Black Static #17 felt very much like a winter’s day. Not the crisp and refreshing sort of winter’s day that comes after a stifling summer or a rainy autumn but the kind of winter’s day you get in February. The kind of winter’s day that has you yearning for a bit of daylight and for the kiss of the sun upon your up-turned face. It was an issue that was filled with a sense of frustration and restless energy. It knew that there was something out there, something better, something more satisfying, but it could not find it. That sense of frustration and claustrophobia bubbled up from Maura McHugh and Christopher Fowler’s Campaign for Real Fear stories and flowed through the issue’s (as usual, excellent) non-fiction content and out into the issue’s rather lacklustre stories. Horror can do better. Horror has done better. Black Static can do better.
As though in response to that sense of frustrated greatness, Issue 18 proves that Black Static can do better. Much, much better. Its stories are soul-piercing examples of what modern Horror writing is all about and its columns and non-fiction content revel in a feeling of expansive pleasure like legs being stretched, backs being unkinked and knuckles being cracked. This is how you assemble a Horror and Dark Fantasy magazine!
Yet again, the tone for the magazine is set by its columns. Both Stephen Volk and Christopher Fowler consider the vacuity of Hollywood’s current blockbuster assembly line and ask, not unreasonably, is that all there is? Though both columnists are agnostic about the future potential and artistic value of 3D-fueled cinematic sensawunda, they both advocate the need for cinematic genre to return to source and reconnect with the real world in order to discover an emotional resonance that has somehow become lost in transmission.
Black Static #18 provides us with exactly this kind of resonance.
While the ten winning stories from Maura McHugh and Christopher Fowler’s Campaign for Real Fear that were printed in Black Static #17 were strong enough to send out a clarion call for greater diversity and relevance in Horror writing, they were also strong enough to show-up many of the issue’s longer stories as formulaic and uninspired. Somewhat horrifyingly, the ten stories printed in Black Static #18 manage to be even better. Particularly noteworthy are John Fagan’s “Infected with Death” — one of the most disturbing meditations on homosexuality and HIV that I have ever come across — Anna Rogala’s “Dreadless” — spins an old trope on its head by fearing not the onset of madness but the need to be assessed, labeled and treated — “Cuckoo” by Lorraine Slater — fear of the loss of control over one’s body that accompanies pregnancy — and “Showtime” by James Carroll — the quest for violent entertainment taken beyond the boundaries of morality and sanity. Looking back over the twenty ultra-short stories published in the wake of the Campaign for Real Fear, it is difficult to express quite how exciting these ultra-short stories are. Even if none of them proves to be influential or filter upwards into novels and films, the Campaign for Real Fear has served as a timely reminder of quite how good Horror writing can be when it is forced outside of its comfort zone and into the real world. Fowler and McHugh deserve much kudos as their experiment has been a resounding success.
Equally successful is this issue’s crop of longer stories.
Reading Nina Allan’s “Orinoco” is a fascinating experience as the story serves to illustrate the extent to which context of discovery plays a role in how one reacts to a piece of fiction. Had I come across Allan’s story in the New Yorker I would most likely have smiled wryly at the reveal at the end of the story and taken away a merely favourable impression of a story that is filled with brilliant characterisation and linguistic subtleties as well as rooted in an astonishingly convincing sense of day-to-day reality. However, because I first encountered “Orinoco” in a Horror magazine, I found myself endlessly picking away at the loose ends of the tale, trying to work out what the reveal would be. Waiting for the other foot to drop. This created a remarkable sense of tension as the story steadfastly refused to show its cards or even hint at what was to come. When the grand reveal did come, it descended upon me like a tumor. A dull dribble of unreality that seems utterly insignificant but which causes you to re-examine everything that has come before. “Orinoco” is a masterclass in tone and control, its strength flows entirely from Allan’s remarkable gift for capturing the uncertainties of real life.
Carole Johnstone’s “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” is a completely different kettle of fish. Daubed with a wonderful sense of place, the story revolves around a woman who finds herself walking home on her own at the end of a disastrous night out with friends. Johnstone perfectly captures not only the sense of misery and anger that accompanies a parting on bad terms but also the sense of vague menace that can hang over British city centres on weekend evenings. As Johnstone’s protagonist walks home, this sense of unease starts to grow. Shadows lengthen. Familiar shapes twist. Ugliness leaches from the concrete walls and collects in alleyways and bus shelters. While there may not be anything out there stalking the character, the world seems to morph itself to make that suggestion, to implant that ugly little though. There’s someone behind you. Ultimately quite straight-forward narratively speaking, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” perfectly captures what it feels like not only to be freaked out but to know that you are freaking yourself out. Delicious stuff.
As strong as Johnstone and Allan’s stories are, they are mere striplings compared to the power of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “A Man of Ice and Sorrow“. Plowing a very similar field to Ramsay Campbell’s much under-appreciated neo-Lovecraftian gem Midnight Sun (1990), Unsworth’s story externalises his character’s mental state as a snowy wilderness. Increasingly isolated and inward-looking, the story’s character is struggling to recover both physically and psychologically from a terrible accident that killed his son and left him nearly crippled. Every day, the character walks up a snowy hill but one day he finds a perfectly formed snowman. Marveling at the artistry of the snowy construction, the character is haunted by the miserable expression on the snowman’s face and the mournful, pleading positioning of his arms. The next time the character walks up the hill, he finds more snowmen. An entire family of them. A family divided as the male snowman stands apart from his family, the first sculpture’s inability to move closer to the others a powerful symbol of his own refusal to forgive himself or his wife for the tragic accident that deprived them of a son. With a lightness of touch that rivals that in Allan’s “Orinoco“, Unsworth draws upon his story’s desolate and chilly atmosphere to create a wonderfully pervasive sense of unease that plays out in a beautifully disturbing conclusion.
Coming on the heels of three strong stories, Nicholas Royle’s “The Obscure Bird” could easily have been a disappointment. However, while the story may lack the technical fireworks on display in the Unsworth and Johnstone pieces or the brilliantly observed verisimilitude of Allan’s opening tale, the freshness of Royle’s subject matter more than makes up for any lack of affect. “The Obscure Bird” is a story about the way in which human relationships end. However, instead of focusing upon the feelings of disappointment, heart-break and subdued anger that mark a relationship in terminal decline, Royle focuses upon the processes that ultimately cause relationships to fail. “The Obscure Bird” is about how people change. How the people who leave a relationship are seldom the same ones as those who entered it. It is a story about the way in which a supporting and loving relationship can still self-destruct because one or both of the participants begins to change and become something different and weird and Other. The grand reveal is perhaps a little too forceful and might well have worked better in a visual medium but I was struck by the wit and lack of sentimentality behind Royle’s vision. I can honestly say that I have never read a story quite like “The Obscure Bird“.
Mercurio D. Rivera’s “Tu Sufrimento Shall Protect Us” stands out like a sore thumb in an issue that is dominated by quiet psychology, profound humanity and lightness of touch. Set in an apocalyptic world in which the government battles “Justice Gang” lynch mobs in the wake of a series of terrible terrorist attacks, this story is a brilliant meditation upon the role of magical thinking in our political culture. “Tu Sufrimento Shall Protect Us” explores the idea that, in times of stress, humans retreat into atavistic beliefs about the need for pain and purification. This idea is first introduced in the figure of a masochist who wants to be brutalised by men in order to satisfy her unspecified psychological needs. Rivera then takes this principle and projects it against the use of torture in the War on Terror. As a 21st Century civilisation, we in the West know for a fact that torture does not work. It does not work because if you beat someone long enough and hard enough they will invariably wind up telling you anything that will make the beatings stop. We know this. We all do. But despite this knowledge Guantanamo Bay remains open and our governments continue to outsource the interrogation of terror suspects to countries with more ‘liberal’ attitudes to torture. Rivera asks: Is the acceptance of torture a result of ignorance or the product of superstition? Do we send people to be tortured because we genuinely believe that this is a reliable means of extracting intelligence or is it because we think that as long as someone out there is suffering for us, we will be safe? Rivera asks this question through the lens of South American culture, the story is elegantly written, beautifully atmospheric and filled with some wonderful local colour. “Tu Sufrimento Shall Protect Us” is not only the strongest story in the issue, it is also one of the most atmospheric, disturbing and thought-provoking short stories I have ever encountered. If Rivera’s work does not get picked up by one of the Year’s Best anthologies then there really is no justice in the world.
Having dealt with the short fiction, I would also like to raise the issue of Black Static‘s appearance. The magazine went all-colour a little while ago and now it enjoys a similar layout and use of artwork to its sister title Interzone. However, early colour issues tended to be characterised by a fondness for the same darker colours that usually grace the magazine’s covers. I have always felt that this was something of a shame as the best way to signal Horror’s re-emergence as a vibrant literary genre would be to distance it from the cod-gothic trappings normally associated with it. Cover aside, Black Static #18 accomplishes exactly this. With the exception of the browns and blacks that accompany the Rivera story, this issue sees Black Static going for a much lighter palette. This allows the words to speak for themselves and makes for a much more pleasant reading experience though Dave Senecal and Daniele Serra’s artwork is striking and evocative enough to be enjoyed purely on its own terms.
As ever, Peter Tennant’s Case Notes is a brilliant read. However, while Issue 17 saw him struggling to see the good in the work of someone who is — ultimately — quite a traditional genre writer, Issue 18 sees him engaging with the work of up-and-coming ghost story writer Adam Neville. Given that Neville has only produced two books so far, Tennant has much more room in which to drill down into Neville’s thinking and the results are a great critical overview and a genuinely fantastic interview with an author who comes across as really quite thoughtful and intelligent. Case Notes covers a lot of ground and its high standards are a real achievement given that Tennant is the only person who writes for it, but while Tennant’s ability to turn out page after page of intelligent criticism is impressive, his capacity for tracking down obscure but fascinating works of Horror from across the globe is frankly astounding. Where does he find the time?
Equally exhaustive is Tony Lee’s Blood Spectrum column, which assays not only the best in Horror DVD releases but also the worst as exemplified by Lee’s lusciously sarcastic and savagely biting Soulless Scars round-up of the weakest releases of the August-September period.
Black Static #18 is a magazine that works on every level: It looks great, it contains great stories, it has great columns and some great reviews and interviewing. On this kind of form Black Static deserves to be seen as one of the best magazines in genre publishing. The challenge, of course, is to keep this run of form going. I can’t wait for Issue 19!