Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 23

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.

More specifically, back in the twilight days of the WoW site we decided to extend our review coverage to include websites, and the result was the bi-monthly Web Whisperin’ column, that included a detailed review of one website and more general comments on some others. Because of their size, I’ll split these columns between The One and The Many.

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.

WEB WHISPERIN’ October 2007 – Part 1

Reviews by Peter Tennant

THERE IS ONLY ONE

Midnight in Hell started life as a print-zine back in the 90s, edited by an entity known as Grave Orc and featuring the work of several writers who went on to appear in the pages of Whispers itself. The magazine ran for twelve issues which, in the Small Press climate of the day, was a considerable achievement, before folding at the end of 1994, but of course this is a horror story and the dead never stay dead for long, and so 2007 sees the return of Midnight in Hell as a website with a remit to publish the weirdest tales on the web (horror and dark fantasy work of between 500 and 3000 words).

A few words about design and presentation first, in which regards Midnight in Hell isn’t particularly impressive. The rather bland front door leads to a site with a triptych design, the column on the left simply blank space, that on the right occupied by links to the various parts of the site and all the action taking place in the middle of the screen, with a new window opening each time you click on a story (but still using only the middle of the screen for text). Its not, to my mind, the most economic or attractive layout, while having blue navigation bars run down the screen somewhat compromises the atmosphere they seem to be aiming at, and artwork, in fact adornment of any kind other than the Midnight in Hell symbol/logo, is noticeable by its absence. But its early days for this site as yet, with some of the pages shown as still under construction, and with time and experience something a little less basic and more visually appealing may emerge.

Which brings us to the Autumn/Fall 07 issue, or 1.2 in numerical terms, containing nine stories by names both new and old, known and unknown.

David Byron opens the proceedings with City of the Dead, a story set in some grim dystopia where monsters rule the night time streets, poverty is rife and nobody questions the provenance of the meat on sale at the butchers. Prostitute Susan is haunted by nightmares and so goes up onto the roof of her dwelling place to relax, where she encounters the man of her dreams, literally. The story has a convincing atmosphere, with some vivid and lurid imagery, and in the main Byron writes well, though he does occasionally slip in phrases that are more cringe inducing than anything else (e.g. pearly white teeth that gleamed like pearls). The revelation of Susans tormentors inhuman nature is telegraphed, and the story doesnt deliver any real surprises, but the trip itself is an engaging one.

Seismicity by A D is somewhat less substantial, the tale of unrequited lover Paul whose passion is externalised as seismic activity. Its an intriguing idea, with echoes of one of the central conceits of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow but A D offers little more than face value. There’s no real attempt to grapple with what is happening and the protagonist is lacking in depth, so all were left with is a piece of flash fiction with a mildly ironic ending.

Christopher Allan Death’s A Thousand Witnesses again has an intriguing idea at its heart, but in this case the incidentals of the story dont quite ring true, with bank guards apparently able to walk out of work with contents from the vault in a bag just like that and genetically modified crops being grown by mom and pop farmers in the boonies. I liked the story, but I didn’t believe a word of it. I wish Death had forgotten all the bank robbery nonsense and instead given us a story that more directly addressed the implications of his Frankenstein crop.

Ken Goldman is the most widely published of the writers on offer here, and reading Purgatory, Lakeside its easy to see why. Its a slicker than slick slice of fiction in which mobster Delbert Gunner Richetti finds out that Hell is not at all what he imagined it to be and the Devil is a rather congenial host, though you wouldn’t want to cross him. Goldman has his tongue firmly in his cheek, the story engaging with its laid back prose but also asking some hard questions about the nature of things, playfully pulling the rug out from under the feet of the old stereotypes. And if, ultimately, it seems to go nowhere, thats because its already where its supposed to be.

Art mirrors life in Sarah Jacksons flash fiction Director’s Cut, as a graduate of the casting couch finds out that she is far from being the only thespian on the make. Its neatly constructed, with the prose sparse and economical, though not omitting those incidental details that flesh out and make credible the narrative, and the character of the protagonist is well realised, with the only bum note struck by a bit of obvious foreshadowing.

The Jetty by Iain McLachlan is another highlight of this issue, the premise of the story simple and all the better for being left ambiguous. Inexplicably, slap bang in the middle of the eponymous jetty is a door, which the neighbourhood children are all afraid to open and pass through. McLachlan gives us a convincing account of childhood fascination and bullying, reminiscent at times to similar incidents in the oeuvre of Stephen King, then moves the narrative on several years with the protagonist coming back for his own confrontation with the unknown, with the suggestion that he has seen and done things which make this bug bear of his younger days seem an irrelevance. The story is quietly told, a confident telling, with the emphasis on character rather than the outr, the confrontation between a man and the best/worst aspects of his own nature symbolised by the door. It ends on a beautiful and appropriate note of mystery.

After three good stories things take a distinct downturn with The Woods by Nik Perring, the longest story in the issue and also the weakest. Two friends leave the pub and wander through the woods, getting spooked by local legends, though there is also the suggestion of animosity between them. Only one of the friends made it out of the forest, reads the text, at which point we lose all sight of credibility. The police are called in and Dennis body is found at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft. Suicide conclude the local plod, not even bothering to consider any other theory, or even to question survivor Christopher. Christopher then goes into mental meltdown, while police officer on the make Harold starts to prowl the woods at night looking for goblins. It ends badly, which in the circumstances was only to be expected. This story has poor plotting, incredulous characterisation and a prose style that at times borders on parody. There is the hint of something interesting peeping through, a mans descent into madness, and flashes of talent in the prose, but no more than that. It reads like a first draft.

In A Nightmare by Jim Steel two men also go wandering off the beaten track with dire consequences, but there the resemblance ends. After a slow start the story builds, gradually and with assurance, Steel’s style reminiscent of a Victorian ghost story with its matter of fact but detailed narration. There is the inevitable encounter with the numinous in the form of one of the less known monsters of local (Scottish) folklore and a satisfying twist at the end of the story, making for a fine example of the traditional tale of the supernatural. As an added bonus, readers are given the chance to read the story with a commentary by the author, Steel revealing his inspiration for the piece, something which I found interesting and would like to see more of.

This issue of Midnight in Hell is rounded out by Paula Villegas Bed-Side Manners, a fine example of that school of fiction where we all take vicarious pleasure in seeing a nasty piece of work get his just desserts care of a plot contrivance masquerading as fate. This time around its a bumptious doctor who discovers that the universe is not indifferent, even if he is. The set up is deftly done while the ending satisfies, and that’s all there is to be said for it. Not an ambitious story, but one that delivers the goods.

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