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Issue #130 - June 2006

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Short Fiction

By Nic Clarke

This month sees the debut of Cabinet des Fées. Subtitled ‘A Fairy Tale Journal’, it combines scholarship with short fiction, and features some very interesting material. The trend is towards very short pieces, often only a few pages long, which seek to return fairytales to their darker, stranger roots. Some rework familiar stories: Donna Quattrone’s "All For a Rose" takes on "Beauty and the Beast", although it adds very little that is new, while K. Eason’s "Little Red" is a wonderfully creepy transfer of "Little Red Riding Hood" to a future where the woods have given way to concrete, and the wolves have evolved. Lila Garrott’s "Une Conte de Fée", meanwhile, riffs on "Bluebeard" to great effect, producing a fantastic — and bleak — surprise ending.

Other authors opt instead for original fiction with fairytale theme and tone: dreamlike and atmospheric, with minimal dialogue. I particularly appreciated "The River in Winter", by JoSelle Vanderhooft, a quiet, evocative journey into memory and the changing seasons, experienced through the senses of a nixie who was once a young woman:

There is a reason why I stay here, even when I can’t remember it. But when the nights are colder than the North and curled around the edges like the old leaves frozen to my back, I close my wet stone eyes, and memories sweep as surely as old moss along my bed.

Another magazine new to me this month was Aeon. Of the seven stories on offer – all of substantial length – most are broadly magical realist or science fiction. Joe Murphy’s "The Doom that Came to Smallmouth" takes Lovecraft to eerie small-town Texas, with a fishing competition where the contestants are, unbeknownst to them, the bait. The protagonist is not overly sympathetic, but the overall murky, oppressive mood suits it well.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette investigate Jonson and Marlowe’s "lost" play in a clever literary fantasy, "The Ile of Dogges". This is a return to territory first charted by Bear’s "This Tragic Glass" — academics time-travel to rescue historical writers from untimely deaths. It proves a much more light-hearted spin on the concept, while retaining a clear, appealing insight into the Jacobean milieu.

Staying on a historical note, "Lupercalia" by Rita Oakes contrives to bring the more decadent part of ancient Roman society to vibrant life. The environment, particularly the garden, really is beautifully drawn. However, the heart of the story — the sufferings of a pair of werewolves kept as sex slaves by a lascivious noblewoman — is perhaps a touch too prurient with its interest in the details of its subjects’ treatment. Unfortunately the chosen viewpoint character was by far the least interesting of the two werewolves.

This month’s Strange Horizons selection threw up one very entertaining piece: John Schoffstall’s "Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery" (5th June). It takes the form of a series of angry messages, sent by a woman scorned to her flighty, cheating ex, rebuffing his increasingly elaborate efforts to crawl back into her affections:

This morning I found waiting for me at the Lenox Hill post office a man astride a horse […] He started in on whether any womman, be she yong or old that hath ymaked hir housbonde cokewold, which is just insulting, seeing as how you’re the one with the zipper problem. I gave him your address, and sent him clip-clopping off across Manhattan towards the Village.

Try again. You’re not understanding the forgiveness thing.

For much of its length it proves great fun: consistently quirky, frequently amusing, and with an enjoyable acerbic tone. But the break away from the epistolary form towards the end is accompanied by a denouement that was disappointing to this reader, and even a touch unpalatable in its implications. Samantha Henderson’s "Cinderella Suicide" (15th May) displays considerable potential: there is a good sense of pacing, interesting ideas, and a setting that has been well thought through, but it overplays the disorientating slang at the beginning.

Son & Foe is a free zine that offers a mixture of brief vignettes and much longer pieces. The quality varies considerably, but three stories in issue #3 stand out. Nels Stanley’s "All in a Night’s Work" is a hallucinatory vision of life working the night shift at a factory, as seen — with little comprehension — by one of its workers. The overall feeling is one of extreme disconnection and dulled awareness; the narration is in the present tense, but this only heightens the way the subjective time moves in fits and starts. A real sense of unease is created as workers (begin to?) go missing, and the narrator suffers an injury but cannot feel the pain — but the story ends too soon, leaving not so much unanswered questions as what felt like an entire plot barely explored.

There is also a pair of strong stories from Dean Paschal. "Moriya" deals with a boy’s emotional and sexual awakening at the hands of a mysterious, beautiful automaton kept by the New Orleans couple with whom he lodges one summer — but it is much more sensitive and touching than the summary makes it sound! "Sautéing the Platygast" sees a zoologist and his family posted away from home to explore unusual new life forms —predominantly by cooking and consuming them in a variety of disturbing, lovingly-detailed ways. It is, in short, a deeply strange story, with a fun, mannered narration from the somewhat distracted scientist. There is a thread of disquiet bubbling under the surface, all the more disturbing for the fact that the narrator never confronts it head-on: what makes his daughter so callous? What is the matter with his wife?

In short, is his family planning to kill him?

Still, I keep up my spirits as best I can.

My book of recipes is a major consolation. "Leviticus, Too," I plan to call it. When demoralized, I think of it as a discreet series of challenges. About the other (the paranoia, I mean) I really should not complain.

I suppose I am not the first father to feel his family is in conspiracy against him.

Cabinet des Fees #1 - Erzebet Yellowboy, Catherynne M. Valente and Helen Pilinovsky (eds.) - Prime - digest magazine

Aeon #7 - Marti McKenna and Bridget McKenna (eds.) - Scorpius Digital Publishing - electronic proof

Strange Horizons - Susan Marie Groppi (ed.) - Strange Horizons - web site

Son and Foe #3 - Jeremiah Sturgill (ed.) - Son and Foe - web site

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Cabinet des Fees #1 - Erzebet Yellowboy, Catherynne M. Valente and Helen Pilinovsky (eds.) - Prime

Aeon #7 - Marti McKenna and Bridget McKenna (eds.) - Scorpius Digital Publishing

Strange Horizons - Susan Marie Groppi (ed.) - Strange Horizons

Son and Foe #3 - Jeremiah Sturgill (ed.) - Son and Foe

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