WEB WHISPERIN'

Reviews by Djibril

THERE IS ONLY ONE...

The Harrow is one of the most prolific and consistent small-press horror magazines, with issues appearing more or less every month since at least 2005, and archives going back to 1998. Each issue runs five or six stories, a handful of poems, and usually several reviews of fantasy or horror titles. The website is well-organized and spartan (and I mean that in a good way--no bells and whistles to slow down my old browser or dialup connection; nice plain text for my hand-held device or blind text-reader), all based around a content management system for publishing academic journals. This means it is efficient and well-organized, but there are few if any glossy features, illustrations, or very personal touches.

Editor Dru Pagliassotti introduces Volume 10, No 10 with the explanation that this is "The Hollywood Issue", and gives a brief summary of the importance and implications of each story. I chose to read this section after having read all of the stories, and my interpretations, as you will see, sometimes differ from the editor's.

The Hollywood Incident by Amanda M Underwood begins with a very traditional tone, but gradually peels away the layers to something less obvious underneath. In a Los Angeles private investigator's office just on the edges of Hollywood, we are introduced to the walking clich who is Adele, a sassy, sexy, troubled but confident PI with an eye for handsome men, especially bastards. But Adele has an uncanny ability to smell out the truth, and when a strange beast starts killing in Los Angeles, soon both the cops and the mob are turning to her for help. Ultimately the dnouement of this story is neither as surprising nor as original as all that, but the switch from easy, detective-genre stereotypes at the start to the much more troubling, edgy, sexy, and visceral tones of a supernatural (which is not giving anything away, since pretty much all Harrow stories have something of the supernatural in them) horror is competently executed. This summary may sound cold, because I am trying not to spoil the story, but it was a very enjoyable read and held promise for the rest of the issue.

The second story in this issue, Kurt D Kirchmeier's Looking for a Lion, is a short morality play set on an anonymous (but possibly futuristic) battlefield. I'm not sure I've quite figured out the strange inversion of the lion metaphor in the title. With cowards and ghosts and heroes and visible auras and countless enemies in eternal conflict, this piece tells a simple tale with a simple moral in well under 1000 words. The characters were convincing (albeit shallow), and I am not sure that the story needed more words to do it justice, but something here felt a little lightweight. This is barely more than a piece of flash however, and with such a brief text first impressions and subjectivity count for even more than usual.

Stephanie Scarborough brings the next story, Keeping Things in Order, which is one of the strangest stories I can remember seeing in this magazine. Strange in the sense that it is a not terribly well-written story, structured like a B-movie, about a walled-off town populated by B-list actors and plagued by radioactive zombies. The protagonist is Mary Beth, a "troubled teen" actress and the town's only unicorn-riding zombie hunter, who has to deal not only with the (not very scary) zombies constantly erupting from the cemetery but also with the "Z-listers" of the Save The Zombies Alliance. It really is as silly as it sounds. I suppose this is all deliberate, that the B-movie structure and style is a metaphor for the shallowness of Hollywood horror films (or something), and that the quality of writing, far from being poor, is in fact perfectly crafted to simulate the shaky dialogue and info-dumping of most zomcom fare. I suppose I just didn't get the joke. Sorry. My bad.

A much more engaging and troubling story is William Earl McGee Jr's Duck and Cover, a story set in a Cold War America that somehow does not feel so far in the past. Eddie is a trouble-maker at school, uninterested in learning or any academic topic, but he is clearly more alert and engaged than those of his classmates who succumb to the propagandist brainwashing and hateful scaremongering the teachers subject them to. One day the school is visited by a military contingent with recording and broadcasting equipment. Eddie, although he already feels slightly above acting up during the weekly propaganda broadcast, nevertheless has his reputation to live up to, and so goes too far and is dragged out of the classroom for a special lesson with the sinister Sergeant Atterbury. What follows is perhaps more horrifying for not being especially fantastic or unrealistic, and it is a masterful achievement that McGee manages to give the story an ultimately optimistic note when it all ends. This is probably the strongest piece in the magazine.

Stephen J. Bush provides the last story in this issue, A Cautionary Tale About Angry Light, which is an oddly askew story told in old-fashioned (but not in any way archaic) prose, always just slightly off-kilter and hard to follow. There is no question of this being poor writing, however: every word of this poetic and experimental piece is carefully chosen and crafted for a specific effect. The story presents a protagonist--without name or personality, but then that is part of the point--who is an actor. His every act or expression is fake, his face a mask, his features obscured or disguised with make-up, his words scripted, and his movements choreographed. So unreal and mindless is this puppet-like figure that his reflection and his shadow are in some ways more real; the horror arises as they start to take on minds of their own. Although impressive, this metaphor for the personality crisis of the actor is difficult to read.

This may not be the strongest issue of The Harrow I have ever read, but that is rather a credit to the usual standard of this excellent little magazine than it is an insult to the works in this issue. There is much in here that is worth reading.

(I have not touched upon the poetry or the reviews, for these are best left to speak for themselves.)

...FOR WE ARE MANY

The October 2007 issue of Apex Online (V.3.02) contains two short stories (both reprints) along with an interview and a handful of reviews. The first, In the Shadows of Meido by Maurice Broaddus (also interviewed in this issue), is a convincingly crafted samurai story of honour, betrayal, and tragedy combined with supernatural horror. In some ways predictable (the narrator explicitly prefigures the ending in the very first sentence), the story is nevertheless effective, if lacking in any real moral. At times, especially in the first few paragraphs, the proliferation of names and Japanese terms were confusing to the point of obfuscation, but I suspect this would be less a problem for a samurai aficionado like the author and his intended readership. The second story, Last Respects by D.K. Thompson, is a strangely retrograde tale of an aging, bereaved vampire living (and dying?) in a post-human age. Despite the potential for a glamorous setting, the author chooses instead to make all the characters at least as stuffy and conservative as you might expect old-fashioned humans to be. Although this is a novel twist, it does have the unfortunate effect of making the story not terribly exciting to read. Both of the stories in this issue, then, are good, clever, well-executed, and delivered by top quality authors; both, however, feel slightly less original and substantial than might be expected. Still a good offering from this--free--magazine.

From the Asylum, November 2007 contains one piece of flash fiction, one short story, and two poems. Neither the flash nor the poems did much for me, all being heavy on the quirky and light on originality or creepiness. The one short story this month, however, Chris Cox's Hairy Mary, Quite Contrary, is a genuinely unsettling and engaging piece, albeit one with a rather traditional framing narrative. The narrator, Joe, is a skeptical, basically good-natured man about whom we learn next to nothing except that he lives alone and has little to do with his neighbours. In the middle of a storm one winter Joe receives a visit from a bible-bashing evangelist, Mary, an old woman of sinister character, appalling personal hygiene, and rather oppressive persistence. Mary inveigles her way into the house with the zealot's simplistic appeal to charity, and then overstays her welcome with the claim that she is Joe's guardian angel sent by God to save him. As the old woman's presence becomes more and more frightening, and she keeps returning like a stalker, both the neighbours and the police turn against Joe, and her obvious insanity combines with an even more disturbing physical abnormality. Although the ending goes some way to undercut all this, the story works very well as an exercise in paranoia, abuse, and revulsion.

Ideomancer volume 6, issue 3 contains one story each in the categories "slipstream", "science fiction", and "fantasy", plus three poems, and kicks off with an engaging and in-depth interview with Tobias Buckell (worth reading itself, although I shall focus here only on the stories). The first story, What Happens Next by Jude-Marie Green, is a simple piece with a colloquial tone about a mute barmaid in a queer caf where "tellers" aim stories at the customers and no one else speaks. There is a hint that this barmaid was perhaps abducted by aliens, or perhaps more mundanely but no less horrifically assaulted by boys; there is no doubt that she has a story to tell, if ever she is allowed to tell it. This is a short story, not much over a page, that grows layers and levels on re-reading, and is probably more unsettling after the conclusion than it was at the start. The science-fiction offering, Ted Kosmatka's Deadnauts , is an excellent, if depressing story about travellers in cryogenic suspension travelling vast distances across deep space, trying to find their way home. Full of religious imagery and psychological torment, the story follows Ola, the ship's doctor, as she tries to stay alive and sane in the face of the physiological effects of travel and the realization of the horrific toll the journey is taking on them all. "I wasnt religious before I started the journey, but here, hung among the stars, religion has found me. I wonder if this, too, is a sign of brain damage." This is a subtle and complex story, far the best read in this issue.

The third story in this issue, labelled "fantasy", is Kyri Freeman's Winners , a tale of horse racing, of a small-timer struggling with his dreams against the resources and ruthlessness of bigger fry, and of special powers that sometimes make life easier but never seem to change anything significant. This story interestingly makes magic (if that is what it is) no different from any other form of manipulation or influence, so that what matters at the end of the day is honesty, integrity, and hard work. All in all this is a very good magazine, and one I shall look out for in the future.

Noneuclidean Cafe Vol3, Issue 1 (Fall 2007) contains one novelette, three short stories, one flash, an article, and various poems and reviews. The longest piece at 11 000 words, Kevin Coyle's The Private Burning, is an alternative history starring FBI agent Dick Nixon tracking down subversives and pinkoes for McCarthy's HUAC. In the process he meets half of the presidents of our timeline's twentieth century, not to mention a whole parade of Hollywood actors, and even if this common failing of alternative history is slightly alleviated by the fact that in the world of cinema everyone is someone we've heard of, it nevertheless grates a little that everyone in this invented world is also someone in ours. This is a convincing study of hatred, of anger, of vice and intolerance, and is a genuinely unpleasant read.

Of the shorter stories, Like a Poet by Blossom Plumb is a charming and sensitive tale of the beauty to be found in every day accidents. Bruce Holland Rogers' Creamsicle Meltdown is narrated by the Blackjack dealer in a casino, and cleverly avoids glamorizing what is in fact a cold and heartless business while sensitively telling the unremarkable story of a small-time loser and the narrator's hopeless battle with his own conscience. Steve Mathes' Take a Pill is probably both the best and the most unsettling story in this issue, narrated by a sympathetic, good-natured but mildly depressive man who lives in the woods just outside of town, round the corner from his aged parents. Having lost the pills that help him focus and control his anxiety on a snowed-in Sunday while the road into town is cordoned off due to some mysterious police action, begins the adventure that starts with snow-shoes and ends with town-relocation, and a dawning realization that focus and trust may not be the best tools for dealing with the real world. The horror, like the protagonist, is pretty subdued in this story, and the resolution is a compromise, a surrender rather than a climax, so much like real life. Noneuclidean Café is a pretty nifty slipstream publication; all the contents are interesting in their own way.

More samples from Genre 2.0 next time.

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