The Dark Magazine, ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Michael Kelly, & Sean Wallace. Issue #50 (July 2019). Prime Books. $1.99 or online at thedarkmagazine.com.Reviewed by Valeria Vitale
The July issue, #50, features a pleasant variety of voices, styles, and themes. The first story is “Who Will Clean Our Spirits When We’re Gone?” by Tlotlo Tsamaase, a powerful and unusual horror in which the beauty of language plays a substantial role in building and sustaining a pervasive feeling of uneasiness. The story starts with a bizarre and surreal scene: a woman uses an old payphone to reach out to her recently deceased partner. But this extraordinary situation quickly turns into a frame-story, while the narration, and the attention of the reader, shift on the story-within-the-story recalled by the dead woman on the other end of the phone. We are transported, by her sorrowful words, to a world of rotten magic and curses, almost crushed by Fate and inevitability. The story hurts both the woman listening silently clutching the phone, and us, but in different ways.
The second story is L. Chan’s “The House Wins In The End.” I should probably declare here a double bias. First, I love stories of haunted houses. Second, I’m a fan of L. Chan, who is among other things a TFF author and whose story “Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement” in our Making Monsters anthology is simply delightful. So, it won’t come as a surprise that this is my favourite piece of the July issue. “The House wins in the end” is quite an original take on stories of haunted buildings, looking at what happens to the people that own or inhabit haunted houses after all the terrifying psychic phenomena have happened, the damage has been done, and people have, somehow, survived. Chan explores the dark areas in which obsession, PTSD and loss meet. Plus, he suggests an unorthodox use of AirBnB that will leave you suspicious of unknown houses for the rest of your life. The prose is chilling and fascinating, Chan’s precise and unexpected metaphors make the story vivid in the reader’s eye. Haunted houses always have their way, in the end, but there are different ways to live with this.
Each issue of The Dark features one of the stories also in audio format. I have never been a huge consumer of podcasts and audio stories, but since I tried listening to Kate Baker, the artist chosen by The Dark for their readings, I have changed my mind. Her deep and husky voice seems just perfect to bring to life the eerie and frightening tales hosted by The Dark. Her renditions of different characters are smooth and always enjoyable. In issue #50 she reads Chan’s story and, as usual, she delivers quite brilliantly.
The third story is “The Dead Kings” by Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría, translated from Spanish by David Bowles. I was quite pleased to find that The Dark publishes literature in translation. Coming from a non-anglophone background, I have benefitted massively from the work of translators, and I have always appreciated how translations broaden the variety of authors, styles and views that we can choose from. In “The Dead Kings,” two apparently unrelated dystopias walk slowly towards each other to become one, single terrifying nightmare. The protagonist is a young man, perfectly at ease in a world where every aspect of life is strictly dictated by adherence to standards set by brands and multinationals. The man becomes strangely haunted by a story his grandfather has gifted him, and the grim universe in which it is set. The two worlds start bleeding into each other, making the tragic ending inevitable.
The last story is Kay Chronister’s “Thin Places,” which relates to a classic topos of horror literature, where fiction almost meets with the tradition of the first anthropological studies: a small, isolated village manages to thrive in unfavourable conditions thanks to systematic sacrifices of human victims, usually strangers. “Thin places,” though, is not only so well written that the choice of a classic theme is not unwelcome, but the author also introduces an interesting variation. Unlike other stories close to this trope, that adopt the point of view of the unlucky stranger who discovers, horrified, the local tradition, Chronister chooses the point of view of one of the villagers, who is already perfectly aware of what is going on and at what cost. The tension, in this case, is very effectively created not by the unveiling of the secret but by the moral struggle of the villager—the local school teacher—as this time the sacrifice that will keep crops abundant and the livestock healthy is going to have some collateral effects that are especially hard to accept.
I discovered The Dark magazine browsing the list of winners of the Shirley Jackson award (the excellent “Postcards from Natalie” by Carrie Laben, if you’re curious), and I have since avidly started reading all the back issues. The editors truly curate a splendid selection of diverse stories that often manage to be both classic and original, rewarding our expectations but also twisting them in surprising ways.
The August issue is also out, and I look forward to devouring it.