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  • Writer's pictureMike O'Driscoll

Black Static 82/83 - A review, part 2

It’s easy to forget now, how mysterious and magical photography must have appeared to its earliest proponents. Something of that mystery is rekindled in Andrew Hook’s haunting story of memory, identity and the search for meaning. Early on in ‘The Enfilade,’ Hook gives academic credence (of a sort) to what will follow, when the narrator, Matthew reflects on an article by the head of Paranormal Science at Arakab University, which postulates that being photographed repeatedly risks draining the subject of their aura, such that they go on to live “empty and useless lives.” There’s a good joke here, if one care to look up Dr Venkataramananaan, one that doesn’t detract at all from the story that follows. Matthew and Pryce become friends in Cambridge in the early 1990s and soon embark on a trip to India. Once in Delhi, and following a long train journey to Varanesi, Matthew is almost totally overwhelmed by the strangeness of the city, while Pryce absorbs himself in its sights, sounds and culture. The two are separated after indulging in a cannabis infused drink, after which Matthew returns to England and his routine life working in, and later, managing a photography shop. After four years Matthew witnesses a news report about Pryce’s fate: having burned his passport and immersing himself in asceticism, he was arrested after obstructing the entrance to an enfilade at Mysore Palace. An enfilade is an architectural feature in which a series of rooms are aligned with each other such that if their doors are open one can see through the first room, into the next, and the next, and so on, depending on the number in the sequence. Pryce is obsessed with them, something hinted at early in the story when he comments on Matthew’s photograph of a bridge. Two years pass before Pryce visits Matthew with a request to photograph him and some friends in an enfilade at a country house. The friends line up behind Pryce, one in each doorway, such that they are blocked out in the image by his body. But after taking the photograph, Pryce’s friends have disappeared. Matthew tries to rationalise their disappearance, despite Pryce’s allusion to their fate, but it’s only at the story’s climax, five years later, when Pryce reappears with a request that he take one last enfilade picture, that he’s finally confronted with the grim truth.

I was less taken with Tim Lees’ ‘Summer of Love’, which, though it has a pervasive air of wrongness and subtle menace, and explores themes of dissociation, of feeling one is not living the life one is meant to, never quite comes together. Perhaps it’s because the protagonist, Danny, is so passive in his relationship with his friend Pete, particularly when it comes to girls. Danny’s failure to get with the right one—the attractive blonde they both fancy, as opposed to her apparently plainer, duller friend—leads to dark visions of disintegration, of strange, hybrid creatures, of feelings that he’s a bit part player in the movie of Pete’s life. It’s an interesting and suggestive theme but the disparate threads, of lack of agency—it’s significant that neither girl is ever named—or absence and stasis—fail to resolve into a coherent narrative.

Sarah Lamparelli’s kinetic and battle-scarred (take that literally) ‘Retention’, reads like a near future version of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War crossed with Richard Lupoff’s With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama (first published in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions). While it reads like near future SF, it is in fact set in our very recent past. It concerns army medic Sergeant Hanlon’s suspicions that her superiors are deploying genetically enhanced super soldiers in combats zones in Iraq and Afghanistan in the alleged War on Terror. Stationed in Kandahar where she patches up infantry troops, getting them fit enough to return to the slaughter, her fears become more acute when she encounters a Captain Green, a man she had shot in Iraq, fearing he was about to assault her. It had been a head shot and though she had initially thought him dead, soon after she was told he would survive and would not be pressing charges. Subsequently, she was reassigned to Kandahar. Green’s reappearance at her medical station seems to confirm the rumours she’s heard about a type of parasitic worm the army have been using to create ‘forever soldiers’, and though Hanlon fears the worst, Green is revealed as a tormented character, fully aware of the extent to which his body has been exploited and he himself robbed of agency. It’s a powerful and thought-provoking tale, infused with Lamparelli’s own first hand experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s ‘R is for Remains’ focuses on Gene, an employee for a company that specialises in cleaning up crime scenes, with the remains of the title being of the human variety. Gene’s a conscientious worker, who happens to be able to see the dead, some of whom are the ghosts of those whose remains he has cleared up at various locations. Somewhat solitary by nature, he doesn’t like to rush a job, wanting to ensure a property is left spotless when they are done. In some cases, this proves impossible, in which case he’s willing to take things into his own hands and offer what might be considered a more permanent form of cleansing. The author plays its straight, and though the matter of fact tones carries with it a certain deadpan humour—Gene finds the company logo of three entwined Genies leaving sparkling stars in their wake, embarrassing—as always with Rasnic Tem, beneath the surface there’s a real sense of compassion for his characters and the bizarre situation they find themselves in.

Aliyah Whiteley gives us ‘Possibilities are Endless’, a superbly crafted story that explores the relationship between teacher and novice, where what is taught is the power to remove possibility. The narrator, Lennie is a professional remover, who works for clients who pay considerable sums to rid themselves of any possibilities that might hinder them from achieving their life goals. Having achieved a certain status and wealth, most removers recruit suitable applicants to take their place, and such are the financial rewards, students are willing to give a percentage of their annual income to their mentors. The only catch is, clients are not allowed to request in advance or know the nature of the possibilities that will be removed. It’s a brilliant and unique conceit, one with, ironically, endless narrative possibilities, but which, in a direct echo of the story’s theme, Whiteley chooses to limit. She confines the story to the relationship and growing tension between Lennie and Win, a student who, despite her early potential, is soon revealed to be burdened with doubt about her own ability to succeed as a remover. Win questions why she can’t remove this possibility from herself and it’s that desire that ultimately leads to a breakdown between mentor and student, a denouement that, in Whiteley’s capable hands, is both poignant and hopeful.

‘The Salted Bones,’ by Neil Williamson, concerns radiographer Patrick’s quest to find a rational explanation as to why the arm bones of two teenage sister have been engraved, one with the word ‘witness’, and the other ‘warden’. It’s a powerful piece that exposes our own failure as a species to accept responsibility for the harm we do to the planet. As one of the two girls implies, Patrick—along with the rest of us—knows the truth that we pretend ignorance of: that we are all careless witnesses to the sacrifices made by the few who try to warn us against the coming horrors.

Julie C. Day’s ‘Whole Bodies are Never Left Behind’ is a macabre tale about a young boy’s attempt to honour the memory of his dead grandfather. After the old man’s death, young Minnow moves—along with his mother and the family cat, Annabelle—from Kentucky to Cape Cod, though the boy is disturbed at having to leave his grandfather’s bones in his Kentucky grave, as he believes bones have a permanence lacking in flesh. Minnow invests in bones the idea of connectedness, both literally and metaphorically. When Annabelle begins to leaves the bodies of her prey for Minnow, he begins to strip the flesh and tissue and articulate the bones of these different creatures, incorporating them into his own flesh, a ritual he believes will allow him somehow to communicate, with, or even resurrect his grandfather. And yet something remains missing from the equation until one day, when a cruel twist of fate offers an epiphany about how to more effectively deploy the bones. It’s a strange story that, despite it’s more disturbing elements, manages to make Minnow a convincing and even sympathetic protagonist. It’s to Day’s credit that she’s able to persuade us to invest so wholly in his painful, yearning quest.

The weirdest and most disturbing story in this final issue—and also my personal favourite—is Françoise Harvey’s ‘Cul-de-Sac.’ The story begins in a familiar, almost Lynchian setting of a quiet, urban estate, with detached red-brick dwellings, neatly mown front lawns, driveways, and privet hedges. This could be an English version of Lumberton, where young couple Ruth and Tom have recently moved because of the affordable rent, while most of the other houses in the small estate seem to be occupied by wary, curtain-twitching or over-friendly pensioners who pay undue attention to their unkempt driveway. Ruth quickly finds the atmosphere oppressive—alluding at one point to The Stepford Wives—though Tom, who “likes to be liked” goes out of his way to win over his neighbours, particularly Maura, or ‘Thingy’, as Ruth calls her, the local busybody and conduit for gossip about the goings on in the neighbourhood. He even trims the fir tree in their front garden to please them. As with Lynch, this prosaic milieu, once established, is slowly but surely undermined by small but peculiar events: a neighbour, Bethel, standing inside her front window, waving wildly, seeming to berate, or maybe warn, Ruth as she returns from a walk; a vision of a hand brushing the tops of the lopped branches of the fir tree that seems to offer the neighbours a more exposed view into their life; Maura’s claims that Bethel “sees things”—pixies, or “little things” dancing on Ruth’s lawn; the repetitive, indecipherable nature of Maura’s overheard phone calls. The cumulative effect of the incidents gradually wear Ruth down, blurring the edges of her perception, offering a febrile glimpse of a distorted world adjacent to our own. An apparently mundane request from Maura—for Tom’s help in the garden, and to repair a broken cupboard in Bethel’s house—incites the story’s quiet but deeply unsettling climax, one that Harvey pulls off with astonishing subtlety.

The issue is rounded off with Gary Couzens 'column on the latest DVD and streaming genre films, albeit sadly, this final time it's a much abbreviated 'Blood Spectrum'; and of course, Peter Tennant's always excellent 'Case Notes', which, thankfully, is as comprehensive and insightful as ever, focusing, appropriately enough, on a handful of authors--many of them mentioned yesterday, who went on to forge close associations with TTA and Black Static over the years.

Apart from a very succinct message from Andy on the contents page, there's no final message, no last hurrah or long goodbye. Fittingly, for a man who shunned the limelight, but who nonetheless deserves all the accolades for having published some of the best horror fiction to appear anwhere in the last few decades, he dedicates the issue to all "the friends we have lost along the way". Here's to that sentiment, and here's to Black Static. You'll be missed.

Black Static 82/83 Andy Cox (ed.)

(TTA Press, 192pp)

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