Short story rejections in 2015: One

The story I submitted to SFF mag Strange Horizons was rejected a while back. It was my first rejection of the year (and first ever, really). It was not surprising; I like the premise but the story was simply not ready and I feel I rushed things. I’m going to work on it and then submit it elsewhere.

I also submitted a poem to Guernica. I’m proud of the way it turned out, but I know the odds it of getting accepted are slim.

And while I’m on the subject of fiction submissions, I have to say: I wish it didn’t take so long to have your work accepted or rejected. I understand this is selfish, and I understand that lit mags are drowning in submissions and are doing the best they can. It’s just…having to wait weeks (or often, months!) to learn of your story’s fate is a huge pain. For that reason, I’m planning on only submitting my stories to places with relatively quick response times.

<Insert comment about impatient millennials wanting everything right away>

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Reading the Canon – Hocus Pocus, Chapters 1-3

We are introduced to our narrator and protagonist, Eugene Debs Hartke, named by his grandfather after socialist and labor leader Eugene Debs (one of my historical heroes). We are told that this work was written by Eugene on wrapping paper, business cards, and others scraps. So from the beginning we are to understand that Eugene is an unusual fellow.

Eugene has led an interesting and depressing life. He was ready to go to college to study journalism, though his real dream is to play the blues, “the never-the-same-way-twice music the American black people gave the world.” However, both of these plans are dashed by his father, who sends him to West Point because it would impress the neighbors. Eugene is quite resentful of both his parents.

He was shipped off to Vietnam, where he eventually became a Lieutenant Colonel. After the war he married a woman who failed to tell him about the propensity towards mental illness she had inherited from her mother. In time, both women go insane. Their children, who now have to deal with this unfortunate genetic inheritance, hate them for binging them into the world.

Pretty gloomy stuff, so far. But there is some light. Eugene was hired to teach Physics at Tarkington College, a school for the learning disabled. Most importantly to Eugene, he became the school’s carillonneur. He recalls the times he played the carillon as the happiest of his life, no doubt in part because it helped him scratch his musical itch. It is made clear that Tarkington is a special place to Eugene, the one stabilizing force in his otherwise chaotic life. For now, anyway.

Then, rather suddenly, we learn that after he was a professor he was briefly a warden, after the school became Tarkington State Reformatory. What’s more, he is no longer a warden, as he is awaiting trial for “supposedly having masterminded the mass prison break at the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution at Athena, across the lake from here.”

We then pivot in chapter two to a history of the surrounding area. A major part of this history is Aaron Tarkington, an inventor who ran a successful wagon company in the 19th century. He had dyslexia and could neither read or write. His daughters all married well, to prominent families in other part of the country, taking the gene for dyslexia with them and spreading it among the ruling class. Clearly, dyslexia will play a large role in this story soon enough.

As for Aaron’s only son, Elias, he became a mechanic who attempted to create a perpetual motion machine. Didn’t work out, as you might imagine. He was more successful in business, and in his will he left his estate and fortune to be used for the creation of “The Mohiga Valley Free Institute.” The institute, a highly-progressive place that was created to offer education to all, regardless of gender or color, was eventually renamed Tarkington College. This was to please a wealthy relative of the Tarkington’s, who was embarrassed that his dyslexic grandson had to go to such a modest school.

All this seems interesting but irrelevant, until you understand what Vonnegut is getting at. Because of the Tarkington’s rich patrons, Tarkington College did not die like the rest of the area. Construction on railroads and highways began far from the school, leaving the college and Lake Mohiga intact. It was thanks to this that the prisoners of the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institute were able to cross the frozen lake and head towards the college many, many years later. Everything is connected.

Eugene is already proving to be a guy you want to cheer for, despite his cynical nature. Part of that nature can be explained easily. Life has given him his share of problems and disappointments. He was unable to follow his dreams, he was sent off to Vietnam, his wife went insane, his children hate him for the possibility that they too might go insane, and now he is awaiting trial for masterminding a prison break. And that’s only the first three chapters!

I hope you liked the first installment of Reading the Canon! I hope to be able to have a new RTC post up every couple of days. Hocus Pocus’ chapters are pretty short, so I’ll probably continue to cover it a couple at a time. Thanks for reading this far, and please check back soon!

Notable quote from chapter 1

During that war, which was about nothing but the ammunition business, there was a microscopic possibility, I suppose, that I called in a white-phosphorus barrage or a napalm air strike on a returning Jesus Christ.

The spirit shepherd

Night arrived only rarely in this particular realm. Usually it came after a period of prolonged turmoil, as if the world acknowledged the significant events that had transpired and decided to signal the end of an era. These were always strenuous times for the shepherds, the beings who were tasked with guiding all spirits to their rest.

One shepherd, who presided over a mountainous part of the world, watched as the shadows descended, as the sun gave way to a starlit sky, each star representing an era that had come and gone. The shepherd remembered to the first time it had seen the night, many eons ago. It remembered being struck by the deep, melancholy beauty the night possessed. The darkness was not absolute, not overwhelming, not frightening. It was serene, gentle. The stars seemed to work in tandem, illuminating a path that reached towards the horizon – the spirits’ final destination.

The shepherd always wanted to bask in the calming light of the stars, surrounded by that melancholy darkness, but his job called for his full attention. The spirits, who in the daylight seemed content to continue their journey, became agitated. The shepherd sensed the sorrow within many of them. Many of the spirits left the world of the living with regrets, with dreams and ambitions unfulfilled. They took the arrival of the night as a sign that their time on this plane of existence was at an end; when the night gave way to the sun once more, the world would belong to those of the new era.

The shepherd empathized with them. It knew the stories of all the spirits it had been entrusted with. When one spirit would break away from the others, as if attempting to return to the world of the living, the shepherd was there, ready to provide comfort and guidance. They had lived, the shepherd would say, but they lived no more. However, behind them were the living, and the memories and bonds that the spirits created in their lives would remain with the living, to be cherished by them.

The shepherd would then point to the sky. It would explain how each star came to be. It would tell what the other, much older shepherds had told it, about how much different the night was before the stars. Before the stars, there was only a suffocating, depressing darkness. The spirits’ final destination was obscured, making the journey a considerable challenge. Then one time, when a shepherd finally led a group of spirits to their rest, the spirits talked amongst themselves and decided: why not help those that would come after them?

The night was so dark, they said, so suffocatingly bleak, that many spirits would get lost and lose hope, despite the shepherds’ best efforts. They would wander the world as ethereal figures, unable to interact with the living. In order to avoid that from happening again, the spirits decided they would light the way, as stars. They knew one star would not be able to show the way entirely, but they hoped that it would provide a glimmer of hope, a beacon to those who had wandered and lost their way. Then, perhaps, other spirits would join them whenever night fell on their era.

And so it went. After countless eras – the shepherd itself cannot even imagine the number – the sky became dotted with stars, illuminating the path. The shepherd said this is why there was no need to fear the night. For spirits who go to their rest will become part of a star, a star that will help ensure no spirit wanders the world aimlessly, their hearts filled with longing and pain. The shepherd gently guided the spirit back with the others, and turned to chase after other wayward spirits. The shepherd was hopeful. It believed that, after enough time had passed, the stars in the sky would be so plentiful and so bright they would remove any difference between night and day. And it was all because some spirits, driven by their love, their memories, and the bonds they forged over a lifetime, decided to become stars and light up the night.