Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 11

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.

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.

MIDNIGHT STREET #5

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

The successor to Roadworks, this A4 magazine is one of the most attractively packaged publications to be found in the UK Small Press, with editor Trevor Denyer paying as much attention to the design and general look of his product as he does to its written content. The end result is a treat for the reader, with a neat clean layout that is easy on the eye and a generous amount of artwork to complement the text, as witness this Summer 2005 issue, which has striking front and back covers by Whispers’ regular Chris Cartwright, though even these are overshadowed by her lushly erotic but minatory illustration for the Marie O’Regan story. Other artists getting in on the act include A. C. Evans and Tony Mileman, whose combined efforts provide the magazine with a wealth of variety while at the same time conferring on its pages a consistency of vision.

Midnight Street is a magazine that boxes clever, making a virtue out of doing things differently, both in its fictional content, which covers the areas of Horror, Dark Fantasy, Science Fiction and Slipstream, always with an eye on the mission statement of its evocative tagline (‘Journeys into Darkness’), and in the non-fiction which is just as vital a part of its identity. On the latter count, one regular feature is the Showcased Author spot, in which a Small Press scribe is singled out for a moment in the spotlight, with two stories, an interview and bibliography. Past beneficiaries have included Joel Lane, Andrew Humphrey, Allen Ashley, Rosanne Rabinowitz and, ahem, Peter Tennant. This time around it’s the turn of Tim Lees, who will be familiar to many readers from his tales in TTA, Crimewave and Midnight Street itself, and his Elastic Press collection, The Life to Come.

In Views from the Shambly House interrogator Tony Lee probes into Lees’ background, his literary influences and the role of faith in his work, the author coming over as charming, well read and articulate. The two stories that accompany this interview are not on a par with Lees’ best work, but still have much to commend them to connoisseurs of the offbeat. Dec–Feb is a measured and richly detailed account of urban decay, with the outward slide to oblivion mirrored in the psyche of the narrator. It is a compelling slice of fiction verity, though perhaps too downbeat for its own good and ultimately has nothing new to tell us about the scenario it so vividly captures. From the House Committee is more rewarding in terms of story and imagination, a reinvention of The X-Files in B movie land, inviting comparisons with the work of the great Howard Waldrop, with the writer mugging to beat the band, as a host of monsters from yesteryear challenge erstwhile investigator Bobby Kennedy, with a political subtext to the story that suggests what all those old SF movies from the 50s were really about. It’s a bravura performance, let down only by the weak ending, one that seems to fizzle out rather than reach any climax.

Lees is not the only writer to receive special treatment this time around. Genre giant Simon Clark, a writer who served his time in the Small Press before going on to bigger and better things, but who happily doesn’t seem to have forgotten his roots, is also featured. The wide ranging interview, conducted by Tony Mileman, is a treat, Clark touching on the highs and lows of his career, and serving up a feast of Small Press memories, names and titles that should have everyone of a certain age swallowing a lump of nostalgia. The accompanying story, The Hand of Glory, is pretty much a routine piece, with two crooks utilising an occult device in their crimes only to, inevitably, have it all go disastrously wrong, but still a lot of fun if you can put your disbelief on hold for the time it takes to get to the end, and with some characters who are just begging for their comeuppance. There’s also a booklet, compiled by Mileman and with a cover illustration by Anna Hyskova-Brno, SIMON CLARK: Bibliography of Short Fiction 1972-2005, which has collector’s item written all over it (but not literally).

Near Absolute Zero by Interzone editor Jetse de Vries presents us with the spectacle of a scientist who sabotages a quantum experiment at great cost of life, but refuses to explain his actions. A beautiful female agent is assigned to find out what’s going on, which she proceeds to do utilising both the stick and the carrot (alternatively known as torture and sex). It’s a lively and enjoyable ride (well, the sex parts), with larger than life characters and a plot that holds the interest with suggestions of something monumentally terrifying lurking at back of it all, though even de Vries’ gonzo invention ultimately can’t disguise the fact that what we have here is only another variation on the ‘we are property’ plot standard. Some of the steps by which the final vision of futility is reached seem slightly tenuous to me, but the joy of this particular ‘journey into darkness’ is in the getting there rather than the destination, with de Vries as an amiable and eminently qualified tour guide.

Gary Fry’s At Issue places us on more mundane and familiar ground, with the story of a schoolboy bully finally brought to book by his victim, all of which might be a bit tiresome in less capable hands, but Fry’s build-up, his depiction of the characters and their motives, is all assured and packed with enough incidental detail and emotional resonance to make us identify with them, while the end twist is nasty enough to make Roald Dahl at his most unexpected blanch.

Can You See Me by Marie O’Regan reads like a ghost story of sorts, but one in which there is no ghost, except whatever spirits are conjured up by guilt and remorse. The male protagonist is ‘haunted’ by a ditched girlfriend, a woman with whom he was involved in an S&M relationship. O’Regan cleverly keeps the matter of Claire’s corporeality ambiguous for much of the narrative, juggling the various strands in a way that constantly wrong foots the reader, with the true state of affairs revealed only at the end. At the story’s heart is a keenly felt subtext, embodied in the titular plea of the ‘abandoned’ woman, for recognition of individuality, to stop using other people as a means to fulfil one’s own needs.

I recently read Lusheart in the Elastic Press collection The English Soil Society, but was happy to find Tim Nickels’ story featured here also. It is a highly ambivalent piece, one in which the quality of the writing overshadows whatever sense is to be made of the text, bringing to life a strange society in which a co-dependency of the sexes exists alongside a curious form of vampirism. While enjoying the story I wasn’t quite satisfied with it, with too much that was left vague and unstated for the reader’s good, the whole as if seen through a mirror darkly. More fact and less suggestion would perhaps have worked better.

Finally we have War Haven by Allen Ashley, in which a soldier in some unnamed identi-kit war dreams of a place of sanctuary, somewhere far from the arena where those ignorant armies continue to clash by night. The irony is that, for Ashley’s protagonist, the sanctuary proves unsatisfying; compelled by a misguided sense of duty, a lack of faith, obligation to be a fighter rather than a lover, he goes back to the battle’s roar. Beautifully written and characterised, particularly in its portrayal of the camaraderie of fighting men, this is a story with despair at its heart, regardless of the overtly upbeat ending in which peace breaks out all over. Ashley seems to think that conflict is inevitable simply because we are hard wired to believe so, and thus all our peace plans will end in hails of bullets. It’s a bleak prospect, though that doesn’t make it any the less credible

Several poems and a few more items of non-fiction, including Jon Hartless’ account of the travails of a young writer attempting to publish a novel, Michael Lohr’s take on the archetypal shadowed serpent of mythology and a review of The Damp Chamber by Frank Chigas, round out what must be one of the most varied and rewarding publications available in the UK Small Press.

Midnight Street edited by Trevor Denyer, A4, 52pp, £3.50/$8US or £9.50 for 3 issues/ $22US

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