Top 10 Literary Magazines for Surreal Flash Fiction
My best friend is a pink bat. His name is He5e and she hates the gumballs that drink all the lattes on the stationary bikes from France. They’re so hoi-poloi with their gender indifference to his numerical disorders. She hates the French, nearly as much as they do. And I’d go on but I’m saving the rest of this quirky ditty for a flash I’m going to submit to some of my favorite literary magazines. The ones that specialize in the weird stuff.
Lots of outstanding journals publish a range of quality flash (Word Riot, Smokelong, PANK, Camera Obscura, A-Minor). But only a few cater exclusively to the the off-beat and the strange. For those of you who write about the secret lives of inanimate objects or werewolf psychiatrists who marry houseplants, these venues want to support your “special” offerings. Two journals I’ve already written about in former lists would work well here: Gone Lawn and Used Gravitrons. Like the ten venues listed here, both of these fine journals curate flash that could be classified as bizarro, slipstream, surreal, magical realist, or just plain odd.
1. Café Irreal (1.5% acceptance rate) Kafka would read the flash published here with glee. Fredric Mitchem’s “Wanted” from Issue 47 captures the tensions that irrealist editors Alice Whittenburg and G.S. Evans seek. “To say I am a secret agent is not entirely true,” the speaker of this one confesses. “Perhaps more relevant is that the maitre d’ prefers to serve his guests beer.” Or, perhaps it is more relevant to say that you will not read a magazine with more refined tastes for oddities that burst with ripe juices. One story that defines the genre of experimental, surreal-juicy flash is “Horse Factory” by the inimitable Michael Paul Workman from Issue 44. Confronted with horse skeletons, the poetic protagonist of this punchy tour de force reports: “I pulled a femur from beneath a sparkling grapheme chassis, wiped off the algae and pretended to smoke it like a cigar.”
2. Weave (1% acceptance rate) Laura E. Davis, Founding Editor, wants writing that is “thoughtful, surprising, earthy, pro-women, experimental, smart.” David Shumate’s “Between Dogs” in Issue 9 meets the standard. With quiet mourning it announces all the sad rituals you perform when a beautiful dog dies, like the passing of a great prophet, whose absence leaves you awkwardly filling in for the loss in surprising ways. In the same issue, Lizi Gilad’s “When Mami Was A Zarzamora” would more properly classify as a poem, but who’ll split hairs at the bounteous table of such a prosey, unlineated word feast? Okay, so maybe none the periods in this short paragraph align with actual grammatical sentences and there’s no capital letter in the whole strange character profile of Mami. You won’t care when your breath stops as you learn that this woman “slept in candlelight. in dirt. in a cedarwood chest” or that she “turned to salt” and “let the locusts spend the night.”
3. A Cappella Zoo (4.4% acceptance rate) According to editor Colin Meldrum, A Cappella Zoo is partial to “the everyday uncanny.” That’s just what Shellie Zacharia serves up in “Yesterday, My Dog Talked” (Issue 9)–and what boastful stories the canine begins with, too–a “picnic of cakes and Russian tea under a star magnolia tree” and “running the bases at Fenway park.” This sweet and dreamy index of glorious experience ends with the dog angling for an ordinary walk. In Issue 8, Mary Lou Buschi’s “Beauty School” may have won a prize for poetry, but it is written as a highly readable paragraph–an inner recitation of anxiously obsessed thoughts about the precise movements of fingers along scalps, fingers that sculpt and style, and finally, fingers that are part of an elaborately morbid set of dark thoughts: “Your next customer will test you by presenting her hand. You will need to recant each bone before cutting her cuticles, before cutting each strand of her hair because you will be using a scissor sharp enough to sever air.”
4. Jersey Devil Press (5% acceptance rate) “Our tastes tend more toward the offbeat and the absurd, the unclassifiable and the insane, stories most other publishers can’t be bothered with.” I could not even begin to discuss JDP’s taste for flash without mentioning one of the most infamous pieces it has published, the ingeniously racy “Brace” by Jackson Burgess (Issue 39), which flaunts a premise about masturbation that has to be read to be believed: “I wasn’t doing it to the ducks; it was more at them. Though I suppose that sounds just as strange. But that’s how I survived the year of her absence. Fapping at the ducks.” Unnervingly well-written, this piece creates confessional intimacy through the absurd. But those Jersey Devils don’t need controversial libido to get you off. In the September issue Kelsie Hahn has a smart and amusing flash, “The Hermitage,” about a pet hermit crab who’s been transported from his luxury diggs with a family out on an excursion to the beach and mistakenly left behind to wander the inferior hallways of a woefully constructed sand castle. As “chunks of sand crack and sift off” and the tide comes in, our well-mannered hero–upwardly mobile to the last–muses: “Ah, a fixer-upper.”
5. Apocrypha and Abstractions (47% acceptance rate) I had to rate this venue high on my list for two reasons: 1) they are one of the only journals into the weird stuff who specialize in flash; and 2) they manage to be both engaging to read and incredibly accepting of new writers all at once. If you’re a budding writer of bizarre sudden fiction, you’ll want to pay close attention to Cheryl Anne Gardner’s clear sense of editorial direction: “I generally like the subject matter dark and psychological, a little grounded in the surreal, and work that makes a statement in the abstract.” A recent flash you’ll find on the site by Christopher Allen is “The Raging, Melting Space Between.” A strange yet personal reminiscence, perhaps to a lover at life’s end, about the thing they had. That thing goes deliciously unnamed throughout the flash as details pile up to capture it, like a “firmament, like some private storm.” Another lovely flash recently published here is “The Sea as a Sickness” by Stephen V. Ramey. This is the kind of writing you’ll want to linger over–phrases so finely turned they’ll make you smile (“The beach was the texture of beef tongue”) and a situation so existentially piquant, you’ll want to read it again just to make sure the life guard in the story is real, and whether or not that lifeguard is really you.
6. The Medulla Review (9% acceptance rate) Editor Jennifer Hollie Bowles likes her flash “surreal, experimental, raw.” I like mine that way too, but I like it best when it is clearly labeled on tables of contents. In that regard, the Medulla has a leg up on other journals that do not flaunt their flash so explicitly, nor showcase their contents so efficiently. What I find most amazing about this journal is the few words of summary that accompany each item on the table of contents. They entice but do not spoil–so much more than the simple title and by line on most sites. For the entry by Peter Tieryas Liu, for example, the header reads: “Peter takes us into a graphic, visceral space of “Defibrillation”” What it doesn’t tell you is that this amazing flash is one of the most addictive pieces you’ll squiggle into your head, about a girl who loves to eat live insects, feeling ants crawl along her tongue and centipedes worm down her throat. Or, for the entry covering Philip Tinkler’s story, the editors tell us– “Totally unique story, so disjointed in its connections: “She buries herself in the chair like a lawn Mary in a snow-covered postage-stamp of a prepaid garden.” And I couldn’t agree more, except to add that this flash is also a deconstruction of a novel. It’s told in seven chapters, labeled as such, and the original mayhem it explores in plot may also serve to critique the unoriginality one tends to find in bestsellers.
7. Space Squid (1% acceptance rate) Editor Matthew Bey is not too shy to bay about the uniqueness of his journal: “There are no other publications like Space Squid. Space Squid is the very last resort for everyone who has a story that knocks readers on their butt, but can’t convince the weasels at reputable markets to publish it. Space Squid is the frothing junkyard dog of genre fiction.” The flash you’ll read in Space Squid is rowdy. Some of it melds the realities of life as we know it with the unnatural in order to offer up some salutary distance–as with “Sand Castles” by Mark McKee Jr. It’s about a father watching a queasy infant taking its first steps. Only this son is not human at all. Nevertheless, there’s an oddly familiar sort of menace that the child musters up as he runs full speed at “Dada” with his little “Green, scaly, hairy arms spread.” Other stories are not just water-cooler weird, but locker-room weird. Like Rupan Malakin’s aptly-titled “Brian’s Secret Vagina.” Brian finds it under his armpit while in the shower. He does his research and gets secretive with it. You won’t necessarily want to take a shower after reading this one, but who’s to say you won’t linger a while longer the next time you apply deodorant?
8. Thrice (6% acceptance rate) Rather than focus exclusively on the experimental, editor Bob Spryszak aims for an eclectic meeting of convention and revolution: “The stated mission of this magazine is to combine standard, more traditional fiction that we like alongside our fearless commitment to the new, unusual and unique.” That said, I never find it difficult to alight upon the whimsical, the weird, and the wonderfully bizarre in the pages of Thrice. One of my favorites comes in Issue 8, “Chaz and Betty” by Bud Smith. Chaz has broken up with Betty and wants to get on with his love life. Betty has other plans. She keeps calling, sending emails, accosting prospective new girlfriends. The thing is, Betty is dead. She’s a corpse and a ghost and, most importantly, the occasion for brilliantly charming lines like this: “Chaz couldn’t get a date because of this malevolent super-natural ex-wife baggage.” You might notice a theme if you were to skip ahead in the same issue to John Riley’s “There’s No Pleasing Them,” about a man who wears chocolate lipstick and keeps his latest romantic partner in a gilded cage–literally, since the furry little paramour is a talking raccoon: “In the room he sat in his cage, hissed and pouted. Finally, he told me it wasn’t going to work out. He gave me five minutes to hit the curb.” And although this short piece is over in a flash, you’ll probably want the affair to last.
9. The Mustache Factor (indeterminate acceptance rate) Every once in a while you come across a little known journal that ought to be better known. The internet can be a vast repository of talent lost in a tiny electric corner, synaptically firing bravely against the heavy wattage of chaotic indifference. I’m hoping this post can send traffic their way. The Mustache Factor attracts veteran aficionados of the surreal like Kyle Hemmings. It is well-edited. It has taken a vow of absurdity and its ramblings are worthy to behold. “Everyday Struggle” by Andrew Wayne Adams is a kooky revelation: “Every morning, I watch the American flag and the Cannibal Corpse t-shirt fight, and I wonder which side I’m on. Then a bugle sounds, and I take up my butter knife.” Then there’s “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye” by Ben Arzate, which imagines a house getting sick and having to be put down like a family pet. Before blowing up the house, the speaker blames himself: “A house that old was very prone to disease. I should have had him checked on regular basis.” Outlandish without letting the mystery venture too far into comedy, these selections exemplify the subtle control of thresholds that you’ll find in much of the fine writing on display in The Mustache Factor.
10. Smashed Cat Magazine (72% acceptance rate) Deranged stories that express peculiar points of view of the beautifully inexplicable is what you’ll find in this, perhaps the most utopianly democratic zine on the list. Smashed Cat makes no bones about loving good strange writing so much that they’ll publish work by anyone, and they do it often. One of my favorites is “Stargazing” by Ian Kappos. It’s about a meteor shower, urine, and a dark hole. As you might surmise, it’s confusing, brutal, and engrossing, all the way to its conclusion: “After a while we all retreated back to the window to catch the last trickling of the meteor shower, but when we did there was nothing left in its wake but a faint cloud of bright orange that read: You like what you see, don’t you?” A more recent flash, “At The Hospital” by Saul Jennings, recounts the last emergency room moments of a crazed gunman, a broken man driven to violence by all the vapid conversations in the world. But don’t worry about the contagiousness of his affliction. The words you’ll encounter here may be eccentric, spooky, or even downright grotesque, but they’re never vapid.