Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. In our last installment, we discussed two stories from the February issue of Clarkesworld Magazine—one reprint, one original to the issue. This time around, I’d like to shift focus to a small but long-running magazine that I haven’t yet talked about: Ideomancer.
Ideomancer has been publishing imaginative fiction quarterly since 2002, and is currently run by the inestimable Leah Bobet as publisher and editor alongside a team of associate and departmental editors. Volume 12 Issue 4 (from December 2013) features three short stories: “Thread” by A. Merc Rustad, “The Mammoth” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, and “The Last Summer” by Michael Matheson. The issue also features poetry and reviews.
All three are shorter pieces—the longest is just under four thousand words—that are built around a core of atmosphere and imagery. This is both a strength and a weakness, I’d say; while they’re all handsome stories with memorable descriptions or prose, the flip-side of that briefness and visual orientation is that the worlds or backgrounds sometimes feel undefined or lacking in depth. Despite that, though, these are pleasant reads, each a haunting glimpse of what lies beneath: beneath the light, beneath a father’s hopes and skin, beneath ghost stories and boyhood.
“Thread” by A. Merc Rustad is a science-fiction tale in frame but relies on more mythic resonances for its effect: the clash of light and dark, dark and light; the mysterious House that the enslaved characters fear being sent to; the nine-part units of alien light that are all-too-human in their cruelty. These powerful images lend the story a dreamlike quality—and, interestingly, the author’s note following the piece says that it was in actuality based on a dream.
The story is quite short, however, and the explosive violence at the end between the characters—as well as the haunting image of the black thread of darkness spreading through the shared minds of the beings of light—lacks what might be a stronger affective kick in a story where the stakes, or the world itself, are perhaps more developed. I found myself curious about the nature of the mining, the units, the lives of characters inside (or outside) the system of oppression. These answers might not have fit within the dreamlike or mythic frame, however. To gain one, sometimes you lose the other—and in this case, the imagery is quite powerful as the central focus of the piece.
“The Mammoth” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam deals convincingly with the strain between a father and adult daughter about expectations: expectations for her life, for her choices to start a family, et cetera. The core of the piece is quite engaging; I found myself immersed in the father-daughter camping trip as he is dying, the small details like their shared love of raw cookie dough and marijuana. It is clear, to the reader, how interwoven their lives have been, despite a changing world and circumstances.
It’s those circumstances that get a bit lost in the shuffle, though. There are the stunning visual components of the piece—the extinct animals that continue to live on as skeletons, miming life but not alive, and her father (presumably from a disease?) himself melting down to a skeleton at the end—that are appealing to the mind’s eye. I’m fine to let those go as magical or inexplicable. But, there’s also the fact that the whole problem of her pregnancy for her father is brought about by the “virus” that killed off most of the population with a Y chromosome; he was hoping for her to find traditional love, and she hasn’t.
Unfortunately, there’s not much of a sense of how all of these moving parts are intended to fit together: the virus is very unclear, as are the actual social consequences, though we’re given the protagonist’s brief rundown on how broken and spoiled she finds men “nowadays” in their dependence, etc. It seems as if there’s a critique of gender and power trying to worm its way through, there, via role-reversal, but it gets a bit muddled in the process.
But overall, it’s a story that I’ve found myself thinking about after finishing it—despite or because of those inconsistencies, those gears that don’t quite all turn together.
“The Last Summer” by Michael Matheson is the most traditional in subject matter and plot: four boys out adventuring go to a haunted place, accidentally kill a homeless person they think is a monster, and decide to keep mum about it. However, the prose is far more poetic in tone than one usually sees in a horror-story (of sorts) like this one. I also appreciated that there’s an added layer in that the world is implied to be in a scarcity state, a broken-down disrepair—but we don’t quite need the details, this time around, because these kids don’t know them or aren’t attached to them either.
Instead, we have the leader who is dying of a brain tumor—though he hasn’t shared that with his friends—as he’s on the cusp of becoming a teenager or adult, having a far more intense realization about the nature of mortality, ghosts, and the world he lives in. Though the story is old-hat, the execution kept me interested; the imagery was also quite strong.
The editor’s note for this issue also suggest that what these stories share is a set of “ephemeral endings,” endings that leave the reader to consider implications and images to figure out their particular interpretations. I’d agree with that—each of these stories seems to leave behind an echo of a figure or a phrase, a picture or a thought. Overall, for an audience who appreciates or prefers the sort of imaginative, lyrical, poetic fiction that these stories represent, Ideomancer 12.4 is a decent read—as are its back issues, which I’d recommend perusing at leisure.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.