Published by TTA Press
The fiction offerings in Issue 42 of TTA Press’ esteemed Black Static start off in grotesque form with Sara Saab’s religion-themed Be Light. Be Pure. Be Close to Heaven, which follows the crisis of faith suffered by Tanta, a young woman who happens to be part of a religious sect which advocates the ritualistic voluntary removal of limbs as a show of devotion. With her mother having given up a leg, and her father his eyes, Tanta remains caught in the quandary of just which particular offering would be suitable for her physical and spiritual transcendence.
Whilst puzzling over this and dealing with the tribulations of juggling home and work life alongside her faith, Tanta’s will is tested by family friend and would-be beau Guillermo, who himself has decided that he wishes to become an apostate from the sect – unable to reconcile their hushed practises with his own life in the modern world. Saab breaks down Tanta’s internal thought process very well throughout the tale, using subheadings that vocalise her decision-making process and preparation for dealing with everyday activities without her chosen limb with a dash of grim humour. While the actions taken by this particular religion (one that appears to be completely of the author’s imagination, it should be noted) appear to be quite horrific to the modern outsider – something given life within the story by the character of Guillermo – Saab wisely eschews passing judgment on any of the unfolding, creating an authentic-feeling universe and cast of characters whose motivations, as shocking as they may be, feel natural and somehow justified within the confines of this dissection of duty, family and commitment.
Alyssa Wong continues the body horror with Scarecrow, a story told in the second person which places the reader in the shoes of one of a group of friends attending the untimely funeral of the local preacher’s son. Bound together by a dark secret involving the death, the group begin to discover their bodies changing – sprouting feathers from their skins and, gradually, beaks on their faces – alongside frequent nightmarish visions of the bloody boy whom they so egregiously wronged. Wong’s tale works on multiple levels, from the ghost story to body horror and a well-crafted observation of the personal transformations faced in adolescence, but also finds itself delivering a heartfelt, bittersweet take on love and peer pressure come the finish that rings true in its current of grief and regret.
Things get a little too weird next in Noah Wareness’ What Happened to Marly and Lanna, which follows the young narrator and his sister, Lanna, as they bury their beloved cancer-suffering dog in the back yard. While burying the supposedly dead animal, our narrator believes that he sees Marly take a breath, but forges ahead with the burial anyway. Wracked with uncertainty, he convinces Lanna to help him dig the dog back up for a second goodbye, and reveals that he believes that they may have buried it alive. Lanna reacts violently to the news, and our narrator runs from the scene to come across what appears to be a spectral version of the Salvation Army, offering up trinkets and pieces composed of the dead, buried and forgotten.
Unfortunately, at this point Wareness seems to enter fever dream territory, throwing imagery on top of imagery in a discombobulated flood that becomes very, very difficult to penetrate. An attempt to bring the story home with a brief epilogue only serves to tip it on its head once more – and while there’s a feeling of something very deep here, the mark is regrettably missed. Just a couple more sentences would possibly have linked this all together with more success, but as it stands it’s one of those tales that becomes much too peculiar for its own good – you may have a slight notion as to what actually happened, but are also likely to be frustratingly unsure of yourself at the same time. Of course, sometimes that can be a good thing; here it is not.
Matthew Cheney takes us to post-apocalyptic climes in Patrimony, dropping us into a kind of future frontier town within a society that no longer holds any value in the act of procreation. To deliberately bring children into this damned new world is faux pas – an act of frowned-upon hubris in a society constantly battling the elements, social breakdown and scarcity of essential resources.
Into this town comes an imposing stranger, riding in the husk of a Toyota drawn by a pack of dogs. The stranger proclaims his domination, setting about impregnating nearly all of the town’s women, whether they are compliant with his carnal intentions or not. Like some demonic entity, he holds sway before deciding to move on. Later, when the children are born, the people of the town set off on a pilgrimage of vengeance, tracking the stranger through various towns and cities before finally getting their hands on him, mutilating and dragging him back home to be made an example of – thanked in their every step by the previous communities affected by his appetites.
It’s horrific stuff, but really comes to the punch in the final moments, which drip with a legacy of evil palpably realised in the blood-caked maws that represent it. Cheney’s tale is a keeper; dark as night, and incredibly bleak in the finish – the sheer horror and brutality made all the more stark by the learned, meek language of its narrator.
David D. Levine follows up with Goat Eyes, opting to take the second-person perspective as Wong did in Scarecrow. Here, the narrator (you) is reeling from a violent alleyway encounter with an unidentified assailant which resulted in the attacker being staked in the chest… and thus melting away. Yes, indeed… it seems vampires are real – and they have eyes like goats.
After coming to terms with what really happened, ‘you’ set out to uncover more of the creatures, eventually settling on a gentleman frequently seen in a local cafe who wears sunglasses constantly. But your covert actions aren’t quite as hidden as you think they are, and the stage is set for a rather interesting confrontation that delights in reminding us that all creatures of human-like intelligence have a choice in how they act. Whether their natures may be frightening to us does not change that fact, and considerations should be made before forcing conflict. Goat Eyes is a very well written and compelling piece of work that flies by without much effort. While it doesn’t plumb the depths of fear and overcoming trauma, it doesn’t really need to in the end – it’s entertaining enough to hold its own without wallowing in minutiae.
On a similar note is Kristi DeMeester’s December Skin, in which brother and sister combo Aaron and Rory seek shelter from an apparently demonic force that has its sights set on the latter. Aaron has his work cut out for him though, as not only is the light inside the only thing keeping whatever terror lurks outside at arm’s length, but his sister has already been ‘infected’ by it, slipping frequently into dark thoughts of harm against her determinedly protective sibling. December Skin is a very quick read, but makes for a fantastic little short, sharp slap with the horror paddle. There’s darkness inside and out, an unseen ‘something’ clawing to get in and beleaguered characters who seem doomed from the very start despite their best efforts to the contrary. I loved it.
Finally, Stephen Hargadon’s The Bury Line takes the soul-crushing frustrations of being lost amongst the office-dwelling number-people of the modern age, and condenses them into a tale that will make anyone who often feels despondent about their existential place or workplace rut need to look away for the occasional moment to let what rises pass. Narrator Martin is rapidly reaching critical mass with regards to disdain for his big city office job, observing the high-fliers and the barely-competent managers fight to sink or swim, either burning themselves out or being taken out by the more ruthless amongst them.
Things change when he comes across an ex-colleague working as a ticket inspector on the tram – a life which appears to have lightened much of the weight he always seemed to have on his shoulders; a changed man. Similarly changed is another ex-colleague who simply doesn’t recognise Martin after an encounter on the street, and soon after winds up committing suicide-by-train. Except it would appear not, when self said-terminator shows up alongside Martin’s other colleague checking tickets on the trams. This mystery is much more appealing to Martin than the day-to-day drudgery of his actual job, and soon he’s skipping work entirely to ride the trams and attempt to reconnect with something he feels to have lost inside. Noticing his new habits, his ex-colleagues invite him to try out for their new employer… but, as always, there’s a price to be paid for escaping the rat race.
The Bury Line is a brilliant piece of work that will likely resonate with a great many folk out there. Be warned, though – this is pure existential horror for the modern age, and it doesn’t have a kind word to say for your chances. Hargadon makes great use of his ruling metaphor and, depending on how you take it, dishes up a story that can be absolutely crushing, or profoundly liberating, and in doing so brings this issue’s fiction to a resoundingly successful close.
Backing up the aforementioned stories this month are Stephen Volk and Lynda E. Rucker’s respective columns, which prove as thought-provoking as they’ve ever been; a great extended Q&A with author Carole Johnstone (whose excellent novella Cold Turkey, also published by TTA Press, is reviewed here), and the usual swathe of book and film reviews that are guaranteed to add a few more items to your shopping list.
Is it wrong to be wishing at this stage that a totally poor issue of Black Static would come out just so that I could have a really good whinge? That doesn’t look likely, alas, as it remains as formidable a publication as ever. Keep up the good work, folks.