F(r)iction (the flagship title of writing organization and publisher Tethered By Letters) might well be among the most colourful and lavishly-illustrated literary magazines I’ve ever read. Even in the company of similarly bright-and-beautiful creations such as Firewords or Popshot, F(r)iction stands out for the sheer kinetic energy of its illustration. Drawings spill across every other page in a way that might seem reckless were it not so good-looking. As a source of visual delight, this is a magazine that keeps on giving – the astute attention to detail extends all the way down to the themed markers that divide the sections of each individual story.
But what about the stories themselves? The mission statement behind F(r)iction is giddily eclectic. “This collection,” enthuses editor Dani Hedlund, “this gorgeous combination of art and literature, spans the entire spectrum of boundary-pushing work, from traditional literary fiction to the weird stuff, the stories too strange to find a home anywhere else.” And this sparkling description does, indeed, seem to suit the content. There are a wide range of stories on offer, with a definite tendency towards the speculative – a genre well-suited to the elaborate ornamentation of the magazine.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of more literary works thrown in. One that I found particularly arresting was “Steaks From The Trainer’s Hand” by JMJ Brewer. It’s a tale told out of order and out of joint, about a man who runs a reserve for retired circus animals desperately trying to rebuild bridges with his son after a disastrous night of pet homicide. It sounds bizarre in summary, but the tale hums along smoothly, and comes to a startlingly tense conclusion. The atmosphere is wonderful too – as the narrator handles the corpse of a car-hit deer, the reek of carrion is almost tangible in Brewer’s punchy, evocative prose.
Another strong entry is “The Rules Of The Game” by Marcus Creaghan. This story (or possibly memoir) tells of the narrator’s relationship with a boy named Miles who deals in stolen Nintendo cartridges. As Miles grows, and graduates to bigger things, the narrator wrestles with his own jealousy. The level of detail in this piece radiates authenticity – as do each of the perfectly-rendered characters. It’s a very different read from “Steaks From The Trainer’s Hand”, but the quality is similarly excellent.
There are smaller gems as well. “In The World Where Everyone Must Pick How S/He Dies” by Helen Phillips is a favourite of mine, and an excellent example of the more speculative works in this issue. For such a short piece (barely a page) it packs an enormous amount of punch. It’s the kind of story that expands outwards from the point of reading – we get a letterbox sized view of a universe that the writer seems to have imagined in almost forensic detail.
Fiction isn’t the only genre to be found in F(r)iction; there’s poetry too – albeit only a small amount thereof. However strong it is, it inevitably feels a little drowned out in a magazine otherwise largely dedicated to fiction. There’s also a comic – or perhaps I should call it a graphic short story. Whichever category you assign to it, “His Face All Red” by Emily Carroll is a standout piece of storytelling. The tale – which concerns monsters and deep dark woods and wolves and murder – twists and turns over the course of twenty-nine pages, before ending on a note so tense and horrifying that my heart was still hammering minutes after reading.
Excellent too is the featured selection from The Veterans Writing Project. F(r)iction showcases three poems and one short story all written by veterans who received no-cost writing workshops courtesy of a non-profit organization based in Washington DC. The pieces are all intriguing, but it was the prose – “This War Can’t Be All Bad” by Sylvia Bowersox – that captured me the most. Its evocative descriptions of the Iraq war are tinged with anger, yes, but they also provide a fresh and surprising view on something that many believe they already know about.
This is just a small selection of the work that the magazine has to offer. It’s overflowing with content, and particularly when it comes to fiction, much of it is top quality. Not only is this richly-textured magazine a beauty to behold, it’s also a joy to read from the first vibrant page to the last. You can pick up a copy from Tethered By Letters in both print and online forms. I’d strongly suggest print, as it’s the kind of artifact you may want to pore over in quite some detail.