11 December 2004

Small Press Roundup -- Now with 100% More Batshit!

By putting off other projects and not responding to email, I have managed to finish reading all of the small press SF/fantasy/whatever magazines in my possession from 2004. Here are some summary judgments:

Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet continues to be my favorite 'zine, but it had worthy competition this year. LCRW has only managed to get out one issue so far this year, because the editors, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, apparently think they should spend time writing things themselves, publishing and publicizing books with their Small Beer Press, and preparing the fantasy part of next year's Year's Best Fantasy & Horror collection. Where they found time to put out one issue, I don't know, but issue 14 has some marvelous work in it, and no real disasters. The marvel of LCRW is the variety of material presented: everything from weird science fiction to softly odd mainstream stories. The most common sort of tales are offbeat fantasy, though, and these tend to be the best works in the 'zine, perhaps because that is what LCRW has gotten identified with, and so it's probably what most authors send them. Douglas Lain's "Music Lessons" was the highlight of issue 14 for me -- a contrapuntal story of modern music, creativity, perception, and alien abduction -- but the entire issue is worth reading, including the poetry by David Blair, Trent Walters, and Sally Bayley. (Note, too, that Matthew Latkiewicz's "Felix Soutre, Puppeteer" is listed both as fiction and nonfiction. The story/article may be too long for its own good, but I found it haunting, nonetheless.)

Say... produced one issue this year, Say...Why Aren't We Crying?, which contains the largest amount of flat-out, undeniably weird stories of any 'zine I read. (The term "batshit" came to mind -- I think it would be a better label than "slipstream" or "interstitial". Imagine this conversation: "So, what do you write?" "Mostly batshit." "Really? I love batshit! What are some of your favorite batshit stories of the year?") Which is not to say it's all bizarre -- "Black Fish" by Janet Chui, the longest story in the 'zine, is straightforward fantasy with a beginning, middle, and end, and the story on the whole is notable for the willingness Chui has to let the events develop at a seemingly natural pace, without a rush toward the climax, although there is a climax, and it's pretty climactic. But I found the most enjoyable stories to be ones I had trouble pinning down to any sort of referential reality, stories that kept shifting their balance, with sentences that flew sometimes into reveries and sometimes into the aether. "The Lethe Man" by David J. Schwartz is a phenomenally unpredictable story of amnesia, a subject I thought I had had just about enough of until I saw how Schwartz handled it. "This is a cute boy graveyard" by Jana Phipps is 13 numbered paragraphs that defy description, but interestingly so. Jude-Marie Green's "Til the Wildness Cried Aloud" is the story of a feral couch. Sonya Taaffe's "Featherweight" is densely written, with some of the finest prose between these covers, although my own enjoyment of it suffered from a personal pet peeve against stories where Love Conquers All in the end (despite the love here being pretty darn weird). Pam McNew's "Tempest in a Teacup" is a great little garble of wordplay and imagery; as such stories go, this one seems just about perfect to me. E.L. Chen provides a helpful comic expanding on some ideas from Scott McCloud, applying them to the "Why aren't we crying?" question. "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" by Mikal Trimm is another very short dose of strangeness; this one didn't work as well for me as others, but with such material opinions are even more subjective than normal (this is what happens when the beholder gets batshit in the eye). Joe Sutliff Sanders's "Beholden" is a surprisingly effective story of the struggles of working at Disneyworld, and the terrors that follow removing your mask. "Which Apes a Soul" is a far-future SF story from Mark Rich, one which is at the very least successful at conveying a sense of how very alien the future would seem to us, particularly with regard to its language. The only real dud in the issue is "Robert's Rule of Order", a horrendously bad play by Terry Bisson, who is generally a good fiction writer.

My choice of favorite story from Say...Why Aren't We Crying? is "The Better Life" by Ezra Pines, a story that defies summary. Most of the paragraphs could live as little stories on their own, but they do contribute to an overall narrative line, and though I was seldom clear where that narrative line was going or had gone, it created a joyful sense of discombobulation, not a frustrating one. Because of its rhythms and the playful scope of viewpoint that swings through vast distances and veers from the concrete to the abstract in one moment of punctuation, the following paragraph entranced me, and I read it again and again with pleasure:
A land exists somewhere I hope never to see with my living eyes where a woman resides whose hair is damp with the mist of the place and whose skin is beaded with rain and whose glance never touches mine and whose hands never move, yet whose mere presence is worse than the presence of a man with a gun, or a man with a hangover and an attitude and a gun, when that attitude has to do with you, and when that gun comes equipped with a direfully knowledgeable finger attached to the place where knowledge should be placed: for she, the woman in that land, is immense, so much so that you can never reach her across the distances of this place. You see her, think she is near; and you walk; and then you walk again; and you realize she has only grown larger and you no nearer, and you realize it will go on and on until you are no more than a flea begging entrance at the pale white coolness of the gap between her toes, there in the crushed land where she stands. I have been there in dreams.
Say...Why Aren't We Crying? is particularly notable not only for its fiction editors' commitment to the oneiric and odd, but for the poetry published with the fiction. This comes as no surprise, because Alan DeNiro is the poetry editor, and so the poetry tends to be more adventurous and innovative than the poetry in other 'zines. Michael Szewczyk's "Nets the Si'ze of Souls" impressed me most on a first read -- it's a blast of logorrhea set to stun -- but over time I became more fond of poems that hadn't clammored for my attention as openly: "Quirk" by Maurice Oliver, "Casket of the Age" by Bruce Boston, and "Les Brown's Band of Renown" by Maureen McHugh (who is best known as a fiction writer, and claims to have published only three poems, but if this is what she can do as a poet, I hope she begins to publish more).

(By the way, Christopher Rowe has some news about upcoming issues of Say..., including the next question and its attendant reading period.)

There were two issues of Flytrap this year (numbers 2 & 3 -- it's the youngster on the block), and each contained at least a couple of good pieces. Issue 2 appealed to me overall more than issue 3, but the third issue performs a vastly useful service by presenting Sonya Taaffe as the featured poet -- her work is most effective, I think, when read in a group, and so having four poems in one issue of a magazine is a great gift for readers. Issue 3 also contains Benjamin Rosenbaum's brilliant little story "Night Waking", a story that on a quick read seems inconsequential, but which, when read carefully, proves to be more substantial than many stories five times its length (the only comparison I can think of is what Hemingway accomplished in some of his shortest stories). Deborah Layne's "Hooked on a Feeling" won me over, despite skepticism I had during the first page or so, a fear that the fragments were trying to be more weighty than they were capable of being. The story is a symmetrina, a form created by Bruce Holland Rodgers, and though "Hooked on a Feeling" may, in the end, be more interesting as an exercise in the possibilities of fictional form than as substantial fiction in and of itself, I found it, on the whole, engaging and thought-provoking.

Issue 2 of Flytrap contains two particularly notable stories: "The Labyrinth Tourist" by Rudi Dornemann and "The Ideas" by David Moles. Aside from the depth of imagination, what I liked most about "The Labyrinth Tourist" was the ending. I am a curmudgeon when it comes to ending; few of them please me, because often it seems that writers of short stories try to tie too much up, and they try so hard to make sure the reader "gets it" that they squash the possibilities inherent in their story. Dornemann even gets away with something I generally hate: an ending that is a one-sentence paragraph. Not only that, it's a sentence (or fragment, depending on your persuasion) beginning with a conjunction, something bad writers often do to End Their Story Dramatically. In "The Labyrinth Tourist", though, it mostly works, because Dornemann's sentence ("And I don't get lost anymore") has a tremendous resonance and actually increases the imaginative possibilities at the end of the tale, because there are a few possible reasons for why the narrator no longer gets lost. I would have preferred it if it were part of the previous paragraph and less showy, but for a showy single-sentence paragraph at the end of a story, this one is about as good as it gets. "The Ideas" is just great fun, a wonderful answer to the horrible question often asked of writers, "Where do you get your ideas?" I wouldn't be surprised if some writers bring photocopies of this story to their next reading or book signing and pass it out to the first person who asks the inevitable question, to which they will now be able to reply, "Why, I'm so glad you asked..."

I wrote about the sixth issue of Electric Velocipede for SF Site earlier this year, and recently read issue 7, which didn't contain anything that impressed me nearly as much as Alan DeNiro's "A Keeper" from Issue 6, but I found most of the stories at least diverting, particularly "The Marsella" by Liz Williams, "Making the Butter Come" by Ren Holton, "On the Language of Alligator Twins" by Kiel Stuart, and "Dark Bloom" by Andrew Cohen, a science fictional horror story of alien invasion that is not particularly original in its concept but is quite effective in execution.

There are other 'zines and small press journals out there, some of them quite good. I recently turned in a review of Alchemy's first two issues to SF Site, but it hasn't been posted yet, so I'll simply say here that though Alchemy published only one issue this year, it's exceptional, with fine stories all around, most notably "The Venebretti Necklace" by Sarah Monette, which is a fun detective/ghost story set in a museum, and "Sand Dollars and Apple Halves", which is not only the best thing I've read by Barth Anderson, but, for my money, the best thing Alchemy has yet published -- a lyrical, emotionally affecting sort-of-fairy-tale that could easily have veered into cliche and avoids it magnificently.

Small press 'zines and journals are published as labors of love, with their publishers often actually losing money on the venture, but there's no reason to be afraid of subscribing to one or two publications, because for the small amount of money involved, you can read the sort of fiction and poetry that seldom finds its way into the major magazines -- not because it's bad, but because it's more difficult to pigeonhole and market to a broad audience. The variety of types of writing certainly can lead to lower lows than you might find in the major markets, but there is also a higher number of weirdly interesting works finding their ways into the small press publications than into the places where editors and publishers worry themselves into neurosis by fixating on how to appeal to people who think Star Wars tie-in novels and write-by-numbers fantasy trilogies are the highest form of literary pleasure. Me, I'll take batshit over the other stuff any day.

(For different views of some of the publications I've discussed, and no non-FCC-approved words, see Rich Horton's reviews of Flytrap and Electric Velocipede and Tangent's review of LCRW 14.)

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