More austerity horror news, featuring a review of Black Static 45…

First, belated congratulations to Gary McMahon, whose haunting tale ‘Only Bleeding’, has made the cut for Salt Press’s 2015 edition of Best British Horror, edited by Johnny Mains, which should hit the shelves this May! Full TOC of BBH here. In his real-time review of Horror Uncut, D.F. Lewis said of ‘Only Bleeding’ “Buy this book even if for this story alone.” Full review here: So if you can’t bear to wait until May to read Gary’s tale, why not order a copy of HU from Gray Friar Press here: (There are sixteen other excellent tales of social insecurity and economic unease in there too…)

While working on the anthology, I had a go at writing some austerity horror stories myself but sent them elsewhere. One story ‘Masque’ about NHS privatisation was published in Shroud Magazine, #15 (see my Happy New Fear post). Another, ‘Under Occupation’, about bailliffs, eviction, the ‘bedroom tax’ and, er, corpse collectors, is about to appear in Darkest Minds (Dark Minds Press). This is the TOC, in alphabetic order by authors’ last names:

It Came From The Ground by Stephen Bacon

darkest minds final wraparoundWalking The Borderlines by Tracy Fahey

The Catalyst by Gary Fry

Bothersome by Andrew Hook

Under Occupation by Tom Johnstone

Going South To Meet The Devil by Benedict J. Jones

Vacation by Glen Krisch

Refugees by Robert Mammone

The 18 by Ralph Robert Moore

The Great Divide by Clayton Stealback

The Sea In Darkness Calls by David Surface

Time Waits… by Mark West

Quite a line-up!

It was gratifying to see that the latest Black Static (#45) is bookended by two very fine tales dealing with some of the themes explored in Horror Uncut. (I wouldn’t claim the anthology should take credit for this–I think economic unease is horror’s natural territory!)

S.P. Miskowski’s ‘The Second Floor’ is ostensibly about a playwright taking stock of her life, while staying in a B & B that used to be the shared house where she led a more chaotic and exciting existence. She contrasts the romantically Bohemian squatters of her youth with the more desperate homeless people ignored by the yuppies in the now gentrified city of Seattle, the intensity and camaraderie of her former life with the atomisation of now *. This vision of economic insecurity is the background to a troubling narrative about the unreliability of memory. The story’s inconclusive chills and undercurrent of menace in the guest house put me in mind of Shirley Jackson.

In Danny Rhodes’s ‘The Cleansing’, government austerity measures take centre stage. It’s a story that would have fit perfectly in Horror Uncut, with its references to food banks, evictions and the ‘bedroom tax’. Two young girls investigate the foul substance appearing in the basement of their increasingly deserted block of flats. It soon becomes clear from the displacement of the residents that ‘The Cleansing’ is the social kind. The power of the tale lies in its clarity, and yet avoidance of heavy-handedness, in portraying its social and political aspects. The opening scene shows the younger of the two girls watching an old woman remonstrating with a man in a suit, while removal men load her possessions into a van. It’s never stated what’s happening, but we know…

If the foulness in the basement in Rhodes’ story is a metaphor for social insecurity, ‘The Grey Men’ that Laura Mauro offers us represent the harbingers of a more personal malaise for her grief-stricken protagonist. Their appearance is not all in his head though: it’s a ‘shared nightmare’, a paranormal phenomenon that becomes the subject of endless public debate and speculation, meaning different things to different people. Mauro deals with this side of the story with a certain wry humour, but also evokes the grey, foggy conditions that mirror Adam’s depression, intimately portraying a kind of masculine withdrawal and loneliness. Reading Laura’s assured fiction, it’s hard to believe this is only her fourth appearance in print (fifth counting the reprint of her previous Black Static contribution, ‘When Charlie Sleeps’). I’m proud to have played a part in her writing career myself, by including her story ‘Ptichka’ in Horror Uncut!

The scene in the pub where Adam fails to get through to his brother makes a nice lead-in to ‘The Visitors’, with Stephen Hargadon returning to the man-in-a-pub monologue mode of his extraordinary Black Static (and published fiction) debut ‘World of Trevor’, though it’s an internal monologue interspersed with snatches of overheard conversation rather than a chatty raconteur’s narration. His narrator’s air of garrulousness masks a solitude as profound as Adam’s in ‘The Grey Men’, and echoes Miskowski’s story in his meditation on the social changes happening around him. The apparently random final scene of supernatural retribution from a source as unique as Hargadon’s voice mirrors the narrator’s troubled past and traumatic relationship with booze, culminating in a devastatingly apt last line.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s story presents us with a similarly gut-punching final line. It’s the tale of a man who feels a bit of a fish out of water when he goes on a trip to ‘The Fishing Hut’ for health reasons. More lonely and isolated people inhabit Emily B. Cataneo’s and Cate Gardner’s tales, vulnerable girls facing up to childhood terrors, alone unlike the duo in Danny Rhodes’ story, and with precious little help from the adults in their lives. The creepy, sleep-masked mother of the narrator in Cataneo’s eerie confession initiates her daughter into a world where friendship can only be a prelude to deceit and betrayal, as they struggle to appease the ‘Hungry Ghosts’. In Gardner’s brief and to the point ‘The Drop of Light and the Rise of the Dark’, disabled Mari is plunged into utter darkness and solitude by an eclipse that seems as apocalyptic as Laura Mauro’s grey, foggy, faceless angels. In her enclosed, bedridden world, her parents and best friend Birdie seem to have vanished, won’t answer her cries. This is an excellent Black Static debut by Gardner, standing out from the other fiction in the magazine in that it’s set at a pitch of full-blooded, heart-stopping terror almost from the outset. This is not to belittle the more softly spoken shudders of the others in the volume, some of which are examples of horror so quiet it barely reaches a whisper–and none the worse for that!

Speaking of which, last (in the review, not the magazine!) but not least, Andrew Hook’s ‘The Frequency of Existence’, a tale of sex, lies and photography. The arch coolness of Hook’s style could alienate the reader. Maybe it’s meant to, because it’s entirely in keeping with his narrator’s self-serving unscrupulousness. It’s a very modern morality tale, with a sardonic eyebrow raised. Never mess with someone called Valerie may be its moral, if it has one, especially if she’s named after the author of The SCUM Manifesto, though the wrong-doer’s comeuppance isn’t the obvious, grisly one this association might lead you to expect.

I’m aware I’ve slightly digressed from the original subject of this post: austerity horror. However, in some ways, all the stories in the magazine can be seen as critiques of aspects of society under ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism. They talk about poverty, homelessness, gentrification, depression, disability, isolation, the dangers of ambition and of, er, fishing. All right, I’m aware I’m wildly over-generalising and over-stretching the point here… I should also mention the production values, which are as gorgeous as ever, with Richard Wagner providing what I think may be one of the best Black Static covers ever, and creepily evocative illustrations for the stories themselves by Wagner and Ben Baldwin!

Item image: Black Static 45 (cover art by Richard Wagner) All this cutting edge fiction, and columns by Stephen Volk, on pitching, with more wry and dispiriting anecdotes about his and others’ (mis)adventures in the screen trade, and Lynda E. Rucker, drawing some fine insights about the gender politics of movies ranging from Rosemary’s Baby to Martyrs. There are more reviews of films in DVD and Blu-Ray from Tony Lee, ranging as ever from the adulatory to the acid. Finally, Peter Tennant’s ‘Case Notes’ features an interview with Helen Marshall, alongside reviews of her two Chizine collections. Finally, there are reviews of several other books, including some of Ellen Datlow’s most recent anthologies. Here’s a link to this issue:

* Interesting to compare Miskowski’s portrayal of the changing city where the poor are marginalised to, say, T.E.D. Klein’s vision of New York in ‘Children of the Kingdom’, reflecting and commenting on the racial and class paranoia of the time about the Inner City ‘underclass’. Also see Lucius Shepherd’s ‘The Last Time’, where the sexually obsessed narrator’s  relocation to a poor, ‘ethnic’ area of the city is shown as part of his descent into addiction and madness, in contrast with Jane in ‘The Second Floor’, who is on the face of it upwardly mobile though not without psychological problems of her own…

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