Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Weird Tales #360/361 (2013)

Weird Tales Magazine, issue #360 (2013): Old Ones. Pp. 113. and issue #361 (2013): Fairy Tales. Pp. 113. Each $9.99 print/$7.99 e-book bundle.

Reviewed by Nino Cipri

I admit to being a sporadic consumer of news, particularly when it comes to publishing, even more particularly when it comes to the SF/F publishing world. Every few months, it seems, another idiot straps a load of bullshit and dynamite to their chest, determined to have their say and blow up the internet in the process. As author Genevieve Valentine recently put it on Twitter, “Oh, the SF community, where the Venn diagram of catching up on news and wanting to light things on fire is a circle.”

It’s important to confront the idiocy, the prejudice, the racism and the misogyny and bullshit. Hats off to the folks that manage to swim through those swamps without getting bogged down or eaten by crocodiles. But for the sake of my own sanity, I try not to get consumed by it. Maybe this explains why I was genuinely excited when offered a chance to review the two new issues of Weird Tales. If I’d been paying attention, I would have known that the magazine had recently gone to hell in a startlingly flashy way.

Weird Tales was first published in 1923, and has had its ups and downs in the 90 years it’s been in print. Wildside Press revamped the magazine in 2007. In 2011, after years of rebuilding readership and pushing the envelope of science fiction, Weird Tales was sold to to Nth Dimension Media. The award-winning editorial staff was let go, and Marvin Kaye—co-founder of Nth Dimension—replaced Ann VanderMeer as Editor-in-Chief.

Publishing is a cuthroat business, and the SF/F community may have eventually forgiven Kaye if he hadn’t continued to alienate the magazine’s fanbase. In August 2012, via a post that titled ‘A Thoroughly Non-racist Book’, Kaye announced plans to publish a chapter from Victoria Foyt’s (really, extremely, thoroughly racist) self-published book Saving the Pearls: Revealing Eden. After a well-deserved backlash (which included Ann VanderMeer, who had stayed on as senior contributing editor, resigning), publisher John Harlacher pulled the plug on printing the excerpt and admitted that yes, Foyt’s book and associated blackface marketing campaign was racist garbage. Kaye’s original post was deleted from the Weird Tales website. And the SF/F community waited to see how, if at all, Weird Tales might recover.

Which brings us to the first two issues published under Kaye’s editorial control. Both have themes: issue #360 is given over to tales inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, while issue #361 is dedicated to fairy tales.

Most of the stories in #360 enthusiastically flog the dead horse of the Cthulu Mythos, but some of them are more readable than others. Brian Lumley’s novella ‘The Long Last Night’ is suspenseful and atmospheric. Michael Reyes’s ‘The Darkness at Table Rock Road’ contains some genuine horror and disturbing imagery, though the plot is pretty run-of-the-mill. The issue also contains an early version of Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘The Exiles’, and a piece of criticism about the film Rosemary’s Baby, in honor of the author’s death this summer.

Issue #361 begins with a story by Peter S. Beagle, of The Last Unicorn fame, ‘The Queen Who Could Not Walk’. It’s not a typical fairy tale, featuring a main character who becomes paralyzed from the waist down on her wedding night. Despite this, the queen continues ruling her kingdom and is loved by her subjects and her husband, until—per the tradition of her society—she forsakes her queenship and becomes a beggar. It’s an atypical reversal of fortune for a fairytale, and it offers some food for thought. Jane Yolen’s offering, ‘Enough’, is a parable on moving on with the times, and changing as history dictates; we don’t live in a time of miracles, we live in a time of stories.

Issue #361’s non-fiction is much stronger than the previous issue’s (two book reviews and an analysis of settings in Lovecraft’s fiction). Sprinkled throughout #361 are interviews with authors regarding their favorite fairy- and folk-tales. There is a feature on the work of Tessa Farmer, creator of delightfully violent taxidermied dioramas featuring wasp-like fae doing battle with other members of the natural world. Lynne Jamneck interviews J. David Spurlock, who co-compiled The Alluring Life of Margaret Brundage, released this spring from Vanguard.

Brundage was one of Weird Tales’ most popular cover artists, who depicted lurid scenes of scantily-clad women during the golden era of the pulps. Her pin-up art was racy and more than a little kinky, with BDSM and queer overtones. She was also involved with progressive and countercultural groups in Chicago, where she lived with her husband, working towards racial and gender equality. She seems like a fascinating figure.

Unfortunately, these few gems are buried amid dreck. Most of the writing in the two issues falls in the spectrum between meh and what the actual hell am I reading? Stock characters populate cliché plots, attempts at humor or twist endings fall utterly flat. ‘As Fleas’ by Jon Koons is a yawn-worthy parable about a bunch of parasites that consume all their host’s resources. (Spoiler: the parasites… are humans.) ‘To Be a Star’ by Parke Godwin, featuring a self-centered actor reincarnated as a Christmas Tree, drips with the kind of sentimentality better suited to the Hallmark Channel.

Few stories even fall into the realm of the weird, at least intentionally; the story about an angel boning an overweight and self-loathing airport bar manager (‘The Miracles of LaGuardia Airport (Delta Terminal)’ by Caitlin Campbell) to get out of a promotion, complete with a graphically rendered yet emotionally detached sex scene, was admittedly strange, just not in an enjoyable way. The narrator of ‘Fae For a Day’ by Teel James Glenn sounds like a reject from a Mel Brooks script wandered into A Midsummer’s Night Dream, after a stopover on the set of Beavis and Butthead.
I had no way in hell to explain the guy with the goat legs and horns sticking out of his forehead... He was clean-shaven and had almost a child’s features though his body was definitely “fully developed” based on the size of his schlong. Yes, he was “naked” save for his fuzzy legs.
In seeking to return to its so-called roots, Weird Tales under Kaye’s direction has dug its own grave. Very few of the stories do anything at all daring or inventive. It’s fiction that eats its own tail, swallowing and regurgitating the conventions of the genre. For folks analyzing the recurring struggle over the future of SF/F publishing, Weird Tales might make an interesting case study. But as reading material, it’s not worth your time.

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