Black Static #31 (Magazine)
Edited by Andy Cox
Published by TTA Press
Following on from our previous overview by thebellefromhell, we're taking a closer look at UK-based British Fantasy Award winning publication Black Static starting with Nov/Dec 2012's issue, #31. Offering a selection of short stories and "novelettes" each issue, Black Static has welcomed the likes of renowned fear scribes Simon Clark, Conrad Williams, Gary McMahon and many more to its pages over the years, alongside breakthrough new talent in the field of literary terror. While the stories undoubtedly form the main event each issue, there are also a regular contingent of columns, interviews and book/film reviews to be had as well.
Issue 31 opens with the second part of Stephen Volk's excellent exposé on the BBC's infamous 1992 horror show Ghostwatch. An effortless read, this is worth obtaining the previous issue (30) just to have the complete piece in-hand. Giving up a quick insider's perspective, Volk opens up the mindset of those behind the scenes, what they were ultimately trying to achieve, and their own shocked reactions to the nationwide backlash when the show aired. Heck, reading about Ghostwatch is always a pleasure anyway -- come on, the British Journal of Medicine actually noted it as the first show to cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children!
Christopher Fowler's Interference column takes a somewhat disillusioned yet steadfastly realistic look at the world of professional writers, and one of any author's greatest enemies: pigeonholing. It's a quick, no-nonsense read with a playful undercurrent of self-deprecation that would serve any aspiring genre scribe well to read.
On to the fiction, and one of the best of this issues pieces comes in the form of Jackson Khul's haunting Barbary. Here, an aging sailor stricken with an extremely painful form of Ocular Hypertension finds relief in a particularly repugnant holistic practice: the smoking of the crumbled remains of Egyptian mummies. As his dependency on his new medication begins to take its toll, his quest for the fabled variety named "Anubis Gold" brings the tale to a terrifically chilling conclusion with the realisation of just what this legendary strain really is. Khul's narrative flow feels authentically aged and ethereal, with a hint of Lovecratian malice underneath -- making this an excellent, and genuinely unsettling, piece of work.
Seán Padraic Birnie's Sister gives us a sombre reflection on the emotional turmoil on grief, as a young boy's attempt to heal his family after the death of his sister results in her golem-like resurrection. Or does it? Introspective and affecting, Sister can be quite emotionally draining despite its brevity -- an accolade that bears testament to Birnie's talent.
Steven Pirie's The Perils of War According to the Common People of Hansom Street takes us back to the Blitz, as various residents of the titular street, and soldiers stationed there, meet their ends at the hands of bombs and paratroopers. Amidst the carnage, one resident observes the devastation with admiration attributable to only one entity: Death himself. While very well written, Pirie's tale is a curious one -- lacking in generation of actual fear and bereft of fantastical elements beyond the insinuation of Death walking amongst us (or is the character simply a rather disturbed individual?), it's difficult to entirely ascertain a solid justification for its presence in this particular publication. That's not to say it isn't good -- in fact, it's very much so, marred only by a rather abrupt ending forced by the short format. This is one tale that would most certainly have benefitted from greater expansion -- yet still manages to solidify Pirie's position as one to look out for.
Steven J. Dines gives us our next fill with The Things That Get You Through. A longer tale, broken into chapters entitled with the progressive stages of grief, The Things...is another chillingly emotional addition to this issue. This slow-burn story follows bereaved protagonist James who, following the death of his wife, finds his mental dependence on a mannequin in his now-empty home proving a problem when he meets a potential new partner. It's necessary to be vague with this one, but rest assured that the measured, skin-crawling nature of Dines' prose builds to a shudder-inducing finale effective in both a metaphorical and literal sense.
Skein and Bone by V. H. Leslie is another novelette which follows two sisters who, on an excursion in France, seek shelter in a seemingly abandoned chateau only to find themselves caught in a web of spectral vengeance. Hauntingly vivid, Leslie's ability to weave creepy imagery in the mind's eye is out in force here in a story brimming with gothic horror and moral comeuppance. The characters are well drawn, identifiable and flawed, and their fates suitably horrendous for a narrative rippling with a sense of otherworldly malevolence throughout. Excellent stuff.
Finally, James Cooper's Two Houses Away brings us back to the theme of grief and bereavement seen in some of this issue's previous entries with the story of a curious gentleman seeking the truth behind sightings of his elderly widower neighbour going on walks with his recently deceased wife. Cooper builds a great sense of mystery with this one, keeping the reader hooked on every line but the ending, unfortunately, becomes much too abstract and ambiguous for its own good, ending on a note of frustrating confusion instead of the much-needed fearful payoff.
Beyond the fiction, we have this issue's wide selection of film and book reviews which remain as well-considered and dependable as ever. Overall, issue #31 is a top-notch read but certainly not one for fans of in-your-face physical horror. Here is a slow, crawling fear intent on getting under your skin -- and besides a couple of missteps, that it most certainly does.
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