Five Great Lit Mags for Flash Fiction
Storm Cellar (Duotrope-reported acceptances 2.86 % / 56 avg. days per acceptance). Storm Cellar is a magazine that holds a very special place in my native Ohioan heart because of its “special emphasis on the Midwest.” Sidney T. Sheehan, Chief Editrix, goes on to give would-be contributors some very helpful advice: “Understand what your piece is doing, and edit ruthlessly to achieve that goal. Read a back issue before you decide what to send. Show us something we’ve never seen before, something that surprised you when you wrote it.” Issue 3.1 contains plenty of poems and stories that demonstrate originality and surprise, not least among them is “How to Cope with the End of the Mercury Retrograde” by Mayah El-Dehaibi. In Six enumerated parts, poetical images accrue around the singular woman of the work, swelling the felt space of her world with beauty and danger: “She withered and mastered the art of withering. Her sewers over flowed and she let each light bulb burst under pressure. She tattooed her face red with her couch’s upholstery. Ants marched into her ears, constructing vast empires in gray dust.” As with any fine poem, you won’t grasp after logics that this flash isn’t offering, but by the end you will hope to be worthy of the language it lavishes. More traditional in structure is Janis Butler Holm’s “Door-To-Door Love.” There’s a knock at the door. A man named Love from the Love ministries has brought a very old woman a message about Love. How quaint. He even waits patiently as she maneuvers her walker down the stairs to answer the door. Lucky for her. Not so much for him, particularly when the drugs kick in from the milk she’s offered him. He’s quieted down now that it’s been a few days in the basement. Down there… in the cellar. If you’ve ever been harassed by solicitors, you’ll want to ring Holm’s door just to give thanks for this wicked fantasy of revenge kept on ice for us down in the Storm Cellar.
failbetter.com (Duotrope-reported acceptances 2.99 % / 256 avg. days per acceptance). Their advertised editorial preferences emphasize precision and originality: “We seek that which is at once original and personal. When choosing work to submit, be certain that what you have created could only have come from you.” “Ghost Town” by Jessica Alexander fits that bill of originality and gives change. The opening line is water for a thirsty imagination: “I live in a town that dreams all winter.” And the epiphanies keep coming until the end: “Some days I felt like all this had been mine, like I was a ghost, haunting myself back to life. Those days, in winter, I’d shut my eyes and tell myself there is no such thing as deserving this.” I’d say more, but this is one of those that you just have to read for yourself. Its central figure is a consciousness full of violent resentments and emotional experiences so sharp you should read it with one hand on a box of band-aids. And don’t get rid of that box once you’re finished. Add a few kleenex and maybe a towel to laugh into and I’d consider you ready for the “4 Stories” Meg Pokrass has written. The first contains these penultimate lines, which come after the main speaker has filled herself with Yuletide alcohol: “Also, I liked men the way I liked the special kind of holiday M&M’s… guilty and pretty. Mainly I wanted to die in the forest with a unicorn, not in a hospital bed or on a medical chair, as all of the old people in my family had…” This is a person who truly epitomizes the titular joyous blundering that makes failbetter one of the most unfailingly successful blog-style literary sources for flash.
Pithead Chapel (Duotrope-reported acceptances 4.4 % / 23.8 avg. days per acceptance). Editor Keith Rebec advises contributors to balance edginess with polish: “Don’t be afraid to take chances, to surprise us. And, as always, revise, revise, and revise before sending something out.” Pete Stevens, the Fiction Editor at Squalorly, has a great flash in Volume 2 Issue 9 called “Charlie Rose’s Stunt Double” that takes chances. It’s about a stunt man with a special skill and the barrel-headed consciousness that goes along with it: “Frank discovered early that the only thing he excelled at was taking pain and compressing it into a tiny sphere, then ultimately swallowing that sphere.” A stuttering, hectic, nervous energy comes through in the chip-chop rat-a-tat of the syntax– “Frank doesn’t sit. He paces. He watches Charlie finish his interview.” Then Frank and the flash roll into an off-screen finitude as soon as the director calls ACTION. In the latest issue, “For Your Safety” by Brittany Smith is a revelation–about a flight attendant in a dead-end relationship who no longer loves the man who cannot kiss her properly anymore, not without that uncoordinated clinking of the teeth. She assents to doing strip teases for him in reverse, slowly dressing for work. In between heartfelt mayday messages about their flightless love, she nose-dives into emergency card visuals, poignantly ending the flash by describing the unlikely event of the dreaded water landing: “Sometimes people are depicted bobbing beside the plane, docile figures clinging to their personal flotation devices. Other times, they’re piled into lifeboats. But in the end, each card is the same. The plane is empty, and you can tell that it’s sinking.”
Prick of the Spindle (Duotrope-reported acceptances 5.13 % / 94 avg. days per acceptance). From the editors: “Though we do not publish genre fiction, we are open to different forms. These may be more traditional, but infused with freshness and innovation; or experimental but not chaotic: if it is chaos in complete freedom of form you are aiming at, envelop it within some structure, even if it is only the structure of meaning.” If that sounds like a challenge, look no further than “Preludes” by Matthew Burnside for a shining example of a flash that clears the editors’ hurdles with grace, yoking meaning to chaos with éclat– élan even. The dizzyingly delicious opening should do the trick, giving you an idea of what I mean: “There is the story of the girl with a cactus heart who, upon waking every morning would find in the bathtub a key to a different door. The story of the girl who would, upon scooping sleep from her eyes and pouring a water spout down her throat to sate the prickling inside her chest…” I want to read more of that to say the very least–for reading in these selections is risking, ranting, rowdying as well as reading. Just peek into “Merry-Go-Round” by Gabrielle Hovendon for confirmation. It is longer than your typical flash by a few hundred words, but it is still short and unconventionally structured, in the form of a list. The list is a series of letters never sent, perhaps self confessions, of a man who repairs carousel animals, speaking to a person we hope is his consensual lover: “10. You ask me to please stop. You tell me I’m going to get blood on your pants, even though it’s my other hand that has the stitches.” Item number 13 bleeds with even more of the menace creeping about at the margins of the gash from which these confessions spill: “13. I go into the kitchen and begin to clean up the blood. Some things are straight lines (knife blades, self-injury, violin strings), but others (carousels, onions, relationships) go around in circles. Still other things (surgical stitches, decisions regarding the future) are wobbly and crooked no matter what I do.” This is one of those pieces whose reading ratio calls for one part terror and two parts pathos.
And the last journal I want to give a shout out to is…
Heavy Feather Review (Duotrope-reported acceptances 3.77 % / 1.5 avg. days per acceptance). Often produced only in print format, this literary quarterly is devoted to publishing the best fiction–and flash–as well as “poetry, creative nonfiction, drama, or any hybrid thereof.” Unlike many outfits that only call themselves a review, editors Jason Teal and Nathan Floom really do offer some of the most perceptive commentary on contemporary works of poetry and prose on HFR’s website. However, to read their creative offerings, you’ll have to purchase an issue or two. In the latest issue, 3.1, there’s a horn-of-plenty of words to choose from–delectables like any of the impressive grapes from Ryder Collins’ The way the sky was now, a veritable orchard of flash published in its entirety within the issue. A favorite of mine is “A Steampunk Guide to the Apocalypse” with its succulent opening lines:
All timepieces are now defunct. Rip their guts out; climb Big Ben if you can. Trail the innards down empty streets. Pin them to your vintage blouse. Wear them on your fingers as rings.
You’ll find another ripe seedless in Ben Hoffman’s “Downtown” –in which you are an unwitting passenger in the world’s most awkward car ride– a basketball coach, a prospective star player, and the young man’s mother and little sister crinkling through candy wrappers in the backseat.
Some naysayers predict the decline of printed journals. So say “yeah” to their “nays” and get yourself an e-book version of this fine journal. You won’t be disappointed. It’s a feast.