Filler content with yet more novellas

Reviews of four more novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #38:-

MISCELLANEOUS NOVELLAS (continued from Tuesday’s post)

William Meikle’s latest novella from DarkFuse, BROKEN SIGIL (DarkFuse eBook, 55pp, $1.99) is the story of Joe Connors, a policeman working Internal Affairs, who has to investigate the shooting of another officer, only in this case the victim, Johnny Provan, was formerly Connors’ partner and best friend, until he began an affair with Connors’ wife. The shooting seems straightforward enough, but what intrigues Connors is the sigil carved into Provan’s flesh and the mystery of why he moved into the apartment block outside which the shooting took place. Joe finds a building where the walls between the worlds are thin and which provides solace for broken people. His own room is waiting.

Meikle has been producing some of his best work under the aegis of DarkFuse, and this novella is no exception. At the heart of the story is a singularly striking variation on the haunted house theme, presenting the idea of a form of magic that enables us, through certain objects, to connect with those who have died, to interact with them and find solace of a kind through doing so. For Connors the person he wishes to contact, like Provan before him, is his wife Brenda, tragically killed in a car accident while leaving him for the other man. But Joe is not the type of man to be satisfied with things seen through a glass darkly. He’s a loose cannon, one who shows no respect for the rules of the place and through his actions he threatens to bring it all crashing down around their ears.

If Meikle’s idea of a haunted house is the blue sky concept in this story, what makes it so real and affecting is his depiction of broken and embittered Joe Connors, a man who, while outwardly holding it all together, is operating only on instinct much of the time. His obsession with his dead wife, a woman he lost long before the accident that put an end to her mortality, informs and drives the whole narrative, with sadness and desperation oozing off of the page. And, in a witty twist, Meikle winds into the story the film of The Maltese Falcon, with events on the screen mirroring what happens in the real world, dead Brenda peering out at Joe while she recites the words of Mary Astor rather than her own, Joe’s relationship with Provan reflected in that of Spade and Archer. It is a bravura performance, one that ends on a note as bittersweet as it is appropriate.

Toby Tate’s THE BLACK CHURCH (DarkFuse eBook, 76pp, $2.99) opens with the fiery death of Daniel Ivanov’s father, leaving unanswered the riddle of why he was trying to destroy a valuable family heirloom, a prayer rug from the family’s East European homeland. Now the owner of the rug, Daniel sees faces in the design – his girlfriend, his business partner – and soon after those people die. At the same time he has vivid dreams of the building of a Black Church many centuries ago and the murder of a child. From an elderly émigré he gets the back story, and realises what he has got himself into.

There’s not a lot to be usefully said about this. It’s pretty much your bog standard cursed object story template, well written and deftly melding past and present, dream and reality. The characters are credible, the deaths suitably horrific, Daniel’s concern for the fate of his loved ones easy to empathise with, and the back story wouldn’t seem out of place as an episode of Hammer House of Horror, but all the same it feels very much like something written and plotted by the numbers, bringing nothing to the table that we won’t have seen before. I enjoyed it and it entertained me for the hour or so I took to read it, but all the same I doubt if I’ll remember anything much about The Black Church in a couple of months’ time, it will just fade into the background noise of genre.

Mary SanGiovanni’s THE FADING PLACE (DarkFuse eBook, 39pp, $1.99) has a back to basics feel about it. Charlene Van Houten has just strapped baby Haley into the car seat when a woman steps out with a gun. Charlie has the length of a car journey to figure out a way to save herself and her baby from the deranged Simone. And that’s pretty much it, as far as plot goes.

This reminded me very much of McCammon’s novel Mine, especially in the chilling picture that emerges of Simone, her history of madness and abuse, the desperate need for a child and to prove herself by caring for it, even though it becomes obvious that she is totally unsuited to be a mother. Despite this, the reader can’t help but feel some sympathy, even while agreeing with Charlie’s decision to kill the woman at the first opportunity. Charlie is the antithesis of Simone, a sane woman embracing violence to achieve her ends, willing to do whatever it takes to protect her child. The cat and mouse game that plays out between the two of them, each trying to get beneath the other’s skin, makes for a riveting read, even as you feel that the story is somewhat slight.

Last up, NIGHTMARE MAN (DarkFuse limited hc/eBook, 67pp, $30/$2.99) by Alan Ryker. Jessie suffers from night terrors, so bad that he has to sleep in a separate room and on occasion has hurt both himself and wife Shannon by lashing out. Central to these events is the figure of the Nightmare Man, a character he created for a comic book when a child. Contributing to the problem is the tension between his thwarted artistic ambitions and the day job, which involves calling people up on behalf of a debt collecting agency. His troubles come to a head when Jessie joins an experimental programme, and new drugs cause his dreams to externalise, the Nightmare Man threatening his children.

This is a well written and engaging story in which a lot of ground is covered effortlessly, from experimental drugs and sleep therapy, through to the drudgery of a demanding occupation, one that takes an emotional toll of the employee, set against the artistic talent that Jessie feels he has betrayed. Ryker deals with all this with aplomb, making his characters completely believable and adding moments of gritty description that bring a smile to the face. At heart what we are dealing with here is the idea that dreams thwarted can sour our lives, leaving us trapped in domesticity and resentful of those we hold to blame for that situation. It’s a scenario that will possibly resonate with many ‘under achievers’, and for Jessie the solution to banishing the Nightmare Man, a monster of the Id, lies in finding a way to reconcile his higher aspirations with the more mundane demands of earning a living in the real world. He does so in a way that will warm the heart.

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