Reviewed by Adrian Fry

Few would disagree that horror is a genre in trouble. In film and television, the urge to send shivers down the spine seems to have been replaced by the urge to garner sassily ironic laughs about the horror canon, while horror magazines seem to fold with the alacrity of dotcom companies. So now is a good time to take a look at Dark Animus, James R Cain's unpretentious attempt to keep the black fires burning.

Dark Animus # 4 has an invitingly exotic cover, busy with tantalising images. Layout inside is fine, though it would be nice to have had all the author bios in one place or at the end of the relevant pieces. The artwork included here is very good and it is heartening to see poetry prominently featured.

After some 'parish notices' masquerading as an Editorial - can editors really find nothing more stimulating to say than 'renew your subscriptions'? - the magazine proper gets rather bravely underway with Emily Vainglory's oddly bathetic undead cat poem, Seeing It Move, a work to which witty artwork adds an additional chilly laugh.

John Grover's monster hunt tale Dark Song assembles all the ingredients of a good horror story - suspense, gore, surprise ending - but somehow manages to feel perfunctory. Grover deploys techniques like bullet point examples from a 'how to write horror' manual and the story is too brief for the reader properly to engage with it.

Next comes L'image Fixe, Gavin Salisbury's poem about a cruel and unusual punishment. Economical yet subtle and leaving much to the imagination of the reader, this poem lingered for some while in my mind.

My favourite piece in this collection, Tim Curran's novella One Dark September Night is a teen horror story in which a sleepout goes very badly wrong for a bunch of pretty unsavoury youths. The real horror here is adolescence itself, with Curran expertly riffing on urban legends and campfire horrors, conjuring characters propelled into terrible acts by the false bravado and skin-thinning gaucheness of that awful period between childhood and adulthood.

Bottled Quiescence by Christine Sng is an allusive little poem about absinthe, vampirism and love. It works well but for the jarring inclusion of the word 'perfluorocarbon' which spoils an otherwise poisonously romantic mood.

Davin Ireland's Spook is a clever satire set in a bureaucratic Purgatory where souls await re-assignment to other lives on Earth. Weary of the racial and political sufferings that seem as likely to blight his next life as his last, our hero decides to buck the system. . . With its subtle reference to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, this is another tale where the true horrors belong to our own prosaic world rather than the supernatural and the author expertly manages to balance some wry humour and weary melancholy to good effect.

Least successful poem of the collection for me was Lee Clarke Zumpe's Curls of Fog. Too many horror poems lean on antique language and Celtic twilight imagery for effect and this one added nothing new.

It's back to visceral horror for Darrell Pitt's Flesh, a tour de force that starts as the psychological horror story of a man haunted by his violent childhood but morphs into something much nastier. The sex and gore won't be to all tastes and there won't be any prizes for intellectual depth, but this story really does scare.

The collection concludes with Mike Arnzen's Flunking The Assassin, a novel black comedy set in a future school for killers where a reprimand from the Principal could be fatal. Horror comedy is notoriously difficult to bring off and this didn't quite work for me , but there were sufficient laughs for me to finish Dark Animus # 4 with a (perhaps disturbed) smile.


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