Edited by Andy Cox
Published by TTA Press
Stephen Volk’s column opens Issue 43 of Black Static with a knowledgeable treatise on the grief-like effects that the universally hated ‘writer’s block’ can cause if you fail to approach resolving it in the correct manner. It’s as intelligent and astute a piece of work as ever from the man, rendered all the more effective to yours truly due to a recent battle with the frustrating condition that it tackles. A reassuringly honest glimpse into the witer’s psyche that will continue next issue.
Lynda E. Rucker ably follows up on her usual discussion-provoking form with a dialogue on the decision-making behind the possible replacement of the H.P. Lovecraft statuette that forms the trophy for the World Fantasy Awards.
Kicking off the fiction this issue is Ralph Robert Moore with his story, Drown Town. Joan Wick is a budding criminal psychologist, and to earn her stripes she’s been dropped in a placement in a particularly nasty penitentiary – one which is housed within what used to be a lunatic asylum. While undertaking her first therapy session with a hulking, rapist brute named Danny, the banks of the nearby dam burst… flooding the valley and leaving the prison buried under forty feet of water – just as Danny slips his chains.
Moore switches his story then to Joan’s father, determined to save his daughter from an horrific fate after receiving a phone call from her, pleading for help. Against the wishes of the town sheriff, he sets off in diving gear with a few extra air tanks, intending to swim through the prison, retrieve his daughter, and bring her to the surface. Danny, however, is also still very much alive within their precious pocket of air – and he has little intention of letting any rescue run smoothly.
Drown Town is fraught with tension and fear. Danny, monstrous piece of work that he is, is a formidable antagonist, leading the latter half of the tale down a path in which absolutely nobody feels safe; Moore isn’t playing games, here, that’s for sure. Tension is bolstered by Moore’s choice of style in his prose – short, punchy sentences and dialogue that read much like the descriptions in a screenplay lend Drown Town a cinematic rendering that works ardently in its favour, while the simple tragedy behind the relationship between Joan and her father lends a grim sting in the tail. A formidable effort, and one of which Moore should be very proud.
Usman T. Malik’s Ishq takes a less heart-pounding approach to its solemn ghost story, steeped in the tradition, history and superstition of Pakistan. A story that unfolds across multiple generations of one family originating in Old Lahore, it’s ultimately the tale of an unlikely relationship between a hunky street vendor and a polio-inflicted young girl. When the young girl dies and the neighbourhood is stricken with flooding, her grief-stricken boyfriend refuses to allow her body to be moved from the family home, instead tending to it regularly. This comes much to the chagrin her family, including her older sister – who has her own designs on the young man. When the flooding becomes so severe that the house must be fled, the dead girl reveals that she isn’t quite willing to let her love be abandoned.
While the scarier elements of Ishq don’t particularly manage to raise hairs as one might expect, it’s only because of the success with which the author paints the tale with a coating of mysticism and emotion. The descriptive prose is very strong, right down to the mouth-watering sweet potato treats offered by the young street vendor and the realisation of the physical setting. It’s a work filled more with tenderness than fear, and a sense that even though what occurs may feel horrific on the surface, beneath the floodwaters lies the soulful tranquillity desperately craved by someone robbed of their true love.
In keeping with the Indian/Pakistani tradition of Ishq, Simon Bestwick follows up with Night Templar, which gradually unfolds the story of Imran – an England-born taxi driver of (I believe) Pakistani descent – who is cursed with the ability to see monsters that walk amongst us. As a child, his gift was recognised by his grandfather, who entrusted him with a special kind of blade handed down through his lineage. Now, Imran acts as a secret protector and crusader, risking his life to save others from these monstrosities amidst a society that continues to treat him with racist contempt.
Night Templar is a quick and exciting read – simple, but effective. It feels very much like a short origin story; the pilot episode of a series following its misunderstood avenger – unassuming taxi driver and family man by day… demon slayer by night.
Annie Neugebauer’s Hide is possibly the shortest entry that I’ve ever come across in the pages of Black Static, but it’s an enjoyable little slice of grim micro-fiction – twisting the jargon of the ‘pickup artist’ into something much more horrendous than it already is.
Andrew Hook’s Black Lung proves somewhat of a disappointment for the issue, forging a metaphorical dreamscape that, while challengingly wistful, is difficult to really grasp as a genre piece. Focused on the internal struggle of its narrator as he deals with a relationship that he doesn’t feel at home in, while dreaming of joining his now-deceased ex-beau and the lost link to fulfilment that she represents, Black Lung is a deep and thoroughly considered piece – but it fails to raise shivers amongst the strangeness.
Similarly strange and metaphorical is Aliya Whiteley’s Many-Eyed Monsters, which sees its narrator and others around her begin to cough up strange little flesh-bag creatures, covered in eyes, who then attempt to attach themselves to their hosts. They’re not adverse to reason, though, with a little discussion prompting them to leave their resting place and live in the sock drawer instead.
Where they once perched grows a patch of dark hair that is extremely difficult to remove, and so our protagonist sets about everyday life, attempting to keep the marks covered up while occasionally puking up another little creature. Around her, she sees others half-debilitated by their own hidden creatures that they have allowed to attach themselves with abandon.
It all moves towards an ending that leans towards a kind of release, or bliss, in revelation and shared acceptance of the things that we keep hidden – brought to life by some very weird, and oddly disturbing, imagery of bodies blossomed and spread with thick strands of reaching hair. Is the acceptance of these creatures a positive release, or complete, insidious subjugation? The answer isn’t particularly clear – doesn’t seem like it’s meant to be, in fact – and it slightly weakens the punch of a story that is otherwise very well written and extremely imaginative in its allegory. The strangeness recalls Higuchinsky’s Japanese film Uzumaki in a way – and that’s a good thing.
On the non-fiction front this issue, there’s an extended swathe of DVD, Blu-ray and book reviews, including a few reviews of various works from author James Cooper and an insightful Q&A with the man himself, alongside reviews of some recent releases from Telos Publishing – some of which we’ll be getting round to reviewing ourselves quite soon.
Issue 43 is a good example of why Black Static remains such a formidable publication – it continues to challenge with a variation in style and theme in a manner that makes each coming issue an exciting prospect. From the brutal and cinematic through to cultural traditions and the just plain weird, it’s continually taking chances with admirable form – even if it doesn’t always land the swing. With Christmas just around the corner, you’d be well advised to treat yourself, or someone you know, to a subscription.