Edited by Andy Cox
Published by TTA Press
One of the best stories to appear in Black Static in recent months (and that’s saying something!), Priya Sharma’s Inheritance or The Ruby Tear kicks off Black Static’s 53rd issue in formidable style. Part gothic romance, part Bone Tomahawk-esque rescue/revenge story, Inheritance follows the sorrows of Lord William Mansell, a wealthy aristocrat whose wife and daughter appear lost to the sea when their wagon falls from the cliff edge and is dashed upon the rocks.
His only solace comes in his fatherly relationship with his daughter’s would-be suitor, Edward – to whom William decides to entrust his estate in his will. Things go off on a strange tangent, however, when William’s daughter, Christina, is suddenly found staggering – bewildered and amnesiac – on the seashore. As her reintroduction drives a wedge between William and Edward, the truth of her disappearance slowly outs… and it’s a revelation that may spell doom for everyone involved.
Sharma’s characters here are an extremely affable sort – bereft of much of the pomp one might expect given their station – and the relationship between Lord Mansell and Edward feels realistic and organic, never forced for the sake of drama or inflated character dynamic. There’s strangeness in the sense of time and place that works to the benefit of the overall story, especially given the time-and-location-bending nature of what’s in store in the later stages.
It’s risky, but it works beautifully – resulting in a thoroughly absorbing novelette that deftly blends elegant tension, mystery, frenetic violence and stark horror.
Steve Rasnic Tem’s Breathing finds itself drifting in a miasma of internalised grief, as the bereaved suspect, named Charlie, finds himself obsessed with the activity of his own breathing – and another source of breath in his home that he suspects to be the wandering spirit of his dead wife.
Heavily metaphorical on the surface, Breathing flows effortlessly from the page and seeks to form mood more than narrative – and it does that very well, even if the secrets behind its observations may only begin to shine on repeat visits.
Harmony Neal’s Dare sees a group of teenage girls sitting around playing Truth or Dare whilst drinking vodka mixers. As expected for a genre work, things quickly get dark – the girls’ own unique demons sending them down a path of unified expression that sees “keeping up appearances” extend to collective disfigurement.
There’s a point well made here about the nature of cliques and teenage angst, and Neal doesn’t hang around long enough for the polarising characters to become too grating. An ill-judged inclusion of numbered footnotes in the opening paragraphs, however, makes the initial stages of this one something of a chore – necessitating repeated flipping to the end in order to catch character-defining titbits that could have been more elegantly folded in.
The Rim of the World by Kristi DeMeester paints an increasing sense of foreboding as it progresses, telling the story of couple Laurel and Jacob as they return to the ramshackle home of Laurel’s deceased grandmother. Laurel’s reminiscing reminds Jacob of the horrific run-up to his own sister’s death, tied in with a mysterious sand pile located not far from where the couple now lay.
Atmosphere is the name of the game in this entry, DeMeester painting the sense of unseen, esoteric horrors lurking in the shadows, just waiting for the right moment to make themselves known. From Jacob’s initial memories of his sister’s fate early on, the knowledge that this particular trip can only end badly offers a gripping, tantalising thread that pulls from beginning to end.
Danny Rhodes’ Tohoku, up next, takes us on a quite literal dive back into the realm of grief. After losing his wife to a tsunami, widower Akio spends his days diving amidst the wreckage of the destroyed village where she worked, hoping to one day recover her remains. As his obsession grows and the risks he takes with his own safety push him to the very limit, the waters deliver a message to his wounded heart.
As a treatise on bereavement and acceptance, Tohoku is a thoughtful and carefully crafted piece with a haunting sense of melancholy about it… yet its familiarity amongst such tales lets it down – the final message perhaps too well trodden for this particular blackened heart. Excellently written, nonetheless.
Stephen Hargadon steps up to bat next with the evocative and imaginative Mittens. Following the discovery of a grotesque murder, the apparent felon – sideshow manager Percy Scollop – pleads his innocence by recounting tales of his history in showbusiness… most importantly, in managing the astounding talents of master knitter Neil O’Neill.
Full of life, drama and a palpable sense of wonder, Hargadon’s Mittens blends the magic of the stage with the malignancy of self-doubt, wanderlust and, yes, bloody murder. O’Neill’s signature stage show is brought to gleaming life – a bombastic spectacle that comes close to placing the reader right before the stage – whilst the gloomy, blood-slicked horror that follows is equally affecting in Hargadon’s hands.
Throw in the twisting effects of an unreliable narrator who may be that worst of narrative leaders – the insane showman – and you have yourself a rollicking good read.
Finally, Charles Wilkinson brings us In the Frame, a disorienting tale of a hipster-esque gent named Luke as he attempts to meet his friend at an art installation in an unfamiliar part of town. Of course, he winds up finding himself somewhere less expected, but what stands out here is Wilkinson’s ability to toy not only with his protagonist, but with his reader.
Almost like enduring a drunken haze, Wilkinson’s prose floats in a series of places, people and things – some recognised, others not – and plays with geographical uncertainty as Luke’s attempts to conduct himself normally seem to drag him ever more into some kind of twisted, nightmarish otherworld. The pieces don’t exactly fall into place by the time it all wraps up, but In the Frame definitely scores extra points for imagination – and one of the most amusing uses for a hipster yet seen.
Besides the fiction, we have Black Static’s usual high quality book and film reviews (no author Q&A this issue) while regular columnists Stephen Volk and Lynda E. Rucker prove their insightful selves once again. Volk’s column begins with an apparent tone of “those gosh darn kids!” when it comes to technology and consumption in the modern age… but the initial sense of hyperbole soon becomes highly agreeable. A reflection of one’s own aging, perhaps? Egads!