Midwestern Gothic: Spring 2014 Issue 13: Editor’s Commentary

Midwestern Gothic Spring 2014 Issue 13The Spring Issue of Midwestern Gothic marks the 3rd anniversary of the journal, and it seems like with every new issue I’m continually surprised by the fact that we’re still doing it and that we’re still growing. The number of people interested in fiction and poetry fro the Midwest just continues to expand, and Rob and I couldn’t feel more blessed to have the opportunity to share the amazing work of the people who have been struck by the region as much as we have.

One of my favorites from this issue was Rocco Versacci’s short story, “Not in Kansas Anymore.” About a man driving through America’s heartland from Kansas into Missouri – the piece is a potpourri of Mid-American culture. The random tourist traps, the people completely disconnected from reality, the sense that you’re stepping back in time the further you drive away from civilization. I camped in the Ozarks for a few days last autumn, and this story completely echoes my experience. I’m continually fascinated by these hidden pockets in the Midwest that are off the beaten path. I’m sure if you took these folks and transplanted them somewhere else, everything would seem utterly foreign and strange to them as well. Part of what intrigues me about the unfamiliar is the dissonance that occurs when characters without perspective are made to look in the mirror. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m creeping through a construction zone. A bulldozer, small in the distance, hangs onto the hillside like a beetle on a turd. The road crosses over a highway up ahead. As I make the final crest, a pickup truck with a flashing yellow light appears in front of me. Goddamn it, I think. He’s going to send me all the way back. As we pull up alongside each other, I brace myself. The driver doesn’t even look up. Just drives on by.

Ten miles to Golden City. I imagine shining spires reaching up into a cloudless sky, roads paved with bars of gold, waterfalls and fountains overflowing with shimmering coins. I keep looking up ahead for the glow, but all I see are ripples. The road ahead is becoming a sine curve, undulating up and down as it disappears into the horizon.

I’m in Cooky’s Café in Golden City, a definite contender for Most Ironically-Named Place on this trip. No shining spires, no gold bars, and most definitely no glow.

East of Pennsboro, the sine curve has metastasized into an ECG readout for someone in cardiac arrest. Steep climbs in my lowest gear followed by sharp drops where I hit thirty miles per hour or more and then back uphill again where I’m shifting for all I’m worth. The climbs and drops turn sharply through wooded hills, occasionally leveling off but not for long before I’m climbing or dropping again.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the Ozarks. When I crossed the desert a few weeks ago, I felt small amid sprawling, wide-open landscapes and ageless rock. But there were clear skies and long lines of sight. Perspective. Here, trees shoot up on either side of me and clasp their leafy fingers together to hide the gray sky. The road ahead and behind me bends into hills and curves. I don’t know where I am. Wait, yes I do. I’m Dorothy, crash-landed in Oz.
A memory. Halfway up the stairs of my house, trying to catch my breath. Week three of chemo? Week four? On the stairs, I can see partway into my bedroom. There’s a slice of blue just visible above where my nightstand is. It’s a card from my boys. Marker drawings on construction paper. Inside, a message. Dad you are as strong as a great white shark.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic : Spring 2014 – Issue 13 and for the rest of the story and many others inspired by the Midwest.

Cut by Adam Chushman: a Review

Cut by Adam Cushman4 out of 5 stars

When I first saw the trailer for Adam Cushman’s debut novel, Cut I knew I had to pick up a copy. In case you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first. I’ll wait.

The novel follows a failed actor into the surprisingly brutal world of suburban knife fighting. The sub-culture Cushman develops over the course of the novel echoes some of the themes in Fight Club – people with nothing to lose finally figuring out how to live through violence.

The book is precarious in the best of ways – there are few books able to keep me uneasy and wondering which way things are going to fall for Gabriel, the main character. Whether he’s on the run or gripping the sweaty handle of a knife in someone’s living room, you’re always waiting for the next slice to come and start the bleeding. I’ve never been in a knife fight, but based on the picture Cushman paints, this book is one giant allegory. An adrenaline rush that’s plenty crazy and soaked in blood.

I have no idea of suburban knife fighting actually exists. I imagine it’s not the type of thing you can check into on Foursquare. The thing I enjoyed most about this book is how, in a relatively compressed amount of pages (the book is on the same order as Drive short and direct), Cushman has fabricated an entire subculture with words alone. You can taste the blood, feel your heart race and can’t help but wonder if your neighbor is hiding scars under his dress shirt.

Shop for Cut on Amazon

The New Black from Dark House Press – a Review

The New Black, Dark House Press4 out of 5 stars

The New Black (Dark House Press) is a shot of dark in the light, a strong anthology with razor sharp teeth. Most of the stories look into an abyss (not the Lovecraftian abyss, but the personal fissures and pits of despair we all find ourselves transfixed by on the worst of our days. For lovers of horror, crime, noir and the “dark” genres – you should put this book on your reading list.

Here’s a description of the collection from the publisher: The New Black is a collection of twenty neo-noir stories exemplifying the best authors currently writing in this dark sub-genre. A mixture of horror, crime, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, and the grotesque—all with a literary bent—these stories are the future of genre-bending fiction.

The stories within live up to that description, and like any anthology, some are crazy good, some are solid, and some just weren’t my cup of tea. But even the stories that didn’t resonate with me were still excellently written and I’m sure someone with different tastes would find them enjoyable. The three stories that I liked the best came from Micaela Morrissette, Matt Bell and Lindsay Hunter.

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you’ve probably seen those lists titled, “The creepiest things kids have ever said.” Most are too perfectly terrifying to be true, but Micaela Morrissette’s story, “The Familiars,” is one of the items on this list brought to life. It’s unsettling enough to make you not want to go to sleep at night, especially if you have children of your own.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Matt Bell’s fiction (spoiler alert – there’s lot of things we’ve learned) is that he has the market cornered on steadily building uneasy dread and not flinching when it comes to pushing limits. That certainly remains the case in “Dredge,” his story about a drowned girl and her caretaker.

The last story that stood out from this collection was Lindsay Hunter’s “That Baby.” One of the shorter pieces in the anthology, it packs its fire into a small concentrated space that the mother in this story must find a way to escape from. For me, this story exemplifies my own personal definition of neo-noir – a tale that takes a raw emotion that’s common to the human experience, pushes its characters to act out in ways that people often stop themselves from doing, and tells it through the filter of the noir genre.

Shop for The New Black: A Neo-Noir Anthology on Amazon.

“Nobel Worthy” in Jupiter (Kallichore, #44)

"Nobel Worthy" in Jupiter by Jeff Pfaller A short story of mine, “Nobel Worthy,” is in the latest issue of Jupiter, a stellar sci-fi mag based out of the U.K. I’m appearing alongside Sam Kepfield, Nicholas Mark Harding, and Roderick Gladwish, who are all more talented than I, which is always an honor. Here’s a brief snippet:

Ian was never interested in time travel until the night his wife died.

They had been at a fundraiser for Northwestern’s physics department – Stephen Hawking agreed to make an appearance and deliver a few inspirational quips through his voice modulator. (He had a book to push, after all.) Ian and his colleagues were giants on campus in the months following the acceptance from his publicist. They charged $250 a plate and rented out the Aragon Ballroom. Their faculty got a group rate on tuxedos.

But Hawking cancelled without warning the day before. Ian tried to call everyone he knew. Offered to fly in Neil DeGrasse Tyson out of his own pocketbook. But there was no skirting it – there was nobody to take his place. Cancelling wasn’t an option – without the annual benefit the department would flounder. Never mind needing to cover the extra cost of the caterer, the Aragon and the thousand programs they’d printed with Hawking on the cover (all non-refundable). No, failure had been predetermined.

You can order a copy and get international mail, or you can read it right now on Kindle.

Midwestern Gothic Winter 2014 – Issue 12: 2013 Book #39

Midwestern Gothic Issue 12 Winter 2014The Winter Issue of Midwestern Gothic is always a solid way to ring in the new year. Getting the issue out is a little more challenging with the holidays and all the other activities falling around the launch date, but always well worth it. It was great getting back into our usual fiction / poetry groove with this issue, after taking a full four months to read all Ceative nonfiction submissions. And that photo for the cover! As I sit here writing this with the temps at subzero outside, I have a new appreciation, not just for the folks who are stuck outside living or working, but also for wild animals who really have no defense other than the clothes on their backs.

This time around, my favorite in the issue wasn’t humorous or light-hearted, as was the case with the past few issues. Nope, this one was all about losing a baby, and finding a way to move on. The exploration of how a person deals with a devastating loss while the friends and family who support them continue to live their lives was pitch perfect in this story. One one hand, you’ve got a mother who lost a child, and on the other her friend who is about to have one. While understandably tragic for one, how does the one who has the child not be affected similarly by the tragedy? All the joy of sharing the pregnancy with her friend has been sucked out, and my guess is that she’ll never be able to look at her own child without thinking of her friend’s depression. Here’s a short excerpt:

Two months after she put Baby Boy in the ground, Janice received the invitation for Anne’s baby shower. The front cover was a picture of Noah’s ark with all the animals two by two poking their heads through various windows. Some of them stood on the deck. Inside, “It’s a Girl!” was handwritten in Anne’s mother’s cursive above the date, time, and location. In the blank after “RSVP,” Anne’s mother had added, “Just come if you can, dear. We’re all praying for you.”

Janice put the invitation on the refrigerator backwards so that all she saw was the logo of the card company, Biblical Greetings. When her husband Hal came home from work that night, he slammed the refrigerator door taking out two cans of root beer, and the card fluttered to the ground and slid beneath the oven.

Shortly after the funeral, Hal decided to become a Big Brother. He sprang the idea on Janice, and before she’s had time to consider what it meant, Joli, an eleven-year-old boy with a Haitian mother, arrived at their home carrying a baseball glove. Three nights a week, when Joli’s mother worked second shift as a cashier, Hal picked the boy up from school and watched him until her mother came at 8:30 p.m. Hal and Joli would spend the time playing, drink exactly one can of root beer each with whatever dinner Janice made, and even brush their teeth for a full and proper two-minute interval, their grins winking at each other in the wide downstairs bathroom mirror.

At first, Janice liked the idea of the good her husband could do, but as weeks passed, she realized that Hal’s big-brothering was less about Joli and more about filling a Baby-Boy-sized hole and, what’s more, about avoiding Janice’s existence whenever possible. When Joli wasn’t there, Hal ate dinner in front of the television to watch hockey. His family’s genes had killed their son. Sometimes she blamed him for that too, but mostly, she was angry at his distance. He never touched her now. Instead he stayed up late, and when there was no hockey, he watched Toledo’s local high school sports channel or Sports Network News. He watched bowling. He watched poker.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic Issue 12 and for the rest of the story and many others inspired by the Midwest.

Meaty: 2013 Book #38

I use Grammarly to check grammar online because grammar is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.

Meaty Samantha Irby5 of 5 stars
I enjoyed this collection of non-fiction essays quite a bit – I’m not familiar with Samantha Irby’s blog, but all these pieces read like they could be ripped out of the manuscript and find a home on a site filled with snark and biting wit. Perhaps they originated there – either way, the voice translates well to a printed, consume in one sitting format. Each essay is a snackable insight into her life as a single black Chicagoan who’s being real about the trials of adulthood.

What struck me most about the essays is that Irby is just being honest. All of us like to pretend we’ve got our shit together as adults, but she takes an unflinching, deprecating look at the airs we all put on to make it look like we’re not insecure, uncertain or just plain immature when it comes to our responsibilities. Even though going in I would have told you that I have very little in common with a single black woman living paycheck to paycheck with Crohn’s disease, there’s a LOT of material that strikes close to home here.

It takes a lot for a book to make me chuckle out loud, but she has plenty of little stingers and punchlines that come out of nowhere. This book is getting a lot of attention in Chicago and nationally, and for good reason. First thing I did after finishing the book was head over to her blog and add it to my daily firehose of content to consume.

Midwestern Gothic: Fall 2013 – Issue 11: 2013 Book #37

Midwestern Gothic, Fall 2013, Issue 11The Fall Issue of Midwestern Gothic is a special one – for the first time we’re focusing exclusively on Creative Nonfiction. Over the course of publishing over ten issues we’d always get a few request here and there about whether we accepted essays. This go round, we thought it’d be interesting to deviate from our format a little bit and explore the Midwest in a new way.

Even though folks don’t think of us as a Creative Nonfiction publication – we still received a lot of fantastic work from around the Midwest. There was plenty we loved that we had to turn down. A lot of the essays we received explored similar themes and it became an unenviable task to put together an issue that covered the spectrum of the Midwestern experience without becoming a one-note issue. As always, I was extremely happy with the result – if only because we published a handful of humorous pieces in this one. We say we want the “good, bad and ugly,” and we get a lot of bad and ugly. It was refreshing to read pieces that made me laugh out loud for once. (Take note, send happy stories in the future, guys!)

My favorite in this issue was “Beating Up Chuck Klosterman by Scott Winter. Right from the beginning scene, in which he pays off the title right away, you can’t help but chuckle at Winter’s self depreciating and unecessarily vindictive writing. The whole piece is about how the author has lived and dealt with a perceived rivalry and Klosterman’s meteoric rise in the world of not just literature, but pop culture. Here’s a short excerpt:

The fantasy is visceral and consequential and really pretty easy. We step out into the alley behind the Zoo Bar, the three of us, and Pete and I light up our straight Marlboros, not the Lights we’ve been smoking with the idea of tapering off to healthier lungs and longer lives. But who needs to prolong lives like these, anyway?

We talk to him about the Oscars, about the upcoming Transformers movie, about Family Guy or the BCS system or Oprah’s Book Club—any sort of low-level cultural phenomenon that seems to fascinate him, as shown in his books, in his radio commentary, in his sports blogging. In mid-sentence, I bull-rush him into the dumpster. More than my 190 pounds, what pins him there is his shock. I deliver body blows until his ego drops somewhere beneath his bruised kidneys. I’m all adrenaline and I knock his teeth into his throat, then I’m spent. Above his bloody face and broken horn-rims, I light up another smoke, and Pete and I head inside to finish our beers, drinking in the taste of the hops, the adrenaline of physical accomplishment and literary purification.

From this point forward, our lives would be better.

They would have to be.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic Issue 11 and for the rest of the story and many more essays inspired by the Midwest.

Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy September/October 2013: 2013 Book #36

cov1309lg-2502 of 5 stars

If I had to sum up this magazine in one word, it would be “dated.” Granted, I have a preconceived notion going in as I’ve looked at this magazine as a writer, and they are one of the last few holdouts who still only accept submissions by mail only. However, some of the stories felt a few years too late, and even some of the little touches on their banners and marketing copy feel a little bit off, like a mom who wants to get technology, but doesn’t quite have the terminology right.

Two perfect examples was the story “MyPhone20”, and film commentary “Beam Me Up, J.J.” The story was clearly written by someone who’d held out and just got a smartphone, and was struck by the possibilities of how it might potentially impact how we interact with each other. This story would have been far more interesting five years ago. The film commentary was an odd essay on Abrams treatment of the Star Trek universe when placed against the Shatner- and Stewart-era shows/movies – but the publishing cycle must have been way too long, because Into Darkness came out almost a half year ago. This type of essay would have been much better suited on a blog and timed to come out with the movie.

All that said, I did enjoy a few of the stories. Particularly “The Queen of Eyes,” It felt like Gaiman’s “American Gods,” but done better and an appropriate length. “Hhasalin” was also a nice sci-fi tale set in an alternate world. It was one of those stories where the science fiction doesn’t get in the way of the story even though the world it takes place in is vastly different from our own.

One other feature that dragged this magazine down for me was the “Books to Watch” section. I’d think this would be a list of upcoming books the author enjoyed and wants to share with their readership, but he spent over half the review discussing flaws in the book – then ending by saying “You should definitely read this.” I’ll not mimic his technique here – I might give MF&SF another chance, but overall I was felt underwhelmed.

The Dark Knight Returns: 2013 Book #35

The Dark Knight Returns

3 of 5 stars

This trade fell in the same camp as “Old Man Logan,” with less enjoyable art and a better storyline. Before you crucify me for not liking Miller’s art over McNiven’s, I did like Sin City and 300’s visuals – most of my problem with The Dark Knight Returns was in the panel choices – at times it seemed like over half of the panels were of news anchors and talking heads describing the story. It would have been find in dribs and drabs, but used as much as it was, it didn’t work for me.

I also found the Batman vs. the mutants and Batman vs. the Joker story arcs to be far more satisfying than Batman vs. Superman – I never got the sense that there was a true conflict between the two of them, more of a begrudging inevitable confrontation that felt more like Bruce Wayne finding a way to make his retirement far more permanent. But the mutant and joker storylines juxtaposed together handled Batman’s “one rule” about not killing people expertly. Layer on an aging, tired Batman, attempting to reconcile what he knows he could do in the past with the limits of his body today, bring him to the realization that he can’t do this forever.

An enjoyable read, and I can see why this particular part of the Batman/Superman canon is so beloved. If the art had worked for me I would have easily been able to rate this much higher.

The Way of Kings: 2013 Book #34

The Way of Kings
3 of 5 stars

This book was like an underdog playoff team that ends up winning it all – it peaked at the right time, the end. Honestly, it probably could have been a few hundred pages shorter (like most epic fantasy series), but for some reason I didn’t enjoy Sanderson’s world building in this effort as much as in his Mistborn series. Both that and Stormlight are heavily magical, but for some reason the Mistborn system felt tight, intriguing and new. This system of stormlight, gemstones and Soulcasters felt gimmicky to me for some reason.

However, Sanderson’s strength is clearly in character building, and it shows in this book. All of the main characters, Kaladin, Dalinar and Shallan are multi-layered, intriguing and their plots all carried me along as I read. Shallan and Jasnah’s arc felt like it could have been better served in their own book, as their storyline never truly crossed with Dalinar and Kaladin, who I’m considering the main characters of the book. Even though in the beginning I found myself disliking the world building, as Sanderson shed the trappings of setting up a world and focused in on character, I came around. And in the end, there was a clear bridge to the rest of the series that was intriguing and will likely make me pick up the second book, even though this book tied up most threads in a satisfying way.

Even with the strong ending and a desire to read the next book, I’m still giving this three stars because it took so long to get there. And if the next book doesn’t carry through with these characters and is essentially another stand-alone set of tales in the same world, I might not give it a chance. But if this set of characters shows up, I’m in.