BLACK STATIC #3

Reviewed by Lawrence R. Dagstine

So I've read Black Static #3--formerly called The Third Alternative and published bimonthly by TTA Press in a semi-glossy, quality print format--and I come away with much respect and enthusiasm; and the occasional drooling while my mouth was open in complete awe at the artwork and photo layouts. You will not find anything like Black Static--not even remotely close--here in the United States. I say this because I read a lot of genre magazines, and they don't have nearly as much as Black Static has to offer. To be honest, the literary quality and arrangement of high-end fiction (all dark tales in some form or manner), articles, reviews and interviews are clearly what American horror magazines today are lacking in the professionalism department.

Basically, this is not your grandmother's fiction magazine. And as you turn the pages, each story tries to prove it with a kick in the privates. Only one of those enjoyable kicks...

We start off the issue with The Pit by Alexander Glass. Written in a downcast but chilling first-person narrative, we have a young adult who is haunted by the death of his friend Sarah, and reminisces about a mysterious pit that first appeared in his room some time ago, practically calling out to his conscience and questioning his innermost fears. Sarah often enjoys a good game of hide-and-seek and, while hanging out with our protagonist, we learn that she too has seen the pit. Wondering what happens if you fall into it, she suggests that you might come back, you might not, or you might be dead either way, and that it is visible only to the young. If you don't want it to come and haunt you, she suggests offering it some blood. The tale also implies that the pit only manifests itself at night and in young people's lives when they go through bad times, such as a parent's divorce or being picked on by bullies in school, or even when contemplating suicide or puberty-like depression is evident. We actually see one of those nights where our main character is going through rough times mentally, like most of us did as teenagers, and the pit tries to pluck him from his bed by sucking everything inwards. The experience of that night leaves an unforgettable memory in his mind, for everywhere he goes, even in public, he thinks he sees the pit and that it is trying to swallow people around him, or that it's going to come back for him. There are times, out of curiosity, when he wants it to come back. But as we near the climax, we see the return of Sarah, and an oath made between the two that if one of them doesn't want to live anymore, they must wait to find each other first before succumbing to the pit.

Our next story brings us The Mist of Lichthafen by Seth Skorkowsky. Lichthafen starts off with a German sailor loading a dock during World War Two. I happen to enjoy stories set during this era, especially dark ones with German locales near the sea, or even high-peril mysteries set far away from it, so I was quickly immersed. And Skorkowky's story had a great premise, it was very atmospheric, and the writing style promises to drag readers in from the get-go, regardless of some minor elemental similarities to Stephen King's The Mist and John Carpenter's The Fog.

A strange mist approaches the city of Lichthafen, and the sailors and civilians, alerted by church sirens, scramble forth in fear to hide. They know what this incoming threat is capable of. Kellek, the protagonist of the story, happens to be one of those people; it took his sister's life. Residents have already prepared by closing the city gates, closing shops, barring windows and doors. But that doesn't stop Kellek, and another cloaked man by the name of Hasteng, from being thieves and prowling rooftops whenever the substance draws near. No, they want to find a very high area where they can witness it firsthand. A living fog which visits the city a few times per year and claims many victims. Some say demons dwell within it, others zombies. Whatever supernatural force is there, Kellek and Hasteng eventually learn there is no escape, as it starts looming upwards towards them. And if Kellek thinks he's going to get into Pascha's jewelry shop before the night is over, a place he has dreamed of robbing for far too long, then he has another surprise coming.

This is followed by The Sentinels by Tony Richards. Rick is your typical twenty-something Hollywood studio worker living his typical life along Mulholland Drive. One day he wakes up in the middle of the Sonoran Desert outside of Phoenix, and all he can remember is the crappy, lonely lifestyle he's led and the last person he was talking to. A woman at a bar by the name of Lucy, who he shamelessly falls for faster than the other flaky girls previously in his life. He drives from Glendale to look for her, but halfway through, the story suggests that Lucy is the reason he is stranded. And the Sentinels, well, the story implies that they would be the twenty-foot tall cactuses surrounding him in this desert when he wakes up. Overall, the story goes through moments where there are a number of flashbacks, or just an overabundance of unnecessary recollections, and this was a terrible distraction; so was spending a ton of words talking about a bad-running Silverado and potholes. Here you have a story where a new kind of horror could have been employed into the plotline differently, but it was not. I would have liked to see and learn more terrifying things about these tall cactuses--known as Saguaros in Spanish--rather than spiritual things. After all, they were around Rick's every failure when he finally remembered driving out to the desert. Instead, we have a confusing climax where a man comes face-to-face with a puma.

Next we have the longest piece in the issue, written by Ian Faulkner, and clearly one of historical and descriptive brilliance. This story alone makes the issue worth the cover price. Faulkner's The Difference Between cannonballs us straight into the most relentless, horrible circumstances of one soldier, Arthur Watts, and the World War One trenches he is fighting so bravely and desperately to get out of. He's surrounded by gunfire and death on all sides, but refuses to give up. Faulkner's elegant usage of English made you wonder if you truly were in the middle of these barb wired trenches, drowned in mud and blood and crowded by charred bodies, being thrown about by mortar blasts and shells, just so that our hero could get home to the woman he loved. And on top of that, among the crimson and shrapnel, there are creatures floating around, feeding on the remains of the dying. Arthur learns from an injured soldier that these creatures are referred to as the Daughters of Nyx, or some kind of goddesses or angels that come down to the battlefield to ferry the dying to their loved ones. The Keres, as we later learn they're called, look part-Angel, part-Medusa, and have fangs! And along with the non-stop enemy fire, Arthur can only hope but to escape this nightmare. The payoff was spectacular!

Then comes The Morning After by Carole Johnstone. This is a tale about a man in a rush to get to a job interview or job course of some kind. He has to run through a crime and drug-infested part of town just so he can make the train by no later than 8:20 A.M., which somehow sets up the importance of the story's premise. Much of what goes through his mind while he is running is the neighborhood gangs, how Merlin used to live in a castle nearby but now look at the shape of things, and how his former lover is with a new man, a lover he despises. As he careens himself off walls just to make it to the train station, there are syringes around each and every turn that he almost pricks himself on, and we really don't know where these syringes have been or what is inside them other a touch of someone else's blood, and that they play an integral role in what I felt was an otherwise flat, undeveloped story.

In Will McIntosh's The Fantasy Jumper, we have some kind of futuristic theme park, a place of characterized amusement and holographic attractions, overrun with kiosks the way arcades are overrun with claw machines. Here visitors can manipulate or create virtual dates, ancient memories, and fantasies for entertainment purposes; sometimes with themselves starring in it. Along the way, Rando, Violet, and Cloe, try out all the different kiosks and see what fantasies there are that they can try out. The story becomes somewhat dark and surreal though when Cloe, and then Violet, engage in a kiosk with the Fantasy Jumper, a particular illusion where this leapfrog-like character is used to create a deadly and horrific-looking acrobatic trick for breaking bones and spattering blood through a telescopic viewer.

And last we have The Toad and I by Matthew Holness. A pretty good story about a man who works for a toy company, and whose artistic position and creations mean more to him through the years than others will ever know. One day he is called into the boss's office, a man with a toadlike disposition and attitude, only to learn that he has been fired and is of no real worth or value. He doesn't know what to do, or what he will do after this. It's even pointed out afterwards that all he ever does is think of the heroic little clay figures he produces, yet he has probably never once in his life thought of doing something heroic himself. He is demeaned to no end, until finally, we see his boss undergo a very strange metamorphosis (and they say that people at the top of the corporate ladder aren't really frogs who you can get revenge on by dissecting).

Black Static #3 also has a juicy DVD review section by Tony Lee, and an interview with horror author and Bram Stoker nominee, Sarah Langan, by Whispers' very own Peter Tennant (who also does book reviews for the magazine). Other non-fiction work includes Stephen Volk, Christopher Fowler (whose views on the film version of I Am Legend, I couldn't agree with more), and Mike O'Driscoll.

If you live in the United States, I would consider this horror import, because you're really missing out.

Black Static, edited by Andy Cox and published bi-monthly by TTA Press, 5 Martins Lane, Witcham, Ely, Cambs CB6 2LB, UK. A4, 68pp, £3.99 or £21/6 issues (for other countries see ordering details on website).

Website: - www.ttapress.com


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