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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Black Static #63, May'June 2018

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Special Double Review

by

Gyanavani & Tara Grimravn

 

Black Static #63, May/June 2018

The Harder it gets the Softer We Sing” by Steven J. Dines

Raining Street” by J.S. Breukelaar
Bones of Flightless Birds” by Matt Thompson
Pyralidae” by Kristi DeMeester
The Fire and the Stag” by Nicholas Kaufmann

Reviewed by Gyanavani

Generally, I do not read horror. Unsurprisingly when I began reading these stories I expected malevolent beings to rise from nowhere and attack with bitter fury. In most cases the monstrous turned out to be more interesting and even scarier than what I had expected.

The magazine opens with Steven J. Dines’ novella, “Harder It Gets the Softer We Sing.” This is a story about a family of misfits: the husband in a job that is primarily handled by women, the wife refusing to accept her miscarriage, and the son diagnosed as falling on the autism spectrum.

Bizarre events occur but they still fall within the realm of the probable. The wife’s denial of her miscarriage is understandable; her solution to give birth to a life-sized doll that is delivered by courier at her doorstep definitely weird; but still in these days of man-made miracles not completely unbelievable.

Dines recreates classic horror situations and/or scenes; take for instance the old man sitting on the park bench watching the children play. But he does not follow the beaten path. Instead he provides a dialogue between the old man and our narrator in which the old cliché gains new solidity.

The narrator is a writer of horror stories himself. And it is as he writes his story within this narrative that he comes to a surprising and profound understanding. The fearsome monster is not his father but he himself. Once that understanding sinks in, the next logical step, that his entire family has elements of the monstrous in them, is relatively easy. His duty then becomes clear. As the primary/dominant monster he must protect the timid members of his clan.

I admit I was bowled over by this story. It is beautifully written. Sadly, I lack the detailed knowledge of this genre to assess the technical dexterity of this writer. One fact, to me, is crystal clear. Dines opens the novella with a dream in which he is in a bar with Ray Bradbury and Charles Bukowski. In the novella he understands it as an emasculating experience. But by the end of the novella, we understand that the narrator/writer of Dines’ story wants to capture a separate distinctive region for horror and give it recognition on the literary genre map.

Raining Street” by J. S. Breukelaar reprises the old fairy story, “Hansel and Gretel.” What if, the story asks, the wicked stepmother was not really wicked but was tricked into leaving her children behind by the real evil witch?

In a fictitious city there is this woman who is coping with the loss of a beloved partner and also struggling to raise two children on a dwindling budget. The neighbor suggests a grocery shopping trip to a market beyond the safe streets of the regulated city. The heroine worries about wholesome meals on a tight budget while in a hurry to get to the store. At the end of the story we see this woman fighting to return to her kids.

The writing is beautiful and the plotting interesting. The concept of city as jungle is common and yet the writer handles that trope with careful sensitivity. I also liked how the writer used the idea of the bread pellets, here they are seeds, marking the way.

It isn’t Breukelaar’s fault that after Steven J. Dines mind enlarging novella this story feels limited.

In “Bones of Flightless Birds” Matt Thompson locates his characters and their situation on a nameless island. But whereas Breukelaar’s story feels like it is set in an alternative reality, Thompson’s reads as though it is firmly ensconced in ours.

In a time of raging war, the inmates of an island prison are dying in a grotesque and painful manner. At first it looks like this death visits only the prisoners but by the end it is clear that everyone is tainted by the war that rages somewhere out there, even the doctor who is only worried about the physical well-being of his patients.

I loved the setting of this story, the grim rain, the inescapable doom—all very shudder worthy. At first I was a trifle uncertain about the resolution. But the more I think about it the more it feels as though the ending is not as simplistic as I first thought it was. In time of war everyone is guilty, the captor as well as the doctor.

Kristi DeMeester’s “Pyralidae” was the one story in this collection that read like a “regular” horror story. The heroine, whose father has died recently, has come back to care for the orange farm of her childhood. She leaves behind a regular life and a lover and returns to a solitary existence where she struggles to find help to care for the trees.

Back home, her father has left a surprise package for her. And yes, the surprise is unsurprisingly gory and involves a new method of preventing the growth of destructive insects as well as a suitably bloody end to the persistent boy friend.

The story is not badly written. The author lays out the heroine’s psychological motivation as well as the scientific development that breeds the monstrous insecticide. And it has left me disturbed enough to look very carefully at a squishy orange.

Yet I admit I did not like the story. Maybe because I believe that we humans have colonized this planet and left very little space for plant cultures to thrive uninfluenced by us; maybe because I believe that we humans have been the actively attacking party; whatever the reason, I find it hard to imagine trees as monstrously other.

The last story, “The Fire and The Stag” by Nicholas Kaufmann was, to say the least, intriguing. It tells the story of two siblings, a boy and a girl, who survive a forest fire but lose their parents in it. The boy, now a grown man, struggles with all kinds of psychological issues but the girl, the older sibling, manages to become a professor of anthropology. And then in her search for a lost tribe, a tribe that has been documented only by another tribe that has been fully decimated, she is lost. The loyal and loving brother sets out on a quest to find his sister.

The search is exciting, the answer unexpected. And I am left wondering whether the story is about two disturbed siblings’ descent into madness or whether my feeble mind refuses to see the existence of other cultures because it questions my notion of reality.

Black Static is not for the faint hearted. All the stories in this magazine demand close attention. They all trod that razor sharp line that runs between the deepest and darkest depths of our minds and the vast unexplored regions of alternative reality. If you love blood curdling adventures laced with bone chilling ambiguity, then this magazine will definitely provide many hours of satisfying thrills.

***

Black Static #63, May/June 2018

The Harder it Gets, the Softer We Sing” by Steven J. Dines

Raining Street” by J.S. Breukelaar
Bones of Flightless Birds” by Matt Thompson
Pyralidae” by Kristi DeMeester
The Fire and the Stag” by Nicholas Kaufmann

Reviewed by Tara Grímravn

This 63rd issue of Black Static is the first I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The stories within are so elegantly written, so beautifully styled that they’d give even the staunchest literary snob reason to pause. None of the tales in Black Static are what one might consider overtly horrific. Readers will not find copious amounts gore, violence, or bone-chewing monsters. The horror here creeps up on you slowly, a chill shadow flowing gracefully between each line.

The Harder it Gets, the Softer We Sing” by Steven J. Dines

A horror writer endures real life horror in the form of family woes. I am not normally a huge fan of metafiction but I will make a very willing exception for Dines’ novella “The Harder it Gets, the Softer We Sing.” It took me a few days to fully think this story through in order to wrap my mind around it.

In every way but one, the work reads like a normal narrative. It’s the section titles that act as a form of metalepsis and draw the reader’s attention to the story as an artefact. Each title would seem to be a guideline on writing a story, yet Dines’ character violates each of these within that particular section. For example, in the section Never Open a Story with a Dream, the reader is introduced to the narrator’s odd recurring dream, in which he’s having drinks with Ray Bradbury and Charles Bukowski. During this scene, we’re given hints into both the narrator’s internal and external struggles.

Throughout the work, Dines explores the relationship between reality and fiction. I’m still in many ways digesting everything within this tale but I do not believe that Dines was making symbolic commentary on any aspect of what could be termed collective reality. Instead, despite the events of the narrative, I feel it’s more focused on his own nature as a horror writer, as well as the art of writing horror itself.

In the end, I’m left somewhat in awe of “The Harder it Gets, the Softer We Sing.” It is beautiful, dark, emotional, and genuinely thought-provoking.

Raining Street” by J.S. Breukelaar

A struggling single mother fights to return home after visiting a magical street market. Breukelaar’s story, which was wonderfully written, felt to me like a twist on "Hansel & Gretel." Many of the tropes of that fairy tale, such as the trail of bread crumbs—or in this case bean stems—and the decadent treats are present. Instead of the children trying to escape the witch and make their way home, though, it’s the mother who is lost thanks to a witch’s trickery. I did wonder what the old sorceress’s plans were in trying to keep the children, though. Since the entire story revolves around food in one form or another, was she going to eat them? There are a few hints throughout the story that make me think she was indeed. Unlike "Hansel & Gretel," though, you’ll find no happy ending—only the shadow of a possibility of one.

Bones of Flightless Birds” by Matt Thompson

A strange disease ravages inmates on an island prison during a seemingly never-ending war. Thompson’s strange story is both spellbinding and unsettling. The disease is never truly explained although the author provides plenty of clues as to its origin. World-building in “Bones of Flightless Birds” is amazing. Thompson’s use of description engages all of the senses, immersing the reader in the experience. I really enjoyed this story.

Pyralidae” by Kristi DeMeester

A woman inherits an orange grove from her father. DeMeester’s story was fantastic—a mix of dark magic and the cycle of life. Before I go further, let me be clear that “Pyralidae” is horror without a doubt. It’s just subtle. The feeling that something is off grows as one moves through the story and is never fully brought to the fore—it’s only hinted at. I can’t say that I thought it particularly unsettling or disturbing at any point, although I’m sure most readers will, especially given the ending. For me, however, the poignant tale about coming home to one’s roots was the greater melody.

The Fire and the Stag” by Nicholas Kaufmann

A man goes searching for his sister who disappeared while searching for a lost tribe. Being a lover of all things anthropology, the premise of Kaufmann’s story really set my imagination ablaze (no pun intended). Being a horror story, I had expected the usual cannibalism trope or something similar but was pleasantly surprised to find something completely different at the heart of the horror. The inclusion of excerpts from the lost woman’s diary as she worked to translate ancient Native American texts was fantastic, providing hints at the danger lurking in the forest and increasing the tension for the big reveal.