It should be admitted that I got a little carried away this month and ending up gorging myself on five magazines. All boasted a number of splendid stories (making it a painful task to condense this column to an easily-digestible length). One ‘zine in particular had me in raptures: Prime’s Fantasy, which — as is to be expected from this publisher — is heavily slanted towards literary fantasy. This, the debut issue, has an impressive roster of participants, and almost every entry is a delight. My personal favorite was Catherynne M. Valente’s "Bones Like Black Sugar", a short, regretful and intensely poetic take on Hansel and Gretel. Valente has a gorgeous, utterly unique style, a sort of baroque impressionism. Her prose is filled with striking, incongruous phrasings ("My steps grin on the pine needles") and paints sensual frescoes with words:
…she slumps out of it, stuck, now as all the other times, her candied pelvis caught on the broiling pan, fleshless arms stretched out in supplication, frozen in the grace of a ruined arch, the skeleton of an angel consumed, angles all wrong, ribs descending black as treble scales, femurs like cathedral columns dripping with honey-gold.
A baroque feel is also to be found in "The Sense of Spirals" by Sonya Taafe. Not so much a story as a meditation on change and entropy, it is an exceptionally vivid portrait of a city crumbling away into space, minute by minute. Nothing in this "patternless city" is stable. Linoleum grows along the ground, buildings "uproot themselves into stars and flung space", bonfires turn into light bulbs, and even cigarettes abruptly turn into cinnamon, or sprout leaves. Amid all this, there is little actual incident to the story: two people meet in a labyrinth below the continually-shifting ground, simply to talk and share cinnamon cigarettes. One sees the decay, the other renewal. "Here, where everything’s mercury," comments one. "No constant but change." It’s a deeply intriguing world, laden with enough hints about the character’s lives and the politico-religious backdrop to leave this reader wanting a great deal more.
There’s just space to mention two other stories I particularly enjoyed. Jeffrey Ford’s "In the House of Four Seasons" is a rich and strange tale of the (not entirely willing) inhabitants of the titular ‘House’ where "everything outside is inside" — including the weather. "Sun, In Its Copper Season", by Vera Nazarian, is a lyrical fairytale about a woman upon whose daily routine the rising and setting of the sun depend.
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #17 (November 2005) provides another diverse and diverting selection of offbeat speculative fiction, wrapped up in characteristic (pleasingly!) minimalist design and quirky asides. David Connerley Nahm’s "’Discrete Mathematics’ by Olaf and Lemeaux; Or, the Severed Hand" is a disquieting tale about a man who finds a severed hand in his kitchen. Clever use is made of the unreliable first-person narrator, who tells the story in dislocated patches, and Nahm renders the whole thing much creepier by leaving the reader to join most of the dots. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Seana Graham’s "The Pirate’s True Love" is a charming, amusing story about what the women left behind do while their men-folk are off having adventures:
But now – if she squinted – she could see that there were many other pirates’ true loves standing on the cliff, sighing and straining their eyes over the all-too-empty waters. And she had to admit that, sad though it was, it was also just a little bit silly.
Another small press ‘zine of similar aesthetic appeal is Electric Velocipede #10. The tone is quite different, however, with a greater emphasis upon storytelling — which is not to say that the work here doesn’t experiment or push boundaries, simply that, unlike Fantasy and LCRW, plot is less likely to play second fiddle to poetry and mood. The most striking story was "Jacket Jackson", by Richard Bowes and Mark Rich, a cascade of deadpan oddity that stays just the right side of incoherence. It felt (to me, at least!) not unlike Moorcock channeling Kerouac, or perhaps the other way round. It is about a sentient jacket and a fantastical City that may or may not exist only in the protagonist’s poetry. What makes it all the more tantalizing — and surreal — it that we only ever catch glimpses of the city, through dream, through hallucination, through its myriad epithets ("City of Unraveled Time", and the like):
"Maxee," said the hollowed-out boy, seizing on the syllables. He felt fingers in his head.
"It is a where, and it is a when." The words crept along behind the fingers. "The shadows, the lights, the waterfall of a million miles. The chiming thoughts of a century of bell-headed children."
The tendrils of voice pulled away from the boy’s mind, and left in their place a vision of a city so immense it wrapped around the sky.
Farthing #2 (Spring 2006) is a very small-press endeavor from the UK. Of all the ‘zines I’ve read this month, this one has the broadest range, featuring everything from urban gothic to alien-world SF, via medieval-flavored high fantasy. Probably because of this range, I found it more hit-and-miss than the others, but there are still plenty of enjoyable tales to be found between its pretty matte covers. "The Slug Planet Messiah" by Joe Murphy is great fun: a futuristic noir with a likeable, wry protagonist, a great premise (Boy meets girl; boy gets girl. Girl renders boy unconscious and sells his body parts to the Igla) and a thoroughly amusing denouement. A witchcraft-and-sibling-rivalry story, "The Ties that Bind" by Jackie Kessler, makes good use of a point-of-view narrative from an amnesiac woman, and also has a fantastic ending. Beginnings are also a strength. Laura J. Underwood’s "The Eyes Have It" wins this month’s prize for Best Opening Line ("Look into my eyes," the potato said). In this case, however, the rest of the story sadly fails to match up, being a generic high fantasy about a girl of mysterious parentage, set in an ill-defined pseudo-medieval world.
The pick of the month’s offerings at Strange Horizons came from Gavin J. Grant. "We Are Never Where We Are" (May 8) is about a small group of ageless, chameleonic revolutionaries. They use their perpetual youth to travel the world, joining efforts to overthrow oppressive regimes and stop massacres (It’s not about teaching people to fish; more demonstrating that fish isn’t the only food.). Although it is never explained how — nor does it need to be — it seems they can change their appearance at will to blend into their environment:
We’d come in as Algerians, but Paris wouldn’t acknowledge us, so we took a trip to Belgium and became white middle-class European intelligentsia. I was short, squat, balding, given to tanktops and ABD forever. You were tall, lithe, dreamy, and teaching Alternate Middle Eastern Viewpoints. Jonah drove a cab, played at being a dropout, never combed his hair, and experimented with body odor. We were disenfranchised, disingenuous, dis-this, dissing that.
The cost is high, however. The tone is weary, and sorrowful; they have witnessed too many horrors — civil war, genocide — in the course of their centuries. They can only do so much, never enough, and some of their number are lost to the conflicts they embroil themselves in. Ultimately, this is a study of identity: in their continual transformations, they are gradually losing their sense of who they are, forgetting their mannerisms and even the sight of their own faces.
Finally, Bennet H. Marks’ two-parter, "Love Goes Begging" (April 17 & 24) is frothy, occasionally romantic, and great fun, with little in the way of plot but lashings of style. Of the eponymous Cupid, for example:
Fear not, dear cherub! I have seen too many uranians crumble helplessly to their knees from the sting of your inerrant shafts—treacle dripping like blood from their mouths, all sentience fading from their faces, vacuity overtaking their blinded eyes—to think of you as anything but an equal opportunity assailant.