Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The Dark #88 (Sept 2022)

The Dark, ed. Sean Wallace & Clara Madrigano. Issue 88 (Sept 2022). Prime Books. $1.99 or online at thedarkmagazine.com.

Reviewed by Zachary Gillan

The Dark is a monthly online zine famous for both its excellent dark fiction output and its stringent and remarkably rapid rejections—indeed, while I was working on this review a tweet went somewhat viral from an author irate that they had rejected his manuscript three minutes after he submitted it. It’s a leading venue for modern horror fiction that favors atmosphere over gore, and provides a home both for the big names of the genre and relative newcomers. All four stories in the September 2022 issue are strong entries. Stylistically, they share a clear, realist voice, with rather straightforward narratives. There are flashbacks, and the smartly-paced unveiling of details necessary for the genre, but none are overly experimental or knotty in approach.

James Bennett’s “Last Train to Glory” is a period piece, set in London’s cholera outbreak of 1854, which necessitates the reinterment of Luella Crakepole’s uncle to make room in the newly-crowded cemeteries of the city. This undertaking frames a series of flashbacks: their first meeting when she was a child, his first internment, and the first time she saw him devouring living flesh. Yes, her uncle is a ghoul, was buried with an amulet designed to keep him immobilized and buried, and she’s worried the move will undo her good work. It’s a well-constructed story, but you never quite shake the feeling that it’s one you’ve heard before, another horror story about a monster returning from the dead to menace a cursed family member yet again. That said, it folds in commentary on class nicely (as Luella notes that in the trains transporting the corpses, “here Death indeed did discriminate, the vans divided into first, second and third class respectively”), and it’s refreshing to have an elderly woman as protagonist, reflecting back on a long life while facing down a monster with an even longer one.

“The Little God of the Staircase” by Meg Elison is also a period piece, this time in post-World War II America, about a teenager who has survived a suicide attempt and the death of her father. She’s now subject to meetings with a therapist as she navigates the transition from girlhood to womanhood and learns, despite the doctor’s best efforts, when to open things up and when to leave them closed. I do have to admit I was not expecting a blistering attack on this kind of stereotypical Freudian psychoanalysis in 2022, but I suppose given some of modern society’s insistence on moving backwards, it’s good to remind people what needs to be left in the past. She somewhat-facetiously worships (and fears) a mask her father brought back from the Pacific and hung on their staircase, and Elison nicely trickles out details about her father’s fate and her relationship with her therapist. The latter echoes the former to a larger degree than I would have preferred, the repetition of trauma lessening its narrative impact and making explicit some of the revelations that were more powerful when they were implicit.

Kurt Newton’s “The Concert,” meanwhile, features a modern man stuck in a seemingly-endless traffic jam on the way to a mysterious concert, a mass-broadcast open invitation to which enticed him away from the unfulfilling daily grind of the job search. Things get eerier and eerier the longer he sits in this traffic jam—a literalization of the fact that he “had been waiting for one thing or another all his life.” The obvious, somewhat trite metaphor this immediately suggests—purgatory as an endless traffic jam—is, after the conclusion, a feasible interpretation, but not something insisted upon by the text, fortunately. Overall this is a nicely moody piece, a convincingly inconclusive study of stasis and modest aspirations.

My favorite of the four, Richard Strachan’s “Gangler,” revolves around a mother and son, perpetually on the move because of the son’s unconscious ability to call forth bizarre creatures that live briefly before fading back into the ether. Ominous references are made to the fate of one neighbor at the hands of the titular creature. It’s mostly, beautifully, horrifyingly left to the reader’s imagination. Staccato, with no quotation marks setting aside its dialogue, and moving nicely between past and present tense as the narrative juggles their current adventure—their last, they promise one another—and the events that brought them there. Strachan’s prose is piercing and full of character. This is a really satisfying tale of the complicated duel between acceptance and fear the mother feels for her child (putting me in mind of another favorite of recent years, Carly Holmes’s “Sleep”).

As is usual for The Dark, all four of these stories are strong examples of modern weird fiction, well-crafted and compelling. It seems noteworthy that all four of these stories are about escape, either through fight or flight, but only one ends triumphantly. A 25% chance of getting away from something deadly, abusive, or oppressive—what a reflection of the zeitgeist!

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