I’m back to reading and writing about stories that have appeared in Black Static, and we’ll pick up where we left off, with stories published as part of the Campaign for Real Fear initiative. The first two stories discussed here appeared in #17 and the second two in #18.
The Flinchfield Dance by Mary Elizabeth Burroughs
The Flinchfield of the title is a community being terrorised by a killer who preys on young children, with his depradations described in the most gruesome terms – intestines are left coiled round a sign post, ears are turned into hanging ornaments. With echoes of Red Riding Hood, twelve year old Mattie Moore is given a red coat by her father, ‘so that in case she were slaughtered’ her body will be easily found. Other members of the community gift Mattie various protective devices -a nail file, box cutters, dog tags – and unsolicited advice on what to do should you bump into a serial killer. Underlying all this is a subtext about how we prime our children to expect the worst, the way in which they are stripped of their innocence and left in world of nightmares, one which has just as much to do with our own fears as the reality of any threat. Primed to anticipate the worst by bad horror stories and the media’s appetite for sensationalism, the adults here are not raising children, but training soldiers for a war.
Sanctuary by Katherine Hughes
Presented in the form of brief, daily entries, this story chronicles the disintegration of a five person family unit who have imprisoned themselves inside a bunker to shelter from some unspecified disaster (at least this is the assumption – we’re never actually told, and it could just as easily be some extreme version of the Big Brother TV series). By Day 5 the family’s young son is bored, and it just gets worse, the deteriorating situation underlining the truth behind that old maxim that hell is other people. In a deft touch, one of the family’s daughters is named Cassandra, and she’s the one who prophesies doom, ‘but nobody listens’, while an extra frisson comes courtesy of the way in which nothing is spelled out, we are left to draw our own conclusions about the way in which accidents occur and why Cassandra’s brother is a dead weight when she dances with him, and how key phrases recur with minimal change of words (e.g. ‘blood’ for ‘paint’).
See You Later by M. M. De Voe
This story reminded me of Bradbury’s “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar” crossed with Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergerac” (I think that’s what the story is called). All the neighbourhood kids are playing an online game from which their parents are excluded – ‘”You wouldn’t like it, Mom,” he said. “It’s best you don’t know.”‘ The game is supposed to be a ‘cure for dyslexia’ but it involves cutting out the eyes of animated pandas and one mother finds disturbing evidence that aspects of the game are spilling over into the real world. Fear for our children is at the heart of the story, the idea that they are becoming alien to us and the suspicion that, much as we want to and hard as we try, we can’t protect them from everything, that access to the internet and other technology has entirely changed the ball game when it comes to adult/child interaction, allowing into their lives unfiltered ideas and influences that are not necessarily beneficial.
The Exchange by Eileen Chao
This is a tale of desperate people willing to do anything to survive, set in a world of famine where a widow is willing to give up her baby in exchange for food for herself and her invalid father. At first the reader believes that it’s simply a case of the child going to a good home, to a childless couple, the familiar tale of the wealthy exploiting the poor, but the final line of the story pulls the rug out from under the feet of this theory, delivering up what is probably the most shocking ending to any of these Campaign stories. We want to hate the widow but we can’t, because as resources dwindle and climate change begins to bite, there may be hard choices waiting somewhere down the line for all of us.