Short Stories

Old-School Fun

Back when I started publishing regularly in science fiction and fantasy magazines in the late 2000s (does anyone say the “noughts” any more?), there were a lot of large format perfect-bound magazines out there which took advantage of then-new print-on-demand publishing technologies.

These mags contained fiction, poetry, art and even comics.  They were a lot of entertainment for the money.

But not many of them survived for very long, which is why horror magazine Night to Dawn is such a refreshing reminder of how things used to be.

Night to Dawn Issue 35 - April 2019

I received my contributors’ copy of Night to Dawn 35 because it contains my vampire story “Neurosis and the Undead”, and read through it, savoring the sense of being back in 2010–which, in this case, is a good thing.

For starters, there were a LOT of vampire stories in this magazine (I suppose the title of the publication should make one expect that) which is surprising in modern times.  Vampires, the common wisdom contends, are overdone.  I argue that vampires might have been popular, but they were popular for a reason: they are fascinating creatures, and you can always tell a new and different story about them.

Next, there are many, many interior illustrations of the black and white type we always loved in an earlier generation (think 1960s / 80s) but which you almost never see anymore.

And then there is the fiction.

Many outlets for short fiction, especially in small press, are essentially a mouthpiece for political pandering.  The stories therein might be better or worse, but they are often selected for criteria of ideological homogeneity or an attempt to ensure that the table of contents is populated by the correct demographic instad of quality (I won’t get into any arguments here about why this is wrong.  If Stephen King is taken to task for arguing that quality is more important than any other criteria, I don’t even want to imagine what Twitter would do to me).

Night to Dawn is refreshing in this sense as well.  The stories are diverse in the best sense of the word, meaning that they are different from each other.  Some seem to lean progressive, some a little more conservative.  It’s quite clear that the attempt here wasn’t to line up a point of view but to select the best possible stories for publication.

Whether that is successful or not will depend on the taste of the reader.  Most likely, in an eclectic mix like this one, you’ll enjoy some more than others.  Most intriguing to me was “Therapy for a Vampire” by Margaret L. Carter (this one is a serial, so I don’t know if the ending is as good as the setup).  I also enjoyed “My Zombie Valentine” by Roxanne Dent and “Professor Zapfman’s Miraculous Galvanic Apparatus” by Bernie Mojzes.  Your mileage will vary depending on your tastes, of course.

So if you miss the old-school style of horror, this one just might be for you.  I encourage you to have a look.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose darker fantasy is collected in the ebook Pale Reflection.  You can check it out here.

Horror for the Literati

Like erotica, horror is another genre I don’t read as often as I do science fiction, crime/thrillers or fantasy.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but I often relegate purchases because a shiny new discovery in a different genre beckons.

That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it.  Quite the contrary.  I like reading the stories and watching the movies, and I should probably do it more often, especially since my fantasy fiction has a tendency to run, terrified and screaming, right over the boundary between fantasy and horror.

One good reason to read more horror is that I wouldn’t be surprised when an antho breaks the tropes.

Let me explain.  When I have read horror, at least modern horror, I have found it to fall in a certain box: thrilling, terrifying and unafraid to use a certain amount of shock value to drive the point home.  This goes for Stephen King, and it also goes for the books I receive in which my own stories appear.

Enter Re-Terrify.

Re-Terrify Anthology

Edited by Kelly A. Harmon and Vonnie Winslow Crist, this one surprised me.  Yes, it’s undoubtedly a horror antho, but it aims for a very literate approach to the genre.  If you like gore or extreme terror, this isn’t the right place for it; it has its frights, but builds up to them like MR James more than Friday the 13th.

The final effect is powerful.  There was only one story I didn’t like (not awful, but a little weaker than the others), and it was buried almost in the exact center of the book, which seems to indicate the editors had some misgivings about it, too.  The rest, reprints all, from the 1950s to the 2010s (mostly from the 2010s), showed why they’ve been selected by editors at least twice.  They are uniformly good, and written to a truly high standard, generating horror without being blunt about it. (disclaimer – this is a contributor’s copy, meaning that there’s one of my stories in there… so I might not be completely objective, but I truly did like them all!).

Another thing this one has going for it is that it’s just a horror antho.  Not a horror fairy antho or a werewolf book or a slasher volume.  There’s a little of everything in here, even horror-sf, so you won’t get bored of ploughing the same furrow.

One story, though maybe not the best, was definitely memorable, above and beyond the norm, and that one was “Uncle Sharlevoix’s Epidermis”, by Gregory L. Norris, which was creepy and imaginative, even though the ending is in the classic style.

The rest are all good, and I’m pretty sure you’ll have a different favorite, so go out there and buy yourself a copy.  You will enjoy this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest collection Pale Reflection, pretty much defines dark fantasy.  You can buy it here.

The Perfect Response to “Bite Me”

Those of you who’ve been following along know that, though I’m not particularly a follower of the genre, I have little problem with an occasional piece of erotic fiction, whether it be a timeless classic or a forgotten piece of 1970s sleaze.

You might also know that, as a writer, I occasionally dabble in erotic fiction across a few genres.  I mentioned a sale to Blood in the Rain 4 a few months back, and the book has cycled through my enormous TBR pile and now I can review it.

Here’s that cover again:

cof

Now that I’ve read it, I can state that the content within is exactly what it says on the tin: vampire erotica.

Now before you run off, I need to say three things that surprised me (as someone who doesn’t read all that much modern erotica).  The first is that the stories in this volume are uniformly well-written.  On a sentence level, the writing (and don’t tell anyone I said this), is of a much higher quality than that which you’d find in a non-erotic science fiction or fantasy volume of the same payscale.

Secondly, the definition of what a vampire is gets examined and plenty of different roles, good and evil, victimizer and victim are studies between the sheets of this book.

Third, there is much less preoccupation with politics than in the rest of the genre.  This book is lovely in that any personal politics the author might have are left behind.  And that means you actually get decent stories instead of manifestos.  SF and fantasy editors need to take note.

In fact, the weakest story of the bunch is the single story that is a political revenge fantasy.  Included, one supposes, for variety’s sake, it was the single clunker as a tale, although well-written.

As for the sex, all varieties are sprinkled in here and, like me, you will probably find some stories that turn you on while others might make you squirm a bit.  Which, quite possibly, is the whole point.  In my own case, male / male stories aren’t my cup of tea, but there are a couple in here, “Lawful Evil” by Erin Horáková is memorable that worked for me as a tale despite being male / male.  In fact, almost every single story was excellent, with well-done sex scenes central to each.  Vampires lend themselves well to that.

The best of the bunch was “The Prisoner” by Bill Davidson, a long story with a twist ending that nevertheless follows logically from the themes developed inside.

This one is highly recommended (and not just because there’s one of my stories in it).  The quality of writing is superlative, the sex is sexy and the vampires are memorable.  What more do you want from life?

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Timeless is a fast-paced and sexy thriller, and you can buy it here.

Some Books are Just a Pain

I usually try to spare Argentine writers the worst reviews.  After all, a shared background and experience has to count for something, right?  When I don’t quite enjoy a book by one of my countrymen, I simply refrain from recommending it.  I don’t usually feel the need to go any further.

Siete Casas Vacías_Samantha Schweblin.jpg

Unfortunately, the latest book in this list that I’ve read is Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samantha Schweblin and I can’t in good conscience give this one an ambiguous review–you never know who might mistakenly buy the thing and then come after me with a fire axe.

First, let’s get some things clear.  It’s very, very evident that that author is both extremely talented and extremely well-versed in the craft of writing.  The fact that this is a bad book doesn’t mean that Schweblin is a bad writer.  She very clearly isn’t.  In fact, I’d say she is a very good writer.

The second thing I need to point out is that this book–a collection of seven short stories–has one some serious awards.  The main body of the collection won the Ribera del Duero Prize while the story not included in that prize won the Juan Rulfo Prize.  While I’m not as familiar with Spanish-language awards as those given in English, and can’t truly say how prestigious these two are, it’s clear that these stories were highly valued by the judges of two different international competitions in two different countries.

So, please keep the above under consideration while I tell you why I didn’t like this book at all.

The reason Schweblin’s undoubted talent couldn’t keep it from being a massively boring read is down to the subject matter she chose.  So let’s have a look at that.

The overall approach is similar to what I discussed in the O Henry Prize volume I read recently.  Schweblin goes tight into her narrator’s mind and looks at the world from that extremely limited perspective.  The key difference with a typical “woman goes to the laundromat and thinks deep thoughts about menstruation” story that we all love to laugh at is that Schweblin’s characters are mentally a bit off.

It sounds interesting, but in this particular case, it really isn’t.  These characters aren’t insane in ways that entertain, but each one has just a little bit of their personality exaggerated–an obsession taken a bit further than is healthy, a neurosis that comes to the fore and pushes normal behaviour aside.  It’s not enough to make the characters memorable… just enough to make the reader get depressed on their behalf.

Reading a book while alternately feeling depressed and embarrassed at the poor people populating its pages is not what I’d call an entertaining read.  As a writer I recognize that only an excellent writer can maintain a consistent, unbroken sense of depression and ennui through a hundred and twenty pages.  Shweblin is enormously talented; she did this on purpose.

It’s not a choice I would have made myself.  I understand that there is a certain amount of this sensibility in literary fiction but, even when writing in that genre, I try to keep the stories and characters more interesting.  I suppose that the difference is that I deviate just a little more from the everyday.

Speaking as a reader, I would love to be able to enjoy the characters, to find them interesting, likeable or entertaining as opposed to perfect recreations of my more annoying neighbours.  This book failed in that respect despite the fact that it would have gotten full marks in most creative writing classes–and despite all of its prizes.

Anyway, I hope I’ve given an objective review of the volume–you can decide for yourself.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own book of literary short stories is entitled Love and Death, and you can buy it here.

 

 

A Comfortable Book (and that famous dangling O)

As a fiction writer, and one well-published in literary short fiction, I’ve been aware of O Henry forever, but this is the first time I picked up one of the collected volumes of short fiction awarded the annual O Henry Awards.

O Henry Awards 1988

The one I picked up was the 1988 volume, and I was lucky in that it contained stories by Raymond Carver (the grand prize winner), Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike.  It’s tempting to say that these stories were the highlight of the book, just to prove that I know good fiction when I read it, but that wouldn’t be the case.  Other than the Carver, which did stand out because it was very much different, the others were about par for the book–even the Updike’s narrative style became familiar with the passing of the pages.

The thing that surprised me about these stories is how familiar they felt. Except for a few notable exceptions (the Carver again) these stories deal with life on a very small scale, looking at petty infidelities, tempests in the teacup of a small community and sordid little prejudices.

Yes, they can deal with the less-attractive side of the human condition, but they are also comfortable.  The people are not just like the ones you see on the street and at the laundromat, but they might actually be those same people.  It wouldn’t be the first time a writer put a real-life person on a page without telling anyone.  Dipping into this book for a story at a time was like visiting an old friend or wearing a well-stretched pair of shoes.

As a reader, I enjoyed it, much as you might enjoy an afternoon on a rocking chain on th eporch, but as a writer, I found the whole thing a bit puzzling.  The stories were well (often masterfully) written, but there seemed to be little point to them, and the endings were far from satisfying in most cases.

I tend to remember Hemingway, who never wrote about trifles.  He went deep into important things even in his short fiction.  The work sticks with you.

And that is also what I try to do when I write any sort of ficion. I see no reason for literary fiction to be an exception.  I read or heard somewhere that the only two things worth writing about are love and death, so that’s usually where I focus.  Readers and critics will define whether my attempts are successful or not, but at least I try.  Hell, I even titled my first literary collection Love and Death.

Love and Death by Gustavo Bondoni_3d

But these stories deal with neither.  They deal with anecdote and unremarkable people (there is only one story about a murderer in the whole thing, and he is only an accidental killer) doing mainly unremarkable things and giving us the tail, tame end of the journey Joyce and Woolf started in stream-of-consciousness narrative.

It certainly works from a reader’s perspective, taking me to a comfortable world of others’ creation.  I wonder if this is what the writers intended.  I also wonder how I’d have felt if I read these same tales in 1988.  Might the confort factor be brought on by rose-tinted remembraces of the Howard Jones decade?  Perhaps.  Most modern litfic fills me with either annoyance or ennui, but perhaps if I reread in 2050, I might feel nostalgic about how everyone was going on and on about pronouns and health care woes.  Who knows?

Anyway, I recommend this one as a pleasant read without the sharp edges that Hemingway’s work still has even after more than just thirty years.  You will enjoy the stories calmly, and often marvel at the writing… which is always a good thing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  Quite a bit of his literary short work is collected in Love and Death.  It isn’t comfortable and is full of sharp edges.  You can buy it here.

The King of Planets, Anthologized

Something I always look for when perusing used bookstores are science fiction anthologies.  Partially, this is because, as a short story writer, it’s useful to see what’s come before, but mainly because I really enjoy reading short fiction, especially the stuff published until about 1990 or so, when the genre was focused more on entertainment than anything else.

It’s not unusual to encounter incredible stories forgotten in the pages of some battered mass market paperback, and that discovery is always wonderful.  So my bookshelves are kind of packed with random anthologies chosen for no other reason than that I found them on a shelf at some point.

The latest in this quixotic quest was the 1973 antho Jupiter, edited by Frederick and Carol Pohl, which included colossi like Asimov, Clarke, Blish, Simak, Weinbaum, Anderson, and del Rey.  Only two stories were by authors whose name I failed to recognize immediately.

Jupiter - Carol and Frederick Pohl

But the names, amazingly, are secondary.  The most interesting part of this one is the date.  1973.  Jupiter was just being explored, then.  The major NASA probes were on their way, but enough had been discovered to remove any possibility of the pre-war sword & planet tales being possible.  By 1973, everyone knew that the gas giants had atmospheres at least a few hundred kilometers thick and that any surface activity would need to take place under horrendous pressures and in chemically difficult conditions.

And yet even the more modern stories in the antho assume that there is a surface that can be used under the atmosphere–thinking that today’s discoveries have ruled out.  Which means that, even though there’s a certain amount to modern feel to the tales, the fact that many of them take place on the surface of Jupiter gives them a bit of a sword & planet feel anyway.  We know this isn’t how it is, and the story is superseded by reality.

That doesn’t stop one from enjoying them anyway and, as is often the case, the very best of them in my opinion was Lester del Rey’s “Habit”.  I’ve always thought del Rey to be enormously underrated–whenever he has a story in a volume with the real heavyweights, it usually holds its own or better.

Second place goes to Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa”.  This one, while not as entertaining as the del Rey, is imbued with the spectacular sense of wonder that the best SF stories always have.  Clarke was a true master of the form.

Overall, however, this one, though entertaining, is for completists and people who don’t mind reading stories that science has since left behind (interestingly, the Clarke and the del Rey, my two favorites, were also the ones that could be published today with little modification, as none of the story depends on old science).  Good, but not great.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest collection of short fiction (none of them based on old science yet) is entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out (and hopefully buy it) here.

Discovering Noblebright

A couple of years ago, I saw a call for submissions for an anthology to be entitled Still Waters.  I read through the guidelines and realized I had a story that fit with everything except one term I wasn’t sure of: Noblebright.

So I clicked on the link and learned a lot about the concept of Noblebright, including that it was meant to be a contraposition to grimdark.  Now I like a happy ending as much as everyone but, as I admitted in the introduction to Off the Beaten Path, I often set out to write a nice little story and somehow end up with bodies all over the place.

Still Waters edited by CJ Brightley

But though my story did kill of a perfectly nice and attractive character, it also embodied a lot of the concepts they wanted, so I sent it off.

As happens in these cases, I got the acceptance a couple of months later, and received my contributor copy when it was published.  The book went into my pile (those who come here often know I always read and review my contributors’ copies, even if it takes me a few months–or more–to get to each one).

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this one, but one thing that caught me off guard was the spectacular level of the writing here.  I know a couple of the authors involved, so they weren’t a surprise, but the level of craft across the entire book was.  Clearly, the field is getting better at being literary.

The second thing I realized is that most of this isn’t the kind of work I’d normally read were it not for the fact that I had a story in there.  The book is mostly composed of the more modern take on fantasy, meaning that there is less emphasis on adventure and a bit more on character motivation and emotional states.  There are also a couple of science fiction pieces (mine was one), but mainly, this one is more for those who enjoy the current trend of making the genre more literary and mystical (and yes, before you ask, my story is very much in line with this trend… my preferred reading is not always a reflexion on the way I write).

Finally, a word about Noblebright.  While the concept definitely makes for a much less painful reader experience because twisted, reader-unfriendly plots and characters are mostly absent, it also makes things a little predictable.  You know the main character (or the primary secondary character, or all of them) will be motivated by a desire to do good, so you find yourself consciously searching for the signs.  It doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable, but it was an interesting feature I thought worth mentioning.

Favorite story?  Probably “The Ice of Heaven” by Corrie Garrett.  I would have loved for that one to continue, aways the sign of a good story.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s short fiction has been collected in several books, most recently in Off the Beaten Path, which you can check out here.

 

The Fifth Di… A Slim but Poignant Tome

As those of you who saw Friday’s post know, I’m reading contributor’s copies.  The latest was The Fifth Di from March 2018 (yes, I’m a year and a half behind. I know.  My to-be-read pile is approaching critical mass.  If you see news that something collapsed upon itself and generated a black hole centered in Argentina that is slowly absorbing matter from all of the rest of the world and will end life as we know it, it was my TBR pile.  I apologize in advance).

The Fifth Di - March 2018 - Edited by J Alan Erwine

This one hit me hard, because of the four stories within, it contains one by my good friend Robert N. Stephenson, a brilliantly talented writer from Australia who, sadly, committed suicide in August.

This was my first time in Fifth Di, so it’s also my first contributor’s copy, and I was quite impressed by it.  It holds four stories (mine is entitled “Spinning Candle”, a science fiction suspense piece).  The one I liked the most (I never rate mine in these, obviously) was a tale by Lachlan Walter called “She has no Toys”.  This one was a tear jerker on more than one level, with a well-created atmosphere and, coming right before the story penned by my lost friend made the mag hit home pretty hard.

So, a recommended read here.  I definitely invite you to check it out (if you do, please let me know what you thought!).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writers.  For those who enjoy science fiction suspense, he is also the author of the tense thriller Siege.  You can buy it here.

A Lesson in Why the Greats Are Great

Over the past few years, I’ve been complaining about Gardner Dozois’ Years’ Best Science Fiction anthos.  They were still, I argued, the best source for the reality of the genre in the modern era, and his summation was a priceless essay, but the stories were getting weaker year by year.

Why?  Well, the message was drowning the storytelling.

For those living under a rock, the science fiction world’s current tempest in a teacup is that half the genre believes that the most important thing that SF has to do is to advance a progressive political agenda and that everything else is secondary while the other half feels that the job of science fiction is to tell a good story, politics be damned.  There have been some well-publicized arguments about this which I won’t go into here.  Google is your friend.

Though my reading preferences fall squarely into the second camp, I don’t mind reading a good message story with my action.  My problem was that the message stories were no longer good, and the genre was becoming more about diversity than about actual interesting tales.  Which explains why so much respected genre fiction isn’t selling while every Hollywood film seems to be an SF title.  Dozois, I felt, was echoing this trend instead of fighting it, and I wasn’t impressed.

But I now realize I owe the man an apology.  I wish he were still alive so I could give it to him in person.

The Year's Best Science Fiction- Thirty-Second Annual Collection - Gardner Dozois

This year I became a Hugo voter for the first time, mainly because Guardbridge books launched my collection Off the Beaten Path at WorldCon in Dublin.

So, full of enthusiasm, I started reading the nominees.  The first book was terrible, so I went on to the next.  Ugh.  The third… well, you see where this is going.  It was, to put it gently, a weak field.  The reason: preachy, political stuff and not much that I didn’t find boring.  I was gutted.

In fact, my conclusion was that it had been a bad year for the genre in general.  Until I saw the Dragon Award nominees and realized that it hadn’t been a bad year… just a bad selection.

That forced me to reappraise Dozois’ last few books.  He hadn’t selected too many bad, preachy stories… he had, in fact, had to cull the best ones from an ocean of utter tripe to give us the ones fit for human consumption.  He was doing his job, holding his nose and giving us the Best of the Year… no matter how bad some of that year might have been.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection, pictured above, is a good collection.  Not as good as some of the older ones, definitely not Golden-Era-worthy, but good, especially when compared to what’s been happening to the Hugos.  He will be missed – his death is a huge blow to the SFF genre.

As for the story selection in this one, I was disappointed that the Alastair Reynolds tale wasn’t quite as good as some others of his I’ve seen over the years, but that disappointment was made up for by excellent stories by Cory Doctorow (“The Man Who Sold the Moon”) and Ken Liu (“The Regular”).  Those were my favorites.

Bad ones?  Yes, there were a few (albeit every one of them well-written).  Nevertheless, considering what’s happening in the rest of the genre, this is a solid collection.  Better than most of the more recent ones.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose collection Off the Beaten Path, mentioned above can be seen here.

 

Off the Beaten Path Has Been Launched!!

Off the Beaten Path by Gustavo Bondoni

Most books have a story behind them.  This one is no exception.  When I started writing short fiction for publication, back in the mid-2000’s, there were very few people from the non-English part of the developing world writing original work in English.  Oh, some people were translating stuff that happened to land on their desk, but it was a scattershot effort.

So, mixed in with my more usual fare (fiction set in an American or Western European setting), I loved to change it up on editors a bit and drop my characters into unexpected places.  So you get a noirish dystopia in Namibia, a parrot story in New Zealand or a straight up SF espionage tale on the moon… in which two of the antagonists are India and China.

These stories sold, so I kept creating them until, almost without realizing it, I soon had enough for a book dedicated to just my published work that takes place, as the title suggests, off the beaten path of traditional SF.

And it just happened that I already worked with the perfect publisher for a book of this kind.  Guardbridge Books is based in Scotland, but has specialized, since its launch, in books from different cultures.  They had published my novel, Outside, and when I pitched the idea, they were delighted to have a look… and they, like the editors who’d bought the stories initially, also decided to publish.

Of course, they asked for a couple of new stories, which I was more than happy to write, and which round out the book wonderfully (of course I think that… I’m the author!).

So, that’s the genesis of this particular book.  Have a look!  Buy a copy!  Hell, buy multiple copies…  give one to all your friends.  Sign it and pretend I did it (I’ll back you up).

Anyway, you can buy the book on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.  Let me know if you enjoyed it.