Black Static #37 (Magazine)
Published by TTA Press
In a general sense, TTA Press' bi-monthly genre magazine Black Static pulls no punches when it comes to its intent on delivering quality goods. In this issue, #37, neither does regular columnist Stephen Volk as he discusses the apparent bleak future of the professional writer amidst a modern industry increasingly ruled by highly paid suits and seemingly intent, through fiscal strangulation, on quashing the very creativity on which it needs to thrive.
It's a no-holds-barred opening for the issue and likely to accurately reflect the frustrations of many an amateur, semi-pro or, indeed, professional author. The continuation of Volk's thread of discussion, to come next issue, is heartily anticipated.
Author Lynda E. Rucker drops in a column entry discussing briefly the topic of madness and women in horror and character strengths in the respectable presentation of such. Focusing strongly on Season 2 of "American Horror Story," known as "Asylum," Rucker's column is a quick and pleasant read, though some of the points raised feel less than absolute, and thus the entire piece comes to a close feeling like more of a jumping-off point for a more thorough and considered discussion of its nutshell gender politics. That would, however, appear to be much of the point – it's a column's job well done when it prompts debate.
And so we move on to this issue's fiction offerings with Laura Mauro's When Charlie Sleeps. Moving into a dilapidated London squat with two other homeless girls, protagonist Hanna discovers that the house is also home to a creature dubbed 'Charlie' who lives, attached to the plughole by an umbilical cord, in the bath. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Charlie may actually be an ancient, mystical being tied absolutely to the city itself – an Avatar of London, whose varying emotions and responses have direct consequences on the city and those dwelling within. Mauro's idea, however, feels terribly underdeveloped, even as she ties the activity and conspiring within the house to 2011's London riots. The potential for utter devastation is hinted at, but never borne clearly – as are the stakes behind the success of Hanna's new position as Charlie's caretaker. The motivations on either side remain as muddy as Charlie's bathwater come the ending, resulting in a tale that's just much too undercooked to be successful in its allegorical intentions.
Following up last issue's stunning The Festering, Ray Cluley this time gives us Bones of Crow, wherein chain-smoking urbanite Maggie discovers a collection of what appear to be giant, un-hatched eggs on the roof of her block of flats. While attempting to care for her COPD-suffering father, Maggie regularly pops up to the roof to smoke and inspect the eggs, only to draw the attentions of the creature that laid them. Cluley's thematic intentions with Bones of Crow are rather difficult to grasp; constant references to Maggie's smoking addiction and, indeed, her father's smoking-related, terminal illness suggest a story interested in the exploration of addictive behaviour, but ultimately it comes down to a girl who smokes encountering a giant bird. Regardless, Cluley pulls out a number of deftly realised and disturbing images – one, viewed by Maggie from the rooftop on one of her puff breaks, feels straight from Guillermo del Toro's Mimic, with a general air of fateful fascination akin to that of Q: The Winged Serpent's Jimmy Quinn. Bones of Crow is as skilfully written as one would expect from Cluley but plays more within the schlocky B-arena than where one expects its true intentions lie.
Ralph Robert Moore plays in a horror-centric fantasy arena with All Your Faces Drown in My Syringe, another tale stricken similarly to Mauro's by way of its almost absurd level of surrealism. Here, couple Roger and Molly have a rather unusual arrangement in their relationship based on a strange ability/gift that the lady harbours: She develops the features of people from Roger's past, growing on top of, and aside, her own like a grotesque mask. To remedy this, the pair will make love, and Molly will then give birth to a child who will grow, at an expedited rate, over the next few days to be a replica of this person whom he used to know. Once the individual has been identified, the baby is taken to the barn whereby, in a bizarre and monstrous rite involving a syringe, it is killed and its final breath transferred to the eyeball of a mule. Indeed, the entire tale makes little more sense than it would seem when trying to explain it. Time spent in between births and deaths, exploring the relationship between Roger and Molly, does little to alleviate the sense of meandering, an intrinsic lack of purpose debilitating all efforts of Moore's story to truly shock or unnerve. When the final sequence arrives, the conclusion is easily deduced much ahead of time, leaving the final blow ringing hollow and staid. There's no denying that Moore's writing is strong – assured in longer prose and best when delivering punchy, staccato sequences – but All Your Faces Drown in My Syringe fails to engage.
Deanna Knipling's The Strongest Thing About Me Is Hate is as interesting for its form as it is for its content. Presented as a letter written by its narrator, Lisa, to her brother, Brian, Knipling's story plays out with many short sentences and words amended, scored out and replaced or reiterated according to Lisa's will. It isn't long into the letter – a recounting of a fatal school bus crash in which Lisa was involved – before the device of the unreliable narrator becomes an obvious challenge for the reader. Just what is and isn't fiction amongst Lisa's revelations to her brother is ultimately up to us to decide, and that, amidst the pig-like monsters, cannibalism and stomach-churning slurping up of vomit, makes this one the first true success of this latest round of Black Static's fiction.
Following up on an equally strong footing is Priya Sharma's The Sunflower Seed Man, a short, sharp tale of grief and the supernatural as a bereaved mother is forced into a fight to the death against a murderous effigy forged from the symbolic reminder of her husband: a sunflower. Sharma handles the move from sombre introspection and weighty emotions to pulse-raising creature shocker with aplomb, unfolding all alongside the explosive finale with a barely-contained energy that sees her through to the end with flying colours. It's captivating, emotional, brutal, and very, very good indeed.
Saving the best until last, the issue's fiction rounds off with Steven J. Dines' post-apocalyptic The Sound of Constant Thunder. Narrator Alan is a lone man eking out a life underneath a bridge, just outside the city in which he used to work – before the nuclear bombs hit, that is. Dedicating himself to protecting the local rabbit warrens and keeping the river and general area clear of debris and corpses, Alan has found a kind of peace in this new world owing to his previously debilitating Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. Now that the Wifi signals have stopped, he is no longer plagued by crippling headaches and gets by just fine by keeping himself out of the way and out of conflict. One day he comes across Charlotte and her baby, who join him at his camp for a while. Soon, the relationship between Alan and Charlotte begins to grow, but so too do the attentions of a regular observer of Alan's abode– an observer who just happens to be a cannibal with a predilection for a certain kind of meat.
There is, of course, much more to Alan's story than one would wish to expound for fear of spoiling, but suffice to say that Dines' tale is a fantastically grim little gem that expertly approaches themes of isolation, grief, survival and the constant barrage of intrusion – for better or worse – into the modern life. Comparisons of tone and setting are easily (and correctly) drawn with Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but rest assured that Dines' creation deserves much more than simply a nod alongside. Extended, the experiences of Alan in his new world could make for an excellent novel, and The Constant Sound of Thunder itself could easily have been sold on its own, to great success, in the chapbook format. While this issue of Black Static is most certainly a game of two halves when it comes to the fiction, Dines proves this round's MVP, elevating it to yet another must-have.
There are no interviews to be had this issue, but the usual array of reliable film and literature reviews pack out the back pages.
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.
4 out of 5