Thursday, December 23, 2010

G U D Issue Six

Issue 6 of G U D (Greatest Uncommon Denominator) is packed with fiction and poetry. I received a free PDF of the magazine.

The issue opens with a story from Aliette de Bodard. Set against the backdrop of ancient China ‘As the Wheel Turns’ follows Dai-Yu on a journey through several lifetimes. In each incarnation she is tormented by the Founders who urge her to choose between them. It is a choice Dai-Yu knows she cannot make whatever the consequences to her own existence.

Lavie Tidhar delivers a poignant tale about a girl, a butterfly and a painter in the ghettos of WWII in ‘The Last Butterfly.’ Almost as poignant, but deeply contrasting, is Caroline M Yoachim’s ‘What Happens in Vegas’ about drugs, sex and forgetting. While, Lydia Ondrusek offers us a sad tale about losing someone you love in ‘Hateful’. ‘Salad Days’ by E.H. Lupton deals with genetic illness and whether it is preferably to know whether or not you have inherited faulty genes.

‘Who are you talking to, Zone?’ by Bob Tippee with its brevity of language and unusual narrative is an engaging tale about a vagrant who hears voices. At times, I wasn’t certain if the other characters in the tale where figments of his imagination or not. I prefer not knowing.

There are a handful of micro tales in Gud, and my favourite was ‘How to Recover from a Hundred-Year Sleep ‘ by Sue Williams. A delightful fairy tale.

For me, the best story this issue was Ferrett Steinmetz’ ‘In the Garden of Rust and Salt.’ Nine-year-old Evelyn, Queen of the Junkyard, discovers unsavoury truths about her guardian and makes an unusual friend. Lovely.

Favourite poems were ‘Fire at the Time Factory’ by Jennifer Jerome and ‘Doll’ by Marine Richards. The latter is beautiful and evocative.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Fallen Angel", a novella by Amy Grech & Michael McCarty

It was a little over a year ago when I had the chance to read and review Amy Grech's short story collection, Blanket of White (click here to read that review),so I considered it a treat when I got the chance this year to check out her collaboration with author Michael McCarty for a horror novella called Fallen Angel.

The story tells of a young woman named Angel McCallister coming to grips with the death of her father, a sexually abusive drunk. She's already scarred by him, undergoing therapy, but It's when she moves into her old home months after the funeral that she has a resurgence in her nightmares and starts to experience paranormal phenomena around the house, particularly at night in the bedroom.

The despicable nature of her father is wrenching at times, especially early in the story when her mother commits suicide the same night Angel is sexually assaulted. And the desperation and isolation she feels when her father's ghost seems to haunt her is palpable. But there are little things that sucked me out of the story, primarily the copious amount of angel references. The lead character's name is Angel, she lives in Angel Falls, and during a dream sequence she sees a fallen statue of an angel outside a mausoleum.

Aside from an ending that I felt too abrupt, it was a compelling read and packed a serious punch. It was published earlier this year by Delirium Darkside. And if you're interested in checking out other short fiction from either authors, you can find Amy's Blanket of White and Michael's collection, A Hell of a Job, through Damnation Books.

Find out more about Amy at her blog And you can find Michael McCarty on MySpace at

Fallen Angel can be found in e-format at Darkside Digital.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stories for the End of the World by Eric Shapiro

In his collection, Eric Shapiro ends the world three times (more, if you want to be abstract of philosophical). His methods include a giant asteroid ("It's Only Temporary") and radioactive crab monsters ("The Hill"). Reading it, I kept thinking of the book as being called Stories from the End of the World, but that's wrong. The title is Stories for End of the World (Permuted Press: 2010). The distinction is significant. These aren't transmissions from our future selves, warning us of our impending dooms. Rather, Shapiro is sending these stories forward. They are stories about apocalypse for people dying in one, from those of us careening happily and boneheadedly towards our own.

Stories for the End of the World contains ten stories, three of which are long enough to qualify as novellas. Although the collection is, to overuse the term, apocalyptic in theme, not every story takes place at the world's end. These are apocalypses of love, of self, of good behavior. All are suffused with a sense of morbid glee, not dissimilar to the final montage of Doctor Strangelove.

Well, not all. "Fizz," the collection's grimmest inclusion, relates the circumstances leading up to and away from a calculated date rape. It's sad and infuriating. In a noteworthy twist, it subverts the usual goal of fiction of finding the universal in the specific, and instead tells a specific story through generalities, and in so doing, makes the subject matter loom all the larger.

A blurb on the cover anoints Shapiro the next Philip K. Dick, and I suppose I can see some similarities. In "Days of Allison," one of the book's longer (and best) pieces, we do have that most-Dickian of tropes, robots that think they're people. The writer I find myself going back to over and over again while reading Shapiro, however, is Nabokov. These Stories for the End of the World show that same precise balance of language that one finds in Lolita or Pnin, between playfulness and anguish, civility and grotesquery, funny ha-ha and funny kill-yourself.

An easy criticism to level at this collection would be that it is repetitive. Certainly, Shapiro's narrators tend to share a few personality traits, the most noticeable being their proclivity towards spiraling inner monologues of misanthropy and self-loathing. I caution against such a point of view. It's reductive, and misses the real accomplishment of these stories. Shapiro shares a worldview that is specific, unique, and complex. For readers, there are few greater treats than that, even if in his world, we all die at the end.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ideomancer, Vol. 9, Issue 4

Per publisher Leah Bobet’s editorial note, the December 2010 issue of Ideomancer is a celebration of the solstice. As she explains, this issue contains “stories about, and for, the end of the year, and the end – and beginning – of the world.” Good stuff.


“When the Light Left” by Becca de la Rosa – At one point the narration states: “All this dark would confuse anyone.” And this is truth. Very little light is shed onto the reality of this story. It is a jumble of well-written images and scenes hinting at a larger story. Mythic references add universal themes and work as understated signposts to point the way towards meaning. And there is a story here – I read it as a sad and universal story – but it is almost too obscure to feel.

“Lucky You” by Nadia Bulkin – An imaginative and poetic vision of a slow apocalypse. Or maybe it’s just a gradual evolution? Immortality becomes a curse once your world and your time no longer exist. My favorite story of this issue.

“What I Wrote for Andronicus” by Stephen Case – A nice story concerning death and rebirth in the afterlife. A significant tree ((Yggdrasil?) dies in a world populated by the gods and the dead. A scientific mind writes out the story of the tree as he knew it, relates the extinction of this tree to the extinction of various cottonwood species in the world of the living, and expresses how little he understands about this strange afterlife. The narrator – whose job it is to write out the story of the tree and serves as an unreliable narrator in that he only writes what he understands which leaves lots of room open for interpretation – explains how the tree died, but does he fully understand why? Author Stephen Case has this to say about his story: “Trees have for me a significance I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on. They know something we don’t.” I wonder how a tree might interpret this story? There’s a nice subtle revelation at the end that ties all the threads together and hammers home the meaning.

Poetry – The poetry selection this month is absolutely amazing. Poetry editor Jaime Lee Moyer deserves recognition for having a great eye and a great ear.

“My Bones’ Cracked Abacus” by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back – I really enjoy the format and language of this mysterious piece. An absolutely beautiful representation of how powerful speculative poetry can be when done right. My favorite poem of this issue, but only by a hair. An excerpt: "this is where they cut me, i told you./ this is where the flesh-tone doll’s parts were grafted;/ blank ugly sutures, a torturer’s braille./ this is the cartography of the blind."

“No Child of Daedalus” by W.C. Roberts – Contrasts the myths surrounding the ancient Greek artisan of the title and his son Icarus with the reality of Leonardo Da Vinci. A celebration of inspiration and engineering.

“Pinion” by Liz Bourke – In keeping with the theme of this issue, this is a poem about the end of the world. At least, it is a reflection on how the world ends for all of us. A poetic examination of the endless “dust to dust” cycle we all must endure.

Innsmouth Free Press #5

Innsmouth Free Press not only publishes original short stories that fall into that weird fiction style that fits so well with a Lovecraftian vibe, but you'll find on their site classic tales from H.P. Lovecraft and fictionalized news articles set in the Lovecraftian town of Innsmouth, labeled Monster Bytes. IFP #5 is their third and final issue for 2010.

I'm not a hip cat when it comes to Lovecraft's work, but I like weird fiction so I wanted to give this periodical a go. The look of the free PDF magazine has a clean, crisp style that makes it very appealing for a reader like me who isn't keen on visual bombardments from some periodicals. And the cover art by M.S. Corley evokes that dark, strange atmosphere that's to be expected from the stories stored within.

The table of contents looks like this: "The Concierto of Senor Lorenzo" by Kenneth Yu, "The Night We Burned Our Hearts Out" by Paul Jessup, "The Changeling" by Tom Hamilton, "Beneath the Cold Black Sea" by Martin Hayes, "Borgan's Deli" by Jarrid Deaton, "The Green World" by Julio Toro San Martin, "The Song of Tussagaroth" by James Lecky, "Nibbling" by Cheryl McCreary.

I found just about every story very enjoyable, and definitely were well-suited for the Lovecraft vibe without borrowing directly from the acclaimed author. If I had to pick three personal favorites, I'd likely go with: Kenneth Yu's story about a musician's brief stay in a nearly empty hotel and the fascination the proprietor has with him; Martin Hayes' story of a fishing village and the tormented souls who are lost at sea and those left behind on shore; and Cheryl McCreary's story involving an army of worms. Ew, worms.

If you're a fan of the weird tale, then I think you'd be doing yourself a favor by checking out the Innsmouth Free Press. You might be impressed and pleasantly surprised.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Darkened Corner by Tom Hamilton

The Darkened Corner by Tom Hamilton represents the importance and value provided by the modern small press. Without innovative independent publishers like Philistine Press, it is possible that Hamilton’s novella may not have ever seen the light of day. Not necessarily because of quality but because of marketability. Novellas, especially literary novellas, are a tough sell, even for some well-known authors. Had this book not been published, it would have been a real shame. This is quite frankly an excellent story.

The Darkened Corner tells the life story of an Irish Traveller in short, frenetic bursts of prose in a narrative spanning several decades and covering a large chunk of The United States. Tom Hamilton, an Irish Traveller himself, understands the subculture well, and it shows in the authenticity and honesty of his story. For those who do not know, Irish Travellers are a kind of hidden people interspersed throughout the United States and Europe. I guess they could be explained to the uninitiated as a kind of gypsy people of Irish descent. They often live together in shared communities and survive by taking on short term labor jobs and/or (allegedly) committing the occasional con. The Irish Traveller of this story, our central character, comes from a line of conmen. He is initiated into the trade and trained by his father.

The protagonist is a poet, a dreamer, but his dreams go unrealized. Late in the narrative, he says about poetry: “I'd gotten to the point where I knew just enough about poetry to realize that the poems that I was writing were real bad, and that poetry was really only something that fools used to pass the time.” His idealism fades while beer cans and empty bottles clatter down cold streets. He is a lonely drunk, a modern-day Bukowski. The protagonist is the ultimate outsider: an outsider among his own people who themselves are outsiders.

There are moments hinting at dark fantasy in the story that verge towards magic realism, yet this is a story of stark, concrete reality. In fact, in many ways, the ultimate tragedy of The Darkened Corner is that there is nothing in the darkened corner of the title. The ghosts and phantasms are in the mind, the product of an imagination fighting off the futility and meaningless of his own wasted life. Without magic, without fantasy, the less frequently the ghosts appear to our protagonist, the more our protagonist falls deeper into his own despair. The fantasies are there because, as the narrator points out: “Fantasies were unchallenged. A dream could be controlled. No one could fuck up a dream.” But you can really fuck up a life if you aren’t careful.

Anyway, finding this novella was a nice surprise, and you can’t beat the price: FREE! (But it would be courteous to provide a small donation to the publisher’s virtual tip jar.) My six-pack rating: An enthusiastic 5 out of 6 Four Locos!* Here is the link to this book:

*NOTE: Shortly after ingesting the Four Locos, the reviewer promptly began twitching and talking about himself in third person before passing out. How he managed to upload this review is a mystery…*

The Red Penny Papers

The second issue of The Red Penny Papers doesn't disappoint. I should start this review by stating that the editor, KV Taylor, and one of the contributors, Barry Napier, are good friends. I've tried not to let the fact colour my review. I hope.

William Vitka opens the issue with science-fiction tinged horror 'Jack the Ripper, Savior of Humanity', an intriguing take on the Jack the Ripper legend. Next up is Barry Napier's poignant 'Firmament', a sweet story about a wife and son's grief with a sense of unease running throughout. I can't decide if the ending is creepy. I suppose it must be, but I like to think not. Read it and judge for yourself.

Amanda Pillar brings a delightful Regency story to the issue with 'The Vampire Duke'. Robin suspects the Duke of Grafton is a vampire, but that's ridiculous. Isn't it? A fun read with an adorable lead character.

My favourite story this issue was T.J. McIntyre's 'House of Endless Skies'. Grant discovers that living on a private island is not at all glamorous especially when the sand gets in everywhere. The horror creeps in at first building to a satisfying ending. Love the title.

I did not see the end coming in A. Merc Rustad's 'The Teeth'. Eww! When Keith's wife dies in an explosion, Keith finds he's lost his appetite and then there's the problem of the teeth. They appear to be stalking him. We end with Gregor by Edward Morris. A meteor fell from the sky and a scientist is dead. His wife admits to killing him, but perhaps she had her reasons.

You can read all the stories over at The Red Penny Papers website.

Innsmouth Free Press

Readers with a hankering for the strange should seek out the excellent fifth issue of Innsmouth Free Press, edited by Paula R. Stiles and published by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
This free zine offers eight excellent horror stories with a taste of bizarre. A number of the stories are inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos:
Table of Contents
Two brothers watch as a city burns. I particularly enjoyed Paul Jessop’s poetic ‘The Night We Burned Our Hearts Out,’ telling the tale of brothers touched by the unworldly. A story with a powerful emotional punch.   
Tom Hamilton’s story 'The Changeling' is a beautifully written tale of a con artist and the stange tale he hears from one of his marks. A glimpse of a strange creature forces him to acknowledge the ugliness of his own choices. I found the imagery in this story very powerful.   
James Lecky’s ‘The Song of Tussagorath’ is a fantasy that echoes with the language of traditional mythos stories. When an ancient book is obtained, only the  unwise would open its tainted pages. Only the foolhardy would use the book as a doorway into unwholesome realms. A story reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith.   
As well as the fiction section Innsmouth Free Press prints faux news items (monster bytes) set in Innsmouth, a fiction town from a Lovecraft story, and reviews and interviews.
If you're looking for a fix of weird, dark fantasy you would do well to flick through the pages of 'Innsmouth Free Press.'  


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Black Static #19

The first story in Black Static #19, Chain Reaction by Steve Rasnic Tem, is an excellent opener. After what appears an ordinary collision, a man wanders from car to car checking on the other casualties. Something is very wrong here. There seemed an undercurrent, a sense of menace, and the ending is open enough to make your own conclusions.

Next up is Beachcombing by Ray Cluley. By picking up and collecting items at the beach, a boy feels the emotions of the person who dropped them. A gorgeous story about lost things and lost people. Joel Lane's Sleep Mask offers us a haunting story about a man with a sleep disorder who dreams of his dead parents. Chilling.

Simon Clark's They Will Not Rest offers a strange Armageddon. Coffins mysteriously appear next to you while you sleep and within weeks most of the country is dead or dying. Taking a line from the story, 'If staying alive means staying awake, how do you do it?' Outstanding, and my favourite story this issue.

Lavie Tidhar concludes the fiction for this issue with The Wound Dresser, a poignant story about the role of angels of Death during World War II. The ending is heart-breaking.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An Occupation of Angels

An Occupation of Angels is a novella by Lavie Tidhar from Apex Books*. I’ve grown to be a big fan of Tidhar’s work over the last year or so. I’ve read (and truly enjoyed) many of his short stories published in places like Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine, and I absolutely loved his novella The Tel Aviv Dossier co-written with Nir Yaniv and released through ChiZine Publications. In fact, The Tel Aviv Dossier is perhaps the most entertaining book I read all year. That said, An Occupation of Angels had a lot to live up to.

Did it live up to my expectations? For the most part, yes, and it passed with flying colors, too. It was a fun, quick read, full of action and intrigue. As far as plot goes you have angelic beings, dark Nazi experimentation, doors to other dimensions, and a female protagonist who is a James Bond-type character jumping across Europe on secret missions. We travel with the protagonist from historic Paris to the remote, frozen wastelands of Siberia and beyond, perhaps even to Heaven itself. The action scenes are well-written and compelling. This is an adventure story, plain and simple.

The fact the book is a plain and simple adventure story might be considered the book’s strength by many readers, but in a way, this fact became a weakness for me and my own high expectations. I guess I just expected more instances of the contemplative and strange from Tidhar. This book felt a little safe in places, relying on spy novel tropes in favor of the fantastic hinted at in the story. It is a novella more inspired by the language of Ian Fleming than Dante. It is an action-packed spy story more than a contemplative fantasy, and I tend to be the kind of reader who prefers contemplative fantasies. So, this was just a matter of my personal reading preferences tainting my enjoyment of the book to a minor extent (very minor).

That said, An Occupation of Angels is a very well-written spy book which I found fun to read and recommend highly, especially if you tend to enjoy spy stories and/or adventure novels. I think rabid fans of Indiana Jones or the Jason Bourne series would absolutely love this novella.

Using my six-pack rating system, I give An Occupation of Angels a solid 4 out of 6 Angel City Ales. I look forward to reading more of Tidhar’s work. He’s the kind of writer who always surprises, rarely repeats himself, and shows a lot of range in his oeuvre.

*Legal Disclosure: received a free electronic review copy of novella through publisher.

"Nevermore" (or "The Feast of Flesh") by David Dunwoody

This is one of two novellas that appear in the first volume of Belfire Press's "Duel" Novella Series. You can learn more about this series by visiting Belfire Press.

Ghost stories tend to have a very familiar quality to them, which is likely due to ghost being the longest surviving horror tropes going--older than even the genre itself. So when an author can come along and offer something a bit different from the norm, and not bungle it, that's a rare treat. David Dunwoody offers one such story with Nevermore.

And it starts off with one of the best opening passages I've read in a while:

"Malcolm Witt died in his sleep at 11:07 PM. Four minutes later, his body rose and walked from the room. Malcolm watched it happen."

That really got me hooked for the next fifty some pages of this story. It's a prelude though, as after that passage the story jumps back in time to early in the night when Malcolm attends a restaurant with friends. Saul, a flamboyant medium--one of those John Edward types--"lenses" Malcolm's third eye as a way to help him discover the identity of the man with whom his ex-lover, Leo, cheated on him. The spell doesn't seem to work though, but when he returns home drunk and passes out, that's when he dies and witnesses his corpse rise up and go absolutely bananas. Well, not so much bananas, but cannibal holocaust on anyone within arm's reach.

While Malcolm has become a kind of ghost, his corpse has become a kind of zombie, but neither term is entirely accurate and as the story ramps up page after page, it's easy to see why. The story starts off very methodically, establishing the characters and setting the stage, but once things kick into high gear they don't let up, and Malcolm has hellish night to figure out what's happened to him, who's responsible, and how to stop his body from going after those closest to him.

After finally getting a chance to read "The Dunwoody's" work, I'm looking forward to seeing what else this guy has up his sleeve.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Orpheus and the Pearl" by Kim Paffenroth

This is one of two novellas that appear in the first volume of Belfire Press's "Duel" Novella Series. You can learn more about this series by visiting Belfire Press. Look for my review of David Dunwoody's Nevermore tomorrow.

Whenever I hear tell of Kim Paffenroth, it's usually in the context of the zombie genre. The man knows zombies. And given this was the first time I've had a chance to read his work, I was fully expecting some gruesome undead fare. And while there is a character risen from the dead in Orpheus and the Pearl, she is not a zombie--at least it's not explicitly stated that she is.

Set in the backdrop of Massachusetts during the early twentieth century, Dr. Catherine MacGuire is called to the residence of Dr. Percy Wallston on an urgent matter concerning one of his patients, a woman in dire need of psychoanalysis. MacGuire is versed in the teaching of Freud and the workings of the mind, a relatively new form of the science, which is exactly why she was chosen by Wallston. To her dismay, she learns the patient is Wallston's wife, Victoria. All the more unsettling is that Victoria died--or was at least said to have died. In fact, Dr. Wallston has resurrected Victoria with startling, violent results, and he desperately needs Dr. MacGuire to find a way to have his old wife back rather than the ravenous and malicious creature he has sequestered in his home.

Paffenroth's story evokes some of that old world charm, as a horrific affliction is shown against a quaint backdrop. It's the whole juxtaposition of the prim and proper engaging in macabre acts. But it's not an entirely gruesome story, and rather relies more on the tensions between Dr. MacGuire and the Wallstons, both in their interactions with each other and MacGuire's past creeping into the back of her mind. And the ending is not at all what I initially expected, which is good in one sense, but on the other hand the end result felt a bit too--I don't want to say chipper, so let's go with neat and tidy.

All in all, it's a good little story. Something off the beaten path from the onslaught of gory depictions of the undead, and the historical setting resonated much better with me than when I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. If you like tales of the undead with a strong emotional core, this might be the kind of story you'll want to check out.

Interzone #230

Interzone always delivers quality fiction and issue 230 is no exception.

Parallel universes converge in Tim Lee's 'Love and War'. A very human story with a compelling lead character. Aliette De Bodard offers us a God versus the machine tale in Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders. Or rather Gods. I think this is the first story I've read by Aliette and I love her voice.

An immortal struggles with grief in Patrick Samphire's Camelot. Unwilling to believe his brother died when his plane was shot down during WWII, Sam searches ruins in France. He expects to find man and not bones despite sixty-years having passed since his brother fell from the sky. My favourite story this issue.

Issue 230 also includes fiction by Lavie Tidhar and Nina Allan.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Circus Wagon

The Circus Wagon by Andrew S. Fuller – The Circus Wagon is a novelette available in a variety of e-book formats from Damnation Books. Fuller provides a compelling quick read. In this story, protagonist Christopher Epstein (an everyman figure) has hazy memories of an old circus wagon that used to sit in the yard of his grandmother’s house. The origin of the wagon is shrouded in mystery as noted in this excerpt from the text:

“Had Grandpa worked in the circus? No, the wagon was older than that, someone said. What was inside—rats? Bats? A lion’s skeleton? A blind old witch? No, tons of mosquitoes swarmed you at once if you got too close, and lightning bugs avoided that part of the yard.”

Through the course of the story, we meet Christopher Epstein as an adult and learn the circus wagon followed him and negatively affects his adult working life and relationships. People die. Surreal insanity subtly overlaps reality. The wagon itself remains an object of mystery and source of unknowable terror. Well done!

Now, I’ll note just a few minor criticisms:

  1. The mystery of the wagon itself never feels fully resolved and remains quite ambiguous, but this could also be a strength of the story depending on the reader. Some might argue the ambiguities add to the overall mystique. Others would argue otherwise. If you are a reader looking for a clear-cut denoument, you might want to look elsewhere. Me, I personally liked that the mysterious aspect remained such a mystery. It left me thinking about the myriad of possibilities behind the wagon’s very existence and purpose.
  2. I felt the protagonist, Christopher Epstein, was a little too passive of a character. Once again, some might argue this is a strength: it makes him an empty vessel in which a reader can possibly project some aspect of their self. But, as a reader, this passivity frustrated me.
  3. My main complaint would have to be length. Yes, it was a short story, but at this price ($2.99) you could buy entire novels in e-book format. At just 7,200 words, there isn’t much reading here for your buck. I read it in one sitting (about twenty minutes) in a doctor’s waiting room. This is no fault of the author, of course, but a slight criticism directed towards the publisher. Damnation Books could better serve their customers by putting together a selection of stories by Fuller (I, for one, was left wanting to read more of his short fiction) and upping the word-count to provide value for the customer. I’ll note here for full disclosure that I received a free copy from the author for review. Had I paid the full cover price, I may have felt a little ripped-off. But I need to give credit where credit is due: the cover art, design, editing, and formatting seemed professional.

To sum up: The Circus Wagon is a very well-written and engagingly mysterious – not to mention ambiguous – piece of supernatural fiction. Using my six-pack rating system, I give this story 4 out of 6 pints of Guinness. For the author, I toss in an extra shot of Bushmills Irish Whiskey as a chaser.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Crow Toes Quarterly

I recently finished Issue 15 of Crow Toes Quarterly and I really wish I had stumbled upon this magazine 15 issues ago.  There is definate delight found in every issue, story and poem.  You would be hard press to dismiss this magazine as average or amateurish.  Indeed, there is quite a craft here.

It is a publication which aims for children's horror, but which is easily accepted by adults as well.  Their latest endeavor features a beautiful mix of the dark, the strange, the unsettling, the morbid, all with a child-like innocence.

The issue begins (aside from the Narrator's introduction) with Rebecca Huggins' story Waiting, where we are introduced to an isolated boy living in a grand mansion, filled with an even grander library.  Yet, despite his isolation, he is quite content with his life, living vicariously through his own imagination.  Until one day a stranger stands outside his window.  A stranger who happens to enjoy hot cocoa and wishes to take the boy on an incredible journey.  A journey we all take at some point in time.

The next story stays true to the uncanny, reminding us that Halloween is not only fun and sugary, but frightening and bitter.  The time Between, by Sherry Isaac, reminds us that at the stroke of midnight anything can happen, especially on Halloween.  For three young children playing in an attic, dividing the rewards from trick-or-treating, midnight becomes far too strange when one of them discovers an old pocket-watch.  Never mess with a watch, especially an old watch, when it's trapped behind blue goo.  Further more, though Halloween is fun and sugary, make sure adults always check the candy for those frightening, bitter pieces.

Next, The Skeleton Doll, by Caspian Gray, is a bone-chilling tale about a mother and her daughter.  Her dead daughter . . . lying in a forest.  This story was my personal favorite as it teetered on the edge of the macabre with a rather sad, yet beautiful rendition of Pinocchio.  An old woman who lives in cabin alone, having recently suffered from the demise of her young daughter, goes to great lengths to restore her happiness.  But just how far is she willing to go?  Having enjoyed her life while her daughter was alive there's no reason she can't enjoy her life while her daughter is dead.  Though, in order to enjoy her life, her daughter must remain with her one way or another.  With a little thread, a little stuffing, happiness can be found. 

Then there's the flash piece by Grier Jewell, The Hand of Holland Rogers: Is It True?  This calls to question the things that keep us awake at night.  When you can't sleep, what do wonder about?  Do you ever ponder something is lurking in the corners of your dark room?  Do you curl under the sheets, seeking protection from the night?  What was that sound?  Is that a finger touching your feet?  Or should you keep such thoughts out of your mind and try to go to sleep?  But exactly how can you go to sleep when you feel a hand touching your leg?  But that's just nonsense . . . isn't it?  (Personally, I've always envisioned shark fins circling my bed.)

Last, we're treated with a witty, disgusting tale about a child who pieces themself together.  Literally.  Brains Coming Out of My Ears, by Anne E. Johnson, is a vivid story about the rewards and misfortunes of having all the brains.  But when you have all the brains, imagine all the things you could accomplish.  Imagine how powerful you'd be!  Especially with an extra set of eyes in the back of your head! 

The magazine doesn't stop there however.  Equally pleasant, and equally dark, are three poems.

Ice Cream Truck, by Shawn Riopelle, takes us through life as it centers around that little, flat piece of wood commonly found in Popsicles, and doctor offices. 

A Prickling  On My Shoulder, by M Sullivan, is a whimsical, avant-garde poem about that funny feeling you sometimes get.

Spider, by Matt Dennison, reminds us that those eight-legged little terrors are always there.

Last, but not least, the magazine is also packed with beautiful illustrations, reminding us that the uncanny is indeed a spectacle worth looking at.  For just a buck-fifty, Crow Toes Quarterly, Issue 15 is available for download in a PDF format from their website:  Filled with all things cute and horrible, this magazine is a must for any zine-fans looking for something a little different, a little innocent, a little odd, a little playful, and all around a little delightful.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ponies by Kij Johnson

Intrigued by a sudden splurge of tweets on Twitter today, I followed a link to Kij Johnson's story 'Ponies' over at Glad I did. A gruesome little tale about a girl and her pony who both just want to fit in. It's dark, it's sweet, it's heart wrenching. Highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens

Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens . . . is this a metaphorical allegory, something akin the ‘fox in the hen-house’?  Certainly!

It’s a quirky little magazine that specializes in Bizarro--a literary sub-genre focusing on the absurd and the surreal through darkly-inane situations while postulating philosophical inquires (notably absurdism, nihilism and existentialism).  It’s rather humorous in nature, but ambiguously so as it conveys truth though absurdity.  In other words, it’s the logic of the illogical. 

So, what exactly is this magazine and how is it absurd?

It’s an odd-timed print magazine (roughly bi-annual), with a few issues available for download at their website:  Their latest issue, #Y’aing’ngah (Winter 2010), is the fourth issue I’ve read from this delightfully odd press, and it definitely didn’t disappoint.

The highlight of this magazine for this reader was Nicole Cushing’s Youth to be Proud Of, a darkly comical and political piece centered around the ever popular and familiar, and dare I say painfully dull and boring, Our Town (the play by Thornton Wilder).  There is so much to say about this piece that it’s just easier to say: high school, small-town life, journalism, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” and children dangling from wires, limply floating and speaking through unseen voices, conveying morality, spirituality, and seeking forgiveness for their debauchery with a cold, dull lifeless spirit.  Because let's face, the only life worth living is that of an oppressed automaton who just wants to eat shrooms and get pregnant!

Also pleasing was the flash piece Circle Slash Erections by xTx.  Think you have a hard time keeping it up and/or achieving that glorious-resolution at the end of the evening?  Try dating a woman who specializes in the art of non-stimulation.

Equally pleasing was Changing Woman by Brandi Wells, which calls to question the effort of keeping together a relationship involving a leper-zombiesque-splatter-wannabe-Thing-from-The-Adam’s-Family lover.  Warning: Do not eat eggs while reading this piece!

Also worth mentioning is the satirical There’s War by R.E. Greene.  Tyranny, fascism, nationalism, socialism, democracy . . . they all involve the same leader(s): scary people with power and money screaming for obedience as they whip mailboxes and imprison anyone who fornicates with their daughter.  It's hard to earn a living under such constraints, thankfully there's garbage which needs to be collected.

All the stories are worth a read, they’re highly imaginative pieces that play with literary formats, climatic resolutions (or lack thereof) while conveying philosophical themes through illogical scenes and characters.  They also feature reviews of other Bizarro works, inviting readers into the world of the absurd.

Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens is a magazine which will leave you wondering.  What exactly you’ll be wondering is the question . . . perhaps, what?  Maybe, huh?  But most likely: when is the next issue? 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hungur’s Strange Metaphors: An Exploration of Alien Desires

            The vampires in Hungur are stranger than your typical human-vampire. And, as I read the Walpurgisnacht 2010 issue, I became fascinated with a particular type of vampire: the alien-vampire with undefined and elusive motivations. The metaphor of the unfamiliar is powerful. It resonates with the unknowable elements within our lives, within our personal relationships or within our ever-changing and sometimes bewildering society.  

            Hungur 10, offers intriguing stories in which alien-vampires have understandable motivation. I enjoyed Marge Simon’s And Babylon Shall Rise Again which tracked an alien-vampire race manipulating the progress of human history, and R.S. Pyne’s Blood Drive which explored the vampire myth through from the point of view of android whose mind hosted a cabal of vampire old ones.

.           Good stories, but I was looking for something other. I wanted to dig a little deeper into the bones of the unknown and find the desires which hover on the cusp of perception.  

            Hungur’s two ‘first contact stories’, both feature alien-vampires and both stories are told though the eyes of a human.

            In Dev Jarrett’s Monochrome Smile, a space crew encounter a being of mind control, an entity able to hypnotise unwary humans. This unique alien consumes it victims’ bodies and produces a human facsimile, rendered in monochrome sand. This alien doppelganger retains the memories of its victims and an understanding of human emotion. The alien’s constant refrain is that it wants to be loved. In a nice touch, the people on Earth are thrilled at the discovery of an alien life-form, oblivious to the possible dangers. The story charts the struggle of Gregor, a member of the crew, as he strives to escape the alien and the potential catastrophic outcomes of this first contact.   

            Robert Essig’s story, Patrolling the Outer Rim, gives another glimpse into first contact. A human patrol ship lands on a planet to investigate strange human-like readings. Once on planet, they discover creatures in a flux between life and death, but these undead creatures are the lures of an alien-vampire race. The human crew quickly find themselves under attack. Patrolling the Outer Rim is a fast-paced adventure story, detailing the struggle between the crew and the alien-vampires.

            Essig’s and Jarrett’s stories are both told from the point of view of the human characters and the motivations of the alien-vampires are not directly stated. Good stories, but I felt as if the stories demanded that I assign malevolent motivations to the alien-vampires. They did not quite capture the unknowable element I was seeking.  

            I found this elusive strangeness in a story and in a poem from writer and editor Terrie Leigh Relf.  Her story Chimes of Bone has a dreamy, poetic quality which quickly established the strangeness of the setting with the depiction of the world’s three moons. This story is a cautionary tale: a warning to a young girl who has ventured into a forbidden place. The vampire creatures of this story seek the ‘secret codes’ in their victims’ blood which is needed for their transformation, first into monstrous creatures, and then into a disguise which allows them to blend into the native population. This story is full of wonderful strangeness and puzzling images, the narrator is revealed to be a ghost; the story echoes to the sound of the bones chime, made from the vampires’ victims; there are references to time distortion and to the recurring images of the world’s three moons. It is a lovely story full of unanswered questions.

            Terrie Leigh Relf’s haibun poem balances strangeness and familiarity. The poem describes a wine tasting, but quickly establishes an unbalanced and weird world. The final haiku is particularly powerful.

Although it is a pity to reproduce it incompletely, I think this last haiku gives a flavour of the strangeness of Relf’s poem:

extracted before
their contents spill
fertile wombs

             I am fascinated by the exploration of the strange. Hungur with its blending of the alien and vampire metaphors, within its axis of speculative incongruity is a good place to find such strangeness. 


Hungur is published twice a year. You can purchase a copy ($12.50 + $2 S&H) from Sam's Dot's Genre Mall
Editorial guidelines can be found here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ideomancer, Vol. 9, Issue 3

Ideomancer is a quarterly online magazine of speculative fiction and poetry. This magazine publishes work that is typically on the literary side of genre. One tends to find more work trending towards magic realism here than pulp sci-fi or fantasy. After reading this publication for several years, it is one I have learned to count on for lush prose and beautiful descriptive language.

Per publisher Leah Bobet’s Editor’s Note, the “September 2010 issue delves into some off-kilter relationships: how they go subtly right, or wrong, and what we do about it.” That sums up this issue pretty well, I think.

This issue can be read in its entirety here:


“Fairest in the Land” by Catherine Krahe – A piece of flash fiction which describes the lives of some famous fairy tale princesses from a different perspective. Words are used in a manner that creates striking visual portraits of the characters. However, the wonderful language glosses over the lack of a clear narrative flow. The story is all description with very little in the way of actual story. Also, the hardened princess trope utilized is becoming a little too pervasive in genre culture and this one does not really add anything new for me. Still worth reading for the language alone.

“It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer’s Day” by Lenora Rose – A selkie story, told as a prophesy. There are some interesting twists in the end, and I applaud the author for how she turns a prophet into an unreliable narrator. My only complaint is that the exclusive use of future tense to tell this story tends to be repetitive and awkwardly worded at times.

“Afterglow” by Sandra Odell – Near the beginning of this story, a character states: “Anything is possible if you love deeply enough.” This slightly oedipal romance is alternately sweet and surreal, tender and disturbing. The term Kafkaesque comes to mind. I guess you could say this story is Jungian erotica. Recommended with reservations. Definitely the most memorable and unique story of this issue for me.


“Evening in Pompeii” by Rachel Swirsky – Wonderfully descriptive poem speculating what it might have been like on the eve of Vesuvius’s cataclysmic eruption. I feel this is the strongest poem of this issue.

“diurnal/nocturnal” by David Kopaska-Merkel – Per the author, this is a Fibbonaci-no ku describing a tear in reality. The form for the poem is nice, giving an interesting, somewhat staccato flow to the words when read aloud. However, the author’s “fragmentary ideas” and fragmented imagery gives the poem a fragmentary feel. Without the author’s note at the end, I would have completely missed out on the intended context. On first read, after reading Swirsky’s poem, I thought it might be another piece describing a volcano. All the same, the night/day duality is explored well, and the language is nicely loaded for interpretation.

Moondance” by Mikal Trimm – A tribal chant describing “Nights of blood and hope and abandon.” A very dark feel pervades this piece.

“Time Ghosts by Ann K. Schwader – History repeats itself giving life to new ghosts which are the same as the old ghosts. A short, thought-provoking poem.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

M-Brane SF #22

The day after I joined the Skull Salad Team, the latest issue of M-Brane SF (#22) landed in my inbox. There was no way I was going to be able to resist reading and reviewing it today. Therefore, here is my first Skull Salad review…

Having worked with Christopher Fletcher (the editor) I admire his commitment to genre, his magazine and the respect he has for the writers he works with. This man rocks. He tirelessly puts out a new magazine every month. I don't know how he does it.

It's hard to pick a favourite story from issue 22. Mostly, I'm torn between the African jungle and the strange creatures a scientist has created in Gustavo Bondoni's 'Wyrm of the Mangroves' and the bizarre aliens in Patty Jansen's 'The Invisible Fleas of the Galaxy'. I think Bondoni's tale just nudges over the winning line because I felt Jansen's story ended a little too abruptly. That's not to say it wasn't fun. Oh was it ever. Both stories were also effectively creepy. Trust me, don't mess with DNA and don't mess with aliens however small and seemingly insignificant.

The issue also features fiction from Joseph Auslander, Jr and Bryce Mainville.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Looking for a Few Brave Souls

Here's the deal: Dave Truesdale of Tangent Online has made public Tangent will no longer review publications paying less than "pro" rates (currently 5 cents/word according to both the SWFA and HWA). Jason Sanford has an eloquent response at his blog.

My less-than-eloquent response: that sucks.

No reviews for anything from Clockwork Phoenix, Shimmer, Weird Tales (WEIRD TALES!), Space & Time, Triangulation, Electro Velocipede, Albedo One...

As a writer, I've benefited from several favorable reviews of my stories in Tangent's virtual pages. I don't have the time/energy or expertise to fill the gap left by Tangent's rather narrow focus. I can offer suggestions of short pieces I've read and enjoyed, and will continue to do so here at Skull Salad. What I'm asking is simple:

I need a few brave souls to join me, not as "full-time" reviewers, but as folks who enjoy good, short speculative fiction and would be willing to offer suggestions of reading material from time to time. Nothing big. Even one story recommendation a month goes a long way in keeping the speculative fiction machine alive.

If you want on the list (no obligation), email me. (aaron.polson(at)

From here on, Skull Salad only touches short fiction from venues paying less than "pro" rates.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The First Few Bites of Shimmer Number Twelve

I've tried to be fairly vocal about supporting the small press at my author's blog. As a writer, especially a weirdo who prefers the short form (raises hand), I must tend the garden in which I'm planted (or hope to be planted one day).

I recently snagged a subscription to Shimmer, a lovely magazine of quirky fantasy and strange science fiction. My first issue, Number Twelve, arrived the other day, and I gobbled a handful of stories like a hungry hound dog (but with less bits hanging from my lips afterward). For slipstream fans, Shimmer is delicious.

For example: Peter M. Ball's angsty teen-werewolf story, "The Mike and Carly Story, without the Gossip" is a special piece of writing. Ball lands a solid punch in the emo-stomach of Twilight tainted teen fiction with an amazingly deft voice. Highly recommended.

If you wonder what makes Shimmer different, touch the oddly beautiful zombie-love of "You Had Me at Rarrrgg" by Nicky Drayden, or Carmen Lau's spin on a very old tale with "Red and Grandma inside the Wolf". I've enjoyed each bite.

Off to nibble the rest...

Buy a copy or subscribe to Shimmer.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

At the End of Church Street by Gregory L. Hall

I picked up At the End of Church Street by Greg Hall because of the hook:

Live forever young. Every night is an adventure—hunting down tourists, challenging the local police, screaming to the world vampires really exist.

The book sounded a little like Peter Pan with vampires...

Who wouldn't want to read that?

Church Street keeps you running the back alleys of Orlando with homeless kids who live together in an abandoned theater as family. They claim to be vampires and live as such until someone, who evidently believes they are vampires, begins killing them with the age-old vampire slaying favorites: a stake through the heart and beheading.

There are twists and turns through the full-throttle narrative which keep the reader propelled toward the "turn it up to eleven" conclusion.

Greg Hall has added some nice layers to the vampire mythos and, instead of playing pansy with his teenaged protagonists, he gives them real life and death choices to face. This isn't a bloody climax slapped on to the end of a sappy love story; Church Street is all climax, all life and death and love.

And in the end, vampires are badass again.

Check it out at Belfire Press or

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Valley of the Dead by Kim Paffenroth

Zombies are to horror fiction what mosquitoes are to my backyard in August (i.e., everywhere). Some fans gobble the latest zombie novels and wash it all down with undead anthologies and poetry from beyond the grave. I'm not that fan. I have nothing bad to say about the shambling meat-bags; they just don't poke my brain in the right places. And face it: a good portion of zombie fiction these days is pretty derivative. (and derivative is boring in my book)

So yeah, I don't usually read much involving zombies.

Unless Kim Paffenroth writes it.

See, Paffenroth has a way of exposing the selfish, greedy, lecherous horrors of the living as even worse than the mindless hunger of the undead. Valley of the Dead asks "What if Dante Alighieri witnessed a zombie plague and based his Inferno on the horrors of said plague?"

But Valley of the Dead is more than a zombie book. It's more than a "travel story", too. (The episodic nature of Dante's experiences with different groups reminds me of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Yes, it is both of these things, but a lot of "big questions" about human nature arise through the narrative. Dante and his companions (a pregnant woman, a monk of sorts, and an AWOL soldier) run across a rather sorry lot of (living) human examples of the seven deadly sins and more. He ponders the big questions about suffering, evil, and God while trying to escape a valley of pain, sickness, and death. All too soon, the reader is aware zombies are the least of Dante's problems.

Grab a copy. Give it a go. If you like to think along with your gut-munching horror, this is for you.

Next in the reading que: At the End of Church Street by Gregory L. Hall.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Back from the Dead

...and I'm reading about the dead.

Currently: Valley of the Dead by Kim Paffenroth--and I'm loving it. More later.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Necrotic Tissue #9

I've sunk my teeth into the latest issue of Necrotic Tissue (#9), and I'm pleased to report this magazine keeps on giving.

There's something special about Necrotic Tissue, maybe the attitude. It "feels" like an old pulp magazine, something I imagine to be like the Weird Tales of the '30s and '40s. Indeed, issue 9's editor's choice, "Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams" by David Tallerman, is a work of dark fantasy inhabited by creatures from a Lovecraftian nightmare.

But there's variety within. You can read about the wrong kind of surgery with J. Ventura's "Makeover" or the dense, literary horror of Laura L. Sullivan's "The Butterfly Hunter." Necrotic Tissue invites all styles between its covers.

Being a fan of the short-short form, especially flash fiction, Necrotic Tissue's 100 word bites are a special treat. My favorite from #9 is "Adagio" by Brendan P. Myers, a quick stab of darkness that lingers long after its brief length on the page.

Editor-in-Chief R. Scott McCoy balances it all with some solid non-fiction, including a fine interview with Joe R. Lansdale in #9, as well as an ongoing feature to help writers (and editors everywhere), "Help Me to Help You Help Me". This quarter's installment addresses the magic of ending a short story well. Mr. McCoy has a clean, straightforward and honest delivery in his editorials, too.

At $30 for four issues (one year), I can't think of a better fix for quality short horror fiction in print. Necrotic Tissue is a class act: always on time, always satisfying.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mama Fish by Rio Youers

Here's why you want to read Mama Fish by Rio Youers: you'll be pissed when it's over.

Youers splices together two tales of Patrick Beauchamp: one from high school when Patrick is trying to befriend school oddity Kelvin Fish; the second features an older Patrick, parent of two and beloved husband. Yes, they come together, in a sense. Any more plot points would taint your reading of Mama Fish, and I'm not here to do that.

The prose is delicious, fast, and propels you to the end. Unfortunately, I feel like the end came too quickly--maybe because I devoured it in one sitting. With two rug-rats running around the house, I don't devour much over ten pages in one sitting anymore. Even when the end becomes inevitable, and it does, Youers held my attention, winding it around his easy style and showing not only Patrick's final choice but why he made it (again, no spoilers here).

Some may be put off by the alternating time frames in the book (instead of all the "high school" story followed by the "older Patrick", Youers goes back and forth), but I enjoyed the way Mama Fish unfolded. With Shroud as the publisher, one might expect horror, and the novella has horrific moments, especially when Patrick is younger. But to simply file Mama Fish in the horror bin limits readers. This is slipstream at its best--a little science fiction, a little fantasy, and a dash of horror.

Why was I pissed when I finished? I wanted more. Give me a few Youers' short stories at least. I know I'll be looking for something with his name on it.

Pick up Mama Fish at Shroud or

Monday, January 4, 2010

The New Bedlam Project Issue #4

Issue 4 of The New Bedlam project once more delivers on the little town’s promise to unnerve the unwary reader. Once more we travel through its darkened streets to uncover the evil which lurks within the minds and hearts of those within the city limits.

Natalie L Sin takes a different approach, using her unique love of Asia and everything within it to add a different cultural bent and flavour to the twisted happenings in this writers’ haven. Zoe E. Whitten reminds us that not all the residents are writers but horror isn’t picky when choosing victims. Michael C Pennington allows us to see some hope when the writers fight back. Somehow I see this as opening a whole new can of worms – fat and juicy ones.

Barry Napier and J. Jay Waller take a stab at necrophilia, but from completely different angles – so to speak. I’m sure they’re both fine upstanding gentlemen, but the black twistedness of their imaginations is clear for all to see.

And we have creatures. As regular readers know, the imaginings of the writer residents of New Bedlam are the bread and butter of the horror which walks its streets, and so Kevin Lucia and Louise Bohmer serve up a dog of hell and something mystical and creepy (respectively) just to remind us.

Coupled with an excerpt by Brandon Layng from Courting Morpheus (Can of Worms), and another from Jodi Lee’s novel set in New Bedlam (At the Institute), we have an excellent all round issue with something to please everyone – and it’s free. Go check it out.

by Brenton Tomlinson