OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion
Pulp Literature Magazine #38 Spring 2023
Published by Pulp Literature Press, Langley, British Columbia, Canada, Winter 2022.
Managing Editor: Jennifer Landels, Senior Editor: Melanie Anastasiou, Acquisitions Editor: Genevieve Wynand, Poetry Editors: Daniel Cowper & Emily Osborne, Assistant Editors: Brooklyn Hook, Nik Kos, Melisa Gruger, Jeya Thiessen, Sierra Louie & Ellen Sapcey.
Cover art: Ups and Downs – by M St James
Interior Illustrations – by Mel Anastasiou
The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation – by Richard Thomas
Krinkles is more than a clown but somehow incomplete as an individual.
I don’t like clowns. I’ve never liked clowns. I’ve avoided going to any circus (back when they used to be common) because of the clowns. They’re scary. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because they are caricatures of humans, something both more and less than a person, hinting at something demonic under the surface. What’s behind the makeup may be less human than the caricature. This is why the 1988 film “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” resonates with me. A horror-comedy, it is indeed amusing, yet fundamentally unsettling and disturbing in its appeal to my instinctive fears. I know I will never watch any film or documentary about John Wayne Gacy, the serial-killer clown. Reality, as always, is worse than fiction. Too scary.
The story begins with Edward “Krinkles” in retirement at his cabin in the woods. There are many things odd about that cabin, a place to shun and avoid, yet somehow magical, even supernatural; like Edward himself, it is implied.
Then the story opens up ever so slightly with a grand vision of the universe creator in the act of creating life, followed by an account of Edward’s life. The creator seems addicted to its task in a manner suggesting its creations are responsible for their own lives, in which case Edward might be deemed a failure. Yet, he can’t take full responsibility, as fate set him on his path at an early age. No-one to blame, or praise.
The title explains the story. We’re all caged by the consequences of our actions, yet it is still possible to sing.
Two things render the story fascinating. First, rich, evocative description of the “landscape” of Edward’s life, showing an attention to detail which highlight the artifacts of his experience the reader needs to pay attention to and understand to comprehend his motivations and desires. Second, the layers of complexity underlying the superficiality of his clown-persona, layers revealing he is both “everyman” and utterly unique. Quite a neat trick for Thomas to pull off.
I particularly like the beauty of the surreal description, especially the depiction of the creator in action. Really stands out. I’m not surprised the editors chose this is their lead story. Mind-blowing.
Feature Interview – Pulp Literature interviews Richard Thomas
I deliberately avoided reading this until I finished writing my review of his story. I believe my interpretation meshes—somewhat—with his intentions. Always reassuring, as a critic, to find I am not wildly off the mark.
Thomas refers to his writing as “Hopepunk,” a genre new to me, which he describes as being the opposite of “Grimdark.” I can see how this applies to this story.
Also, happy to note that he shares my approach to the act of writing, namely an obsession with originality and an appreciation of cinematic-style visual description. Both are sadly lacking in my work but wonderfully evident in his.
Stella Ryman vs the Board – by Mel Anastasiou
The only thing worse than being a resident in a care home is becoming an ex-resident of a care home.
This is the 12th Stella Ryman mystery Anastasiou has written. All reflect the mindset of Stella, a retired teacher who resents the way the physical and mental limitations of advancing age are treated in the Fairmount care home. Herself losing capabilities as time presses, Stella keeps herself sharp by observing and analyzing the daily routine of her fellow “inmates,” constantly seeking to improve their lot despite the indifference of the administration. She treats each problem as a mystery requiring a solution. It makes life interesting.
Most adults prefer not to think about winding up in an old folks nursing home. There are concerns it combines the worst aspects of military barracks, boarding schools, hospitals, and being stuck in a job you hate. No sense of independence, always under orders, and never getting to do what you want to do.
Truth is most people are contemplating restrictions on their current capabilities. Advancing old age isn’t like youth-only-slower but is instead an escalating series of drastic reductions in physical and mental independence. To illustrate this, back in the 1990s I remember touring a massive 5 story care home. The ground floor featured assisted-living residents free to come and go and entitled to 2 beers during happy hour. However, the next floors featured progressively disabled people till the 5th floor which was devoted to palliative care. Move in on the ground floor and rise higher in the building as your condition worsened. At least the view improved with each move.
So, yes, loss of independence as dictated by physical and mental decay, but backed up by the support you need to remain alive, with luck and suitable care endured with some semblance of enjoying being alive. Best case scenario but feared by many.
The characters in this story, including Stella, are partially disabled but still capable of resenting officiousness to the point of rebelling in small ways. The focus is on the small, because the small looms large in the closed environment of a care home. Stella, for instance, tired of the lukewarm tea served at fixed times of the daily routine, plots to “steal” fresh hot tea from the staff room when no one is looking. A minor triumph yet nevertheless a triumph.
The mystery Stella elects to solve is the mystery of dispensed pills missing from resident’s rooms. This in turn leads to a much larger problem concerning the immediate future of the home in general and one of her friends in particular, to be resolved in a future chapter.
So, why bother reading this story? Because it is about us and the choices we may or may not be able to make in our future. I consider it a profoundly adroit psychological study of the reality of life in an entry-level nursing home. From the various personalities of the residents and their coping strategies, through the petty annoyances of being forced to conform to an imposed way of life, to the unctuousness of the used car salesman-like patter staff use to promote the institution to outsiders, this story rings true and authentic. Want to know what it is actually like to be in a home? Read Stella Ryman tales.
I spent about ten years dealing with old folks homes and their treatment of my mother until she passed away. That’s why this story is painfully familiar to me. But there is always hope. Stella never gives up. She is a good example of why that is so important in the circumstances. Anistasiou delivers this needful lesson with humour and dignity. You owe it to yourself, and your future, to read this story. It offers real value, a measure of hope, beyond mere entertainment.
All Our Swains Commend Her – by Mitchell Toews
Nestor and Wallace take turns driving each other to work. Every day they pass a street girl known as Ginger. Each day they each give Ginger a loonie. They’re not sure why.
Wallace has always been middle class. Nestor started poor but has done very well for himself. Each views Ginger in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God mode. They often discuss her, seeing her as symbolic with what’s wrong and what’s right with the world. They fear someday equaling her poverty but admire her gumption on sticking to her street corner day after day even in the worst a Manitoba (Winnipeg?) winter has to offer. In a sense she’s an object, a mere “fact” used to buttress their arguments over economic theory. Liberal vs. conservative debate fodder, Ginger is.
Till they are forced to interact with her and put their theories to a test, with results neither anticipated. I wrote a couple of paragraphs giving my interpretation of what the story is all about but have junked them for giving too much away. Pity, because this rather short story encapsulates the underlying relationship between beggar and charity-giver perfectly. It doesn’t resolve the problem of poverty, but it does reveal, if you think about it, the most practical way of thinking about poverty and how to interact with the homeless. This, too, is a story offering a valuable lesson. Bold and blunt, I’d say.
Olympian – by FJ Bergmann
What kind of birthday party would Dionysus throw for himself on Mount Olympus, the abode of the Gods?
As you might expect, a rather debaucherous one. What you might not expect is Pegasus viewing the proceedings with disdain. Gods behaving like humans, which to mere mortals is something we can understand and identify with (albeit it not allowed to go as far—oh for the freedom of godhood—naughty envy being part of the attraction of ancient Greek religion), but Pegasus finds the whole unrestrained emotion thing demeaning. Has he never been in rut? Seems unusually prudish for an immortal stallion. Still, he’s prepared to tolerate the usual divine shenanigans… up to a point, but no further.
I enjoyed reading this story. So would the ancient Greeks, I suspect. They always appreciated wry humour at the expense of the gods. It’s not often I get to read something that appeals to ancients and moderns in equal measure. A well-done lark worthy of adding to the canon of Greek mythology. Wonderful bit of whimsy.
Waffles and Strawberries – (Poem) by Susan Alexander
Waffles and Strawberries isn’t always so enticing a dessert.
The evolution of a recipe over generations a metaphor for changes in a relationship. Perceptive and rather sad. A reminder that, unlike destiny, fate is inevitable.
Psychopomps Are Us – by Melanie Marttila
Psychopomps are guides leading souls into the afterlife. Leave it to science to add the profession to the ranks of social workers. Not an enviable job.
This story has interesting concepts to express about astral forms, ghosts, spirits, and how they interact. All quite plausible, given the premise.
What is particularly interesting is that the job involves a certain amount of B.S. in that no one has any actual experience of what the afterlife offers, such that all promises made to the reluctant departed as to why they should continue their journey are pure speculation. Can’t tell the “client” that, of course, as it would fail to convince them to get on with it. So, a series of no nonsense and hopefully convincing lies are in order.
The story is a delightful exercise in extrapolation of certain implications in the underlying belief system of modern spiritualism. Turns out the job of Psychopomp is more akin to that of a psychiatrist than a social worker. You not only need to understand the newly dead, but also how to manipulate and motivate them. Challenging, to say the least.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but their point of view, if they were to exist, is well laid out and makes for an amusing contest of wills. I quite enjoyed this story. I believe you will, too. Just plain fun to read.
The Least of Myself – by Sylvia Long
A woman temporarily taking a break from an emotionless first date discovers something worrying.
This is a true horror story. It’s all about an extreme need for empathy confronting extreme reluctance to get involved. Talk about an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
I know something about this phenomenon. Three times I reacted quickly without thinking and saved someone’s life. Other times, I don’t know how often, I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing and hesitated. Fortunately, someone else reacted faster. Only a matter of seconds, but that often spells the difference between life and death. Believe me, there are times when it is important not to think but to act.
This is particularly important if you are alone, for there are no bystanders to step forward while you hesitate, and yours will be the guilt if you hesitate too long and someone comes to harm. But the emotions involved are far more complex than the either/or nature of the task. This story explores these emotions and accompanying rationalizations in depth. Don’t think I’ve ever encountered so sophisticated an approach to the mental agony aroused by this type of situation in any of my previous reading. Consequently, I find this vignette highly original and deeply disturbing.
On one hand it signifies the despair of an individual who can’t even find empathy for their personal problems, which makes for an interesting psychological study. On the other hand, it starkly reveals the necessity of action before thought and will perhaps convince readers to act accordingly should they suddenly be confronted by dire circumstances threatening someone else. So, yet another valuable story worth reading. Grim, yet inspiring in spite of, or perhaps because of, the horror.
For reasons beyond my control I had to cut this review short. My apologies. My life has been hectic of late. However, since I missed the last two opportunities to write and publish reviews I was determined to get SOMETHING ready this time.
Any way, you can trust me when I say this issue of Pulp Literature is well worth reading. I hope what I have commented on intrigues you enough to subscribe. Pulp Literature is a wonderful genre fiction magazine as this issue amply demonstrates. Always good quality fiction.
Check it out at: < Pulp Literature #38 >