Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Dark #105 (February 2024)

The Dark, ed. Sean Wallace & Veronica Giguere. Issue 105 (February 2024). Prime Books. $1.99 or online at thedarkmagazine.com.

Reviewed by M.L. Clark

Whispers in the dark are an excellent site for horror, and offer an important medium in the four stories of The Dark’s February issue.

In “Some There Be That Shadows Kiss,” the “whispers” are more figurative: set in the late 16th century, gossip and aspersions cast on anyone who might explain the suffering a town faces. In this case, witches are real, but also not nearly the worst kind of monstrosity that a human being can face. Communal betrayal, spousal harm, parental abandonment… We do such awful things to one another, then have the audacity to spin the cause as evil spirits, no? James Bennett’s tale is a bit more challenging to read than the others this month: not just because of the older language it leans on, but also the allusive nature of much of it. If one embraces the flow, though, the result is a read that, for all its history, has surprises in store.

Another piece that leans on a classic set-up is Angela Slatter’s “Dusk,” originally published in Darkness Beckons, which involves a caregiver for a rich old woman in a rich old estate. Although the story sets itself up as a jaunt through household tensions with the housekeeper and quirks of the estate’s character, it then takes a sharp turn into our protagonist’s backstory: a life of grift and gamble that have led her to this job and, in it, a hope of being able to pay off a massive debt threatening both her and her loved one. The trouble is, some whispers in the dark don’t belong to the house, so much as its property—so when she tries to pull off a critical move to save her skin, she might just have landed herself in an even more supernaturally dangerous position.

Françoise Harvey’s “You, the Listener, on a Heavenly Trip” also involves a protagonist trying to help a loved one—only, this loved one feeds on dying children, in a community where the arrangement is tacitly understood by any parent who feels the need to abandon theirs. After a five-day grace period for possible parental regrets, in which our protagonist is gentle with the child upstairs, while her lover blasts a wide array of music to drown out the sound of their prey’s heartbeat, the time comes to arrange for the child’s relatively peaceful end. Why does this protagonist support their lover in this routine of killing? Why does the rest of the town, in its own unspoken ways, permit such sacrifice? The only answer given is that our own hungers make us selfish. Also, at times, our loves.

“W is for Whispers” by Steve Rasnic Tem is the most blatantly “on theme”, with its protagonist, Clarence, puzzling over the contents of the picture gallery he’s made out of walls in his home—and all the strange whispers that seem to come from them. The more he ruminates on his collection—his choices, their contents, their arrangements, and the things that lurk in their shadows—the more he feels as though he’s in conversation with them, with the past. All well and good, until new pictures start to arrive on the wall, and the past, for this old and divorced man with so little other company, starts to consume what little remains. The ending of this piece is to be expected (haunted photos are a seasoned trope in horror), but the journey there resonates with plenty in the real world. We must always be careful about how long we spend looking into the crevices of the past.

The contrast in these pieces is striking, because the idea of whispering in the dark is usually associated with some spirit trying to lure others into evil or peril—but the only time that whispers drive people to ugly acts in this issue of The Dark is when the humans in Bennett’s tale conspire to cast little Agnes as a witch, and when her mother adds further wounds to the matter. Meanwhile, the creature in Harvey’s tale uses sound to drown out the faint whisper of a little girl’s heartbeat until it’s time to feed, and the picture people in Tem’s story spend more of their time chastising Clarence than anything else. In Slatter’s piece, too, the protagonist’s mistake was not listening to the whispers sooner. If she had, maybe she would have known better than to make the choice that she does, at the end.

No comments: