MIDNIGHT STREET #6

Reviewed by Steve Redwood

This latest issue of Midnight Street, with fifty A4 pages chockfull of a wide variety of fiction, poetry, and interviews, continues to do the small press proud.

As regular readers will know, each issue 'showcases' an author, with two pieces of fiction, an interview, and a bibliography. This time it's Tony Richards. In the first story, What Malcolm Did the Day Before Tomorrow, he ties in (interestingly if not too convincingly) Relativity and our perception of the passing of time with a mysterious centuries-old drug from the Dutch East Indies, so that the protagonist, on holiday in Amsterdam, only has to take a joint to go back a few hours in time, in his own 'time bubble', while the rest of the world moves on as before. Of course, we hit the inevitable logical problems. When he makes love to the same woman a second time on a return 'trip', we're told it's actually the first time, 'albeit a revised and improved' one. Fine for him--but this would also imply that he has altered the woman's life too, and so the rest of the world is not moving on as before. A bigger logical flaw is that the drug never allows him to get past midnight, to reach 'tomorrow', as if 'tomorrow' is a separate and concrete entity instead of an arbitrary human convenience. However, once we forget some of the mechanics, we have a powerful and ultimately tragic, and indeed terrifying, story. At midnight, the rest of the world moves on--leaving the city--and presumably the whole world--empty of humanity, or indeed of any form of life. While he still has some of the drug left, the protagonist can 'repopulate' the world by going back to a time earlier in the day--but when the drug runs out? This story has one of the best endings I've read in a long time.

Richards' second story is Skin Two, which in his own words is 'really about how modern society pushes us into moulds of one kind and another, mostly of our own connivance'. Here the mould is literally that, 'skynth', a synthetic skin. It begins as a medical miracle, replacing a woman's face disfigured in a fire, but its original purpose soon becomes corrupted as the medical procedure becomes more common, and we have excellent little vignettes, details carefully selected, involving a black man deciding to become white (and the deadly ironic penalty), the emotional and social cost of not keeping up with fashion, the not knowing with what exactly you might be sleeping with, and a final scene suggesting what might be the final cost of all the preceding. A bit of carelessness on p.16, where the author accidentally slips from second-person narration into third, is of little importance given these perfectly modulated scenes.

Evil Monsters is competent and well written, like all of Paul Finch's stories, but there's not much more to say. Perhaps it's the influence of television (for which Finch writes), and its belief that people only want to travel along well-worn grooves. But when you have an old man telling a couple of young men about legends of a horse-like monster on an island, and the two men subsequently go to the island over a causeway in a four-by-four, and a friend of the old man says, "It's not their vehicle I'm worried about", you've already written yourself into a corner. Unless you're playing with genre (and Finch isn't), all that remains for you is to write the inevitable conclusion--either monster gobbles, or men escape. And in a way, it doesn't really make that much difference how well you write it. Finch's description of the vault-like island, of the feeling of menace (lack of natural sounds, smell, mysterious cave-painting of a monster, etc.) is fine, detailed, visual and vivid--but the story goes exactly where the reader assumes it is going to go.

Nina Allan's Fleece is much more intriguing. A girl is at a train station, about to leave the country, and a man is asking her--without really meaning it--not to go. That's it. Only, from the very beginning, our interest is captured as we learn there is something odd about the girl--she's wearing a fleece with the hood up, and 'the skin of her fingers looked normal.... from a distance'. Gradually the strange details are built up--a 'softly-scabbed palm', a hatred of eating 'anything not raw', hair 'the colour of squid-ink', hard-edged blisters 'like scales', etc. When a flashback tells us the girl had said, "It hasn't worked", and the narrator mentions seeing the tabloid headline, 'Two infants slain', it's pretty clear what's been happening. But the reader has to concentrate to see the emerging pattern, and so interest is maintained until the end. In addition, I like the economy of the prose, and the suggestion that behind it all there is a long back story, leading to this present time of broken hopes. My only tiny complaint (unless I've missed something, a frequent occurrence!) is that the references to Jason and the Golden Fleece (twice) are too direct--and, perhaps, a little misleading?

Michael Beeman is apparently a writing student at Champlain College in Burlingon, Vermont, so it's rather strange they never taught him to avoid the old ogres of 'who's' for 'whose', and 'it's' for 'its'. But once you recover from your Trussian shock-horror, in Fifteen Minutes in Huntsville, Texas, you have a rather moving story pointing out the contrast between a happy little boy with loving parents, and the murderous monster he has become. As he is being executed in Texas the 'humane' way (three drugs to cause anaesthesia, paralysis, and heart attack) his now-twisted mind replays a happy childhood moment--his father throwing him playfully up into the air--turning it into a nightmare, and his parents into the kind of person he has become. But after death, there is a coda, in which, again as a baby, 'Johnny Bigham smiles a wide smile and bounces on his couch, bounces to the moon. Higher and higher, and up and up and up.' However you interpret this, I found it a very appropriate ending.

The following story, Gary Couzens' Daddy's Girls, has what has become, alas, an all too common theme--child sexual abuse--about which it isn't easy to say something new. But Couzens manages to do so. An obese woman commits suicide. There is a relationship between the obesity and the suicide, but not the expected one. What raises this story well above average is its compressed complexity. The story holds our attention because of the indirection (the brother only finds out what has been happening after his sister's suicide, and the reader even later), the unusual reason for the suicide (nicely suggested by Alfred Klosterman's illustration) and its timing (just after the death of the father), and the 'frame' of the narrator's entirely different father-daughter relationship.

SS Tranter's Shouting at the Shadow People is a study of a man who has always had problems interacting socially, and has as compensation invented his own imaginary companions--Madonna, Plato, Custer - all of whom look up to him. At first aware of the distinction between them, he is now having increasing difficulties distinguishing between the 'flesh and bone' people and the 'shadow people'. He realises his only hope of returning fully to real life is an ex-girlfriend who is coming to visit him one evening. The story is slight, but the writer, in a scene set in a supermarket, brings out well the protagonist's terror of real people, and the ending is a particularly neat one.

Jerry Oltion's The Grass is Always Greener is, for me, the most original and imaginative story in the magazine. If you can afford it, it's possible to make holes between alternative universes, and invite your alternative selves into your universe for a big party. Which is exactly what the billionaire version of the narrator Michael (a mere house-husband) does. Fifty of them. Since they have split off into alternative universes at different times, they share some, but not all, of each other's memories, though their fates have been very different--as well as the billionaire, there's also the garbage man, for instance, and the transsexual, now called Michelle. One thing they all had in common as teenagers was an obsession with sex. The protagonist, though, has married such a wild lady, Sonja, that he's never had any temptation to be unfaithful. Unfortunately the billionaire Michael also remembers Sonja--and wants her so much he replaces the house-husband, leaving him stranded in his own billionaire's universe. But the house-husband wants his wife back--but there's also a rather nice 'French maid' in the billionaire's mansion; and his wife in any caser prefers the billionaire. With a wonderful ironical twist, the fact that the rich playboy billionaire 'is actually a closet monogamist' may prove to be a weakness... A delightful romp from beginning to orgiastic end!

The fiction finishes with a small vignette of a man who has turned into a giant mole and hunts humans for food. I couldn't quite see the point of it.

There are four poems, one by Cathy Buburuz, a cleverly written warning not to accept sweets from elderly ladies of ill repute especially if she keeps canaries, and three by Lee Clark Zumpe, of which the first one, the blackberry patch, is probably the best, with its images of an abandoned stone chimney, 'splotches of moss/gradually scaling the shaded tower', and a coal black cauldron lying beside unmarked graves down in the hollow.

There are two interviews, a long one with Tony Richards (including a bibliography) which allows the writer plenty of space to discuss his ideas, especially the paramount importance of observation (which certainly pays off in the Amsterdam scenes in the story discussed above); and another with a Louisiana writer called Deborah LeBlanc, who may be known to horror fans, with two novels published by Leisure books. In addition, there is what I can only regard as a filler by Michael Lohr about what people leave behind in taxis.

In short... another midnight feast.

Midnight Street edited by Trevor Denyer, 7 Mount View, Church Lane West, Aldershot, Hampshire, GU11 3LN, England. A4, 52pp, £3.50/$8US or £9.50 for 3 issues/ $22US All cheques etc payable to “T. DENYER” (online purchase details, including other countries, can be found at the website).

Website: - www.midnightstreet.co.uk


Return to Whispers review archive