Paula Guran Reviews Short Fiction: Black Static, The Dark, Nightmare, and Fantasy

Black Static 11-12/20
The Dark 11/20, 12/20
Nightmare 12/20, 1/21
Fantasy 12/20, 1/21

I can’t really point out the best in Black Static #77. All six stories are the sort that stay with you and deserve at least brief mention (although Steve Rasnic Tem’s may be my favorite.) A vacation in a tropical paradise turns horrific in novelette “The Guardian” by Philip Fracassi. As tired as I am of “zombie apocalypse”-type stories, Steve Rasnic Tem‘s “The Dead Out­side My Door” is terrific – but then it portrays a very different end of the world: a solitary sur­vivor is secluded in a farmhouse “smothered in green and a vinery brown, the land overgrown and the structures collapsing…. And scattered throughout: the dead, like Halloween decora­tions, grotesque marionettes, pale ornaments dangling from trees, broken bits moving in a corner or ditch. These ghastly memorials show an unlikely variety in rates of decay.” This is a darkly beautiful story that is especially effective in these times of isolation.

In the literary “The Rabbit: A Memory or a Dream” by Françoise Harvey a woman recalls (or dreams) a childhood, but the memories, if that is what they are, don’t exactly fit and are disturbing. It’s a very unsettling tale. David Martin‘s evocative “Fossil Light” deals with loss, loneliness, and a sadness that can embody and latch “on to our secret sorrows, our aimless­ness, draining us down the spectrum….” A sad yet hopeful story. Shaenon K. Garrity‘s “The Bride” is not hopeful at all. Told by a dead woman revived by mad science, it is evidently based on the true story of Carl Tanzler, who stole body of a woman with whom he was obsessed from her tomb and lived the corpse for years. In “Hell and a Day” by Eric Shaller, a movie recommended to him by the Amazon Prime algorithms revives Derrick’s memories of a house and a woman from his past. It’s disquieting but ultimately reassuring.

The River of Night” by Tlotlo Tsamaase is the stand-out in The Dark #66. Leloba’s life is not as she wishes it were. Her twin roommates offer condemnation rather than support. She’s sexually harassed at her dead-end job. Her lover is a mar­ried man who uses her. Her pet, Keletsô – sort of an embodiment of her dreams – is kinder, but also needs to be fed. Even it threatens to leave her. Sounding strange? It is, and it gets stranger. A grim but powerful story.

Issue #67 ends 2020 with four original stories in­stead of the usual two. “Forwarded as Received” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu is the best of the bunch. A chain email warns Mama Ibeji not to buy a certain brand of rice. Surely the email is fake! Mama Ibeji buys and eats the rice and soon wishes she hadn’t.

My favorite of the two originals in Nightmare #99 was “The Obscure Bird” by Nicholas Royle, a short tale about a husband and wife who are grow­ing apart. The husband is changing. We quickly learn just how radical that change is.

Nightmare #100 celebrates its centennial issue with five originals; three are outstanding. Javi and Tran, in Stephen Graham Jones‘s “How to Break into a Hotel Room“, are old friends and partners in crime. Tran is dying and Javi thinks another act of minor thievery will stave off the grim reaper: “The scam is what’s holy, never mind what you get with it. What’s important is getting away with it.” But Javi’s hotel room heist turns into something else altogether: retribution from the past.

Sam J. Miller‘s “Darkness Metastatic” and Maria Dahvana Headley‘s “Wolfsbane” both appear only in the ebook edition of Nightmare. Headley’s story is a darkly delicious fairy tale of witches and wolves. Miller tells us of Aaron, whose lover and co-collaborator on true crime films and videos – Caleb – disappeared six months before. Aaron discovers Caleb believes a computer virus – Met_A_Static – is the cause of the individual acts of hate and violence that are skyrocketing in the US. Aaron’s search for Caleb and the truth leads to horror beyond belief.

Of the four originals in Fantasy #62, the short (about 1,400 words) “Tiny House Living” by Kristiana Willsey impressed me the most. Tired of roommates and shared bathrooms, Jude moves into her very own walnut shell. Small, yes, but “she liked that there was only room for a few things, so everything in her walnut shell was the best of its kind.” Life (and the lack of funds) leads her to downsize further, however, and the story becomes a parable about the dangers of expecting too little and being content with just enough.

Fantasy #63 starts 2021 with four originals. “The Billionaire Shapeshifters’ Ex-Wives Club” by Marissa Lingen is amusing. “Things to Bring, Things to Burn, Things Best Left Behind” by C.E. McGill is charming. Megan Chee‘s “Incense” about how a storyteller finds his stories – from the memories of those who do that pay for his tales – is brief but vivid. My favorite, though, is probably Tonya Liburd‘s “10 Steps to a Whole New You“, which has nothing to do with self-improvement. Told in list form, it is about an encounter with a soucouyant – a Carribean witch who sheds her skin by night, assumes her true fire­ball form, and flies off to find those whose blood she sucks. This does lead the narrator to, yes, became a new, well, something.

Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.

This review and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.

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