THEAKER'S QUARTERLY FICTION #17

Reviewed by Steve Redwood

There's a small problem with reviewing this magazine, given that, in the small press at least, a reviewer is almost forced to indicate (even if only by implication) whether it is worth subscribing to a magazine or not. But what happens when the editor of the magazine himself openly admits, in a two-page 'Manifesto', that “we keep our ambitions small, and thus they are hard to thwart!... We're unashamedly Sunday footballers, kicking the ball around in the park...”? When, of 80 pages, only 25 pages come from people outside a small group of friends (humorously referred to as 'cronies and indentured servants')? When, moreover, in the same engaging tongue-partially-in-cheek way, one of the editors (the eponymous--I've always wanted to use that posh-looking word--Master Theaker himself), in the magazine information side-bar, writes: “Frankly, subscribing is quite pricey: the best thing is to download each issue for free, and then buy the annual bound volumes, which are only about £6.99”?

This is not, unfortunately, all false modesty. Nothing in the magazine made me willing to kill in order to read more (though nothing made me fling it down in despair either). As Theaker says, “We're not really about being cutting-edge...”. In addition, the in-house stuff - nearly two-thirds of the magazine - is all serialized, and that for me is always a definite no-buy in any publication, let alone a trimestrial one; I can't remember what happened last week (someone turned up yesterday swearing I'd married her two weeks ago), let alone a quarter of a year ago. What's more, half the mag is taken up with the last part of a single serial: a magazine investing half its space on a single writer is extremely valiant, perhaps foolishly so.

Time to introduce a 'but...' since this Theaker chap apparently comes from Birmingham, and as I was partly brought up in the slums of Balsall Heath (now all poshed up around the Bull Ring, I believe, and the give-away bones of my over-confident adolescent enemies nicely paved over), I have a healthy respect for the long Edward Scissorarms of an irate Brummie. An offer you can't refuse? There they don't even make the offer....

So...

But, in a way, isn't this one of the most legitimate routes for the small press to take? Too many claim they're too avant-garde for the big presses, implying they're superior but cruelly neglected (how often is this really the case?), whereas often in fact their writers simply haven't learned their craft. Here someone is saying, look we enjoy this, we love writing, we think you will enjoy it too, here come take a look, and put your feet up. Not for money, fame, 'sense of injur'd merit' but simply for enjoyment! And for free, in case you don't like it.

Three cheers, says I.

And let me add too that the writers in this issue do know how to write perfectly correct English. Not so well that I couldn't at any point have put the mag down had a pretty girl passed my window (that's not such a harsh comment as it may seem, as I'm on the third floor!), but competently. Take the long episode I mentioned above, The Saturation Point Saga, by Howard Phillips. This is a story which has sea monsters, the members of an underwater base being sent crazy Solaris-style, what may be a secret weapon inducing fear (anyone for Asimov's Foundation Mule?), heroic sacrifices, a writer saving the day, and much more! Great chapter headings like 'A Fight to the Death!' and 'Attack from Beneath the Waves!'. And here we have it: the writer saving the day happens to be called Howard Phillips, one example among many of cheeky undercutting of the story, a deliberate 'adventure yarns' style, a Gulliver tone but without the satire, one side-result of which is that the story is leagues away from the claustrophobic fear set up in Solaris, or the Asimov trademark of 'I must know what happens next'. In many parts, I am fairly sure, the writer is being serious, but lacks the skill to really draw in the reader (this one, at least). I never really cared about what happened to the crew (all right, so I'm an insensitive bastard!), but at the same time reading about them was a pleasant way of passing the time. And it includes a philosophy that leaves the Greeks well and truly behind (Pun? What pun?): “A universe that lacked the curve of a woman's breast was no universe in which I could ever be truly happy.” Wonder if that's what Hamlet was referring to when he was putting poor old Horatio in his place!

Similar comments could be made about the other 'in-house' serial episodes, except maybe After All by Michael Wyndham Thomas, where three characters may be in a kind of hell, and where there are some nice images (the sky “wasn't oppressive exactly, but it did seem to push a broad, determined hand down upon the earth”), and a fascinating thought from one of the characters: “Perhaps... we're here until our other selves are gathered in”. However, whereas the Saturation Point Saga had forty pages to play with, this, strangely, had only two and a bit, and we come back to the question as to who, apart from the writer (and maybe his characters) is going to remember three months later about the fix they were in.

The third in-house episode is Death and Rebirth by John Greenwood, featuring a spaceship captain trapped on another planet, an android companion, an ancient native of that planet, and a nasty giant mushroom (move over, Vandermeer!) called the Thanggam, which has been ruling their minds, but is now dead--though its spores might be ready to do nasty things. Once again, I was aware of a strange lack of excitement (my great age??) and I am tempted to blame (even more than in the first story) the style. Some stories are criticised as style over substance, but if the style is flat, the substance is going to be, too; it's inevitable. For example (and quite typical): “As I have described above, the android's response to these and many related questions had been unsatisfactory in the extreme.” There's nothing incorrect there (and I might add that in all 80 pages I only spotted five minor typos) but it sounds like a civil servant writing a report.

That leaves the 25 pages, four complete stories, by what appear to be 'guests'. The longest is The Speed of Darke by Diane Andrews. Now this seemed to suffer almost from the opposite fault, a desire to be mysterious, to baffle, to be portentous. In what seems to be a near future, with a woman called Venus who checks her email, the tone is nonetheless that of the Arthurian cycle (there's even a Camelot and a Merlin), with Prophecies that must come true, but in the mix there is also Delphi, recalling the Greek oracle, but here a vampire-like goddess with the power to shapeshift, and take away memories (but by modern electrical means), a boy (Darke) trained only to kill one of three brothers (called Heathcliffe by one of them), two women, Venus, married to one of the brothers (who seems to have a role similar to that of Mordred, but has also seduced his daughter, called Salome!) , the other Clarisse, who's slept with all three of them, and ends up using artificial insemination to fool her husband. There's also a Genghis and a Tor (Thor?) and an Echo also in love with one of the brothers. Oh, and the new baby is important.

No, don't shout at me, I had to read it twice to get that much information clear! All the names from different legends and time periods are, I feel, a bit misleading in the long run, since the underlying story (I think!) is relatively simple--but buggered if I'm going to tell you what I think it is--I suffered, you can too! This is one of those stories where a second reading is absolutely necessary, and that indicates to me either my own brain damage, or unnecessary complications by the author, who should have stood back and tried to read it as a reader would. Go read it, and decide.

The other three stories are all very short. Dan Kopcow's Gone English is a poke up the cape at all those masked superheroes and unlikely villains (a penguin??). Here good is represented by an Amish Bearded Avenger (plus a horse with unusual powers) and bad by a Mennonite super-villain. Luckily, an ex-Amish woman has 'gone English', which means she isn't inhibited by the Amish (and, in real life, Mennonite) code of non-violence. A quick fun read. The Christmas Present War by Richard K Lyon is too unorganised to be a story--it starts off as one thing (a framing device of two friends trying to outdo each other in originality of Christmas presents) and simply turns into the presentation of two ideas which are fine in themselves, but are just that--ideas: and ideas alone do not a story make. (A glance at almost any one of Rhys Hughes' stories would show how to give substance and narrative form to an idea.) Glurp by Jeff Crouch is a warning not to eat fruit fallen from a crashed truck, especially if it seems to be covered in a sticky substance, and even more especially if the baby seat doesn't seem to have been designed for a baby or a pet.

The magazine ends with a couple of well-written reviews, of a film and a video game, from the quill of the mighty Theaker himself, and the same pen has written one of the best pieces in the mag, a remembrance (warm but without any false sentimentality or socially expected gravitas) of a friend who died very young and whose cartoon (incomprehensible to me, but I guess I've missed something) fills the back cover. I would be proud to have such a positive obituary.

A final point: the illos. I don't think they're going to win many prizes--indeed, my first impression was that they were terrible, and I still think that, but at the same time with familiarity I'm almost starting to find them attractive: naivety almost to the point of the Primal Scream, or even the Big Bang! But they do fill in spaces to enable all new stories to start on new pages, and provide eye-breaks in the printed page, like lay-bys on a motorway.

But the really good thing about the magazine is that I am weighed down only by biscuits and age, not by responsibility. Because all I have written is simply an old codger's personal opinion, and needn't influence anybody unfairly, since the whole issue is free to read online! People who love the 'thrilling tales' type of writing will be more than happy, and as Theaker also says in the Manifesto, “I hope that from time to time it is fun to read as well.” It is.

So, although I would hesitate to say, “Sod the missus and kids, let 'em starve, or eat each other, use your last dime to go buy the mag right now!' I do not hesitate to say, take the time to look at the free PDF, you will find a certain charm about it, and just might decide to follows the editors' advice to buy the book form of four issues from Lulu.

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #17 edited by Stephen William Theaker and available as a free download from publisher's website or (higher resolution) from lulu.com Print issues 84pp (UK) £3.99, bound annual volumes between £5.99 and £6.99. Details on website.

Website: - http://www.silveragebooks.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/mag/tqf/tqf.htm

Steve Redwood penned Fisher of Devils and Who Needs Cleopatra before going insane, and shouting 'Down with Bullfighting!' from the middle of the Madrid bullring itself during the San Isidro 'fiestas'. He leaves behind a few vari-coloured children and three (known) widows, all of whom have so far bravely restrained their tears. More gruesome details in link above.


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