Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Look at Weird Tales #361

Weird Tales #361
PDF $2.99

Before we get started, I'd like to thank Doug Draa for the review copy.  Doug, who blogs at Uncle Doug's Bunker of Vintage Horror Paperbacks, is a new contributing editor at Weird Tales, and we wish him a successful run in that capacity. 

Weird Tales has adopted the policy of giving each issue a theme.  The previous issue was Cthulhu Returns, and according to the ad in the present issue, the next issue's theme is the Undead.  There are rumors of a sword and sorcery issue in the works as well.  In addition to having stories around a specific theme, each issue will also have unthemed stories.  As you can see from the cover, the present issue has the theme of Fairy Tales.

Fairy Tales as a theme is pretty broad.  That can encompass retellings or deconstructions of established fairy tales, new stories which read like fairy tales in they way they are structured and/or the themes they address, and stories in which (often contemporary) characters interact with the realm of fairy.  All of those and more are included here.

I also need to say a few words about personal taste.  One of the things I try to do, although I'm not sure how successful I am, is to distinguish between what I consider flaws in a work I'm reviewing and what simply isn't to my taste.  There's quite a bit of fiction in this issue, and I'll try to distinguish between what doesn't work for me and what I think isn't very good by more objective standards.  I have to admit that I've never cared much for the elves/fairies/fae in the modern world type of story (unless the author has the last name of de Lint).  I prefer my fairy tale oriented fiction to be either variations on established tales or stories with fairy tale sensibilities, like the Beagle story herein.  I especially like them if they are dark, have a strong element of horror, and/or don't always end happily.  Think the Datlow/Windling original anthologies from the 90s, and you'll have a good idea of where my tastes run. 

By far the standout of the issue is the lead tale by Peter S. Beagle, "The Queen Who Could Not Walk", in which a queen learns the meaning of sacrifice and forgiveness along with a lesson about love.  This one clearly falls into the new fairy tale category, like so much of Beagle's work does.  In the last decade, give or take a few years, Beagle has been one of the top practitioners of the short story form in the field.  This story is an excellent example of why that is.

Tanith Lee follows Beagle with a twist on an old fairy tale with "Magpied"  Close scrutiny of the title should give you a clue as to which tale she's dealing with.  Many of the old fairy tales are fairly short, and this one was no exception.  The story she works with is one of my favorites, and Lee does an excellent job with it.

One of the longer stories is "Fae for a Day" by Teel James Glenn.  It's a modern-human-encounters-the-fae-in-a-bar-and-proceeds-to-have-adventures kind of story.  This one was well written, and people who like this subgenre will probably like it.  I've seen the cop wounded in the line of duty, discharged from the force, and crawls into a bottle scenario enough that I had a hard time warming to this one.  It didn't help that much of the attempted humor fell flat for me, such as referring to Titania as Titty.  Still, there's a good audience out there for this type of thing, and I'm sure a number of readers will like it.  As for me, while I wasn't crazy about it, I didn't think it was the worst story of the lot, either.

"I am Moonflower" by Nicole Cushing and "Blind Alley" by Morgan Llewellyn are both short.  Of the two, I think I prefer the Cushing, which concerns the life of bees and flowers.  That may not sound appealing, but I liked the ending.  Llewellyn's tale describes how the world will end.

The next story was "Suri and Sirin" by Court Merrigan.  It's a story within a story, in which a father tells a tale to his children on a Christmas eve.  It's a variation of a folk tale from Thailand, and as such had a different rhythm to it from the European folk tales I'm more familiar with.  Even though the twist at the end was no great surprise, it was a nice, sweet story, and I liked it.

J. R. Restrick's "The Flowers of Tir-na-nOg" takes us into Dunsany territory.  A young man wanders through the lands of the fae hoping to find the girl who jilted him.  It's a bittersweet story reminiscent of an earlier era and provided a good contrast to most of the other stories.

The one story I absolutely hated was Caitlin Campbell's "The Miracles of La Guardia Airport (Delta Terminal)."  In this one a guardian angel seduces a man so that she won't be promoted to a more important assignment.  I found it distasteful on more than one level.

"A Gnomish Gift" by Alex Shvartsman is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin from Rumpelstiltskin's point of view.  While this one was neither dark nor horrifying, I really liked the way Shvartsman's interpretation of the story placed a positive spin on things.

Jane Yolen gives us "Enough" insight into a sect of Judaism that is both educational and entertaining.

Lauren Liebowitz provides a sequel to Rumpelstiltskin with "Gold" that is completely incompatible with the interpretation in "A Gnomish Gift".  This maintains the tragic air of the original and carries it one step further.  Short, sharp, and to the point. 

We're back to longer works with "The Brown Man of Glen Gardens" by Frank Aversa.  A biologist revisits his childhood home and discovers something about one of the homeless people he feared as a kid.  This one didn't end up the way I expected it to.

The next group in the Fairy Tale section were pretty short.  I liked Mark Bilgrey's "The King's Enemies" and found it to be a good example of a new fairy tale, although the ending was a little weak.  "The Crimson Cloak" by Zach Shephard had some good ideas, but the twist wasn't very surprising.  Dick Baldwin's "The Lute Player and the Mask" had a nice punch, although you could see it coming as well.  "Payment"  by Alfred J. Vickers III was flash fiction, dealing with a fairy tale we'd seen in an earlier story.

"Out of Time" by Manny Fishberg closes out the fairy tale section.  It's a longer story, and offers a chilling twist on what a mother would do for her dying daughter.  It was one of the stronger stories in the issue.

There were two nonthemed selections.  Both were disappointing.  "As Fleas" by John Koons is a preachy little vignette that hits you over the head with the message.  Coming in a what would probably be considered short story length is "Black Poppy" by David W. Amendola.  Set in the 1920s or thereabouts, it concerns a brilliant professor of history who gets his hands on some dried and ground black poppy and tries to recreate a series of experiments described in one of his grimoires.  Of course he comes to a bad end.  Although competently written, there was nothing here that we haven't seen multiple times before and certainly nothing original.  The most interesting character to me was the shop keeper who procured the poppy for the professor.

Additional features included some mini-interviews about fairy tales with Ramsey Campbell, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Elizabeth Bear, and Orrin Grey, full interviews with Tessa Farmer and J. David Spurlock (this one concerning Margaret Brundage), and poetry by Carole Bugge`, Jill Bauman, Andrew J. Wilson, and Arinn Dembo.  I enjoyed the poetry, but because the poems were all short, I won't comment on them individually.  There was an editorial, a book review column, a look at how the cover design for this issue evolved (a feature that should be kept), and a brief history of the magazine by Darrell Schweitzer that probably won't appeal to fans of Ann Vandermeer.  Many of the stories were illustrated, by a variety of artists.  The only complaint I had about the illustrations was I couldn't resize the font on my ereader without it freezing up when I came to an illustration, forcing me to read on a backlit screen.

So how do I rate this issue of Weird Tales overall?  It's certainly worth reading, even if I did find aspects of it disappointing.  I expect Peter Beagle's story to be included in some of next year's Year's Best anthologies.  The nonfiction and poetry are good and should be kept, but they aren't why most people read the magazine.  With that in mind, please indulge me the liberty to make a few comments in general.

Weird Tales # 360
First, I preferred the previous issue to this one.  A large part of that is a matter of personal taste.  Not all of the fairy tale treatments were my cup of tea, although there was only one I completely disliked.  I also thought a couple of them stretched the definition of fairy tale a bit, but that's a minor quibble.  I realize that any fiction publication has to appeal to a broad base of readers, and as a consequence needs to have a diverse selection of fiction.  I consider an editor to have done his/her job if that's the case regardless of how many stories I personally like.  For the most part I think that's the case here.

However, I hope the high number of short-shorts and flash fiction is a function of the fairy tale theme rather than an indication of the direction Weird Tales is going.  This many in one place, they start to feel gimicky.  I thought most of the stronger stories were the longer ones.

Second, while I like the idea of each issue having a theme as well as containing unthemed stories, it's a pretty tricky tightrope act to pull off.  On the one side, a particular theme may cause someone to buy the magazine who wouldn't otherwise.  On the other, the editor risks alienating some potential readers if the theme isn't to their tastes, especially if this is the case for more than one issue.  This is where a strong selection of unthemed stories comes in, to provide that balance.  I don't think this issue succeeds in the balance.  There were only two items in the unthemed section, and really, only one of them was an actual story with things like characters.  In my opinion, for what little it's worth, the number of stories that relate to the theme and those that don't should be about equal.  That way if a particular theme doesn't appeal to some readers, they will still feel they are getting their money's worth.  The same for those who are drawn to a particular theme but aren't fond of some of the unthemed tales. 

I think the fantasy field needs a publication like Weird Tales. The magazine has always defined itself as the place where fiction that couldn't find a home anywhere else could be published.  Some people have accused it of straying from that to publish the type of fiction it published during its heydey while ignoring some of the more innovative work being done now.  I submit that while there is some truth in accusation, there aren't many major markets carrying on the tradition begun in the classic issues of Weird Tales.  There's room for stories in the vein of Lovecraft, Howard, Smith, and Quinn, and there's room for new and innovative weird fiction as well.  The key, as I said earlier, is balance.

I haven't agreed with every decision Marvin Kaye has made since taking the editorial reigns, but I still support the magazine.  I want it to survive and prosper and thrive.  To that end, I will speak up when I think it isn't up to the level it should be.  As I will when I think it is. This issue falls in the middle.  By and large, I think the magazine is heading in the right direction with its theme approach.  Hopefully the business side of things will improve to the point that we'll be able to read it more often.


  1. Detailed review. I never expect I'm going to like every story in a mag, or in an anthology. It's extremely rare that I do. Thanks for feeding our heads.

    1. You're welcome, Charles. I don't expect to, either. The challenging part of writing a review of a magazine or anthology is separating my personal taste from objective standards such as are the story elements (character, speech patterns, events, etc.) consistent, have we seen this story a million times already, and those type of considerations. On the whole I thought this was a good issue, even if one or two tales weren't what I hoped they would be. For lack of a better term, the wordsmithing exhibited in all of the stories was of professional quality. As broad as the theme was, I knew I wouldn't be the intended audience for all the stories.