The Burdens by William Meikle

Front cover of The Burdens by William MeikleMeikle blends the metaphor and shifting rules of dream and memory with solid action, creating a short story that is both spiritual quest and dark fantasy adventure.

When John heard his wife tell the doctor to turn off his life support, he thought he’d slipped into the darkness forever; instead, he awakens at the top of a decaying stone tower beneath a dark sky with two yellow moons. Strange creatures stalk him from behind and fragments of his life draw him down, but does the key lie in fighting the past or embracing it?

The story opens a few hours after John awakes on the tower and is told in the first person as if a series of diary entries chronicling his descent. This point-of-view limits the reader only to what John has experienced, and the thoughts and memories it has evoked, creating a sense of intimacy and investigation.

Everything John encounters is either directly drawn from or a clear echo of something from his life giving his descent an immediate sense of purpose and meaning that avoids the plot being merely a running away from danger; however, John starts with no clue as to what this purpose might be and only gains hints as he descends. Thus, the plot interweaves the fast-paced action of overcoming the ostensibly hostile challenges of the tower and the more introspective larger challenge of finding a positive goal.

Assembled from fragments of John’s memories, the events have a strange mix of nebulous fantasy and internal logic that marks dreams. In contrast, the narrative voice has the slight distance of a witness statement. Depending on reader preference, this might either conjure John’s struggle to unravel metaphors and messages while maintaining accessibility or muffle the excitement behind a layer of dryness.

John is a sympathetic protagonist, neither rigidly sceptical nor utterly credulous and not an expert in relevant fields. This makes his reactions those of a ordinary person which—while a reader might not always agree with them—thus neither irritate by fanatical adherence to a belief in the face of evidence nor insult by succeeding through facts the reader does not have in advance and could not guess.

Overall, I enjoyed this short story. I recommend it to readers seeking a story that captures the confusion of facing metaphysical threats without becoming lost in introspection and unreliable evidence.

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