Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #42:-
FRIENDS & FAMILY
My biggest problem in putting together the Case Notes section of this magazine is deciding which books get reviewed and when. One rule of thumb I have is that writers whose work has appeared in the magazine will have their books reviewed, on the grounds that our readers will be interested in other stuff they’ve produced. Hence this issue’s overarching theme, in which I’m going to concentrate on the work of those we regard as friends and family.
Tony Richards has had three stories published in Black Static, last appearing in #7 with ‘Pages From a Broken Book’, and I interviewed him in #9. His latest collection is THE UNIVERSAL AND OTHER TERRORS (Dark Renaissance Books paperback, 232pp, $17.95), which contains eleven short stories and one novella, each work complemented by an evocative black and white illustration by artist M. Wayne Miller.
Title story ‘The Universal’ is one of several set in the fictional seaside town of Birchiam, with a newcomer to the town stumbling across the ruins of a Ministry of Defence installation where something went terribly awry, but what he learns of how reality is seriously out of whack and the infection may be spreading is even more alarming, in a quiet and beautifully paced tale that offers some genuinely disturbing visions of the macabre, with echoes of Lovecraft and, perhaps more appositely, King’s The Mist. ‘Aegea’ has a tourist who is visiting the Greek islands discover a beach where the sunbathers all look to be cast from the same mould, and his attraction to one of them leads him into peril in a story that offers a variation on the selkie or mermaid template, and which again is tellingly paced and adds on details until reader and character alike are overwhelmed by the outré, contrasting strongly the sunlit and idyllic setting with the pure horror of what is happening.
‘Beneath the Shroud’ is pleasingly ambiguous, as a driver gets lost in fog that manifests an anthropomorphic quality and with a neat twist as he reaches his journey’s end, in that we don’t know if the spirits that he interacts with are well-meaning or malevolent, the story a gentle piece, but strong in atmosphere and poignancy. At first brush it seems that fairies are ‘The Visitors in Marvell Wood’, but the children who see them are inexplicably changed, and when an adult attempts to intervene he suffers a similar fate, though with hints of a transmogrification into some other, superior, type of being, the story building well and with an agreeable protagonist, while deftly tapping into our fears of our own young, before delivering that unsettling end note. A young boy receives strange hints that something terrible has happened to his vain mother when she fails to respect the tradition of ‘Covered Mirrors’ in a Jewish household where a death has occurred, the story simply told and devastatingly subtle, with Richards making it even more powerful through the understated resolution.
The unprepossessing ‘Mr. Smyth’ has no trouble persuading beautiful young women to spend the night with him, but shortly after they all die of natural causes; a police officer who investigates learns the awful truth behind what is happening in this beautifully constructed tale where we can actually feel a sliver of sympathy for the bad guy even while appalled by what he does, and with a chilling last line, the story even more unsettling in that there appears to be no way for the policeman to stop what is happening. ‘The Crows’ turn out to be omens of disaster in another story where the simplicity of the idea is counterpointed by the subtlety of its delivery, with an ending that only hints at what is to occur next. A young Abraham Van Helsing is the protagonist of ‘By A Dark Canal’, which records his first encounter with a vampire and how his failure to believe in this supernatural creature brought about a tragedy, Richards getting the period details just right and bang on target with his depiction of the slightly arrogant and disdainful Van Helsing, who is taught a well needed lesson in humility.
We return to Birchiam for ‘The In-Betweeners’, which reads like an alternative version of ‘The Visitors in Marvell Wood’, with teenagers in lieu of children and alien insectoids for fairies, the tale told from the viewpoint of a man who discovers what is happening in the town, much to his cost, though again Richards doesn’t take the obvious route, offering up the possibility that the aliens may just be harmless observers even as their actions and sheer lack of humanity unnerve. Written for anti-fascist anthology Never Again, the story ‘Sense’ is told from the perspective of a Jew who supports a nationalist movement after he is attacked, only to find that the cure is far worse than the disease, the narrative a deft illustration of Niemöller’s “then they came for me” dictum and perhaps a tad obvious in the execution, but no less effective for that. Set in an Africa of the near future where wild animals are all but extinct, ‘The Very Edge of New Harare’ begins with a policeman investigating an apparent murder and ends with the discovery of something marvellous, but good as the setting is and the police procedural elements, the real thrust of the narrative is in the character of the protagonist, the decisions that are forced on him by breeding and circumstance, the question of how he will react when confronted by an apparent miracle. Think Children of Men as retold by Alexander McCall Smith.
Rounding out the book is the novella ‘A Town Called Youngesville’, a Stepford Wives variation in which a couple move to a new community and find that its inhabitants are very straitlaced and judgemental, while the resident scientific genius is dabbling in black magic and has a plan to ensure that WASP values prevail. I’m not quite sure I believe the scientific backdrop, all of which sounded rather fanciful, but when all is said and done it is only the underpinning for some fascinating discussions on the nature of our society, what is happening and what we can or should do about it, with opposed social values in direct confrontation, and it sets us up for a heartrending final twist, one in which human relationships are side-lined in the quest for some ersatz utopia where everyone thinks and feels the same. I liked it very much and it perfectly rounded out an excellent collection, one that gives the reader plenty to think about and is never less than entertaining. Richards knows how to tell a story.
Daniel Mills’ work has appeared in Black Static twice, and one of those stories – ‘The Wayside Voices’ from #30 – made the cut for his first collection, THE LORD CAME AT TWILIGHT (Dark Renaissance Books paperback, 228pp, $18.95), which comes complete with an introduction by Simon Strantzas and, again, black and white illustrations for each story by the talented M. Wayne Miller. None of the tales are set in the present day, Mills preferring to use the past, and in particular that of Puritan New England, as his setting, but filtered through his imagination it becomes a liminal place, one where the border between our world and other realms is perilously thin.
We get right into things with ‘The Hollow’, the tale of a young boy who, abandoned by his family, turns feral and lives in the woods, his situation revolving round a secret place that seems symbolic of death, the story touching on themes of loss and the inevitability of death despite all our stratagems to outwit it, conveying a sense of sadness and existential futility. ‘MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room’ takes as its inspiration Chambers’ fabled The King in Yellow and its attendant mythos, but then renders the myth in terms of crime lords and prostitutes, the whole informed with a shiver of unreality. The framing device is the classic ploy of the man writing of his last days while awaiting the doom that is surely winding its way to his door even as he adds one more word to the white sheet in front of him, and with an extra, delicious twist in that the narrator appears to be the father of… But I’ll say no more, as that would give the game away and spoil the fun of discovery for the reader. Considered overall this story was a marvellous feat of invention, thoroughly modern in tone and yet true to the spirit of its source material.
‘Dust from a Dark Flower’ is pitched as the confession of a man awaiting execution for murder, and in it he tells us of an alien infestation that looked set to destroy the community that he served as doctor, feasting on the souls of men and despoiling the graves of the dead, the story fraught with menace and echoing Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’. A camera that casts a different light on what is seen through its eyepiece is the McGuffin in ‘The Photographer’s Tale’, a curse that casts a heavy pall over the life of the man it is gifted to as he struggles to cope with such hellish knowledge, and underlying this the question of how much of reality the human mind can cope with.
Told in the novel form of a series of inscriptions on gravestones in the cemetery at ‘Whistler’s Gore’, and ending with text from a sermon given by the local reverend before the series of deaths began, the next story in the book reminded me of nothing so much as the BBC adaptation of Wisconsin Death Trip, written here in miniature but with the same mood of despair unfolding on the page. The real story takes place in the gaps between the various epitaphs, with the reader left to puzzle out the meaning, to conjecture whether what happens is simply a series of tragic accidents or something far more sinister. ‘The Wayside Voices’ consists of a series of vignettes, each told from a different perspective, recounting the story of an innkeeper who murders his guests to save their souls, the story evocative and grim, with the child who finally survives and outwits the killer as unsettling in her way as the man himself.
Deprived of the woman he loves by a father who is supposed to be dead, ‘John Blake’ immolates himself on a pyre, the story bittersweet and casting a pall over the most cherished ideas of family values, with a wife and son betrayed, and the monstrous Edward embracing satanic ideals and being rewarded in a way that put me in mind of Sade’s two sisters, Justine and Juliette. Various fables are interwoven with the life of a lonely academic who tries to connect with a woman in ‘The Falling Dark’, but completely misreads the situation, his whole world falling apart and in a way that turns him into the kind of figure he reads about, the story clever and subtle in execution.
‘Louisa’ begins as a variation on Cinderella, but when the equivalent of the bereft prince finds his way to a medium who resembles his beloved he is not prepared for the terrible revelations that follow. One of my favourites, this is a story that keeps the reader off balance, shifting from a tale of unrequited love to one of spectral vengeance, with a plot that grips and riveting scenes from a séance. I loved it. A cursed mirror is the subject of ‘The Tempest Glass’, with the subtitle ‘How Love Deserted the Reverend Danforth’, the aforesaid Danforth experiencing a vision that causes him to abandon his fiancée and his ministry, the story all the more effective for the way in which all we receive are hints of what has been seen, the author leaving us to imagine the horror of it from the description of the effect on others.
Set at the time of the American Civil War, the ‘House of the Caryatids’ is discovered by some Union troops, but their reaction to a slave girl hiding in the house is the catalyst for disaster, with strangeness neatly woven into the text of the story and the sense of a doom that will pursue its target to the very grave, and possibly beyond. There’s a similar subtlety to ‘Whisperers’, whose protagonist is Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter, here told by another of how his wife has been replaced by an alien entity, this leading to an awareness of the wrongness of his own situation, the story marvellously understated and offering only hints as to what action the two men will take to resolve their respective dilemmas. In ‘The Naked Goddess’ a man finds an isolated village where all the people have been blinded in an end of days ceremony staged by a con man, but there is method in their madness and the protagonist must run for his life in this splendid, atmospheric story, with its vivid sense of place and compelling narrative that grabs the reader from the very first and simply won’t let go.
Finally we have the title story ‘The Lord Came at Twilight’ in which a mad nobleman builds a great amphitheatre and stages games that are attended by all except those at the local monastery, the story culminating with a music contest and a revelation about the identity of the lord, the whole working through a kind of curse. Again, as with so many of these stories, it is a wonderfully evocative piece, rich in detail and with a feeling of arch weirdness, so that we are unsettled even though we are not quite clear what has actually happened, and perhaps for that very reason. It provides a fitting end to a powerful collection that heralds the arrival of a major new talent in the field of weird fiction, and I expect Mills to go on to greater things. I haven’t as yet interviewed him for the magazine, but something tells me it’s only a matter of time.
I interviewed Tim Lees in #22 and he’s one of our most regular contributors, having appeared in Black Static a total of five times, and he’s equally at home in our sister magazine Interzone with another five credits. As that last might suggest, Lees is a writer whose work blurs the boundaries between science fiction and horror, and as far as his latest collection goes, more of the stories fit into the former genre niche than the latter, and in fact Team Interzone have already beaten me to the punch with a review in #251.
NEWS FROM UNKNOWN COUNTRIES (Amazon Media, 240pp, £3.21) is only available in electronic format and appears to be self-published, but don’t let that last put you off as this writer’s pedigree is impeccable. Thirteen of the fourteen stories it contains have been previously published, with three apiece from Black Static, Interzone and Postscripts, plus a couple from The Third Alternative.
In opening story ‘Gumps’ a group of scientists cross through a space-time gateway to another dimension where they stand in front of what is professed to be the citadel of God, but the landscape is infested with alien creatures they refer to as gumps, and these have their own agenda. This is a strange story, one in which the narrative is driven by unproven assumptions, but in accepting these we come to a form of satori, as does the protagonist, who finds himself once again imbued with faith when the burden of defending God falls to him in this elusive and oddly compelling piece. A young nephew is the witness to the events in ‘Meeting Mr Tony’, in which a rogue inventor develops an ingenious means to keep his wife happy, but as so often events go seriously awry and human nature isn’t so easily circumvented. Wry and amusing with its delineation of marital dynamics, or rather the unique interpretation that they are given here, the story reads rather like a British situation comedy with added weird stuff, as if Roald Dahl had scripted an episode of George and Mildred.
The landscape is distorted in ‘Homeground’ when an alien craft takes up residence at the bottom of the garden, and in the resulting story village politics and the desire to make a quick buck come to the fore, with science and idealism falling by the wayside in a piece that again reads like a Britcom, albeit with a somewhat different tone to the preceding story (this time around imagine the Galton and Simpson version of the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic). ‘Visuals’ is the only previously unpublished story, and also the only one in which there doesn’t appear to be a fantastic element. A former hard man of the criminal underworld now turned media darling is economical with the truth about his own chequered past, and at the story’s heart is our discovery of this man’s Achilles’ heel, the way in which he becomes vulnerable through a very human emotion, while at the same time the story lampoons our fascination with a culture of celebrity in which even a murderer can join the A List and make a living out of exploiting his past.
There’s an element of Burroughs pastiche to ‘Two Moon City’ as a man recounts his adventures in Martian society, the tale of a royal romance revealing the difference between human and Martian philosophy, the elegiac tone and sheer invention of the piece carrying it through to a successful conclusion and never less than entertaining with the wonders thrown out onto the page. ‘Cuckoos’ meanders initially, with a bar meeting between a disgruntled academic and a former Canadian social worker, and the story she tells him hints at the existence of a parasite that feeds on human effort, leading to his own moment of epiphany and realisation that all the things wrong with our world, the economic collapse and all the fallout from that, could be down to the effect of this very same parasite. It’s a thoroughly engaging tale, the early rambling tone setting the reader up for what happens at the end, and the very vagueness of the piece making it somehow more credible, a revelation of a kind of vampire at work in the world, or rather the demonic element a metaphor for how certain people act.
‘Relics’ is set on a world littered with the debris of alien craft, which the locals pillage for technology, and is told from the viewpoint of a man seeking a fabled wreck, but it’s background to a story of romance, and the narrator uses the aliens as an excuse to avoid the traps and lures of love, the two elements blending seamlessly to show the gambits we use to dodge commitment, the fear and weakness that drive us to do so. Nostalgia is at the heart of ‘How the Sixties Ended’ with a young man coming to terms with the impending death from cancer of a friend, memories of happier days overlapping with the growing feeling of hopelessness waiting for someone to die engenders, so that what we get is almost a rite of passage, a picture of a time of innocence when such things as death seem so far away we can’t even believe that they exist, are just another lie we make up and tell ourselves to make life more interesting.
There’s an Orwellian feel to ‘Love and War’ where the incursions of Earth X result in a totalitarian state ruled by the Party, but when the threat is past will they relinquish power, the story told from the viewpoint of a woman who becomes the mistress of a high ranking Party member, her own way to survive in a crisis. Harrowing in places, deftly merging politics and science, human drama and alien invasion, with many subtle nuances, this is a story that illustrates the opinion that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, at least for those at the bottom of the ladder. An academic dreams of ‘The Plain’, leading to the suspicion that others at the university are not entirely human, that they are being replaced or transformed into something else, the story in some ways reminiscent of Bradbury classic ‘The Veldt’ and playing with the old theme of one man who knows the truth even if others contend that he is insane. It has a delicious end note, one that was appropriate simply because so out of left field.
In a New York in which aliens are residents, a young man is beguiled by a strange friend of the family in ‘The Corner of the Circle’, the story rich in ideas and keenly felt emotion, so that at the end we don’t know if Imogen was pregnant by an alien or simply reimagining the cancer that killed her in the hope of undermining and altering the reality of her dreadful situation, of finding some form of inner peace. The next story shares the NY setting, but replaces the mood of sadness with a gleeful sense of fun, so that you can imagine writers like Sheckley and Tenn as the presiding spirits of ‘Crosstown Traffic’. In a setting that put me very much in mind of Men in Black a courier transports precious cargo across the city pursued by aliens who want some of what he’s having, or something like that. The story doesn’t slow its pace for a minute and dazzles with the wealth of invention it contains, with Lees showing his audacity in the final reveal.
‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ chronicles the relationship between an astronaut who spends large periods of time on other worlds and his sister who lives in a monastery, the two aging at different rates, with the unspoken sense that something else, something esoteric and buried in the family’s past, has shaped the unusual courses which their lives have taken. And finally there is ‘From the House Committee’, which takes a sheet out of the Howard Waldrop playbook to give us an alternate America in which special agent Bobby Kennedy deals with all sorts of outré threats, including giant ants and zombies, and has an encounter with a creature that might once have been God, the story a crazy and delightful convergence of politics and monster movies, a joy to read for the sheer exuberance of it all.
There’s not a dud here, and whether your bag is horror or science fiction, you’re probably going to enjoy these stories a lot.
(TO BE CONTINUED)