes, their present tensions, and their pasts.
Valentine Wood, "Kroom, Son of the Sea": This is from the pulp podcast; this story was originally from 1930 and it shows its age. It's a Tarzan-like story with a Professor Challenger like setting: a child who gets lost and discovers a lost island where he gets raised by friendly natives. The whole story is very obvious and slow: from the beginning, where we have the baby and a shark, we know the ending will be when the child kills the shark--which would be nice parallelism if the threat of the shark wasn't built up in every single section of the story. On top, as usual for the period, the dialogue here is full of info and low on character (and low on probability that anyone would speak like that).