On Spec #110, April 2019
Reviewed by Tara Grímravn
In April 2019, the editors (all volunteers) at On Spec Magazine released a special double issue to tantalize and thrill readers. Among other genre-related items, on offer are thirteen short stories of the fun and fantastic. No matter their preferences, readers are sure to find something to delight them amid these tales strung together with the thread of hope.
“The Care and Conservation of Unusual Properties” by Julia August
Caring for magical objects and locations held in the care of the Unusual Properties Trust can be incredibly dangerous. Just ask David, another volunteer whose wife says he’s on the mend—in fact, he almost looks human again! But don’t worry. This experienced conservationist will walk you through all you need to know when it comes to caring for and conserving arcane tomes and other museum pieces, like Baba Yaga’s linens and Snow White’s cadaver.
August’s story (really five sets of instructions for museum volunteers) was delightfully imaginative. An actual tutorial on the preservation of magical objects was not quite what I was expecting but it was certainly a pleasant surprise. In fact, a few of the narrative sections frequently reminded me of my college days when my professors lectured us on how to clean and conserve artifacts and museum specimens. The matter-of-fact manner in which the conservationist explains the otherwise alarming possibilities of a misstep when handling a piece or just the bureaucracy of running such a strange museum was quite entertaining. I enjoyed the humor interjected in each section. Of course, the zombie tomb guides that were part of the volunteer staff were certainly a bonus.
“Afterlife” by Alison McBain
Dr. Alston runs a psychology practice that is unlike most others. He helps the dead work out any issues holding them back from moving on to the next life. When a new patient, Tavena Martin, arrives, she wants him to help her find a long-lost love. The good doctor reluctantly agrees but soon finds it wasn’t this loss that was keeping her from entering the afterlife. It was something else entirely.
“Afterlife” is a slow-paced, sentimental story. The premise is certainly unique—a doctor who regresses ghosts to a version of themselves in their prime so that they can move on is an unusual twist on the worn-out psychic medium shtick of helping the dead “go towards the light” that one normally finds in these stories. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading. In addition, it’s something of a paranormal romance, as well. Hints at such a connection building between Tavena and the good doctor begin early on but it is so well-executed that I didn’t mind. It was a nice build-up to a rather touching, bittersweet ending.
“On the List” by Brad Preslar
After nuclear winter has become a stark reality, humankind’s only hope is to flee Earth and head to an off-world colony. The first to leave are the world leaders and those who can afford the steep price for the trip. Everyone else has been left behind on a dying planet, hoping to find their name on a lottery list that will secure a place on the next shuttle. With only a few people left alive on Earth, Marla and her family must find a way off-world or die trying.
Preslar’s story was another bittersweet offering centered on love and sacrifice. I really felt for Marla and her family, abandoned by an uncaring dystopian government and left either to freeze to death or starve on a planet that can no longer sustain life. The ending was sad, to be sure, but hopeful.
“Ice Singer” by J.S. Veter
Beneath the thick ice of Europa’s surface, something sings in the dark waters. Astronaut and marine biologist Solly is on an expedition to the Jovian moon to find out exactly what it is. There, alone in the deep and bobbing about in a small spherical vessel, she finds it.
I was a little confused when reading Veter’s story. The narrative is a little too vague in places, which makes the events of Solly’s discovery somewhat hard to follow. Some of the science seemed a bit unbelievable, as well. Now, it’s a given that one needs to suspend belief for speculative fiction but it seems a tad of a stretch that even an alien ship made of ice (“the ice ship”) would survive being both stored for centuries and then launched by a jet of super-heated water from a volcanic vent deep beneath a frozen ocean.
“Strings” by Mike Rimar
Sometime in the future, after humanity has wiped out civilization as we know it, humans have grouped themselves into tribes. When word reaches the local self-styled bard, Garcia, that some real guitar strings from “the Before Time” are in the possession of a rival clan, he tells the narrator and a girl named Clara. Without being asked, Clara prompts the narrator to go on a dangerous mission to retrieve them for Garcia.
I really didn’t understand the point of this story. The narrative sets the bard up as the tribe’s heartthrob while at the same time establishing a childhood connection between Clara and the narrator that has faded. There’s no explanation as to why Clara is so set on retrieving the strings and the reader is led to assume it’s to gain the favor of the bard. The ending doesn’t resolve this question either, only hinting of some sort of complicity between Garcia and Clara, leaving the reader to wonder what the narrator has to do with anything as he begins to dance with her while the bard plays.
“Mnemosyne” by Catherine McLeod
Syne has an unusual talent—she can carry the souls of the dead in a special “pocket” in her brain, allowing her to release them somewhere else. The trouble is, once activated, this gift only lasts for a year’s worth of soul catching before it’ll close and she’ll return to normal. Given that each catch only lasts a few hours on average, expending that “year” could take decades, and Syne has almost spent it all. With only a few hours left in her “year,” her boss, Sam, sends her to collect the soul of an acquaintance, one with whom she had had an intimate relationship when he was alive. Unfortunately, this isn’t just her last assignment as an ectocourier; it might just be the last thing she does on Earth.
Betrayal, romantic indiscretions, and paranormal deliveries. What more could one ask for? When I first began reading McLeod’s story, I didn’t expect it to turn into such a thrill ride. The narrative moves along at a decent clip but then suddenly breaks into a nice sprint at the end. I also appreciated the red herring in terms of the potential danger of this job.
“Men of Fire” by Ruth Gilbert
With the threat of an enemy attack force looming, Lieutenant Elat has been ordered by his superiors to evacuate the settlement under his command in the Dark Wastes. His men, however, aren’t willing to leave. With an outright mutiny on his hands and the enemy arriving sooner than expected, Elat has to decide whether to run or make a final stand.
Gilbert’s tale had me completely engrossed—until it ended abruptly, that is. The narrative simply stops just as the action starts. For me, this ruined an otherwise great story.
“How ‘Bitcoin’ O’Brien Met the Queen of the Fair Folk” by Robert Dawson
Detective Nina Weinstein and her partner Murphy are undercover while investigating a ransom hacker known as “Bitcoin” O’Brien. Hoping to escape punishment, Bitcoin confides in Murphy that he’s looking to meet the Queen of the Fairies because he wants entry into her realm. Thinking he’s crazy but seeing an opportunity to bust him, Weinstein and Murphy intend to make sure he gets his meeting.
While not a terrible story, it has its share of issues. To start, the dialogue was mediocre—not terrible, but not great either. It was clichéd in some parts, awkward in others. It was also hard to get my bearings in the story. The first part of the narrative is so heavily saturated with Irish culture that I first thought the tale was set in Ireland, only to be shocked later that it actually takes place in an unnamed American town. In addition, at least one of the characters wasn’t consistent, either. When the fairy mound was first brought up in passing conversation, Weinstein’s crush, Virginia, was hesitant to talk about it, saying that it’s unlucky. Suddenly, however, after talking to Murphy, she’s thrilled to visit it on Samhain, of all nights. True, her reason is explained in the end, but really, it was a little too convenient and a tad silly.
“Leaf” by Carolyn Watson
Little Beatrice lives with her uncaring, career-driven mother. One morning, as she waits for her mother to finish preparing breakfast, she meets a strange, leafy, new friend with plans for world domination.
This short, quirky horror story certainly was interesting. When reading it, I was reminded a little of Stephen King’s short story “Weeds,” although the plants in Watson’s tale were more sentient and polite, even if just as menacing. I found it a bit odd, though, that no one but the little girl realized what was happening to them. One would think that plants slowly taking over one’s body would be rather obvious, yet not a single adult noticed the twigs growing out of their ears and other places.
“Free-Birding Through the Zombie Apocalypse” by Jeff Stehman
A few years into a zombie apocalypse, Steve and Linda stumble upon an old Chevy Nova. While Steve is skeptical that the bucket of rust will run, Linda is enamored with the old thing and, to Steve’s surprise, it groans to life when she turns the key. Hitting the road, everything’s going fine until they come across a young girl in need of a rescue. That’s when their road trip takes a turn for the worse.
I quite liked Stehman’s story, especially because it’s not your typical run-of-the-mill zombie survival tale. It’s a really fun story with its apocalyptic setting. After all, one normally doesn’t get to see zombie cars and undead kittens used as weapons. For that alone, it’s worth a read.
“Elegy” by Sarah L. Johnson
A few years ago, Clem and George met at a baby shower and soon became lovers. Today, they’re meeting in a cemetery for the first time after not seeing each other in quite a while. As Clem snaps photos of George to show their daughter, they discuss events that have happened since they were separated.
It’s hard to summarize Johnson’s story without giving away too much and spoiling the plot for would-be readers. In short, it’s a bittersweet tale of lost love with a rather doleful twist ending. There are hints to this twist seeded throughout the narrative, things which make the reader question whether something else is afoot but, by the end, it’s clear that this isn’t an ordinary reunion between two old flames separated by time and memory. It’s something far more tragic.
“I Don’t Care About Clifton Clowers” by B. Morris Allen
Deep in the woods of Wolverton Mountain lives a man named Clifton Clowers. Rumor has it that he’s got a beautiful daughter that he keeps to himself, running off any man brave enough to venture all the way up there hoping for a look at her. But curiosity got the better of local man Dave and now that he’s set eyes on Alicia Clowers, nothing’s going to keep him from courting her. Alicia, however, isn’t like other girls.
It’s a truth in writing that, while plot and setting are important, it’s good characters that really help drive the story forward. The plot and setting in Allen’s story are fine. Unfortunately, it’s in the characters where the story falls short and place it in something of a no-man’s land. I’m not at all certain who the reader is supposed to root for in this story or why I should care about any of them. Dave is a very unlikable character in general and the bits that appear to try to make him sympathetic fail miserably. The same is true with Alicia, for the most part. She starts out as a self-aware android learning how to navigate human emotion and experience. At first, it was interesting to see how she interpreted her experiences—that is, until she finds “love” with the misogynistic, unintelligent hick Dave. It’s at this point that she’s reduced to nothing more than a caricature of a Stepford Wife—which, of course, is what Dave makes clear he’s looking for throughout the narrative, a girl who doesn’t talk back and looks pretty, unlike his “friend” Eileen.
Dr. Clowers is the only truly sympathetic character, which is confusing, as the ending would make it seem that he’s supposed to be the villain of the piece despite not actually doing anything wrong. The only crime of which he is guilty is of remaining aware of Alicia’s artificiality (without ever treating her poorly, mind) and being a bit obsessed with his work, although Alicia paints him with a criminal brush in the end. Ultimately, all of this culminates in a very disappointing ending that only serves to highlight the unpleasantness of both Dave and Alicia. If this is supposed to be a tale of true love or an espousing of the message that “love conquers all,” it’s not at all a convincing one.
“In Jove’s Eternal Embrace” by Janet K. Nicolson
Desperate for work, Brin has taken a dangerous job with Skyreach Enterprises. The mission has sent her to an energy collection station orbiting Jupiter. Two weeks into the job, Brin realizes that the station isn’t operating at peak performance and orders her crew to recalibrate the system. The crew tells her that the goddess Jove gets angry if they take too much too fast but they follow orders anyway. Brin scoffs at the superstitious idea but soon finds out they weren’t wrong.
Overall, Nicolson’s story was enjoyable but the frequent switching between Jove and Brin got a little hard to follow. It was also never quite explained why Jove wanted Brin to become part of her to begin with, aside from the two feeling familiar to one another. Still, it was a good read.