I'm reading Chris Barzak's upcoming collection Before and Afterlives for my February column and enjoying several of these stories a great deal. There is one in particular that really shook me (in a good way) though, "A Mad Tea Party". This is short, only eight pages, but is about the best real world use of the Alice and Wonderland mythology that I have come across. It's intense, brutal almost, and yet includes little more than the main character, (also called Alice), as she deals with her mother's death. All the expected figures run through her memory from the White Rabbit to the Cheshire Cat but none of them appear as you expect. It's just wildly creative and wholly unexpected and deeply eerie. It's real, and maybe that is why it is so very bloody disturbing.
But really, I'm not doing a very good job of explaining this story at all. I'll try harder.
Adult Alice has returned to her childhood home after learning via a brief phone call from her sister that their mother is dead. Alone in the house she finds herself in a destructive frenzy, destroying things, including many tea cups, that mattered to her mother as thoroughly and completely as possible. Her sister arrives, is shocked, stunned and then terrified, and flees. Alice cleans up the mess and ponders her sister's reaction. This is a mad tea party, she thinks and there is only room at the table for one.
The next day is the funeral, with her appalling and likely larcenous brother-in-law in attendance and then the after-funeral party, which Alice does not attend. (Did they miss her? Probably not.) And then there is Alice alone again in her mother's house, wishing desperately for a cup of tea, hearing the echoes of her mother's voice, realizing she is all alone with that voice now, without her tea, with her tears. The reader is left with a vision of Alice - of all the world's Alices - with their Red Queens hovering over their shoulders, with the terror of that moment, with madness as the only escape route possible.
Do you see it now? Can you imagine it? Nothing is obvious in this story, except the tea and the broken cat and the man in white with his watch and the plunge down a dark hole that ends in the house. And then the tears that could create an endless river. Remember Alice's tears? I never paid much attention to them but here - those tears are serious stuff here and Barzak makes sure you notice them and understand just why Alice was so damn sad.
There are several stories in Before and Afterlives that I will mention in my formal review but "A Mad Tea Party" is the one that I've been thinking about the most the past few days. Barzak does a lot with this story and he never once makes you think he has stolen from Lewis Carroll or cheated the reader in any way. He gives you Alice raw and emotionally beaten in his story - he gives you what we all suspected could happen but never knew for sure.
Remember what Neil Gaiman did for Susan in "The Problem of Susan"? (Come on Narnia fans - you know what I'm talking about.) "A Mad Tea Party" is a bit like that, just as effective and just as devastating. Short, not sweet, but pure magic, plain and simple.