Review: Abaculus III

By Ben Cooper

Abaculus3Abaculus III. Editor: Danielle Kaheaku. Leucrota Press: Poway (CA), 2009. 219 pp. US$ 14.95. ISBN: 978-0-9824713-2-6.

The genres of sci-fi, fantasy and horror have come to thrive in the small presses. With the larger publishing houses increasingly looking to play it safe and rack up mammoth sales with established genre authors rather than take a punt on some new, unproved scribbler, it has fallen to the hard-working, small-press arena to foster new talent, whether through novels or anthologies such as this latest from Leucrota Press. Like many small businesses, though, the small press market has also struggled in recent years, but Leucrota, though new, seems to be going strong. They aim to give constructive feedback on why manuscripts are rejected, instead of a form rejection and, once an author is on board, will work with them every step of the way. Plus, they’re a Green Publisher, too. I’m taking a shine to these guys, already.

Abaculus III brings together new and established authors in a collection of short stories that aims to tickle the fancies of fans of SF, fantasy and horror. But does it deliver?

The opening story, “The Thing In The Tunnels” by Kevin Wallis, had me thinking, “Nope.” The story echoes Stephen King’s It, with its protagonist, Howie, looking back on a series of unexplained and grizzly murders. With his friend, Oscar, he heads into the lair of a strange beast, down in the sewer systems of their town. Unfortunately, things don’t pan out as expected and the little twist Wallis gives the story is its saving grace.

The prose throughout is quite slack, not a desirable quality in a short story, and most of the dialogue is pretty bad – some of the exchanges are so un-teenager-like it’s unreal. Also, the sections of exposition by the present-day Howie that punctuate the flashbacks suffer from some really-overwrought, angst-ridden “philosophy” about truth and lies, cowardice, self-loathing, and so on. None of it was really effective at conveying the sense of guilt that the author was aiming for, and the whole story didn’t genuinely feel like a teenager was writing it (I guess the narrator could be no older than 18 or 19, as he is writing from three years after the initial expedition into the tunnels). I’m not sure why this story, of all the ones presented here, was chosen to kick the collection off, but it doesn’t serve as a particularly good calling card.

All in all, not a great start.

However, this was soon erased by Jessica Dall’s delightful little riff on the Greek mythological Fates, “God’s Laugh”. It’s a fine little story that doesn’t try to do anything too fancy, but just has some fun with a well known set of archetypes. In Dall’s world the three Fates aren’t eternal in the strictest sense, but instead are replaced about every three hundred years or so. However, the current three have something of a problem brewing under their noses: the Reapers, those hard-working trash collectors of the souls, have had enough and want a bit of a break. Of course, with the three sisters hard at work, that vacation isn’t coming anytime soon…or is it?

“God’s Laugh” is a fun story and Dall’s writing is neat and clean, and she clearly knows when to wrap a story up, not wanting it to ponder on for too long.

This strange see-sawing in quality is present throughout the collection. “The Midnight Train” by Brandon Ford, for example, reads like some teenage literature student’s sado-masochistic fantasy. It’s a pretty empty story; the main character, Dimitri, is an uninteresting and hackneyed murderer, out on the prowl for another victim, and we get a blow-by-blow account of his last kill.

The writing is quite poor in places, with some awful clichés, such as the following description of the victim: “Hair as red as the hottest flame. Skin as pure as the freshest milk.” Maybe these are supposed to be Dimitri’s thoughts, his descriptions, but it doesn’t feel that way. The story also suffers from some pretty bad “telling” when things could be shown. I’m not actually a hard-core adherent of “show don’t tell” – it’s a misinterpreted rule. You don’t show all the time as some creative writing teachers would have you believe. Instead, you balance the showing and telling, choosing what needs to be shown and what told. All great writers do their fair share of telling, but Ford does far too much in this story. For example, we don’t need to be told the murderer is aroused and excited; that’s the kind of thing that needs showing.

The twist ending is neither interesting nor effective and the whole story reads like a short scene or vignette as opposed to a rounded story.

“The Lancelot Effect” by Mark Finnemore follows straight after Ford’s effort and is a good story. It’s SF and very Philip K. Dick in its themes. Paladin has a problem with his wife: she doesn’t trust him. In desperation, he seeks help from Dr. Marshall, who can administer treatments from oxytocin-bonding therapy to all-out memory removal.

There are some neat little twists in the story, though none are startlingly original, but all in all, it’s a story that stuck in my mind long after finishing the anthology and I’d be interested in reading more of Finnemore’s work. He creates the SF world deftly and with economy, with small allusions to the world in the thoughts and actions of the characters. His toying with the idea of simulacra smacks of Phil Dick’s work, and perhaps, being a big fan of Dick’s, I was happy to find myself in familiar territory.

The highlight of the anthology, for me, was Martin Zeigler’s “A Functional Man”. Zeigler’s story is well-written and wonderfully funny. In a few short pages, he manages to conjure up twenty-plus years of marriage and all its affection and frustration.

Carl is one of those guys possessed of towering intellect, but who cannot function in the day-to-day practicalities of the real world. He isn’t quite Raymond Babbett, but he’s getting there. Having only just passed his driving test, and with his car acting up in “error” mode (the fuel tank reading empty, although only when not turned on), he gets towed home, much to his wife’s distress. But there are more distressing things afoot as we find out that Carl has caused quite some havoc over at his laboratory.

Zeigler’s writing is witty and sharp, and he has a great eye for detail, which is so crucial in any kind of fiction writing. Lorraine’s exasperation at her husband’s inability to do even the most simple practical jobs, such as filling out a cheque, is palpable (that scene, and Carl’s reaction to it later, is excellent and very funny) as is her obvious love and affection for him.

Abaculus III is an odd collection. The quality in it swings back and forth, seemingly with every other story, and another gripe I have with it is that there are numerous typographical errors, in both stories and some of the lead-in text that introduces the author of each story. Am I being obtuse? Possibly. Lots of books have such errors in them, but I found myself tripping over them more than I’d like. Of course, if the content were stellar, then I would forgive such things, but as it is, the collection is patchy.

When it’s good, it’s very good. But when it’s bad, it’s horrid.

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