Regular readers — hello to both of you! — will know that I like my horror dark, and tailor my reading habits thusly.
Recently, though, rather than fiction I sometimes feel like I could just be reading the news. Probably I’m just noticing it more than usual, but it seems to have become a never ending cavalcade of misery and suffering; new stories of murder and worse on a daily basis.
Misery, it goes without saying, is not entertainment. What is fertile ground for exploration in the hands of writers of fiction, is bleak and unremittting in the cold light of the real world, shorn of analogy.
But fiction is where we explore the world. We can bring out ideas from today and test them, analyse them, know them. All fiction is analogy, after all. So when the world is become so dark a place, where does our fiction have to go in order for us to get a handle on it? How far into the dark night must we go to flush out the real monsters behind our fears?
And on that note, the latest issue of Black Static.
- Opening story, “None so Empty” by Tim Waggoner, is an odd one. That feels slightly redundant when talking about a TTA Press magazine, but it’s true. A retired man , with not much joy in life, finds a mannequin head in a dumpster near his block of flats. Maybe a mannequin head. It plays on his mind, as his neighbour — who lacks a head — makes advances on him. It’s a softly stirring story of passion for life gone cold, and loneliness in the crowd.
- Vajra Chandrasekera’s “Caul” is a very short story — which I like — which uses a passive voice to weave a mystical and compelling story — which I also like. A man recounts elements from his life, including being born with a caul, never learning to swim, and an apparent curse which takes women from his life by drowning. It’s not clear whether the curse is something he hates or savours, but there is an abstract beauty in the conclusion.
- “Ghosts Play in Boy’s Pyjamas” by Ralph Robert Moore sets this issue on another route, to the dark places I mentioned before. A boy and his newly single father move into a new house, next door to another boy and his widowed mother. The parents grow close, but although the boys do too there is a dark undertone of violence to the neighbour. I say undertone, it emerges starkly and shockingly into the fore. The titular ghost is a construct, but it lingers over the whole thing even as it comes towards a chillingly unflinching conclusion. Not an easy read, but an excellent piece of fiction.
- “Equilibrium” by Carole Johnstone is another dark one, though a little more softly. A woman whose husband is dying tries to find solace and feeling in an online relationship, whilst navigating a twisted, bitter bereavement. It’s reasonably simple in construction, but has captured a real sense of confused grief, ringing remarkably true. The slow reveal of key pieces of information twists the nature of the story from one thing to another as it pushes onwards, and is entertaining even if the conclusion — if not what has come before — feels a little predictable.
- Leah Thomas’ “The Driveway”, on the other hand, was a complete curve ball for me. A woman uses some sort of magic to make herself a child out of meat and household objects, who unexpectedly starts to grow up. It is an excellent picture of motherhood and the difficulty — on both sides –of letting go, which for some reason recalled to me Pinocchio. The circular nature of the internal story, though, was what really impressed me. I think this was the first of Thomas’ stories that I’ve read, and hers will be a name I’ll be keeping an eye out for.
- Welcome back to Black Static for Ray Cluely! Ray is one of my favourite short story writers, but hasn’t featured in these pages since issue #37. Here we have his story “Hutch”, which takes us again to a blended home of two broken families, and to the nearly-teenage daughter struggling to adjust. The metaphors of a feral (dead) rabbit, and the titular dark, putrid hutch recreate a familiar story with an undercurrent of reality shifting away and the main character — and the reader — caught somewhere in the middle.
- Finally, “The Spider Sweeper” by Thersa Matsuura takes us to a Buddhist temple in Japan. The main character is the titular spider sweeper, caring for the arachnids as well as undertaking other chores. Haunted by the maybe-ghost of a traveller he fell in love with, the story explores their past and heads towards a conclusion of heartbreak and jealousy undercut with a final line which ramps up the bizarre to eleven. It jars a little, but not necessarily in a bad way. A neat ending for this issue’s fiction, I suppose, but this is by far the lightest story in a pitch black issue.
There is, of course, the usual host of non-fiction as well. The two columns, as I have said many times before, are one of my favourite parts, and something which I think Interzone could stand to replicate.
Both Stephen Volk and Lynda E. Rucker take a very personal approach, both relating their own personal journeys with horror. Stephen dwells on the inherent superiority (my term) of short fiction, something of which I am very much in favour of. He brilliantly extols the thrill of something as short, simple and devastatingly effective as a horror short. Lynda gives us an intensely personal look into her life, and how she came to be such a horror fan. It’s not something I can really review, so much as saying buy a copy and have a read. Which goes for everything in here really. The usual reviews finish up, including an interview with A.K. Benedict, an author with whom I confess I was not previously familiar.
And so closes what was, in my opinion, one of the darker of Black Static ‘s recent issues. If you like your horror dark, cold and liable to wake you up in the night feeling uncomfortable, then this is the magazine for you.