REVIEW: Black Static #17
A distinct feeling of restlessness hangs heavily over the pages of the June-July issue of TTA Press’s Black Static magazine. A restlessness with form, a restlessness with voice, a restlessness with subject matter and a restlessness with a genre filled with limitless potential but held back by an unhealthy obsession with the past. This tone is set by the magazine’s — as ever — excellent non-fiction coverage.
Issue 17 opens with a blisteringly powerful column by Stephen Volk. In it, Volk tries to isolate exactly what it is about children that makes them dominate the landscape of Horror both as victims and protagonists. Skilfully evading old saws like Golding’s picture of childhood red in tooth and claw or sentimental dross about innocence, Volk outlines an adult population obsessed with its own short sightedness and unhealthily intent upon either punishing or canonising children for their refusal to carve the world up into the real and the unreal. Despite being quite short, Volk’s column draws on a dizzying number of references and shows admirable conceptual depth and density as well as a muscular and evocative style. This is precisely what writing a magazine column should be all about.
Volk’s desire to re-examine Horror’s traditional subject matter carries over beautifully into the first set of results for Maura McHugh and Christopher Fowler’s Campaign for Real Fear competition. Born of SFX magazine’s abject failure to recognise the existence of female Horror writers, the Campaign for Real Fear put out an open call for 500-word short stories that would prove that there is more to modern Horror writing than a bunch of old white men recycling the same old plots and tricks. On the basis of the first ten winning stories reprinted here, McHugh and Fowler should feel entitled to don their flight suits and strut about beneath a giant ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign as these short slices of terror and unease are really bloody good. Particularly brilliant are Alan Morgan’s “Nice One, Truly” (a hideous ode to the downfalls of living one’s life online), James Burt’s “In The Night Supermarket” (consumerism as drug addiction) and Mary Elizabeth Burroughs’ “The Flinchfield Dance” (life lived in the world described by tabloid scare-mongering) but the standard of the winning pieces is high enough that they are all worthy of attention and praise.
Like all genres, Horror is a length of rope extended between the past and the future. The weight of the past drags the genre backwards by asking us to return again and again to the triumphs and concerns of previous generations. Back to the safety of the tried. Back to the dulling embrace of the familiar. Any slack in the rope is swiftly taken up by the manic energy of the new as authors and thinkers introduce new tricks and themes that attempt to move the genre on. To make it relevant. To make it real. The best works of genre shoulder the burden of the past and drag it forward but all too often works of genre either rush forward in a manic sprint that goes nowhere or devote so much energy to digging their heels in that you wonder why they even bother. This tension, present in all genre writing whether it be Horror, sf, romance or crime is tangible in Black Static’s review columns.
Tony Lee’s Blood Spectrum does its usual brilliant job of surveying the myriad of foreign-language and independently financed Horror films that are put out on DVD in Britain but wading through Lee’s reviews one is struck by a sense of weariness. From serial killers to zombies, ghosts to vampires, one cannot help but feel that we have seen all of these types of films before. Horror fans who are old enough to remember the genre’s literary salad days in the 1980s will know that if prodigious output is not paired with prodigious invention then the market for a set of tropes will rapidly become saturated and collapse in on itself. The 2000s have been good for Horror films, but Lee’s column raises the distinct possibility that a tipping point may well be near.
Peter Tennant’s book review column Case Notes is substantially more up-beat in tone than Blood Spectrum but it also shows signs of a tendency for the genre to look backwards and inwards. Tennant’s over-, re- and inter-views of John Connolly and his work find him engaging enthusiastically with a writer whose paranormal PI books show flashes of relevance and invention despite a foreground dominated by such bone tired tropes as psychic detectives, serial killers, sinister religious cults and fallen angels. Having never read any of Connolly’s work I cannot speak for its quality but Tennant’s reviews do come across as self-consciously generous as though he is trying hard to concentrate on the good in order to keep his mind off the merely competent. Having said that, Tennant’s other reviews are as insightful, energetic and readable as ever.
Sadly, while the magazine’s non-fiction elements and the Campaign for Real Fear show a Horror genre that is chomping at the bit and ready to break new ground, Black Static 17′s fiction resolutely refuses to pick up a shovel.
Suzanne Palmer’s “Zombie Cabana Boy” is a failed attempt at satire. Written in a jaded and witlessly cynical tone, the story tells of a widow who joins a ring of similarly jaded and witlessly cynical women who use voodoo to turn young well-built men into their zombie sex slaves. Gruey but without enough affect or imagination to be genuinely disturbing, “Zombie Cabana Boy” tries to attack the kind of hollow-skulled hedonism that passes for female empowerment in TV series like Sex In The City but, despite the softness of the target, the story never quite manages to hit home. The sub-plot involving a hurricane that might well be the spirit of a dead husband is more distracting than anything else.
Vylar Kaftan’s “Three-Legged Bird” is a story that is chronically lacking in ambition. Set in a brothel staffed by indentured South Korean immigrants, the story forges a thematic link between a sex worker’s hope for a better future and her attempts to cling to the folklore of her native land despite mounting evidence that she is simply wrong. Beset by weak characterisation, predictable plotting, flat prose style and a reliance upon overly familiar ideas and techniques, “Three-Legged Bird”‘s laudable willingness to write about the kinds of people who seldom appear in Horror stories (namely the 99.999999% of the population who are not Horror writers living in New England) never manages to banish the feeling that we really have seen this kind of thing before.
Daniel Kaysen’s “The Lady in the Tigris” is both intensely formulaic and strikingly original. Dealing with the familiar blurring of the lines between a possibly fantastical reality and a definitely delusional protagonist, the story involves a young man who is so obsessed with a Magic: The Gathering-style collectible card game that he comes to see the world entirely in terms of the thematic divisions and tactical hierarchies involved in effective deck-building. Setting aside the novelty of a story featuring a collectible card game, “The Lady in the Tigris” boasts some beautifully unsettling writing and a subtle engagement with the real world as Kaysen draws a neat comparison between the ways in which the media and the political classes simplify and trivialise war and our hunger for games that offer diversion and escapism.
John Shirley’s “Faces in the Walls” is a long story about everything and nothing. Madness, ghosts, rape, claustrophobia, illness, buried secrets, sinister doctors, masked maniacs and horrific violence – all of these hoary old tropes are dutifully dug out of the genre cupboard and hurled energetically at the reader in the desperate hope that something will stick but — needless to say — nothing does. This is partly a question of style as despite the story’s protagonist being paralysed and imprisoned in a sanatorium, “Faces in the Wall” never quite manages to summon up the feelings of helplessness and isolation required to give the story the disturbing edge it so desperately craves. As Shirley moves the story from a mundane to a more supernatural register, the story’s lack of thematic focus, narrative arc and distinct characterisation drive home the impression that the author is trying way too hard to spice up what is ultimately an empty piece of writing. “Faces in the Walls” is not about anything and when you are trying to write a story about nothing then it simply does not matter how many tropes and tricks you fling at the reader.
Though undeniably an entertaining read, Black Static 17 is undeniably the weakest issue of the magazine I have seen to date. With Kaysen’s “The Lady in the Tigris” marking a not particularly vertiginous high-point, the issue’s fiction and non-fiction both suggest that while there is lots of cool stuff going on in Horror at the moment, much of that cool stuff is struggling to filter through to Black Static‘s slush pile.
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