CLUBHOUSE: Review: Speculative North Magazine Issue #2

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

SPECULATIVE NORTH issue #2, Vol. 1 No. 2. September, 2020.

Publisher: TDotSpec Inc., Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Editors: Lead Editor David F. Shultz; Fiction Editor and Managing Editor Don Miasek; Poetry Editor A.M. Todd.

Cover Art: Rob Powell.

Editorial – by David F. Shultz

Review:

David first describes what the multiple editors want for the magazine, namely diversity of content and diversity of authors, or as he puts it, diversity “in form, content, and perspectives.” Ideally, this would result in “at least one story in each of the genres in science fiction, fantasy, and horror” and at least three authors who “self-identify as marginalized…”

Working against this honourable intent is a complex acquisition process judging each story on its individual merit while ignoring what is known about the author. First, a story is read from the slush pile by a large team of submissions editors who have the power to reject or recommend. This doesn’t mean the pile is divided up among editors such that your submission lives or dies based on the decision of a single reader. On the contrary, first reading is by numerous readers who critique according to a point system. One reader alone cannot cause rejection.

However, just one favourable review gets the story pushed into the second stage of review, the  short list. Here it is read by an even larger team of editors utilizing a more complex critiquing system, including points for controversiality. The more controversial, the better, because it indicates the story is anything but dull.

The third stage involves the same editors as the previous stage, except they now engage in active debate with each other over the merits of the stories. Out of this comes the stories chosen for a given issue.

As a standalone editor/publisher who makes all editorial decisions on his lonesome, I can only gape in awe at an acquisition method utilizing multiple points of view to seek out the best and most interesting stories possible.

As I’ve explained before, I begin by reading each story submitted to Polar Borealis from beginning to end and writing “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” at the beginning as a record of my first impression. Then I go back through them in more depth analysing and deciding as I go. The beauty of my system is that nothing is rejected on the basis of the first page, or first paragraph, as is quite common with magazines inundated with hundreds or even thousands of submissions. I read every story through at least twice.

Speculative North’s submission review also involves every story being read from beginning to end, in this case by multiple editors. (20 in all, mostly volunteers.) So if you are ultimately rejected, you know that much thought by many people went into considering the story as a whole. There’s something very satisfying about that. Nice to know it wasn’t rejected solely because you happened to write a lousy first paragraph. If the rest of the story is good, that will be noted. To my way of thinking, that makes Speculative North a heck of a good market to submit to.

And wouldn’t you know it, judging stories on their merits alone nevertheless results in a pleasing diversity of authors. Bonus!

FICTION:

Bathwater Mermaid – by Avra Margariti

Premise:  

Celia is on her own and living in a rundown hostel. She finds it vaguely annoying the bathtub in the communal washroom is occupied 24/7 by a rather bitchy mermaid.

Review:

Mermaids have been in fiction and folklore for a long time. There have been a number of movies, including a silent film I saw not long ago and cannot for the life of me remember the title. For that matter, I’ve seen newsreel footage of publicity stunts involving bathing beauties flopping about the beach in mermaid tails. I even know a Hollywood-North effects guy who fabricated a fake mermaid mummy and sold pictures of same to the infamous tabloid National Inquirer. (Though they didn’t use his fake background story and made up one of their own.) Everybody knows what a mermaid is.

Point is, it’s difficult to come up with an original take on the concept. Kudos to Margariti for accomplishing exactly that. It has elements of humour, Celia knows someone plagued by gerbil goblins, but really it’s a bitter/sweet girl/buddy tale illustrating how easy it is to become trapped by bad decisions and live a life of regret. The main difference between them, apart from dandruff versus peeling fish-scales, is that the mermaid has given up and Celia still clings to hope and optimism. They both have much to learn from each other. And the reader learns a few things too. Life lessons and all that. Quite a vivid, thoughtful story addressing primarily the concerns of young women. Maybe a bit depressing. Maybe a bit hopeful. Take from it what you want. One way or another, it has an impact.

Not a Vampire – by Jeremiah Kleckner

Premise:  

The monster is not quite a vampire, but has been harassed and chased as such by a vampire-hunter for decades. Now said hunter has become old and senile. What’s a monster to do?

Review:

Thing is, the hunter was such a part of the monster’s life it can’t just abandon the old guy to decay and misery. So it has taken on the task of being his assisted-living support nurse. For one thing, it has taken on the form of a now deceased (eaten by the monster) friend of the old man named Daniel. As often as not, the old man confuses “Daniel” with his long dead son Charlie, or fellow vampire hunters Stephan and Mark. Occasionally, the old man experiences lucid moments and frantically searches for his silver knife to kill the “vampire.” As a result of all this, conversation tends to be fragmentary and disjointed.

Sometimes the monster asks itself why is it doing this? Nostalgia, perhaps? Surely not pity. It owes the man no debt. And yet, and yet, it cannot bring himself to abandon his adversary in his final years. The monster feels stuck in a rut, yet derives a sense of purpose from the relationship it finds comforting. Besides, as far as it knows, it may be immortal. It’s the humans who “died as often as they were born,” which is a wonderful line. It can afford to be patient. As good a way of fighting boredom as any.

As an old guy in the twilight of his life who does not yet require a monster to look after him, I am quite taken with this story. Something about it is immensely appealing. It’s a bit sad, to be sure, but it tugs at me in ways I can’t quite figure out. Maybe because I identify with both the old man and the monster. Old age as witnessed by a schizophrenic, as it were. I don’t know. It’s a powerful story.

Vat Life – by Franco Amati

Premise:

Marvin is a brain living in a vat. He finds out his old flame and unrequited love Carmela is residing in another old folks home in the same city. He sure would like to visit her. Dare he?

Review:

There have been a few movies with disembodied brains. The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) starring John Agar springs to mind. Doesn’t quite compare, though, as it floats in the air without a vat. A brain by itself is something of a cliché in science fiction, with or without a vat. But Amati takes a different approach.

To be sure, Marvin is frustrated, but not to the dramatic extent of many a story or movie. His plight is no big deal. He’s just another senior handicapped by old age. Luckier than some in fact, as his vat is self-propelled and comes equipped with a mechanical arm. He can get around and pick up things. But he has noticed even his friends find it difficult to relate to a naked brain floating in murky fluid. He’s considered having a photo of his face from times past pasted to the front of his vat, but his pride won’t let him. No, what bugs him is what Carmela will think of him. He’s hoping she’s been vatted too, but is unable to find out in advance of his visit. He desperately wants to meet her, but dreads the encounter.

Being old is not the same as being young. This story stands in for regrets and fears some old people have concerning their being less than what they once were, and being perceived as such by others. Be it vat living, or confined to a wheel chair, or having far too much character in one’s face, old age can seem a burden. This story provides insight to younger folk, methinks. More importantly, it reminds us all that everything is literally in the mind. That can be a good thing, or a bad thing, or both. Entirely up to you.

Me, I’m having far too much fun doing stuff like writing this review to give a damn what people think of me. A second childhood is the answer to everything as far as I’m concerned. All the same, a thoughtful, sympathetic story well worth reading.

Turtle Hatchlings – by Victoria Feistner

Premise:

Eri is a typical newly-wed, a 14-year-old woman willing to put up with a half-decent husband if only to please her relatives, but immensely proud of her ability to keep a secret diary. Only problem is she often sees ghosts. Even worse, they see her.

Review:

The title refers to the after-life in a rather complex way. Suffice to say, being able to communicate with ghosts is not a social grace in a medieval-style world obsessed with the threat posed by obvious witchcraft. It’s a bad day when her diary is discovered.

A coming of age story, in a way, going a stage beyond mere maturing. Marrying at 13 was taken for granted back in the day, because a woman’s lifespan was so short, best to start having children as soon as you hit puberty if any were to survive into adulthood. The lack of modern medicine sucked. Whereas today the diary of a 14-year-old woman would be perceived as the diary of a young girl, and what girl doesn’t fear the prospect of siblings and parents reading their diary? How embarrassing. In this story shame is the least of Eri’s nightmare consequences of keeping a diary. Becoming a pariah is only part of it. The diary puts her in mortal danger.

This story explores life and the afterlife and how both might be intersected and altered by the presence of ghosts in a subtle but intriguing fashion. I won’t go so far as to suggest you will identify with turtle hatchlings, but it does raise the point we should, because it does reveal our life journey’s are very similar. Bit of a surprise, that. A clever, meaningful fantasy.

Nominative Determination – by Maureen Bowden

Premise:

On her 18th birthday Carol is visited by Rumpelstiltskin. The Rumpelstiltskin. Not necessarily a good omen.

Review:

This is a light-hearted modern fairy tale in which two entities attempt to exploit each other. Do they deserve each other? Possibly. Hard to say. There’s a bit of Trump in old “Rump,” in that he blames his bad reputation on sensationalist fake news purveyed by the Brothers Grimm. Still carries a grudge even in these modern times. He insists he’s harmless, but Carol is no fool. She remains wary when adopting his suggestions. An amusing contest of wills. Nothing profound, but entertaining. Proof that fairy tales have yet to be tapped out as a literary resource.

Restraint – by John Mavin

Premise:

Ulrica is a werewolf in a rehabilitation program designed to teach her restraint. If she passes she will be free to live among humans again. Unfortunately she got a bit carried away during her last rut. Her caseworker Accilia is transferring her to a smaller halfway house with only three other residents. They turn out to be vampires. Ulrica is distressed to learn she is going to have to put up with hazing. Part of the program? Or something worse? No matter. All she has to do is keep her cool till the end of the month. Then she graduates.

Review:  

Problem is, vampires can be such smart-ass jerks. The attraction of the story, at first, is the sheer oddity of the setting and premise. There’s a great deal of attention to detail which renders the situation credible and entertaining. But then, gradually, incrementally, true horror elements enter and slowly escalate to the point where the reader wonders what is going on and what on earth can the resolution be? I can’t recall any werewolf story I’ve read previously where I identified with the werewolf and was worried about its potential fate. I mean, werewolves are normally the villains. Here I wound up rooting for the beast and hoping it would survive. I guess because what was happening to it didn’t seem fair and I was outraged it was the victim of such bullying. The author pushed some of my buttons supremely well. Amazing.

Anyway, this horror story has a horrific ending which, without revealing who triumphs, I will say tidies up all the various strands, reveals underlying motivations, and produces a neat resolution. Moral of the story? It sucks to be a supernatural being almost as much as it sucks to be human, so might as well make the best of it if you can. Good luck is needed no matter how furry or fanged you are. We’re all victims of fate. Trying to avoid it at least gives you purpose.

As horror stories go, I found this one highly original and psychologically gripping and grim. Darn good horror story, in other words.

To Sift the Sacred  – by Brian Rappatta

Premise:   

Jor is a Priest of the Boy-God Scion, who dwells on the moon Scion. Jor’s job to open the emptiness between the thanitorium and the moon with the power of his mind and deposit to bodies of deceased acolytes on Scion’s surface so their souls can commune forever with the Boy-God. Not even the highest priest knows his hobby is to lay out the bodies on the moon in such a fashion as to spell out the words of prayers he has composed in the God’s honour. What happens if he is found out? Would he be praised? Or condemned as a blasphemer?

Review

Maybe I’ve been a bit spotty in my reading concerning religion, mythology, and anthropology, but this fantasy story is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I would call it exceptionally original. It’s so damned off-the-wall and quirky I really like it. Best of all, the problem posed in the story, and the resolution offered, has nothing to do with everyday, mundane logic and absolutely everything to do with the incredible premise of the basic concept. The story is utterly faithful to itself and its alternate vision of what constitutes reality. Remarkably so. It is not a story with a gimmick. It is truly a genuine fantasy story. It is all-together of a piece. The logic, fabric and context is entirely based on its fantasy premise. A tour de force I would say. I don’t even care much for fantasy, but this one blew me away. I’m deeply impressed.

Witching  – (poem) by Erin Kirsh

Premise:   

How a wife manages her witching.

Review:

A vivid attention to detail with a nice touch of humour. Particularly enjoy the husband being described as “a regressed Apollo.”

Star Trip(tych) – by M.X. Kelly

Premise:  

Three views of the heavens.

Review:  

A sad lesson concerning our declining vision. 

NON-FICTION:

Arcane History: The Magic Box  – An Interview with fantasy author Scott Thrower

Thrower’s first novel The Magic Box is about a gay diabetic man who unleashes magic in 1915 Toronto. Apparently the story is as much about the inadequacies of contemporary medical treatment for diabetes and the impact of the Great War on Toronto life as it is about the hidden life of a young gay man of the period. Evidently the novel is well researched. A bit startling to learn the police morality squad maintained police booths inside illegal gay nightclubs in order to make it easier and more cost effective to arrest gays whenever they felt like doing so. Bizarre. As for the magic aspect, I’m assuming the character’s act of introducing magic into reality is something akin to opening Pandora’s box. The need for dramatic tension would dictate such, methinks. Anyway, quite a fascinating interview.

Thrower has so far written two more books into the series, Elemental and The Wizard Hunt. He also produces the podcasts Fairy Tales for Unwanted Children, which I think is a brilliant title.

Craft: Writing Thoughts in Third Person – by David F. Shultz, Brandon Butler, and Y.A. Pang

A highly intelligent debate over which of the three third-person techniques are best. Should I be ashamed to admit I was not consciously aware of their existence? Third person omniscient? Third person limited? Third Person cinematic? Each with four variations? Well, I’ll be buggered. I had no idea. Consciously, that is.

See, I never picked up grammar. Too dry a subject. But decades of reading and writing have given me a certain subconscious grasp of things. I instinctively check submissions for consistency and continuity. If all the thoughts are plain, well and good. If they are all in italics, that’s fine. But mixing them is an automatic red flag. I stumble blindly through editing relying on the feel of the text. Not knowledge, but experience guides me. Weird, eh? When you publish your own magazine you can get away with it, mostly.

At any rate, this is a very good article beginning writers should read carefully. That be my advice. It is particularly important for letting you know you can break the rules if it serves your purpose. Might not please a nitpicky editor, but it can help establish a personal and notable style. Possibly a good thing in self-publishing. Not so much in appealing to a professional publisher. Either way, worth thinking about.

Exercise: After the Battle  – by David F. Shulz, Melissa Terry, & Andy Dibble

Running out of time and space, so I’ll just say an interesting writing exercise.

CONCLUSION: 

In reference to the first issue, David in his editorial quotes from my review in which I called it “one king hell of a first issue.”

I can only describe this as one king hell of a second issue. It did not disappoint. I think it maintains a very high standard, especially in originality of concept and treatment. Definitely worth reading. Recommended.

Check it out at:  <  Speculative North #2  >

 

 

 

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