Fortean Bureau

Review by Barth Anderson

Fortean Bureau is a free monthly online fiction magazine trading in the fantastic and which boasts an archive loaded with gems. It recently shifted to a quarterly publishing schedule which is a pity since, with each passing issue, this magazine has honed in on its mission statement with greater accuracy and increasingly amazing results.
Founders Jeremy and Sarah Tolbert are Grinnell College alumni who draw editorial inspiration and the title of their magazine from noted raconteur of the bizarre, Charles Fort. To be “Fortean” is to dabble in the unexplained, the scientifically dubious, and especially the paranormal. But Fortean Bureau isn’t a UFO magazine. A writer from the early 20th century, one of Charles Fort’s more famous dictums, “One measures a circle beginning anywhere,” provides the Tolberts with a wide editorial net, drawing in stories that range from disturbing to beautiful, poetic to hysterical.
In measuring the circle of Fortean Bureau’s complete offerings, I found some truly fine traditional stories peppering the archives. Their archives boast stories from some of the best writers working in the speculative fiction market today: Greg Beatty, Tobias Buckell, Tim Pratt, as well as some highly talented newcomers: Rudi Dornemann, Amber van Dyk, and S. Evans to name a few. But this magazine shows its best with stories that express the quirky and startling subject matter that would have grabbed old Charles Fort’s attention – ones which trick the reader into asking, “Is this for real?”

“The Curious History of the Micro-Cynicon”
By Lavie Tidhar

“The Curious History of the Micro-Cynicon” is a wry essay on the history of a play whose author is only identified by the initials M.T.. The play has a long, convoluted history that touches on the mystic and alchemic – and as it turns out, noted horror writer H.P. Lovecraft may have known of the Micro-Cynicon in fashioning his own fictional text, the Necronomicon. How much of what Tidhar offers here is truth and how much is bowdlerized history? After checking all the footnotes and accompanying Web links, I still couldn’t really tell.

“The Girl of Flesh” by John Schoffstall

A precise little fairy tale that neatly turns the ghost-in-the-machine tale on its head with beautiful language and a shunning of contractions in dialog and prose, which echoes the clickety-clack of the clockwork world portrayed here.

“La Dualidad” by Andy Miller

Frames within frames within frames, reading “La Dualidad” is like looking down the hall of reflections created when two mirrors face one another. This “found object” story addresses the history of a small Arizona town, large military contractors, strange lights and weapons experiments, the mad scientist Tesla, and (why not?) the history of science fiction. While short on devices that normally entice readers (character, plot, lush prose), this very Fortean story is an amusing little trickster.

“Chart 0052834912-31”
By S. Evans

This is my favorite story in Fortean Bureau’s archives. Another nifty “found-object” whose plot and disturbing details emerge in the clinical observations of a mysterious patient’s medical chart. Taking place in one day at a near-future hospital, social workers, nurses, medical students, and doctors describe a pregnant Jane Doe who has a “significant persecution complex” and who arrives on site with “copious” vaginal bleeding. Eek. Quickly, there are more questions than answers for the medical team and readers alike. Who is she? Are doctors, as she claims, really after her? Why do the nurses have a hard time getting her pulse and blood pressure? Why is she obsessed with the hospital’s information system? And what’s up with the plastic bands on her arms? Defying science fiction’s aesthetic of tidy closure and numb seamlessness, Evans offers no easy answers. Her story begs to be reread, my favorite kind, in order to search for details of the curious woman’s past and for hints about the dystopia in which she lives.

Other Fortean Bureau delights include the brave and fun “Aliens Enter the Conversation” by Greg Beatty, a jazzy beatnik rant of high geekery that deserved to be pitched at the reader, high and inside, sans addendum or apology. The intrusive explanation at the end of the story almost wrecked the piece for me, so I advise ignoring it. Also, read the deft “Leviathan” by Samantha Henderson, a tale with buried sexual needs and an astonishing color palette, if such things can really be said of a fish tale. Main character Sophia acquires an oddity from the local fish store and a sort of piscatorial, unrequited love story commences which ends on an offbeat note of horror and loveliness.
Online magazines offering quality fiction for free is a real gift, and Fortean Bureau should be investigated by readers for whom the run-of-the-mill simply won’t satisfy.

Barth Anderson
10 August 2004

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