Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 24

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 2

Reviews by Peter Tennant

FOR WE ARE MANY

Edited by Christopher Death, Midnight Horror is hosted by Fortune City and so comes complete with the usual bushel of adverts, which some may find off putting though personally I didn’t think them overly intrusive. It publishes three times a year, everything from dark fantasy to science fiction with a horror twist, with 6k as the upper word limit. Site design is basic, with very little in the way of visuals, adornment rather than illustration, albeit what we do get is eye catching. My favourite was the dinosaur looming over a building, but you can have too much of a good thing, and this appears on every single story page, occupying almost half the screen, with text pushed over to the right and brushing up against the border so that you cant help wondering if some of it has overlapped.

The September 2007 issue, the second to be posted, contains four slices of flash fiction and two longer works. Of the three stories that I read Ghost House by Tom Johnstone was the longest and least successful, told as it is the form of a series of e-mails from a soldier stationed at the Ghost House of the title to his wife (its hard to believe that the military would allow this man to send uncensored communications such as this, or that he would have time or inclination to do so as the world shatters around him). The central concept of the story, local resistance fighters mutating thanks to American bio-weapons, is interesting, but the artificiality of the telling just doesnt convince, while some of the details just seem too close to plot conveniences. Mama’s Makeover by Dawn Sholun runs in at about a hundred words (could even be a drabble if I was anal enough to count them), not one of which is wasted in a wry piece that has raving insanity lurking just beneath the surface of the matter of fact narration. It could be even more blackly comedic to American readers, for whom mention of PBS may have greater significance. Though the Z word is never used, Dead Man is an entertaining twist on the subgenre of the flesh eating zombie, which author Eric S Brown has specialised in. It neatly sells the reader a dummy, setting us up for the final sting in the tail.

Time to declare an interest. I have stories slated to appear in future issues of the next two publications. Actually I’m hoping to place stories at all of these sites (its on my to do list). Its a win win situation from my point of view. If they accept my work its because I am immensely talented, and if they reject me its simply sour grapes because something in the review disagreed with them. I mean, what other reason could there be?

13 Human Souls has an attractive entry portal, an eye catching picture of a tunnel captured in lurid red tones, suggesting also a human throat. Beneath this there is a slideshow giving details of the contents of the current issue, which I thought was a nice touch. This e-zines brief is to present flash fiction of up to a 1000 words dealing with purely human evil (zombies, vampires et al need not apply), and it publishes on the 13th of each month, with older work archived. A couple of clicks takes you to the Fiction and Poetry page, where each work has its own banner, another nice touch, showing that the site designer is trying to make this a more interesting visual experience than the black that dominated in the previous two sites. In parenthesis, I do wish hed not bothered with the tail that drags after the cursor (these annoy me, generally). A click on each banner takes you to the stories which, again, are attractively presented, with white on black text that, admittedly, could do with being a bit larger, and effective headers. Its a nice set up, one that maybe needs a little fine tuning, but shows an appreciation of the potential of web publishing.

Edited by Brandon Layng, the 13th of September issue has three stories and one piece of poetry. Tea for Two by Mark E. Deloy offers the reader nothing new, but is an entertaining black comedy on a familiar theme, as a married couple in their twilight years decide that till death do us part is not so much marriage vow as mission statement. I wasnt convinced, but I did have a good time with this. Similar problems of familiarity and credulity dog Leftovers by Jon Aylward, in which a paranoid waitress finds out the secret ingredient that goes into her home towns famous burgers, with no prizes for guessing the ending. Its a decently written and entertaining piece regardless of the predictability but, while I might take onboard the idea of a restaurant operating such a scheme, the concept of a recession hit town driving economic regrowth in this way is a bit much to swallow, secret ingredient and all. Lincoln Crisler’s Game Over is the longest and best of what 13 Human Souls has to offer, a compelling and credible account of a father who loses the plot when a custody battle goes sour, although Ill admit to one what the??? moment, but I suspect thats down to my almost total ignorance of car design rather than any flaw in Crisler’s story.

Niteblade Horror and Fantasy Magazine is a new venture, with the September 2007 issue its very first outing. This debut issue has an evocative cover image and, according to the Table of Contents, thirteen stories (some of them quite substantial), thirteen poems (contributors include such familiar names as Greg Schwartz, Richard H Fay and Kristine Ong Muslim) and a couple of book reviews, all of which make it the most substantial of the sites under consideration in this column, with the possible exception of Dark Recesses . Some efforts have been made with presentation, each story getting its own front page black and white illustration, most of which are provided by the talented Marge Simon, and then with text presented in one column that occupies the whole of the screen and page format. And yes, the ads are an eyesore, but one to file under necessary evil.

I read four of the stories. Bridging the Void by John Saxton offers us a view inside the head of fabled killer Jack the Ripper and takes a stab at showing us the motives for his actions, how murder can bridge the void of loss, only then to attribute similar feelings to another man seeking closure of a similar kind. Its a finely written piece, one that shows how perfectly worthy feelings can all too easily be used to excuse/justify monstrous acts. The Midnight Men by Lee Moan was the best of the stories I read, taking our fear of the knock on the door at night and using it as the basis for a chilling story, made all the more so by the almost mundane nature of the evil addressed. A man sees his friends and neighbours disappear, taken away by black garbed men in the middle of the night, and is allowed no explanation at all for what is happening, the story building gradually and surely to a compelling pitch of paranoia, one in which the protagonist is forced to contemplate his own complicity, question the action he has taken to protect his family, ending on a note of bleak, existential horror. Editor Rhonda Parrish’s offering Sister Margaret is a gritty fantasy tale of cross and double cross, as an assassin for hire is set on the tale of a vampire pimp by a priestess of an otherworldly god. Its a romp of a story, entertaining and well told, keeping the reader off balance to the end, and the possibility exists for more tales in this milieu. Hell on Earth by David Price is a tale of two halves. In the first, Sammy meets his former colleague Arty, a con with an appetite for revenge on those he considers to have done him wrong (Sammy is on his list), which he pursues by such underhand methods as anonymous phone calls to the police, but with the second half of the story an outr element intrudes and Arty takes a more Lovecraftian route to his desired goal, with serious consequences for all concerned. Leaving aside the question of how destitute Arty gets his mitts on, presumably, priceless occult texts, this is an excellent tale of revenge gone too far, Price setting the scene with an assured touch and then plunging us over the lip from real world revenge to something far more outre with nary a seam showing. The characters are well drawn, particularly that of protagonist Sammy, and the monster unsettles. What more could you ask for?

Fiction magazine started life as a print publication, but after a couple of issues decided to reinvent itself as Fiction Online, the plan being to build up a readership before plunging back into the world of dead trees. Its now a free and downloadable PDF, appearing monthly (scroll about halfway down the page to download the latest issue), and publishing horror, SF and fantasy.

#4 comes with a blood stained and eye catching cover courtesy of Lee Moan, after which we get a further 28 pages, with every bit of space put to good use. The layout is neat and functional, fiction presented at two columns to the page and non-fiction (mostly) at three, the text clear except for the very last page where it gets a little tiny for reading comfort (but of course this is a PDF and you can magnify). There are book and video game reviews, a letter column (how retro) and each story comes with its own info bar (a nice touch). There are adverts, but they appear to have been chosen to blend in, becoming part of the magazines dcor, while overall Fiction has a very friendly feel to it (editor Stoo cheerfully admits that publishing one story in the previous issue was a big mistake, a refreshing change from the almost papal infallibility some other editors occasionally demonstrate – those who reject my stories that is).

But what about the fiction? I read three of the four stories, ignoring the longest for reasons of time, and if I have a problem its that all of those I read seemed rather derivative. Take Gareth Lynn Powell’s A Necklace of Ivy which is beautifully written and keenly felt, the tale of two lovers wandering in a landscape blighted by an alien plague and dodging the military, for all of which the ending left me with the feeling I just read a sidebar incident in the TV series Invasion . Similarly The Secret in the Sewers by Andrew Knighton was a romp of a story, or supposed to be, with two adventurers braving the Venetians sewers to discover an evil mastermind bent on world conquest (and his identity is the only real surprise, so I wont give it away). It was a fun read, though I could have done with more by way of conflict than a few gunshots and energetic stamping of feet (yeah, I know, irony), but the shadow of Indiana Jones and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen hangs over the enterprise and invites less than flattering comparisons. Bob Lock’s Do We Not Bleed? was the most substantial in conceptual terms, with his protagonist an AI researcher who wakes up one morning and finds his house computer wont let him out of the door, the story going on to question the nature of humanity. Its well written certainly, and thought provoking as good SF should be, but all the same you wont find anything new here, with Blade Runner and Sixth Day just the most obvious of several prototypes. All of these stories engage the reader in some way and I enjoyed Fiction well enough to want to see more, but all the same if there was anything original going on then it must have been in the story I didn’t get time to read.

Dark Recesses is heading in the opposite direction; having been in electronic format for going on two years the magazine now feels confident enough to make the transfer to print in January 2008. #8, available as a free download from the website, is the final PDF issue, and so the last chance, for those who are wise enough to research markets before submitting, to get a hint of what the editors tastes are without having to shell out.

Its a nice product, with a full colour cover which made me think artist Nick Hadley had been to the same well as David Price when he wrote the aforementioned Hell on Earth , black and white (mainly) interior illustrations to complement the stories, colour adverts that dont detract from the overall effect, and a neat, practical two columns of text to the page throughout. For non-fiction we get interviews with Larry Roberts of Bloodletting Press and Horror Library founder R J Cavender, plus Senior Editor Boyd E Harris describing his experiences on a ghost walk.

Dark Recesses #8 contains seven stories, of which I sampled four. Midnight on Avenue D by Peter M Ball is an emotive account of teen gangs spreading terror, a vivid and convincing picture of childhood bullying with a futuristic feel which doesnt outstay its welcome. Joel Arnold’s Telephone takes an innocent game suggested to her class by a teacher and turns it around to deliver a chilling denouement in an excellent slice of flash fiction. The Cavender interview is accompanied by a story, Scavenger Hunt. The narrator is part of a two boy team who go out and mutilate/murder women on camera for an audience of sick people to watch, serial killing reinvented as a kind of art, with the violence described in enough detail to merit a not for the squeamish tag. Care of his latest victim, the narrator gets a suitable comeuppance, which provides a sort of moral underpinning to a strong story that touches briefly on our own fascination with fiction of this type. Churel by John Kratman was the longest of the stories I read and also the most traditional in nature. Set against the backdrop of the Indian Mutiny it relates the tale of an English officers encounter with the eponymous spirit/monster. The story is well told, with excellent pacing, flashes of local detail that enhance the verisimilitude, a hero we can care about and a monster that is a little bit out of the ordinary, though no less fearsome for that.

On this showing, the future looks bright for publisher Bailey Hunter and her team when Dark Recesses makes the crossover into print.

Edited by Ace Masters, Written Word is the last website I’ll be taking a look at for this column, though far from being the least. It publishes in issue format, though Im not too sure about the regularity (while there have been four issues over the sites first year they’re far from appearing quarterly). The latest issue is #4 and dated August 2007. Content wise it aspires to publish all forms/works of literature, except for the literary form of comic books, though my sampling indicated a strong genre bias. As regards presentation, the layout is neat and easy on the eye, with text presented in a frame and page format, each page topped with a reproduction of the cover artwork and a typewriter graphic by way of adornment, though no other artwork was on show. On the negative side, at least one contributors name was shown incorrectly that I know of and the link to one of the stories ( The Seal by Michael Cregan) wasn’t working, which is not encouraging, but its an online publication and they’ll probably correct both those before you read this, so go call me a liar, why dontya?

#4 contains four poems and nine stories, of which I read five, and I’m sorry but it doesn’t appear possible to provide direct links (visit via the ToC page, which I also cant link to directly). Cover story Paradise Without Feylina by Marshall Payne commemorates the end of a holiday romance, though the sting in the tail is that one of the parties doesn’t realise the precise nature of this holiday. Its okay I guess, but no real meat to it, just presents the idea and is done. The flash fiction offering, Armageddon by Thomas Henrich, which could actually be longer than the Payne, is a black comedy on the theme of politicians and thermo-nuclear destruction and, I guess, humour being subjective some people may get a chuckle out of it, but sadly I’m not one of them. Contractual Obligation by Rick Novy is that old standby, the demonic pact, where the plot hinges on who is going to get double-crossed and how. Its an amusing example of the type, though I cant quite get past the feeling that the twist at the end doesnt really play fair with the reader the essence of these things is that, in retrospect, it all seems obvious, and thats not the case here. Jacqueline Seewald’s Legend uses another common plot device (though not as common as the Novy), that of a journalist who is sent to interview a world famous horror writer and discovers his dark and deadly secret. Its a lively piece, with some over the top characters and an undercurrent of comedy, all leading up to the nasty but nice turn of fortune at the end. Planned Parenthood by Lawrence Dagstine was the longest and most substantial of the stories I read and the only one that seemed entirely straight. Like A. I., but without the sentimentality, it looks at the plight of an infertile couple who accept an android child into the family nest, with repercussions all round. The story is sensitive, largely avoiding sensationalism in favour of detailing the emotional fallout of this decision, and all the better for that.

And that’s your lot.

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