The Slush is Alive: Free Fiction for Fyretober, October 2, 2023
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: It’s alive.
The Slush is Alive
The slush is alive.
Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you don’t have the writer disease. Maybe you’re not a writer or an editor like me. Maybe you’ve never met the slush pile: that massive pile of manuscripts submitted for your consideration. Once, long ago, it was a pile of physical manuscripts, paper tossed over the transom and into an office to make a giant pile in front of the door. Like slush fallen off a roof. Maybe you don’t know what the modern equivalent is, the giant electronic submission queue that just sits there. And waits. And stares at you until you feel guilty for not processing every manuscript. Like the stories have eyes…
I didn’t notice them myself, at first. Not for months. Years, even, when I first started editing Trans Lunar Injection Magazine, the hot new Science Fiction magazine on the market at the time. Oh, they had ambitions back then, Rachel and Paul. And me, though I started as merely an adviser. Rachel Miller had started the magazine, along with her husband Paul, may he rest in peace. They determined to put out a quality new magazine with top art and top stories at professional pay. They put their all into it, and more. At Paul’s funeral, some of his friends said darkly that that was what had killed him. “It was too much for him to take, and he refused to compromise. They were going to be the best if it killed him.” And it did.
In the next issue of Trans Lunar, the tribute issue, there was a new name on the masthead: Kevin Fenton as Executive Editor. That was me. I would never have wished to get the job that way, but I still was determined to do my best at it. Rachel had asked, and I couldn’t refuse.
For a few issues, things were calm. I suspect writers were waiting to see if the magazine could make it at all without Paul. Someof them knew that Rachel was the driving force; but that editor is the magazine to many people. So with Paul gone, and with me a relative unknown, writers held off on some of their best stuff. They wanted to save that for a magazine that had a future.
So the slush inflow slowed, but it definitely didn’t stop. Some writers, seeing an opening, eagerly jumped in with their stuff. And some… Some just never stop submitting, no matter how… eclectic their work.
And we still had a magazine to get out. Eclectic or no, we can only print what was submitted to us. So those first few issues, I just had to take the best of a strange lot, and try to arrange a magazine from these ill-fitting puzzle pieces.
Sadly, that became our new reputation. Or I should say, myreputation. After the tribute issue, our story mix took a distinct turn for the weird; and since I was the new guy, I was blamed for it. I paid attention to the gossip sites (under an assumed name, of course), and I saw my tastes being blamed for the new direction of Trans Lunar. I wanted to say No, we still want to print the classic mix that we’d always had, if you’ll just send it to us! But that never works. You can’t argue the public into seeing things your way, not when they don’t want to.
So as the stories picked up, and the quality as well, I saw a distinct change: the weird was with us to stay. Not classic Weird Tales weird, bizarre and experimental stuff. Like magic realism had its DNA spliced with cyberpunk, plus a few strands of anime and stream of consciousness. There were some good ones, enough to make an even better magazine than the previous months, but nothing in the spirit of classic tales. Nothing like what had brought me into science fiction and fantasy in the first place.
Soon the volume picked up to where it was hard to keep up at all. This is always been a problem in this business: there are more hungry writers than overworked editors can keep up with, especially when you’re operating on a shoestring budget. Some days I swear Rachel had to pay me in cheese sandwiches, and I wondered how to split those with the authors. (With apologies to Spider Robinson for stealing his cheese sandwich joke.)
But we struggled. We did the best we could. I found a few volunteer slush readers, though we couldn’t hold them for long. Slush reading is a thankless job that I wish more writers would go through so they would understand what it’s like on my side of the editing desk. But as soon as volunteers figure it out, they usually run screaming back to their own work, muttering something like, “At least I’m not that bad!” The expiration date on a volunteer slush reader averages about three issues at Trans Lunar. And we sure didn’t have enough cheese sandwiches for paid readers.
Instead, we had me. Rachel when she had time, but that was virtually never. The publishing side of the business is even worse than the editing side for stress and overwork. Keeping the money flowing in and the issues flowing out is a never-ending chore. Rachel would take home manuscripts on the weekend promising, “I’ll read them just for the change of pace.” But she seldom got through more than three a week.
We receive more than three hundred.
But I couldn’t let down Rachel, or Paul’s memory. They had been my two best friends since I first started writing. I owed it to them to stick with Trans Lunar. And I didn’t have any other opportunities anyway. Maybe after a few years, I could build enough of a reputation to find another editing job – if I I could find it in me to abandon Rachel.
So the stress mounted, my temper grew short, and I buried it deep as I usually do, making a vicious circle. Finally I reached a point where I read slush even in my dreams. Mountains of paper piling up and falling on me in great avalanches. More than a few mornings I woke up screaming, no more slush!
That was when I wondered if I could keep going. I just didn’t know how to continue, yet I couldn’t let Rachel down. I was on a spinning wheel, faster and faster every week, just waiting for it all to fall apart.
That was last week. Today, I opened my slush folder, read some of the titles, and cringed. What the hell is a Latchkey Zambot?
And I got an answer. “It’s me, moron, the next story in the queue!”
I shook my head vigorously and stuck my finger in my ear to clean out the waxy buildup. I checked my browser tabs, and none was playing any audio. “What the hell?”
The story icon in the folder started to pulse. Look, you asked, I answered. Only it’s Latchkey Zombat, not zambot. Do you need your eyes checked?”
I peered closer. The voice was right. “What the hell’s a zombat?”
Then I jumped back in my chair, tipping completely over and smacking my head on the carpeted floor. The story icon had jumped out of my screen and was walking across my desk.
“Argulagnth!” That’s the closest I can come to spelling what I said in response. I couldn’t think of coherent words.
Meanwhile the icon grew to nearly four inches across, with little tiny feet underneath. “That’s the best you can come up with? Argulagnth? And you, and editor? Man, this magazine is doomed.”
I stared up at my desk, paralyzed by the sight of a walking, talking file icon.
Then it got worse. Another icon popped off the screen and spoke in a distinctly feminine voice. “Oh, cut him some slack, Zombat. He’s had a rough time of it.”
Where one walking, talking icon had paralyzed me, two somehow put my feet in gear as I scrambled from the floor and out my office door. There were only two possibilities: the universe had gone crazy, or I had. Either way, I had to get away.
But if I was hallucinating, I wasn’t safe to drive. Maybe not safe to be on my own at all. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket so I could call Rachel for help.
When the phone powered up, instead of my sign in screen, I saw another talking icon, this one dark with red drops of blood sliding down the front. A deep Eastern European voice said, “You don’t want them… You want me! I am correcting!”
I dropped the phone, and I ran to the outside door. But before I reached it, the old-fashioned postal slot at shin level made the sound of banging metal as a small pile of manila envelopes slid through and onto the floor. The one on the top bent in the middle, then lifted itself to its feet and started walking toward me. “I, editor, am a classic tale like none you have ever seen! Don’t waste your time on all these modern stories. Take me, and I shall take you on wings of adventure to exotic lands where mysteries await!”
I backed up, stepping on my phone. Yet another icon called out, “No! Not so rough! I’m a delicate soul, you know?”
Maybe I was crazy, but I could only see what I saw! The so-called real world was nowhere to be found.
Now dozens of icons crossed my office floor toward the hallway door. They were spouting from my phone as well, one every few seconds. And the manila envelopes were all getting to their feet, dusting themselves off, and hobbling across the wooden floor.
I knew it was crazy, and I knew it was real. I turned and ran up the stairs to my second-floor bedroom. I dashed in, slammed the door, locked it, and leaned against it, breathing heavily.
Then I heard the sound of paper shuffling up the stairs, like the sound of dropped manuscripts but in reverse. They were coming. They would never leave me alone.
I grabbed clothes out of the hamper, and I jammed them under the doorway. I couldn’t let the slush in!
But I knew better. I’d seen this story before. The Zuni fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror. The toy soldiers in Battleground. Gremlins. The Blob. Locking yourself away never worked. Your enemies would surprise you at any every exit, lying in wait until you dared show your face.
Or you could try to stop them… I needed Karen Black’s butcher knife, or William Hurt’s makeshift flamethrower. That last one I could do. The bathroom was…
The bathroom! It had a door to my room, and another to the hallway. And both… were open!
I burst into the bathroom just in time to see that the icons had grown larger. They were now the size of computer screens, and I could make out the words on them. Horrible, painful words… But more than words, they were starting to resemble their subjects. The one closest to the door… It was a zombie wombat!
I slammed the hallway door, but the Zombat was halfway through. I didn’t know what the icons were made of, but they were tough. It was like trying to shut the door on a big thick stack of paper. The Zombat kept me from shutting the door, and other, smaller icons marched forward, trying to squeeze around it or climb over it.
I was reluctant to touch any of these, but I was also desperate. I reached down, grabbed the Zombat with my left hand, and yanked it through the door as I slammed the door with my right.
Then I had this squirming thing, this giant, sticky mess that was sometimes manuscript, sometimes undead marsupial, constantly shifting. It flapped and fluttered and struggled in my hand as I locked the door and grabbed a towel to throw down at the bottom.
The Zombat grew agitated, and I had to use both hands to control it. It made an awful stuttering, screaming sound, not at all like it had sounded when it had first spoken from my screen. Now it sounded like a dying vampire.
I couldn’t control the thing, so finally I disposed of it in the only way I could think of: I tossed it into the toilet. Somehow it became fifty or more sheets of loose paper, like an old-style submission, all in the toilet bowl. The sheets scrambled like crabs in a bucket, trying to climb out while others pulled them down. That struggle distracted them enough that I could do the obvious next step: I flushed the toilet.
The water flowed in the bowl, washing the sheets free from the sides. As they swirled downward, I realized that that much paper might clog the drain. So I grabbed the plunger and started pushing and pushing and pushing… and somehow, I managed to plunge every sheet down.
I set stood there breathing heavily and looking down at the clean bowl. “Take that, Zombat!”
I should’ve known better. The monster always returns one more time. Suddenly the water surged and spun in reverse, and itemerged: a six-foot wombat with gray eyes and drooling fangs and sharp claws waving in my direction.
My reaction was purely instinct. I jabbed with the plunger, punctuating me shout: “Read the guidelines! We don’t! Take! Zombie stories! Rejected!”
I expected another hideous scream; but all that came from the Zombat has it faded into nothingness was the faint echoing whimpers of a disappointed writer.
One down, 299 to go…