Four reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #49:-
While output may have reduced somewhat from a year or so back when they were releasing new titles at the rate of three or four a month, American publisher DarkFuse continue to produce high quality works of fiction at a steady rate.
Let’s take a look at four of them.
BLACKOUT (DarkFuse eBook, 95pp, $3.49) by Tim Curran begins with the disappearance of Jon’s wife in the middle of the night, and then the lights go out all over town as a storm rages. After that the factory ships come and tentacles reach down from out of the night sky to seize people off the streets and prise them loose from the houses they think of as places of safety. For Jon and his neighbours it becomes a desperate battle to survive.
Basically this is King’s The Mist revisited, with darkness in lieu of mist and an even more minatory and bleak ending, despite a brief high five moment reminiscent of a similar scene in the Cruise/Spielberg War of the Worlds. The characters are well drawn and convincing, not least in the tensions that crop up between them as resources and the human spirit are stretched to the limit. The action scenes are exciting and the menace is suitably depressing, while the bleak vision with which the story ends offers a powerful evocation of hopelessness. And yet, although Curran makes good use of the material, his work is in the main a replay of familiar tropes, just another day trip to the end of days, downbeat fun but ultimately going nowhere, revealing nothing new about the human condition. In the end it is something that most readers will have seen before, done in one guise or another (the author’s previous DarkFuse novella Worm is a case in point). Good while it lasts, but forgotten soon after the last word is read.
Ronald Malfi has a more original take on the apocalypse in A SHRILL KEENING (DarkFuse eBook, 73pp, $3.49). Protagonist Carl is an inmate at a mental hospital, accused of bludgeoning his girlfriend to death, a crime of which he has no memory and feels certain he could not have committed. He fills his days by reading books by Lovecraft, Poe and similar writers, finding in their pages the hint of a truth unsuspected by the common herd. And at night he dreams he is in a deserted city charged with the role of Watcher or Sentinel, his duty to sound an alarm when a monstrous being emerges from the sea. He will know the beast by the sound it makes, a shrill keening. But there are signs that these two worlds are merging, with Carl bringing things back from his dream reality into the real world.
Superficially this is the familiar plot scenario of the man in the asylum who isn’t really insane, but has knowledge that is denied to others. However in this case it appears that the knowledge is only the key to making sense of his own situation, a form of catharsis. Carl casts himself in the role of hero as a way to confront what he has done to Merritt, Malfi cleverly using the tropes of genre fiction as a catalyst for a moment of psychological epiphany. And yet at the end Carl is still clinging to his belief in other realities, and so he may in his attempt to deal with the truth have embraced a deeper, more profound madness. Or perhaps this really is just the standard plot device of the man in the asylum who is thought to be mad but actually knows more about the true nature of reality than the rest of us. Possibly it’s both, with a madman in possession of the truth. Each possibility works on some level, thanks to our unreliable narrator/narrative, and regardless of the framing device the picture of the deserted seaside town and the impending Arrival are powerfully realised on the page. Malfi uses a threat that will signal the end of the world as the mirror image of something that has undone the protagonist on a personal level, with the shrill keening possibly that of the dying Merritt. It’s an interesting story, one that doesn’t quite grip as hard as it should perhaps owing to a surfeit of ambiguity, too many signs and portents, with consciously enigmatic characters, but absorbing all the same, drawing the reader in to Carl’s warped psyche and making us also question the nature of what is taking place, while the usage of weird texts will no doubt resonate with many.
With Jeff Strand’s FACIAL (DarkFuse eBook, 80pp, $3.49) we get the apocalypse as slapstick performed by a troupe of out of work porn stars. This is off the wall storytelling, but it starts innocuously enough. Carlton goes down into his basement one day to discover a dead lion and underneath the corpse a bloody face set into the basement floor. The face offers to grant a wish if he feeds it with human body parts. Fortuitously, Carlton’s brother Greg has just shot the hitman he hired to kill his wife’s lover, and so Carlton tells him to bring the body over for disposal. And after that things get seriously messy, because one dead body is never enough if you’re a face in the floor that has worked up a serious appetite. Conveniently, Greg’s wife Felicia is a woman with a healthy libido and loads more lovers who need to be disposed of, but as more corpses are consumed the problem is simply compounded. The world looks set to end, not with a whimper or a bang, but with a belch of gratification.
Okay, this really doesn’t make much sense, despite a codicil in which Strand explains the origin of the face and why it wants to destroy the world. But the lack of sense doesn’t really matter, as black comedy is really where this is coming from. It’s the kind of book we’d get if Carl Hiaasen wrote horror fiction. The opening chapter sets the tone for the whole, with hitman Dirk continually joshing his employer until Greg blows, and from then on it’s just about anything goes, with a welter of short chapters, some of only one line length, and each told from a different perspective. Sometimes the characters address the reader directly, and even being dead doesn’t seem to prevent them having an opinion about the direction the story is going in. Perhaps the star of the show is the sexually precocious Felicia, who is only too happy to categorise Greg’s shortcomings (pun intended) as a lover, while not entirely happy with the other men she has congress with. She is the intended recipient of the titular facial, though this is also a pun no doubt on the face in the floor. With scintillating dialogue and a fast paced plot, and the feeling that it’s so gonzo and wacky absolutely anything could happen, this novella was a lot of fun. I had a feeling that I should have been offended, but was smirking so much that I couldn’t pull it off.
Last but not least, we have IN THE SHADOWS OF CHILDREN (DarkFuse eBook, 52pp, $3.49) by Alan Ryker, which didn’t have an apocalypse in sight, instead giving us a very intimate and personal picture of tragedy and a man who is culpable in his own undoing. Years ago Aaron left the family home, never to return until now when the death of his mother brings him back to the house where he and his younger brother confronted a terrible evil, something of which he has only the sketchiest of memories. Aaron made it out, but after he left brother Bobby disappeared and was never seen again, until now. In a bedroom cupboard of the empty house Aaron finds an unaged and resentful Bobby waiting for him, with a dreadful tale to tell. At first Aaron thinks that Bobby is a hallucination, rooted in his own feelings of guilt, but then he is given proof that the boy is real and a warning that his own son Elijah faces a terrible threat from the boogeyman who so terrorised them in their youth.
Ryker does a lot in a short space with this novella. He creates a philosophy of nullity, one in which the void hungers for life, and things that do not exist envy those that do. He deals with mythology and folklore, using those to create a credible backdrop to the figure of the boogeyman or sack man, something found in every culture. And he touches on the innocence of children, how they can believe in things that we as adults can’t encompass in our philosophies, but it takes an adult to plant the seed of their undoing. It is a terrible story, made all the more so by the threat to a young child and the fact that his own father has been the agent through which the menace operates. Aaron, essentially a coward, is convincingly portrayed, wanting the courage to overcome his weakness, but suffering for the faults of his past. His dialogue with Bobby, or possibly the thing masquerading as his brother, is lively and engaging, while the horror of the piece is subtly laid out before the reader. I liked this book very much, the third I’ve read by Ryker, a writer who consistently delivers the goods, and seems to specialise in taking tired and clichéd scenarios, such as that of the boogeyman, and doing new things with them.
DarkFuse also do limited edition hardcover and paperback editions of some of their books, so if you’re a reader who prefers their fiction to come in non-electronic format, check out the publisher’s website (darkfuseshop.com) to see what’s available.