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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Alt Hist, Issue 1

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Alt Hist, Issue 1 is a new periodical aimed at filling a gap in the market for alternative history and historical fiction.  Published in the U.K. by Mark Lord, its mission is “to provide readers with entertaining and well-written short stories with a historical setting, whether portraying actual events or events that could have happened,” (“About Alt Hist.”)

I’m not typically an alternate history reader, though the concept is intriguing.  I felt Alt Hist contained one superb story, three solid ones, and two with big problems.  Though I am often passionate in my opinions, allow me to begin by noting that it gives me no pleasure to harshly criticize another’s work.

I know how it feels to receive unfavorable criticism.  I’ve gotten it in the past, and I’m currently waiting to receive some of my own work back from beta readers and volunteer editors, one of whom probably did not like it.  I’ve spent a great deal of time on critiquing the two stories I felt were very weak so that I can articulate clearly why I didn’t like it.  I have tried my best to be constructive in my criticisms.

In “The Silent Judge” by David W. Landrum, a London banker finds that his mistress, Mary Jean Kelly, has been murdered by Jack the Ripper.  Though history is forever ignorant of his name, he makes it his mission to hunt the killer down and ensure justice is served.

Who wouldn’t want to know the identity of Jack the Ripper?  Despite the interesting premise, I felt there were several elements of this story that lessened its quality.

The banker’s motivations for sleuthing are clear, but I wouldn’t think an amateur would be able to blithely stumble into all of the right places without a misstep during the course of his first investigation.  I would also think the executives at the bank would have a problem with his sudden, unexplained absence from his duties, but there are no consequences, nor does the character even think about this.  I feel the author missed a chance to ratchet up the tension.

Descriptions of the setting and action were often vague.  Throughout the story, the author is guilty of telling instead of showing.  The author describes the settings in his interviews with witnesses, but getting from point A to point B tended to be glossed over.  I do think this could be fixed without adding too much to the overall word count.

The section quoted also carries no descriptive details of either the setting or the character’s state of mind, other than vomiting near the beginning.  We never see him struggle with his decision, become frustrated or fearful.  Because we are supposedly hearing his innermost thoughts, I think that would happen despite the British ‘stiff upper lip.’  We occasionally see the protagonist state his feelings, but we never see them demonstrated.  This often makes him seem emotionless.

Does the author consider the Ripper to by a psychopath/sociopath?  (Dr. Robert Hare holds that psychopaths and sociopaths are the same thing.)  Examine this quote.

“I saw him there.  When I did, I realized two things. One, this was the man who killed her, beyond a doubt; and, two, he wanted to be captured.”

I don’t mean to nitpick, but it happens to be a pet peeve of mine.  If the author indeed believes the Ripper to have been psychopathic, which many believe he was, this quote showed a lack of understanding of what drives a psychopath.

They never want to be caught.  It may seem that way to the average person due to the stupid risks psychopaths often take, like taunting the authorities and news media with letters.  However, they take risks for the rush, and the riskier it is, the headier the exhilaration.  This is an extremely common misconception about psychopaths, and is one among many.  Rather than rant and rave further, I’ve begun to address psychopath myths here on my blog.

In “Easter Parade, 1930” by Rob McClure Smith, we follow four Scots, namely Milroy, Cumberland, Hepburn, and Robinson as they are swept into the violent clashes between Glasgow’s Billy Boys and Conks.

The story was written entirely in a very thick Scottish brogue, which was difficult at first for an American like me, though it became much easier to follow after the first paragraph.  Since this periodical comes from the U.K., I assume it would be easier for people who hear that mode of speech more regularly.  I did not find the thick brogue to be a turn-off, however.  It lent the story authenticity, and still flowed in its own way.  The only thing I felt that made the story difficult to read was its complete lack of quotation marks.

The characters felt very real, several of them violent men with violent pasts.  When they speak of bygone days, it felt like listening to the stories of a war vet of whom I’m very fond.  I loved this story, and found it exceedingly creative.

If you enjoy chaos theory, as I do, I think you’ll agree the author penned one of the most profound lines I’ve ever read.

“In time, disorder begat order, as ever it does, a universal law birthed by cooling stars.”

Well done.

In “Holy Water” by Andrew Knighton, Lady Hunwold has been most foully murdered, and everyone knows that the culprit is the Virgin Mary.  The grieving Lord Hunwold has charged Huw and Oswine with overseeing the execution of the offending statue.

The prose flowed beautifully, and the characters were well-developed.  Huw reminded me very much of Eliza Doolittle’s father in My Fair Lady.  He had a refreshing outlook on the insanities in which we collectively engage and have the nerve to call normal.

The plot had a nice arc to it, and a touch of the absurd, which made it light-hearted.  It contrasted nicely with the other stories.  My only complaint would be that executing an inanimate object was personally a bit hard to swallow, even if the story had roots in folklore.  It wasn’t an insurmountable issue, and it’s very likely that other readers wouldn’t be bothered by it.

In “Lament for Lost Atlanta” by Arlan Andrews, the South still loses the American Civil War in 1865, but after Lincoln is assassinated, he is replaced by radical Edwin M. Stanton.  The difference in leadership at a time in which the Union was so fragile forever alters the borders and freedom of the United States.

As we read the story, we glimpse the thoughts that a desperately poor white boy from Sherman (formerly known as Atlanta, Georgia) has recorded into his diary, so it is written entirely in first person perspective.  I loved the story from page 32 to the end.  I thought it was masterfully done, and several parts were heartbreaking and poignant.  The voice flowed, was easy to read, and was engaging.  The spoken dialogue actually felt like a high school freshman boy from the South.

The first portion of the story, from the beginning on page 26 to page 32, was problematic.  I could be wrong, but I think the author may have structured it the way he did to create a sharp contrast between when the protagonist considered himself a boy to when he became a man.  I like the concept, but the early sections were riddled with infodumps.

The vernacular that the narrator and his friends use does not ring true to me.  Consider this story told to me by one of my students, who is from the Deep South.  “This one time, when we was at a rodeo, we was playin’ stick tag.  This one kid, I hit ’em with a stick, and he got mad, and. . . well . . . I kinda beat the crap out of ’em.”

I’m not saying the author needs to make them sound like yokels all of the time.  One of the characters is educated, and it makes sense for him to speak well.  The voices of the poorer characters seemed overly articulate until that magical page number 32, especially the kids’ nickname for their hated history teacher.  Based on a comment made by the protagonist, it seems as though the date is still roughly 2010.  Calling the teacher “Mr. Ill-Used” is not something I can hear a modern teen saying very often.

There were also other words that popped up and interrupted the flow of the text throughout the story.  The narrator, who’s an American, calls the T.V. a “telly.”  I’m not saying that I know all about American slang from all areas of the country, but I’ve never heard an American use that word, nor did I find anything via the web or an informal polling of my acquaintances.  What makes this even more curious is that the author lives in Texas.  Did the editor, who is from the U.K., change those words?  I do not know.

In “The Bitterness of Apples” by Priya Sharma, Adam and Eve have been separated by eons, miles, and the bitterness of sins long past.  Can they, or should they, ever be reunited?

I have to agree with Lois Tilton that this story was neither historical or alternate history.  It was fantasy, but I didn’t feel that the genre difference took away from the publication as a whole.

I like stories that shift between characters’ points of view.  The voice of each character was distinct.  This one had strong voice, great flow, and interesting characters, and there was a wicked twist at the end.

I did not personally identify with Eve for several reasons, but that was not due to any lack of skill on the writer’s part.  I disagree philosophically with some of the author’s take on the original creation story, but as a work of fiction, it was well-crafted.

In “Traveling by Air” by Ian Sales, we join Geraldine Marsh on her first aeroplane flight in three different realities, each showing how her life would be different, or not, if several key moments of aviation history had gone differently.

I think that story really embraces what, for me, is so entrancing with alternate history.  Not only do we catch a glimpse of how life could be different for us all if a single pivotal event took a different turn, we get to compare it to two additional possibilities.  It makes the story a nice little brain teaser as one allows the possibilities to bounce around in one’s head.

It was intriguing, though the first shift between one reality and another was abrupt and somewhat confusing.  After the pattern was established, it was much easier to follow.

I can’t even imagine how difficult and overwhelming it would be to launch a brand-new publication.  I feel that Alt Hist has some problems to address if it is to survive.  The majority of the stories were some good.  However, the chasm between the good and the weak was so wide that it significantly reduced my enjoyment and increased my frustration.

March 2, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

1 Comment

  1. […] a review of Alt Hist 1 was posted on The Portal here. The reviewer said of my story in the issue, ‘Travelling by air’, that the “story […]

    Pingback by The door of perception « It Doesn't Have To Be Right… | March 3, 2011


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