Gabbles on about Fusing Horizons
Fusing Horizons again comes in a 100-page A5 booklet, but with a reduced font size. While still very clear and readable, it's not quite so easy on the eye as the earlier issues, but you certainly get your money's worth of reading material (especially as the magazine comes without internal illustrations).
This issue leads off with Jay Lake's Mr Scalpel and Mr Gloves, which is brilliant both in conception and execution. Each story in the magazine has a rather neat little 'billing' on the contents page ('something horrific', 'something amusing', etc.), but the billing for this one--'something wacky'--is quite misleading, implying as it does something Monty Pythonish or Tommy Trinderish. In fact, the story is both horrific and deadly (literally) serious. A man, probably quite old, who rides the rails jumps a train in Philadelphia, but the train arrives ... well, we don't know where, a place called Triune Town, which at first appears to be a town from the past, but turns out to be something even odder, not one of the 'Cities of the Map' at all. Here, in a luxurious men's' room (toilet), he is accosted by six dwarves, two of whom he nicknames Mr Scalpel and Mr Gloves because that's what they have in or on their hands--and covered with blood, to boot. He is told to be the Nice Man... or else. And being the Nice Man involves judging the various crimes of the community and deciding the sentences--sentences the six dwarves will carry out--because 'having lost sight of our souls, we can no longer judge ourselves.' But there is a catch, which I'm not going to reveal, which points directly at a weakness at the very centre of justice as practised even (or especially) in the more civilised countries. A bonus is that the story is told by the hobo, and his colourful language and outlook give the story an extra dimension. A superb opener.
Peter Tennant's Suspension of Disbelief is a worthy follow-on, although quite different, much more 'in your face', as the expression goes. But... is it really in your face? The protagonist, Dawson, sees a girl shopping in the supermarket, and is shocked since he has recently watched her die a la Tennant (i.e. quite gruesomely) in a snuff movie bought from the friendly local family video shop. It turns out (or does it?) that the girl had once done a Hong Kong horror movie, and that the 'snuff' movie is simply outtakes from that. The girl herself explains this. Dawson goes to the video shop, blood lust high, to find out who cheated him and take revenge.
Up to here, all normal (for Norfolk!): we expect blood and revenge. But once in the video shop, things turn decidedly odd, and the story becomes both more sinister and more intriguing. Death and mutilation do occur--but are they any more real than the scenes in the snuff film? Or were those scenes not in fact unreal at all? The girl (?) appears again: 'He'd known that she would come to him, as she would come to them all, all the ones who had played a part in her apotheosis.' And Dawson has no choice but to finally discover the meaning of life and death for himself, firsthand, not as a voyeur. An excellent story, exciting as you read, and plenty left to think about afterwards.
A complete change of pace for Iain Rowan's The Call. It's a quiet understated piece, in which a man trying to come to terms with the loss of his wife and daughter in an accident (by moving away from the city to an 'ugly' fishing village, and refusing to allow any memories of the past to intrude on the present) meets a young man who is not 'quite right' in the head who has also suffered a personal tragedy, but has opened himself up enough to hear 'the call'. As to what 'the call' is, the whole story is a preparation for it, because the man cannot forever shut out the memories. Another top class story, subtle in the things it does not say.
Unpleasant little men appear again in Donald Pulker's The Intruders (is this a reaction against those dratted Hobbits?), only this time they're much nastier, and don't seem very interested in justice (revenge, maybe?). I was a little confused by the story: a thoroughly depressed doctor spends a long time searching for a Jimi Hendrix song called 'The Wind Cries Mary', perhaps because his wife Mariel left him two years before, although we are told that 'he did not miss her'. Meanwhile the vicious little men seem to escape into reality from the nightmares of one of his patients, freed when a drug prescribed by the doctor stops him having those nightmares, and they enter the doctor's nightmares instead. They murder the patient when he is given medication and sleeps, which makes a kind of sense, but then go after the doctor--hundreds of them. A hint at the end--'by destroying him, would they somehow be freeing themselves of existence as well?'--still didn't entirely convince me of the internal consistency of the story.
John Probert's Taking Over starts off quietly, and even ends quietly, but we've had a few surprises in the meantime, cunningly meted out. A well-dressed lady of 33 wants to look round a large Georgian property for sale. There are tiny indications, but it's only after three pages that we learn the lady already knows something about the very unpleasant things that went on in the house, which had been a residential home for the elderly, and some more time before we learn about her own connection to the person who did those things, and, finally, what her own intentions are (as in the title). In the subtle duel between the woman and the estate agent, we see that she takes delight in making him feel uncomfortable, though I'm not sure whether these little cruelties quite make her real intentions believable. And, yes, there is something living in the attic. What makes the story successful, I think, is the pacing; we see the present situation from the POV of the woman without being told the back story too quickly, and the whole tale is extremely carefully constructed.
John Rosenman's Coming Out, unfortunately, feels somewhat clumsy in comparison to the previous story. A man, Trent, tells his friend that he's gay, but chooses the most inconvenient time possible (arriving early in the morning when the friend is trying to dash off for work). As he's had twelve years of friendship in which to unburden himself, one does feel that Trent might have chosen a better time. And when the friend responds, coldly shocked, 'I see', Trent answers: 'Do you? I'm so glad. Oh God I'm so relieved, Jason.' I thought it was masturbation that made you blind, not being gay. Jason hardly has time to ponder this 'treachery' before he's presented with another stock situation, catching the local (white) racist in the storeroom, 'locked in an amorous embrace with a young black woman'. Then, his wife confesses that she too has a secret, concerning karate lessons... At this point, I was convinced that this story should have been written as a humorous piece, and even reread a bit to see if it was written as a humorous piece. But no, we have the inevitable twist in the tail, in which our long-suffering Jason reveals his secret.
It's not just little people who repeatedly get a bad press in Fusing Horizons; residential homes do, too. The treatment given to the residents in William Edwards' Dead Cells is no better than that in Taking Over, unless you happen to have entomological leanings! This story is, however, told from the viewpoint of one of the residents, who is convinced he has seen spiders on the ceiling at night. The plot as such didn't over-excite me, but the ideas are very well worked out and internally consistent, and there is a sustained attempt to get across what it might feel like to be in such a home. One might even (although I don't think it was the author's intention) see the spiders as metaphorical, the 'dying' of the cells. A whole paragraph, for instance, is devoted to old McGarrity's 'ridiculous, childish pajamas, the ones printed with locomotives... perhaps a tenuous link to a last vestige' of his past. There is a scene, not strictly necessary for the plot, in which the protagonist reacts to the presence of a young woman doctor. His attempt to escape at the end, with the detail of the corridors, and even the presence of a shadowy figure who must have known he was there, almost reminds one of the classic Torture by Hope by de L'Isle-Adam. All in all, a story written with great and humane attention to detail that helps it rise above its mere plot.
Soapocryphal by Michael Stone takes us into a future in which people can (and do) watch their favourite soap on screens built into their wrists. The protagonist, Philip, pays much more attention to the ongoing soap than to his wife--until he becomes aware that, Truman Show-like, the events in the soap seem to be echoing the events of his own life, or even preceding them. When he finally stirs himself to check up on his wife's visit to the 'bingo', going to a house with the same number as one in the soap, and finds her with another man, things turn violent. Something has gone wrong with the script. And continues to go wrong. The story, part satire, part horror, works well because soap and 'real life' don't exactly complement each other, and because the central question is left unanswered. The interweaving of the show and Philip's movements is cleverly done.
Leila Eadie's The Snowman is a perfectly readable little story--the snowman in question of course turns out not to be the most pacific of icemen--with a fairly exciting fight to the death at the end, but the basic outline of the story is so common (snowman, scarecrow, doll, teddy bear, etc. being sentient and naughty) that I never really got drawn into it. This snowman, though, likes a swig of scotch--a nice touch. And has genuinely warm feelings (ouch!) towards the little girl he too zealously protects.
John Saxton's Howling Highway is an odd piece that appears as if it's going to be a road rage story, then possibly a spooky highway story, and finally turns out to be something quite different. A man is returning home, with the intention of accompanying his alcoholic wife to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. But in the meantime, she has again hit the bottle, with dire results. More I cannot reveal, but let's say unusual recipes are involved. A neat little shocker.
Jeannie in a Bottle is apparently one of Edmund Schubert's first ever stories, and if so is remarkably good. Jeanne is a nurse working in a centre for the mentally retarded. But then a new patient arrives... and turns out to be an idiot savant with a vengeance! The nurse suspects a little about his powers, and wants those powers for herself. Bad idea! At the end, if she were in any condition to do so, she would understand just why the old man who originally committed the patient was so agitated, and fled so quickly. The ending is particularly well written, as Jeanne learns (but with no time to digest the thought) that you cannot 'hold an ocean in a thimble'.
Critics Have Sharp Teeth, by Jon Hartless, takes the Dracula idea (and a couple of the characters) and applies it to critics sucking the lifeblood from poor writers, and adds some Victorian lithographic naughtiness. The story didn't work for me. The intended satire on the language of literary criticism is too heavy, the 'story' doesn't really make that much sense, and the jokes and unsubtle allusions didn't usually make me laugh. But we all know that one man's humour is another man's apoplexy...
Heather Richardson's The Walled-in Room has to be one of the best stories in the issue. My only complaint is that occasionally the register seems a bit awry, veering from 'uneducated' cockney to telling and intelligent description. But this is a minor complaint. The 'billing' for this is 'something powerful', and so it is. A woman is locked away in the walled-in room of the title, with only a tiny floor-level grill connecting her to the outside world, and the narrator, known for his fidelity to his gangland losses, is given the task of taking her food once a day and removing and emptying her cardboard urinal. It is impossible for him to see her, and he is warned never to speak to her. At times I was reminded of the early part of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun: in both the victim has no hope, in both the reason for her predicament is unknown, and in both the jailor feels a secret desire to aid her, although that aid can never go beyond making the pain more bearable. In both, also, the details are carefully selected for maximum effect, and the reader is drawn in to empathise completely with the narrator. Powerful indeed.
As is Gary McMahon's The Great Wall. This is quite a different sort of wall from the previous one, one that, instead of enclosing, seems to offer freedom. A lonely man whose life has become practically meaningless wakes up to find the world consists of nothing but an enormous wall. And he climbs it, even though it takes days, perhaps weeks. 'Not once did it occur to him to turn around, walk in the other direction. No, the wall was here for a reason...' He climbs. And climbs. And as he does so, 'his mind soared free for the first time in his life'. But then he finally reaches the top, and sees hundreds of other figures climbing hundreds of other walls... The words 'Sisyphus was here', gouged into the stone, give a clue to the meaning of the wall, but the story is more ambiguous than that. Despite the seeming hopelessness of the situation, he doesn't just allow himself to fall to his death, but instead 'began to climb back down the other side to embrace his destiny'. The metaphor has no one clear meaning--if anything, there are two quite contradictory meanings--and that may well be why it is such a memorable story.
In addition to the fiction, there's a short interview with Stephen Gallagher, whom I'm prepared to like since among his favourite writers and books feature Richmal Crompton ('William' books), Frank Richards ('Billy Bunter' books) , Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Christopher Marlowe! And editor Gary Fry has a small essay on perception and Ramsey Campbell, which is probably more meaningful for those who have read Campbell than for those who haven't. And, of course, the 'Fusing Atoms' themselves, tiny 150-word-limit stories or scenes which are too short to really make a strong impression, but do break up the longer fiction nicely.
So what de we have? Four or five absolutely top notch stories, the same number of fairly good ones, and only a couple that didn't grab me: and if they'd all grabbed me, as the editor points out in his three 'philosophical theses', there'd have been something drastically wrong! When Fusing Horizons was first announced, I thought 'Oh no, here we go again, yet another horror mag, can't someone come up with something different just for once?'--so I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, both by this and earlier issues. OK, there are a few typical 'horror' scenarios here, but even they are often handled with a satisfying freshness, and other stories completely transcend the genre--or, to be more accurate, what many people think of as the genre. (Whew! Just saved myself from a hiding and a horse-whipping by the ever-vigilant Peter Tennant there!) Highly recommended.
Fusing Horizons, 19 Ruffield Side, Wyke, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD12 8NP, United Kingdom. Single copies £2.65, 4-issue sub £9.99; US, 4-issue sub, $21.95
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