Saturday, February 26, 2011

New Lovecraftian Fiction

It’s always nice to see a new short fiction market come online. Through SFSignal’s Free Fiction round-up, I spotted Lovecraft eZine’s debut issue and decided to take a look. I see from their submission page that they pay $50 per story, nothing to sneeze at. However, to put it charitably, it may take this magazine a few issues to find its feet. (To be fair, I thought the same thing about Lightspeed’s first issue, and they’re already producing award nominees.) All these stories have merit, but some extra TLC in the editing process would help them really stand out.

Issue #1 has four stories, starting off with “Sledding and Starlings” by Bruce L. Priddy. This was a nicely atmospheric piece about a couple who (for no good reason) decide to go sledding in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm. Despite an ominous flock of starlings, they have fun for awhile until the wife disappears in an even more ominous fashion, sending the husband into paroxysms of grief and madness. The main problem I had with this story came in its final paragraph, which uses the “I did not think about the thing that did not happen” structure heavy-handedly to let us view the wife’s disappearance retroactively. Between deconstructing the syntax and using a late flashback to depict the story’s climax, this served to severely distance the reader from the scene, diminishing the horror of it.

“Rickman’s Plasma” by William Meikle was a story with a great premise that I couldn’t quite bring myself to finish. The premise is a nice blending of Lovecraftian magic with sf. The titular Rickman is trying to use his Dream Machine to capture the zeitgeist of the city, but he’s getting nowhere. With a flash of inspiration he points it to deep space instead, and begins to create a hypnotic and driving groove complete with a ball of plasma, and overlays it with his dreams. The plasma takes on a life of its own and starts eating people, starting with Rickman. Two policemen come to investigate. The death of one of the cops is particularly horrific, although my suspension of disbelief was shaken when her partner is unable to stop the elevator doors from closing and is forced to watch her death from the elevator door’s window. Generally speaking even the crappiest elevator won’t close the doors with an obstruction in the way. But no matter, the death was distractingly gory! Moving on!

Unfortunately, the story becomes increasingly distanced after that. The narrative viewpoint draws back to the city police as the plasma eats some city blocks off stage. It eats the cops, it eats the National Guard. I put the story down for good when the viewpoint is removed again, to the national level, as the plasma eats the state of New York, off stage. This scene shift is accomplished using exactly the same words as the first shift, which is distracting and a bit silly and once again distances the reader from any ongoing horrors the story might contain. I can see where the technique could be used to establish rhythm and ramp up tension, but here it struck me as artificial and jarring. So I’m afraid this story didn’t work for me.

“The Brown Tower” by John Prescott is the story of two young men investigating a spooky tower in a spooky small southern town. It really hits its stride at the end, as they face the consequences of poking their noses into the unknown, at night, armed only with lighters. The unspeakable horror is effectively sketched rather than shown, and the ending is genuinely gripping. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of awkward phrasing and dialog to get through before we get to that point. This bit was almost a deal-killer for me:
“Its rather unsettling isn’t it?” Mark said, but made no inclination of opting out of not entering the tower.

I can easily forgive typos, but the double negative ends up meaning the opposite of what the author wants it to mean here. And the rest of the dialog has a bad tendency to jump around in tone:
“I wonder what’s up there,” Lane said and pushed the accelerator pedal to its max.
Mark moved in his seat, drank a little from his coke can and eased forward to get a better view of the monument. “I have always wanted to check that place out. I think it’s been here since the town was founded, or that’s what my grandpa told me. I asked him about it a couple times when I was still in grade school.”

Just the inconsistent use of contractions skews the tone: given the “what’s up there” comment, I’d expect the next sentence to start “I’ve always...” instead of “I have...” Skipping between informal and formal dialog is definitely jarring.

“The Crane Horror” by Bruce Durham is a strong historical story with elements from both Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. It ends this issue on a high note. The story is set in the late 1700’s (I believe) and the formal tone of the prose is appropriate and consistent throughout. It reads quite smoothly, which can be a challenge when evoking a historical tone. The shipwreck of a French ship on the shores of the great lakes brings horror to a nearby farmhouse. The narrator is a corporal in the local garrison, in love with the daughter of the homeowner. Despite his best efforts he cannot save the house or its people from the monstrous horrors of the lake. For Lovecraft fans, there’s a hint tying this story in with the overall Cthulhu mythos. Definitely well done, and raises my hopes for Issue #2.

By the by, I also wanted to mention that the artwork is pretty darn good throughout. It definitely adds to the atmosphere and continuity of the ‘zine. They’re all provided by an artist going by mimulux, for whom I’ll be keeping an eye peeled in the future.

Edited to add: Reflecting on this issue in the clear light of morning, it's a very woman-unfriendly collection isn't it? I mean, look at the stats:
  • 4 stories = 4 male authors
  • Story #1: one female love interest, disappeared/killed
  • Story #2: one female neighbor, killed off-stage; one female cop, killed bloodily on-stage
  • Story #3: Zero female characters
  • Story #4: two female characters; mother killed off-stage, female love interest driven irredeemably insane
  • Stories passing the Bechdel test: None
The overall effect is like a big psychic "No Girlz Allowed" sign on the front isn't it? It's interesting to note that as of last month, Weird Tales, the magazine that originally published Lovecraft, is now going strong under an all-female editorial staff, making Lovecraft eZine #1 feel all the more anachronistic. Still, this is easily fixed in later issues, so I'll continue to look forward to the next issue with interest.

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