"Soul Hungry" by Rebecca M. Senese
"Carter Hull Recovers the Puck" by Marissa K. Lingen
"Dust to Dust" by Scott Sakatch
"The Tamale God" by Jeffrey D. Johnson
"Hell-Train" by Nicole Luiken
"The Girl With the Half-Moon Eyes" by Robert Burke Richardson
"Only the Dead Flower" by A.M. Arruin
Our superior Canadian overlords have done it again with another thrill-packed issue of On Spec.
In "Balance of Power," Marian Allen takes us into an intriguing fantasy world of magical creatures and evil witches which is unlike any of those stories that has come before. Crippled Gwenna and her friend, Toby, find a magically created fish-like creature named Shisha, who is the slave of an evil old woman. When the trio goes to barter for Shisha’s freedom, both they and the old woman get more than they bargained for.
This one felt somewhat tedious starting out, but Allen’s magical rules saved it. The people who create these mystical, animal familiars to help them have to give something up, which is why Gwenna is crippled and her horse is now a boy named Toby. I like stories that feel like a small part of a bigger world, as this one does, and I wonder if Allen has a novel in mind. Not the strongest piece in this issue, in my opinion, but a good start nonetheless.
In "Soul Hungry," Rebecca M. Senese takes us into the bizarre life of a woman who has been told she has cervical cancer, but she learns she has something much more sinister growing inside her, a darkness that will totally consume her.
On Spec manages to mix dark fantasy and horror with science fiction very well, and this story highlights that fact. If you like your horror grim and dark, where nobody gets out alive, this is the story for you. If you like your narratives to come with a bit more explanation, you will be disappointed with "Soul Hungry," but Senese’s writing style makes reading worth your while.
Marissa K. Lingen gives us the unusual mix of magic and hockey in "Carter Hull Recovers the Puck." Carter’s just your average, minor league hockey player, but when he becomes entangled in a dispute between the Faerie Queen and Puck, he has to do a lot more to keep his stick on the ice, like cast spells by skating in specific patterns in order to trip up one of the Queen’s henchmen. If he doesn’t, Puck gets his friends’ baby.
This is another one of those short stories that would make an even better novel, and I hope Lingen has plans to expand it. It didn’t go into enough detail about the spat between Puck and the Faerie Queen for me. I also wasn’t too clear on how commonplace magic is in this world. Carter Hull seems to take it as if it’s the most normal thing in the world, but the hockey officials don’t appear to know what’s going on. Wouldn’t there be regulations against using it during a game if it was common practice?
This issue is minor however, because this is still an inventive, intriguing story. Works that blend science fiction and fantasy with sports have always been a strange mix, but excellent when done well. One need look no further than Michael Bishop‘s Brittle Innings for a good example of speculative sports fiction done right. And I think Lingen’s work ranks right up there, especially since no one has tried to cast spells in hockey. At least, as far as we know.
In "Dust to Dust," Scott Sakach gives us one of the few science fiction stories of the issue. Delmar is a devout Mormon farmer, a profession that has become an anachronism in a world transformed by the alien Arcadians. These aliens have taught humanity to eat recycled waste, people leave Earth to live on other planets, and there is no pollution or war. But Delmar is anything but happy about that, as his entire world has been shattered. His wife and children left him to go live on an extraterrestrial colony, and there is no need for a farmer anymore.
Deciding to change things, he stockpiles fertilizer in his barn and captures one of the aliens who comes calling, planning to make one explosive statement about the world and his place in it.
This is one of those quiet little stories that sneaks up on you, sinks its teeth in, and won’t let go. It’s complex, thought-provoking, and most of all, timely. It has so much to say about any society that has been colonized and peaceably conquered by another. Del is just as right as he is wrong, and we sympathize with him even as we hope his plan fails. This is good stuff.
"The Tamale God" by Jeffrey D. Johnson is a bit lighter fair, but with a very interesting concept behind it. Hector is a simple tamale vendor, but when a strange man repeatedly offers to buy his unusual tamale cart from him–then attempts to steal it–Hector and his headstrong sister learn that there is more to the simple cart than meets the eye. Turns out it’s actually a machine that can create faith, though Hector’s sister removes the central item that makes it work before the stranger can demonstrate its power. Hector then finds another, more creative use for the machine.
I find the idea of a machine that can create religious belief or faith an intriguing one, and I love how Johnson pulled this one off. It makes me wonder where he came up with the idea in the first place. Fantasy, science fiction, I don’t know what to call this one, but just think of it as a fun story with a very cool concept underpinning it. And pass the tamales.
In "Hell Train," Nicole Luiken takes us into the weird wild West for a rootin’ tootin’ shoot-em-up involving demons. Snake Coltrane is a gunfighter good at what he does. But when the hell train rolls into town to round up some souls, they decide to take Snake back with them. When a woman whom Snake helped when they were young volunteers to take his place, Snake chases the train and boards it for a game of poker with the head demon to win back his lady’s soul.
This is wacky good fun. Luiken does a great job playing with Western tropes without turning them into clichés, resulting in a truly original piece. The only problem I had with this story was I wasn’t sure where his lady friend came from, especially given their past connection. Still, this is an entertaining story, especially if you like your West more weird than wild.
"The Girl With the Half-Moon Eyes" by Robert Burke Richardson feels like it was ripped from tomorrow’s headlines. A journalist is in Africa doing a story on a refinery that turns dead bodies into oil. The corpse of a girl with half-moon eyes, a prostitute, gets his attention and sends him off on a story of exploitation that is all too familiar to today’s world. He imagines the girl sold by her family at a young age, becoming a prostitute, and her father encountering her years later in a club. Not knowing she is his daughter, the two spend time together, and he denies her when he learns the truth. This somber, depressing little tale is a reminder that there are some cures worse than the disease, and also takes a startling look at third world prostitution as it occurs today.
"Only the Dead Flower" by A.M. Arruin is the story of a world populated entirely by fantasy creatures. A snow faerie carrying a mysterious disease is found by a convent of goblins. To learn where she came from they reveal their secrets: the purpose of their order is to preserve the knowledge of this magical world, like A Canticle for Leibowitz with goblins. The goblins must perform a special ceremony so that the faerie’s spirit doesn’t wander, and in doing so they reveal more about their strange world.
This was an odd one, and another fantasy story that might be better expanded into a novel. It reminded me a bit of The Dark Crystal with its fairy tale creatures, though it is very dark and grim. Faeries, though seemingly immortal in our legends, can and do die here, and have myths of their own. Heady stuff, and a fitting end to this issue of On Spec.