Review – Black Static #47

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I rarely review magazines/journals at the Hellforge but this fine UK publication from TTA Press is so consistently solid that it deserves a trumpet. If you’re not familiar, the digest-sized mixture of articles, interviews, art, new short fiction and genre reviews will please the horror fan who likes things fresh and off the beaten path. Rather than formulaic creeps, Black Static favours scares of the shadowy and intangible, boasting a level of writing that is always superb throughout.

Black StaticIssue 47 kicks off with two thoughtful and eloquent commentaries. “Coffinmaker’s Blues” by Stephen Volk discusses Hitchcock’s Frenzy and its cultural and historical context with regard to London serial killers. “Notes from the Borderland” by Lynda E. Rucker ponders fear in horror entertainment. She discusses that fear-fans often fall into two camps: those who demand to be jolted out of their seats, and those who regard this as less important to a destabilising, unsettling chill. While immediately less shocking, the latter lasts much longer, and is the essence of what Black Static is all about.

Next up is the fiction, commencing with a spooky road trip in “On the Road with the American Dead” by James Van Pelt. We meet Jeremy – a travelling photocopier salesman – who spends a lot of time alone on the dusty Kansas highway. But just as he is relaxing into this particular journey, he’s blindsided by the sudden appearance of a girl beside him in his car. After the shock, he converses with her and realises she appears to be a ghost from the past, and certainly isn’t his last encounter of the journey. This reflective opener is extremely evocative – I was right there in the car with Jeremy from the first paragraph – and combines moments of dry humour along with the melancholy vibe to great effect.

“All The Day You’ll Have Good Luck” by Kate Jonez takes us to Oklahoma to meet a schoolgirl who – along with her mother and sisters – work together as thieves. But during a tried and tested pick-pocketing at a local carnival, a familiar face from a previous scam causes things to unravel. Told in the 1st person, our young narrator talks of family life, boys and normal worries, which seats us in her corner despite her unusual and unsavoury designation in life. Presenting a muscular voice, this tale is rich in place and full of dark surprises.

I loved the wonderfully titled “Razorshins” by John Connolly. The narrator tells the story of his grandfather, Tendell, a hard man who worked the illegal liquor trade in Prohibition-era Maine. After he is under suspicion of theft from his boss, an ice cold assassin is sent along on a snowy cross-country delivery to keep a sinister eye on the proceedings. They end up being forced to take refuge in a rural farmhouse to escape the freezing weather, and here begins talk of Razorshins: a bootlegger’s myth involving a terrible creature that lurks in the woods and has to be appeased with offerings of booze. The story initially keeps us guessing as to whether it is merely folklore or an actual supernatural threat, and the narrator’s voice rolls off the page. The characters are frighteningly realistic and as the story progresses, there’s a shift from crime thriller to horror. A riveting tale, it genuinely made me shiver at one point with an exquisite paragraph that could have been straight out of M.R. James: a rare occurrence for which I have to pay special respect to the author.

“A monster lived in Cocoa’s bathroom.”

Thus begins “The Devil’s Hands” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. Cocoa lives a Bohemian existence with a flatmate she dislikes, and this story finds her on her 24th birthday, going about her day and visiting her hippyish parents. She has unresolved relationship and life issues, and of course the possibility of a monster in her flat. Beautifully off-kilter, this gently-paced piece wanders effortlessly from warmth to chills and proves to be as engaging on a human level as the previous stories.

Things take a darker turn for “When the Devil’s Driving” by the excellent Ray Cluley. Lucy, a misanthropic teen, likes to spend time alone at a stagnant pond named the Devil’s Basin and is more than a little disgruntled when a younger girl turns up and starts trying to hang out with her. Although starting out harmlessly with the vibe of a disaffected kid, coming-of-age type story, it suddenly brings a brutal clout of pure darkness. It’s a mysterious and strangely malevolent piece with a powerful emotional resonance and another that bothers your conscience long after the event. This is exactly the kind of slow-burning unease that Lynda E. Rucker spoke of in her comment and the kind that Black Static‘s editor Andy Cox is so good at finding.

“Yesterday, I saw Jamie Goodwin burst into flame.”

Best opening line of the issue goes to “A Case Study in Natural Selection” by Eric J Guignard. I love a good speculative, semi-apocalyptic story and this is a fine example. Here, runaway global warming has escalated to the point where not only is water difficult to find but people are “fireballing”: a spectacular form of spontaneous human combustion. We follow a small and generally pleasant community in California through the eyes of Kenny, a regular lad with girls, friendships and the future on his mind. But as most people have migrated north looking for cooler, damper climates, his thoughts turn to survival. A haunting take on a collapsing world, it still manages to be a refreshing and somehow uplifting tale despite the inevitable violence. I loved the ending, which brings the curtain down on the fiction section of this issue with an appropriate flourish.

The “Case Notes” review section by Peter Tennant rounds up the fiction of contributor Ray Cluley, and follows this with a revealing author interview regarding his craft. There’s also thoughtful reviews of the Terror Tales series by Gray Friar Press and a stack of other interesting horror releases. Finally, “Blood Spectrum” by Tony Lee tackles a raft of DVD/Blu Ray releases with his crisp and honest style.

Overall, Black Static has the confident air of a publication that’s found its niche just outside the box, and I love it for that. I read this issue a few weeks ago and the abrasions the stories caused in my head have yet to heal. The sumptuous artwork and slick layout mean it’s always a treat: a magazine for which to put aside a couple of hours, run a bath, have a drink, or whatever’s your down-time garnish. So if you wish to trouble yourself with askew horrors and flawed humanity of all kinds, visit the website here.

Some magazines are polished. Black Static is brushed with steel.

Review – “The Harm” by Gary McMahon

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The decision to get comfortable with a big mug of tea and no impending commitments before beginning this novella turned out to be only half correct. I was right in suspecting “The Harm: A Polyptych” would be devoured in one sitting. I should, however, have had a mug of neat whisky for the chill that now curls around my insides.

The HarmGary’s latest novella from TTA press is a thought-provoking, gripping tale. The plot revolves around three young men – Tyler, Roarke and Potter – who were horrifically abused as young boys in a disused warehouse on the bank of a canal (a location beautifully rendered for the cover by Ben Baldwin).

It commences with a traditional, narrated introduction to the scenario – similar perhaps to one of Clive Barker’s more whimsical works – which is an unusual and pleasant surprise. But once the story begins, any such fond familarities are swiftly demolished.

We first meet Tyler, a moderately successful family man, on a dismal night out with his colleagues from work. The depiction of bland, urban life is tremendous – in which even a birthday visit to a nightclub is depressing – and it soon begins to curdle into something nasty. Strangers and family begin to treat Tyler with violence, unprovoked, and the scene is set for a classic McMahon spiral into his damaged past.

Next is Roarke, a violent criminal who rules his deprived neighbourhood with fear. His nightmare begins when he falls asleep half-drunk on a night bus, and finds himself in a silent and unfamiliar part of town.

Last of the trio is Potter, a very lonely man with sexual issues and an unhealthy affection for illegal execution videos. He discovers, just like his old friends, that the ghosts of his childhood experience will not relent. The Harm… almost a literal beast of despair in this book.

The terrors that befall our haunted protagonists seem disjointed and random at first, but by the claustrophobic conclusion, it has all fallen into place. This one of those rare treats that inspires reflection, both upon the themes and mechanics of the story itself, and also the world around us.

There’s a real sense of the ephemeral nature of life, and just how fragile it is. Gary uses this to bring humanity and frailty to the characters, whether they be sympathetic or odious. It hammers home the sickening power of abuse, and the insidious ways in which the legacy of damage spreads, while at the same time being a very tight and grimly entertaining horror tale.

I highly recommend this book. Gary’s prose is as rich as ever, evoking atmosphere in every detail, without drifting into excess. Along with the flowing snippets of dialogue, it brings colour to the bleakest of horror landscapes. There are a few surprises, but rather than being a story that relies on shocks, The Harm delivers ice-cold realisation.

Excellent.

Gary McMahon

TTA Press

Review – Black Static #10

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As ever, this excellent magazine from TTA press is the product of keen editorial eyes.

Static 10The selection of book/film reviews and genre articles are tight and informed. Amongst other things, Christopher Fowler talks about B-movies, Stephen Volk discusses Amicus films and the state of modern horror, and there’s a Q&A with Thomas Ligotti. Oh, and congratulations to Allyson Bird for a positive review of her brilliant collection “Bull Running For Girls”

The fiction selected for Black Static is always impressive. Christopher Fowler starts with a jazz-infused tale of voodoo set in post-katrina New Orleans. The traditional tropes of such a story are given such colour that they  intrude from the page in a blaze of seamless storytelling.

“The Chair” by Gary McMahon is a short, open-ended tale about a troubled young boy, his disturbed mother and missing father. It bears all the trademarks of the author’s work I have grown to love; a bleak atmosphere, pathos and prose to savour.

“Washer Woman” by Scott Lambridis is a vivid tale of war in which a miserable group of soldiers encounter a village peasant woman who appears to be some kind of assistant of death. The sense of place is impressive and ultimately rather depressing, but it rescued me from losing any sense of enjoyment by the traditional supernatural.

Maura McHugh’s “Vic” concerns a sickly young boy confined to his room and the nightmares that normalcy might conceal. The tragic humanity and immediate empathy makes the tale strong, something that most of Black Static’s stories achieve.

“Beacuse Your Blood Is Darker Than Mine” by James Cooper is a very dark ride, so vivid is the POV of a young girl we follow through a traumatic series of events populated by the chilling, almost carnivalesque members of her family.

The  last story, “Eastlick” by Shannon Page, finishes the fiction very nicely: an adolescent coming of age story with a sting in the tail.

The writing is slick and faultless throughout, and while the stories may be less concrete and conclusive than some tastes may prefer, they have sharp narrative voice, genuine feeling and a nightmarish quality that is seldom captured so well.

Recommended.