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Black Static, Issue 10, May 2009

Black Static Issue 10, May 2009
Black Static
Black Static is the new title for The Third Alternative, which was founded in 1994. With the arrival of Interzone in 2005, it was no longer necessary to publish science fiction and fantasy in The Third Alternative, so TTA Press took the opportunity to focus on its darker side and give the magazine a new title to emphasise the slight shift, and give potential readers a clearer idea of what the magazine was all about.

Black Static

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jonathan McCalmont

As with Interzone -- a magazine also published by TTA Press -- it is possible to buy Black Static purely "for the articles." By which I mean the non-fiction elements. The magazine features interesting and engaging columns from Christopher Fowler, Stephen Volk and Mike O'Driscoll as well as fascinating interviews with Ellen Datlow and Thomas Ligotti. However, the real stars are Tony Lee's enthusiastic DVD round-up and Contributing Editor Peter Tennant's magnificent book reviews. Between them, Lee and Tennant convey a genre that is positively bursting at the seams with energy and creativity. Having not read that many Horror novels, I felt that reading Tennant's column was a genuine education as he knowledgeably forged links between authors who are all too often overlooked by the many genre publications that litter the internet and magazine racks.

With non-fiction elements this good, the short fiction seems almost a bonus. Which is just as well as the selection in May 2009 issue is decidedly hit and miss.

The first story is Christopher Fowler's "Piano Man." It contains a standard of writing that is frankly shocking from an author with close to thirty published novels and collections to his name. "Piano Man" is a gruesome catalogue of bad creative decisions. For example, New Orleans is a city that cries out for bold and fresh writing. Writing that can eclipse a cliché-ridden public persona fermented by decades of lazy writers in search of a bit of cheap exoticism. Writing that can reflect the fact that, in the wake of Katrina, the city has become a kind of crucible for a government and White middle-class that allowed thousands of Black people to rot in poverty during one of the longest periods of economic growth in history. As you might expect from a 50-something white bloke from Greenwich, Fowler completely fails to engage with any of this.

His presentation of New Orleans, much like the other ideas that drive the story, are pure and unchallenged cliché without the smallest hint of originality or freshness. The story's prose is also deeply problematic. Good Horror should raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It should allow you to brush up against the uncanny and the Other. It should transport you. It should unnerve you. "Piano Man" achieves none of these things. Instead of being atmospheric or evocative Fowler's writing is awkward and littered with the kind of lead-footed exposition that destroys tension by boiling away all ambiguity and uncertainty and replacing it only with the familiar, the generic and the predictable.

Though a radically different kettle of fish to Fowler's offering, Gary McMahon's "The Chair" is, in its own way, no less formulaic. It is one of those stories that ignores characterisation and plot in favour of atmosphere. Atmosphere very carefully constructed through the use of thematically appropriate set-dressing, a refusal to explain anything and an unadorned and controlled prose style. Atmosphere thus created, it is then projected onto a mundane object in order to suggest that the story's painstakingly erected layers of existential blurring emanate directly from that object thereby creating a feeling of cognitive dissonance and mystery.

As far as these kinds of story go, "The Chair" is not half bad. McMahon effectively creates a sense of unhappiness and impending doom by layering alcoholism upon depression upon child abandonment upon dank winter shadows. At times these threaten to tip over into the comical when McMahon over-eggs the pudding with a clumsy simile ("the darkness that took its place was hard and flat as sheet metal," "it felt as though he were crapping a rainbow") or an overblown image of misery ("she usually stood for a few minutes at the bottom of his bed, weeping"). However, these few slips and a pervasive sense of déjà-vu aside, "The Chair" is a nicely written and atmospheric tale of death and depression that has enough striking imagery to keep you reading and engaged.

The issue continues to improve with Scott Lambridis' "Washer Woman." Most Horror stories are, in one way or another, portal stories. They are about travelling from one world to another. Or, as one critic once put it "travelling from town to the country." These voyages are usually motivated by a story within a story -- a legend, myth, rumour or fragment of forgotten lore that actually turns out to be terrifyingly true. Think of Lovecraft's strange statues and forgotten diaries, the urban legend of Candyman (1992) or the Biblical realism of The Exorcist (1973). Lambridis adapts this structure by resisting the urge to explain what is going on until the very end. This allows him to spend the first half of the story creating a world so full of despair and madness that it comes across as being cloaked in the same psychotic fog as that of Apocalypse Now (1979). The comparison is apt as the story revolves around a group of American soldiers awaiting reinforcements in some hideous but unnamed European war that sees the local villagers periodically trying to storm their bunker. The few remaining soldiers are at their wits end as the world keeps getting stranger and stranger. Technically, Lambridis' prose is elegant and he uses it to construct some beautifully creepy images in a story that is simply flawless in its pacing. However, the most pleasing element of the story is also its most problematic area as Lambridis' dialogue is wildly uneven. The story begins with a string of expletives delivered by someone speaking in one of the most embarrassing approximations of Ebonics I have seen outside of the career of Sacha Baron Cohen. It is genuinely cringe-worthy. But then Lambridis comes out with a beautifully memorable line :

"Hey Pliny, why don't you just shut your trap and quite (sic) cussing?" says Biggs. "You gonna scare Jesus away. Out here, the Lord's bags is already packed and ready. He don't need no excuses."
I think you could probably count on one hand the genre authors capable of producing dialogue to that standard. If Lambridis can stick to that high standard then he should produce great things in the future.

In contrast, Maura McHugh's "Vic" is a much more subtle affair that relies on suggestive ideas and discordant human emotion for its effect. The story is about Vic, a lonely little boy who spends his life in the old converted workspace that his parents put aside for him as a bedroom. He never goes outside but he has grand ideas of what is out there. Ideas about a boy who plays basketball and a girl who loves butterflies. His parents treat him as though he is a fragile object and, in many ways, he is as he is covered in scars and prone to suddenly bleeding for no apparent reason. the story essentially straddles two different interpretations -- the first is that Vic is the unwanted child of abusive parents. They stick him in an old workspace to sleep, they never let him out, he is covered in injuries and when things go wrong his parents talk about being able to "begin over." However, a more fantastical take on the story is that it is a take on the story of Pinocchio in that Vic is a child who has been created by his parents. They do not let him out for fear of being caught, he is covered in injuries that are prone to opening because he has been crudely stitched together and the talk of "beginning over" is to be taken quite literally, his parents could just try to build a new child. What is common to both interpretations is the sense of the child being an object who serves the needs of the parents but whose best interests or desires are completely unimportant. The story is nicely written with its themes and ideas offered up by means of suggestion rather than description while the story is filled with a very YA-friendly feeling of sentimentality and childish optimism about the outside world. Of course, in the context of the story, the hope is largely empty. Thereby making it that much sweeter.

James Cooper's "Because Your Blood is Darker Than Mine" is also reliant upon the perspective of a young character. In this case, Lilly, a young girl who lives in a house with her creepy brother Michael, her disinterested mother, her interloping lover 'Uncle' Pete and Grandma, a skilled seamstress who sewed herself an artificial husband when the old one gave out on her. The use of a child as protagonist is noteworthy as it is quite a common choice in certain kinds of story. Child protagonists sometimes acquire a reputation for being, at the very least, YA-friendly but I think the choice is more significant than that. Using a child as a protagonist is also a way to preserve the innocence of the perspective an author offers onto their own world. A child's world is more morally and psychologically simplistic and much of the world is new and difficult to fathom. Therefore, by writing about the world through the eyes of a child, an author can make more of the ambiguities in their stories and accentuate any strangeness the child might encounter.

We can see Cooper using this technique in his descriptions of Lilly's family; Quirks such as Michael's fondness for collecting animals and putting them in polythene bags or the tendency of Lilly's mother to disappear, off with her boyfriend might seem quite banal if seen through the eyes of an adult, but through Lilly's eyes, Cooper can make these events seem quite fantastical in their sinister quirkiness. The problem is that, while Cooper undeniably has some neat ideas, he never really does anything with them. Instead of tying all of these little ideas together in order to build to some kind of conclusion or sketch out some kind of thematic point, Cooper leaves his ideas isolated and adrift from each other until the story reaches an ending lacking in affect, tone, symbolism or impact. "Because Your Blood is Darker Than Mine" is the longest story in the magazine but because it fails to make good use of the ideas it contains, it feels disproportionately baggy and lacking in content.

Aside from being the third story in a row to have a child as a protagonist, Shannon Page's "East Lick" treads similar ground to Pat Cadigan's "Truth and Bone" from Ellen Datlow's recent anthology Poe (2009). It is a coming-of-age story where the birth pangs of womanhood (periods, boys, parents) are projected against a more fantastical narrative of someone coming into a set of supernatural powers. To her credit, Page tries to downplay these aspects of the story despite the pun-based title. She has a cooky neighbour talk about being able to braid one's hair if one really wants it and there's some stuff with a Ouija board and seeing someone's death but unfortunately, when the real powers manifest themselves (in an admittedly low key fashion), they do not come as much of a surprise. This means that the meat of the story lies in its more mundane elements.

While Page's short bio suggests that she might well have mined her own childhood for some of the details of this story, Laura is ultimately too generic a creation to be truly memorable or interesting to read about. The lack of individuation to Page's characterisation is not improved by the story's competent but unremarkable prose and dialogue. "East Lick" only really comes to life towards the end when something genuinely and viscerally unpleasant takes place. Page seems to relish the details of this event and tries to then tie it back to the details of Laura's life but this suggestion is never explored fully resulting in a piecemeal story that never comes together as anything particularly special.

Copyright © 2009 Jonathan McCalmont

Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic and cynic who produces criticism and commentary for a number of different venues including his blog Ruthless Culture.  He is also the editor of Fruitless Recursion, an online journal devoted to discussing works of genre criticism.  He lives in the United Kingdom so that you don't have to.

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