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Here are evaluations of the other stories appearing in the October 2001 issue (#8) of Maelstrom.

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"Trash", by Ken Honeywell

A fluid style reminiscent of William Gibson and Poppy Z. Brite if both had gone punky-hipster, yet without Gibson's computerata or Brite's penchant for homosexuality and gore, "Trash" is of the "sink or swim" literary variety in that readers are left wondering what, exactly, these rock-n-roll fellas mean when they talk of things being "trash," and talk of one of their number tossing himself off a roof, which isn't nearly as problematical as this same goof sometimes going for weeks without backing up. Not a bad start.

The early, "oh, I see" realization at which readers arrive -- these guys Jamie, Nub, Errol and Hayden are rock-n-roll poseurs with avid fans and the kind of anomie that makes Nub desire, lament for not having, and seek the too-early-dead rock god status -- offsets what should be a horrifying ending. We know death isn't the end for these guys so long as they are adequately backed up, so when Nub schemes to achieve rock-n-roll god immortality by dying and staying dead, we're left thinking "so what?" even after the deed is brutally done.

In other words, instead of providing finality -- Nub is dead, really really dead -- the ending sinks on a "maybe" supplied by the very guy who whacked him: "See, I half like knowing where Nub is buried. Might come in handy someday. Might want to reunite the Four." That kind of bursts our This-Is-The-Genuine-Big-Sleep bubble.

Otherwise, this is a good variation of the immortal-who-wants-to-die formula, set in a future we know very little about except that people still like rock-n-roll, the Goth crowd still exists only now they're "trash," and oh, by the way, you can be brought back from the dead.

A hardcore SF editor would possibly want to know more about the central conceit of this tale, which is its futuristic life-bestowing tech, and what social impact it has on the world at large -- or at least the world in microcosm that idolizes the Four -- but, hey guys, this is a short story.

Which, in the end, is both a strength and a weakness. The weakness is that some story elements seem wanting in a way that makes us think "this story is okay, but doesn't quite rise above that if okay is all there is" -- and yet if there are more where this came from, more in this style, in this voice, with, yes, this art, we will clearly be able to see "Trash" as only the beginning of what should be a strong body of work.

To wit: early William Gibson appeared in Omni with some really well written but ultimately silly stories ("Dogfight," for one), but he also appeared in those same pages with some really wonderful ones ("New Rose Hotel," for instance -- great short story, atrocious movie). What apparently separated him from the rest of the crowd was not merely how he said his stories, buy what he had to say.

To this end, although I admire "Trash" for its narrative flair, it's a story I've already heard, a story that doesn't rise above its own maybe -- just as some of Gibson's stories never managed to rise above their innate silliness. Ah, but Gibson who sold his own elegant trifles went on to become ... well, William Gibson ... and so I think Ken Honeywell is perfectly capable of making some kind of publishing presence for himself once -- as Harlan Ellison might put it -- he has something to say. "Trash" is like Pavorati singing "Yankee Doodle Dandee."

Still, all writing is an attempt to be meaningful or entertaining. The best does both. "Trash" was entertaining, which may mean Mr. Honeywell already has a considerable publishing presence I've unfortunately missed.

"Of Colours, Memory, and Hell", by James Michael White

Hey, I wrote that. How can it be any less than brilliant? -- so I'll skip it.

"Constellation, Conjunctions", by Sonya Taaffe

Reviewed this one earlier. It's still brilliant. It still kicks my literary ass. There are moments that remind me of Philip K. Dick's writing and that of Italo Calvino ...

The constellations on her skin intrigued him. He spoke to her aware of every word; her beauty lured him into anecdotes, confidences beyond the usual reach of his incongruous pleasantry... Pelle thought of levels of proportionate happiness. Where did she fall? Did he need her? His life contented him.

... authors whom I much admire -- and no wonder I should be reminded of both; Philip K. Dick often cited Italo Calvino as one of the authors whose work influenced his own, and the quotation above, an observation of another, quiet introspection arising therefrom, in particular that phrase, "her beauty lured him into anecdotes", looks like just the sort of thing those authors would do. Simple, clear, striking.

Aside from the ease with which the story unfolds, I'm particularly impressed with the protagonist, Pelle Fisher, who is both interesting and sympathetic in a manner that makes Taaffe's choice for literary allusion, T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," as seemingly incongruous as the character, yet just as fitting to the tale she tells. Although Pelle doesn't strike me as possessing a soul as bleak as Eliot's, the sentiments of "Ash Wednesday" seem perfectly in congruence with his isolated circumstances. On top of that, how can you deny the cleverness of any author who uses, consciously or not, the structural model of a genius smitten by old gods? Although Stella, or Nut, may not be "the veiled sister" nor, precisely, "Lady of silences," we know certainly that she "reverses" just as, in "Ash Wednesday," "...I do not hope to turn again," a transfiguration, in this case, not undergone by our primary narrator, Pelle, but witnessed by him.

And that, in the end, is part of what makes me like the story so much. Just as Pelle witnesses wonder (and wonder is never explained, only experienced -- just ask Carl Jung), so do I, too, experience wonder when I get to read about it. "Constellations, Conjunctions" is, as Eliot put it, "The place of solitude where three dreams cross."

If I were the successful, bizarre, and now unfortunately deceased author, Mike McQuay, in whose class I once sat, I'd march straight to Sonya Taaffe's seat and shake her hand. If I were T.S. Eliot, I'd simply say, "For Sonya Taaffe, il miglior fabbro."

"Runaway With No Tags", by Greg van Eekhout

I'm still not sure what to make of this story, and I've read it several times. It reminds me of the kind of thing Hemingway might have written if he were pretending to be Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There's so much more hinted at beneath the tip of this iceberg that I want to know more, but there isn't more in this shortest-of-the-lot tale, and that's partially maddening because the magical glimpses seem able to sustain the kind of odd wonder found in Marquez's "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," and the social commentary hinted at...

I should go up. But everything up there is loud and chaotic. Scraped knees and broken washing machines and gasoline fumes and termites and credit card bills. There's always got to be a crisis.

... seems ripe with its own Rushdie-like potential for exposing our worries as largely self-manufactured, and just as largely the product of our own indulgences, and overreactions to them, when things go wrong.

Alas, neither possibility comes to full fruition. Any shorter and this would have been a less-than-interesting vignette. As it stands, Eekhout has produced what may be the shortest possible sample of the Joseph Conrad mythic quest, archetypes and relevant social commentary included, heretofore unseen in the North American magic realism canon.

Did I like it? Frankly, no, not the first time I read it. I thought it was too short. Then I read it again. And again. And then I thought, as I did of Honeywell's work, this is the kind of story that benefits from being a part of a larger body of work.

There are authors who do well producing a steady stream of consistent work that garners little attention until there's a lot of it, and there are authors who seem to strike like lightning with most everything they do. Perhaps mine is an unfair characterization, but "Runaway With No Tags" seems to belong to the former.

The good thing, though, is I see Poppy Z. Brite, niche marketer extraordinaire, in that group as well. She didn't seem to catch on until she produced enough mainstream stories that her audience grew [editorial addendum: I could be completely wrong about her, of course, since I'm Johnny-come-lately to her work, and since she had Dan Simmons cheerleading for her]. In her book Wormwood, for instance, you'll find stories a little longer than Eekhout's yet of similar scant weight ("How To Get Ahead in New York" comes to mind). Also, in Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes, you'll find a story or two of quite similar weight ("Popsy" comes to mind). Considered as single entities, those stories make me wonder how they found themselves published, and would they have been published without (now) famous names attached?

Likewise, Italo Calvino produced bunches of really short stories that, by themselves, leave me thinking, Why is this important or good? In his case, a lot of the reason behind "important or good" stems from many of those stories serving as metaphorical political commentaries. In Eekhout's tale, I get the feeling I've missed something, or it isn't there. That, nonetheless, puts him in good company.

"Copse", by Brett Hudgins

Plot trumps style and substance ninety percent of the time -- just look at any Hollywood blockbuster.

Brett Hudgins' "Copse" supplies plenty of plot and very little style, or at least a style similar to Isaac Asimov's -- something which the SF luminary's work was oft accused of not having. Be that as it may, the old standards of revenge, salvation, and their achievement by mythic quest, are wrung out here in After School Special fashion through an at-first-hard-to-identify Old West setting (at least I think that's right, which is probably the result of this story appearing among more or less contemporary ones), and it's a tale helped along by an appropriately ghastly magical formula, easily the most interesting element of the story.

Brett Hudgins' bio informs that he has written for the young adult market, which may explain why "Copse" is so stylistically different from the other tales in terms of its very up-front plot and its prose -- which manages at various points to be stilted, stodgy, cliched, blunt, and good.

Some of the good phrases Hudgins turned:

He was unraveling a tapestry of events, hunting a flaw he didn't know how to fix.

... his obsession was dissecting his downfall...

... defeated by a past he didn't understand and couldn't escape...

... and so on, demonstrate facility with language from which other scenes would have benefited, not the least of which is the pivotal battle, which comes off seemingly blunted by its own blunt style. Where finesse would be in order, we instead get odd language choices and cliches in lines like:

Five stalwart trees, bowed but unbroken, darted past him to converge on Hawk in an orgy of swatting leaves, clubbing branches, and stabbing twigs.

An orgy? Really?

And...

Pummeled to his knees, the sheriff fought like a wildcat to free himself, eyes blazing with malevolence enough to dim the sun.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed "Copse" for three reasons. One, I don't read much young adult literature anymore, so it's occasionally interesting to see. For another, the plot works, and I especially like the theme of salvation by self-mutilation -- pretty heavy stuff for YA. Third, this reminds me of Piers Anthony, literary intern stage.

Perhaps there's hope Mr. Hudgins will sell his series of young adult humor novels yet.

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Lest these reviews appear overly critical, I should add that I found something commendable in each of the stories and much that I thought was exceptional in one of them. On the whole, Maelstrom 8 looks like a reasonably strong issue, say, a six-point-five or so on a ten point scale (and here I'm considering only the fiction, and only four tales since mine, alas, doesn't count).

Against what other magazines am I judging? Interzone, for one, in which I find consistently strong writing and mostly boring stories with more than their fair share of tedium; Asimov's, for another, which I find of a similar though slightly lesser quality, and yet more stunningly boring; The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which produces spotty work in terms of its ability to hold my interest, yet which is stronger than the above-mentioned two; tomorrowsf, Algis Budry's old and now defunct magazine which published good work; Weird Tales, which strikes me as consistently and solidly B grade in a hearty Roger Corman way; Realms of Fantasy, which occasionally strikes gold; Cemetery Dance which I'm sorry to say I don't quite fathom (stories of madmen passed off as horror? a little too much such for my taste); the long deceased lit. elitist Crank; defunct Pirate Writings; expired Plot; ongoing and good-looking Talebones which, like ROF, also manages to strike gold; The Third Alternative (UK), which has shown promising work along more pedestrian samples; Zoetrope, which has had some good speculative fiction mediocrely written and some good science fiction which was well-written; The New Yorker, which is its usual mix of good, bad, great, and how on earth did this get past the editor?; Aberrations, long dead ... and so on. Interestingly, perhaps, none of the above-mentioned magazines rates much, if any higher, than a similar six-five or so, my criteria being personal and peculiar no doubt: stories must entertain first, must ignite my own imagination second, and must be well written third.

But there were other things in Maelstrom 8 besides the stories, and I'll comment briefly on those too.

The interview with Jack Fisher, although interesting, has the appearance of being an excerpt from a longer interview. The ending appears more of a stopping place than an ending, and the hit-the-ground-running opening leaves me wanting to know a little about Jack Fisher, something in a brief intro explaining who he is and his importance to the field -- things I should no doubt already know, but I'm afraid I'm more familiar with his magazine than him.

The reviews by Richard Horton were well done and seem on par with others I've seen in the bigger magazines. I'm happy to see Meisha Merlin's name connected with attempts to fill forgotten niche markets and particularly liked Horton's astute observation "the publishing world is hard on writers who haven't made it big after a couple or three books." As Norman Spinrad laments, the publishing world is equally hard on authors with established careers (30 years in his case) whose latest sales figures don't match those of their previous book. Maybe Meisha Merlin will give him a call...

Horton's review of "How the Other Half Lives" makes me want to buy a copy.

I'm also happy to see that Wildside Press is reprinting Avram Davidson, an author whose work I've never read, always wanted to, and have seen referred to everywhere. Now I know where I can get it.

Such are my observations, to which I must add a hearty thank-you-very-much for sending along a copy of your magazine, not to mention twenty bucks for my silly little story.

Sincerely,

James Michael White



brave souls have wandered through
since I started this in April 1998

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