I have not read the first issue of Subterranean Magazineís premiere volume but, judging by its second issue, this has the potential to be a quality magazine. Subterranean is a new quarterly produced by (appropriately enough) Subterranean Press, a small press founded ten years ago by Tim Holt and William Schafer, the latter of who is the Publisher/Editor of the magazine. Subterranean does not accept unsolicited submissions for the magazine, so it is no surprise that the majority of the material in this issue is by authors whose books they publish or are due to publish soon.
The first section of the issue is devoted to Caitlín R. Kiernan, with an interview of her by Anita W. Nicker in between Caitlín's stories "Bradbury Weather" and "Andromeda Among the Stones." Iím afraid I find that Kiernanís writing is not to my taste. Technically ept and imaginative in descriptions of characters, creatures, places, and moments, I find it lacking in compelling plot. In "Bradbury Weather" I also found myself wondering at the lack of explanation for why Mars appears to have a nearly completely female population. As a story about a woman driven to try to save her lover from a cult of priests and a quest likely to remove her humanity, itís interesting enough. In both that and "Andromeda Among the Stones" Kiernan addresses themes of transformation and expresses much of the inner concerns of the characters in dreams. In the latter story itís sometimes hard to tell which sequences are dreams and which are not, as the somewhat Lovecraftian narrative jumps around the timeline of a family that is struggling to contain some hideous yet indescribable doom that threatens humanity from the cavern under their house by the sea and seems somehow related to the first world war. Itís probably clear I didn't feel sure what Kiernan was getting at with that story. Despite my confusion both stories ended predictably. Like I said, not for me.
Charles Coleman Finlayís "The Slug Breeder's Daughter" is a standard bit about a girl who wants to escape from the tedium of her fatherís slug farm and trade slug herding for the wonders of travel with a merchant who told her ailing mother heíd take her away. In order to do so she must outwit the monster dog set to guard her by her besotted "father" and navigate the suspiciously intense interest of the goat-footed boy spirit across the creek. Wait; are some of these story components other than standard? Imaginative flurries of image and dialogue provide moments of delight and intrigue in an otherwise somewhat empty adventure story.
The reprint of Robert Silverberg's 1956 "Choke Chain" was the first case where the ending was at all surprising to me. A classic SF tale about a highly capable protagonist who dreams of making a difference in the solar system: he hears of trouble on Jupiterís largest moon and goes to Callisto to deal with it. Stiff as many of those old stories were, with cardboard cutout characters, itís nonetheless an enjoyable read.
The best story in the magazine follows: "Last Breath," by Joe Hill. This was such a satisfying little story I happily read it again right before writing this review. A couple and their son visit a Museum of Silence where, as the doctor who runs the place explains, they can listen to a collection of last breaths. The point isn't to hear the last thing someone said, but to not-hear the last thing they didn't say.
"Wait. There are all different kinds of silence. The silence in a seashell. The silence after a gunshot. His last breath is still in there. Your ears need time to acclimate. In a while youíll be able to make it out. His own particular final silence."
Some silences are more disturbing than others and not every visitor to this museum has a positive reaction. I canít promise everyone will like this slightly dark tale, but I found in it the delightfully rare piece where everything that is in there furthers the story and the ending is somehow exactly right. I will be watching for Hillís work in the future.
The issueís fiction is rounded out by the perfectly respectable "The World in a Box" by Charles de Lint and "Henry James, This One's For You" by Jack McDevitt. McDevittís short story is a little disappointing for me in that it depicts a violent knee-jerk rejection of technological development, but for all that it is decently written. De Lint offers us an exercise in why omnipotence can be dangerous when lacking omniscience to guide it, set in a really pleasantly detailed environment of friendship and association. Something of a tautology, but an enjoyable philosophical excursion carried out by believable characters that were easy to like.