Monday, October 16, 2023

Nightmare #131 (August 2023)

Nightmare Magazine, ed. Wendy N. Wagner. Issue 131 (August 2023). Online at

Reviewed by Jason Kahler

Full disclosure: A little ways back, I attended a Clarion West workshop facilitated by Nightmare’s Managing/Senior Editor Wendy N. Wagner. She was knowledgeable, insightful, and enthusiastic about our work and about making us better writers. I finished the workshop full of ideas and appreciation for the work Wagner is doing in the writing world at large. I am pleased to say I would have enjoyed the August 2023 issue of Nightmare if I’d never met her.

At a time when there are fewer and fewer outlets for publication, magazines like Nightmare are more important than ever. They are a playground for ideas (even if there are razor blades hidden in the sandbox). They simultaneously bring new voices into the conversation and elevate our appreciation for the old masters. Few places straddle the divide between history and prediction as well as Nightmare, its sister magazine Lightspeed, and similar magazines scratching out existence on the fringe of Big Publishing.

Nightmare’s August 2023 issue, now available to read and purchase at the magazine’s website, exemplifies how its mission builds on classic horror traditions while introducing writers who deserve to be more well-known. The pieces in this issue take wild swings. They also swing wildly, diverging greatly in tone, approach, and inspiration.

Nuzo Onoh’s “Oyili” combines body horror and cosmic horror as it draws upon African folktales. It’s a combination of foundational material I’ve encountered only barely. I was particularly interested in how Onoh mixes imagery of tangible body transformation with the metaphoric vagueness we often find in the unknowable cosmic elements of the story. It’s a unique push/pull that contributes to the story’s overall weirdness. Its characters live close to the ground. Their fate is attached to the success and failures of the natural world. And yet, as protagonist Kachi finds, it’s the supernatural world that grants the most power.

Consider this passage from early in the story where Kachi brings forth a magical double:

He let out a deep gust of air and began to weave his dual reality inside his head. A mighty shudder quaked his body as he started to birth his Oyili, his double. He felt his invisible doppelganger separate violently from him in an agonising ritual that plunged his mind into instant darkness. He started to fall, smashing against the bloodied and bloated corpse of his dead uncle with a hard thud.

The scene is juicy and physical, but also incredibly abstract and mysterious. A wonderful blend that continues throughout the story.

In David Reese-Thomas’s “Author Spotlight” with Onoh, we learn more about Onoh’s exposure to African folklore at a young age. Reese-Thomas makes an interesting connection between “Oyili” and UK folk horror stories. It’s a fair comparison. I think Wicker-Fans will find a lot to like in “Oyili” while encountering a fresh set of cultural norms at the story’s core.

Similarly, fans of werewolf and vampire stories will appreciate the new take on old themes in J. Choe’s unsettling “The Girls That Follow.” As Choe states in the “Author Spotlight” with Xander Odel, this story features a mixture of addiction, shapeshifting, and toxic love. We do what we must to survive, and sometimes that means going to great lengths to ensure that someone else survives, too. “The Girls That Follow” is very tightly crafted, with sparse prose that reflects desperation and inevitability. I may be overthinking the title a bit, but I see it cleverly implying two important concepts. First, it’s not “The Girls Who Follow.” Our speaker cannot allow himself the weight of Who. That would make the girls too human, too like himself. They need to be objects. Second, this is not a story of the girl we meet, but of the girls who (that) will come next. Continue to come. Continue to feed our characters’ passions.

Mark Alpert’s poem “Tropical Fish” should have a content warning for anyone who grew up struggling to keep an aquarium clean and healthy. It’s also a piercing look into the strange relationships sons can have with their fathers.

Two other nonfiction pieces in this issue also illustrate Nightmare’s commitment to finding new uses for old traditions. Jamie Flanagan considers Jeff VanderMeer, and Suzan Palumbo argues for the unhoused gothic. Both essays are insightful. You don’t need to be an expert on the Southern Reach or Jane Eyre to appreciate these essays, and if you do have some background in the material, you’ll appreciate the care in which the authors present their ideas.

Finally, there’s Adam-Troy Castro’s story that dares you to read its title in one breath: “Five Things That Go Through Your Mind After the Masked Killer Decapitates You with an Axe and Your Still-Living Head Has a Few Seconds of Consciousness Left to Gaze at Your Twitching Body.” Now, you know you’re in for something non-traditional, but again, like with most of the pieces in this issue, there’s acknowledgement of all the good stuff that came before. I don’t want to give away too much. The piece is clever. Gimmicky? Certainly. The risk you run with this sort of story is that the clever can outweigh the good. You have to go for it! but not overstay your welcome. I think Castro has hit just the right balance here. Not one word too long. Not one word too short.

You’ll enjoy it. Especially if you’ve ever felt a shred of pity for the unknown actor who gets offed three-quarters of the way through a slasher film. What is the last thing that goes through a head that’s bouncing down the wooden front steps of a ramshackle cabin in the middle of the woods? Castro has it figured out.

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