MIDNIGHT STREET #8

Reviewed by Steve Redwood

This issue showcases the well-known devilish duo LH Maynard & MPN Sims, in the now customary Midnight Street format of two stories and an interview. The latter includes interesting information about the development of their writing (particularly how they set about a collaboration), the move from short stories to mass market novels, and their days of editing Enigmatic Tales and Darkness Rising. I'm sure many people reading this (if many people are reading this!) had their earliest breaks in one of these anthologies.

Their first story here, North and South, is sneaky, because you think you're headed for a nasty haunted-house story, but in this case it's not the house that's nasty, but the buyers (who are also, in a tragic sense, haunted). The worrying details pile up slowly, almost sedately, but keep the reader constantly questioning. The relationship between the couple is all wrong, and yet something is keeping them together, and why do they need six bedrooms, and why have they fostered other children if their own child is handicapped...? By the time we learn that four of the 'severely damaged' girls will sleep in the cellar, we realise the respectable couple may not be quite as respectable as they seem. A neatly-crafted little shocker, with an excellent structure, the duo's hallmark attention to detail and setting, and an imaginative use of language.

The second offering, Sliding Down the Slippery Slip, is a first-person narrative by a lady with an unusual taste in beverages. We learn from the very beginning that she has certain personality disorders, and there are references to the 'first' hospital, and so on. She likes absinthe, and has just bought a bottle from Elvis Presley (who short-changed her!). She also has a special bottle, now seemingly empty, that 'beckoned like a stranger from a black-windowed taxi parked along the pavement by the Seine'. She has invited friends (all ladies: AC Evans' erotic illustrations leave us in little doubt that these particular ladies find men de trop) to dinner, and by the end of the evening the new bottle of absinthe will be empty, 'while my own bottle, my trusted friend, will be full to overflowing'. With what, one wonders. Given that when her dog drank the 'special fluids' from this bottle he soon died, we may at first think of the Borgias, but the situation is worse than that, as a new dinner guest is about to find out... The whole story, from the preparation of the food to the preliminary orgy and final crime, is told in a meticulous matter-of-fact manner, in keeping with the character of the speaker; indeed, it is the style of the telling which is its main strength. The Twilight Twins have certainly moved on from genteel ghosts!

Nick Jackson's Paper Wraps the Stone is more slipstream/fantastic. A small boy, Stephen, has problems grasping the most elementary arithmetic, and yet is able to perceive the fluid physical beauty of some adders. (The fact that they are adders is excellently presented clue by clue--'whisper of dry fronds', then, a bit later, 'sinuous', then 'coiled, then 'swift tongue'...) His teachers are naturally worried about his development, his inability to mix well with the other children, and at the same time he is picked on by the school bully, who later kills and nails one of the adders to a wooden post. But Stephen feels himself closer to the adders than to other boys... However, this is not a simple revenge story, but a subtle if short examination into an alien mind, concerned with greater and grander concerns than those around it.

Stuart Young's Masquerade has a lighter tone--at least until the very end. It starts off almost like a woman's mag story--Debbie has been stood up the night before--until she goes to the mirror and finds she doesn't have a face anymore. Literally; although she is able to see and talk. (The writer somewhat casually bypasses this small problem.) Moreover, there is a pile of money by her bedside table--a receipt for her face. And a phone number. A quick call, and she is transported into a warehouse in a kind of alternative universe, taking only her squash racquet and a potato peeler as weapons. The warehouse is full of living faces and young, almost wraithlike, girls. A girl, Lyra, appears, her face 'a shifting sea of blurring features'; because she herself has no face, and has to borrow others. Lyra's intentions are not bad, but... I will reveal no more, except to say that at the very end this light tone changes, with an unexpected and shocking development. The story emphasises the fact that in many ways we are our faces, and is very readable and imaginative.

The next story, David Gullen's Second Instar (go google it like I had to, you lazy buggers!) didn't really appeal to me. Like Paper Wraps the Stone, it deals with a metamorphosis, but without the power and intensity of language of that story. Annabella, who has a hopeless crush on a man at the office, is visited by two inhuman creatures, who have come to 'show you something wonderful'. Annabella just doesn't come alive for me, and so I'm not at all convinced by the 'solution' offered by her visitors. But I think my main problem is with these fairy-like visitors, who have a painfully 'high fantasy' and Delphic manner of talking. However, this story does have the best line in the mag: “'We don't mind if you want to kill us again tomorrow,' Debris wheezed.” (Debris is the name of one of the beings--the 'debris' of her life?--while the other is called 'Echo', the reason for which has me baffled.)

Next comes the marvellous tale Clothes Make the Man, by Ken Brady. A delightful romp, a satire on TV 'courts', such as Judge Judy (I think that's the name?), with netcams and 12 million jurors in their homes replacing the original 12 of Henry Fonda fame. As we're in 2019, technology within the court has also advanced, and our hero Lawrence, a defence attorney, is wearing a suit, an Armorani, capable of firing micro-grenades at a reluctant witness to chivvy him along (the judge accepts this as a legitimate 'pre-emptory challenge'), showing on its lapels up-to-the-second read-outs of the ratings as the trial continues, and even having a running conversation over tactics with its wearer! Lawrence has a rather difficult case to defend--a big-nosed man (noses can have a big influence in netcam shots) who has eaten his fifteen-year-old daughter for the best of reasons (think Swift's Modest Proposal). Lawrence ironically calls upon the audience's sense of family to win the case. And the suit is suit(sorry!)ably rewarded. A fun read from first word to last.

The biography of the writer of the slight if amusing Star Wars in 230 Words is actually more interesting than the 'story'--a funeral director, he was involved in the recovery of the bodies of the seven Columbia astronauts.

I know I should like Nicola Caines' The Dead Road. It is obviously very carefully written, and part of it at least refers to a very real problem--the interminable wars and cruelty in (I assume) Africa. And I don't dislike it. But I find it too earnest, lacking narrative excitement, too traditional, re-using ideas seen so often, such as wise shamans and dream voyages, as the narrator, a 13-year-old boy, seeks the bones of his murdered father. Though most of the writing is more than competent, the characters, in an age of rocket launchers, sometimes use stilted self-consciously meaningful language like 'though none might know', or 'your trouble is very great', or 'thus may I speak'. It reads like an old-fashioned fantasy story (well, it is, finally, fantasy) but in a modern setting. But many people will really enjoy it, I am sure; it finally comes down to a question of taste.

As does the next offering. Peter Tennant's 13, On the Ghost Train is...er...unusual. The first part is fairly straightforward, descriptions of the operator and the twelve people (none of whom know each other, although there are some unseen connections) who take the four-minute thirteen-second ghost train ride at a funfair. None of them actually enjoy the ride since they all have serious personal problems. These problems, real and practical, are juxtaposed against the typical stereotypical 'terrors' of a ghost train ride, dancing skeletons, opening graves, etc. It is not easy to produce thirteen pen portraits in such a small compass, and the studies of the people and their fears are extremely well done.

However, the story is static in the sense that none of the problems are solved, and it is implied these thirteen people never meet again. Instead of resolution or action, we get a sudden break in mood, and are given 'several opportunities to expand on and deepen appreciation of 13, On the Ghost Train! We are invited to (a) discuss such questions as whether the writer is a 'deeply disturbed person', or to search out literary and other allusions, etc. and (b) to do follow-up work on the story, such as role-acting a Samaritans telephone operator and dealing with the characters' problems, and (c) to multiple-choicely criticise the story and the magazine. Now most of this is tongue-in-cheek, of course (not all) but the metafictional (rather, postfictional) merrymaking diverted attention away from the real human problems facing the characters. Now, some writers don't want us to believe in their characters, but I don't think that is the case here. All in all then, a 'quirky' (author's own word) story that, though it contains some fine writing, and made me think, perhaps didn't really lend itself to being quirky. But still, one of the highlights of the magazine.

I suppose, after a few million short horror stories have been written, it isn't easy to find a new topic. Evelyn King's A Different Skin belongs to a rather large sub-genre of murderous children telling you what they did and why; the victim is frequently a parent, as here. Not my preferred reading, but this is one of the better offerings, highly concentrated, great attention paid to language ('snowflakes falling like fluffy ballerinas through the night sky', clever echoes, and a change to present tense narration at just the right moment), and some nice ironies: the little girl (after disposing of parents) remembers to put out a nice big carrot for Rudolf and a biscuit for Santa.

Nels Stanley's Waterproof is a well-written and pleasingly original tale about how to move on from a relationship--whether you should cherish the memories, or try to lose them. There isn't really a 'plot' as such, nor is one needed. A young woman senses that her three-year relationship has come to an end, takes a night time walk on the heath, and finds an old man burning every physical memento of thirty years of living with a wife who is now dead. There is more than a hint that the man too may be dead, which would make the references to the waters of Lethe more literal, and therefore more frightening. Lethe wipes out all memories--but what about physical things that have been left behind--things that are waterproof? A most unusual and satisfying tale.

Jane Fell provides the last of the fiction, two horror shorts called Pupil's Pet and Dance. In the first, a young girl lusts after her teacher, but frightens him to death with her 'pet' (a snake) but still tries to enjoy his body, and in the second a man leaves a dance with two girls, one of whom then kills the other and cooks the head, offering this to him on a platter, telling him to feast his eyes on it before she gouges them out. Yes, well. (Reviewer scratches stubbly chin.) There is a certain experimentation with language, some risqué puns (one very good) but I can't see that this really helps make the stories any more digestible than the girl's head. However, I do know that these 'short sharp shockers', as they are known, do appeal to a lot of people, so I leave you to judge.

The magazine also has three fine poems, by Joyce Walker, Kristine Ong Muslim, and Trevor Denyer, touching on uncleared anti-personnel mines, an unusual vagrant, and the deaths of friends respectively.

The Dodo Lives Again, despite the fact that Andy Cox reportedly closed The Third Alternative with the sole purpose of silencing him forever, and here, still smarting from a blatant case of dodoism by Eurostar, he becomes apoplectic--and rightfully so--over the state of Britain's railways, in particular the insane pricing system (if there is a system). It is rumoured that he has decided to spurn rail and road and vote with his somewhat inglorious wings, which he can be seen strenuously, if over-optimistically, exercising just before dawn. The Mystic's Bardo tells us about how Tongue in Scotland might have got its name: you can choose between gruesome or lubricious versions. There are a couple of book reviews. There's an interview with some lady called Lilith Stabs, who is apparently into B-movies, boots, boobs, bunnies, bewitchings, and book-writing. Finally, the cover, by Sarah Horsfall, is both colourful and striking.

So... go get it.

Midnight Street edited by Trevor Denyer, 7 Mount View, Church Lane West, Aldershot, Hampshire, GU11 3LN, England. A4, 56pp, £3.50/$10US or £9.50 for 3 issues/ $28US All cheques etc payable to “T. DENYER” (online purchase details, including other countries, can be found at the website).

Website: - www.midnightstreet.co.uk

Steve Redwood is the author of Fisher of Devils and Who Needs Cleopatra? (see www.readreverb.com )


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