So 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.