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Several Items of Interest

Book #37 (October 19, 2010): Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (November 2010)
Book #38 (October 23, 2010): Analog Science Fiction and Fact (November 2010)
Book #39 (October 30, 2010): Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (November 2010)
Book #40 (November 13, 2010): Asimov’s Science Fiction (October-November 2010)

Although it’s hard to believe now, there was a time when there was a very large market for short stories, including both genre stories — science fiction, mystery, horror — and mainstream, even literary, stories. This market was primarily in the cheaply produced pulp magazines, where writers churned out stories rapidly for rates of one cent a word or less, but it was also in slick magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Redbook, which paid higher rates and attracted a more thoughtful breed of writer. Circa 1952, the pulp magazine market collapsed, having lost most of its readers to television. Around the same time, the slick magazines went into decline as a market for fiction. Those few pure fiction magazines that remained moved into the digest-sized market, which survives (albeit tenuously) to this day. Digest-sized magazines are smaller than pulps were and are printed on better paper. Few newsstands carry digest-sized fiction magazines any more, though30 years ago you could find them in most drug stores.

Starting roughly in the 1970s, the most enthusiastic publisher of these digest-sized short story magazines was a company called Davis Publications, which quickly amassed a line of the most popular genre fiction magazines, some of which had started at other publishers: Analog Science Fiction and FactAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineAsimov’s Science Fiction and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. (About the only major short story magazine that Davis never acquired was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is now published by Spilogate, Inc.) At some point while I wasn’t watching, the Davis line of magazines seems to have been subsumed in turn by Penny Publications, a company best known for publishing crossword puzzle magazines. A couple of months ago I discovered that I could purchase these magazines via the Nook for $2.99 a copy, so I set out to read the November issues of all four. (If it seems like cheating to count these as part of my 52 books for this year, remember that these are closer to anthologies of short stories than to what is generally regarded these days as a magazine.)

I was originally planning to write about the stories, but to catalog them all would take too long and I’ve already forgotten most of them. So I’ll talk about the magazines: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has been around as long as I can recall and the fact that the cover of the latest issue (two issues after this one) reads “Our 70th Year” suggests that it’s been around considerably longer than that. Analog Science Fiction and Fact was born in 1930 as the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Starting about 1937, under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Astounding revolutionized the science fiction field by, well, paying more for SF stories than other magazines did. Campbell brought a stable of new writers into the field that included Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In fact, of major science fiction writers in the period 1937 to 1948, the only one who didn’t write for Astounding was Ray Bradbury. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine has been around since 1956. Like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I’ve seen it on the newsstands since I was a teenager, but have rarely bought an issue and even more rarely read one. I remember when the first issue of Asimov’s SF was published, in 1977. It was a relatively high paying magazine and so it was disappointing that early issues weren’t terribly good. But after a change of editors the quality of the stories went up substantially and it published some of the best science fiction of the 1980s.

If I were to sum up most of the short stories in these magazines in a phrase, it would be “competent but uninspired.” The best story by far, and one of the few that rises above this level, is Rick Wilber’s “Several Items of Interest.” Not surprisingly, it’s inAsimov’s SF. It’s about a near future earth where humanity is being smothered with love by seemingly benevolent alien invaders. Wilber makes a lot of good choices in telling the story. The first person narrator relates events out of chronological sequence, leaving the reader to piece the story together from fragments. Perhaps the cleverest stroke is that the narrator’s estranged brother promises to tell him what’s “really happening,” but the obligatory scene where he does so never happens and the true horror of the situation is left to the reader’s imagination, which gives the story a haunting resonance that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. I would expect to see this nominated for awards next year or at least reprinted in one of the few remaining Best SF of the Year anthologies.

The second best story is also in Asimov’s, Will McIntosh’s “Frankenstein, Frankenstein,” a horror story for the magazine’s Halloween issue. It’s about a pair of benevolent conmen who encounter one another in the midwest either in the 1930s or the 1890s. (The only hint as to the time period is that there’s a Chicago World’s Fair going on, but I’m not sure which one it is.) Both specialize in passing themselves off to credulous yokels as the original model for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster. They team up, only to encounter…well, I’ll just say that the ending is genuinely disturbing and more than a little moving. The latter, at least, is unusual in a horror story.

I’d sum up the rest but — damn — I’ve already forgotten them.

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About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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