OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
LACKINGTON’S magazine issue #18, Fall 2018.
Publisher: Lackington Press, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Editor: Ranylt Richildis
Cover Art: Carol Wellart. Interior Art: Derek Newman-Stille, Pear Nuallak, Kat Weaver, P. Emerson Williams, Grace P. Fong, and Sharon J. Gochenour.
Foreword (Editorial) – Ranylt Richildis
Review: Turns out Ranylt doesn’t much like magic. Solutions and resolutions come too easy from the tip of a wand. Not a great source of dramatic tension. Myth and religion, on the other the hand, the “original” magic, offer all kinds of possibilities. Describing himself as “a prickly editor,” Ranylt has chosen six tales to fit the issue’s magic theme in ways transcending all stereotypes and clichés, six stories intended to surprise. We shall see.
When the Vine Came – by S.R. Mandel
New Thebes is a city of art and culture founded a thousand years earlier by humans intent on colonizing the planet Boeotia in the Nasos star system. The city flourishes, until a starship Captain discovers a young god floating in space. While the crew transform into animals flying and swimming among the stars, the Captain becomes the god’s high priest and brings him to New Thebes. Penthe, the Governor of the city, is rather perturbed. The new god, Liber, has unleashed a vine which invades every nook and cranny of the city’s buildings, offering fruit which turns to wine at a touch. People no longer work, preferring to engage in non-stop orgies and debauchery. What can the Governor do to stop the madness?
The story intrigues me because of my interest in classical history. Before the Romans persecuted the Christians, before they exterminated the Druids, they had to deal with a newly arrived cult which swept through the younger ranks of the patrician class like wildfire, causing the sons and daughters of Senators to abandon Republican sobriety and dignity for the sake of midnight drinking and sex orgies in the woods. Throw in enough panpipe music to thrill Lovecraft and you’ve got what was the first “hippie” movement of note at a time when the Romans were still largely a hardworking collection of dour, puritanical snobs. Their response was drastic. People were put to death, especially all those suspected of being cult leaders. Call it a trendy fad crushed by the full power of the state. Killed it dead, the Senate did, in 186 B.C.
Needless to say, I am referring to the introduction of the Greek cult of Dionysus combined with the hitherto low-level countryside worship of Bacchus. Of course, in later years all the Romans loosened up a bit, but there were always old-fashioned moralists around who longed for the good old days when people with better sex lives were put to death. The original surge of “free love” was thus remembered for many generations, eventually becoming the subject of saucy marginal notes in many a Christian scriptorium in the middle ages.
So, for me at least, it is pleasant to see an obscure historical event turned into a speculative fiction parable with a moral positively ecological in nature. This version has nothing to do with cultural confrontation between a younger generation and their parents, nor anything to do with a clash between conservative and Bohemian values; it merely poses the question “When it is time for your civilization to die, is that part of the natural order of things or should you attempt to prevent it?” Given the spate of headlines of late, the question may be more relevant to today’s problems than you care to believe. Definitely worth pondering.
Prima Fuit, Finis Erit – by Julia August
Sextus is a poet in the time of Augustus, lucky enough to have Maecenas as his patron, unlucky enough to be haunted by the ghost of Cynthia who died ten years previously. Not only is his current love life moribund, but Cynthia keeps insisting Sextus join her in death, the sooner the better. Desperate to escape from her spell, he seeks the help of Erichtho, a formidable necromancer recently arrived in Rome from Thessaly, the land of witchcraft.
For a classics lover like myself this story is an absolute delight. I knew right away the protagonist was Sextus Propertius, a very famous Roman poet indeed, and the inspiration behind the story undoubtedly his poem “Cynthia’s Ghost” in particular, which was written long after she had died, and the bulk of his poems in general, written while she was still alive and uppermost in his thoughts. Her real name was Hostia, and she was a high-class courtesan no-where near as infatuated with him as he was with her. Hence a good deal of frustration on his part, which made for entertaining poetry.
I was also pleased to note a bit of business based on a famous incident in Beneventum described in the satires of Horace, where greedy guests snatch up their dinner as the house burns around them, here used as a throwaway touch of humour to emphasise how boring his life had become since Cynthia began haunting him.
At the end of the story Ranylt appends a list of source references to the writings of Propertius, Horace, and Lucan, which is nice, but not necessary for the reader to enjoy the story. It isn’t even necessary to know anything about the true history of the characters. The story stands by itself as an episodic but intriguing ghost story whose various short segments successfully portray Sextus’ confused state of mind wherein fear mingles with regret and nostalgic memory.
But what I really like about the story is its modern sensibility. Oh, I don’t mean it fails to convey how people thought and lived 2,000 years ago. It accomplishes that admirably, but does so with the aid of a descriptive style more sophisticated than anything surviving from ancient times. Petronius came close with the Satyricon, perhaps, but Julia’s treatment feels fresh and contemporary, really brings the tale alive. Dusts the must off the old poems, as it were. I like it a lot.
As for the title, it is a quote, which I believe originally was rendered “Cynthia prima fuit, Cynthia finis erit.” And it means? It appears to be paraphrased at the end of the story. Not going to spoil it here. You’ll have to read the story. You should, you know, it’s quite good.
The Wytch-Byrd of the Nabryd-Keind – by Farah Rose Smith
Claudia Marr is a trapeze artist somewhere in Europe in the 1930s. Her act, possibly erotic, involves wearing an elaborate bird-like costume while caressing a large Bird of Paradise. They perform brilliantly lit by spotlights in a darkened theatre. The bird is on loan from Claudia’s lover Girard Augher, whom she does not love. Girard is noted for being a bit of an alchemist and a dabbler in magic. Meanwhile, their friend Emiel Forsa, whom Girard gifted with several beautiful birds that keep getting bigger and less beautiful, is slowly going mad because of his obsession with his birds, who taunt him.
Being literal-minded, I have a bit of difficulty with this story, in that the “facts” keep changing (Six birds or eight birds? More than one delivery?) and the point of view is often hallucinatory as if we are inside a fever-dream. The consequences of Girard’s playing about with magic, and the birds are surely magical, seems to have infected them all. The end of the story is horrific, and not credible as an event in the real world, but appropriate to the mood of delirium.
Puts me in mind, oddly enough, of Salvador Dali’s novel “Hidden Faces” in which his “paranoiac-critical” method of painting is applied to the style of writing, namely an over-emphasis on detail which elevates the significance of the detail to the level of surreal dream imagery beyond logic and literal interpretation. Or to put it another way, visually the story resembles one of Dali’s bejewelled mini-sculptures. I think he would have liked the story very much.
I, on the other hand, am fatally allergic to bird dander (have come close to dying twice because of this) and the descriptions of the mess created by the birds as they grow bigger and uglier resonate with me in a very personal way. In fact the imagery of Emiel’s living conditions amid the now gigantic birds strikes me as more loathsome and terrifying than the ending of the story, but that’s just me. Can’t help it.
To sum up, yes, an interesting “fever-dream.” Beautiful at times, yet redolent of despair and decay.
Collar for Captain Cormorant – by Rekha Valliappan
Captain Cormorant only looks like a Cormorant. He is in fact the last of the Knights of the old order of Otis. They have become true Cormorants, but he can still be fully human, albeit magical, if he can but find a bride. Time is running out. For twenty years he has ridden a water train in the form of a dolphin searching for the perfect bridge, the portal to the three worlds. He finally finds the bridge in Greece, only to witness a family of ducks, who are not ducks, being slaughtered by a fox, who may simply be a hungry fox. Shocked, he leans over the water, fanning his scent, hoping it will attract his sorcerous seal mother. She appears, but is not what she seems.
Ah, hmmm. Would make a difficult elevator pitch (writers know what I mean). I’m all at sea here. Granted, it’s beautifully written, very stylish, but doesn’t ring true for me, resembling the kind of scientific bafflegab you find in Star Trek, though transformed into mystical imagery appropriate to a fairy tale. The mythology involved isn’t grounded to me, feels made up. Ordinarily the exercise of imagination is a wonderful thing, but here it’s one new concept after another which leaves me unable to catch my breath, so to speak. I AM literal-minded. And maybe sometimes I’m sort-of-dense. Or, perhaps, I’m just ignorant about the folk culture these concepts are derived from (if they are genuine). However the fact remains the imagery and concepts kept me at arms length, kept me from finding an anchor within the story to hold on to. It may be that those with a more poetical, or perhaps more spiritual, frame of mind will greatly enjoy what amounts to a new type of Aesop’s fable, but I’m afraid I couldn’t get into it. Others may find the originality displayed fresh and invigorating. Me, I’m more of a “Squids in space” kind-of-reader, so there you go. I’m certain some people with tastes different from mine will appreciate this story quite a bit. My tastes happen to be more prosaic. But then, I’m a bit of a philistine. Oh, well. Sigh.
Song of the Oliphant – KT Bryski
A witch can remember when it used to snow in Toronto. Now it’s always warm, and the weather frequently violent. She runs an underground house for American refugees, using a magic spell to keep a treehouse in the backyard hidden from sight. Her latest Ward is Ellie, and together they frequent a nearby pub waiting for “Roland,” the next link in the underground railway who will take Ellie to safety. But Ellie is worried, she’s supposed to bring the Oliphant, a legendary hunting horn, and she doesn’t have it. The witch is worried, too. The CAPEs, the Canadian American Peace Enforcers, may be on to her. They’re both in danger.
I like this. For one thing, the language is plainer than usual for Lackington’s, less literary, though still effective. For another, it’s full of subtle touches concerning contrasts between the two North American dictatorships. For example, Ellie is surprised that in Canadian streets you’re “allowed to walk just anywhere.” And American refugees typically have vitamin deficiencies to the point of suffering from rickets. Things not going well south of the border, it seems. Also interesting to note that the bulk of the refugees appear to be draft dodgers, artists, and priests. A subtle indication of the political/cultural evolution in the States produced by the effects of climate change. However, Canada, as usual, is trying to catch up to the American example. Any refuge, it appears, will be short-lived. Definitely a dystopian tale, and since the element of witchcraft is a given taken for granted, something embedded in the story, it is a fantasy dystopia. Even though the metaphorical aspect to do with the legend of Roland and his Oliphant doesn’t resonate with me, possibly because I never cared much for “The Song of Roland” when I read it half a century ago, I like this story, like how well this future nightmare is crafted.
Love Letters from Velveteen – by M. Raoulee
Velveteen and her “boy-thing” husband talk Captain Moon into hiring them to work aboard the Surfeit, a fishing vessel which has in its hold an enormous bell jar filled with magic the way Velveteen’s womb is filled with child. Orbs dominate the sky. Unusual to see a hole in the clouds without an orb but just blue sky instead. The broken orbs littering the landscape (and shards sticking out of the sea) are the only places where enough magic lingers to allow luxuriant plant growth in this dying world, where there are gardens beautiful enough to enjoy casual sex. Shipboard good for sex too, because of the magic in the bell jar. Everyone smokes cigarettes.
This strikes me as very French. By that I refer to the fact that I used to own the first 100 issues of Heavy Metal Magazine, much of the art coming from the original French version, and this has the dreamy, romantic, rather surreal style so often found in its pages, albeit in text form. I can easily visualize it as something illustrated by Moebius. But like the art in Metal Hurlant (which translates as “Screaming Metal” by the way), the story seems to me beautiful but somewhat pointless, in that I don’t “get it.” I like the artistic sensibility, but I don’t understand what it means. I suppose, if the world is coming to an end, one might as well fornicate and smoke like a chimney, but I don’t think that’s the message intended. Especially since the opening makes it clear these letters are “one of the few surviving narratives of the Late Orb Age. The author’s references to “magic” represent an uncharacteristic literary device for an era known for its fatalistic realism.” So, this is being published in a later age. The world has survived. But as a reader, what is one to make of the use of magic as a literary device within the story? But then, the whole story is a literary device, isn’t it? Too much for me to figure out, I’m afraid, but interesting.
Lackington’s is always hit or miss for me. In every issue there are stories that blow me away because of the rich language, grandeur of concept, etc., and then there are stories which may be quite ornate and beautiful in style but confuse the hell out of me. What’s going on?
Lackington’s magazine is consciously and deliberately “literary” in purpose. As editor Ranylt Richildis puts it in the web site:
“Lackington’s is an online speculative fiction magazine. We want to help widen the space for prose poetry. We’re looking for stylized prose. Not inept purple prose, of course, but controlled and well-crafted wordsmithery that reflects the story, setting, theme, atmosphere, or philosophy it seeks to describe.
Stylized prose can be sparse and simple, diamond-cut like the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. It can be sumptuous like the writing of Oscar Wilde. It can be epic, archaic, experimental, mythic, rhythmic, and it can be quiet and subtle, too. Story and character are indispensable, but so is wordcraft. We trade in aesthetics, so make us gasp with unexpected words and give us inventive voices, structures, and narratives. Many editors reject heavily stylized prose out of hand. We welcome it.
So, If you write conventional, transparent prose — the kind that dominates the marketplace — we’ll turn your story away. This is no reflection on the quality of your language or the story as a whole. We may even love your work. It just doesn’t fit the scope of this project.”
If, instead of “plain-glass window” style of writing you prefer the “stained glass” style of writing where you marvel at and admire not only the story but the artistry of the images and techniques with which it is constructed, this is the magazine for you. Editorial standards are exceedingly high, and it shows. Definitely a quality publication well worth perusing, especially if you like a challenge.
Check it out at: < Lackington’s Magazine >