This summary is going to sound ridiculous. An utterly implausible premise for a story. You’ll have to take it on trust that the story manages to make it work uncomfortably well.
Every year the Frost Mountain Picnic takes place. It’s a huge event, with fairground games and activities for everyone. Yet this is how the story starts:
“Every year it gets worse. That is, more people die. […] One year, the muskets of the Revolutionary War Reenactment Society were somehow packed with live ammunition. Another year, all the children who played in the picnic’s Bouncy Castle died of radiation poisoning. […] The year we were offered free hot air balloon rides, none of the balloons that left – containing people laughing and waving from the baskets, snapping pictures as they ascended – ever returned.”
Nobody is ever held accountable. The company that runs the Frost Mountain Picnic is a labyrinthine bureaucracy, and complaints get lost and twisted. It’s always a different department’s responsibility. One year, when the families tried to inquire further, “the clerks offered us only a helpless look, as if we were being unreasonable.”
And yet the next year, everybody is passionately excited about going to the Frost Mountain Picnic again.
You can see what I mean about it seeming ridiculous, right? And yet it works. There isn’t really a plot, as it’s largely composed of someone waiting in line to get into the Frost Mountain Picnic, thinking about how insurmountable a task it is to resist attending.
“When the public meetings die down, we begin to see advertisements for next year’s picnic. Naturally, the initial reaction is always more outrage. But after the advertisements persist for months and months, after we see them on more billboards and on the sides of buses, after we hear the radio jingles and watch the fluff pieces about the impending picnic on the local news, our attitudes invariably begin to soften. Though no one ever comes out and says it, the collective assumption seems to be that if the picnic can be advertised with so little reservation, then the problems surrounding it must have been solved. [….] Our oaths against the impending picnic becomes difficult to maintain. Through the sheer optimism of those advertisements, the unfortunate events of the previous year are exorcised. Those few citizens holding onto their anger are inevitably viewed as people who refuse to move on, people who thrive on discord…”
The author regards this story as a political/social allegory, and reading it through that lens is perfectly viable. But I prefer taking this on its own terms. I love the idea that somewhere there is a town whose inhabitants are trapped in this horrific cycle of Kafkaesque illogic which they recognise but cannot escape. I also really like the way the story’s written, with every word and uncomfortable fact flowing mellifluously to the next, the unpleasant facts coated in honey so they slip down your throat all the easier.
Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre by Seth Fried
Availability: print, e-book
Word count: 3,800
First published: One Story #124, August 2009 (available to buy as solo e-book here)
Where else to find it: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition, edited by Paula Guran, 2010, Prime Books
Pushcart Prize XXXV, edited by Bill Henderson, 2010, Pushcart Press
The Great Frustration, collection, 2011, Soft Skull Press