Black Static

Black Static #42 (Sep/Oct 2014) – A Review

black static 42

Nothing underscores quite how behind I’ve gotten with my reading, as much as the new Black Static dropping onto the doormat before I’ve even finished with the last one. Yes, I confess my shame.

It’s to do with a busy schedule, I would stress, rather than any particular flaw in this issue. My reading is apparently quite heavily reliant on the two hours daily that I spend commuting to work. A sizable chunk, in fact, of my life has been spent in the company of the pages of Black Static on trains, over the years. And it can get damn spooky on a rickety late night London Bridge to Brighton, with only cutting edge short horror for company.

A good way to make the time go quicker, at least.

Read on…

Black Static #41 (Jul/Aug) – A Review

black static #41

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.

Read on…

Black Static #40 – A Review

black static #40

A friend of mine recently expressed an interest in short stories. Seeing as it was my introduction to the modern short story, Black Static was the natural choice. And it was this freshly finished issue which I proffered.

Thirty issues have gone by since my first issue , and a lot has changed. But the fiction hasn’t. My first real introduction to the cutting edge of modern horror was through those pages, and every two months the stories still snap with fresh ideas and new names.

The reason for this little spiel is this: you should buy Black Static. You should buy its SF sister magazine Interzone, too. I subscribe, which takes away the pressure of remembering to buy them every two months, and you should consider that too. If you love horror, you’ll love this. If you don’t love horror — well, maybe this will change your mind.

The other purpose of this little introduction is to point out that I don’t currently hold in my hands the current issue — so form an orderly queue to point out corrections please!

Read on..

Black Static #39 – A Review

black static #39

Do you want to know a secret? Writing the introduction to a review is my least favourite part of the whole thing. It’s rare that I won’t know what I think of a film or story, and if I don’t know starting out where I’ll finish up, the very process of writing it tends to steer me towards one.

No, it’s the introduction. The watching the wordcount as I ramble on, wondering if I’ve done so enough that I can just jump onto the meat of the matter. I’m impatient, basically. As a kid it was the oversweet luxury of desert that I craved, and that has never really gone away.

Black Static, as ever, is the best magazine in the horror business. Certainly in the UK. Probably in the world at large. It has been a part of my diet since my student days, lounging in halls on lazy afternoons when I should have been writing essays, getting lost in worlds of darkness and monsters.

I’m not much of a marketing shill, but if you are at all interested in modern horror — or explorations of the human soul — then you could do a lot worse than a subscription to Black Static. I don’t profess to like every story, but I’ve yet to read one from which I haven’t taken something away.

Is that enough of an introduction ? (Yes, that’ll do – Ed)

Read on…

Black Static #38 (Jan/Feb) – A Review

black static #38

I don’t think that I’ve ever seen an obituary in an issue of Black Static. Interzone includes brief notes on genre figures who have passed away, as part of Ansible Link. But the obituary — the glowing tribute to Joel Lane in Black Static #38, penned by Nicolas Royle, is something else.

I never met Joel, and I only read a few of his stories. They had a dark, brooding atmosphere which resonated with a distinct sense of place. He had a distinctive and powerful style of writing, focusing on very British locations, and the weird close to everyday life.

When he sadly passed away at the far-too-young age of fifty, my Facebook page was alive with people shocked, hurt and in mourning at the lost of someone key to the genre. Although I didn’t know, the shockwave which his death caused was undeniable and inescapable. A picture has emerged of a British genre stalwart taken too soon.

And as such, the idea of an issue of Black Static in tribute is very attractive indeed.

Read on…

Black Static #37 (Nov/Dec) – A Review

black static #37 Like  Interzone, Black Static has found its way to my doormat.

Despite the fact that it hasn’t yet gained the full-colour interior which its sister magazine already enjoys, I do think that the change in format has done Black Static a lot of favours. It has a professional, slick appearance, with a weighty feel in the hand.

The addition of a longer-form novelette to the fiction roster — which I presume is a standing change? — is welcome, broadening the scope of what really is the only game in town, in terms of a high-quality British print periodical dedicated to horror and general dark fiction.

And I warn you, this seems to be a particularly dark issue. The stories within it haunt the shadows, and pull you in a little closer. It doesn’t shine a light into the darkness, but pushes the darkness out into where you’re reading.

Into where you live.


Black Static #34 – A Review

black static 34As with my Interzone review last week, I’m afraid I have missed an issue of Black Static in my reviewing quest. Unforgivable, I know. But I’m back to it this month, and ready to give my thoughts on the stories and non-fiction within.

One thing I will say first, though, is just how striking the artwork is. Black Static usually does showcase some of the very best each and every week,  but to my mind issue #34 is particularly bold. From the electrically chilling cover artwork (by Ben Baldwin), to the images for each if the stories. Joachim Luetke’s deeply chilling KKK-esque image for Sean Logan’s story “The Tower of Babel” is particularly deserving of mention, especially from a name I don’t think I’ve encountered before — and worth checking out.

But anyway, you all came here for the reviews of the stories, didn’t you? So let’s get on with the show!

Read on…

Black Static #31 (Nov/Dec 2012) – A Review

Black Static #31So here it is at last. My long promised review of Black Static issue#31.

I’ve been reading TTA Press’ horror mag for the same length of time that I’ve been reading its sister magazine Interzone, and the heir to The Third Alternative was even then established as a monolith of the UK genre scene. I think issue #10 was the first one I read, and as I opened the glossy cover and dipped into the stories I think that was the moment I became truly hooked on the short story.

I think there’s room for a whole blog post of my musings on short form fiction, but this is neither the time nor the place. Instead, what I will say is that whether you love short stories or are simply curious about them, whether you are an adoring devotee and junkie of horror or just want to know what makes it tick, Black Static reallyought to be your first port of call.

Its present form is somewhat different from that first one I tore the plastic off. A recent redesign has seen it taking more of a comic book look — strongly reminiscent of the late Murky Depths. And if this issue is anything to go by, editor Andy Cox is moving towards including “novelettes” — loathsome terminology, in my opinion — as an integral part.

The stories, though, are still what the whole thing turns on, and so without further ado, my thoughts on them:

  • “Barbary” by Jackson Khul: We open with one of the above mentioned novelettes. I don’t think I’ve read any of Khul’s writing before, but this is a very good piece of fiction. It follows an ailing sailor, who discovers that the cure to his chronic pain is the embalmed deceased of ancient Egypt. I won’t go into details about the plot, as although it was very good, it was the peculiar and slightly archaic way in which it was written – fitting the plot like a glove – which fascinated me. It has a flavour of Lovecraft, with its dark subject matter, and its style of writing. Thankfully no racism here though. An excellent piece of fiction.
  • “Sister” by Seán Padraic Birnie: In contrast to the preceding story, this is a raw, personal and emotional form of horror. After his sister’s death, the main character builds an effigy of her, a monument into which he pours all his grief. The writing has a hollowness to it which will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever suffered loss, and the beautifully crafted ending is both moving and decidedly chilling.
  • “The Perils of War According to the Common People of Hansom Stret” by Steven Pirie: I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this. I liked it, I’m fairly certain about that, but it’s a rather strange little story. Set during the blitz, it’s unclear whether “…Perils…” is alternate history or not. It shows a bombing — or possibly German invasion — of an English street from the perspective of the various peoples present, with all the while one character looming like a spectre of death made incarnate through the War itself.
  • “The Things That Get You Through” by Steven J. Dines: another odd one. I spent most of the time reading it thinking that it was much too long, and that whilst the writing was sound it was dragging like an insufficiently supported canvas. However, once I reached the end I changed my mind completely. This is another grief-themed piece, using the five stages of grief as a mechanism to drive the story. The slow pace drives perfectly the process-like nature of bereavement, and sets up for a fantastic final conclusion. A really excellent story and piece of horror.
  • “Skein and Bone” by V. H. Leslie: the final novelette, this one following two sisters on a holiday to France. On their way from Paris to La Rochelle, they stop off at an apparently abandoned chateau, and – well, you can see where it’s headed. This is a tour de force of horror ideas, exploring sibling relationships, vanity and intrusion/isolation/otherness. You know the ending is coming, but it’s the manner in which it does that provides the fascination, and a thoughtfully sinister pay-off at the end.
  • “Two Houses Away” by James Cooper: Cooper is undoubtledly a very gifted writer, with a lot of ability, but I’m afraid to say that I often feel like his stories go over my head. And that’s true of “Two Houses Away” in many ways. Another grief-themed story – a theme for the issue, perhaps? — the central idea around which the plot revolves is the mysterious reappearance of an old man’s deceased wife. It’s well written, and raises a powerful atmosphere of anticipation, but I’m afraid the climax just seemed too ambiguous and open-ended for me.

So there we have it. If I’m honest, I more frequently find stories which don’t quite resonate with me in Black Staticthan in Interzone, and I think that’s because of the former’s tendency towards the experimental cutting edge of its genre. Horror is a very personal genre, and what doesn’t do it for me might well have the opposite impact on someone else. And, actually, I can’t recall reading a single bad story I’ve read on Black Static’s pages.

The magazine also features book and DVD reviews (which, again, I won’t review here). Additionally, it has two non-fiction columns, from screenwriter Stephen Volk and novelist Christopher Fowler. Volk’s column this issue is the concluding section of a two-part retrospective on his brilliant TV mockumentary Ghostwatch. And Fowler gives a frankly excellent summation of the career of a professional writer, particularly his thoughts on compromising your brand. Well worth a read, both of them.

If anyone reading this thinks that horror is just ghosts, gore and serial killers, I urge them to get hold of a copy of Black Static. I’m a firm believe that you can tell a lot about a society from the things that terrify it, and the stories which are on the front lines of the genre at the moment are a psychological, introspective crop focusing on grief, lost and exclusion. Make of that whatever you like, except that it does lead to some brilliant storytelling.

Interzone #243 (Nov/Dec 2012) – A Review

I haven’t done this before, but I’ve been meaning to for a long while. I’ve been reading Interzone (as well as its sister magazine Black Static) for almost four years now. When I decided I wanted to start taking my writing seriously, I started looking around for where I could find the best contemporary writing, particularly short form genre fiction. And every signpost I found pointed straight to this duo.

And the rest, as they say, is history. I am confident that there is no SF/Fantasy magazine comparable in the UK, and I have found only very few that equal it the world over. It consistently publishes the very best in a wide range of cutting-edge SF, and boasts the best names amongst its contributors.

I’m aiming for my review to be a regular feature on my blog, and I’ll be focusing just on the stories — reviewing the reviews just feels a bit to meta and self-referential to me, and threatens giving me a headache. When I come to review Black Static I may give some brief thoughts on the columns, but for me the stars of the show always have been the stories.

So on to this issue’s stories:

  • “Moon Drome” by John Wallace: the most obvious thing I can say about this story is that it is fun. Featuring spaceship racing around the moons of a gas giant (like the pod-racing of Star Wars, but less, well, stupid), it chucks in an ambigously malevolent alien entity, and themes of slavery and memory. The changes in perspective are clearly signposted, but there was a little bit of timeline-hopping which confused me a touch. Happily, it didn’t get in the way of the story, and by the end everything was crystal clear. A very enjoyable story, well written and with some neat ideas.
  • “The Flower of Shazui” by Chen Qiufan (translated by Ken Liu): this is, actually, the first piece of Chinese SF which I’ve read. And it’s very good. Translated by the excellent Ken Liu, the prose is poetic and beautiful, and the characters and world that the story weaves are brilliantly realised. The plot — abused woman in love with abusive man — is nothing new, but I wasn’t anticipating the twist at the end, and thought it rounded off the story in a very fitting way which I probably wouldn’t have considered.
  • “The Philosophy of Ships” by Caroline M. Yoachim: sadly, this story did not do it for me. A post-humanist romp involving themes of identity and humanity, all mixed in with a bit of skiing, there wasn’t anything technically wrong with it. But the trouble was that I didn’t empathise with any of the characters, and some of the multiple-consciousness stuff — along with the non-linear narrative — lost me about midway through. It dragged, and disappointingly I just didn’t feel a connection to characters or story.
  • “Lady Dragon and the Netsuke Carver” by Priya Sharma: I read a previous story by Sharma in the last issue of Interzone, “Needlepoint”, and thought it was excellent. This new story lives up to, and indeed, surpasses that estimation. An alternate-history story, set in a world under Japanese and Samurai dominance (an alternate outcome to WWII, perhaps? Sharma doesn’t say), it has all the key themes of love and duty that you would expect, tied up with some very exciting characters and a world which comes alive on the page. Sharma clearly has a gift for both bold imagination and expressing it artfully through prose, and I would definitely highlight her as one to look out for.
  • “Mirrorblink” by Jason Sanford: in a way I feel sorry for any writer who ends up sharing a contents page with Jason Sanford. The man is one of my favourite SF, and actually short fiction in general, writers active today, and this little novellete is a perfect example of why. A distant-future/almost-fantasy story about sentient information and a pre-industrial Earth cut off from the galaxy at large, and overseen/menaced by god-like Observers. Yes, I too thought of Fringe when I read that, and there are similarities, but god-like beings beyond human comprehension are a staple of SF, and observer is a pretty apt description of what these creatures do. The story itself is beautifully written, and the protagonist a wonderfully constructed character. The ideas and themes in the story are exactly what good SF should be grappling with, and evoke more questions than they answer. As well they should.

Overall, this is a brilliant example of what Interzone does best. Great stories, big ideas, challenging concepts. The fact that it is beautifully displayed, with some breathtaking artwork — particularly Ben Baldwin’s cover art, and Warwick Fraser-Coombe’s illustration for “Mirrorblink” — is just an added bonus.

State of the Genre: View from the Depths

Tuesday brought some very sad news from those parts spooky and frightening of the internet. Murky Depths is closing down.

Issue #18 of Murky Depths will, unfortunately, be the last.

I realise that a lot of readers of this blog will be wondering what that is, which is sad all in itself. But for the benefit of those people, Murky Depths was a magazine. A very good magazine. In fact, it was one of the best genre magazines this country has produced. Edited by Terry Martin, it published the finest fiction alongside some brilliant short comics and artwork in a format I’ve never seen an exact equivalent of.

I first encountered Murky Depths in early 2009, when I was first embarking seriously upon writing. It was a magazine which caught the eye, and after my girlfriend bought a copy of issue #1, I decided to splash out on a subscription. Not something I’ve regretted. I have the last issue (#18) on my desk, half read at the moment, and I almost don’t want to finish it, because I don’t want it to be over.

My intense disappointment at the news on Tuesday night was somewhat offset by, on Wednesday, the lastest issue of Black Static dropping through my door. This is the only other print magazine (along with it’s sci-fi sister mag, Interzone) to which I subscribe, and is run by Andy Cox and the team at TTA Press. It takes a more traditional approach, with stories, reviews, interviews and columns, and although I’ve only read the first story of #25, I know it’s up to its usual standard.

Here we have two different examples of top-class genre print magazines. Black Static is the stalwart of the British horror scene. It publishes the best in the business, and to people who are even tangentially involved in the genre it is well-known. On the other hand, Murky Depths was superb and adventurous, but never quite seemed to gain the widespread awareness of Black Static. The world is a sadder, less exciting place  for its demise.

So what should you, the horror-interested reader, do? Well, I’d suggest two things. Firstly, head on over to Murky Depths‘s website, and buy some back issues. You won’t regret it, and you likely won’t get another chance. This is some of the best writing and artwork you’ll see in the genre, and a piece of genre history now. Secondly, take out a subscription to Black Static. Or Black Static and Interzone. They’re both well worth the money.

And there’s something about the print magazine. Something about the smell. Something intoxicating. Something…a little sinister…