Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 5

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

As I recall, three or four of the contributors to this magazine turned up on the old forums at the TTA website where I had a message board to tell me where I’d gone wrong with this review.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

Dark Tales #3

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

This relatively new magazine is quite attractively produced, A4 and printed on quality paper, with a clear layout and not much in the way of typos. The cover image of an old house seen by moonlight is effective in conveying the general mood the fiction seems to be striving for, while the stories are complemented by tiny photographs and line drawings that enhance the magazine’s sense of its own identity.

So far, so good, but what about the written content? Near as I can tell from diligent examination of the website, Dark Tales is not open to submissions as such but runs a quarterly competition, with the best entrants given cash prizes and published in the magazine (also, incidentally, available in an online format at a reduced rate). Entry to the competition is £3 per story, with the option of paying more to have a tick sheet critique done by the editors (for full details, including various special offers, visit the website).

Leading off are two ghost stories, of which the editor has to say, ‘each tale handled in a unique and equally effective way, I think you’ll agree’, but actually I don’t. Describing either of the two stories that follow as unique is an exaggeration. “Too Late for Lalla” by E. C. Seaman is ‘I see dead people’ revisited for the umpteenth time. Most readers will guess where the author’s going with this after reading the first page, and it takes a good deal of artificiality to make the story work, with the characters avoiding discussion of any of the things that would derail the plot. The best that can be said about it is that the writing and characterisation are competent if uninspiring. In contrast “Room Eight” by Huw Griffiths takes the ‘I am dead people’ route, with its hero returning to his place of employment after a leave of absence and wondering why nobody interacts with him before the inevitable revelation as to his true state of corporeality, again well written and with nice touches of detail, but little else to commend it. It’s hard to feel anything except indifference to either of these and I make no apology for hinting at the endings as it’s doubtful anyone will be surprised by what happens.

More fun though not much more substantial is Julie Stradner’s “The Road”, in which a man’s car breaks down on an isolated stretch of highway at night and he sets off in search of rescue only to run foul of something lurking in the woods that run alongside the road. It’s a standard, run of the mill monster outing, but well executed, with a telling atmosphere and growing sense of menace, while the monster is not the anticlimax it easily could have been, with understated description put to good use in the finale. By contrast “Fright Night” is the worst thing here, a Halloween prank gone wrong story that’s as over the top as it is unconvincing, as two young boys execute their plan to make the vicar look foolish. Author Lez Hammans needs to pull all sorts of rabbits out of hats to make the plot work and he doesn’t succeed, with the end result never less than ridiculous, and am I the only one who thinks that being expelled from the choir is a bit iffy as the motive for teen revenge? Kfir Luzzatto’s “Together Forever After” plays riffs on such classics as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Bradbury’s “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl”, with its protagonist facing exposure as a murderer when his field is dug up by workmen and his efforts to avoid such a conclusion result in mental disintegration. There’s a certain inevitability about it all, with the insane grin of the protagonist that closes the story implicit in almost the first paragraph. Duncan Barford’s “Frost-Bitten” is a vampire story, with its hero having his house taken over by a female bloodsucker, the two of them existing in a strange symbiotic relationship while the rest of the world goes hang. It’s nicely written, with some good imagery and the hint of something far more intriguing going on in the background, but sadly never capitalises on this to provide anything of real substance for the reader.

Stephen McMurray’s “Coloured Vision” is the best of what’s on offer, rising above the bizarreness of its schemata and a somewhat pedestrian prose style through sheer bravado and the gonzo quality of the writer’s imagination, as a man for whom “The Wizard of Oz” has unhappy, not to say bloody, associations finally comes unravelled big time, with the story told obliquely and all the details neatly slotted into place, the whole topped with a killer final line. “The Orchidologist” by John Glass is quite fun too, though nowhere near as original in conception as the McMurray. The editor rightly identifies its provenance as in the Hammer Horror tradition, with a dash of “Avengers” panache to flavour, as yet another elderly English eccentric falls prey to the contents of his greenhouse, a quite jolly piece that revels in its off the wall quality, albeit requiring considerable suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. “Two Years Running” by Mark Wrath is an end of the world as we know it scenario, its human protagonist hiding from the never named alien invaders who have wiped out the bulk of mankind. Think “War of the Worlds”, but don’t expect anything as entertaining or provocative as this is strictly by the numbers. Similarly “Bogle on a Bough” by the equally alliterative Ben Biggs is the old chestnut about a child falling foul of the monster that features in one of his father’s stories, competently told and with a half hearted attempt at irony in conclusion, but with nothing new on offer.

New magazines are of course always welcome, but on the evidence of #3 it’s hard to have strong feelings either way about Dark Tales. The Hammans aside there’s little to offend the diehard Horror aficionado’s sensibilities, but equally there’s little real cause for celebration, the McMurray excepted. The best that can be said about most of these stories is that they are competently told and won’t insult the intelligence, but at the same time there’s hardly anything original on offer, just comparatively lifeless and uninspiring retreads of ideas that have been done many times before. Dark Tales entertains but in a pass the time sort of way rather than giving the reader something more positive or challenging.

It’s tempting to conjecture as to why this is, when Horror writers are forever complaining about the lack of markets, and there are certainly plenty of talented writers out there. My own gut feeling is that maybe Dark Tales should throw its net wider than competition entrants, as many writers do not look favourably on such events, regarding them as a not so subtle way of charging a reading fee, or send in only the stories they have not been able to place elsewhere.

One for the maybe rather than the must buy list of titles.

Dark Tales, A4, 36pp, £3.50 or £12/4

Editor: – Sean Jeffery

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