Over the past several years, I’ve embarked on a series of year-long review cycles at Black Gate. In 2018, I reviewed a story-a-day to coincide with an author whose birthday it was. In 2022, I selected stories completely at random from my collection to review. In both of those cases, the projects served to find forgotten and minor works of science fiction that spanned a range of years. They also served to make me read stories and authors who I haven’t read before, even if they were in my collection.
For this year’s project, I’ve compiled a list of all the stories and novels in my collection. I then identified the first and last works for each letter of the alphabet and over the next twelve months, I’ll be looking at those works of fiction, starting with Vance Aandahl’s “Bad Luck” and ending with David Lee Zweifler’s “Wasted Potential.” Looking at the 52 works (two for each letter), I find that I’ve only reviewed one of the works previously. Interestingly, given the random nature of the works, only three novels made the list, while four anthologies have multiple stories on the list. The works range in publication date from 1911’s “The Hump,” by Fernan Caballero to Zweifler’s story from last year.
To kick off the series, we start with Aa, specifically, Vance Aandahl’s story “Bad Luck,” which appeared in the November 1989 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Throughout his thirty year career, the majority of Aandahl’s short fiction initially appeared in that magazine.
The story is a western set in a small town on the Mexican side of the border, opening with Rosarita thinking about her relationship with Jesus, a local troublemaker. One time handsome, Jesus’ looks were spoiled when he lost his nose, but he does provide a modicum of protection for Rosarita. Despite that, she knows his history and realizes that when he tires of her , he will either kill her or give her over to his friends for their sexual pleasure before killing her.
The arrival of an old man in town, who heads straight for the local church, gives Rosarita an idea for a way out of her predicament.
Aandahl then changes to focus on the old man, Cactus Frank Gaffigan, who is making a confession to God, although he notes that he hasn’t ever stepped into a church before. Gaffigan’s prayer is a litany of crimes he has committed, often couched in terms to make them seem as if he was acting on behalf of the community rather than for his own reasons.
Rosarita tells Jesus that when she was in the church the old man molested her, setting up a standoff between the two and preparing her own way to potentially get out of her situation with Jesus. Aandahl shifts his attention back to the interior of the church and the showdown.
There is magic involved with the story, although it comes across as a deus ex machina, the magic happens because Cactus Frank needs the magic to happen. In a flashback sequence, the reader understands that Frank has been in a situation where magic saved his life before, although that time it was brought about by his companion, the Indian Hair That Swims in the Sun. Frank, however, had no clue how the magic worked then, but somehow manages to affect a similar trick against Jesus and his pistoleros.
In only ten pages, Aandahl presents the story from the points of view of Rosarita, Cactus Frank, and Jesus, but in the end, it feels like he doesn’t do justice to any of their stories, providing vignettes without any real conclusion for any of them. Furthermore, there is little real engagement between the characters. Jesus talks to both Rosarita and Cactus Frank, but there is never really a connection between any of the characters. At most, Aandahl lets us know that Rosarita and Jesus are in a relationship that is coming to an end, but it never appears to be more than a relationship of convenience for either of them with no affection, made stranger by Rosarita’s understanding that it will end with her death or being prostituted out.
As a note, last March, Adrian Simmons reviewed this entire issue of F&SF for Black Gate and appears to have felt the story worked better than I did.
Steven H Silver is a twenty-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for eight years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference six times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.