Monday, November 30, 2020

The Dark #65 (2020)

The Dark, ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Sean Wallace. Issue 65 (Oct 2020). Online at

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

The Dark is a monthly horror and dark fantasy ’zine with one heck of a pedigree. Its editors include multiple veterans from Clarkesworld Magazine, World Fantasy Award and Hugo winners, bestselling authors, and all of the above. It has gained a reputation for being one of the premier modern horror publications, offering fiction from such giants in the field as Alison Littlewood, Steven Rasnic Tem, Angela Slatter, and Gemma Files, but also leaving plenty of room for submissions by newcomers and relative unknowns. In addition, the stories are free to read, and, for the visually impared, many of the tales are available in audio form.

Their latest issue of The Dark consists of four stories: “A Few Words from the New Tenant of _____ House” by Robert Costello, “Stretch” by Shari Paul, “Reflections in Black” by the venerable Steven Rasnic Tem, and “The Wendigo at the End of the Blue Line” by Gabriela Santiago. I will say immediately that I thoroughly enjoyed all of these stories. I also have to commend the magazine’s commitment to diversity. As a horror fan, I am often frustrated by the over-abundance of white male heterosexual authors and protagonists. Now, this is not to say that these white male authors are in any way bad; you are talking to a devoted Stephen King fan here. All I am saying is that it’s nice to see things from other points of view, to take a different perspective. It adds richness and colour to the genre. In addition, other cultures have a wealth of myths and ideas about the nature of fear, and it seems a pity not to examine them. In this, I think publications like The Dark provide a valuable service.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the individual stories.

“A Few Words From the New Tenant of _____ House” is the shortest of the stories, and is written in the form of a letter. The narrator is a young queer man who has recently moved into a haunted house. It’s a strange, almost stream-of-consciousness character piece, well-written and weird in a good way. Costello is a veteran of The Dark and a horror author with a very literary (in the academic sense) resume, which is very easy to see here. It’s a bizarre, dark character piece, low on scares but big on atmosphere, and a lot of fun to read.

“Stretch” is probably my least favourite of the stories. It tells us of a “jumbie”, a Caribbean/West Indian sort of ghost, invariably evil, that inhabits an isolated stretch of road, killing drivers that cross its path. The main character goes out hunting the jumbie after it kills her brother. While this is a solid story, there was something about the writing style that just didn’t quite gel with me, The narrative also felt a bit disjointed; the narrator jumps back and forth between the present day to past occasions with her relatives without any real demarcation or change in tense, which felt confusing. In addition, there seemed to be an attempt at one point to make the monster more sympathetic, as it claims it preys on humans only to feed its children… except its children prove to be just as single-minded and bloodthirsty as their parent. It just never came together for me, though it is nice to see a horror story exploring Caribbean mythology.

“Reflections in Black” is by an author that any fan of weird and dark fiction will recognise; Steven Rasnic Tem has been releasing fiction since the late 1970s, and has published over 200 novels and short stories. I will confess to not being a huge fan of his works myself; when it came to the Tems, I preferred the works of Steven’s late wife, the late and very much-lamented Melanie Tem. But when it comes to building an eerie and unsettling atmosphere Steven Tem has few equals, and “Reflections in Black” is a beautiful example of his skill. A creeping sense of unease permeates this tale of a jaded businessman seeking out his lost love, with Tem flawlessly describing the grime and desolation of the British urban setting. While it all comes to a rather unsatisfying conclusion (a trait also common to Mr Tem’s work, which is one of the reasons I have never been a fan), no one can deny this story’s quality or power.

We close with my favourite story of this issue, “The Wendigo at the End of the Blue Line.” Gabriela Santiago’s contribution describes the hollowed out (but still living) corpse of an ancient monster, now turned into a theme park for tourists, complete with rides, games, and restaurants. The protagonist, a half black, half Anishinaabe woman working within the Wendigo, tells us about her daily routine, her relationships with the different sides of her family, her life in the Wendigo. She struggles with the feelings of betraying her native heritage by participating in the degradation of the Wendigo… and her feelings of betraying her black family members by allowing them to visit it. The Wendigo, you see, needs to eat, and it takes what it eats from its visitors. The visitors might not know that they are being fed upon, but they are never quite the same after they leave the Wendigo’s hollowed shell. The protagonist knows this, and she knows she is being fed upon as well… but she, too, needs to eat. It’s a wonderful, tragic story about the commercialisation of heritage and mythologies, about struggling with your heritage and where you belong, about poverty and what it forces us to do, about the things capitalism takes from all of us.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable issue consisting of four compelling and well-written stories. While one of them wasn’t to my taste, I can still see that others would enjoy it, and I enjoyed the look at a culture that has been very under-represented in the horror genre. But loving three out of four stories sure ain’t bad. If this issue is typical, The Dark entirely deserves its reputation as one of the premier horror ’zines online today.

No comments: