A fairly strong issue with the only story not exciting me being Jo Oram’s “The Herald”. Not only did I not remember it after reading it last November. It rather bored me on skimming it through it to make notes. It seems to involve airships, a mysterious figure chasing some kids who stole a stone from him, and psychic possession.
David Boop’s “The Edge of the Grave” is sort of a follow up to his “The Temptation of Darcy Morgan”. It also is set in Drowned Horse in Arizona Territory and also involves the gambling god Noqi. But this one has Mongolian Death Worms so, even though I wasn’t keen on its resolution, I still liked it better than its predecessor. On the whole, though, I’m not keen on mixing gods with my weird westerns.
Remember what I said about steam-powered horses when reviewing Story Emporium #1? Well, there’s another steam-powered horse story here and its again from Lyn McConchie. That’s fine. She’s a reliable contributor to Science Fiction Trails’ publication, and her story here is no exception. “For Love of Maxie” is a tender and successful story about what happens when an inventor neighbor gives eight-year old Annie a mechanical replacement for her beloved horse Maxine, killed in an accident. Over the years, her father, the narrator of the story, ponders just how lifelike Maxie seems. Continue reading →
In 2015, Science Fiction Trails publisher David B. Riley experimented again with the annual magazine he put out. The weird western tales of the defunct Science Fiction Trails and the steampunk of Steampunk Trails were combined into Story Emporium.
A lot of the usual contributors to Science Fiction Trails’ publications are here and a lot of those writers continue their long running series in the magazine.
But let’s start with the writers new to me.
Dan Thwaite’s “The Duel” is bit Sergio Leonish in its ever-slowing pace and repetition of details as the climax nears. But it’s not very effective. A gunfighter come to town. His high noon opponent is a clock in a tower. He shoots it but dies. I suppose this is some kind of metaphor about how time and death catch up to us all.
K. G. Anderson’s “Escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse” is a secret history and a good one at that. Jewish magic and the Kabbala are spliced into the conventional history of Billy the Kid. It’s narrator, a woman named Shulamit, flees her home to escape an arranged marriage to a man she never met. With her, in the trunk on the stagecoach, is a golem made by her grandfather. Others want the golem, and Billy the Kid intervenes to save Shulamit when an attempt is made to steal it. Continue reading →
Like its predecessor, it has an article, “Tumbleweeds: Western Icon or Martian Invaders” from editor Campbell. It looks at the hardy tumbleweed aka Russian thistle, an invasive species into the American West.
Beth Daniels, an author I’ve never read, offers an interview on writing steampunk, advice that can also be found in her Geared Up: Writing Steampunk.
This being a Science Fiction Trails publication, there’s a dog story. Here that’s Campbell’s “RCAF (Royal Canine Air Force)“, inspired by the cover illustration. It’s a slight story with dogs and cats dogfighting in the air, and the dogs blasting a factory. Airships, machine guns, and plasma cannon included.
More steampunkery is supplied by the heist/rescue story “Shell Games: A Hummingbird and Inazuma Con” from Peter J. Wacks. It, as the title implies, involves a couple of conmen and seems to be part of an intended series. Inazuma is a “brilliant swordsman” (though he’s not called a samurai). Hummingbird is a gunfighter. The story takes place in Canton, China, but, of course, a steampunk alternative. Here the technological divergence is the invention of the “airjunk” in 1890. There are the usual iconic sorts of things like “clockwork carriages”. Hummingbird herself is a cyborg with a “clockwork right arm”, specifically a smaller variant of the one used in the West. It uses acupuncture needles connected by steel threads to serve as musculature. Hummingbird is accomplished at tai chi. Our two con artists are sent on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of the police commissioner. There are some historical figures here. The villain is Grigori Rasputin. Winston Churchill shows up too as a lieutenant in the police force since this section of China is occupied by Britain. Hummingbird and Inazuma’s con is complicated and precisely timed. The bits with Churchill were nice. Rasputin is set up to be a running series villain, but I wished he was on stage more.
Another story that reads like part of a series is Jessica Brawner’s “Bad Altitude”. The story has a great opening with our naked heroine falling from an airship over Paris. The ending doesn’t entirely explain the villain’s motives for wanting her airship. Still, the stuff in between is entertaining enough. This is set in a 21st century world where Douglas Adams is a “great philosopher of the last century”.
And, speaking of clockwork, there’s O. M. Grey’s “The Clockwork Heart”, a nicely done story which metaphorically puts that imagery to use in something of a feminist tale. It’s told by one woman and relating the story of another “woman”, Eleanor. Eleanor is a clockwork woman, but she used to be a regular woman as evidenced by the scars around her wrists (a suicide attempt) and neck and chest. The latter seem to be surgical scars from her one-time lover, Dr. Clague. Another woman, Penelope, is Clague and Eleanor’s daughter though the two were never married. Eleanor has been revived after her suicide attempt to hang about the house as a governess for Penelope. Emotionless during her second round at life, she wants to feel again, and Clague helps her have emotion again. Just in time to experience them when another man enters her life.
Lyn McConchie does no harm to her reputation as a reliable contributor to Science Fiction Trails publications. Here it’s with “The Steam Powered Camera”. The fantastic element here is slight. Was it really necessary to have a steam powered (in effect, a movie camera) with a wide-angle lens instead of just standard Victorian-era photographic equipment? Probably not, but it’s a fairly clever horror story in which a photographer doing psychic investigations comes across an impetuous youth, also with a camera, who mocks his equipment.
Lesbian lovers seem to be (or, at least, were back in the heyday of steampunk and judging by Amazon browsing) something of a steampunk cliché. Jeffrey Cook’s and Katherine Perkins’ “Opening Night” features two. Cliché is doubled by making one a warrior babe. The story intercuts between Emily’s stage performance as a clockwork doll (her own body has damaged limbs encased in mechanisms and she’s missing an eye) and Luca foiling an assassination attempt in the opera house.
The rest of the stories are kind of amalgams of steampunk and weird western.
Henry Ram gives us another installment in the life of Potbury the Necromancer in “The Courtship of Miss Henrietta”. The rich and dying Mr. Seven has his airship Azincourt parked above Name Pending, Wyoming. He’s hallucinating from products of “advanced science” put in his body and brain, and he needs Potbury to do his resurrection thing on him. Potbury says that’s not possible. Seven’s already been resurrected once. Another time is going to be technically difficult. Seven, not taking no for an answer, starts to threaten Miss Henrietta, the former local prostitute Potbury is in love with. Another engaging entry in the series with appearances by regular characters like the rapacious and two-faced madam Mrs. Broadhurst and worthless town marshal Wainscot.
I liked Liam Hogan’s “Horse”, a first person tale about a 15-year old boy and his mechanical, steam-powered, intelligent horse inherited from a beloved professor killed in a faro game. What the boy finds in a town — a gunsmith interested in the horse, local bullies, and a prostitute — makes an interesting story, but it’s not a coming of age tale.
“The (Almost) Entirely Untrue Legend of John Henry”, from David Boop, starts in 1855 with John Henry being sold for a 20 year period to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad. The story then shifts to the end of the ballad – John Henry pounding away at the end of a mountain tunnel. However, the mountain collapses on him since they tunneled through to an unmapped mine. John Henry and several men are trapped. We then get a different version of the famous John Henry vs. the steam drill story with a lot of exotic machinery. A nice bit of steampunkery and secret history.
Eric Aren’s “A Cure for Boundary Pirates” is set in a vaguely defined Old West of airships (with helium no less) and electric rifles where trade seems to be prohibited between the natives of the west coast and the people of the plains. A portion of the Great Plains has been turned into “the Colony” for those suffering from tuberculosis. The Colony forbids alcohol and tobacco. Simon, a pharmacist, smuggles “airflower” (seemingly marijuana given its analgesic properties) to the Colony. He’s been blackmailed by a couple of airship pirates who live in the Boundary (aka Rocky) Mountains into helping their smuggling. But the relationship is getting troublesome, so Simon takes steps.
Of course, this being a Science Fiction Trails book, David B. Riley channels karl, the dinosaur sheriff to introduce a collection of flash fiction about fog making machines. Karl, in “Some Protection“, talks about meeting one H. G. back in the Cretaceous. H. G. thought his time machine’s fog generator would protect from the vicious local fauna.
Eric Aren’s entry “Victory!” is a rather confused entry about a war between Russia and Germany.
P. R. Morris’ “English Waters” is a grisly alternate version of the Boer War with the Boers trying to prevent Gordon from reaching Khartoum.
“Pressure” from Guy Anthony De Marco is just jokey and underdeveloped.
Sam Knight is a weird western writer I usually like, but his “A Pirate Fog” shows, at least here, flash fiction is not his thing with a slight piece of naval combat in the Gulf of Mexico.
Not all the stories in this distilled version of the first ten years of Science Fiction Trails are great. (And two stories were never published there.) Many aren’t even among my favorite stories from the issues I’ve read.
But they all manage to be at least acceptably entertaining. You’ll rarely find anything too serious or grim in that magazine.
I’m not going to review every story. Many I’ve read before and reviewed here. I’ll list them at the end.
But let’s take a look at the new stuff.
C. J. Killmer and Sam Kepfield, two stalwarts of the magazine, produce the best efforts.
Killmer’s “Forewarned Is” splices well-done, detailed gunplay and a science fiction concept together. It’s hero, Lefty Bolingbroke, a Southern aristocrat, is into Madam Chang and her gang for a lot of money. But, being the honorable sort (he did, after all, visit all those high-priced girls and smoke that premium opium), he doesn’t try to shoot his way out of trouble. Instead, he offers to pay his debt by taking care of “Big Jim” McCready, an outlaw who stole from Chang and is also wanted by the law. Oh, and Big Jim has four arms. Continue reading →
There’s a lot of strange and dangerous places in the weird west, and editor Riley assembles his usual reliable gang of writers to give us a look.
Mesilla in Arizona Territory is a nice town. It’s even got a town character: Old Man Foster. He comes to town once a month, drinks his whiskey, pays for it in gold, and leaves. Except Old Man Foster doesn’t seem to be a likeable old coot. More than once someone followed him home to find out about where he gets his gold. They’re never seen again. Emily Crawford, a talented artist, comes to town looking for her vanished fiancé. Naturally, she and Old Man Foster are going to meet, and Don D’Ammassa’s “Drawn Out” ends on a mysterious note with much revealed about Crawford and Foster’s true natures but not all.
Mysterious Dave Mather, who he last heard about in this blog when he was hanging around with Wyatt Earp, is on the “Trail of the Brujo” in a story by Matthew Baugh. The Brujo’s soul is the body-switching survivor of a man Mather’s famed ancestor Cotton hung once. A couple of centuries of living and sadistic pleasures have started to lose their luster, but the Brujo just can’t check out. His soul belongs to the Devil, and he doesn’t intend on dying. Mather and the beautiful madam of a Dallas brothel join forces to combat the Brujo. A memorable and entertaining story. Continue reading →
I read a fair amount of weird westerns in 2017, and most were from Science Fiction Trails or its editor and publisher David B. Riley.
With every annual issue, Riley’s Science Fiction Trails magazine (at least starting with issue seven when I started reading them) packed an impressive variety into its literary saddlebags. Surprisingly, a lot of its stories didn’t go with the old store-bought plots of time travel and aliens.
Eventually, though, Riley couldn’t find enough contributors and the magazine went on hiatus.
Editor Riley has his usual gang of tried-and-true contributors here and some new hands too.
The work is sound, not really awful and seldom outstanding. But they’re all good enough to push you along the trail even though the destination is sometimes is a bit dry at that end.
Star performance went to Jackson Kuhl’s “Red River”. That’s red as in anarchists and red as in Martians. Kuhl has the Martian invasion, complete with tripods and red weed, of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds turning the trans-Mississippi American West into a war zone. The red weed seeks out moisture everywhere and that includes human bodies when it mutates to a lethal infection. The U.S. Army in airtight, modified Martian tripods wage war on the infestation. But that army needs money, supplies, and men, and the locals start to become real resentful about supplying them. It’s a dark, mosaic piece of different scenes and points of view that carom from killer plague to killer anarchists.
“Paradigm Lost” from R. A. Conine seems incomplete. If the subtitle, “Episode 1 of the Chronicles of Red Blade”, is a clue, that’s because it’s probably the first in a series of one about Sans Arc Sioux warrior Red Blade who finds himself whisked away from victory at the Battle of the Little Big Horn to a world where Indians and whites live at peace – because horrible critters from another dimension, the Dead, have wiped out most people in America and the survivors live in squalid bands. Blade meets the cause of this, and the story ends with him in yet another war in our timeline. Red Blade has, improbably, a degree in mathematics from Oxford though that’s of no relevance to anything in the story. Continue reading →