Magazine Review: The Letters Page

The Letters Page is a new magazine based out of the UK, consisting entirely of letters. The Letters Page is not strictly made up of speculative fiction — some letters are nonfiction, some realistic fiction, and only a couple in the issue I read, Issue Two: Winter 2013, could be considered fantastical — but I decided to review it despite this, on account of how innovative an idea it is.

The cover page of Issue Two is adorned with lines so that, if you print it out, you can make an envelope out from it. The letters themselves are typed for the easiest reading experience, though the submissions call for each letter to be hand-written, and indeed an image of the hand-written first lines follow each letter. When the magazine contacted me to request that I review their issue, they highlighted the fact that submissions are now open for their Summerhouse Issue (they are a paying market, and submissions info can be found here), which may interest some of you.

I got the feeling reading this magazine that certain letters will speak much differently to other people, perhaps more so than in other magazines as the genre requirements for The Letters Page are so broad.

The experience of reading Issue Two brought to mind the recent Miranda July email experiment, in that, especially in the nonfiction letters, I felt as though I was reading thoughts I was never intended to read. One writer writes about her daughter’s leukemia in response to a letter from Issue One. In my favorite letter, Pete Segall writes to a now-deceased death-row inmate at the now-renamed Terrell Unit at the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice. He has written to the man before, years ago, for reasons he can only now chalk up to the naivety of youth, and he writes again from a place of more maturity in a poignant letter consisting of one long, drawn-out sentence that mimics his breathless train of thought, looking back on his brief correspondence with a man marked for death. Each letter is accompanied by editorial footnotes, and in this instance in particular the footnotes are as interesting as the story; the editor explains about the renaming of the facility, informing us that even the place to which Segall is writing no longer exists.

Issue Two also contains items such as a brief philosophical note by George Saunders; a science fictional letter from Ruby Cowling penned in a near-future, teenaged dialect where the hyper rambling eventually leads to a profound realization; Tod Wodicka’s time travel response to the same previously-responded-to letter from Issue One (this idea of response is one of the most interesting things about The Letters Page); and Suzanne Joinson’s amalgamated recreation of letters she and her friends in the Middle East have written over the years in an attempt to evade the censors during the Syrian Revolution.

Issues are available for free download, and a mailing list is available to keep readers updated when new issues are uploaded.

Collection Review: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees

I first encountered Kij Johnson’s stories as part of an anthology that, to put it bluntly, changed my life. When I first came upon Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel), I was blown away; I had never encountered such a wealth of stories that seemed so specifically catered to my own taste. Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” was one of those stories. Thus it’s a shame it took me so long to finally pick up At the Mouth of the River of Bees. But better late than never.

The collection starts with that old friend of mine, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” A bluntly told metaphor-made-real in which directionless, depressed Aimee essentially inherits a traveling show. This show features 26 monkeys who perform tricks before disappearing into a raised bathtub. Aimee does not know how they do it. The monkeys return when the show is over, often bearing souvenirs of the places they have disappeared to. Johnson excels at these types of metaphorical stories. Aimee’s relationship with the monkeys, and with the people she encounters as a result of her show, is beautiful, and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is filled with a lingering bittersweetness.

“Names for Water,” on the other hand, is a story I had not encountered before this reading, and it struck home. I relate to Johnson best when she’s in this world rather than the dreamy, folk tale world of many of her other stories, which are still great tales but do not resonate as much for me personally. In “Names for Water,” Hala is a college student who, late for class one day, receives a strange phone call. No one is on the other line. At least, no person; she becomes convinced, in a whimsical, half-hearted way, that it is a body of water calling her, and if she can name it, it will speak back to her. It’s a subtle, unassuming story about finding your life’s passion that grabs you by the throat with its conclusion.

Another of Johnson’s stories that addresses the theme of a calling is the title story, “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” another highlight for me. Linna, recently stung by a bee, becomes restless; her dog is dying; she loads him into the car, and they take off on a road trip with no end destination. She is stalled, however, when she encounters a flood; the river of bees has flooded, blocking passage over the interstate on which she has been traveling. The river of bees, she discovers, is exactly what it sounds like: a river made of bees. Curious about where the river ends and begins, she decides to follow it, her dog in tow.

“Spar” is another of Johnson’s well-known metaphor stories. A woman and an alien, stranded together in a lifeboat after a spaceship wreck “fuck endlessly, relentlessly.” This is the kind of story that is difficult to describe; Johnson is playing with gender roles, with sexual roles, and with the politics of sex in general. It’s compelling as hell, and one of my personal favorites.

Also a favorite: “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” a more traditionally novella about an architect, Kit, hired to bridge the dangerous mist-river that separates the country and his outsider status within the community in which he is a temporary presence.

Buy At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. 

Highlights from Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath

News

My short story “The Damaged” is in issue 250 of Interzone. Visit the link Here to check out the other issue contents and, if you so desire, to subscribe.

Review

This week, I’m briefly highlighting two of my favorite stories from Karin Tidbeck’s collection Jagannath, an interesting collection and one that I recommend for lovers of weird short stories.

In “Aunts”, three enormous women who live in a decadent myth-y world spend their time gorging in an effort to become so large that they split down the middle; this is their sole goal in life. When the splitting occurs, the three nieces who tend to them, cooking and serving their food, scoop out their organs; inside the aunts’ bodies are always three little aunts, ready to begin the cycle anew. The nieces cook the old aunts, and feed their bodies to the new aunts, who begin their own growing cycles. Until the nieces are unable to find new aunts within the old aunts’ bodies. This story is strange, and speaks to the cycle of life in a disorienting, bizarre way.

The title story “Jagannath” is my absolutely favorite of the collection, and also deals with the cycle of birth and death. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, a many-legged creature named Jagannath shelters some of the remaining humans in exchange for their living inside of her body and manning the ship, so to speak. Presumably Jagannath is not the only creature who has offered this exchange, as other creatures exist in the world as well, but the world of the story, for the most part, takes place entirely inside Jagannath. The main character is a girl who wants to be one of the drivers of the creature but is told she cannot, for women’s bodies are too big to drive, and only men may do so. This story pulled me in from the beginning, and kept me hanging on until the bitter end.

I’d also like to recommend Tidbeck’s story “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You,” which appeared in Strange Horizons in March of 2013. I liked this story when I first read it but have to say that I have come to love it as I think about it more and more these days.

Collection Review: The Book of Apex Volume 4

Back in September, editor Lynne M. Thomas announced that after two years she will no longer be editing Apex Magazine. Thus it was a pleasure to accept a copy of The Book of Apex: Volume 4 of Apex Magazine for review, edited by Lynne M. Thomas, as it allowed me a chance to celebrate Thomas’ Apex reign by reviewing some of the best Apex had to offer in its 4th year. Most of these stories are well written and highly original. Still, some were of course more to my tastes than others. Here are the highlights:

In A.C. Wise’s “My Body, Her Canvas,” a young man gives himself, body and soul, to an artist who is determined to tattoo her nightmarish masterpiece onto him, and I mean that literally; she uses his skin to exorcise her nightmares. The man allows himself to be used, and the artist sees him as little more than a canvas and a scapegoat. A darkly beautiful story about artistic expression and obsession and, perhaps, the way we treat those who love and believe in us the most. I always appreciate stories about visual artists and art in general, so this story was especially resonant to me.
The final story in the collection, Lettie Prell’s “The Performance Artist,” also speaks of the limits and lengths of artist expression, though in a different manner than Wise’s. A well-known and controversial performance artist, Anna Pashkin Bearfoot, unveils her newest piece in stages over a month. First she simply sits while videos of interactions between people and machines are projected around her. The second day she sits beside a machine that is typically used to “transfer human consciousness into a computer.” On the fourth day, it is revealed that as part of the piece, she will use the machine to download herself, which will eliminate the need of a physical body and, to some members of the populace, is considered death. The exhibit gets progressively more controversial and interesting from there. Written in the style of an unbiased observation more similar to a report or a review than a traditional narrative, the main character in “The Performance Artist” could be said to be the art itself rather than the artist or the observers. This is a story that I don’t think will ever leave me, as I felt, reading it, as though I were observing the art installation firsthand.
I was particularly impressed by both of Mari Ness‘ stories here. I had not read her work before, but I will certainly be doing so in the future. In “Copper, Iron, Blood and Love,” a child of a raven and a murderess (the mother tries to kill her children “in the hopes of bringing the raven back,” and the youngest, our protagonist, is the only one who survives) grows up silent and gossiped about in the town where she resides. Word gets out of the mysterious, silent raven’s daughter, and men come to try and get her to speak, but this is not the whole story. The fairy tale twists and turns and digresses; the most interesting parts of the story, for me, were the stories the townspeople and the people from neighboring towns tell, as well as the brief mentions of the way the townspeople interact with the remaining ravens, and the legends and customs that have grown up around them. Some excellent fairy tale world building.
Mari Ness’ second story in the collection,“Labyrinth,” is darker and stranger. People accused of crimes are sentenced to the labyrinth, where they must find their way to the center and then engage in a fight to the death with a “dancer” who plays the part of judge. If she or he is able to kill the offender, then it is agreed that the gods have found him or her guilty of their crime. Our protagonist is the dancers’ leader and one of the most talented dancers herself. She has seven sons and daughters, all of whom are expected to become dancers themselves. Finally it is time for one of her daughters to enter the arena, where they will dance together. Ness manages to reveal a lot about the world using very little space, but it is what she does not reveal that terrifies and makes the story pack a real punch.
In the surreal, fast-paced “The 24 Hour Brother” by Christopher Barzak, a young boy experiences the full life of his baby brother, who runs through his life cycle in the span of 24 hours. Although I feel I have read similar stories, this is still a devastating tale told with a bare-bones prose but worth checking out.
And then there’s the wonderful “Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine, who is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. A small town is partly shaped by the silent presence of an armless maiden in their woods, who they largely ignore in the flesh but tell stories about as though she were a legend. The main character is one of the only people who has ever encountered her, when a researcher comes to town hoping to meet the maiden and interview her for a study on armless maidens. The armless maiden could call to mind for the reader any number of situations people speak around instead of directly addressing: victims of rape and mutilation, the mentally ill, or simply those who do not quite fit with the status quo. But this story also suggests that the most important thing, even more important than making metaphors of people who may not belong, is communication.

Anthology Review: Glitter & Mayhem

Roller skating, roller derby, glitter, drugs, sex, disco, glam rockers, funk, nightclubs, nightlife; these are just a handful of subjects covered in Apex Publications’ anthology Glitter & Mayhem, edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas. Add some aliens and very literal party monsters, along with an invitation-themed introduction by Amber Benson, into the mix, and you get twenty original stories about, well, all sorts of things, with a particular focus on self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Twenty stories is a lot of partying, but I’m happy to say that I wasn’t burnt out by the end. Part of this may be because the first and last two stories of the collection are so damn strong; they’re both fairy tale retellings, which is right up my alley.

In “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster” by Christopher Barzak, my all-time favorite fairy tale — “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” — is retold with a half-modern twist. The youngest sister gets to tell her side of the story; in the original tale, twelve princesses find a door beneath their bed that leads to another world. In that world, they meet twelve princes who take them to a palace where they dance until their shoes are ruined. When their father, the king, sees their destroyed shoes every morning, he offers the hand of any princess to any man capable to figuring out where they go and what they do. What’s different about this version is that instead of the sisters disappearing each night to dance at an elegant ball, they visit nightclubs from our own world, partying with the likes of Andy Warhol at clubs such as Studio 54 and Womb in Tokyo. It’s a refreshing way to retell the story without altering the bulk of what makes this particular tale so resonant: the mystical world, the princesses’ love of dance, the tattered shoes. It’s also worth noting that in the original, the younger sister is the only one who really seems to ever notice when something is out of the ordinary, and so it’s fitting that she, the one who stands out most in the original, would be given her own perspective.

The last story is Rachel Swirsky’s “All That Fairy Tale Crap,” a wonderful meta-fictional retelling of Cinderella in which the fairy tale world is turned upside down and examined from the perspective of a feminist Cinderella figure; false Prince Charmings constantly try to trick women into believing that they’re the real deal, and Cinderella sleeps and parties with her stepsisters. Funny, smart, and one of the best stories I’ve read, period, this story is tough to explain but an absolute delight to read.

Another highlight of the collection is Kat Howard’s “With Her Hundred Miles to Hell,” which reinvents the Greek underworld mythos. Hades is a club with a six-visit limit, the Erinyes are the bouncers, and if you drink the cups of ambrosia and pomegranate seeds that Hades offers from his seat at the bar, you’ll die a permanent death. Morain works at the club, making her dreams into pills for customers to swallow. But her dreams at home are having lasting consequences in the real world, and so she is tempted by Hades and his pomegranates, his offers of sleep without repercussions. Absolutely beautiful, dark stuff here. A story about choices and sacrifices.

In Damien Walters Grintalis’ “Inside Hides the Monster,” a siren wonders why her songs no longer lure people. This is another darker mythological retelling; the siren needs to feed, but she must be careful not to let her song out in front of too large a crowd, or her victims’ energy will be too much for her. She discovers a night club where the music is modern and unlike anything she has ever heard; she hates it, at first. The siren in Grintalis’ story isn’t all monster; she does what she can with what life has given her, and because of this, she is a complicated, sympathetic character, despite the fact that she maims people. My kind of gray area, “Inside Hides the Monster” modernizes the siren myth in just the right way.

Another mythology-based story: the selkie story gets a disco edge in Cat Rambo’s “Of Selkies, Disco Balls, and Anna Plane.” Anna Plane, a young woman in love with her gay best friend, the story’s narrator, finds herself when he takes her to a local gay bar. As she breaks out of her shell, she takes a job as bartender there and befriends a group of selkies who inform her that the bar’s proprietor is a sorceress who has stolen her selkie lover’s skin. Anna decides that it’s up to her to get the skin back and set the other woman free. This is a story about being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, and how two very different people choose to deal with that rejection. It’s also a coming out story, as the narrator struggles throughout the story to voice his sexual orientation.

These darker stories, however, don’t make up the bulk of Glitter & Mayhem; in fact, most of the stories in the anthology are lighter-hearted. In “Apex Jump” by David J. Schwartz, a roller derby team is invited to play on another planet, though they’re unaware where the venue is located at the time. In Jennifer Pelland’s “Star Dancer,” Cass moves to a small town where her options for recreation, and girlfriends, are limited; when she discovers through the use of MDMA that the local belly dancer with glittery skin is actually an alien in exile from her planet because she wants nothing more than to dance, Cass is drawn to the adventure. This story turns farcical pretty quickly, and Cass’ quippy voice is solid company all the way through. Both of these stories are entertaining, and they both offer the speculative fiction fan glimpses of stuff they wouldn’t ordinarily see in alien stories: roller rinks and derby, for one thing.

Also impressive in this anthology is the amount of stories which feature women characters and characters of varying genders and sexualities. In “A Hollow Play” by Amal El-Mohtar, Emily writes letters about her life in London to her best friend, Paige; one of the events she writes about is a new friendship with Anna, who invites her to a Spangled Cabaret show. Anna is in a poly relationship with two individuals who aren’t quite human — one of these individuals is also genderqueer, and the other, Lynette, is a performer in the Spangled Cabaret. When Lynette tells Emily about the world they came from, and how they can’t go back, Emily becomes involved with their lives in a way she couldn’t have imagined.

Some more highlights of the anthology:

In “Such & Such Said to So & So” by Maria Dahvana Headley, a police officer gets a call one night saying that “the drinks from Bee’s Jesus had finally killed a man.” Bee’s Jesus, as it turns out, is a nightclub where the cocktails come to life; each drink has its own personality, its own body, which emerges when it’s ordered. The narrator, one of the cops, has a long-standing history with the club, having met his ex-wife there. This highly-original story has a noir feel, and as usual, Maria Dahvana Headley’s prose is something to be reckoned with.

Tim Pratt’s “Revels in the Land of Ice,” is about a college student who befriends an older man named Crater; he promises to teach her magic. When he informs her that there will be a breach into a faerie world he visited in the past, and that the breach will happen in a local, closed-down roller rink, she’s wary of just how much truth he’s telling. Crater is an excellent character who starts Aerin, the college student, on a journey of self-discovery. The ending is resonant.

“Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Goes for Drinks with the Green Girl” by Sofia Samatar is about two ghosts who try to live out their deaths to the fullest, spending their nights at bars, going home with strangers, and living by the creed: LIVELIVELIVE. Clever, fun, and haunting.

Also, be sure and check out the cover art, by the talented Galen Dara, one of my personal favorite illustrators.

Overall, Glitter & Mayhem is well worth checking out, especially if you’re in the mood for some highly original tales of party lives. You can purchase Glitter & Mayhem on Amazon or through Apex Publications.