Saturday, December 28, 2019

The State of the Loon Address: December 28, 2019

Well. What a year it’s been. 

I’ve been writing and rewriting this column for at least a week now, trying to figure out what I’m trying to say while simultaneously fighting the feeling of having said it all before. Our existence has definitely taken on a Groundhog Day quality lately, as in the sense of the Bill Murray movie, not that business with that oversized marmot out in Pennsylvania.

Longtime friends and followers of Stupefying Stories know that Rampant Loon Press has always been the Bruce & Karen Bethke show. A lot of good friends and terrific volunteers have come and gone over the years—and we are profoundly grateful for all their generous contributions of time, energy, labor, and especially inspiration and imagination—but while the public face of the operation has always been me, Bruce Bethke, award-winning and intermittently world-famous author, literary genius, etc., etc., everyone around here knows that Karen Bethke has always been the backbone, moral core, master chef, and not insignificantly, CFO of the operation.

Longtime friends also know that the Stupefying Stories story has always been inextricably intertwined with Karen’s ongoing battle with metastatic breast cancer. In a sense, that’s where Stupefying Stories really began: with Karen in chemotherapy and having trouble lugging around her usual big bag o’ books—I married a woman with a four-novel-a-week reading habit—and me buying her a Kindle for Christmas to reduce her workload. Then, when I saw how enthusiastically she embraced that thing, I realized that here at last was a technology that would make it possible for me to do what I’d always wanted to do as an editor and publisher:
To create an entry- to journeyman-level short fiction market that would help people launch and build their writing careers, where the overriding concern would be the quality of the stories we published, above all else.
And almost equally importantly: to do so without either begging for public donations, groveling before private investors, or blowing the family household budget out of the water. I’d already been heavily involved in three previous arts-oriented 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations and been on the Boards of Directors of two of them. I’d spent years playing the arts grants and commissions game. I’d seen first-hand time and again how the constant need to beg for donations inevitably warps an arts organization, away from its founding mission and towards producing work that’s more concerned with pandering to the personal conceits and political agendas of its major donors than with actually being good.

Ergo, in the Fall of 2011, with a hat full of dreams, an overabundance of chutzpah, and a budget breathtaking in its modesty, we launched Stupefying Stories, damned and determined to stick to our founding mission statement, come Hell or high water.


The years have come and gone since then. We’ve read thousands of submissions; published hundreds of stories—I actually have no clear idea of just exactly how many stories we’ve published, but know we’ve published more than 170 in SHOWCASE alone—published dozens of books; and in general, for the most part, made good friends and had lots of fun. We’ve tried lots of experiments: some have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, while others just hit the floor with a soggy plop and were dead on arrival. We’ve learned new things—then had to learn newer things—then discovered we needed to unlearn things we thought we already knew. The literary marketplace continues to grow and evolve at Internet speed. Our bestselling titles have sold thousands of copies each, but the data that’s coming in from all those Kindles and other tablets out there has also revealed some peculiar and unsettling things about how people read. We’re still trying to assimilate and adapt to that information.

In parallel with this, though, Karen’s battle with cancer has been ongoing. She’s endured surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, more surgery, more radiation, different chemotherapy... She’s been in and out of remission several times. In 2015 they declared her so completely cancer-free that they finally removed her chemotherapy port, and she was officially no longer a cyborg. In 2018, after a couple of false starts, we got it together and laid out an ambitious Fall, Winter, and 2019 publishing schedule, eager to make up for lost time.

In the Spring of 2019, just as we were about to reopen to submissions, her cancer came back again, in yet another new place. That’s the way it goes with metastatic cancer. You’re always playing whack-a-mole with it. After yet another course of radiation treatments she was switched to yet another new miracle drug, which seemed to work brilliantly, so we continued on course with Stupefying Stories. By late Summer, though, it was becoming clear that something was wrong. The tests still showed her as being in remission, so we went off on a merry-go-round of specialists and consultations, all the while not realizing that what the tests had really revealed was that the tests themselves were no longer reliable.

Things came to a crisis in September, and I’d write more about what happened next except that I probably can’t do so without saying something unkind about that jock-sniffing “sports medicine” specialist who continued to insist that her problems were all muscle- and nerve-related, even as he was looking right at a new metastatic lesion on her MRI and failing to see it.

Water under the bridge. We wasted three months bouncing from clinic to clinic and crisis to crisis until someone who knew what they were doing finally spotted the new lesion that was impinging on her sciatic nerve. The new miracle drug had quit working after six months.

That’s the way it goes with metastatic cancer.


So here we are again, back where we began. Groundhog Day. Karen’s back on chemo; they’ve installed a new port, so she’s officially a cyborg again. When this round of treatments is finished they’re going to put her on yet another new miracle drug, one that was approved by the FDA just a few months ago and that targets a very specific genetic mutation. So the good news is that, as we’ve long suspected, my wife is a mutant.

The bad news is, her mutant power is susceptibility to a very specific type of cancer.

Her Kindle is still her constant companion—well, not exactly. Her original Kindle has long since been replaced by a Fire, then an HD, then a Kindle Fire HD 10. She’s on her fourth or fifth Kindle now, I think.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, n'est ce pas?

We’ve talked a lot lately about the future of Stupefying Stories. We’ve lost a lot of time, these last few months. There is a profound sense of “This is where we got on this ride, innit?” and sometimes it’s overwhelming. More than once, we’ve thought that maybe it’s time to hang it up and let someone else carry on the mission.


But one of the last projects Karen was working on before she got sick again was reading through nine years of back issues, short-listing stories for a planned Best of Stupefying Stories reprint anthology. Throughout the process, she continued to surprise me by unearthing gems by writers who we were the first—or one of the first—to publish, who have since gone on to become award-winning authors or have major careers. Clearly we have been doing something right, once in a while.

And so, after a great deal of discussion, we’ve made the decision: Stupefying Stories goes forward. We’ll be readjusting our focus, as we assimilate and interpret new information, and making changes in how we go to market. But the mission continues.

Per aspera ad astra!

Thanks for your support,
Bruce & Karen Bethke

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Submissions and Slush Pile Update #7

It’s been a challenging month here at Rampant Loon Press. We had a major computer malfunction in early November that locked us out of the RLP email acounts—and more disturbingly, the RLP bank accounts—for a couple of weeks, but fixing that didn’t get my full attention because my wife was back in the hospital again.

The good news is that we finally have a clear diagnosis and an effective treatment plan in place for her, and she’s being discharged from the hospital later this morning. In the meantime, we also finally got the computer problems sorted out this past week, and will be resuming normal operations shortly, just as soon as we figure out what “normal” is for us.

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke