“There was a boy with a fishing rod who wished to catch a star, for doing so would make his wildest dreams come true.
However, try as he might, he could not catch a star. He asked his mother why and she told him stars, like all things, are free-willed.”
Luke Tarzian has made a name for himself with psychological fantasy through both Vultures and his Adjacent Monsters duology (The World Breaker Parable and The World Breaker Requiem). His new book, A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell, is a quick novelette that at first glance, seems more absurdist and comical but quickly becomes both more sincere and metafictional.
The first few chapters feel kin to what the book originally promises, a lure until the trap snaps shut.
The plot, as it begins, is that the tea kettle they use to introduce newly damned souls to Hell with has disappeared. Hell is also not the place of fire and brimstone (which is deemed Heavenly propaganda by the narration). While it’s never made explicit, it seems that Hell is the absence of God, and Hell has been made worse because Heaven has absconded with their kettle.
Stoudemire McCloud, a demon and secretary to Lucifer Morningstar, starts the story off as a sort of put-upon assistant who nonetheless narrates the tale with a very aristocratic, Victorian pomp. As the story proceeds, that affect fades and the story is narrated in a much more casual manner. The story at this point could have went for a tricky bartering session between Heaven and Hell, or a heist in Heaven to retrieve it, both of which could have maintained the story’s previous tone. But instead at this point the story changes from whimsy to despair.
The in-text explanation for the change in narration is that Stoudemire is stressed but it’s at this same point that the whimsy takes a definitive back seat in the story and is replaced by something achingly sincere. Lucifer’s mind seems consumed with thoughts of The Fall, and his thoughts drift back to Stoudemire’s advice: trauma isn’t just a bad memory but the reaction to that memory.
The tea kettle is not a tea kettle. It is clearly a representation of the things we wanted that we can never have again. Life before the Fall. To barter with heaven or to steal from them could make a fun story, but it would be a lie. Tarzian instead faces that head on, detailing grief and loss in a vivid way. It’s not the story expected. It’s better.