ShortFic Review: Greatest Uncommon Denominator
GUD magazine is something of a bold venture in the current environment of declining short fiction sales (if not, I’d imagine, readership) – a dual online/print magazine presenting fiction, poetry and art across a swathe of genres, but with obvious literary aspirations alongside its generic focus. At 200 pages GUD is packing in a lot of content. I had intended to keep my review brisk, but at over 2,000 words I think I’ve failed in that. So it goes. Fortunately, it’s an interesting magazine to write about and hopefully to read about too.
The issue opens with a piece of artwork, ‘Fools and Intellects’ by Cameron Gray. It’s a delightfully sinister and wicked piece, which I interpreted as poking fun at those men who would be fished (in this case by a large but childlike figure, itself distracted by a nearby butterfly). This is followed by ‘Day of the Dead’ by Jamie Dee Galey, a simpler and less evocative drawing but one which leads nicely into the first story, ‘El Alebrije’ by D. Richard Pearce. An American émigré named Natalie has taken up residence in a small Mexican village. Her constant companion is el alebrije, a bird-sized creature that appears differently to each onlooker, which appears to feed on expression and emotion. The story has a great sense of place that grounds its thematic concerns: the interaction between culture and self, outsiders, foreignness, change, and their explication in dream and nightmare are all explored through Natalie, who ultimately is afraid of letting herself be. ‘El Alebrije’ is a wonderful story and a great way to start the magazine.
Next is a poem by Lucy A. Snyder titled ‘Subtlety’. I sometimes struggle with interpreting poetry but I enjoyed the comparisons drawn between pornography and the use of language, and wondered if this might be a jab at dressing up inadequately-developed concepts in “lacy, coy underwords” – after all, what’s really interesting is what’s underneath.
The next piece of fiction is ‘Four Judgements and a Torment’ by Erik Williams. This tale is told from the perspective of the demon Yarsloth who must force a priest to endure four trials. The portrayal of hell and its denizens as a bureaucratic nightmare is surely a cliché, and Yarsloth, although entertaining enough, does little to shake this burden. The priest does stand out through his unshakeable righteousness, but overall this is a slight story with an unsurprising conclusion.
Following ‘Four Judgements’ is another poem, ‘Hepatocellular Carcinoma, Stage IV’ by Samantha Henderson. I had to look up the title; it refers to a cancer of the liver. I’m not sure if Stage IV refers to its development or treatment. The poem evokes an everyday image of a smalltown street with hints of desolation before turning inwards and exploring the self:
We are, at best, smears,
Water with a little dirt to make it more interesting.
The philosophical observations of this second stanza, coupled with the scene-setting of the first, produce the sad but liberating conclusion of the third. Following this poem is ‘Sam-Sharp Walls’, an ink drawing by newel anderson that recalls Rorschach inkblots: it’s part of a triptych that I’ll comment on later.
Next there is ‘Painlessness’ by Kirstyn McDonald. A young woman named Faith has moved cities, hoping to make a new start in life. Her plans are hampered by illness and sounds of violence from the apartment next door. Mara contrives to meet and attempts to bond with her neighbour, Mara, a woman who cannot feel pain and heals quickly, and thus sells her services to men as an object to visit pain upon. The well-meaning Faith repeatedly attempts to rescue Mara, which offers Mara spurns. The tale builds to a crescendo that is as cold and hard as ice, and as sad and bittersweet as human experience. Recommended.
‘Watching the Playoffs’ by Jim Kacian is a stream-of-consciousness style poem, almost like a fever dream in which the poet searches for patterns, rules, logic, rationality – and thus control. Of course these things continually slip away. I concede that I may be projecting my own childhood dreams “through a fog of flu” onto this poem and that other readers may glean something else from it. Following this is ‘Dolls’, a poem by Kristine Ong Muslim, which unfortunately left me none the wiser for having read it. Some secrets cannot be unlearned, and dolls are faceless dead things, but the significance of this escaped me.
Author John Walters shifts between second and third person perspectives to tell two interwoven stories in ‘The Disappearance of Juliana’. Juliana, a dysfunctional young artist, searches the world for an ex-boyfriend she long ago abandoned. In pursuit of her is her stepfather, the cause of many of her problems and a sexual abuser of children. Over the course of her journey Juliana learns to both let go of and seize hold of life. Her stepfather earns no such wisdom. This is a beautiful and strange story, in parts introspective and poetic, in parts harsh and cruel. The different perspectives which constitute the story are well-told and envisioned, letting us see two different worlds through these pairs of eyes.
Next there is ‘Sam’, a second piece of art by newel anderson. Here the Rorschach blots of the first piece have been replaced by the unmistakeable form of a samurai warrior in battle regalia. He is seen from behind, and in contrast with the first piece the inkwork is sharp and precise.
Neal Blaikie’s ‘Offworld Friends Are Best’ is told in first person perspective with an unusual diction. It’s a mix of old and new slang, which I at first imagined as a stereotypical good ‘ole boy drawl coupled with textspeak and SFnal lingo. Occasionally this slips and whole sentences are presented in clear contemporary English, but for the most part it’s sustained and skilfully made comprehensible. This use of language conveys the strangeness of the story’s future far more effectively than mere description could.
Unfortunately I found that there was little beyond the language to sustain the story; by the mid-point the sense of strangeness had petered out. The story’s small mysteries I found insufficiently intriguing, and there was no obvious plot or character arc driving the story forwards. Possibly the strangeness that first intrigued me led me to miss what was significant about the story itself, and this is why understanding escaped me, but this possibility aside the story wrapped up with only partially explicable events that were outside the protagonist’s control. As in much of the story things happened to or around the narrator, but they were rarely an active participant. In summary I found this tale wonderfully written but disappointing.
A triplet of shorter tales follow the lengthy ‘Offworld Friends Are Best’. ‘Monkeyshine’ by Hugh Fox is an odd little story centred on a family gathering. It’s an endearing, referential, superficially nonsensical tale that teasingly puts the lie to the “loss of the old ways”; a universal human concern in this age of globalisation and homogeneity. The family speak many languages, picking up bits here and there from the many peoples and cultures they mix with on a daily basis. This is a story that takes great joy in language and play, and I’m pleased to say that this pleasure is infectious. Jeremy C. Shipp’s ‘Baby Edward’ focuses on an ex-musician named Ed. Reality and surreality intermingle as Ed and new girlfriend Annabelle spend time together. Annabelle sees Ed’s guitar locked away inside an old VW Camper, whereas Ed sees “baby Edward”, a monstrous thing that feeds and consumes and grows. The conclusion to the story is sweet, though, a pleasing paean to accepting the past and living in the past and for the future. And then there is Vanessa Gebbie’s ‘Jamie Hawkin’s Muse’. The eponymous Jamie was born with a hump on his back and one leg three inches shorter than the other. He has never fitted in the world, feeling passed by and overlooked. “Not a real person, not really” he tells himself. But he still searches, in sight and sound and smell, for the “closeness between people that he felt but did not know.” After his mother dies Jamie applies for a job at the mortuary, wishing to be a poet. At first the harsh chemicals and stark environment wash away his words but Jamie does, eventually, find the poetry he has been searching for.
‘Freight’ by Joseph Love is another story that left me bemused at its conclusion. There’s a warmth to the story quite at odds with its setting, and a beguiling innocence to its characters, but it also feels as though there’s a hole in there, an absence that none of the characters will speak of. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to unpack the answers to my questions, and so I can only say that this story didn’t work for me. Next up is ‘Untitled Collaborative’ by Mike Capp, Justin Hillgrove, and Shana Marcoullier. It’s a delightful piece of artwork that mixes various different styles to produce a suitably strange and unusual whole. If there’s more to the piece than whimsy and weirdness I didn’t catch it, but it’s fun and aesthetically appealing and so in this case I didn’t object to the lack of answers. Completing my little trilogy of obliviousness is ‘Under the Flowers a Carcass Waits’, a poem by Rusty Barnes about loss and waiting for something that never comes. There is some well-drawn imagery here, and I found the juxtaposition of idling and deep loss unusual. I’m assuming that the title is the key to unlock the poem’s meaning; if “carcass” is symbolic of something else I’ve missed the point entirely.
Cameron Gray boasts a second piece of art in the form of ‘Worldly Divine’. This is almost Giger-esque, depicting a line of three baby-like figures. The central figure’s skull unfolds into outstretched tentacles with suckers, whilst those of the flanking figures are open and hollow. Hovering behind them are hints of feathered wings. These are certainly not the innocent and vacuous cherubim one most often encounters. (There’s rather a lot of angelic imagery in this issue, which is an odd companion for the recurrent theme of self-acceptance.)
Tina Connolly’s ‘The Salivary Reflex’ is a story of love, life and first contact. Allison knows people intimately by their taste, seeking in this some unique aspect of who they are. Her life with her husband has grown cold and tasteless, but during this decline aliens – colloquially known as “pinkies” – have arrived. They appear to have travelled to Earth to proselytise although, as might be expected, a few salient details have been lost in translation. At times this tale of detached strangeness reminded me of Kelly Link’s fiction. Allison is wonderfully drawn, as are her husband Tom and friend Paul, and the aliens are used in an intriguing and unusual manner to complete her story.
Another brief tale follows in the form of ‘Nan’ by Scott Christian Carr. Nan is a sapient ape or simian, and his constant companion is the narrator – a dog which shares an unexplained psychic link with its master. Together they run through the cities that humanity built and, for whatever reason, departed. The story is a curious portrait of a world after humanity, of what we might leave behind, of the analogues that might arise and how life could continue to learn and grow.
‘By Zombies; Eaten’ by Christopher Buecheler starts out in over-familiar territory. Zombification has spread across the US in a serious epidemic. The story starts out in a small town being steadily worn down by unpredictable zombie attacks. Survival “is a full time job” characterised by hopelessness:
Better to batten down the hatches, keep your guns clean, keep your Bible open, and wait to die.
It appears that this is the slow and pointless death of humanity. Even lies have lost their power to comfort. But this lack of hope is not what this story is about. Wonderfully, unexpectedly, the conventions of zombie stories are inverted in a simple and powerful way. I highly recommend this story. To be fair I nerd for zombies, but I think this is an effective spin on an old concept.
Completing newel anderson’s triptych ‘Rise’ portrays an aged or despairing figure on its knees, reaching upwards with elongated fingers and unnaturally long nails. Its eyes are blacked-out and streaked; it lacks defined edges and its shape bleeds into the negative space above it. Looking at the three pieces side by side I see chaos and the promise of form giving way to strict, martial precision, in turn failing and fading as time takes its dues.
Paul Haines retells the Hindu myth of Holi in ‘The Festival of Colour’. A traveller named Shane finds a little more than he expected when he arrives in Pushkar, a small town surrounding a lake. Far from the easy lays and cheap drugs he’s been enjoying during his travels to date, he discovers a great deal about the town and his own past.
It is something of a cop-out to present two of the three mythic characters as visiting Westerners. Arguably this has the benefit of allowing most of this English-language story’s readers to relate more easily to these characters, and removes the difficulty of convincingly writing a character from a very different culture, but it’s nonetheless a lost opportunity. Instead we spend most of the story reasonably aware of what is going on, but are expected to play along with Shane’s ignorance and denial. Overall the story is well-written with great pacing, and is only disappointing in that it follows the form and format of most of these mythic retellings, with few if any surprises in store for the reader.
‘Thou Shalt’ by Hugh Fox is a playful mocking of the social mores and rules of contemporary society and a witty embrace of life’s joys and pleasures. It provides a brief moment of uplift before Jeff Somers’ ‘closer in my heart to thee’. A plague known as the Sweat is tearing through the country, killing thousands in a matter of days. It is highly contagious, almost instantly communicable, and Bobby Williams’ wife has contracted it. She is locked inside a room in their apartment, itself under martial quarantine, and Bobby is on the outside, trapped between the outside world and his dying wife. This is a beautiful and tragic story awash with liebestod, and a fine note on which to end this issue of the magazine.
Having already spent almost 2,500 words exploring this issue of GUD in depth, I shall not waste time on an overlong conclusion. If the praises sung above have convinced you to read this far they’ve probably also convinced you to try GUD out for yourself. Trust that impulse.