by Stevens R. Miller
This review is in the public domain. All rights abandoned.
Maelstrom Speculative Fiction (MSF) is the work of
Writers of the Future-award-winner David L. Felts. Dave and I did time together on the
Critters e-mailing list writers group, where I came to see his style as something above,
and quite apart from, the norm. Now, Dave the editor is collecting stories from other
writers who have, to some degree or another, a bit of his slightly nutty, slightly scary
way of telling a tale. The result as found in MSF 3 is a neat mix of material that, while
not all great, is all in step with one writer/editor's different-drummer cadence. In a
field where most new writers compete to be the next, "next Heinlein," that's a
step in a welcomed direction.
First up, before even page "1", is Dave's
editorial remarks about the kind of story he wants to buy. (Yes! Twenty bucks a pop, size
irrelevant.) Rather than compete on the broad and trampled field where other magazines are
calling for vaguely defined somethings "different," editor Felts lays down a
challenge to write a particular kind of story. MSF 3 has horror, fantasy, and
science fiction, so he'll let you meet his challenge in multiple genres, but he wants
characters that "determine their own fate." He says it better and longer, but
that's his kernel. Nice to see an editor be direct in this regard.
Stories: MSF 3 contains six. The first,
"Phoenix," by Jonathan Sullivan, is post-apocalyptic sf that presents a familiar
ethical dilemma about a doctor who must treat a patient she doesn't much like. But,
before that, she undergoes a moving and powerfully described experience that alters how
she deals with that dilemma when it does confront her. The ending is somewhat trite, but
you won't mind. It's the doctor you care about, not the puzzle of her problem. And
Sullivan's writing is good enough to make you care. "Phoenix" is the best story
in the issue.
Lawrence M. Schoen's "Thirst for
Knowledge" is a vampire story. It's competently written and challenges the reader to
choose sides from two points of view that are neither of them ethically pristine. I don't
care much for vampire stories, though, and this one didn't do much to make me reconsider
that view. The last line seems to depart from a basic assumption all vampire stories make,
however, and I wonder if I missed Schoen's purpose in choosing this subgenre because it
struck me as discordant. I'd read his next piece, though, because his writing is
uncommonly smooth and clear.
Animal lovers will chuckle at "Skin
Switch," by Charles Anders, because it delivers, in one tight page, a bit of justice
we'd all like to think could happen to those who truly deserve it. It's a bit
unsophisticated, relying on some crowded backstory appearing in the last paragraphs, and
reveals itself as more fairy tale than fantasy just as its point gets made. Still, you'll
probably side with the cat, as Anders wants you to, and so you'll cheer the form his
A movie, a book, and a magazine are reviewed on the
center folios. Good stuff and it makes MSF a full-service publication. I'd suggest
choosing more obscure movies and books, though, since the A-team stuff will be overdone
elsewhere and lovers of the obscure will probably be MSF's primary readers (and see below
for more on that point).
"Like Riding a Bike," by Jan Wildt, is
proof that there is still some life left in the Ten Stories New Writer's Should Not Write
list. (How long is the list at this point? Twenty-five entries? Thirty?) It's about an
angel who seeks divine (or other) intervention in the affairs of a mortal woman. The
treatment is somewhat like (dare I say it?) Heinlein's approach to the same material in
his "Job." I don't know if Wildt was unaware that "Bike" was risking
criticism for being a beginner's mistake, or if he was deliberately taking on the
establishment with a story most new writers would avoid. Then again, I don't care. It's a
good story and it shows that Felts can pick 'em without fear.
The one entry clearly in the "horror"
category is "Closing the Circle" by David Laderoute. It sets up an unnerving
scenario in its first few lines and that's a mark of success for a horror story. But, I
found it hard to follow and couldn't quite tell if flashbacks were simply memories,
experiences in folded time, or something else. Then again, I'm not a horror reader really,
so I may have missed some substance that others more aware of the genre's tropes would be
able to detect.
Before the last story, there's an interview with a
new Writers of the Future award-winner. That's the kind of thing small magazines can do
best and I'm glad Dave did it here.
The "53rd Annual Mantis Homecoming Dance"
by Tim Pratt is reminiscent of Harlan Ellison's work during the 1970's. (Say, does anyone
want to be the "next Ellison"?) It's about a high school dance that involves
more risk than just the embarrassments most of us remember trying to escape. Pratt's
writing is very tight and he builds tension speedily, letting the pressure off at just the
right moment. His one mistake is taking his Ellisonesque surreality a bit too seriously,
leading the protagonist to recognize the night's victory as the first step into
inescapable defeat. The problem is, he must always have known this and so the story's
not-too-serious premise, which should have been a backdrop for exploring high school
angst, overwhelms the characters' reactions and becomes what the reader notices the most.
But, it's a very "Felts" kind of theme, and it fits in well with the rest MSF 3.
Author bios fill the last page. And, it's here that
one sees the real reason to subscribe to MSF: These are people who have no idea how good
their writing may someday be, who must know they aren't exactly selling yet to the New
Yorker, but who have found a point along the way with Dave Felts' nifty project. MSF 3's
half-dozen tales are, in all tough-loving honesty, not the year's best fiction. But, they
are the best that a competent editor had to choose from and that's not bad. Of greatest
interest to MSF readers, perhaps, is being able to enjoy some good work by growing writers
who (maybe like those readers?) are laboring to master their craft. George Scithers once
referred to "Amazing," when he was its helm, as a kind of graduate school for
writers on their way to greatness. If Scithers was right, then maybe Maelstrom is its own
academy, a place to learn by doing and gain some deserved recognition in the process. At
least, that's how I look at it and that's something unavailable in the pages of as-yet
more venerable publications.
MSF 3 is A Good Thing. Nice work, Dave.