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Black Static #39 (Magazine)

Cover art:

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Black Static #39 (Magazine)Edited by Andy Cox

Published by TTA Press


The fiction offerings of Black Static’s thirty-ninth issue kick off on an exceedingly bizarre note with Ralph Robert Moore’s inventive ‘Kebab Bob’, which carries the bar-bound experiences of the eponymous character – nicknamed so due to the fact that a past industrial accident has left him literally skewered alongside three other people by a metal pole. Since doctors have declared an operation to remove the pole impossible to complete without fatal consequences, Bob and his crew are forced to go about their lives like players on some cruel celestial foosball table.

Prone to frequent bouts of suicidal depression, we join Bob in the midst of having what he intends to be his final meal – a hotdog at the local hangout. Events take a turn, though, when he steps in to prevent a young lady at the bar from being abused by a stranger and becomes almost instantly smitten. As his attempts to woo the girl drive the story forward, Moore gradually stacks ever-darkening elements of doubt, loathing, failure and betrayal against poor Bob, culminating in a final act of bitter desperation and powerlessness. It’s grim. Very grim, in fact – though Moore does allow for two distinct endings to Kebab Bob’s urban legend, allowing the reader to turn a circle and build a little more hope for the poor guy. The results of his well-intentioned sacrifice involved there merely wind up facilitating a finale steeped in an alternate, heart-wrenching misery.

‘Kebab Bob’ is a strongly written and well measured piece of work, gradually unfolding the more intimate psychology of its protagonist, building affinity with the reader as it moves and expertly guiding us down the path towards a one-two punch of an ending that serves to remind that no matter how low you’re feeling right now, or how bad you think you’ve got it, things could always get worse. And you could always end up more alone than you’d like.

Tyler Keevil is up next with ‘Cold Feet’, a great little sharp tale involving one man’s personal investigation into the source of various severed feet that have been washed up along shorelines in Vancouver. Having discovered the first of the feet to be washed up, our narrator finds himself ending up seemingly in direct dialogue with the perpetrator, building to an ending that succeeds not particularly due to what actually happens (which, admittedly is somewhat trite), but to Keevil’s sparkling prose and the cheerful, purposeful and hopeful voice of his narrator in the finale, which delivers that final sting with a cheeky grin and a knowing wink.

Vajra Chandrasekera’s ‘The Brack’ takes an Eastern approach to its Indian ghost tale with shades of spectral vengeance à la ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Grudge’. Here, an elderly veteran is haunted at the dinner table every day by the rotting, waterlogged spectre of his dead wife. His torment is not only in the vision of her, but a seemingly endless daily event of discovering a hidden stone in his rice, which every time will be caught crunching painfully between his teeth. The reasoning behind the haunting is to be explained, alongside further revelations of just what kind of character this man is based on interactions with his new (current) wife, but while it’s certainly well written and suitably grave in tone, ‘The Brack’ offers little beyond a simple story of supernatural retribution. There are few surprises, leaving the whole affair treading water in a mire of unfortunate familiarity.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that every issue of Black Static is going to house at least one powerhouse story, and this one is no different with the inclusion of Joel Arnold’s ‘The Toyol’. Taken from her deprived home in Myanmar by an affluent gentleman promising lucrative housekeeping work at various hotels in Kuala Lumpur, teenage protagonist Zeya finds herself trapped in a nightmare of forced prostitution not unlike that of Paul Hyett’s confrontational shocker The Seasoning House.

Stripped of her worldly goods and passport, Zeya becomes one of a number of young women enslaved to the abusively lustful wants of tourists in a bordello owned by the mysterious Lokman and managed by a sleazy character by the name of Tee Tee. After enduring a forced abortion in the brothel, Zeya is promised the protection of a “visitor”, to be arranged by a friendly acquaintance. What she receives is the titular Toyol – a mythical spirit implanted into the corpse of a foetus. Offering its unspoken vow of protection to Zeya, the Toyol gets set to ensure that Tee Tee and the rest of the scum that operate and partake in the brothel’s services will receive their comeuppance tenfold.

Much like Hyett’s aforementioned film, Arnold’s ‘The Toyol’ wallows in bleakness and unremitting despair for much of its length. Up to the appearance of the supernatural creature, Zeya’s story is one that feels all too uncomfortably realistic – and it’s an easy bet that it most certainly is for many women on a daily basis. The experiences that unfold are brutal, harsh and uncompromising, raising a challenging eyeglass to a world that exists, albeit sadly ignored, right before us – a seedy underbelly ruled by violence, domination, exploitation and dehumanisation, all in the pursuit of money. Of course, by the finale the titular creature has acted in somewhat of a wish fulfillment capacity; yet, the question remains as to whether any retribution – even of the most devastatingly vicious kind – can really undo the damage caused to one so brutalised.

Also soaring high in the quality stakes this issue is Steven J. Dines’ ‘The Broken and the Unmade’, another ghostly tale of interaction between the living and the dead, albeit sporting a very different tone and intention to that of ‘The Brack’. Taking root in the Nazi atrocities of World War II, Dines’ story starts from the viewpoint of an elderly concentration camp survivor who appears to be deeply haunted by not only his past experiences, but also the ghost of a young boy whose identity he can’t quite recall. As history unfolds with Dines’ narrative jumping back and forth between the contemporary and the past, the full picture begins to emerge – but not before the tortured gentleman unleashes an act of desperate violence against his own family and himself. Then, we’re forced to move along once again to the gentleman’s grandson, Joshua, now living with a foster family but also constantly accompanied by the ghostly boy, whom he refers to as Thomas.

For fear of diminishing impact garnered by a read of Dines’ story, further plot details cannot be divulged, though it should suffice to say that ‘The Broken and the Unmade’ is wonderful stuff. The constantly switching narrative is excellently employed as a device to keep readers on their toes, never quite sure for the first few moments of a new section just whose internal dialogue is now being followed, and in what timeline. The initial tragedy that befalls Joshua and his family is shocking, cinematic and highly intriguing, but in the end Dines leads us to consider that not all lost spirits are malevolent or in search of retribution; sometimes, it’s our inner demons that pose the greatest threat. And so what begins as slightly tense and unnerving blossoms to a soulful finish filled with sweetness, hope and genuinely moving humanity.

Finally, we delve into darker territory with Suzanne Parker’s ‘House Party Blues’, wherein we join an ancient, insidious entity as it sets up a new abode beneath the foundations of a suburban household. Here, the creature takes root not only in the earth, but in the inhabitants themselves – a husband and wife couple – constantly draining their life force, leaving them incapable of fighting back. With the humans so weakened, the creature can also control their faculties, using them as eyes and ears to the surrounding world, and occasionally employing the husband to monosyllabically convince inquisitive neighbours to leave the property. It plans to rest, strengthen and move on soon, but this quickly begins to go awry with the arrival of a group of rowdy students setting up a house party across the street. The noise brings more nosy neighbours, and when attempts to use the lady of the house as a puppet in an attempt to quieten the unruly throng backfires in deadly fashion, the creature’s grip begins to falter against the woman’s strength of will.

There’s more to Parker’s story here than simply an ancient creature walking people around like puppets, with the relationship between the affected husband and wife couple forming the heart of the tale, taking issues of spousal abuse, broken relationships and victimisation and introducing the monstrous entity as the linchpin for redemption. It works very well indeed, with Parker regularly scattering little bits and pieces of the creature’s history throughout the narrative in a perfectly organic manner – explaining easily, for example, why it wishes to keep its presence as hidden as possible despite seemingly being rather powerful, even when weakened. Monster fans will get a kick out of the story’s more overtly gruesome set piece, though the climactic ‘prisoner-breaking-the-chains’ moment fails to prevent itself coming across as cheesy and feels quite clunky as a result. Still, ‘House Party Blues’ is a solid read with strong prose, an inventive creature, a few good touches of humour and some intimate things to say at its core.

Alongside all of the stories this month, Steven Volk and Lynda E. Rucker drop their usual nuggets of wisdom with the gusto and thoughtfulness that is to be expected of both, and a wide range of book, DVD and Blu-ray reviews pack out the back pages.

Yet again, one or two less than perfect stories fail to make a dent in the overall massive quality of what’s on offer between the pages of Black Static, leaving Issue 39 ranking as another must-have.

5 out of 5

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Gareth Jones