CLUBHOUSE: Review: On Spec Magazine issue #113

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

ON SPEC MAGAZINE issue #113, Vol. 31 No. 1.

Publisher: The Copper Pig Writer’s Society. Managing Editor and Art Director: Diane L. Walton.

Issue Designer: Jerry LePage. Poetry Editors: Barry Hammond, and Charlie Crittenden.

Fiction Editors: Barb Galler-Smith, Virginia O’Dine, Madison Pilling, Constantine Kaoukakis, Ann Marston, Laurie Penner, A.J. Wells, Dianne L. Walton, Dan Gyoba, Greg Mitchell, Ethan Zou, and Alyssa kulchinsky.

Cover Art “Solar” by Reneé Cohen

FICTION:

The Back-Off – by Aeryn Rudel

Premise:  

Frank Lori manages a mob-run casino. Most scam artists are smart enough to stay away. But it seems security has spotted someone cheating at the hundred-dollar blackjack table. Someone very, very good at cheating. Oddly good.

Review:

I know nothing about casino gambling. I have visited a couple of casinos and they struck me as crowded, noisy, and visually confusing palaces where people voluntarily throw away their money as quickly as possible. Despite gaining the impression from a number of early James Bond films that casinos are somehow sophisticated, I remain convinced they are houses of fraud and deceit that only fools enter. Nevertheless I have seen and enjoyed a number of movies about clever people determined to cheat the house. So, once I realized what this story is about, I read it with great anticipation of whatever the genre angle would be.

I was not disappointed. Anyone fascinated by casino reality will enjoy this tale. The reality of the setting is utterly convincing. Frank’s attitude as a low level mob boss is as professional and calculating as you expect, and his relationship with his staff thoroughly credible. Definite feeling of sharing an insider’s view as to how casinos actually operate. Even better, the reader is treated to an explanation of how the suspected crook is probably cheating, a method relying on retentive memory and calculation skills totally independent of tech gadgets or confederates. Something of a revelation. And not something I could ever do, so no temptation there. I’m too dumb to cheat.

Be that as it may, even a reader as ignorant as I is sucked into wanting to know how the suspect is cheating. The explanation comes out of no-where, at least at first. But as more and more details emerge, the ultimate resolution of the story becomes thoroughly satisfying and all of a piece with the mood and ambience of Frank’s professional life. It’s a solid, well-grounded story that holds the reader’s interest through-out and seems perfectly plausible despite being impossible. Fantasy made real. Sometimes the -matter-of-fact approach is best. Excellent bit of writing by Rudel. I’m impressed.

Remember Madame Hercules – by Kate Heartfield

Premise:  

It’s 1944 and the war is winding down. Louise is a copy editor and a secret superhero. Madelaine is a reporter and also a secret superhero. They don’t have costumes, just rather splendid superpowers. It makes their jobs every so much easier. But what happens to them when they are outed? After all, they remember what happened to Madame Hercules.

Review:  

The power of the Canadian feds in this story may strike some readers as exaggerated. Oh, no, Canadian authorities would never do that. Fact is, under the Emergency War Measures Act the Canadian government has as much power as any totalitarian state. In WW II, for instance, if people were in a necessary industry they were forbidden to quit or move somewhere else in search of another job. Nils Helmer Frome, Canada’s first known SF fanzine editor and publisher, was forced to spend the war in a lumber camp in British Columbia, even though he hated every minute of it. Believe me, once that power is invoked, individual rights take a back seat. We’ve always been very practical that way. The state will do anything to ensure the nation survives. It’s built into our system. Don’t believe me? Read up on MacKenzie King and how he ruled Canada in the war years.

Point is Louise and Madelaine are right to feel paranoid over the government’s intentions. This raises the question of whether being a super hero is a blessing or a curse. It isn’t all just standing around receiving the adulation of grateful government. In wartime a superhero would be a priceless asset to be kept secret and held under strict supervision by war planners. Or to put it another way, if there are such things as superheroes, the public will never know. An oath of secrecy applies double to super heroes, without a doubt.

So, what if you are a super hero willing to protect your country and all that, but anxious to preserve your independence and personal freedom outside of government limitations and restrictions? In effect, what if you are a super-conscientious objector on the verge of being discovered? This is the conundrum Louise and Madelaine face. In many respects, this is a very Canadian story and, just possibly, a very Canadian resolution. I found it fascinating.

Not least because Louise and Madelaine probably represent all talented women in any field whose achievements have been downplayed and hidden by male-dominated “superiors.” There have been a host of revelations in the last decade or so ranging from women computer programmers in NASA to the fact the costume for The Creature From the Black Lagoon was actually designed by Milicent Patrick, something long hidden by Universal Studios. You might say our society treats all women like superheroes, but in the most negative sense imaginable. Heartfield has a lot of fun making this point. The reader has a lot of fun following along. Interesting and entertaining.

Waking – by Lisa Carreiro

Premise:

Sweet Miou woke her mother long ago. Now she lies in her tomb waiting to be woke by one of her daughters, either Rejeanne or Mylène, but they can’t be bothered. They’ve entombed their maid Eldra instead. Good enough to do the job, if only she pays attention.

Review:

People used to live in fear of being buried alive. Often, coffins were equipped with pull ropes connected to bells to sound the alarm when the comatose victim awakened, or so I’ve heard. Don’t know the truth of the matter. In this story an attendant takes the place of the bell. Is it based on an authentic bit of folklore from Quebec or France or somewhere else? The fact the practice is taken for granted makes it ring true. Simply another burden placed on a long-suffering maid. In this case, however, she may not have long to suffer.

The Gothic tone and setting reminds me of crypt scenes in innumerable horror movies, but this one is different and strikes me as innovative and original. I’ve not come across it’s like before. The concept is creepy and forbidding yet makes sense in any culture where family is respected above all else, or, at least, is supposed to be respected. What’s the old cliché? You can choose your friends, but are stuck with your relatives? Even when they’re dead, it seems. Obligations are eternal. Then again, maybe not. This story is eerie, dignified, and playful all at the same time. Quite a feat on the part of Carreiro. Well done.

“Your Parenthetical Life” – by Josh Pearce.

Premise:

A poem contrasting life on Earth with life aboard a space station.

Review:

At first the contrast, well-handled with telling details, is amusing. Then it becomes more philosophical and thought-provoking. Somewhat urgent in fact. Even necessary, to them as love to ponder the meaning of life. A precise and evocative poem well worth reading.

Pan de Muertos – by E.E. King

Premise:

Maria makes the finest bread of death in all of Mexico. A young widow, she pours her heartbreak and sorrow into her bread. She can never love again. She is immune to love. Or is she?

Review:

The Mexican day of the dead is a joyous, positive holiday which allows people to honour the deceased. Some foreigners, noting the ubiquitous presence of skulls in decorations and treats, consider the festival morbid and macabre, a hangover from pagan days. Well, yes, to some extent. But they are unaware the ancient Mesoamerican belief system saw decaying flesh as the symbol of death, whereas bones cleansed of flesh were viewed as symbolic of rebirth and renewal. There is a pyramid in Copan festooned with carvings of monkey skulls. Most are gone, but some remained in situ when I was there in 1981. To most tourists, a weird and unpleasant concept. But to the ancient Maya, a beacon of hope representing the continuity of seasons, crops, and life itself. This joyful interpretation of what to WASPs are gruesome artifacts is part of the respect granted to the dead in this tradition, something very pagan, yet very Catholic as well. A synthesis of the two, which is why it remains a meaningful, living tradition.

Even so, her neighbours regard the care and passion Maria devotes to her wonderful bread as excessive, something beyond what is required, possibly obsessive to the point of unholy influences at work. Making it year round is certainly odd. In truth this is a bittersweet tale exploring the parameters of grief in a cultural setting familiar to most Mexicans, many Americans, but probably few Canadians. This is not showcasing the exotic. More a matter of offering a fresh perspective on life lessons to be learned. Traditionally Canada embraces multi-culturalism. This story illustrates why that is so useful and valuable. Different perspectives offer more opportunities to cope with life and all its difficulties.

Of course, I am exploring subtext and implications in my interpretation above (which could be totally bonkers and irrelevant). Taken at face value, the story is a poignant study of love and grief. More of a vignette perhaps, but vivid and powerful in a quiet way. If you’ve ever loved and lost, this story will resonate.

The Laughing Folk – by Steve Dubois

Premise:

Our iron-age ancestors knew all about “The Laughing Folk,” or little people dwelling in the mounds. Elves, dwarves, gnomes, trolls, and what-not. They knew how to combat them, eventually driving them from this Earth. But modern man forgot the old technology, and came to disbelieve in their very existence. Pity. It allowed them to come back.

Review:  

This is a delightful story. It is an original take on the “Alien arrival” concept. I am reminded of Clark’s novel Childhood’s End in which an evil-looking alien remains hidden so that humanity can benefit from his good intentions. In this case humanity has been programmed by D&D and video games, not to mention fantasy literature, to trust, love and adore “cute” fantasy characters offering magical gizmos and powers that transcend and do away with the need for modern technology. The fact that these ruthlessly selfish “aliens” are bent on enslaving mankind for their own evil purposes goes unnoticed till it is too late. I find the idea that Tolkein and Gygax were actually gnomic fifth columnists utterly hilarious. Seems the uptight opponents of fun who condemn D&D as subversive and demonic are absolutely spot on. Ingenious, to say the least.

DuBois really goes to town on this satire of classic SF&F tropes., exploring every possibility for comic effect. At the same time it is an action adventure of sorts, examining the logical probabilities, given the premise, for resisting and undermining the new order. Especially when it comes to exploiting the inherent weaknesses of the non-ephemerals such as their automatic contempt for ephemeral humans. By their flaws you shall slay them, providing, of course, that you don’t mistake hidden strengths for flaws. Tricky business, outwitting magic users. Still, the fact they consistently underestimate humans is potentially advantageous. All you need is courage, careful reconnoitring, suitable dissembling, appropriate iron-age technology, and luck … lots of luck. The result is rollicking good fun, if interspersed with violence but hey, the bad guys deserve their fate. These Elvish knaves are classic villains deserving of no mercy.

Part of the joy of this story is that it takes itself seriously within the context of the premise. Everything makes sense, each aspect supports and reinforces every other aspect. It is a seamless whole with nothing intrusive or jarring to knock the reader out of the story. I enjoyed myself immensely reading this.

Driven – by Steve Wheat

Premise:  

Another poem contrasting life styles, in this case before and after an apocalypse.

Review:

Apocalypse is in the eye of the beholder. Striking imagery confirms that unimaginable horror ultimately becomes boring normality and just the way things are. Does lend a hard edge to nostalgia, though. The ending suggests even more.

Sugar Mother – by Audrey Hollis

Premise:

Two women, Sarah and Marin, are on a first date. Marin insists they meet at a perfume store. It is an unusual perfume store.

Review:

Sarah is perhaps an all too common type, cautious and paranoid yet so full of hope as to be foolishly impulsive even though she senses danger. The cliché is that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over in the mistaken belief you will ultimately get a better result. It suddenly occurs to me that is a definition of dating. Call it an epiphany. It also occurs to me Sarah’s worried musings before taking the plunge is a form of clairvoyance, the talent of experiencing hindsight before the event. Suddenly the business of love is clearer to me than ever before. Interesting collateral damage effect this story has wrought in me. Or to put it another way, this story about the quest for love makes you think about love. Yep. It does. Amazing. Not something I normally think about.

Oddly enough, this story puts me in mind of a classic Berserker tale by Fred Saberhagen. I won’t say which one because I don’t want to spoil the ending. Not that the endings are identical, but both depend on outwitting the enemy and are equally satisfying. Sarah’s predicament hinges on a type of perfume that can only be found in fantasy, but how she and Marin interrelate over this perfume is thoroughly grounded in human psychology and part of what, if your luck is poor, can make dating a precarious prospect. A fantastical tale to be sure, but real enough to make you review the emotional triumphs and failures of your own lifetime of experience if only to compare. If you are even remotely sensitive and prone to affairs of the heart, this story will reach out and grab you.

On Hestian Cuisine – by Mike Rimar

Premise:  

A Hearth Master requires genuine angel hair to make proper Angel Food Cake. Unfortunately, angels don’t make bargains, nor can they be bribed. Even worse, he overlooks the fact that the devil is an angel, albeit a fallen one, until it is too late.

Review:

I’m a sucker for “deal with the devil” stories. I think because they’ve proverbially been done to death and are normally something editors prefer to avoid. So if one appears in a magazine it usually means the writer has come up with a fresh and original angle the editor couldn’t resist. That be the case here.

Granted, the deal is rather silly, but the stake is the usual, a soul condemned to eternal punishment. I tried to imagine a solution as the story developed, but failed. What Rimar came up with took me completely by surprise, yet makes perfect sense. I think it a brilliant concept. Exactly the sort of thing that handily defeats the devil and annoys him no end, reminding him he, too, is suffering eternal damnation. No more than he deserves. Am very pleased with the ending. A perfect ending. Delightfully original.

The Laughter of Playthings – by Matt Moore

Premise:

Jonathan and Bryan are lovers in a small town that doesn’t tolerate gays. Bryan’s young daughter Ashley (from a previous marriage) lives with them. Jonathan finds a beautiful doll house someone had abandoned by the side of the road. He brings it home for Ashley. She’s entranced with it. Her dolls love it. And Jonathan finds it strangely inspirational as he works on his next architectural project. Bryan begins to worry.

Review:  

This is a rather grim horror story, not quite to my taste. The real monster here, perhaps, is small town prejudice, as manifest in irresistibly attractive evil as bad as any deal with the devil. It’s grooming process is akin to that employed by many a serial killer. The buildup to inevitable horror is relentless. The supernatural element, though necessary, takes a back seat to an emphasis on psychological decay and an increasingly irrational reality. A descent into madness, yes, but a madness observational in nature, as if to say “It’s not in my mind, it’s all around me.”

I think fans of this type of horror story will thoroughly enjoy it. It strikes me as well thought out and cleverly constructed. Good pacing. The reader is given time and cause to be drawn into an ever thickening maelstrom. From my personal point of view, not the sort of story I’m comfortable with. But as a critic, I can see beyond my personal taste and declare this story a good one, quite effective in what it sets out to do. A bit Lovecraftian, in that it ensnares you in a growing mood of impending disaster from which you, or at least the characters, cannot escape.

I’ll tell you one thing, if I see an abandoned doll house by the side of the road I ain’t stopping. No way. No how. Neither should you.

NON-FICTION:

Memories of Mike– Editorial by Barb Galler-Smith

A fond reminiscence of a complex, multi-talented mentor. Heartfelt.

Of News Hens and Truth-telling: Kate Heartfield – interview by Roberta Laurie.

Heartfield is one of the writers hurt by the ChiZine Debacle but has recovered the rights to her novel The Humours of Grub Street and hopes it will be published soon. Meanwhile “a massive fantasy book about Marie Antoinette and her sister,” titled The Embroidered Book, will come out in 2021. She reveals much about how she approaches both short story and novel writing and how the two tasks reinforce each other.

She also talks about her BFA in Journalism and her years in that field, especially a decade working for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. Inspired by stories about the “news hens,” as professional women journalists used to be called, and by how much they depended on mutual support to survive, let alone thrive, she drew comparisons with the “reality” of superheroes to explore the plight of modern women in the face of lingering prejudice.

“By accident, not design” – Renée Cohen Interviewed by Cat McDonald

Cohen both writes and paints. Her art is intuitive, as in “art allows me to regress and paint like a child, without worrying about the outcome.” Currently she is concentrating on planetary and stellar themes, utilizing “compelling marriages of wild colours and interesting textures.” She doesn’t explain her art, preferring to rely on “the viewer’s subjective interpretation” for often surprising results. Art is something she does for the sheer joy of it.

Bot “Larry” and Comic “Saucer Star” – by Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk

Both great examples of Lynne’s wonderful sense of humour. She’s nominated for Best Artist in the 2020 Aurora Awards for her 2019 work in On Spec and Amazing Stories, by the way. Voting starts June 20th. Keep that in mind.

CONCLUSION:

On Spec always has a wonderfully varied selection of stories but this particular issue is exceptionally good, methinks. You can’t go wrong subscribing to this zine. State of the art.

Check it out at: < On Spec Issue #113 >

 

 

 

1 COMMENT

  1. I really enjoyed this issue too, and reading your takes on the pieces. So glad I discovered this mag, published out of my own home town.

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