Tuesday, March 12, 2024

The Dark #104 (January 2024)

The Dark, ed. Sean Wallace & Veronica Giguere. Issue 104 (January 2024). Prime Books. $1.99 or online at thedarkmagazine.com.

Reviewed by M.L. Clark

The first 2024 issue of The Dark brought us assemblages: entities created out of smaller pieces—sometimes to sinister effect, sometimes to appease a greater menace, and sometimes with good intentions that soured. In all cases, the emerging assemblage speaks to a common struggle or ache in our lives, and that’s where the horror strikes deepest: in the knowledge that these patchwork creations aren’t so far removed from our reality after all.

The gentlest of these stories is a reprint by Ai Jiang. “Of A Thousand Arms and More” manifests our modern sense of obligation through human beings who sprout an arm for every task that needs doing, or idea that needs tending to—meaning adults are usually living with hundreds if not thousands of appendages that need to be addressed before they go away. The protagonist thinks she’s on top of hers, until a very important one leaves her with a gnarled and unsightly limb. When she rushes to attend to the task, though, she also finds an extraordinary moment where the extra limbs vanish—and yet, only for a beat. The intimation in the story’s ending is that we create these ungainly forms for ourselves. We could be otherwise, but there is a performative aspect to obligation that we simply won’t abandon.

Another story that addresses humanity’s insistence on causing more problems for itself is Joshua Lim’s reprint, “Klang Crow,” first published in The Big Book of Malaysian Horror Stories. This tale is for the birds, as the crows try to appease Big Crow in a city afflicted by her curse. Human beings do such terrible things to themselves and street animals out of anger: stirring up gang wars, beating dogs to death, and murdering each other because they can. But the cycle of violence will only get worse if Big Crow isn’t fed, so when the crows realize that the day requires a great sacrifice, they scavenge what dead they can find—not just to keep Big Crow from eating them, but also from moving on to eating everything else. This is a just-so story, in a way, inasmuch as it assigns a noble purpose to why crows scavenge, but it also speaks to the tipping points we live with in violent times, and all the little rituals people caught amid violent actors will perform to try to keep worse endings from reaching them.

Fatima Taqvi’s “Garlands for Your Bridal Chamber” also speaks to a common unease: marriage, and arranged marriage especially. There is so much order built into the customs of match-making and marital rituals, that of course the little doubts that still come along for the ride are ripe territory for horror fiction. Is there such a thing as “perfection”, or should the possibility of having attained it in a match be one’s first sign of something sinister lurking beneath the immaculate surface? Our protagonist catches a whiff—literally—of something amiss in all the garlands and other decorations associated with his marital rituals, but there is absolutely nothing in the culture of this story to allow him to push back on the process once it’s been set into motion. This means that he simply has to accept the growing horror of his fabricated bride, and the power she truly serves. For all that his own family had such high hopes, his acceptance of life as a bridegroom consigns him to something terrible.

Family is a deep ache in many lives, though. In “The Grit Born” by Frances Ogamba a seamstress named Egoabia manages her loneliness not by trapping herself with a man or woman, or by endeavouring to get pregnant, but by ordering a powder that promises to allow someone to mould a child out of clay. This story blends old myths with new technologies, as the forums for the company Rebirth play a critical role in Egoabia trying to understand the clay boy that comes to life—imperfectly, at first, and then, in the way of all children, unpredictably. As the child grows, an independent streak grows in him, too; even though he routinely needs to be reborn by coming apart and rebuilding in the sand, there comes a time when he wants to make his own playmate, and go his own way. What makes this story especially chilling, though, is that it speaks to a misguided belief among many parents of real children: that their child should be their own. Afraid that this one might murder her, Egoabia takes extreme action—but even though the action makes sense in this context, the story also resonates with the very real phenomenon of people having children because they wanted a doll, a toy, a loyal friend: only to turn on their offspring as they grow into something more. The ache to enrich our lives with new life might exist, but how often are we actually ready to be responsible for what that ache creates?

Collectively, this is an excellently balanced issue, offering four ways in which human urges, compulsions, and rituals manifest in heaps of broken, messy things. The assemblages here are fictional—but they speak to very real ones in our lives.

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