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.
Tim Casson’s “The Overseer” provides a nice opening to the magazine as it is also one of this issue’s strongest stories. Set in the 1920s in the aftermath of the last great stock market crash, it features a spoiled rich kid having to find his feet toiling in a factory with the working stiffs he once had so little regard for. A place of dirt and dust reminiscent of Thomas Ligotti’s hideous workplaces, the factory is overseen by something resembling an Egyptian god. This fantastical imagery brings to mind similar comparisons between the modern poor and the slaves of the ancient world that featured so memorably in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) but while “The Overseer” is rich in imagery and atmosphere, Casson never quite manages to find space for a believable or compelling character arc. The story’s dream-like ending also feels like a bit of a stretch but Casson’s control of tone and eye for social commentary still make for an interesting read.
M. G. Preston’s “Extreme Latitude” is a story set in an antarctic research station. The subject matter is a rather predictable descent into madness provoked by isolation, unwelcome memories and an annoying humming noise. Preston is a great structural writer. What I mean by this is that he knows how to pace a story and displays a rare skill when it comes to quickly establishing characters and allowing the relationships between them to flower into quite complex shapes. Preston’s eye for structure and pace also extend to the effective use of repeated motifs and phrases that serve to hasten his character’s descent into madness. However, while I found myself enjoying Preston’s writing, I was intensely frustrated by his lack of ambition. Indeed, not only is the subject matter quite pedestrian, but Preston also makes extensive use not only of italics to denote tone of voice but also timed and dated journal entries as a means of charting the passage of time. These are effectively gimmicks used to avoid exposition. Gimmicks that pop up all too often in short stories. Gimmicks that a writer with Preston’s touch should really not feel compelled to use. If you want to use typographic and formatting tricks to tell the story then the bar is set somewhere around the level of Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000).
Mike O’Driscoll’s “One Last Wild Waltz” is a story with a firm foundation in real human psychology. Set in the aftermath of an older brother’s death, the younger brother returns home and finds a house clogged with misery. Misery born not of bereavement but of wasted potential. Of wrong turns made on the road of life. Of missed opportunities. Of old grievances and quarrels left to fester and rot. O’Driscoll does a great job of sketching out the characters, their relationships and filling their miserable lives with the kind of dread and unease that you can almost taste at the back of your tongue but when it comes time to move this story out of ‘grim social realism’ and into ‘Horror’ it all rather falls apart amidst random snowmen, which is a real pity as up until that ending, the story was going great guns.
Alison J. Littlewood’s “The Empty Spaces” is another story anchored in grief and social realism. This time, the story is about a couple of old widowers living together in the wake of a terrible tragedy. A tragedy that deprived them of their wives. Suddenly, one of them starts seeing things. Things that are not really there. A visit to the doctor informs him that it is a quirk in the brain’s approach to perception; when sight starts to fail, the brain fills in the gaps with what it thinks might be there. Sometimes it gets it right. Other times it gets it wrong. However, when it gets it wrong it can fill in the spaces with things that we want to see. Things that obsess us. Things like Marilyn Monroe. Things like our dead wives. These visions take on a real psychological heft as Littlewood fills in the story of what happened to the wives. Explaining why the widower might want to keep on seeing her. Explaining why he will not let her go. The idea behind this story is a strong one and I admire Littlewood’s restraint in not completely filling in the reader on what happened but the tightrope between a pervasive sense of mystery and the emotional power of full disclosure (both desirable ends) is a wobbly one and Littlewood ultimately ends up spilling just enough of the beans to deprive her ending of mystery while not giving us enough quite to fill our rumbling emotional bellies.
Lynda E. Rucker’s “The Moon Will Look Strange” ends the magazine on something of a bum note as it is easily the weakest story here. Composed of huge rambling paragraphs that suck the air out of any attempt at injecting pace, “The Moon Will Look Strange” attempts to invoke mystery and madness and results only in confusion and cliché. The problem is that Rucker devotes so much energy to conveying the viewpoint character’s state of emotional and psychological distress that she manages to completely cloud the narrative. This is not in and of itself problematic but once the character’s distress is established Rucker fails to do anything with it. This means that, in effect, the story goes nowhere and nothing very much happens. Ending the story with a mysterious repetition of the story’s title is nothing more than a misguided attempt at the kind of closure that the story’s narrative, characters, themes and ideas completely fail to provide.
So, as I said, nothing too terrible, but nothing particularly great either. The same can be said of the columns. Tony Lee and Peter Tennant are as radiant as ever with their utterly invaluable roundups of lesser-spotted works of Horror released either straight to DVD or on dead tree via smaller publishing houses. Tennant’s column also includes a moderately interesting critical overview and interview with up-and-coming Horror author Sarah Pinborough. However, move to the less regimented columns and the bag becomes much more decidedly mixed: In the negative column Stephen Volk’s column is a depressed cry for help with a mention of John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) in it and Mike O’Driscoll’s overview of James Elroy’s Underworld USA trilogy is nothing that could not have been cobbled together by someone who read no further than the books’ back covers. However, making up for these offerings is Christopher Fowler’s Interference column that combines a brutal slating of the Paranormal Romance genre with an impassioned cry for diversity in Horror. Diversity in author. Diversity in form. Diversity in subject matter. Horror is all around us folks…you just need to look.