"Conjuring the Disclaimers" by Colin James
"Ye Olde Ephemera Shoppe" by Carol Orlock
"Midwiving the World" by Michael Bishop
"One Window" by Scott Thomas
"The Apocrypha According to Cleveland" by Daniel Abraham
"Oh Goat-God of Arcady" by Brian Stableford
"A Lesser Michaelangelo" by T. Jackson King
"The Rain King" by Michael Gentry
"The Waiting Room" by Vera Searles
"The Comedian" by Stepan Chapman
The most recent issue of The Silver Web – a journal published "semi-annually (or thereabouts)" – contains stories of a surreal, magic-realistic, slipstream, or horror nature. In these ten stories, we are whisked away to crooked hospitals, magic shoppes, dead castles, and more. With a stylish yet simple layout interspersed with vivid illustrations and poetry, The Silver Web is an enjoyable, sometimes challenging (and occasionally frustrating) read.
The leadoff story, "Conjuring the Disclaimers" by Colin James, establishes the magazine firmly in the land of the surreal. It's a short-short story set in a hospital, a common setting this issue, and it follows the "recovery" of a man ironically named Needles. He tries to leave the hospital and deal with the world outside, which is just as bizarre at the world of the hospital. Throughout the story strange events transpire for no discernable reason – illegal books spill water, homage is paid to the "Great Gaping Hole," and naked "Tia Chi" is practiced, to name a few. The story is mostly incomprehensible, but remains fascinating as a car wreck.
In this issue's strongest story, "Ye Olde Ephemera Shoppe" by Carol Orlock, the owner of the store goes elsewhere to find true magic. Until the day Martin, the elderly shop owner, meets a strange man in his store, he can only remember useless bits of his life, such as the cost of his first Ferris wheel ride. What he can't remember are the important things that tug at our emotions, like the name of the person we first kissed, or how it felt to have a spritz of soda up the nose. The wonders of childhood and the past can indeed be bottled up and kept, but they are most definitely not for sale. This story is a treatise on memory, on the importance of what we remember (and what we've forgotten), and the execution of the tale, especially its ending, is magically done.
In Michael Bishop's mythical short-short, "Midwiving the World," the title of the story in many ways does more to illuminate than the story's actual contents. In a dank, dark cave, a woman gives birth to light, "re-blinding" Abra, the protagonist. Abra is eventually able to see enough to compile his list written in squid's ink, which includes such words as "uterine," "incandescence," and "coelacanths." Bishop seems to be making a point about creation stories, and possibly the arbitrariness of such stories, but his true meaning remains a bit beyond me. Perhaps that is the point.
The magazine turns dark and dystopic for "One Window" by Scott Thomas, a horrific story of one man's despair. Jon's dreary life is given a tiny ray of hope by the woman living across the way from him, dancing naked every night in front of the window. He feels himself falling in love with her, but when he tries to act on this infatuation and communicate with her, he learns he has literally created a monster. The story doesn't quite resolve the situation created in its opening scene, yet it creates an atmosphere of unrelenting dread that serves to enhance the horror of its final scene.
Returning to a hospital setting once again, "The Apocrypha According to Cleveland" by Daniel Abraham follows the investigation of Cleave, an investigator who is charged with documenting the various details of the Hospital. Cleave uncovers data both humorous and horrific, including a patient living in the Hospital's "encyclopedic, Borgesian" library. The patient shares with Cleave the secret of the Hospital's immensity (it takes a telescope, a bowling ball, a slip of paper, a pen, and a tweezer to prove this secret). Abraham keeps a firm grip on the absurd aspects of the story, keeping them from overwhelming the reader. The story is quirky, creepy, and fascinating, and adds nicely to the collection of hospital-themed tales in this issue.
"Oh Goat-God of Arcady" by Brian Stableford is the only misstep of the magazine, the one ingredient that doesn't fit into the mix of the Web's surreal stew. Half fantasy and half science fiction, complete with visions of Pan (the "Goat-God" of the title) alternating with long lectures about biotechnology and chimeras, the story ends up feeling forced, like two stories vying with one another for control. I would have preferred that the fantasy element took front stage, with the science-fictional aspects relegated to the background, or even removed almost completely from the story. Of course, a Big Name like Stableford brings with it higher expectations; "Goat-God" is not a bad story by any means. It simply doesn't do enough with its initial premise.
The concept of suffering for the sake of one's art is painfully addressed in T. Jackson King's horrific story, "A Lesser Michaelangelo." Living together in an old, isolated castle in the Swiss Alps after the turn of the 20th Century, Michael and his wife Ephigene create their separate art in solitude. But they can only create – she her musical compositions, he his novels – in accompaniment with a sacrifice each must make for the other. This slow-paced story lags at times, but it is filled with disturbing imagery and, ultimately, a warped sense of dedication and love for one another. It is imaginative and shocking.
"The Rain King" by Michael Gentry is an elegiac story of a castle containing a chamber of empty cribs, a shrinking nurse, and a dead king. Everything is breaking down, including the protagonist, known only as the Caretaker. But the façade of normalcy is kept up, even when the accountant stops in to visit the king (witnessed by the accountant, the Caretaker forges the king's signature and takes "three drops of sluggish blood" from His Majesty as proof). The story is downbeat and filled with sorry and quiet despair, but its ending is effective as the perspective returns to the childless nursery and the shrinking nurse from the opening scene.
Similar in setting and tone to the opening story by Colin James, "The Waiting Room" by Vera Searles, also takes a brief stop at the titular room, with equally absurd touches. Searles has tighter control of her subject matter, however, as each detail is relevant, as the contents of a waiting-room book come to life in their own fashion as the short-short story progresses. The only misstep is the circularity of the story, which slightly defeats the purpose of the story (like the Hotel California, once you step inside, you can never leave). And you thought you had it bad waiting for your last checkup.
Closing out the magazine is "The Comedian" by Stepan Chapman, a clever tale about the pains of high school made more intense by an older brother who is both popular and also able to animate the dead. The narrator is Nick to his brother's Gatsby, until the very end, when the story swerves back to focus on the narrator's emerging psychic powers (all his siblings have them, in different forms). In my mind the story overshoots what felt like its natural climax, which was a heartwrenching scene where the brother's powers are used to help locate a missing girl, but "The Comedian" was an enjoyable, imaginative read nonetheless.
Michael J. Jasper has published stories in Asimov's, Gothic.Net, Writers of the Future XVI, Strange Horizons, Strange New Worlds IV, Future Orbits, and The Raleigh News & Observer, among other venues. Mike lives with his wife Elizabeth in Raleigh, NC, and his website is http://www.michaeljasper.net.