A review (part 0ne).
2023 saw the final issue of Black Static, a magazine that, since I appeared in the first issue of its earlier incarnation, The Third Alternative, has meant a lot to me. Both magazines, along with TTA Press’ occasional crime anthology, Crime Wave, are closely bound up with my own development as a writer, as over the course of its existence, TTA Press published 16 of my stories, including the first in its series of stand alone novellas, Eyepennies, back in 2012. It also ran two columns I wrote over a number of years, ‘Night’s Plutonian Shore ‘on the interaction between Horror and the wider culture and society, and later, ‘Silver Bullets,’ that focused on TV Horror. As well as the countless books I reviewed for TTA over the years, Andy Cox also published two of my essays on the films of David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
I guess it’s not particularly unusual for writers to develop a close relationship, even a certain sense of proprietorship, with a journal with which they become associated through publication. That being the case, I imagine like many other readers and writers, I won’t be alone in mourning it’s passing, simply because over 30 years and across 42 issues of The Third Alternative—1993-2005, and 83 issues of Black Static from 2007 to 2023, it was quite simply the best horror magazine every produced in the UK. During its run, in both iterations, it published stories by some of the prominent writers of dark fantasy and horror, including Ramsey Campbell, M. John Harrison, Elizabeth Bear, Steve Rasnic Tem, Brian Aldiss, Lucius Shepard, Graham Joyce, Lisa Tuttle, Ian Watson, Christopher Fowler, Stephen Graham Jones and John Connolly. In its early days, it was writers who were already making a name for themselves, like Nicholas Royle, Justine Robson, Pete Crowther, Conrad Williams, Jeff Vandermeer, Joel Lane, Mark Morris, Rhys Hughes, Chris Kenworthy, Brian Howell, Gwyneth Hughes and Matt Coward, who, with their contributions, helped forge the magazine’s identity for bold, groundbreaking fiction. Most importantly, it played host to a whole swath of new writers, men and women who went on to establish themselves as among the very best at creating modern, literate horror, among them Simon Avery, Gary McMahon, Steven Dines, Eugie Foster, Lynda Rucker, Nina Allen, Carole Johnstone, Priya Sharma, Paul Meloy, Aliyah Whiteley, Martin Simpson, Ray Naylor, Georgina Bruce, Ray Clulely, Ralph Robert Moore, V.H. Leslie, Simon Bestwick, Andrew Hook, Sean Padraic Birnie, Kristi DeMeester, Andrew Humphrey and Alexander Glass to name just a very few of the unique and marvellous writers who graced its pages.
It seems fitting to me then that after 30 years I finally get a chance to review an issue of Black Static, a matter rendered unproblematic (at least from my perspective) by having neither fiction nor non-fiction in this swan song issue. In her last ‘Notes from the Borderland’ column, the always thought-provoking Lynda Rucker acknowledges the limitations of eulogies, whilst at same time citing the very qualities that made TTA so special: it’s bold, uncompromising and iconoclastic vision. Vale indeed. I’ll miss Ralph Robert Moore’s idiosyncratic musings on life, love, death, tv and food and the way in which all of these are inflected with moments of horror and dread. His column, ‘Into the Woods,’ has always provided nourishment for the soul, and ‘Pizza’ is no exception. Stephen Volk has graced the pages of Black Static both with a couple of fine novellas, but more significantly with his long-running column ‘Coffinmaker’s Blues’, which began by offering readers a glimpse into the world of screenwriting and film, but which, as Volk found his stride, morphed into a series of more wide-ranging speculations that railed against the patronising snobbery of mainstream broadcasting toward horror; championed the vitality and diversity of horror; and dissected the eternal conflict between commercialism, corporate think and the freedom of the writer to pursue his or her vision. His final piece is a fascinating look at the implications for art of AI, specifically ChatGPT. It concludes with a mention of film footage reputedly shot by Thomas Edison, of the execution of an elephant by electrocution in 1903. Co-incidentally, my final story for Black Static, ‘Pervert Blood’ (# 80/81), includes a reference to another elephant execution, this time by hanging, in Erwin, Tennessee in 1916. It’s a peculiar and disturbing statistic that between the 1880s and the 1920s, at least 36 elephants were executed in the USA.
And so to the fiction, starting with the final story by regular contributor Ray Cluley, ’Cabin Fever’. This one is narrated by an airline pilot who, grieving following the death of his wife, intends to deliberately crash his plane into the ocean. The story puts us inside his head, as he makes an announcement to passengers, informing them of his intentions, elaborating on the different meanings of crash and alluding to the mentally ill pilot Andreas Lubitz who delibrately crashed the pasenger jet he was piloting into the alps, as well as the episode in Twilight Zone where a passenger sees a monster on the wing destroying the engine. In the story, it turns out the pilot's wife, a nurse, died in the pandemic, and this is his revenge. Many of the politicians responsible for the mishandling of the pandemic are on board. He tells them to clap if they wish to save themselves - it won’t work. It’s a short, punchy dose of wish-fulfilment that, without resorting to didacticism, works as an antidote to the bullshit, revision and lies served up to the UK population by greedy incompetents.
‘The Crease’, by Simon Avery, is a subtle, allusive story about loss—of innocence, loved ones, creativity, muse and purpose—and, through the power of memory and openness, to rediscover a sense of agency. As with his haunting TTA stand alone novella, The Teardrop Method, music and the process of its creation plays a key part, particularly in its power to evoke memories of loved ones, places, and especially key moments in one’s life. One such is Verity’s journey into the Crease, a liminal territory in which the past exists alongside the present, and where things witnessed can be brought back to one’s own present, as when Verity brings back a melody that will later form the basis of the songs she writes with future husband Matthew. The word Crease means not simply a ridge or line, like the one Verity follows into the timeless zone, but also a wound, something that grazes the flesh, as in the sense, following Matthew’s death, of the Crease’s failure to speak to her, to console or inspire her, despite her previous belief in it as the source of her creativity. She has to draw on her ability to reconnect with the world, with new people to rediscover her creative impulses. It’s a beautifully evocative story about the enduring power of art to renew and inspire us, and among the very best fiction that Avery has contributed to Black Static over the years.
Josh Bell’s ‘Sometimes my father is a Sex Zombie’, is a poetic, and sometimes heartrending attempt at seeing a confused and complex world though the eyes of a child. The narrator’s mother has recently remarried, and the boy is trying to adjust to his new situation and the nascent relationship with his slightly older stepsister, Marine. There are moments of neat observation and humour, as when the boy remembers first seeing his future stepsister, Marine after she knocked another boy to the ground for stomping on earthworms, and called him a little cunt. The narrator remembers “I thought the word ‘cunt’ a fearsome and drastic word and nights afterward I’d lay awake in my bed, whispering it to myself over and over again.” The story Marine relates to narrator about the birthmark monster, is suggestive perhaps of some instance of earlier sexual abuse. Or perhaps the story is concerned with childhood alienation, primarily, with the narrator’s observations of life—his stepfather, Marine, his ex teacher Mrs Himms—serving to fill the gap where no meaningful human relations exist. The story resists easy interpretation and remains indeterminate, yet for all that, the narrator’s confused and fragmentary perspective of the world is wholly convincing.
‘Wedding by the sea’ by Rhonda Pressley Veit, is a sly, deft piece of modern southern gothic, narrated by Mrs Broadfoot, the mother of the groom of the eponymous wedding on the beach. The story concerns her warnings/ reservations about the wedding location, hinting at some threat lingering in the sea. There are early allusions to the many churches of Charleston, to its graveyards and their dead. These lost souls might have proved a distraction, she acknowledges, but her wishes are ignored, and her son’s fiancé, Charlotte decides the wedding will take place on Marion Island, a barrier Island helping protect the mainland from the wilds of the Atlantic, and with which the bride’s family, the Rush’s have a long connection. Luke’s mother fantasises about a female guest, Christine, seeing her voluptuous beauty in terms of satisfying her hunger - she envisages her leg carved into medallions. When the bride’s mother notes that she, Mrs Broadfoot, travels a lot and that they don’t often get to enjoy her company, the latter responds “no matter - I’m not often enjoyable.” Very soon after, she’s deciding to despatch Corliss (the bride’s gauche, drunken aunt), that very night. For there’s more to Mrs Broadfoot than at first meets the eye, her waspish vitriol masking something far more menacing than her social standing. Pressley captures to a tee the social snobbery and slights of a society wedding and there’s an underlying black humour to Broadfoot’s tone of voice. Another standout story.
My review will conclude tomorrow.
Black Static 82/83 Andy Cox (ed.)
(TTA Press, 192pp)