Cover by Sandro Castelli
What a nice little publication. I've been meaning to get a subscription to this respected quarterly, and as soon as I subscribed online I received an e-promise from publisher Beth Wodzinski that she'll drop it in the mail shortly. A week later I had my copy. Service like that alone deserves a subscription.
Overall the issue was good; a nice quick read. I didn't feel there were any stand-out stories, though at the same time there was not a single piece that wasn't worth a read. Most stories were well written ("The Bird Country") and well structured ("The Undertaker's Son") yet some perhaps could've used some more authorial editing ("A Cellar of Terrible Things"). I also wouldn't have included both "The Undertaker's Son" and "A Cellar of Terrible Things" in the same issue, for while they are quite different, their basic elements are too similar.
The Undertaker's Son by Nicole M. Taylor. 7/10
Albert sees dead people. They hover around him at his home, some threatening, others ambivalent. Their presence is linked to Albert's dad's profession as the town's undertaker, yet Albert is the one who sees them post-funeral. Soon he begins to engage with one of them, and the story takes a turn toward its central ideas on human relationships and responsibilities toward others as well as towards oneself. The story is well constructed, opening with glimpses of Albert's ghostly housemates, to a brief sequence with his father teaching him to not be afraid of death, to Albert's encounter with three specific ghosts, each one coming closer and closer to his heart. The ending, which I won't discuss, is genuinely touching.
(It's not at all A Christmas Carol, though Dickens's work does feature a guide and three spirits; here it's Albert showing the ghosts the way.)
What Fireworks by Dustin Monk. 7/10
An island, along with its town and inhabitants, is slowly dissolving. This surreal tale touches on notions of history, culture and their retention, as we focus on specific characters, most notably a town curator who is concerned with dissecting the island's origins and a journalist from the outside world attempting to document its dissolution. These charters give glimpses of town-life, theories on the nature of this unusual island, all with a surreal yet distinct backdrop of a world on the edge of being forgotten. Overall quite effective;
Signal Jamming by Oliver Buckram. 6/10
Escapee M.Q. Bukka is loose on a prison ship, and wreaks havoc on its internal communications. This short piece is structured along a series of one-sided correspondence from a ship's officer to its commander. A comedic piece that manages to be amusing and to have some good, simple fun.
Harrowing Emily by Megan Arkenberg. 6/10
Zoe is depressed when lover Emily returns from the dead. Emily's approach to life is different now, and Zoe is having trouble coping with the newly established paradigm. A good, emotionally weighted story filled with flawed characters easy to sympathize with. (Too bad about that glaring lay/lie error.)
The Bird Country by K. M. Ferebee. 6/10
"Childer killed a boy during the night," the story opens. A striking opening for such a quiet story. Childer is a loner living at a small, unyielding farm. One morning he encounters a silent angel lying in the yard, and tries, in his slow and quiet way, to interact with it. The prose is tight and the story is properly atmospheric, yet while it's often the quiet stories that yield greater impact, I was left with a lukewarm feeling at the end. I felt Childer was a little evasive, his character not defined enough for me to consistently believe he is both the angel watcher and the killer of teenage boys.
Not the best story of the bunch but the best written story in the issue.
A Cellar of Terrible Things by Mari Ness. 6/10
Neraka and her three housemates share their temporary aged village house with seventeen ghosts. These ghosts all live in the cellar, and though they are four it is Neraka's duty to go to the cellar and fetch the potatoes and turnips. While there she must endure the constant whisperings of the ghosts. The story is constructed around several short vignettes, which alternate primarily between Neraka and the ghosts, focusing on each of their daily routine. Yet also incorporated amid these scenes are the village and its inhabitants as well as the history of these once living.
The story is quite good, dealing with a village that is simultaneously clinging onto its horrible past yet denying responsibility. Neraka too is in denial, as she's forced to work in that town and live in that house and can only handle those ghosts by pretending they aren't there. They are, however, too present in the cellar and in her thoughts, so that her game of denying them and her own sense responsibility nearly consume her. Neraka/Naraka is the Hindu hell, a dark pit where the dead receive punishment for their sins. The protagonist's connection to Neraka is not always clear and the name might have been incidental.
A good story, it would be much better with some tightening. There is awkwardness in its construction, particularly at the beginning with some needless repetition and the lack of a cohesive focus. The oddly-constructed sentences don't help either. For instance: "It is a wonder the cellar is not even more filled with ghosts" should read "It is a wonder the cellar is not filled with more ghosts." It's possible Ness wanted to create an image of canned sardines pressed together, but these are ghosts, ones we're told early on pass through objects, so no matter how many ghosts there are the cellar can never be filled to capacity, as there is no capacity.
The second half reads far better. The story should be shorter, though, many of the vignettes unnecessary. I'd recommend a re-working and hopefully see it in re/print .
Soulless in His Sight by Milo James Fowler. 7/10
A father and son (known as Fatha and Boy) live alone in a post apocalyptic town. With his crossbow Fatha dispatches anyone who comes by, telling his son that he's searching for a soul for him. Things become complicated when Boy meets an outsider he tries to befriend.
Despite a note of the sentimental and a weak opening I quite liked this story. The language is consistent, as are its thematic points. The characters are not terribly likeable but their world is in such ruin that the reader pushes conventional notions of sympathy aside. Few words are wasted on the apocalyptic backdrop; the story succeeds in generating a character-driven narrative that the details of bombs and fallout are unnecessary. The atmosphere and crumbling setting are enough to hint at the basics, and in this case the basics are all we require.
My problem with the opening is the unnecessary violence. The fact that Fatha is killing everyone who comes by is enough to portray a violent future bent on survival, and the splattering blood is, pardon the pun, overkill. Besides, narrator Boy has seen this form of violence since birth and has grown accustomed to it the way we, in this humble age, have grown accustomed to watching someone smoke a cigarette. I wouldn't describe the act of smoking in detail, just as Boy wouldn't bother with the details his father's bad habits.