Black Static #45 (Magazine)
Edited by Andy Cox
Published by TTA Press
In this March/April issue of TTA Press’s venerable Black Static, the fiction entries open in bleak fashion with S.P. Miskowski’s The Second Floor. Here, playwright Jane Morgan returns to the house where she lived as a struggling student of the arts in order to appear at a local gala where her work is to be honoured alongside others. The house itself is now a Bed and Breakfast, but upon settling in, Jane’s cognition turns to memories of her old housemates – their impoverished, alcohol-fuelled times together and the personal dramas that unfolded. Things in the house feel odd, however. Uncomfortable and stifling. And so Jane sets out on foot to locate the aging local theatre that she remembers fondly from those days.
Worryingly, the walk to where the theatre should be leads Jane into a decrepit neighbourhood – far from what she remembers of the area. Forgotten, abandoned and run-down, it proves a shock to her system as she also comes across a feeble, destitute man collapsed on the pavement. One who may prove a disquieting link to the world that she left behind with her career success.
The Second Floor is an unexpected kind of story to find within Black Static; yet, it sets the scene perfectly for the tone of this entire issue. There are hints throughout that the people and things that Jane is seeing and interacting with may be something other than purely natural, but it all comes to an abrupt close with little to deliver but a personal sense of anxiety – the will to escape immediately from what is happening. And so that’s exactly what author Miskowski does. It’s uncomfortable, certainly… but never truly frightening nor able to deliver a complete sense of unease before it calls it quits; like a story cut short just when the introduction is reaching its end.
Which is a bit of a shame, as Miskowski’s prose is excellent. Erudite and descriptive, The Second Floor has an easy flow, a thoroughly well realised sense of place, and some great characterisation in play – but it’s an overwhelmingly introspective journey which invites deeply personal fear from a protagonist for whom the concern simply isn’t there.
This introspection weaves a common thread towards Laura Mauro’s The Grey Men, in which a heavy fog blankets the sky from Hertfordshire to London, soon followed by the emergence of gigantic grey figures – faceless, tall, thin men – which hang from the thick mist. As the locals debate whether the figures are supernatural or merely part of some clever marketing stunt, our protagonist Adam is going about living his life. Having lost his father to cancer a month prior, Adam appears to exist within his own detached, anhedonian fog; going through the motions of commuting, working, and living at home with his girlfriend but no longer truly connecting with any of it.
Of course, in Mauro’s tale, the titular hanging entities are indeed representative of something, which to remain spoiler free takes us down a road to a certain kind of redemption, or enlightenment, for Adam that speaks of some very important social issues and – while remaining thoroughly sombre and introspective in the close – should prove profoundly touching on an existential level to anyone who has similarly suffered such weighty loss and grief. The Grey Men is by no means light reading, but it’s excellent stuff.
Next, Stephen Hargadon continues his impressive run in the pages of Black Static with The Visitors – a first-person narrative that flows along with stream-of-consciousness ease as our narrator relates to us the details of his personal history, and his days spent perched at the local bar drinking pints of IPA as the conversations of others chip in around him. The really impressive thing about Hargadon’s writing is his ability to put you, as the reader, right in the place where he wants you – as though sitting at the table with his narrator as the general bustle of life continues around your conversation, and he occasionally interjects about getting another drink just as soon as there’s a space at the bar or he’s finished talking about the current topic.
The more obviously fantastical elements of Hargadon’s previously published work in Black Static are toned down, here – though things do come to a close on a weirder note that happily flirts with the ghostly versus the unreliable narrator, making for a strangely satisfying finish that presents its final reveal like a punch line. The only complaint once could muster is that its darkness is perhaps too evasive. Is it unsettling? Not really. Frightening? Hardly. A damned good read? You bet.
Steve Rasnic Tem’s The Fishing Hut comes next, wherein we accompany our protagonist, Bishop, en route to his first ever doctor-mandated fishing trip. Seems Bishop is having something of a health scare, and his doctor has demanded that he partake in a spot of serene fishing in order to help calm himself. Wanting to avoid the bustle of other people fishing at the designated area, Bishop sets off down a gravel road, where he encounters an old man who points him towards a little-known fishing hut sitting off the beaten path.
There, Bishop encounters another mysterious angler, perched in the darkness of the open-floored hut which sits atop a running stream. As the two get to talking about their activities, an inherent oddness in the atmosphere, and the cryptic words of his companion, cause Bishop to become uncomfortable… but he’d rather not leave without first catching a fish. Soon, it becomes apparent that there is another, silent, fisherman present, but hidden – rendered invisible within the darkness at the other side of the hut.
Tem’s The Fishing Hut is another personally-levelled, existential piece – the hut feeling like something of an intersection between life and death; a sort of crossing point which Bishop simply isn’t supposed to be seated in at this point in time. Tem’s descriptions of the hut’s interior are evocative, and the dialogue of Bishop’s unknown companion within is eloquent and compelling, making for a short story that feels very much in the classical sense of atmospheric, slow-burn fireside chillers and inhabits that position very well indeed.
Emily B. Cataneo’s Hungry Ghosts introduces us to the socially frustrated Sally, a young girl who lives with her mother, Meme, in a secluded house with a bad reputation and, evidently, some ghosts skulking about. When the authorities demand that she be placed in school, she has her first run-in with adolescent attraction… and the true nature of the ghosts that live in her basement.
Hungry Ghosts is a neat little tale, expertly bookended by similar quotes from Sally that take on an entirely different tone as the story darkens. The protagonist is relatable – outcast, skittish and naive to a fault once she enters the compelling world of school life – which alongside a good grip on pacing makes Cataneo’s yarn a thoroughly pleasant read for those of tidy and effective short horror.
Andrew Hook’s The Frequency of Existence takes the same road towards deeply personal existential crisis that Miskowski’s opening story does with its tale of a tortured photographer and the gradual disintegration of what is most assuredly the most important relationship of his life. With the finale offering a grotty flat-ensconced rumination on personal loss, all-encompassing regret and self-defeat, The Frequency of Existence also mirrors the expected impact of Miskowski’s The Second Floor, albeit in more effective fashion. The horrors to be found here aren’t of the skin-crawling kind, but the uneasy sense of complete emptiness as the final words are spoken – of dreams of perfection sought and abandoned, with nothing left to show.
The Drop of Light and the Rise of Dark, by Cate Gardner is up next, wherein young bedridden Mari discovers herself trapped in an endless darkness – her family having seemingly disappeared. Gardner keeps the tension tight throughout her short tale, as Mari struggles from the bed, the room, and towards the stairs in her attempts to locate her mother… but finds something else entirely.
The ending feels unexpected despite its obviousness, which is testament to the author’s skill as you don’t actually find yourself considering what’s coming next – merely rapt in each strained and desperate moment with the crippled young girl. When the finale does arrive, however, Gardner keeps an extra cruel sting in her tail – a reminder that in horror, and in life, you can’t get away so easily. Great stuff.
Finally, thematic darkness also bleeds its way across into Danny Rhodes’s The Cleansing, wherein a couple of young girls witness the gradual swallowing up of the block of flats where their families live. This time, an apparently malignant black substance appears to be spreading like a cancer throughout the blocks, overtaking the flats where friendly neighbours used to live and a cohesive community once thrived… and it’s rapidly making its way toward places still inhabited.
Rhodes does a very good job building a picture of his world – not far from many of the now run-down estates and council blocks that pepper Britain’s cities and suburbs – and setting his initial hook of the inquisitive girls heading into previously forbidden territory in search of something ‘disgusting’. It isn’t until the final stretch – and a visit to a missing neighbour’s home – that the true horror sets in, but the measured build-up gives plenty of coiled launching speed for the final run.
While its concern for the price of ‘progress’ and the disintegration of community feeds a very undemanding core allegory, The Cleansing is nonetheless a well written piece of work that feels right at home in this issue, eschewing bodily violence in favour of a creeping, crawling ‘other’ whose grip will assuredly change the world (on micro and macro scales) for the worse.
And so, yet again, Black Static offers up a mixture of tales which, while feeling connected in some way by various threads, have very different intentions and techniques to hand in their approaches. Issue 45 definitely feels of a more challengingly delicate persuasion this time around, which won’t be pleasing to those who prefer their horror with more slam-bang graphic impact. If you like your genre literature to illicit a discomforting gut emptiness rather a visceral gut punch, however… then this one’s for you.
Alongside the fiction in this issue, we have the excellent-as-always columns by Stephen Volk and Lynda E. Rucker, alongside a plethora of film and book reviews, and a very nice Q&A with author Helen Marshall.