On Spec: The Canadian Magazine Of The Fantastic vol. 30 no. 3 #113 (magazine review).

‘On Spec’ is billed as ‘The Canadian Magazine Of The Fantastic’ and this is the first time I’ve read this particular publication so I had no idea what to expect. It’s a neat format, slightly larger than a standard paperback and coming in at a fairly chunky 134 pages, which I think is bigger than I thought a magazine might be. I’m not a huge fan of the cover art by Renée Cohen as it’s a bit too brown and unstructured for my tastes but I was excited to get stuck in and see what was hot in the world of Canadian speculative fiction.

Inside, we find eight short stories, three non-fiction pieces, two poems and a comic, though that last one was hardly more than a doodle and I’m not going to mention it again. The poetry was an interesting addition to this magazine and it’s a form that I think is gaining traction in the speculative fiction genre, although I wasn’t overly keen on the two examples in this edition.

One was a post-apocalyptic road trip poem that was a bit difficult to follow at times and the other was a futuristic tale of life in space that was interesting but relied too heavily on a parenthetical side-story that ended up being a bit messy and too much gimmick and not enough content for me, though both definitely had potential.

Looking at the non-fiction, we have two interviews: one with an author, Kate Heartfield, accompanying her short story, ‘Remember Madam Hercules’, and one with the cover artist Renée Cohen and a memorial to Mike Resnick, who passed away earlier this year. It was nice to pair an interview with a story, I think that’s a great idea, but it did feel like a wasted opportunity because there’s only one question about the story itself. It would have been nice to dig deeper into the background and the characters because ‘Remember Madam Hercules’ actually combined a lot of interesting things in just a few short spaces: super-powers, the second world war, duty, a woman’s role in combat and privacy issues.

I found the interview with Renée Cohen a bit odd and really don’t understand the choice to print pixelated black and white reproductions of clearly larger and more colourful pieces. I love seeing cover artists get more attention, I shout about my favourites every opportunity I get, but this didn’t feel like it fitted with the feel of the rest of the magazine and I don’t think it did justice to the art.

Let’s be honest, though, while I might not have been blown away with the non-fiction and poetry segments, this really isn’t why I’d pick up a magazine like this. I read magazines because I want to her fresh new voices telling great stories. It’s like a cheeseboard for writing, a little bit of a lot of new flavours to try! I’m a bit of a tough one to please where it comes to short stories and often find there just isn’t enough to sink my teeth into but I was pleasantly surprised by the content of this edition of ‘On Spec’.

Opening with Aeryn Rudel’s supernatural casino tale, ‘The Back-Off’, we’re thrown straight into a new version of our world that’s very plausible. It built up just the right atmosphere very quickly and delivered a great story that left me wanting to seek out more of Rudel’s work. I really hope that this casino would be a recurring setting for the story because I’d like to see what else happens behind the scenes with the new set of supernatural clients.

Finishing the magazine is quite a dark horror story called ‘The Laughter Of Playthings’ by Matt Moore. This wouldn’t be out of place in any horror anthology and certainly isn’t one to read with your kids. It’s a very dark tale of obsession, desire and possessed toys and I was impressed by just how creepy this managed to feel in such a short space of time. The sinister dolls’ house and its inhabitants will stay with me for some time and it’s really a shame that I read it just a few days before my 2½ year-old was given a second-hand dolls’ house by her grandparents because I don’t think I’m going to be able to enjoy it quite as much now that I’ve read this story!

In between those two stories, we’re taken to a multitude of locations and introduced to a wide range of interesting characters.

‘On Hestian Cuisine’ by Mike Rimar shows us the kitchen of a chef specialising in the creation of literal versions of interesting food eg angel hair pasta with real angel hair in it and the lengths to which he must go to obtain some of the prized ingredients. Breaking a contract with his clients means more than just a bad writeup on TripAdvisor!

‘Pan de Muertos’ by E.E. King continues the food theme but shows us the healing power of baking in a sad but beautiful love story of two widows brought together through the pain of their loss and some very strange talents that emerge as a result. This was quite a heart-warming tale and I enjoyed it.

‘Waking’ by Lisa Carreiro is a beautifully constructed story about keeping vigil after the death of a loved one, waiting for their final words to come through. When the family sends a maid instead of staying themselves, the outcome delivers a satisfying payback for their lack of respect and love and I thought the premise of this story was brilliant. Imagine what people might say if they could wake one last time after death to deliver a final message, the possibilities for stories around this are almost endless and if Carreiro did put together a collection of tales just based on this simple idea, I’d probably read it.

‘Sugar Mother’ by Audrey Hollis is a satisfying tale of betrayal and revenge as a human goes on a date with an alien, but the relationship fails to bring what the human had hoped. Highlighting the cultural differences and expectations between the two characters worked well and the conclusion was perfect.

Finally, having already mentioned ‘Remembering Madame Hercules’ alongside the interview, there’s ‘The Laughing Folk’ by Steve DuBios, which might have been my favourite story in this magazine. It tells of life on Earth some years after the arrival of elves and dwarves and shows how humanity’s welcome of these magical beings didn’t quite work in their favour. It’s a political story that resonates with many real-life examples of subjugating regimes and oppressed minorities and I really engaged with the main character, even though he probably wasn’t the best role model for humanity to follow. It delivers a clear reminder that all that glitters is not gold and left me thinking about it for several days after reading it.

I think this is a great collection of stories and I was definitely impressed with the content of my first edition of ‘On Spec’. I’d love to see them continue to publish genre poetry and interviews alongside the fiction but wouldn’t miss the article about art that portrayed the images so poorly. I look forward to seeing what comes in the next issue!

Vinca Russell

August 2020

(pub: Copper Pig Writers Society. 130 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 6.95 (CAN). ISSN: 0843-476X. Distributed in Canada by CMPA and the UK by BAR)

check out website: www.onspec.ca

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