Wednesday, September 03, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: The Mermaids

Wednesday, September 03, 2008
The Mermaids
Robert Edric
PS Publishing: 2007
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novella


A fifteen year old girl is on trial. Oh, it may not be a real courtroom, but led before the town magistrate and minister by the town constable and her father. She is accused of something, of lying, of instigating, and perhaps of being a fifteen year old girl who makes other adults uncomfortable because she is somewhere in between a child and a woman. For pages Robert Edric dances around the issue, making the magistrate disclaim against the girl and inner monologue his disgust for her. Then, he switches to a description of the picturesque seaside resort town, a town on the edge of having a resort season and the tourists never returning. Back to the trial, for there is no better word for it. What did the girl and her four followers see? What did they do? What trouble did they cause to warrant this overbearing behavior from the magistrate?

And if no crime has been committed, what town or father would allow this?

The title of this novella provides expectation. The Mermaids. The girls saw mermaids? The girls claimed to have seen mermaids? Sarah Carr is fifteen. The youngest girl was five. Who is the magistrate and why is he so belligerently trying to force Sarah to admit she was lying?

All questions. As the opening pages melted into the meat of the story the experience of Sarah Carr waited, like a pregnant pause. Something had happened. Then, the truth. Or, part of the truth. The girls did, in fact, see mermaids. Three of them.

But...why the uproar? While the sighting and the claims by the girls should be given more credence than seeing Jesus on a French Fry, this is hardly something to upset a town. Not unless there was something more to the story.

Robert Edric plays a careful game in trying to suck in the reader by revealing as little as possible. He unwinds the story one careful thread at a time. If Edric wasn’t quite so good at it, the effect would be maddening. Instead, it is compelling. On and on we read, wondering just what is in store, wondering just what will change how we view the inquisition by the magistrate. What does he fear.

Revelations come in time, more or less.

What I spend most of the story wondering, though, is what sort of town is this? The air of persecution which so permeates The Mermaids is reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s extremely overrated film Dogville, where being different, being “other than what the town permits is enough to persecute and hate. This is what I question in The Mermaids, that there is an assumption that even a father such as Sarah’s would permit this faux trial to occur.

The Mermaids is, at its core, a simple story of disbelief in the face of the fantastic. It’s more, though. The heartbreak of the attack on a fifteen year old girl who, despite the discomfort of the magistrate, is no Lolita (though, even Lolita too was a victim). Sarah Carr is simply a young girl who saw something and believed what she saw. For that, for daring to tell the truth about what she saw, for daring to see the fantastic, the trial with unknown stakes proceeds. So, in a sense, The Mermaids is about truth, about belief, about the fear of small towns and sensitivity about how they are seen by the world, and not at all about mermaids. Despite the title.

The sense of wonder about whether Sarah is telling the truth and if the reader will ever be told the full story, if there is a full story to tell? That’s worth the price of admission.

The ultimate ending of the story, however, suggests that something else may have happened, something that is barely alluded to. Something far scarier and far more brutal. Is it true? If so, what does it mean for the story that came before? If not, again, what does it mean? I don't know, but if The Mermaids hadn't already provided food for thought, the ending gave something else.


Reading copy provided courtesy of PS Publishing.

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