Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW) is a ‘zine that Small Beer Press has published for ages now (in ‘zine time at least, the first issue is dated November 1996), and has a reputation for strange, original fiction that bulges well out of the corset of genre. For a long time it was a quarterly. Now it is, alas, biannual, but for a happy reason. Editors Gavin Grant and Kelly Link now have a baby girl. LCRW is a founding publication in the variously-named zone known as slipstream or interstitial fiction. Both editors are writers as well, Kelly Link being the more widely known, and both are former co-editors of the Datlow fantasy and horror annual Best-Of collections. Readers of the Datlow anthologies might recognize some elements in the ‘zine’s fiction, but LCRW focuses on shorter work and is freer in the style and tone of pieces it publishes. Since LCRW is their own, Gavin and Kelly can publish whatever the hell they want, and they do, and it’s great (usually). The unpredictability is part of what makes LCRW a ‘zine, and not something more commercial. In the larger context of the field, the editors have built a reputation for knowing quality when they see it, and for encouraging new talent. Those who publish in LCRW know they will be read by the Best Of editors, for example. At the same time, as a reader, you can expect to find gems by people you’ve never heard of, because that has been a part of the soul of LCRW since the beginning.
This issue includes eight fiction pieces (one is not really a story), some poems, a recurring Dear Aunt Gwenda advice column, and the text of a talk by Ted Chiang called “Reasoning About the Body.” This is the talk he gave at Boreal in Quebec last year in which he discussed folk science and ideas past and present about the brain. I mentioned the talk in my Portal review of Subterranean Online. If your interest was piqued, now you know where to find the talk.
Given that this is Lady Churchill’s, I was expecting some fairly weird fiction. Still, the issue’s first story, “The Cruel Ship’s Captain” by Harvey Welles and Philip Raines, took me by surprise. It features a living pirate ship that has hair growing out of its hull, for Spaghetti’s sake. Not only does the ship have to be shaved regularly, its hull sweats oil with hallucinogenic properties and the crew gets high off it! There is plenty more where that came from – believe me, this ship is strange. The story is weird, and evocative, and also hard to understand at times. A shipload of people from another ship, the Dream, have been captured by the Cruel Ship of the title. Settle and her boyfriend Apple are passengers from the Dream who become slaves on the Cruel Ship. The story tells of Settle’s survival, and how she deals with the ship’s Captain.
Both the Dream and the Cruel Ship are made from accretions of smaller ships (accretions and agglomerations like this show up a lot in New Weird fiction). The smaller ships are the souls, or something like souls, of the passengers. In the case of the Dream, the passengers’ ships are joined together voluntarily. On the Cruel Ship, individual souls are melded into the ship against their will.
The atmosphere of the story is great, the New Weird-ness of the ship and its crew. But how ship dreams worked (it is possible to hide a soul, keep one from being taken, in a dream), some of the structure of the world, I found hard to grasp. The key to a person’s identity and self is in his or her ship. That much I think I understood. I found myself wanting a little more explanation, or more hints about the nature of souls and the rules of dreams in this world. It would have made the story less dreamlike I suppose, but more satisfying.
One thing I remember from past issues of LCRW is that no story is like any other in a particular issue. And so “Elite Institute for the Study of Arc Welders’ Flash Fever” by Patty Houston has no pirate ships. It’s not even all that weird by comparison. Well wait, it’s pretty weird in its own way, there’s a character called the Angel Communicator, a preacher named Reverend Francine. It’s mainly two people, Howard and Aida, welders welding classic cars back together. They are breathing fumes, trying to make a living and keep each other alive while part of a medical study (yes all that at the same time) of illness caused by welding. Everything is so telegraphed in this story, right from the title. The study doctors leave messages for the pair on Post-it notes. Really? I found that a very annoying device. Somehow the story still managed to get through to me though. Howard (it’s told from his point of view) genuinely cares for Aida. He sees her gradually getting sicker, he tries to pick up the slack and help her hide it, but there’s nothing he can do. The pathos of this, along with vivid descriptions of the cars and various other things, cuts through the contrived annoyingness of other aspects of the story.
“Sleep” by Carlea Holl-Jensen is a short piece where a woman tells her friend Michelle that she will sing her into ritual sleep. I forget the word for it; it’s not a story, not a eulogy. It’s written to the friend in the first person, and speaks of long, healing sleep. A pretty piece that I can’t quite name.
In “The Other Realms Were Built with Trash” by Rahul Kanakia, Aldram presides over the Recycling Tower in the Dump, a place at the edge of the Other Realms where all the trash from the human world goes. Aldram, a changeling born in the human world and brought to faerie, recycles for the Other Realms. They need human materials, faerie materials don’t last. As the story begins, Aldram’s human assistant Benny is hunting for human corpses. Human dead fall into the Dump (and other things that leave the human world such as destroyed buildings, too). Aldram makes human corpses into bodies for faerie lords. The lords treat him badly and see him as beneath them. Lord Reva is the latest lord who needs a body. Benny can’t find a well-preserved body, as all the bodies are partially destroyed or disfigured in some way, because of a war in the human world. When it’s clear the human world is no more, Aldram has to decide whether to stay at his post. This is an interesting way of presenting the apocalypse, from the other side of the veil. I wasn’t that invested in Aldram’s choice, though. I think the enormity of the world around him, the Dump and its tower, the mechanical flies that harvest material from the human world, overwhelmed him as a character. He’s alone through most of the story. I did feel sorry for him, but I think it would have helped to have more characters, at least a small group. By the end I don’t think I cared that much about Aldram. Maybe I would have if there was at least one character in the story who seemed to. Benny’s appearance was too brief to convince me that he did.
“Alice: a Fantasia,” by Veronica Schanoes is divided into three sections. The Alice of the title is the one who went to Wonderland, but the story is not about her (or it tries not to be, I should say). The first section, Ina First, is about Alice’s elder, less comely sister Ina, who encounters “Uncle D.” when Alice is still a baby. Uncle D. must be Lewis Carroll, AKA Charles L. Dodgson. Ina reflects on whether appearances do, or should, matter. I am not sure if Ina is a representation of a specific character or idea, but I think she must be and I’m missing something. The second section features a looking-glass girl who looks back at Alice, but is not Alice, when she looks in the mirror. I haven’t read Through the Looking-Glass in a very long time, but this (and the next section too) has got to be playing on it. Alice never sees her own reflection in the mirror; she always sees the girl’s. Alice loves it when Uncle D. (Lewis Carroll was a photographer and took many photos of young girls) takes her picture, because she can only see herself in photos, never in reflections. The third section, “Alice at the Clang Association,” is a kind of prose poem, all rhyming and rhythmic and vivid. And confusing. The Red Queen is in there and lots of other Alice-related stuff. But I think I missed how it ties the piece together, if it does. The contrast of the third section with the first two, both written in a relatively straightforward style, is quite jarring. Perhaps there is more cleverness here that I’m missing.
“Absence of Water” by Sean Melican is in the tradition of the historical fantastic. It’s about a Confederate submarine. Yes, that one, the real one that was found in 1995, the Hunley, the first combat sub to sink an enemy vessel. Very cool bit of history to make a story out of. But it’s better than that. The sub itself isn’t the whole story. The story unfolds in three alternating time sections. In the first, starting in 1850, a disturbed boy remembers watching his brother drown and not running for help. In the second, starting in January 1864, soldiers have been training in the Hunley preparing for a mission against the Union naval blockade. The third starts a few months before, at the beginning of training in November 1863. Gradually it is revealed that the boy is Caleb Simkins, one of the soldiers in training. The alternating structure allows for the story to build nicely, the tension of the upcoming mission mixing with scenes that present the Hunley and sinister events from Caleb’s childhood.
This sub was scary. Not just low-tech. More like no-tech. Nothing to heat the inside, no way to scrub the air, and powered by the crew’s own strength alone. And I thought u-boats were claustrophobic. By the time this crew starts training, two other crews, thirteen men in all, have drowned in accidents on the sub. Melican does a wonderful job of describing just how frightening it is to be inside this thing, underwater, getting colder and colder, air slowly fouling, expecting to die (shudder). It’s really amazing that people actually did this, and I’m grateful to Melican for spinning us a what-if (or a what-was) about it. Favorite story of the issue.
“Three Hats,” by Jenny Terpsichore Abeles, tells the origin story of Three-Hat Juan, a well-known old man who lives on the street. He fought as a youth to find his favorite sister Rosa. During this trial he puts on first his grandfather’s top hat, then his father’s fedora, and then Rosa’s hat (Rosa’s hat ends up beneath the other two, though). This is a short and vivid folk tale. I enjoyed it as I read it, but it wasn’t memorable. I’m not sure why. I guess it didn’t reach beyond itself, or I didn’t see myself in Juan, or Juan’s family, or the three hats.
“Death’s Shed,” by J. M. McDermott creeped me out big time. Steampunk horror? I didn’t know there was such a thing. Well, there is. A boy plays with two twin girls who enjoy bullying him.. His father , a widower, is lost in an elaborate train set, complete with robot maintenance men he built, and blimps that fly above the trains. When his wife was dying, he tried to make her a new mechanical heart. It didn’t work, and she died. The father doesn’t react to his son’s travails, just assumes they’re somehow his fault. The father is totally passive and not really listening anyway.
This story has a structure that’s been seen many times. A child beset by bullies encounters a dark stranger who agrees to help him get revenge. The steampunk elements are well described, but feel tacked on. The story doesn’t demand the steampunk parts. It doesn’t really need them. The tone is well handled, it’s creepy as hell. It’s not a bad story. But it’s less original that it appears.