Published by TTA Press
Issue number 38 of Black Static opens on a particularly sombre note as Nicholas Royle provides a heartfelt reflection on the life, work and unexpected (and far too early) death of hugely respected genre author Joel Lane, who sadly passed away at the end of last year. Focusing on a variety of Lane’s works, it’s a fitting tribute that also comes across as revelatory in its insights to Royle as it is to the reader unfamiliar with Lane’s personal life – revealing an author who entered far more of himself into his work than many may have realised. If one thing is certain, it’s that Joel Lane will be sorely missed amidst the landscape of literature that he called home.
Also downbeat, but for different, more spiteful reasons, is Stephen Volk’s continuation of his ‘Run, Writer, Run! Extinction is Forever!’ column, as he energetically laments the continuing (and obvious) decline of the print world – both in tangible quantity and quality – and the existence of the suit-and-tie business people who really don’t have a problem with a race to the bottom as long as the money continues rolling in. Lynda Brucker uses her space to decry the social stigma of branding oneself as a ‘horror writer’ and the ensuing face-twisting responses to such by a public that attribute the mere word with nothing but guts, gore and various bladed implements buried graphically in twitching bodies. It’s a focused primer to a wider discussion, something Lynda continually proves herself delightfully adept at crafting.
On to the fiction, and Andrew Hook opens the issue with ‘A Knot of Toads’ – a tight and twisted little tale told from the perspective of a narrator cursed to destroy, his self utterly defined by a need to perpetuate a supernaturally indirect involvement in the deaths of others. Think the old superstition of cameras stealing the soul, and consider the person behind that camera knowing exactly what will happen when it does. Hid madness remains astute, erudite even, as he struggles with a compulsion that now forms his very core – seemingly reflected and acknowledged by the activities of the natural world around him. Hook’s writing remains strong throughout, with a sweetly flowing narration that brings it all to a close with discomforting uncertainty.
Tim Waggoner’s ‘The Last Fear’ is a short, classical nightmare featuring his narrator awakening in the dead of night to find himself actively taking part in his recurring nightmare wherein a potential intruder attempts to access his apartment… except on this waking occasion, he opens the door and steps outside. The story itself doesn’t scream of anything particularly original by the time it ties itself up, but Waggoner’s form and imagery is strong. That paralysing sense of (potentially unnecessary) fear that we feel in the dead of night, creeping along our landing in response to a mystery noise downstairs, thoroughly pervades the happenings here, leaving a story that hits the atmosphere buttons just right, even if its revelations feel somewhat bland.
Malcolm Devlin raises a number of satisfying chills in ‘Passion Play’, featuring a young girl asked to accompany the police and media in retracing the last known steps of her ex-best friend – another girl who disappeared after seemingly getting onto the trail of the “cross hatch man,” a mysterious figure that she discovered painted into the shadows of various religious artworks in the local church. His narrator is very well drawn, divulging to the reader the angsts and social roundabouts of teenage life as she makes her across the various marked locations, gang of adults in tow. At the end of the road lies a dangerously close encounter with a potentially supernatural evil, made all the more effective by its subdued, but all too brief, climax.
Maura McHugh’s ‘Hanging Tree’ deals with the ongoing grief of a young girl whose father committed suicide by hanging himself from a particular tree in the nearby woods. Determined to overcome the elephant that this action has firmly placed in the room of her entire family life, she creates a large papier-mâché rendition of the tree for display as a school arts project. Things don’t quite go to plan, however, as another local tragedy involving the tree occurs just before her unveiling – placing her firmly between a rock and a hard place, and facing the scorn of her entire town. While McHugh’s tale feels solidly grounded and her writing strongly presented (a number of images are both beautiful and grim in splendidly equal manner), the emotive core of the story itself feels somewhat vague in practice. The fear element is lacking, leaving ‘The Hanging Tree’ ultimately feeling just too much like listening to someone tell you something about which they’re extremely passionate, but which doesn’t quite hold much relevance for you personally.
‘Passchendaele’ by Richard Wagner proves itself a formidable little shocker wherein the struggling curator of a small Sussex museum sets off to a European cottage-cum-bed-and-breakfast in the hope of procuring a number of relics from the Great War. Shortly after his arrival, events take ever darkening turns as the hostess seems to disappear under peculiar circumstances, while a disturbingly mangled form takes root under some tarpaulin draped over farming machinery. Sickness and confusion set in as the man struggles to keep it together, with Wagner methodically upping the tension before going all-out in a maddening ghostly assault on his protagonist. The desolation of war is a consistent theme, echoed in imagery that becomes bleak, mud-caked, rain-soaked and frighteningly real. This is a beautifully nightmarish little tale.
John Grant takes the fiction to a close with a twist in ‘His Artist Wife,’ a story recounted by an author as he divulges details of his deceased painter wife, Lucille Hrade. Seemingly having lots of fun with the words of his unreliable narrator, Grant constantly swings events around as our creative protagonist deals with his opinions of his wife, who also appears to be communicating with him from beyond the grave by means of a painting gradually unfolding on the wall of his home. Problem is, the painting is one depicting a very personal wrath. And that’s all I’m going to say of the core plot here, as this highly enjoyable story folds and unfolds, winding down an unpredictable road that sadly ends on a note that, while well fitting in context, feels a little too trite.
Black Static‘s usual swathe of dependable film, TV and literature reviews pack out the back end of the issue, including a bumper set of reviews of books from author Gary Fry followed by an extensive Q&A with him.
As appears to be customary with the magazine, there is quite literally something for everyone when it comes to the horror in this issue, as even those entries that don’t quite deliver in every sense manage to hit appreciable marks of their own. It’s varied, it’s twisted, it’s scary yet erudite and (yet again) it’s a must-read. It’s Black Static.
Black Static and its sister magazine, Interzone, are available from the TTA Press Online Shop with subscription options available worldwide. Various book stores across the globe also carry the publication, so be sure to keep an eye out.
4 out of 5