"Orinoco" by Nina Allan
"Between a Rock and a Hard Place" by Carole Johnstone
"A Man of Ice and Sorrow" by Simon Kurt Unsworth
"The Obscure Bird" by Nicholas Royle
"Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us" by Mercurio D. Rivera
Reviewed by Sharon Campbell
Nina Allan‘s "Orinoco" is a quiet, reflective piece centered on a young woman's memories of the Euston Station bombing that killed her boyfriend. Marie is living with her brother Brian, who has kindly taken her under his wing in the aftermath of the explosion. She is trying to get a grip on her life again by learning how to cook, caring for Brian's tropical Orinoco Angelfish, and writing her memories into stories. As Marie's days unfold, her worries and pleasures shift and slide from object to object and person to person, including a sympathetic love interest. However, her memories of the tragic bombing are least clear when she tries to look at them straight on, just like the slender-bodied Orinoco Angelfish. Perseverance brings a gentle revelation and resolution to Marie by the end of the story.
This story is modern, almost realistic enough to be realism, and subtle. If you like unreliable narration but find punch-you-in-the-face twists a bit crass, you'll enjoy it. On the other hand, for my personal tastes, just a little more punch would have made this story more captivating.
Rain splatters, cars blare, and frightened stilettos clatter along the stormy street of "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," by Carole Johnstone. Johnstone writes of realistic terrors stalking a young woman on the dark road home, alone, through a bad part of town. Janis has left a bad date in a huff to walk home through the rain. Just when the soaking rain and wind-whipped litter flying down the street are making this a miserably bad idea, she hears footsteps behind her. We follow her denial, then fear and flight, staying with Janis moment by moment down the long stretch of road until the end.
I find this story scarier than most precisely because it doesn't dive into the supernatural -- the most otherworldly it gets is Janis imagining her horrible story told as a TV crime drama. Walking home alone at night gives me the creeps just as much as Janis, and Johnstone picks out every note of fear in resounding detail. The best part of this story is the distinctly audible and tangible descriptions that put you right in the action.
In "A Man of Ice and Sorrow," by Simon Kurt Unsworth, Edward Mains is grieving for his lost eight-year-old son Johnny. The grief has also driven him from his wife Elise, because he felt guilty that he might be happy again with her. Now he instead feels guilty that he left her, but still Johnny is paramount.
The first new emotion that he can grasp onto comes when he discovers a perfect snowman in one of his woodland treks. It fascinates him, and the next day he comes back to find more snowmen, and women, and children, depicted in happy domestic tableaus. Telling himself Johnny would have liked them, telling himself he'll solve the mystery of who makes these perfect snow people, Mains comes back day after day. He finds some comfort in the happy scenes they silently portray, but the first snowman, whom he's come to think of as a snowy alter ego, is still alone and sad. A great snowstorm answers the mystery of the snowmen and their particular significance to Mains.
Horror blossoms in this story only at the very end, like a monster jumping out from a dark opening. Only, this story doesn't have any creepy buildup to make you dread and look forward to the conclusion. It seems a bit like a Stephen King novel with the middle left out, jumping from the ordinary horror of a family tragedy to a gruesome ending, with no intermediate buildup. The emotional beats, however, are strong, and the story is worthwhile for that reason.
"The Obscure Bird" by Nicholas Royle is a short piece about a young couple who are now thoroughly out of the honeymoon phase. They have a baby, Andrew is staying up late to work on papers for his possible professorship, and Gwen complains to her friend that they never have sex any more. Gwen is the main character, and she's trying to reconnect with her husband. The most they have in common to speak about is a new tram line that's going to go in next to their house and root up some old woods. Andrew is concerned about the birds that will lose their nests while Gwen doesn't much care one way or another. Gwen suspects that something deeper than insomnia is wrong with Andrew, and she turns out to be right in a short but shocking and satisfying conclusion. A tight piece worth the time it takes to read.
Mercurio D. Rivera jumps nimbly between bystander, torturer, and victim in "Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us." This fast-paced tale follows Edgar, a war refugee immigrant from the Dominican Republic to New York City. While we learn that the wars and terrorists of this not-so-distant future have left everyone a victim in some way, Edgar is relatively lucky with a new apartment and a safe home for his mother and sister upstate. No apartment is perfect, though, and Edgar tries on the one hand to turn a deaf ear to the screams in the basement, and on the other to quickly apologize to his landlady when he and a girl are making too much noise.
The reason they're making noise is because Mercedes is the kinky type and trying to goad Edgar into fulfilling her masochistic fantasies. Their love-making turns into a heated argument where Edgar gets slapped around, and the landlady comes in to make sure everything is okay. Embarrassment ensues, and Edgar's worried he'll get kicked out.
After realizing they can't be lovers, Mercedes and Edgar become friends instead, and he confides to her his worries about the screams in the basement. He can't bear not to investigate, but as he does so, his perception of the world spirals out of control.
Plenty of gore in this one. Rivera includes a lot of Spanish lingo, but it's easy enough to infer the meanings of all his phrases, and if you do know a bit of Spanish, the story is enhanced. I predict that this is the story from this issue that will stick with you the longest. Tight, fast, dramatic, and tortuous.
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