Edited by Andy Cox
Published by TTA Press
Carole Johnstone’s Wetwork draws back the curtains on Black Static 52’s fiction salvo, placing us alongside Scottish cops DI Lowry and DS Farquharson – our narrator – as they go about their days in a city afflicted with a deadly pandemic.
Said pandemic results in the infected turning into raging, zombie-like “sleepers” – but here, their existence is very much blended into the background. Rather than focus on the zombies, Johnstone gives us plenty of time to get to know the curmudgeonly but endearing Lowry and the fish-out-of-water Farquharson, making for a solidly involving character piece through and through.
Whilst the almost perpetually angry Lowry wants nothing more than to bust every potential criminal he comes across, the seemingly more controlled Farquharson has some deep, dark demons of his own – and Johnstone lets them unfold at an expert, thriller-like pace.
Some may find the phonetically-written Scottish drawls of various characters to be a little hard to “ken” (understand), but Wetwork is more than worth the effort, as it builds to a stunningly effective, tense, skin-crawling and “shout out loud” shock of a finale. This one’s a stunner.
Damien Angelica Walters steps up next, with Deep Within the Marrow. Here, our young narrator, Courtney, is forced to move into a new home when her widowed mother marries a similarly bereaved man, who has a daughter of his own. Standoffish and reticent, the other daughter, Alyssa, creeps Courtney out – often appearing in her room at night to deliver cryptic threats and (apparently) stage elaborate scenes that would indicate Courtney sleepwalking.
Walters’ story is very well written, packed full of excellent metaphors and impressive turns of phrase, but its climax and dénouement are just a little too fantastical and odd to have the desired creepy effect. It feels incompletely formed, lacking a solid grip on exactly what it’s saying.
Robert Levy’s The Oestridae sees another homestead upturned by change – this time by the disappearance of matriarch Marlene, who one day vanishes, leaving her grown children Billy and Dara behind. Around a month later, the pair are surprised by the arrival of an aunt they didn’t know they had – Aunt Lydie.
Immediately, Lydie takes a shine to Dara, but not much of a liking to wannabe surgeon Billy… and things gradually get worse from there. The woman seems to be more than she’s letting on, and her dark, icy stare and increasingly debilitating effect on Dara force Billy down a path of extreme action if he is to save his sister from what may just be a family curse.
Absorbing and pacey, The Oestridae is a great read, sporting excellent characterisation and some very chilling imagery. One character’s night-time visit to the fridge for a drink of water is almost breathtakingly horrifying in its implications, and the villain of the piece jumps from the page with her barely-concealed malignance.
Michelle Ann King’s My Sister, the Fairy Princess comes up next. Following the death of their mother, sisters Daisy and Ann are reunited after decades. Growing up, Ann had always believed that there was something special about Daisy – that she was a changeling, an otherworldly being masquerading as a child.
Given the length of this piece, dishing up any more details would likely give the game away – but suffice it to say that this very short tale ticks the required boxes, but doesn’t necessarily rise above baseline genre expectations.
Finally, Ralph Robert Moore gets bleak with Trying to Get Back to Nonchalant. In this one, ex-boxer Hal takes a chance on asking his doctor’s attractive receptionist out on a date – spurred on by the fact that her usually-reserved young daughter takes an immediate shine to him.
Things start off and continue well – but whilst Moore gradually reveals to us the brutish layers remaining underneath Hal’s initially pleasant surface, he also shows us the young daughter, obsessed with the notion of cancer and the necessity for its presence to be made obvious – even if she only assumes it’s there.
Like the most uncomfortable genre stories out there, Trying to Get Back to Nonchalant starts on a crest of human hope and gradually strips down to a blackened, damaged core – leaving us stranded on a cruel plane with only a darker horizon in sight. Great stuff.
Alongside the fiction entries, Black Static 52 gives us a Q&A with author Paul Meloy and the usual gamut of book and home video reviews that are sure to pad out your “to buy” list. Stephen Volk talks about his Ghostwatch inspirations in his column, whilst Lynda E. Rucker speaks of her recent experience writing for the stage – not to mention the gloriously stupid comment of a critic from The Guardian who stated “… the horror-story format is not ideal as a vehicle for serious ideas.”
But then again, what more can you expect from such a pompous rag, I suppose.
Anyway – another fabulous issue for Black Static, right here. Get it.