Published by TTA Press
A theme of personal loss, grief and disaffection seems to run through Issue 49 of Black Static, making for quite a heavy entry into the publication’s rock-solid run so far. Ralph Robert Moore’s Dirt Land opens this issue’s fiction with a rather ugly tale of love and marriage striving against all the odds.
Couple Roy and Audrey both come from rather disturbing backgrounds – Roy definitely more so – but find solace in each other nonetheless. When their child is born a half-human, half-calf mutant, they opt to raise him rather than take the customary action of drowning him in the nearby river. Yet, as much as they try to sustain a sense of simple normalcy, Roy’s brutish uncle is determined to see that ugly secrets raise their heads – as appears to be the constant will of the hateful, misogynistic and reclusive community in which Roy and Audrey live – while he asserts his dominance over his entire family line.
An uncomfortable tale of domination, abuse and the twisting of young minds, Dirt Land paints an extremely bleak picture of its society – one that often makes it pretty hard going (and perhaps befitting of a slightly shorter length), but ample setup for the almost unbearably bleak punch of its finale. There’s anger here, at the wanton corruption of innocence and the apparent futility of opposing tyrannical rule, and it’s barely contained amidst the horrendously disparaging dialogue thrust forward by the story’s antagonists.
Thana Niveau’s Going to the Sun Mountain tells the story of sisters Glacia and Lys, a couple of young ladies living on the road… and on the run. Leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, the disaffected pair moves from place to place whilst trying to hide, and contain, Lys’ supernatural mind-altering abilities. Her being quite the troubled young woman makes this harder than it ought to be, of course, as she often violently (and fatally) lashes out at the slightest sign of her sister being distanced from her.
At what feels like the perfect length for its secrets to unfold, Going to the Sun Mountain is a very good read indeed – taking a realistic foundation (a pair of psychotic young drifters) and injecting it with both a supernatural edge and an additional layer of humanity, working deftly with the damaged psyches of its subjects to generate a sympathetic layer despite the madness.
Stephen Hargadon steps up to bat next and, quite frankly, knocks it out of the park with The Toilet. Doing what he does so well – urban horror that takes the everyday sights and sounds of the city and twists them into something much grimmer – here he takes us on a journey into a semi-hidden inner city bar that serves a very special kind of home brew.
When a murder occurs outside, police inspector Burroughs heads into the dingy joint in an effort to collect statements… only to find himself trapped in a waking nightmare. It’s a remarkable piece, and despite the short length, Hargadon manages to dredge up an atmosphere so sickly, decrepit and smeared in human excretions that you can almost smell it. It’s dark, it’s nasty, it’s slightly confounding (don’t expect to grasp its secrets easily on the first read)… and it’s bloody brilliant.
Given a hard act to follow, Erinn L. Kemper’s Gramma Tells a Story comes up next, with something sufficiently lighter in imagery to clear the gruesome flavour of Hargadon’s effort from your mouth. Here, a young woman called Nissi is spending some time living in a rented casita in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the casita appears to be haunted at this time every year by the grandmother of the owner’s family. Fortunately, she’s friendly.
Opting to stay in the hut throughout, Nissi finds herself rapt in conversation with the wizened old ghost (whose phantasmal appearance is wonderfully realised in Kemper’s prose) as the tragic reasons behind her Costa Rican jaunt come to the fore – giving her the opportunity to make peace with what she left behind, her own mistakes included.
Gramma Tells a Story isn’t a frightening, nor even particularly unsettling, piece of work – it feels distinctly bereft of malevolence – but it hits hard on a human level. Kemper drip-feeds Nissi’s history and motivations as the story unfolds, building to an emotional gut-punch that is simultaneously tragic, upsetting and uplifting; an otherworldly revelation of undying love and forgiveness in even the worst of circumstances.
Regret and isolation both play highly in the final two stories, The Ice Plague by Tim Lees and The Climb by Simon Bestwick. In the former, a plague of sorts is sweeping the world, leaving people mentally confused, physically cold and ultimately deranged or comatose. Taking a cue from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s terrifying Pulse, Lees’ male nurse protagonist gradually comes to realise the cause: disconnection from society… people forgotten, abandoned and emotionally severed, as he struggles to reconcile the revelation with his own behaviour in marriage.
An allegory as strong and affecting as that which fuels the suicides in Kurosawa’s aforementioned film, The Ice Plague is an excellent piece: a chillingly introspective experience with much to say in a very short time.
Striding similar ground is The Climb, which places Bestwick’s narrator, Bryan, on a secluded, steep hillside in the middle of a rural village. Following his wife’s death from cancer, a guilt-ridden Bryan is determined, despite his poor health and fitness, to finally make the climb to the top – a show of commitment and atonement that he hopes will abate his crushing remorse. Bestwick paints his locale extremely well, creating a setting in which you can almost feel a cool breeze wash over your skin.
As Bryan slowly climbs the hill and darkness descends, the creep factor is ratcheted up with aplomb – his thoughts becoming darker with the fading of the light – until something that was silently stalking him decides to make its presence known. The intentions and origins of the thing feel murky, however, given the story’s lack of real insight into the state of Bryan’s marriage prior to the death. Whether this is a punishment from beyond the grave (as Bryan would appear to believe) or merely an externalising of crushing self-defeat remains frustratingly up in the air.
Elsewhere in the magazine we have the usual ton of film and book reviews to help further increase your “to buy” list, a Q&A with author Nicole Cushing and the eminently thoughtful musings of regular columnists Stephen Volk and Lynda E. Rucker.
In short: Black Static Issue 49. Buy it. Now.