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Weird Tales, Issue #361 (Book Review)

"Weird Tales"

“Weird Tales”

“Today, O wonderous reader of the 21st century, we continue to seek out that which is most weird and unsettling, for your own edification and alarm. All writers of such stories are prophets.”

This epigraph, placed next to the extensive table of contents, begins the newest edition of Weird Tales, Issue #361. It is not so bold a claim to make when one considers the writers that had their humble beginnings in the annals of Weird Tales, founded in 1923. Writers such as Ray Bradbury and of course the timeless H.P. Lovecraft have all in their own right either predicted the future or helped to shape our understanding of it, or at least the stranger avenues of existence. It is with this reputation sitting atop its head like a crown of thorns that the latest issue releases a wondrous deluge of stories, poems, art, and odd ends, all of which are perfectly weird.

This issue of Weird Tales is a collection of stories that fit into the theme of fairy tales, as well as a few un-themed stories towards the end. The short stories under the umbrella of fairy tales seemed to split once again into two even more distinct categories of fiction.

The first breed of stories are told with the voice and language of modern fiction, stories like “The Miracles of LaGuardia Airport (Delta Terminal)” by Caitlin Campbell and “The Brown Man of Glen Gardens” by Frank Aversa. Campbell’s story is about an angel whose job is to grant wishes to weary travelers at LaGuardia airport until one day the angel’s boss, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, attempts to reassign him. The story is written beautifully, evoking painfully familiar images to anyone who has had to endure the tortures of air travel, as well as telling a tale that is both bizarrely original and pleasingly concrete in its language and detail. It’s easily one of the best pieces in the magazine.

Frank Aversa’s story also takes place in a throbbing east coast metropolis; New York city. The main character, Rob Campbell, treks from his Lower East Side apartment to his hometown of Glen Gardens in order to stop the uprooting (due to an infestation of Asian beetles) of the last remnants of wilderness that the growing city retains. There he encounters some violent memories from his past as well as a mysterious homeless man, ominously in touch with the remaining nature and stray dogs of the neighborhood. With over tones of environmentalism and the isolation of living in a large city, this story illustrates a compelling story about a character dealing not just with personal tragedy, but with the ongoing death of the natural world.

These two stories, along with a handful of others, belong in one group because of the way they engage the theme of fairy tales. As aforementioned, they are modern fiction stories with images of airport security, depressing dive bars, the rattling roar of subways, as well as love and sex as we have known and experienced it. Characters in this group of stories are concerned about paying off leases for their used Honda’s as opposed to finding hay to feed the carriage horses. But the element of fairy tales is still there in this familiar world, in the form of a wish granting angel or a homeless forest spirit in Queens, NY. And the contrast between the old and the new vivifies the manifestations of the Fae instead of diminishing them. By reading these stories we realize that the creatures and spirits from the other side of the dimensional fence, both benevolent and nightmarish, have not been completely paved over and razed from our cultural memory. They still have their secret places in our modern world, between airport bathroom stalls and garbage lined alley ways, they still transmit the same awe and terror, still make deals with foolish or desperate mortals. But now instead of first-born children, they hunger for something more: identity.

The other group of stores in this edition of Weird Tales could be called a more traditional sect of fairy tale fiction, told with the borrowed voice of older times and a narrative that is both elevated and removed from individual characters, carrying dark warnings that are antiquated but not obsolete. These stories reshape and reimagine classic European tales like Rumpelstiltskin well as old tales from other cultures such as Hassidic and Thai.  The shining examples of these reanimated fairy tales include “The Queen Who Could Not Walk” by Peter S. Beagle (writer of A Fine and Private Place and, famously, The Last Unicorn), “A Gnomish Gift” by Alex Shuartsman, “Suri & Sirin” by Court Merrigan, and “Magpied” by Tanith Lee. These stories bring us to far away worlds ruled by kings and queens, filled with a magic that is at times oddly utilitarian. For instance, Tantih Lee’s translation of a Germanic-Alurguric poem is a version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The tale is oddly reminiscent of the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as it is a town that is overrun with debaucherous children where the adults are forced to take shelter in their homes after sundown. A stranger wearing clothes the color of a magpie arrives and uses his magic instrument to solve the towns problem, but of course, only at a price.

"Weird Tales, Issue #361"

“Weird Tales, Issue #361”

Beagle’s story is probably the most traditional, as it is about a lame queen who must go on a mystical journey to find her husband. It is set in a land called Far Away And Long Ago, where all the royal persons must eventually resign and live the life of a beggar, all according to bone casting priests. It’s sturdy narrative and unique characters interactions with a familiar fantastical setting ultimately create a compelling and entirely satisfying tale.

There are other pieces in this edition of Weird Tales that don’t seem to have as fulfilling a role as the pieces previously mentioned. A handful of poems scattered through out the magazine appear to only serve on a superficial aesthetic level, working like intricately carved marble bookends between longer pieces; beautiful, brief, but not the ultimate core of the readers attention. But for a magazine that is known for its prose, this is not nearly as problematic as other things.

There were a few pieces that did not have the same strength as their neighbors. The two most prominent are “Fae for a Day” by Teel James Glenn and “The Flowers of Tir na nOg” by J.R. Restrick. The former story is about a drunken ex-cop in New York, of Irish descent of course, who on Halloween night has a run in with the infamous Oberon, king of the fairies. After a drunken scuffle, the protagonist is transported to the Fairy Realm and has a wacky adventure. On the surface this story appears to fit in perfectly with the vibe of this edition of Weird Tales, but when one gets into the meat of it, there is much left to be desired.

 The most detrimental quality of the story is, for lack of a better phrase, its forced cuteness. For a story attempting to engage a familiar Shakespearian universe in a humorous way, there are an uncomfortable amount of puns, and not very funny ones. It starts with the not very subtle play with the modern understanding of the word fairy as meaning both supernatural being as well as homosexual, and ends with the assignment of atrocious nicknames for the ruling members of the Fairy Realm, with Oberon as “Obi” and Titania as “Titty”. The other issue is the descriptive language, or rather the lack of it. When this story is held up against some of the breathtaking prose adjacent to it, this particular lack is sorely felt. For example, the fairy realm is a place that has been described a thousand times over in film, literature, and song, by both masters and amateurs alike. This makes it uniquely challenging for a writer to craft it to their own sensibilities, yet this story doesn’t even try. When the protagonist awakes the only description we are afforded is “All around me were characters that looked like the cast party for Lord of the Rings.”

There are of course justifications behind all of these artistic choices; the language used to describe this world is probably the way one could feasibly see a drunk ex-cop from New York describing it. The territory that this story ventures into is such a beaten path that perhaps it doesn’t call for such an elegant or poetic treatment, and a goofier sense of humor can suffice. But the problem of placement still remains, that to at least one reader, it stuck out among to rest and broke the rhythm of the magazine.

The other story, “The Flowers of Tir na nOg”, has all the classic trademarks of an H.P. Lovecraft story, and so it found a home at Weird Tales, being elevated prose from a first person perspective that all but begs the reader to bear witness to a fantastical tale and to ignore several plot holes. A man with a broken heart is transported to the Land of the Ever-Young, a place full of trolls and over fairy creatures, and goes on a journey to a mountain that is a metaphor made real. But the story tries to cover too much ground too quickly, and too many things are left unexplained. For instance, why does the protagonist get transported to this strange world? How does he know its name immediately? Why do the inhabitants hold him in such high esteem as to allow him to stay in the king’s castle? Overall, the story seems like a synopsis for a much longer piece, but one that would be well worth reading given the extra space to elaborate and develop.

Overall, this edition of Weird Tales is a fantastic collection of stories both strange and human, written by writers who are truly prophets of the human spirit, and oracles for the odd ends of the world that whisper to only a select few. Picking up this issue would probably be the wisest choice anyone interested in the genre could make. 

– By David Calbert

David Calbert, a recent graduate from SarahLawrenceCollege, is a writer of fiction and essays. A long time lover of the horror and science fiction genre, he has been writing for Diabolique since 2012. He was recently part of a collaborative novel called “Naked Came the Post-Postmodernist” which will be coming out in November 2013. He is currently looking for writing work anywhere he can find it while he continues to pursue his own fiction.

About David Calbert

David Calbert is a student and freelance writer in New York. He is studying to get his B.A. in creative writing. David has been obsessed with horror movies and literature since childhood.

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