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.
The magazine kicks off with Christopher Fowler’s Interference column. In this issue, Fowler writes about the sub-genre known as the ‘precinct’ film. Precinct films take place in enclosed spaces and allow the author a complete control of the psychological variables affecting his characters. Surveying the genre’s cinematic and fictional paragons, Fowler concludes with an ode to the potential of a set, a few people and a horrifying idea. With such simple ingredients great Horror is made.
Mike O’Driscoll’s Night’s Plutonian Shore column looks at how films and literature depict murderers and how the media all too often dip into the same used-up collection of psychologically shallow cliches and platitudes as screen-writers when it comes to writing about real-world killers. Pointing us at a number of interesting-sounding books and articles, O’Driscoll ends his column with a call for us to consider the extent to which the unthinking repetition of cliches may actually be helping to form killers. After all, if you find yourself at a moment of existential crisis, might there not be some comfort to be had in reinventing yourself as the kind of ‘crazed loner’ that shoddy journalists and hack writers are always going on about?
Stephen Volk’s Electric Darkness column considers the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The column deconstructs the idea of ‘stylised violence’ and argues that clever camera-work and counter-intuitive production techniques may well say more about the world than an attempt to reproduce something on screen that looks ‘real’. Volk considers Hitchcock’s oft quoted line about shooting a murder scene as though it was a love scene and one is left smiling at the appropriateness of such a quote. What is murder if not an act of twisted love? Love of an idea? Self-love? love of death? Hitch still makes us ponder these questions.
Peter Tennant’s Case Notes section has an all-anthology special on this issue and Tennant yet again amazes me with not only his critical acumen but also his output. Dozens and dozens of short stories are reviewed in the few pages Black Static devotes to Tennant’s column and he has something interesting to say about every one of them. Speaking of interesting things to say, Tennant also scores a rather splendid interview with Stephen Jones, prolific anthologist and editor of the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series. The phrase ‘giving someone enough rope to hang themselves’ springs to mind as Jones suggests that maybe men pop up more often in short fiction collections because they’re better writers. Contro. Versial.
Coming after such a barrage of brilliance, Tony Lee’s Blood Spectrum column can seem underwhelming but Lee’s wit, insight and genuine anger at the terrible films he has to review make the column a must-read for anyone who loves Horror movies. Poor, poor Tony.
But let us tarry no longer upon these glistening critical sands. Let us instead wade into the ocean of story offered by Black Static #19‘s short fiction
“Chain Reaction” by Steve Rasnic Tem is an jagged shard of metal wrenched from a wound. Filled with electric flashes of prose and jarringly surreal imagery, the story is built up of a series of discrete vignettes in which a mute survivor to a hideous car crash wanders around the wreckage encountering his fellow survivors. Each survivor has a different reaction to the crash and in these differences of attitude we see the different ways in which humans can react to their own imminent death; some are consumed by grief, some beg for mercy, some focus on the mundane and others go completely off the rails. An elegant and ambitious story but one which, I felt, required some kind of thematic or metaphorical resolution in order to pull the various vignettes together and provide some purpose for the rather list-like structure.
Like “Chain Reaction”, Ray Cluley’s “Beachcombing” also deal with the ways in which we confront death. Set on a desolate and wintry British beach, the story features a young child whose psychometric powers allow him to pick up emotional echoes from objects he finds abandoned on the beach. However, because of his age and because he is clearly affected by some psychological disorder, the child lacks the capacity to make sense of the emotions he experiences from the objects he picks up. Forever struggling to process, forever disconnected from his fellow human beings and yet forever eager for emotional connection, the child’s haunting journey across the beach constitutes a brilliantly evocative and deeply affecting commentary upon our condition as isolated islands of subjectivity. Just when you think that this story cannot get any better, Cluley reaches down and finds that top gear in the form of a suicide victim’s abandoned clothes. Powerful and yet exquisitely low-key.
Joel Lane’s “The Sleep Mask” is a magnificently inaccessible piece of writing. It is easy enough to skim over the surface of the story and marvel at the serrated imagery embedded in a series of forbidding urban dreamscapes or the almost palpable sense of dread and alienation dripping from Lane’s treatment of an unhappy workplace but in order to dive down into the dark waters of the story’s meaning is rather more of a challenge. “The Sleep Mask” is an overwhelming patchwork of interlocking themes and metaphors linking terminal disease with encroaching madness, madness with sleep, and sleep with emotional detachment. Its protagonist suffers from a sleeping disorder that has him dozing off at odd times and in odd places. Attempting more and more robust forms of medical intervention in order to cure his disorder, the protagonist’s actions begin to disconcertingly blend the self-destructive and the self-preserving. But what is he attempting to preserve, and what is he attempting to destroy?
After the structural and stylistic fireworks of Black Static #19‘s first three stories, Simon Clark’s post-apocalyptic “They Shall Not Rest” could easily have constituted a real step down into more mainstream fare. Indeed, Clark’s story follows a group of travelers attempting to stay ahead of a plague of unearthed coffins that appear whenever you fall asleep. In the hope of keeping clear of the coffins and the hideous diseases carried by their still-decomposing residents, the people of Whitby have taken to keeping themselves awake for days on end. A decision that has seen civilisation destroyed. This interesting spin on the traditional zombie-pocalypse trope allows Clark to conjure up some delightfully awful imagery but the story’s real power lies in its central relationship. Indeed, the story’s three characters are a man and a woman who travel around with a younger girl because the girl has the power to keep the coffins at bay. Unfortunately, the young girl has the mind of a child meaning that she is irrational, tyrannical and utterly unpredictable in her moods and reactions to thing. However, despite resenting the young woman and growing to loathe each other, the man and the woman stay together. They stay together in order to keep death at bay. They stay together for the sake of the child. I have never seen such a misanthropic fictional treatment of parenthood. Excellent stuff despite the quite traditional format.
Lavie Tidhar’s “The Wound Dresser” is set during the Holocaust and depicts a world in which angels have come to earth in order to aid the passing of the dying only to find themselves being ground down and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work facing them. The idea that the divine infrastructure simply lacks the capacity to keep up with humanity’s innovations in the field of barbarism is a compelling one and Tidhar neatly dovetails this idea with a take on Nazi Germany that I had never encountered before. Traditionally, most visions of Nazi Germany stress the inhuman nature of Nazi bureaucracy and how hideous things were not only done but done with a level of administrative efficiency that you would normally expect of the manufacturing sector or the civil service. One can understand murder committed in the height of passion. One can even understand murder committed in wartime. But one cannot understand murder that requires an HR department and a proper filing system. Tidhar flips this vision of the holocaust on its head by presenting Nazi Germany as a full-on Conradian nightmare unconvincingly dressed up with a few civilised flourishes such as marches and neatly-tailored uniforms. Though the relationship between the rogue angel and the old woman in the story’s foreground never quite manages to fall into place either as a commentary upon the solipsism of the dying or the human capacity for ‘compassion burn out’, the background to Tidhar’s story more than makes up for this shortcoming.
Black Static #18 was a great magazine because it combined great non-fiction content with excellent stories. Black Static #19 manages to be even better by managing not only to bring together a varied and powerful combination of stories, but to bring together a great collection of stories that seem to be thematically linked. Indeed, this issue could have been marketed under the strap-line “Sleep and Death”. Kudos to the editor Andy Cox as Black Static really seems to have hit its stride in recent months. Keep up the good work!