WEB WHISPERIN'

Reviews by Peter Tennant

THERE IS ONLY ONE

Midnight in Hell started life as a print-zine back in the 90s, edited by an entity known as Grave Orc and featuring the work of several writers who went on to appear in the pages of Whispers itself. The magazine ran for twelve issues which, in the Small Press climate of the day, was a considerable achievement, before folding at the end of 1994, but of course this is a horror story and the dead never stay dead for long, and so 2007 sees the return of Midnight in Hell as a website with a remit to publish the weirdest tales on the web (horror and dark fantasy work of between 500 and 3000 words).

A few words about design and presentation first, in which regards Midnight in Hell isnt particularly impressive. The rather bland front door leads to a site with a triptych design, the column on the left simply blank space, that on the right occupied by links to the various parts of the site and all the action taking place in the middle of the screen, with a new window opening each time you click on a story (but still using only the middle of the screen for text). Its not, to my mind, the most economic or attractive layout, while having blue navigation bars run down the screen somewhat compromises the atmosphere they seem to be aiming at, and artwork, in fact adornment of any kind other than the Midnight in Hell symbol/logo, is noticeable by its absence. But its early days for this site as yet, with some of the pages shown as still under construction, and with time and experience something a little less basic and more visually appealing may emerge.

Which brings us to the Autumn/Fall 07 issue, or 1.2 in numerical terms, containing nine stories by names both new and old, known and unknown.

David Byron opens the proceedings with City of the Dead, a story set in some grim dystopia where monsters rule the night time streets, poverty is rife and nobody questions the provenance of the meat on sale at the butchers. Prostitute Susan is haunted by nightmares and so goes up onto the roof of her dwelling place to relax, where she encounters the man of her dreams, literally. The story has a convincing atmosphere, with some vivid and lurid imagery, and in the main Byron writes well, though he does occasionally slip in phrases that are more cringe inducing than anything else (e.g. pearly white teeth that gleamed like pearls). The revelation of Susans tormentors inhuman nature is telegraphed, and the story doesnt deliver any real surprises, but the trip itself is an engaging one.

Seismicity by A D is somewhat less substantial, the tale of unrequited lover Paul whose passion is externalised as seismic activity. Its an intriguing idea, with echoes of one of the central conceits of Pynchons Gravitys Rainbow but A D offers little more than face value. Theres no real attempt to grapple with what is happening and the protagonist is lacking in depth, so all were left with is a piece of flash fiction with a mildly ironic ending.

Christopher Allan Death's A Thousand Witnesses again has an intriguing idea at its heart, but in this case the incidentals of the story dont quite ring true, with bank guards apparently able to walk out of work with contents from the vault in a bag just like that and genetically modified crops being grown by mom and pop farmers in the boonies. I liked the story, but I didnt believe a word of it. I wish Death had forgotten all the bank robbery nonsense and instead given us a story that more directly addressed the implications of his Frankenstein crop.

Ken Goldman is the most widely published of the writers on offer here, and reading Purgatory, Lakeside its easy to see why. Its a slicker than slick slice of fiction in which mobster Delbert Gunner Richetti finds out that Hell is not at all what he imagined it to be and the Devil is a rather congenial host, though you wouldnt want to cross him. Goldman has his tongue firmly in his cheek, the story engaging with its laid back prose but also asking some hard questions about the nature of things, playfully pulling the rug out from under the feet of the old stereotypes. And if, ultimately, it seems to go nowhere, thats because its already where its supposed to be.

Art mirrors life in Sarah Jacksons flash fiction Director's Cut, as a graduate of the casting couch finds out that she is far from being the only thespian on the make. Its neatly constructed, with the prose sparse and economical, though not omitting those incidental details that flesh out and make credible the narrative, and the character of the protagonist is well realised, with the only bum note struck by a bit of obvious foreshadowing.

The Jetty by Iain McLachlan is another highlight of this issue, the premise of the story simple and all the better for being left ambiguous. Inexplicably, slap bang in the middle of the eponymous jetty is a door, which the neighbourhood children are all afraid to open and pass through. McLachlan gives us a convincing account of childhood fascination and bullying, reminiscent at times to similar incidents in the oeuvre of Stephen King, then moves the narrative on several years with the protagonist coming back for his own confrontation with the unknown, with the suggestion that he has seen and done things which make this bug bear of his younger days seem an irrelevance. The story is quietly told, a confident telling, with the emphasis on character rather than the outr, the confrontation between a man and the best/worst aspects of his own nature symbolised by the door. It ends on a beautiful and appropriate note of mystery.

After three good stories things take a distinct downturn with The Woods by Nik Perring, the longest story in the issue and also the weakest. Two friends leave the pub and wander through the woods, getting spooked by local legends, though there is also the suggestion of animosity between them. Only one of the friends made it out of the forest, reads the text, at which point we lose all sight of credibility. The police are called in and Dennis body is found at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft. Suicide conclude the local plod, not even bothering to consider any other theory, or even to question survivor Christopher. Christopher then goes into mental meltdown, while police officer on the make Harold starts to prowl the woods at night looking for goblins. It ends badly, which in the circumstances was only to be expected. This story has poor plotting, incredulous characterisation and a prose style that at times borders on parody. There is the hint of something interesting peeping through, a mans descent into madness, and flashes of talent in the prose, but no more than that. It reads like a first draft.

In A Nightmare by Jim Steel two men also go wandering off the beaten track with dire consequences, but there the resemblance ends. After a slow start the story builds, gradually and with assurance, Steels style reminiscent of a Victorian ghost story with its matter of fact but detailed narration. There is the inevitable encounter with the numinous in the form of one of the less known monsters of local (Scottish) folklore and a satisfying twist at the end of the story, making for a fine example of the traditional tale of the supernatural. As an added bonus, readers are given the chance to read the story with a commentary by the author, Steel revealing his inspiration for the piece, something which I found interesting and would like to see more of.

This issue of Midnight in Hell is rounded out by Paula Villegas Bed-Side Manners, a fine example of that school of fiction where we all take vicarious pleasure in seeing a nasty piece of work get his just desserts care of a plot contrivance masquerading as fate. This time around its a bumptious doctor who discovers that the universe is not indifferent, even if he is. The set up is deftly done while the ending satisfies, and thats all there is to be said for it. Not an ambitious story, but one that delivers the goods.

FOR WE ARE MANY

Edited by Christopher Death, Midnight Horror is hosted by Fortune City and so comes complete with the usual bushel of adverts, which some may find off putting though personally I didnt think them overly intrusive. It publishes three times a year, everything from dark fantasy to science fiction with a horror twist, with 6k as the upper word limit. Site design is basic, with very little in the way of visuals, adornment rather than illustration, albeit what we do get is eye catching. My favourite was the dinosaur looming over a building, but you can have too much of a good thing, and this appears on every single story page, occupying almost half the screen, with text pushed over to the right and brushing up against the border so that you cant help wondering if some of it has overlapped.

The September 2007 issue, the second to be posted, contains four slices of flash fiction and two longer works. Of the three stories that I read Ghost House by Tom Johnstone was the longest and least successful, told as it is the form of a series of e-mails from a soldier stationed at the Ghost House of the title to his wife (its hard to believe that the military would allow this man to send uncensored communications such as this, or that he would have time or inclination to do so as the world shatters around him). The central concept of the story, local resistance fighters mutating thanks to American bio-weapons, is interesting, but the artificiality of the telling just doesnt convince, while some of the details just seem too close to plot conveniences. Mama's Makeover by Dawn Sholun runs in at about a hundred words (could even be a drabble if I was anal enough to count them), not one of which is wasted in a wry piece that has raving insanity lurking just beneath the surface of the matter of fact narration. It could be even more blackly comedic to American readers, for whom mention of PBS may have greater significance. Though the Z word is never used, Dead Man is an entertaining twist on the subgenre of the flesh eating zombie, which author Eric S Brown has specialised in. It neatly sells the reader a dummy, setting us up for the final sting in the tail.

Time to declare an interest. I have stories slated to appear in future issues of the next two publications. Actually Im hoping to place stories at all of these sites (its on my to do list). Its a win win situation from my point of view. If they accept my work its because I am immensely talented, and if they reject me its simply sour grapes because something in the review disagreed with them. I mean, what other reason could there be?

13 Human Souls has an attractive entry portal, an eye catching picture of a tunnel captured in lurid red tones, suggesting also a human throat. Beneath this there is a slideshow giving details of the contents of the current issue, which I thought was a nice touch. This e-zines brief is to present flash fiction of up to a 1000 words dealing with purely human evil (zombies, vampires et al need not apply), and it publishes on the 13th of each month, with older work archived. A couple of clicks takes you to the Fiction and Poetry page, where each work has its own banner, another nice touch, showing that the site designer is trying to make this a more interesting visual experience than the black that dominated in the previous two sites. In parenthesis, I do wish hed not bothered with the tail that drags after the cursor (these annoy me, generally). A click on each banner takes you to the stories which, again, are attractively presented, with white on black text that, admittedly, could do with being a bit larger, and effective headers. Its a nice set up, one that maybe needs a little fine tuning, but shows an appreciation of the potential of web publishing.

Edited by Brandon Layng, the 13th of September issue has three stories and one piece of poetry. Tea for Two by Mark E. Deloy offers the reader nothing new, but is an entertaining black comedy on a familiar theme, as a married couple in their twilight years decide that till death do us part is not so much marriage vow as mission statement. I wasnt convinced, but I did have a good time with this. Similar problems of familiarity and credulity dog Leftovers by Jon Aylward, in which a paranoid waitress finds out the secret ingredient that goes into her home towns famous burgers, with no prizes for guessing the ending. Its a decently written and entertaining piece regardless of the predictability but, while I might take onboard the idea of a restaurant operating such a scheme, the concept of a recession hit town driving economic regrowth in this way is a bit much to swallow, secret ingredient and all. Lincoln Crislers Game Over is the longest and best of what 13 Human Souls has to offer, a compelling and credible account of a father who loses the plot when a custody battle goes sour, although Ill admit to one what the??? moment, but I suspect thats down to my almost total ignorance of car design rather than any flaw in Crislers story.

Niteblade Horror and Fantasy Magazine is a new venture, with the September 2007 issue its very first outing. This debut issue has an evocative cover image and, according to the Table of Contents, thirteen stories (some of them quite substantial), thirteen poems (contributors include such familiar names as Greg Schwartz, Richard H Fay and Kristine Ong Muslim) and a couple of book reviews, all of which make it the most substantial of the sites under consideration in this column, with the possible exception of Dark Recesses . Some efforts have been made with presentation, each story getting its own front page black and white illustration, most of which are provided by the talented Marge Simon, and then with text presented in one column that occupies the whole of the screen and page format. And yes, the ads are an eyesore, but one to file under necessary evil.

I read four of the stories. Bridging the Void by John Saxton offers us a view inside the head of fabled killer Jack the Ripper and takes a stab at showing us the motives for his actions, how murder can bridge the void of loss, only then to attribute similar feelings to another man seeking closure of a similar kind. Its a finely written piece, one that shows how perfectly worthy feelings can all too easily be used to excuse/justify monstrous acts. The Midnight Men by Lee Moan was the best of the stories I read, taking our fear of the knock on the door at night and using it as the basis for a chilling story, made all the more so by the almost mundane nature of the evil addressed. A man sees his friends and neighbours disappear, taken away by black garbed men in the middle of the night, and is allowed no explanation at all for what is happening, the story building gradually and surely to a compelling pitch of paranoia, one in which the protagonist is forced to contemplate his own complicity, question the action he has taken to protect his family, ending on a note of bleak, existential horror. Editor Rhonda Parrishs offering Sister Margaret is a gritty fantasy tale of cross and double cross, as an assassin for hire is set on the tale of a vampire pimp by a priestess of an otherworldly god. Its a romp of a story, entertaining and well told, keeping the reader off balance to the end, and the possibility exists for more tales in this milieu. Hell on Earth by David Price is a tale of two halves. In the first, Sammy meets his former colleague Arty, a con with an appetite for revenge on those he considers to have done him wrong (Sammy is on his list), which he pursues by such underhand methods as anonymous phone calls to the police, but with the second half of the story an outr element intrudes and Arty takes a more Lovecraftian route to his desired goal, with serious consequences for all concerned. Leaving aside the question of how destitute Arty gets his mitts on, presumably, priceless occult texts, this is an excellent tale of revenge gone too far, Price setting the scene with an assured touch and then plunging us over the lip from real world revenge to something far more outr with nary a seam showing. The characters are well drawn, particularly that of protagonist Sammy, and the monster unsettles. What more could you ask for?

Fiction magazine started life as a print publication, but after a couple of issues decided to reinvent itself as Fiction Online, the plan being to build up a readership before plunging back into the world of dead trees. Its now a free and downloadable PDF, appearing monthly (scroll about halfway down the page to download the latest issue), and publishing horror, SF and fantasy.

#4 comes with a blood stained and eye catching cover courtesy of Lee Moan, after which we get a further 28 pages, with every bit of space put to good use. The layout is neat and functional, fiction presented at two columns to the page and non-fiction (mostly) at three, the text clear except for the very last page where it gets a little tiny for reading comfort (but of course this is a PDF and you can magnify). There are book and video game reviews, a letter column (how retro) and each story comes with its own info bar (a nice touch). There are adverts, but they appear to have been chosen to blend in, becoming part of the magazines dcor, while overall Fiction has a very friendly feel to it (editor Stoo cheerfully admits that publishing one story in the previous issue was a big mistake, a refreshing change from the almost papal infallibility some other editors occasionally demonstrate those who reject my stories that is).

But what about the fiction? I read three of the four stories, ignoring the longest for reasons of time, and if I have a problem its that all of those I read seemed rather derivative. Take Gareth Lynn Powells A Necklace of Ivy which is beautifully written and keenly felt, the tale of two lovers wandering in a landscape blighted by an alien plague and dodging the military, for all of which the ending left me with the feeling I just read a sidebar incident in the TV series Invasion . Similarly The Secret in the Sewers by Andrew Knighton was a romp of a story, or supposed to be, with two adventurers braving the Venetians sewers to discover an evil mastermind bent on world conquest (and his identity is the only real surprise, so I wont give it away). It was a fun read, though I could have done with more by way of conflict than a few gunshots and energetic stamping of feet (yeah, I know, irony), but the shadow of Indiana Jones and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen hangs over the enterprise and invites less than flattering comparisons. Bob Locks Do We Not Bleed? was the most substantial in conceptual terms, with his protagonist an AI researcher who wakes up one morning and finds his house computer wont let him out of the door, the story going on to question the nature of humanity. Its well written certainly, and thought provoking as good SF should be, but all the same you wont find anything new here, with Blade Runner and Sixth Day just the most obvious of several prototypes. All of these stories engage the reader in some way and I enjoyed Fiction well enough to want to see more, but all the same if there was anything original going on then it must have been in the story I didnt get time to read.

Dark Recesses is heading in the opposite direction; having been in electronic format for going on two years the magazine now feels confident enough to make the transfer to print in January 2008. #8, available as a free download from the website, is the final PDF issue, and so the last chance, for those who are wise enough to research markets before submitting, to get a hint of what the editors tastes are without having to shell out.

Its a nice product, with a full colour cover which made me think artist Nick Hadley had been to the same well as David Price when he wrote the aforementioned Hell on Earth , black and white (mainly) interior illustrations to complement the stories, colour adverts that dont detract from the overall effect, and a neat, practical two columns of text to the page throughout. For non-fiction we get interviews with Larry Roberts of Bloodletting Press and Horror Library founder R J Cavender, plus Senior Editor Boyd E Harris describing his experiences on a ghost walk.

Dark Recesses #8 contains seven stories, of which I sampled four. Midnight on Avenue D by Peter M Ball is an emotive account of teen gangs spreading terror, a vivid and convincing picture of childhood bullying with a futuristic feel which doesnt outstay its welcome. Joel Arnolds Telephone takes an innocent game suggested to her class by a teacher and turns it around to deliver a chilling denouement in an excellent slice of flash fiction. The Cavender interview is accompanied by a story, Scavenger Hunt. The narrator is part of a two boy team who go out and mutilate/murder women on camera for an audience of sick people to watch, serial killing reinvented as a kind of art, with the violence described in enough detail to merit a not for the squeamish tag. Care of his latest victim, the narrator gets a suitable comeuppance, which provides a sort of moral underpinning to a strong story that touches briefly on our own fascination with fiction of this type. Churel by John Kratman was the longest of the stories I read and also the most traditional in nature. Set against the backdrop of the Indian Mutiny it relates the tale of an English officers encounter with the eponymous spirit/monster. The story is well told, with excellent pacing, flashes of local detail that enhance the verisimilitude, a hero we can care about and a monster that is a little bit out of the ordinary, though no less fearsome for that.

On this showing, the future looks bright for publisher Bailey Hunter and her team when Dark Recesses makes the crossover into print.

Edited by Ace Masters, Written Word is the last website Ill be taking a look at for this column, though far from being the least. It publishes in issue format, though Im not too sure about the regularity (while there have been four issues over the sites first year theyre far from appearing quarterly). The latest issue is #4 and dated August 2007. Content wise it aspires to publish all forms/works of literature, except for the literary form of comic books, though my sampling indicated a strong genre bias. As regards presentation, the layout is neat and easy on the eye, with text presented in a frame and page format, each page topped with a reproduction of the cover artwork and a typewriter graphic by way of adornment, though no other artwork was on show. On the negative side, at least one contributors name was shown incorrectly that I know of and the link to one of the stories ( The Seal by Michael Cregan) wasnt working, which is not encouraging, but its an online publication and theyll probably correct both those before you read this, so go call me a liar, why dontya?

#4 contains four poems and nine stories, of which I read five, and Im sorry but it doesnt appear possible to provide direct links (visit via the ToC page, which I also cant link to directly). Cover story Paradise Without Feylina by Marshall Payne commemorates the end of a holiday romance, though the sting in the tail is that one of the parties doesnt realise the precise nature of this holiday. Its okay I guess, but no real meat to it, just presents the idea and is done. The flash fiction offering, Armageddon by Thomas Henrich, which could actually be longer than the Payne, is a black comedy on the theme of politicians and thermo-nuclear destruction and, I guess, humour being subjective some people may get a chuckle out of it, but sadly Im not one of them. Contractual Obligation by Rick Novy is that old standby, the demonic pact, where the plot hinges on who is going to get double-crossed and how. Its an amusing example of the type, though I cant quite get past the feeling that the twist at the end doesnt really play fair with the reader the essence of these things is that, in retrospect, it all seems obvious, and thats not the case here. Jacqueline Seewalds Legend uses another common plot device (though not as common as the Novy), that of a journalist who is sent to interview a world famous horror writer and discovers his dark and deadly secret. Its a lively piece, with some over the top characters and an undercurrent of comedy, all leading up to the nasty but nice turn of fortune at the end. Planned Parenthood by Lawrence Dagstine was the longest and most substantial of the stories I read and the only one that seemed entirely straight. Like A. I., but without the sentimentality, it looks at the plight of an infertile couple who accept an android child into the family nest, with repercussions all round. The story is sensitive, largely avoiding sensationalism in favour of detailing the emotional fallout of this decision, and all the better for that.

And thats your lot.

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