Encounters, Vol. 1, #1

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Encounters Magazine
Vol. 1 Number 1
Fall 2009

“Silver Shears” by Lori Strongin
“Our Subterranean Complex” by Raleigh Dugal
“A Game for Distinguished Gentlemen” by Louise Morgan
“Animal Appetites” by Erin O’Riordan
“The Crossly Dale Society of Lady Shamans” by Deborah Walker
“The Helvellyn Ram” by JJ Beazley
“A Hunter Hunted” by Alva J. Roberts
“The XY Conundrum” by James A. Stewart
“Stairway to Heaven” by Lou Antonelli & Edward Morris
“The Kramers” by Blake Kimzey
“Childhood’s Bitter End” by P. Matthew Kimmel
“The Wintrose Chronicles” by Peter Mealing
“In the Garden of Time” by Martin Turton

Reviewed by C. L. Rossman

There’s a new publisher in town, Black Matrix Publishing LLC, which proposes quarterly publication of four new print magazines: Outer Reaches for science fiction, Night Chills for creature-feature type horror, Realms for traditional fantasy fiction. and this one, Encounters, for the mixed genres type of dark fantasy, SF, horror, ghosts and hauntings, mythos and legend—everything that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else.

The publisher promises 70,000 words of fiction in every issue and is looking for writers and artists throughout 2010. It pays only 1/5-cent per word and at those rates, should attract thousands of the would-be writers who storm publishers’ offices daily, and who would give their work away free if only they could see it in print. The website is at www.blackmatrixpub.com. Look up writers’ and artists’ guidelines there, and how to order copies of the magazines.

The plus side of that is, these ‘zines will probably give some good new writers their first starts, in a field where the best-paying publications just want to glom onto the traditional masters in the field.

“Silver Shears” by Lori T. Strongin

The story of King Arthur’s return as told from the viewpoints of the Three Fates—Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, combines legend and fantasy in its weave.  The three ladies at the loom of lives must guide Britain’s legendary king back into his new life and manage his meeting with his greatest friend, rival, and knight, Lancelot. We are taken on a brief encounter with Arthur as a young boy growing up in the small town of Wilshire on Avon. He first encounters Lancelot (aka Lance) in a tavern there. It’s not a propitious meeting. And a worse problem occurs: Lachesis, who is watching their meeting, carelessly snarls part of her weave, ensuring that the two when grown will meet as deadly enemies in World War II.

Although the storyline is promising, the development of the characters themselves lacks sympathy. Arthur, for example, is portrayed as a snobbish prig, knowing he is ancient royalty and treating others as dirt. The young Lance is more appealing, and you sense that he knows more about their alliance of old than he is telling. But alas, when the two meet on the battlefield, one Allied, the other a Nazi –still, there is hope—until a defender’s bullet ends the promise of the Once and Future King.

Frankly, I won’t miss him.

“Our Subterranean Complex” by Raleigh Dugal

A new grad student, certified in teaching English, is looking for work during the current depression and comes across an odd ad seeking ”Certified English teachers: All Encouraged to Apply”—which includes only an out-state phone number.  Our protagonist, fresh out of college and broke, decides to grab at this particular straw and apply. He calls, is given a quick interview about whether he teaches “the language” or “just books and crap.”  The latter scores him an appointment at a mysterious address in Virginia and a job guaranteed to last a while. Another man takes our still-unnamed protagonist to a secret facility 100 feet below ground in Washington D. C.  To his shock, the character learns he is to teach Shakespeare’s  plays not to any human being but to a giant squid kept in a  tank underground.

During his sessions, he almost never sees this squid, who is named Magnus, and feels he is helping develop some kind of government weapon. But no one bothers to enlighten him about this either. Trying to overcome the bloody nature of the Shakespearian tragedies, he begins to insert compassion into his teachings, and plays down the violence. Has he made any impression on the giant squid at all?  Then one morning his teaching period of two months is up and he is drugged and “deposited” in Dulles airport, where he wakes up.

This short story has the modern touch of an ambiguous ending: we never know what happens to the squid, although the main character (still unnamed) agonizes over it. He spends his nights staring out to sea.

This effort, like the other stories in the new magazine, is written in plain and simple English (gratifying) and I think it has more impact than the first—or many of the others, come to that.  Even though we are left in the cold, some kind of communication has taken place between man and cetacean, and brought to life the human’s conscience and remorse. It is noteworthy that the squid is named, but the human narrator is not.

“A Game for Distinguished Gentlemen” by Louise Morgan

Four middle-aged men, well-dressed and silent, gather in the small front garden of an ordinary row house. They do not speak to each other, or seem to know each other. They each carry a black leather satchel and a rolled-up newspaper. They are not here to converse; they are here to play cards with the devil, and the stakes are their immortal souls.

In this very short and to-the-point fantasy, we learn that the four will try to keep their own souls safe by luring (and betting on) other people’s souls. The winner is the one who lasts the longest. They bear odd names: Moth, Mr. Greenfingers, Mr. Glass, and Orfeo—names which seem rather pointless and out of place here. The object of the game is to outlast the dealer while using the captive souls to bet with—and only one can win.

The narrative is well-written—most of the stories in this magazine are well-written, but again here, there is a curious lack of feeling for the characters, rather like a writing exercise, where we really don’t sympathize, love or hate any of them; and this, I think, is a lesson some of the authors in this magazine will have to learn. Good narrative and competent writing are not enough. You have to write from the heart.

And then we come to “Animal Appetites” by Erin O’Riordan, as different a story from the others as a bold palette is from a pastel. It’s the tale of Little Red Riding hood, retold in a bizarre way.  Told in the first person, “Red” runs into a mysterious woman with green-gold eyes at a party. She calls her The Wolf, because the woman reminds her of a stalking carnivore. But then it makes a quick turnover from the party and a return home, where Red’s mother wants her to take a holiday gift basket down to her Granny. Trouble is, Granny’s been dead since last spring and is now in the Underworld.

Packing the basket with eight yummy gifts (for Chanukah), it is told in loving detail. You can almost taste the food.  Red also has to pack a bribe for the goddess guarding the Underworld’s entrance, Maman Brigitte. (And this is where it only begins to get strange.)

Red runs into The Wolf on her journey, and the woman races to get to the Underworld before she does, putting her granny in peril.

A wild and ribald tale, invoking voodoo, ancient mythos, and modern flippancy, a stranger concoction than anything else found in this magazine.

“The Crossly Dale Society of Lady Shamans” by Deborah Walker

In this short supernatural tale, Verna, a recently-widowed retiree, has a free bus pass and not much excitement in her life, so she uses the pass to visit nearby villages. When she visits Crossly Dale, she sees an intriguing notice posted in the newsagents’, announcing a meeting by the Crossly Dale Society of Lady Shamans. “Do you long for something more?” the poster asks, and that’s enough to send Verna off on a quest.

Once she gets there, however, the stern leader of the group, Mrs. Lowry, informs her she can’t be a member unless she has her own spirit guide. The Lady Shamans hold a séance to help and Verna does indeed find her spirit guide. But it isn’t her late husband Michael. It is in fact so far removed from the normal guide that Verna is booted out of the group.

The author here is dealing with old age and loneliness, but in a light-hearted way. She isn’t suggesting that every senior citizen get her own spirit guide, but playfully creating a “what-if” for her character Verna…and a rather Freudian solution.

Stephen King has said that what really matters in writing is “story, story, story;” and “The Helvellyn Ram” by JJ Beazly is a prime piece of good storytelling. The author takes a group of English schoolboys on a field trip into The Lakes District, and weaves a powerful tale of fantasy and fear, with a vision leading back to ancient times.

Two unlikely friends, popular Gavin Bowyer and shy and awkward Colin Crawford, are part of the class exploring the wild country of the district.  Gavin happens to find an old sheep’s skull on the ground, and without Colin’s knowledge, decides to play a prank on him. He puts the skull on Colin’s pillow, where the other boy comes upon it at bedtime, then makes up a story of ancient witchery and vengeance to tell the superstitious Colin.  This induces such terror in the boy that Gavin relents and tells him he made it all up and tosses the sheep’s skull down a cliff to get rid of it.

But he has awakened forces he doesn’t know existed, and the mystery begins when the skull reappears on Colin’s pillow next evening—and no one has put it there.

This is a longer story than the others, but I never felt bored or disappointed with it.  The storytelling is done very well and reminiscent of those old English ghost stories which were such a treat to read. The author also ‘humanizes’ the characters by giving Colin a superstitious streak and Gavin a compassionate one, making them more than their stereotypes—something few of the other writers do in this magazine.

“A Hunter Hunted” by Alva J. Roberts, introduces Sara, a successful hunter-killer of gross and demeaning men. She’s been on the hunt for awhile, haunting lonely truck stops and roadside diners, luring offensive men with a promise of sex into the deserted parking lots, killing them, then fleeing the scene.  But here at Randy’s Round up Bar and Grill in Cheyenne, Wyoming, she has finally made a mistake. She hasn’t secured her escape route and the friends of the man she’s just killed  pile out of the bar, find his body, and begin chasing her. She runs into a back alley—where they corner her and—

But suddenly she simply disappears from their sight and they can’t find her. Amazed, she spots a tall dark man standing in the shadows. Somehow he has clouded their minds so they can’t see her, and he’s pleased to find a hunter of her caliber. “Join me,” he urges—as his acolyte and High Priestess. He definitely needs to be worshipped, this guy. But Sara had been too long alone and distrusts anything male, let alone something that isn’t quite human…

This short fantasy leaves a lot of questions unanswered, I wondered:  How did Sara come to be a man-hater and a man-killer? And where does the demon-like stranger come from? What’s his story? And the rednecks in the bar behave exactly as you would expect stereotypes to behave…in every book and film about female abuse which exists.  Some of the wording becomes repetitive: in the third and fourth paragraphs, the word “giant” is repeated twice, once for a belt buckle and again for Sara’s giant purse. A little care could be taken here, along with a reread by the writer and others.

And the story’s dark and pointless end left me cold, asking, why even write it in the first place?

“The XY Conundrum” by James A. Stewart

In this science fiction short, an experiment by the narrator’s father has gone very wrong, and instead of biddable super soldiers awaiting their orders on a remote island lab, science has unleashed an army of zombies which has reached the mainland and is now killing everyone in sight. Billy, the son of the scientist who made the zombies, is racing to his stepmother Michelle’s house, exhorting her to flee.

John, father and husband to the above, is thought to be dead. But he isn’t. Instead he’s looking for some kind of genetic “fix” to the botched experiment, and he will soon confront Billy and Michelle and tell them what it is.

This brief science fiction tale begins with a rather Dick-and-Jane: “I ran. I ran fast, very fast.” (“See Spot run.”) and opens on a scene of national disaster. It proceeds through a series of flashbacks from Billy’s childhood when he and his father were discussing “monsters” and winds by a circuitous route back to the present, where the father reappears and tells his family of the appalling “fix” he has in mind. The XY in the title refers to the female chromosome in human DNA. By the end of the story you will realize that there are monsters and they are always human.

I have a few issues with some of the images here. For instance, when Billy raps on Michelle’s door he uses “three short taps and one long thud.” I defy anyone to lengthen out the sound of thud beyond its point of impact.  The wording “one loud thud” would have done better here. There is also conflict between Billy and his half-sister Michelle—who seems to be John’s girlfriend as well, but that isn’t clarified.

“The Kramers” by Blake Kimzy

In January 1998, Vermont Game Warden Howard Kramer kills himself with a shotgun  blast—but not before thoughtfully calling his wife Alice at home and telling her what he’s doing—then lets her hear the shotgun blast as he pulls the trigger. Key to this episode is the news that Alice has been fooling around with someone named Jim, and her husband has had his bout with a “Jennie.”

Ten years later, in January 2008, Howard’s son Tom  has taken up game warden duties where his father left off—not yet to the point of destruction. With a storm front moving across the Green Mountains, he receives a call from Jim (yes, that Jim) about an accident between a Subaru and a bull moose; his help is needed. After he returns from putting down the injured moose, he confronts his mother Alice, who still speaks to his dead father and acts as if he were alive. Because Tom found her in the barn loft painting huge red circles on the wall over the spot where his father died, he has moved into the barn.  But Tom is under considerable pressure of his own.  His girlfriend Carole, whose son was injured in the moose accident, urges him to leave the barn loft and come to live with her. His younger sister Amanda refuses to be of any help with their crazy mother. And his mother whispers that his father was a coward, even while she keeps crooning his name.

Something has to give, and it does.

This is a neat, vivid little tale of modern horror, twisting the screw of a modern tragedy until the main character can take no more. The images are vivid and evoke a cold and snowy winter in Vermont, where the seasonal lack of sun and the relentless cold have been known to drive men mad…

Next we come to a fun tale, “Childhood’s Bitter End” by P. Matthew Kimmel, a quick mix of fantasy impinging on real life, Three buddies, Leroy, Zach, and Jackson, go out goose hunting one morning and set up to bring down a Canada goose. Well, at least two of them are likely to—Jackson is not a good shot and Leroy has to don his orange cap and vest “so his idiot cousin Jackson won’t shoot  him  by mistake. “ Then the writer slyly remarks, “Of course this still leaves the possibility of Jackson shooting him intentionally.”

A flock of geese wings over and everybody picks a target.  Two of the birds fall. But Leroy’s comes down with a thump, a big one, since it is bright green and weighs about 60 pounds. And we get into the slug line for the story: Three goose hunters, a little booze, and “Oh crap, what did I shoot?

The answer to that makes for the laughs in this deftly humorous story.

“Stairway to Heaven” by Lou Antonelli and Edward Morse

Our narrator Tom Di Salvo, a small town newspaper editor who lives in East Texas, has a problem:  Laurie McKenzie, daughter of the deceased owner of his house, keeps popping up in odd places. Like on his doorstep. Or in his office, and she comes bearing a futuristic weapon, determined to take him somewhere in space where she’s been staying for the past fifty-some years, and never ageing a bit. Why? Because her drunken mother died in a car crash—after first killing Di Salvo’s wife.

Laurie and her buddies have been chosen from the hippie generation by the Telians, the “People” who are keeping an eye on Earth. But Laurie has something entirely different to prove to Di Salvo, that time travel works and that sometimes one is privileged enough, or lucky enough, to go back and make things right.

This SF/time-travel story begins with a bewildering question—why is she doing this, and why now?—and ends quite beautifully with a scene that pulls it all together. It’s an example of a story told with heart, and, along with its prose, qualities that make all the difference. The authors have dedicated it to Ted Sturgeon and Trent Zelazny, and fittingly so.

“The Wintrose Chronicles” by Pete Mesling

(Please note: the author’s name is spelled two different ways in the magazine, as “Mealing” and as “Mesling.” I’m not going to try to solve that little problem here.)

A fantasy novelette, “Chronicles” tells the story of the battle between a group of monks in a mountain abbey and the demons which prowl the valley below. It is one of those “front to back” narratives, which begins with the present day when the last living inhabitant of the abbey comes upon a man “hung up” for torture.

Then it retreats into a long flashback, when three monks, Brothers Gabbin, Wintrose, and Drear, first came to the mountain. A span of twenty years lies in between, and all this time, the demons have been pouring out of some unseen place on the mountain, and growing bolder by the year, ravaging local farms and killing villagers. The monks, led by Brother Wintrose, have been searching for three holy relics which will protect their abbey and destroy the demons’ power. Once they have built their abbey, they decide that the best way to control the demons is to capture their leader, Prince Kurg, and hold him captive.

At this point the story became very familiar to me….I’d seen something similar years ago on The Twilight Zone—monks in a reclusive abbey holding a devil captive, until it can convince an outsider to set it free. I’m wondering if most readers will recognize it, too. The history given in the story differs, of course. The narrative is a bit jumpy and disconnected between different time periods, with one getting the impression the monks are first forced into hiding, and then, suddenly freed to roam about the countryside looking for their relics. That needs some improvement.

“In the Garden of Time” by Martin Turton, the final tale in this premiere issue, takes a spin off what you might call an “alternate future.”  An American couple, Gareth and Liz, are taking a bus trip to Chichen Itza, Cancun, Mexico in an attempt to renew their fading marriage. So far, it’s not working.  Once they arrive at the great sun pyramid, Gareth decides not to hire a guide and they wander about feeling miserable until a man name Jorge introduces himself and offers to show them around for free. He has a bit too much interest in Gareth’s wife Liz, but the couple manages to escape to their hotel.

Next morning, Gareth awakens to find his wife missing. Spurred by rumors of a new-world cult he begins a frantic search for her, aided by a local detective.

The story is set effectively against a glaring and nightmarish atmosphere of true believers and murderous cult followers. It postulates a “what if” the Mayan-prophecies-are-true scenario and does it quite effectively.

That’s Issue I No. I of Encounters, one of four new magazines created by Black Matrix Publishing. Each of them will cost $9.95. I found some promising stories in this batch, but just as many rehashes of old themes.  The reader might want to purchase only one of these to  see if he likes it.

Some of the problems in the above review come from writers not identifying their characters (some remain unnamed throughout the story) or not putting any passion into their work. Writing is a passionate art. If you can’t charge into it with the full force of your spirit, it’s best not to attempt it at all.