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GUEST REVIEW: Jonathan McCalmont on Black Static #15

[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 Great Horror authors go unpublished and great Horror novels go undiscussed.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.

As is the case with Interzone, Black Static‘s non-fiction easily justifies the cover price. Issue fifteen has some thoughtful columns on screenwriting and censorship by Christopher Fowler, Stephen Volk and Mike O’Driscoll as well as the obligatory review and news columns by Tony Lee and Peter Tennant. Lee’s column is made up of short punchy reviews of Horror films that have been recently released in the UK. At the cinematic level, Horror is all about the indie. For every Michael Bay-produced remake that makes it to our local multiplexes there are half a dozen low budget independent films which, though they might not reinvent the wheel, generally have something interesting to say. Lee’s column keeps us abreast of these smaller films and so is a real boon to all fans of Horror cinema. Tennant’s column meanwhile is one of the under-appreciated gems of genre reviewing. His knowledge and enthusiasm for Horror fiction from all sub-genres and publishing territories are exemplary and his willingness to write longer and more thoughtful overviews of particular authors or trends is always appreciated.

Non-fiction dealt with, let us now move on to the meat of the magazine: the short fiction.

James Cooper’s “Eight Small Men” is not the best of openings for the magazine. A tale of childhood abuse and brutality, the story’s underpowered and unaffecting narrative slowly builds towards an anti-climactic ending fatally undermined by the author’s weak characterisation and sloppy writing. Lacking in psychological insight and festooned with anachronisms despite its needlessly complicated multi-time framed structure, “Eight Small Men” left me with absolutely no desire to look into Cooper’s recently published collection The Beautiful Red, an advert for which handily graces the back cover of the magazine.

Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “The Knitted Child” is a completely different kettle of fish. Short and tightly-focussed, the story examines a couple attempting to deal with feelings of intense grief arising from a miscarriage. The story shows a real sensitivity to the issue and its metaphorical teasing out of the psychology of grief through the use of a magical knitted doll is not only insightful but also deeply creepy.

Alan Scott Laney’s “Maximum Darkness” is the author’s first published story and, frankly, it shows. A rather predictable exploration of a descent into psychosis and the ensuing blurring of the line between reality and delusion, the story would be pedestrian and overly familiar were it not for a couple of under-developed secondary ideas that suggest some degree of potential on Laney’s part. The prose style is somewhat uninspiring but the story is, on the whole, well-paced and quirky enough to explain its elevation from the slush pile.

Daniel Kaysen’s “Babylon’s Burning” reads less like a work of short fiction than it does the opening section of a much longer, (and potentially more interesting) piece. With an admirable deftness of touch, Kaysen introduces us to a pair of brothers with a complex relationship and an evil Wolfram and Heart-style security firm who use the occult to stay ahead of the market. The story tells of how one of the brothers gets sucked into working for the company but it shoots its load during the recruitment process rather than at the end of the story resulting in a narrative that feels frustratingly unresolved.

Sarah Singleton’s “Death By Water” is the last story in the issue but it is certainly not the least. Structurally quite simple, Death By Water” revolves around a recently bereaved man who visits a series of colourful mediums in an attempt to contact his dead wife. The story’s significant power comes from the sheer quality of Singleton’s prose. Each medium is a beautifully rendered portrait of fantastical weirdness and each of the man’s visions is a haunting and disturbing snapshot of a relationship that was nowhere near as healthy as the widower seems to believe. Given the story’s incredibly straight-forward and episodic structure, Singleton evidently felt obliged to muddy the waters with an ambiguous ending that is sadly a little bit too opaque to be completely satisfying, but this is still a fantastic piece of short fiction that really should be picked up by one of the Horror and Dark Fantasy anthologists come the end of the year.

It is interesting to note that this issue’s stand-out story is written by a woman and that it is the only story in this issue to have a female author. In a recent blog post, Black Static‘s Peter Tennant argues that much of Horror’s recent revival is down to the efforts of female writers. While Horror is still a long way from where it stood in the 1980s, the distance it has come is very much down to the likes of Kaaron Warren, Sarah Langan and Alice Sebold (whose best-selling novel The Lovely Bones recently experienced epic fail at the hands of the decidedly male film director Peter Jackson).

As a fan of Horror and a Black Static subscriber I can only echo Tennant’s hope that Black Static‘s selection procedures are free of the kind of unconscious sexism that Tennant is rightly complaining of in other publications. Horror is all about being confronted by the strange and surprised by the Other. Horror demands authors from different backgrounds and demographics. Familiarity breeds contempt and it kills the raising of hairs on the back of the neck. It is precisely because of this that Horror publishers have a duty to draw on as wide a set of author demographics as possible.

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