The Dark Magazine, ed. Sean Wallace & Veronica Giguere. Issue 78 (November 2021). Prime Books. $1.99 or online at thedarkmagazine.com.
Reviewed by M.L. Clark
The Dark magazine’s November 2021 issue offers four stories that address different ways in which we find ourselves swept up by and made complicit in the unconscionable. In all, a binding thread is a perceived lack of agency—in some cases, even when the protagonist has absolutely made choices to do harm to others, too.
In the issue’s first story, H. Pueyo’s “We’re Always the Ones Who Leave,” the unconscionable element, the rising tide that consumes everything in its path, is gentrification. Although the protagonist does not use the term, her youthful exposure to fruits and flowers, as part of the family’s grocery store and while living on a street framed with jacaranda trees, gives her all the vocabulary she needs to contextualize the uncanny propagation of new, affluent neighbours into her home streets. They smile, they commit to neighbourhood renewal projects, and yet all they really do is take over and oust others. Everything happens with such supposed politeness, though, that there never seems to be an opportunity to resist. The story outlines a clear difference between politeness and human decency—and there’s no room for the latter here.
“The Thing With Chains” by Rob Costello then provides an individual’s descent into something both sinister and ancient. Benji is a past child-star now attending a Hollywood party in a last-ditch effort at returning to fame, even though he knows that the path to such an end will involve offering oneself up as a plaything to the rich and well-connected in the industry. Worse still, he also realizes there’s little chance of the effort working out (at 21, he’s too “old” by industry standards), and yet, his burning desire for further acclaim calls the most unusual pool boy to his side. After a potent conversation with “El,” a different sort of elevated life ensues.
In Ai Jiang’s “The Catcher in the Eye,” an adolescent is struggling with an eye that sees ghosts—but it’s more than that. She sees death, decay, and above all else dishonesty, hypocrisy, and failure, as it manifests in and around the people all around her. She sees what others carry with them, what consumes them, what lies beneath their masks, and the legacy of their harm. Her struggle lies in keeping up pretense in the surface world, a world where others don’t talk about such things if they see them, too. To comply with her mother’s asks and expectations, her own progression toward adulthood requires concession about the spectres around us all.
Lastly, “Dance, Macabre,” by Phoenix Alexander, pairs well with Costello’s story in that it is also about a party that consumes a life—but differently, our main character here finding his queerness in a dance hall that also contains a Faustian/Dorian-Gray-esque bargain with a beguiling youth in the bathroom mirror. The main character here is cruel and careless with his relationships beyond the dance hall, and his whole life becomes consumed by the beck and call of bacchanalian freedom within this near-mythic place, either Elysian or Elysium by name.
Collectively, that lack of perceived agency offers this month’s “dark” turn—for although one might ask “Why didn’t the neighbours put up resistance?” or “Why doesn’t Benji walk away from the games of the industry and find fame elsewhere” or “Why doesn’t the teenager call out the hypocrisies around her?” or “Why doesn’t our callous party-boy ever wrestle with a genuine call to grow up?”, the issue dwells in the realm of beings trapped within convictions of inevitable descent. Whether or not each protagonist’s outer context can be meaningfully fought, let alone defeated, matters less than the horror this issue presents to us, of being prisoners to our own sense of inevitable consignment to a specific, damning end.