From time to time, the genre blogosphere will get a bee in its bonnet about something. That thing could be racism. It could be sexism. It could be the fact that certain self-promoting bloggers have broken an embargo by deciding to jump the gun and give their opinions about the latest freshly-flogged undead equine to slither from the foetid womb of the genre publishing industry. All of these things can promote discussion and argument but nothing tends to get the genre blogosphere talking like the blogosphere itself and what it is doing wrong. I must admit… I am just as prone to navel-gazing as the next blogger and I definitely agree with Martin Lewis when he says that genre reviewing can and must do better.
It must do better because there is something horribly depressing about googling an early review of a new book only to find the first page of results colonised by bloggers who not only lack insight but also fail to articulate that lack of insight in a manner that is entertaining or even half-way coherent.
All too often, I look at the genre blogosphere and I despair.
This is not something that happens when I read the non-fiction elements of Black Static. Black Static #19 is a magazine that humbles me. I read it and I doubt myself as a critic. I doubt that I will ever be able to produce a column as well-written, intelligent and thought-provoking as the columns in this magazine.
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!
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.
As someone whose love of books is frequently eclipsed by a towering devotion to the medium of film, I generally approach the shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Hugo with feelings of anguished frustration and nihilistic fatalism. Every year, I seek out the shortlist knowing full well that some of the best genre films of the year will have been overlooked and yet every year I am struck anew by how unwilling most Hugo voters are to look beyond their local Blockbuster-clogged multiplexes. However, as time has passed, my irritation at the Hugo voters has been replaced by understanding. The problem is not that Hugo voters are uninterested in genre film, but rather that many Hugo voters simply never get to hear about the embarrassment of riches that World Cinema has to offer the discerning genre fan. Indeed, I suspect that if the Hugos had a rolling eligibility period in order to reflect the fact that some people have to wait for DVD releases of smaller films than the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form would become a much better reflection of what is going on in the world of genre film.
As a result, my aim is not so much to chastise or mock Hugo voters as it is to raise awareness and encourage people to put as much effort into tracking down new films as they do into tracking down new books. This shortlist (my third, the first two being here and here) is by no means exhaustive. Despite living in London my access to films (particularly foreign-language ones) is impeded by the irrationality of international film distribution so if there’s anything I’ve missed then jump in the comments and let me know. What were your best genre films of 2009?
However, before I give you my Third Alternative Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, I feel that I should address the quality of the films that did manage to make the Hugo shortlist and, as is traditional in these circumstances, speculate as to the eventual winner:
What makes for a healthy and creative scene? Ask most people this question and the answer you will most likely get is talent; get together enough talented people, allow them to talk to each other and you are well on your way to a flourishing artistic community. While this might very well be true in meatspace, the economics and social dynamics of a trans-national creative community makes things rather more complicated. A creative community of five people might well flourish if they all lived together, but what if those five people were spread out across the world. How would you rate the survival chances of the community then?
Theodore Sturgeon famously defended science fiction by arguing that 90% of everything is crud but in my experience this is simply not true. In truth, 90% of everything is pretty much okay with the remaining 10% divided up amongst the good, the great and the godawful. 90% of everything is reasonable. Tolerable. Not bad. It passes the time. These are words that also describe the five short stories that appear in issue sixteen of Black Static; Some are better than others certainly, they all have something about them and none of them are terrible by any means, but none of them are particularly memorable or gripping either. In other words, they are comfortably within the 89th percentile.
However, these are precisely the kinds of stories that make for a healthy creative community. They are good enough to be published, good enough to sell a magazine, good enough that they might inspire someone to write something better and good enough to keep the writers’ careers ticking over until greater inspiration strikes or learning curves are climbed. These are the kinds of stories that form the backbone of genre publishing and the fact that they exist at all proves the energy and vitality of the Horror genre.
So without further ado, let us consider the stories on offer.
REVIEW SUMMARY: Beautiful writing and serious goosebumps.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ellen Datlow brings us seventeen of the best Horror short stories to appear in the last year demonstrating not only the incredible diversity of the genre but also its astonishing capacity for stylistic excellence and technical innovation.
PROS: Files and Barringer’s “each thing i show you is a piece of my death”, Morrissette’s “Wendigo”, Duffy’s “The Lion’s Den”, Morris’ “Lotophagi”, Langan’s “Technicolor”.
CONS: Hirshberg’s “The Nimble Men”, Johnstone’s “Dead Loss”, Barron’s “Strappado”.
BOTTOM LINE: While the anthology contains some weak stories as well as some strong ones, the weak stories are never all that bad and the good ones are often exceptional. On the whole, that makes for a great anthology.
Much like Stephen Jones’ Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series, Ellen Datlow opens the anthology with “Summation 2009″, a piece giving readers a whirlwind tour of all the best books, magazines, short stories and works of non-fiction to appear in and around the Horror genre in the course of 2009. A fantastic place to start whether you are looking to get into Horror, or whether you are an old hand looking for your next purchase, this is an impressively complete if critically bare piece of genre train-spotting that does a great job of reminding us quite how much interesting Horror passes below the radar of most genre websites and magazines.
But let us move on to the meat of the book : The stories.
[Jonathan McCalmont is a London-based critic whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, SF Site, The New York Review Of Science Fiction and The Escapist. In addition to writing about genre books and films he occasionally writes about music, video games and art house cinema before dutifully posting the links to his blog Ruthless Culture.]
If you imagine Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror as three siblings then Fantasy is the popular one, Science Fiction is the brainy one and Horror is the one that never gets invited to parties. This was not always the case. Back in the 1980s, the Horror genre lived high on the hog as its titles filled shelves and minds across the globe. But then came the crash. Some say that in a desperate rush to satisfy the market, publishers put out too much bad stuff. Others say that certain demographic changes shifted the balance of power away from angst and viscera towards scratching the mythopoeic urge to immerse oneself in a fantasy landscape. Either way, the up-shot was that Horror became the unloved step-child of the genre family and despite the creation of the paranormal romance genre and the recent reinvigoration of Dark Fantasy and Horror as a whole, that taint remains. Great Horror authors go unpublished and great Horror novels go undiscussed. It simply is not right.
However, TTA Press – the publishers of Interzone – have made an attempt to redress this injustice in the form of Black Static. Now on its fifteenth issue, Black Static sticks quite closely to the Interzone formula : Every issue comes with a series of short stories, each accompanied by some specially-commissioned art work and separated by columns and reviews by regular contributors.