Our challenged-books-themed "I'm with the Banned!" short-fiction contest drew 52 entries, and we're pleased to present 22 of our favorite stories here. Authors were required to include one of 20 prompts from frequently banned or challenged books (the full list is at RCReader.com/y/fiction) and were limited to 250 words beyond that.

We'll be hosting a reading of winning and favorite entries at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 25, at the Bettendorf Public Library (2950 Learning Campus Drive). We hope to see you there to help celebrate Banned Books Week!

For our 2014 short-fiction contest - co-sponsored by the Bettendorf Public Library - we're celebrating banned and challenged books. Our 20 prompts are all drawn from famous (and sometimes infamous) novels that school boards, governments, or other arbiters of taste and morality didn't want people to read.

The deadline for entries is September 2.

We'll publish winners and favorites in the September 18 issue of the River Cities' Reader - just in time for Banned Books Week, which this year runs September 21 through 27.

We're also planning an event featuring readings of winning and favorite stories at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 25, in the Bettendorf Room of the Bettendorf Public Library. More details will be announced later.

Rachel HartmanRachel Hartman, the April 28 guest in Augustana College's River Readings at Augustana series, is the author of the 2012 young-adult novel Seraphina. It's a fantasy tale of royalty and knights and the faraway kingdom of Goredd; of a mysterious murder and supernatural powers and fanciful beings named Loud Lad and Pelican Man.

More specifically, it's a story of the 16-year-old girl of Hartman's title, a gifted music instructor who's harboring a bit of a secret: She's not actually a girl. Or rather, she's half-girl, and half-dragon. And she's hardly the only dragon in town.

It turns out Goredd, as we learn on the book's eighth page, is a kingdom where dragons are able to assume human form, even if they don't have much understanding of, or use for, human emotions. Yet if you ask Hartman how she landed on the idea for Seraphina, and for her transformable creatures in general, she'll no doubt admit that inspiration didn't come from mythology or legend or previous works of fiction. It came from an inability to illustrate dragons.

Kelly Daniels. Photo by Joshua Ford (JoshuaFord.com).

In ninth grade, Kelly Daniels was called to the principal's office, where his father was waiting. Dad took Kelly and his younger brother Ole for a drive, and after a while, he said, "I figured you should hear it from me first."

He said he woke up in jail. And: "To be honest, it was kind of a relief when the guard finally told me I killed Barclay." And then: "You can cry if you want."

But Daniels didn't cry. What he felt instead was "something that still kind of amazes me," he said in an interview earlier this month. "It was a strange reaction. It just seemed like all of a sudden my life brushed against the news. 'This is a big deal.'"

He felt something similar when he emerged from a week-long fever that nearly killed him in Honduras: "There was this same sense ... of my life being like a book."

And now it is - and a good one, too. Daniels, an associate professor of English at Augustana College, earlier this year published his memoir Cloudbreak, California. (He'll celebrate its release with a party from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, September 27, at the Bucktown Center for the Arts, and he'll also read from it as part of the River Readings at Augustana series on January 16.)

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

These are the first words of the Bible, and they were also one of 50 "great beginnings" that we offered our readers as opening lines for our 2013 short-fiction contest. (See the full list at RCReader.com/y/fiction.) We had lots of submission rules, but the other main criterion was a 250-word limit beyond the chosen prompt.

We received 134 entries, and we're printing prize-winners and other favorites here.

Enjoy!

Donald Ray Pollock

Because there's no rational response to a terminal cancer diagnosis, Willard Russell's course of action following his wife's death sentence doesn't seem as strange as it should.

In Donald Ray Pollock's novel The Devil All the Time, it's a prayer log in the woods, "the remains of a big red oak that had fallen many years ago. A weathered cross, fitted together out of boards pried from the back of the ramshackle barn behind their farmhouse, leaned a little eastward in the soft ground a few yards below them." Willard goes there every morning and evening "unless he had whiskey running through his veins," Pollock writes, and he often takes his son Arvin.

Lest that sound peaceful and perfectly pious for a man who had little use for the church after what he'd seen in World War II, allow Pollock to set the scene as the condition of Willard's wife deteriorates: "Maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat. The ground along the log stayed muddy with blood."

This is in Part One of The Devil All the Time. Out of desperation, Willard begins offering blood sacrifices at the prayer log - animals he killed or scraped off the roads. "But even he had to admit, they didn't seem to working ... ," Pollock writes. "There was one thing that he hadn't tried yet. He couldn't believe that he hadn't thought of it earlier." And that is when Willard decides to kill his landlord.

Peter Geye. Photo by Matt and Jenae Batt.

It happens in the second paragraph of the first chapter of his first book. Peter Geye's 2010 debut, Safe from the Sea, concerns a father and son, but it quickly establishes another character: Minnesota's North Shore, hanging over Lake Superior on its way to Canada.

The son, Noah, has just arrived in Duluth. Geye sets the scene: "Now he could see the lake, a dark and undulating line that rolled onto the shore. The concussions were met with a hiss as the water sieved back through the pebbled beach. The fog had a crystalline sharpness, and he could feel on his cheeks the drizzle carried by the wind. It all felt so familiar, and he thought, I resemble this place. And then, My father, he was inhabited by it."

Both of those italicized statements could apply to Geye, who will be reading from his work November 29 as part of the River Readings at Augustana series. In a phone interview last week, the Minneapolis-based author discussed the importance of the North Shore and the wilderness above it as a place (to him) and a setting (for his two published novels and the one currently in progress). He said either he or his editor came up with the term "Northern Gothic" to describe his books - a descendant of the Southern Gothic of such writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Cormac McCarthy.

We received 69 entries in our fiction contest, and prize-winners and a selection of other favorites are published here.

To refresh your memory, we set a limit of 250 words per entry. (For future contests, a bit of advice: Count by hand - at least twice.) We also required each entry to conform to one of five prompts in genre (ghost story, romance, tall tale, noir, or biography), point-of-view character (inanimate object, child, polygamist, criminal, or nun), and conflict/action (betrayal, reunion, shame, obsolescence, or unrequited love). And for the brave and/or foolish, we offered the elective option of writing in the style of Dr. Seuss, Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, William S. Burroughs, or Twitter. Who knew there were so many stories waiting to be told about longing objects, sensual nuns, and Seussian polygamists?

"Many in the crowd got roaring drunk - and the drunks at their most extreme were hard to tell apart from the fallers and the jerkers and the howlers. Others gave in to the general mood of riot and began fighting and beating each other up over nothing. But what made the camp meetings truly infamous were the orgies."

Lee SandlinThis is not the Mississippi River that most people remember from Mark Twain. This is the real deal in all its lurid detail.

Lee Sandlin, who will be speaking at the Bettendorf Public Library on September 27 and the Upper Mississippi River Conference on September 28, said in a recent phone interview that he aimed to re-create "the Mississippi River culture in the first half of the 19th Century" in his 2010 book Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. "Basically what I'm doing is trying to introduce people to that kind of very strange little world that had formed then around the river."

"Very strange little world" is the gentle way of putting it.

To grasp the concept of the Midwest Writing Center's new Spectra poetry-reading series, we might start with the 1916 book of the same name. In its preface, Anne Knish explained that the "Spectric" school "speaks ... of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated the several colored and other rays of which light is composed. It indicates our feeling that the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues."

Before you flee this article, understand that Spectra was a satiric hoax created by Arthur Davison Ficke (a Davenport native writing as Knish) and Witter Bynner (writing as Emanuel Morgan). The pair gleefully mocked the abstruse pretensions of modern free verse, but several prominent poets - including Edgar Lee Masters and William Carlos Williams - actually embraced the work, not recognizing its intent. Poetry magazine Editor Harriet Monroe accepted a handful of Spectric works before the hoax was revealed by Bynner.

Although the poems were mostly nonsense, they were compellingly playful. One opens: "Her soul was freckled / Like the bald head / Of a jaundiced Jewish banker." It concludes: "This demonstrates the futility of thinking." One of the most charming starts: "If I were only dafter / I might be making hymns / To the liquor of your laughter / And the lacquer of your limbs."

And they were occasionally incisive. In one about "my little house of glass," Knish wrote: "Sometimes I'm terribly tempted / To throw the stones myself."

Adam FellTo show how this relates to the new poetry-reading series (which begins September 15), allow me to note that one of the first two featured writers, Adam Fell, closes his poem "Summer Lovin Torture Party" with these oddly familiar lines: "I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord. / I've been waiting for this moment all my life."

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