Columns from Lynda E. Rucker and Stephen Volk
Art by Richard Wagner (cover & interior), Richard Sampson, Vincent Sammy, Dave Senecal, Geoffrey Grisso
Edited by Andy Cox
Published by TTA Press
Opening Issue 35 of Black Static, Stephen Volk brings a tight and erudite look at the work of Dennis Potter, with particular focus paid to his controversial 1976 TV play Brimstone and Treacle, while Lynda E. Rucker gives a ‘state of the nation’ look at horror, why we love it, and why ‘growing up’ just isn’t a valid factor in the first of a two-part column set to conclude next issue.
The fiction in this issue kicks off with Daniel Mills’ Isaac’s Room, a short yet deeply poignant and eerie tale of modern-day existential desperation. Set on a college campus, events commence with the roommate of our narrator receiving an online instant message from a mysterious individual named ‘IsaaC81′, containing a link to a QuickTime video file featuring footage of a young girl all but disembowelling herself. The next day, the same girl is found having committed suicide on campus (albeit in a rather less physically extreme manner than the video would suggest).
With the death of the girl having affected his roommate on a personal level, the protagonist sets about attempting to track down the elusive Isaac. This being a horror story on base level, the answer is of course quite easy to see coming; yet, Mills’ tale winds up being a strongly composed and sombre tale of human despair, longing, acceptance and depression similar in tone to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s staggering film Kairo. In the darkest places, sometimes people just need to know that someone is there.
Richard Wagner gives us Men Playing Ghosts, Playing God next, providing the longest story of this particular issue. Here we follow Henry Eddowes, an elderly gentleman living in a retirement home, filling his days with poker games and various capers with his closest friends Walshy, Bullamore and Sheldon. When the husband of fellow resident Constance passes away, Henry sees his chance to step in and win her heart, having harboured a love for her that was previously rendered impossible by her marital status. This being the early days since her husband’s death, Constance is naturally more distracted with her grief and so Henry enlists his friends in a scheme to help her move on. Sneaking into her room at night, Henry leaves notes and moves items within Constance’s room in a plan designed to assure her that her deceased husband is watching over her and ready for her to move on with her life (and love). The plan goes somewhat awry, however, when one of Henry’s visits is complicated by the presence of a mysterious shadowy figure, reminiscent of a plague doctor, at Constance’s bedside. After tussling with the visitor, Henry and his friends bundle the thing into the cellar and lock it away, setting in motion a string of events that push Henry to the limits of morality.
You see, Constance had attempted to commit suicide, and with the creature in the cellar now unable to carry out its business, nobody in the home is dying, no matter the severity of their ailment. This is a top class tale, alive with character in both the setting and the individuals populating it, with Wagner’s skill on full display in his handling of a narrator whose actions, on the face of it, are rather despicable yet lent a voice of reason and hope such that the reader remains drawn to him until the startlingly pitch black ending.
Steve Rasnic Tem demonstrates the talent for wordsmithery that backs his ever-growing reputation with The Monster Makers, turning a short blast of grotesquery into a beautifully lyrical stream of artful disfiguration. In this tale, a devoted grandfather finds his unstable family unit finally coming apart in spectacular fashion when he fails to control the supernatural abilities of his grandchildren. Playful by nature, they do not fully understand what they do when their imaginations are used to turn people into malformed, gibbering and animalistic monstrosities, and a childish argument between the pair sets destruction in motion. Imbued within the horror are themes of legacy good and ill, of hope amidst despair and the will for memory to resonate on scales small or large. This is a fantastically written piece and easily the best of this issue.
Michael Griffin’s Archers and Pillars proves less impressive, with a rather simplistic tale of ghostly Groundhog Day-style shenanigans occurring whilst our protagonist battles against his own determined inaction when it comes to finally sealing the deal with his girlfriend, Robin. Griffin’s prose is strong, and his characters and their world well-drawn, but in giving the game away quite early on, his story is left inevitably treading water while the reader simply waits for the moment that the curtain will be fully drawn back to reveal only what we already know.
Of a similar vein is Caspian Gray’s Summer Girls, which deals with the relationship between protagonist Dan and his deaf friend Kayla. Coming back for a summer visit to North Carolina, having moved to Ohio, Dan spends time hanging out with Kayla while gradually wishing for something more than friendship. Surrounding the story of Dan and Kayla’s relationship is the local legend of ‘The Dead Girl’ — a corpse who routinely shows up in local waters every August, in various stages of decomposition, to silently bob around before disappearing back out to sea. The identity of the dead girl remains a mystery to all, as attempts to identify her have proven fruitless to the authorities, and so she features as a tourist attraction of sorts — a recognised and benign presence that strikes no fear, nor displays any malice towards those who encounter her. This year, she’s showing up early, and Dan finds himself more closely drawn to her than before.
Summer Girls is a nicely crafted yarn, but finds itself almost entirely bereft of genuinely horrific elements or sense of challenge and stake. The connection between the dead girl floating in the lake and the rest of the narrative remains disappointingly obscure — save to add a twisted element to the ending — which renders the supernatural elements almost entirely irrelevant to what is, essentially, just a slice of a few days of young adult life in a world still not entirely at ease with disability. It winds up being an impressively well considered character study, but certainly not frightening or unsettling in any way.
What Would You Say If I Asked You to Love Me? by Jason Gould places us in London, 1940, and seemingly the eve of The Blitz. Framed by the device of a campfire story told by an unknown individual to an unnamed audience, Gould takes us in the footsteps of a man named Peter, hunkered down and determined to read despite his failing light source. Cutting his finger on a page sees a drop of blood enter the earth, wherein Gould abandons personal narrative for a cataclysmic explosion of imagery that sees an entire universe quite literally drenched in the infection of human hatred, brutality and warmongering. This is more an experimentally-tinged exercise in streaming imagery than a narrative-focused tale and makes for quite the experience due to Gould’s careful handling of his flowing prose. The unrelenting, and unavoidable, march of death burst forth by humanity’s incorrigible predilection for destruction and murder is laid bare in all of its terrible reality and promise.
The fiction offerings come to a rather disappointing close with Carole Johnstone’s If You Can Read This, You’re Too Close, wherein we follow a narrator leading a life of self-exile from society. A damaged individual rendered so by her history at home with a hoarder mother (who now resides in a care home after being forcibly sectioned), she staggers around with an affected limp, inviting scorn and ridicule from those she encounters on a daily basis. Johnstone’s intentions with her story are admirable, inviting — even outright commanding — the reader to engage in an introspective study of their own behaviour towards others; yet, the mind of her protagonist remains frustratingly difficult to penetrate, causing the unfolding narrative to drag. The final lines feel designed as a thought-provoking shock to the senses, delivered with a confrontational bent lacking in the rest of the piece, but fail to meet their mark in a tale that, while certainly well written, lacks punch and, indeed, horror.
There are no interviews to be found this issue, but the bumper lot of book and film reviews will give you plenty of shopping list filler material with their usual highly considered quality.
Black Static and its sister magazine, Interzone, are available from the TTA Press Online Shop with subscription options available worldwide. Digital editions are available at Amazon UK (below left) and Amazon US (below right). Various book stores across the globe also carry the publication, so be sure to keep an eye out.
3 1/2 out of 5