I love fantastic literature with a literary bent. Give me a good Italo Calvino novel, a Jorge Luis Borges short story, or any of Steven Millhauser’s work, and I’m a happy camper. So the new periodical, Unstuck, should be perfect for me. It states its mission this way:
“We emphasize literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, the surreal, or the strange — a broad category that would include the work of writers as diverse as Borges, Ballard, Calvino, Huxley, Tutuola, Abe and (of course) Vonnegut. In our pages, you’ll find straight-up science fiction and fantasy; domestic realism with a twist of the magical; and work that experiments with form or blurs the boundaries between poetry and prose. We also publish a small selection of poems and essays.”
Add that it’s a beautifully produced volume with almost 350 pages of fiction, poetry and one essay that reads like weird fiction, and I should have been in heaven.
And, in fact, I was at first. The first story, Amelia Gray’s “Monument,” is a very short story that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I first read it. It’s about a town where everyone gathers at the graveyard on a single day to clean it up – a day of regular maintenance performed with reverence. It’s a beautiful picture, peaceful, contemplative, laid out economically in a mere three paragraphs. And then one worker accidentally chips a gravestone. What happens from there is surprising, life-affirming and, to my way of thinking, quite lovely. You may see it differently, finding horror where I find charm. That’s one of the best things about stories, isn’t it?
“Ancestors,” a poem by Kiki Petrosino, is perfectly placed following “Monument,” and utterly chilling. Is it about ghosts? Is it about the shadows our forebears cast upon us? Is it, more broadly, about how the past haunts us? The images are frightening and inhuman.
After about a hundred pages, though, I realized that I was no longer charmed by these stories, no longer eager to read them, but bored. The stories are so similar in tone, style and structure, so self-consciously literary, that they all began to sound like the same story, repeated over and over. I slowed my reading of the magazine to a story or two a day, hoping to rediscover the oddness of each individually. Alas, it was not to be.
This is not to say that the stories are bad; they’re not (though some of the poetry is execrable). Some are worthy enough to be included in next year’s Best American Short Stories volume. For instance, “Dokken,” by Matthew Derby, is about an entrepreneur who deliberately has himself and his personal assistant — soon his lover — stranded alone on the gyre of plastic trash that has become almost its own continent in the middle of the Pacific. The first-person narrator has visions of making this useless hulk of trash into a resort island. He is so exuberant over his corporate coup in purchasing the trash that he takes a run up and down the “beach” — an area directly adjacent to the water where the plastic has broken down into nodules that texturally resemble sand. Careless of where he is running, he impales his foot on a hypodermic needle, and immediately contracts AIDS. By the time of this story, AIDS has been vanquished by medication so that it is as uncommon as polio is in our world. But is any of that medication available on the trash heap? The entrepreneur is sure he’ll find some somewhere: “I’ve seen boxes full of Wellbutrin, Paxil, Erythromycin, OxyContin. Crates of the stuff half-buried in the substrate. Good as new.” “Substrate”? That one word contains more of an insight into this man’s mind than all the words that went before. But Derby isn’t content with the search for a cure to the entrepeneur’s AIDS. He has a bigger tale to tell us about the condition of the world. Soon we start to recognize that this is a version of the hoary old idea of an Adam and Eve story — a shame, really, given the oddity of living on a trash heap and what more could have been done with that setting.
I really liked Judson Merrill’s “Inside Out,” another tale of the apocalypse, this one told from inside a prison. The first person narrator “escapes” his imprisonment by climbing into the walls and taking up a shadowy existence in the pipes and airshafts. This prison exists within a prison, contained in a bubble that protects the inhabitants from the poisonous atmosphere that humans have made with their mines and factories and warfare. The first person protagonist has been imprisoned because he opposes taking the bubble down, afraid that it will mean the end of them all. With his escape, he becomes a sort of ghost, while the world moves on.
The stories are well-written. Each sets out a fantastical premise, but instead of a plot they often settle for an explanation or are slices of weirdness wrapped up in literary tricks and lovely language. For example, Leslie What’s “Big Feet” is the story of a literal giant sitting in coach class of an airplane, seated by a woman with clownishly large feet that she can’t seem to keep to herself. “R” by Helen Phillips is about a pair of sisters (or so we think) who discover wind in their caged city. “Six Flags” by Meghan McCarron takes place after a plague has killed all the children, but left behind their ghosts, and how a ghost hunter manages to disperse them. “The Carrot” by Arthur Bradford is about giant vegetables and tiny miniature vegetables. “Wonderblood,” by Julia Whicker, is yet another post-apocalyptic tale in which magic seems to have become a force to oppose science.
Perhaps the paradoxically best way to explain how much these stories all start to blur together is to examine the one nonfiction piece: “The Eel” by Rennie Sparks. This essay is a description of Sparks’s interest in and experience with eels, together with some interesting information regarding how eels spawn and migrate. I didn’t realize I was reading nonfiction until after I finished it, as eels are such odd creatures that describing them is like describing a monster created by a fantasist. It’s a great piece. But its resemblance to the bulk of stories in this volume can’t be denied. It is presented in the first-person, as are eight of the 21 stories. It sets out a few strange facts and makes them the focus of the piece, with no discernible plot. It is apocalyptic in some ways, discussing the Bermuda Triangle and the possible extinction of the eel due to human depredation of their environment. It ends without reaching any real conclusion. In the context of the other pieces, it feels like more of the same, rather than something individually amazing, which is how it might well have seemed if discovered in the pages of the New Yorker or other mainstream periodical.
Ultimately, the stories collected here are individually worth reading. But the predominant voice is that of the editor, not the individual voices of the authors. Some of this is because the stories are not arranged felicitously: one seems to flow into another thematically, so that they are difficult to distinguish one from the other. Some is because the stories really do seem invariable. Matt Williamson, the executive editor, and his board of editors seem to have a very particular taste, one that likes the weird and the literary jammed together in a specific way.
Yet I have high hopes for this magazine. As I’ve said, there are many fine stories here. It appears that this is Williamson’s first job of editing what is essentially an anthology of weird tales, and the members of his editorial board show little editing among their credits. I hope that next year’s edition has more variation and more life. There are possibilities here, and I would love to see them fulfilled.