Webzine Story Recommendations: April 2015

"Break the Face in the Jar by the Door" * Carlie St. George * Unlikely Story * 2015-04, #11.5 * 990 * a * 2015-07-15

Make a scene!

A child develops "coulrodermatism" (which is to say, she physically turns into a clown) and she and the family (especially mom) deal. I had to look up the title reference because I couldn't place it ("Eleanor Rigby") but its referential aptness is in keeping with the excellence of the whole story.

"Jenny Is Killing Turtles Again" * Alexander Danner * Fantasy Scroll Mag * 2015-04, #6 * 4932 * f * 2015-05-31

The story opens with Jenny, indeed, killing turtles. Seems she believes that's the way to free the ghosts they sometimes keep in their shells. Based on the menagerie of ghosts that she lives with, she's right. The story meanders from twist to turn as it goes, always creating new perspectives without ever losing the reader. (This makes it very hard to review because I want to encourage people to read it and don't want to give away anything while doing so.) The fixed navigational point is Jenny: her questionable weirdness and certain fortitude, her loss and pain, her behavior. This is a really remarkable story that keeps things moving and has one of the styles I like in that it's "plainly" told but conveys much unusualness with those "plain" words and often vividly pulled me into the story. She's thinking of her ex-boyfriend:

They used to sneak into the movie theater to watch the R-rated movies when their parents thought they were safely asleep in their own houses. They used to kiss each other in the dark and giggle beneath the flickering projector. One year ago.

She used to borrow his bicycle when they had plans, so she wouldn't be gone from her house longer than necessary, and so she wouldn't be walking alone on an unlit and isolated road. She would take it home after school and hide it in the woods by her house, where it waited for her 'til night. As she slipped out her window and down the tree, she'd anticipate the coming ride as much as the forbidden movie, the illicit kisses. She loved whizzing along with no one to know where she was or what she was doing, pedaling with all her might, carefully swerving around the nocturnal creatures whose eyes flashed light from her single headlamp back to her.

My one significant problem with this story is that we're told this sort of thing happened "one year ago" and that she was twelve then and the townspeople believe she lives by herself. If all of this is literal, then it doesn't fit in various ways and, if it's not, then I didn't see any key for translation or interpretation. (There's a minor problem with the end which, while I like it in terms of content, doesn't seem to me to be executed perfectly and could be made much stronger with the deletion of a couple of lines but I obviously can't get into it without spoilers.)

This is also a tricky story to define generically. For some of the story, it seemed like it could be a mainstream story dealing with an insane individual of one sort or another. Eventually, it became easier to allow the supernatural elements than to explain them away, so became a fantasy. But then there are moments of mild horror (or extreme creepiness). Probably "dark fantasy" would be the best description except that it's so free of Gothic (or Goth) trappings and (other than nighttime bike rides) has an almost sunny, summer setting. Whatever it is, it's highly recommended.

"Littoral Drift" * L. S. Johnson * Lackington's * 2015-04*Sp, #6 * 3692 * sf * 2015-07-10

I've now read three (out of order) stories by L. S. Johnson and every one has been on the edge of a recommendation or, in the case of this one, over it. I think only Harrow's [and, with the rec below, Devenport's] 2-for-2 recs eclipses that.

An old woman is being visited in the Home by a relative (basically) and, without doing anything outrageous, but just by giving us the protagonist's perceptions, questions, comparisons, and confusions, an excellent and plausible sense of futurity is evoked. What this story primarily addresses, via the fact that today's the day the immortality pill is handed out (okay, that much is outrageous) is a question of life or death and the idea that life is a constellation of experiences and people which raises the question whether life has much meaning with so much of it lost even for the living. While the pill is the device, the main metaphor derives from the "day at the beach" that she gets the young man to take her on (very different from Emshwiller's, yet both speaking to the memory of life at its most lively). The castles made of sand which slip into the sea (to paraphrase the Hendrix song) are the struggles of growth for a momentary balance before they topple into decay; the solid becoming the fragmented becoming the indistinguishable. Beyond all this, the story works on the feelings powerfully without being crude or manipulative or sentimental. As skillfully as the evocation of the future, much power is produced from the differential between the character's internality and externality. The writings of Johnson's which I've read are anything but the high-tech shiny optimistic visions of the future I want - they are uncommonly unhappy amongst all the very commonly unhappy stories out there, actually - but there is an undeniable persistent power to them.

"The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" * Usman Malik * tor.com * 2015-04-22 * 22330 * f * 2015-07-15

A heavy dose of webzine reading, like excessive exposure to anything, can result in allergies. When this story opened with a princess and made reference to cardamom, I was immediately put off. It later got the hat trick when a character unnaturally "hefted" something. Plus, while I welcome long stories, this was really long, smashing tor.com's supposed length limits.

However, as I read this tale of a grandfather telling his grandson about the fairy tale regarding the princess (using a kind of The Princess Bride structure, only being serious in tone and being a Middle Eastern/South Asian tale rather than a European) I actually became interested despite myself. I think the greatest initial strength of the story is the vigor and a sort of simplicity in the style. Instead of a clotted or precious fairy tale/fantasy style, it speaks quickly and plainly when warranted (though with a load of words that will probably be unusual for most) and only grows colorful when conceptually required. Here's a sample of the directness mingled with the unusual:

I remember the night Gramps told me the rest of the story. I was twelve or thirteen. We were at this desi party in Windermere thrown by Baba's friend Hanif Uncle, a posh affair with Italian leather sofas, crystal cutlery, and marble-topped tables. Someone broached a discussion about the pauper princess. Another person guffawed. The Mughal princess was an urban legend, this aunty said.

The story of the princess (as a story) is just the prelude. When the protagonist has grown and moved away, his grandfather dies and that experience, not to mention going through his stuff, leads to a changed perspective and a much wider adventure that becomes cosmic in scope. Through all this, everything was going very well. However, it was exactly that scope that led to some breakdown. First, he concretizes his philosophical fantasia in a way that seemed radically insufficient, where a fantasy item was used which was overwhelmed by the concepts which became more science fictional than fantastic (not in the sense of being rational and scientific but in the sense of being much larger and more specific than vague anima mundi sorts of "our concept of the All is conditioned by Earth and Man" fantasy). And the writing starts to lose control in places. (I'm adding the missing dash to "grief-stricken.")

But then came a shock wave that pulsed in my ears like a million crickets chirping. I rode the blast force, grief-stricken by this separation, spinning and flickering through string-shaped fractures in reality, like gigantic cracks in the surface of a frozen lake. Somewhere matter bellowed like a swamp gator and the wave rushed at the sound. Tassels of light stirred in the emptiness, sputtering and branching like gargantuan towers--

A shock wave and blast of (even a million) cricket chirps? Lakes and swamp gators and towers? Let's just throw stuff at the word processor and see what sticks.

Also, while I don't personally approve of enforced quotas in fiction and wouldn't have noticed if a character's brief appearance hadn't made such an impression, I'm surprised a story like this can get published these days. The protagonist's girlfriend is brought in to the middle of the story and, while I was reflecting on the tale, I realized that while she does relay some information by phone (that a male friend acquired) somewhat later, she really just disappears from the stage. I was thinking how it might have been better if she were worked into the story more thoroughly and that got me to thinking how there are only two women in the story to speak of. They are just keepers of (basically unconscious) secrets or they are obstructions to the male action on the one hand, and triggers for action or child bearers on the other. The story is all about the grandfather and grandson and goes on from there. Men are the only active agents who are important for themselves and feature throughout the story.

Anyway: if you don't mind a story which has a shaky start and end and is very long between and if you don't absolutely require an active female character and can appreciate a vigorously told, complex, philosophical, and imaginative tale, you may well enjoy this. As I say, even if I was a bit surprised, I did.

"Postcards from Monster Island" * Emily Devenport * Clarkesworld * 2015-04, #103 * 7129 * a * 2015-07-14

This is how you do apocalyptic disaster fiction.

A "Crazy Cat/Library Girl" has what she calls "the Martian Death Flu" so she sleeps through most of the Invasion of the Monster from the Sea (as well as the next monster invasion or two) and is caught in the Danger Zone with her other oddball neighbors. But the standard monster response from the Powers That Think They Be is the main problem. As more monsters show up, the intrepid neighbors assert themselves more and try to work out an arrangement.

It could very well be that I'm biased here: this reminds me, in ways, of the things I used to read that Lisa Goldstein and Pat Murphy and others used to write, about surreal revolutions of oddballs and just makes me want to wave my freak flag high. We're weird and our monsters are cool! But my only real problem with the story is the end where, while I recognize that you have to do something rather than just call the festivities to a halt, it seems discordant with what has gone before. Still, the totality is too enjoyable to be missed.