Some Recent Small Press Short Fiction
by Rich Horton
The SF/Fantasy/Horror field is replete with small press sources of short fiction. This is a good place to find cross-genre work, and horror or dark fantasy. It's harder to find straight fantasy or SF probably because the "major" markets are more hospitable to those forms. I've been looking through a variety of such small press publications: books, professional looking magazines, chapbooks, and what I will call simply 'zines, the latter typically a passel of letter or legal sized sheets of paper folded and stapled with a card stock cover. Appearance is not necessarily a guide to quality, mind you: Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet is one of the more casual appearing 'zines (albeit in a clever fashion), yet it is very likely the best. Here's a look at a few more small press works that have recently come my way.
Best of the Rest 3, edited by Brian Youmans
(Suddenly Press, Boston, MA, 2002, 201 pages, $14, 0-9670056-1-2)
Let's start with a good way to get a quick look at the wider field of small press short fiction. Best of the Rest 3 is an anthology of Brian Youmans's choices for the best fiction to appear in SF/F/H small press publications (including webzines) in 2001. He draws from magazines such as Talebones, Challenging Destiny, Horror Garage, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, single author collections, webzines like Strange Horizons and Neverworlds, even a CD-ROM anthology, and even a magazine that I would have hesitated to call "small press": Weird Tales. As with the whole small press field, to my mind, his selections skew quite a bit towards "dark fantasy". On the whole he's made strong choices: several of the stories were among those I'd checked last year as worth remembering, and none of the stories struck me as poor. Naturally he missed a few stories I'd have taken: why nothing from Spectrum SF or The Third Alternative, for example? But nobody is going to agree 100% with somebody else's picks.
Youmans has chosen Ray Vukcevich's brilliant ghost story "Pretending", from Lady Churchill's. He also picks Thomas Ligotti's outstanding corporate horror tale, "Our Temporary Supervisor" (from Weird Tales, and cited on the 2001 Locus Recommended Reading List). Ken Scholes's "Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk" was certainly one of the most memorable 2001 pieces from Talebones, about a toy animal and a spaceship crash. Of the two Strange Horizons pieces here, I particularly liked Joe Murphy's weird (almost Eliot Fintushel-like) "The Calcium Efflux Conspiracy" (though I will confess there were about three other Strange Horizons stories that I would have taken instead). James Van Pelt's "Saturn Ring Blues" (from On Spec) is a fine, almost Analog-ish, hard SF adventure. And the rest of the book is really quite good as well.
The Journal of Pulse-Pounding Narratives
(Volume 1, Number 1, Summer 2002, edited by Alex Irvine and T. Davidsohn, www.mothaxle.com, $6.50)
This 'zine is a nicely presented perfect-bound publication with an impressive lineup of authors and stories packed into 98 pages. The goal seems to be "pulp fiction for today", or as the subtitle would have it, "Modern Stories for Retro Brains". The stories include some fairly straightforward takes on pulp tropes, SF and mystery predominating; as well as some postmodern snarky parodies of pulp standards. Most prominent in the latter category is a set of 5 wild, and very long, sentences by Jeffrey Ford, with titles like "Deep Space Adventure #32", each of which is an over the top (and then some) sendup of a particular pulp genre. Also in the parodic vein, the thoroughly dependable Paul Di Filippo gives us "Pulp Alibis", a series of reimaginings of the O. J. Simpson case in various pulp idioms. More serious (for a certain value of serious) are pieces like Joel Jenkins's "Iron Monster of Death", which deals about as straight-facedly as possible with the Nazi-fighting efforts of the Eel, "bane of criminals everywhere".
The entire package is consistently entertaining, even if the winking of the authors is almost always evident. Other contributors include folks like Wil McCarthy, Devon Monk, James L. Cambias, Gavin J. Grant, Christopher Rowe, and even the legendary Lionel Fanthorpe. Worth a look, for sure!
Flesh and Blood, #10, 2002
(edited by Jack Fisher, Flesh and Blood Press, 121 Joseph St., Bayville, NJ, ISSN: 1524-1149, $5
The Butterfly Artist, by Forrest Aguirre
(Flesh and Blood Press, Bayville, NJ, 2002, 48 pages, $5)
Shadows, Legends, and Secrets, by John Urbancik
(Flesh and Blood Press, Bayville, NJ, 2002, 40 pages, $5)
Flesh and Blood is a magazine edited by horror writer Jack Fisher, who also puts out the occasional single author collection as a chapbook from his Flesh and Blood Press. The focus is most distinctly on Horror/Dark Fantasy, and I'll mention at once that that is not my favorite back alley of the fantastical city we inhabit. But, there's still some good stuff coming out of that back alley.
I have at hand issue #10 of Flesh and Blood. Certainly several of the stories indulge in the horror writers' tendency to display something unpleasant, as if that in itself makes a story. Perhaps real horror readers like that. Not me, but I did enjoy, in this issue, Forrest Aguirre's "Downstream Flow: A Fugue", a brief, dark look at the gruesome catch of a fisherman downstream of three dead people; Scott Nicholson's "The Night the Wind Died", about an otherwise ordinary girl who is also the wind; and S.D. Tullis's "Weirdmouth", about a sinister teacher.
I've also got two Flesh and Blood chapbooks, by Forrest Aguirre and John Urbancik, both writers who have appeared in Flesh and Blood. Aguirre's The Butterfly Artist showcases nine stories, many very short. These include most notably "Downstream Flow: A Fugue", and the title story, an exotic piece about a zoologist in a mutation-ridden future who makes a transforming trip to Africa. Aguirre is an interesting writer, worth watching, whom I think could benefit from disciplining the wilder flights of his imagination a bit. Urbancik's Shadows, Legends and Secrets includes 8 stories, broadly "horror" in genre but generally a bit sweeter in tone than, say, Aguirre's work. I liked "The House with No Windows" and "Silke Dances", and I thought the book as a whole readable but not particularly special.
Tales of the Unanticipated, #23, April 2002-April 2003
(editor-in-chief Eric M. Heidemann, Rune Press [Minnesota Science Fiction Society], Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, 130 pages, $7)
This is a yearly publication of the Minnesota Science Fiction Society. It's one of the more impressive small press productions: a large perfect-bound magazine, with very nice artwork, fine poetry (well above the run of "speculative poetry" one usually sees in the SF field, small press and large), and over 80,000 words of fiction per issue.
Eleanor Arnason is a regular contributor, often with "folk tales" related to the alien cultures she has invented for her longer stories, and this issue includes "The Lost Mother", a fine piece about the Divers from last year's Asimov's story "Moby Quilt". I also quite liked Christopher East's "Predestiny", which is a wacky metafictional piece: often a dangerous combination, risking tweeness, but mostly pulled off here. A.B. Ming, a fairly new writer, contributes "Want's Master", impressively imagined, about a fundraiser for a magical university but much more than that. Apparently this is part of a series, and it shows great promise. R. Neube's "Faux Ever in Love" has an intriguing premise, a plague which erases a person's persona and replaces it with the conviction that they are a character in whatever fiction they have in mind, and an urgent problem a man looking for his wife, who believes she is an alien agent from a series of low-end SF books she's been reading. Hilary Moon Murphy's "The Grand Cheat" is a nice story about a negotiator in the very late Raj period in India, who manages to come out ahead in a negotiation with a god. William Mingin's "Greaves, this is Serious" is a cute Wodehouse pastiche with a sting in its tail. Laurel Winter's "Six Gun and the Aliens" is also a comedy, and a cute one, about aliens landing and encountering a drunken cowboy, with predictably silly results. Jason Sandford's "For Aging Kids who Dream of Star Treks" is an affecting, if sometimes forced, story about a dying black man and his childhood friend, and their long ago love of Star Trek, remembered towards the end of this new century. Carolyn Ives Gilman, another TOTU regular, contributes "The Invisible Hand Rolls the Dice", a 2001 Locus Recommended Reading choice after its appearance in Interzone. The poems are overall a decent lot, with Richard Chwedyk's two contributions my favorite.
This remains one of the very best of SF small press magazines: good looking, with a large selection of fiction, and a large selection of poetry, both generally of fine quality.
Lord Stink and Other Stories, by Judith Berman
(Small Beer Press (www.lcrw.net), Northampton, MA, 2002, 76 pages, $5)
Small Beer Press, run by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, is the publisher of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and of several first rate trade paperback books, including Link's collection Stranger Things Happen and recently a new novel and a collection from Carol Emshwiller. They also produce the occasional chapbook, and as might be expected, the quality of the chapbooks is comparable to that of their other efforts.
Lord Stink and Other Stories gathers four novelettes, two from Asimov's, one from Interzone, and a new one. One story, "The Window", from Asimov's in 2000, garnered quite a bit of notice including a Sturgeon Award nomination. It's a striking story of alien occupation. The other two reprints both seem based on Native American themes: "Lord Stink" is about a bear-man who steals a woman for his wife, and "Dream of Rain" is about a young girl coming of age amidst dynastic issues such as her uncle's murder. Both are striking, effective, fantasies. The new story, "Election Day", is also effective, about a corrupt politician who finds a surprising new source of votes, with unexpected consequences, and the museum official with a magic mirror who becomes involved without meaning to. A thoroughly enjoyable story, sometimes sweet, sometimes spooky. Judith Berman hasn't been very prolific. These stories represent most of her output to date, to my knowledge, but they are intriguing works, displaying considerable range and a fine new voice.