This review originally appeared in Black Static #28:-
MAGAZINE SPOTLIGHT: MORPHEUS TALES #16
We open the first of what’s hoped will be a semi-regular feature, with a review of the latest issue of ‘one of the UK’s hottest genre magazines’ (at least that’s what they say on their Facebook page). Begun in 2008 by editor Adam Bradley and his team, MORPHEUS TALES (40pp, £3.50 or £12/4 issue subscription inc. UK p&p) has been going strong ever since, and now completes its fourth year of quarterly publication.
#16 has an eclectic mix of fiction, most of the stories short, but plenty of them, and all grounded in the Horror genre. Opening proceedings is Deborah Walker’s ‘The Depredators’ Club’, with its hints of a world most of us will know nothing of and secret societies at work behind the scenes of the everyday. Molly’s return to this organisation of thieves brings with it a commission to steal a valuable relic, but of course not everything is quite as it seems. I enjoyed this in a pass the time sort of way, the writing competent throughout with the horrific ending particularly well realised, setting a chill vision inside the mind of the reader, though I felt that it could have benefited somewhat from expansion, with both the Club itself and the back history of the relic offering more scope than the story’s length allowed.
Paul Johnson-Jovanovic and James Brooks tell their story through means of ‘The Receipts’. It’s a novel conceit, and I would have enthused a lot more about the story if I hadn’t already seen the idea used, and far more effectively, in Antony Mann’s 1998 tale ‘Shopping’. Unlike Mann these authors do not allow the receipts to stand on their own and carry the tale, adding expository sections. My guess is that anyone who hasn’t read the Mann story will love this – just my bad luck not to be in that demographic.
There’s an old style horror feel to ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ by Anthony Baynton, echoes in the first person narrative of the voice of the protagonist of Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Our viewpoint character wanders through a vividly realised landscape of dream and nightmare, each part of his journey seasonally themed like some surreal tribute to Vivaldi, the visions offered up growing ever more terrible. What lets the story down slightly is the lack of a strong ending; instead we are given ambiguity and hints of the ‘it was all a dream’ style of denouement, a case of it being better to travel than arrive.
‘Crepuscular Beast’ by Sharon Baillie is pretty much the sort of story that gives care in the community a bad name and palpitations to indignant of Tunbridge Wells types, a tale of demon hunting and madness. It’s okay, but almost certainly something most readers will have seen done before and better. We live in an age when madness has become mundane, and fact challenges writers to be ever more inventive in their fictions.
Nothing mundane about Matt Leyshon’s offbeat ‘The Function Room’, a tale of the observed and the observer, slightly reminiscent of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly but with something extremely nasty and with tentacles lurking in the interstitial zones of the plot. There are a couple of places where we have confusion over whether the story is past or present tense, but no real distraction from the agreeably detached tone of omniscience in which the story is told, with each ringing of the changes minutely detailed and an ending that, even though I suspected it was what would happen, was aesthetically satisfying.
‘When The Letter Came’ by Matthew Acheson initially intrigues with its tale of code breaking and back story of paternal abuse, but after grabbing the attention in this way it fizzles out with an all too familiar ‘and then I went mad’ scenario. More interesting is another tale of a father abusing his son, ‘The Birds of Averrone’ by Kyle Hemmings. Again madness is involved, but it’s a species of insanity that’s more interesting for the reader, with an idée fixe of sorts concretised in the real world, the story working in part owing to the element of ambiguity but more importantly because of the hints of fairy tale in the story’s backdrop, the fabulous birds of the title that are avatars of fate, bringing a much deserved comeuppance down on the malefactor’s head.
‘Morning Jog’ by James Gabriel makes a trilogy of stories touching on aberrant mental states, and again it’s another familiar plot type, the one where the character is struggling to wake up from his terrible nightmare only to discover that reality is every bit as shitty as his internal landscape and that the red stuff sprayed everywhere isn’t ketchup. What saves it is the lively execution, with snappy dialogue and lurid imagery that keep the reader off balance. I particularly liked the description of an imp feeding on the character’s brain matter, but that’s just me.
Gary Budgen’s ‘Lilies’ is the highlight of the issue, set in a world where zombies (referred to as the damned) appear to be in the ascendant with the still living stuck in isolated enclaves, desperately trying to make radio contact with each other. And if that description makes you think of something apocalyptic and energetically survivalist, then wrong, wrong and wrong again. Budgen is too canny to take the road well-travelled, and doesn’t even use the Z word. Instead think of 1984 with John Smith down the laundrette and falling in love with one of the dead, their doomed affair playing out against a backdrop of inevitable social collapse, fucking while Rome burns. It’s a strange and offbeat piece, beautifully paced and written, with obsession and jealousy playing out on the stage, and in the image of the lilies hints of a subtext on the theme of how we doom ourselves.
Finally ‘Flip of the Switch’ by Philip Roberts offers another variation on a familiar theme, that of the curse carried on to another, but the story is well written with some characters I could relate to and the variation Roberts zeroes in on has enough of originality about it to carry the plot, intriguing by virtue of its arch weirdness and the inferences that can be made as to where it all came from.
The magazine also pays attention to the artistic side of things, with a strong visual identity. There’s a great full colour cover from the excellent Ben Baldwin, while several of the stories are accompanied by full page black and white illustrations, with styles as varied as the written content. My favourites were Steve Upham’s aptly sinister vision for ‘The Depredators’ Club’ and Mark Crittenden’s fluid evocation of ‘The Function Room’.
Morpheus Tales is available from morpheustales.com where you can check out some free samples and also view their free non-fiction supplement, which contains a wealth of reviews, interviews etc. It’s all good stuff.