As I write, the end of 2021 is rapidly drawing nigh. Not surprisingly, since these are all Northern Hemisphere publications, we find a couple of pieces of fiction featuring the cold. There is even a tale specifically crafted to fit the season.
Black Static #80-81 is their final issue of the year. It’s another “double” and contains two novellas, a novelette, and four short stories, along with tip-top non-fiction. In what is probably a first for this British publication, all but one of the stories is set in the US. Novella “The Humdinger” by Rhonda Pressley Veit is a terrific portrayal of a winter storm with evil intent. This one will chill you no matter what the temperature outside is. The story is set in a portion of rural northern Georgia where the supernatural is not pronounced, but definitely present. We learn a great deal about the life of Nell, its protagonist, her neighbors, family, and animals. She is a kitchen witch who was once a mail carrier (evidently a career that attracts those with unusual powers). The huge snowstorm that hits while she is alone on the farm turns out to be much more than just a patch of bad weather. A humdinger of a story.
Jolie Toomajan’s “Elizabeth Frankenstein Is the Saddest Girl on Earth” is a hoot of a mad science story that also manages to be poignant. Elizabeth is a memorable, unique heroine. Steve Rasnic Tem adds to his growing list of excellent stories featuring the ailing elderly with “Fish Scales”. Francoise Harvey’s haunted house story, “Traps”, is nicely creepy and might evoke real nightmares for do-it-yourself home remodelers.
The issue’s other novella, “Pervert Blood” by Mike O’Driscoll features two teenaged cousins, Hay and Frannie, who don’t fit into their rural eastern Tennessee environment. A searing story of human cruelty, the fantastic ending lifted me from the depths of despair. Bless the fiery embers of perversion and dissent.
“Adaptation” by Claire Rudy Foster meanders a great deal, which lessens the impact of its GURAN message: those who do not belong in a particular place will rue the day they ever attempted to occupy it. Still worthwhile reading. I’m not overly fond of serial killer stories, but Sarah Lamparelli’s “Stolen Property” convinced me to keep reading. She builds the atmosphere of dread well, and its theme of identity is a plus.
The standout story in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #44 is an entertaining and clever novelette – think Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser meets vintage war-time spy story – James Blakeley’s “The Last Mission”. I thoroughly enjoyed this romp of a tale and would love to see more of its world and protagonist.
Kate Francia’s story of demon summoning in modern academia, “A Minor Demon in Adam B-12”, has an entirely different tone and style but is a close second. It takes the spirit of one college student’s grandmother and the mother of another to set the kids’ (and their adjunct prof’s) summoning straight, but all turns out well in the end.
Rounding out the issue are five diverse short stories. “Napier’s Constant” by ArLynn Leiber Presser contemplates love and multiverses. In Raymond Barry’s “I Had a Meeting Then with My Agents”, a well-preserved actor entertains and tries to impress his agents. “All I’ve Ever Learned from Love” by Jen Sexton Riley is a flash-length modern fairy tale. Laurie McCrae’s “A Kindling” features an old-west duel with a twist. Secrets from the past hidden in a house museum are revealed (or are they?) in reprint “Holderhaven” by Richard Butner. All are very well written
“And A Piece of Coal Where Her Heart Once Beat” by Suzanne J. Willis is one of four originals in The Dark #79, a strong issue. Ten-year-old Lulah impresses Krampus that she is the naughtiest of all and becomes his apprentice. Sometimes evil has to win.
Small coffins containing dolls start to be discovered around the world in “Missing Dolls Around the World” by Ai Jiang. These are not mere toys; they are reflections of missing people – abused, murdered, and never found. The author sums it all up with the ending line: “We were all connected, both the living and the dead – dolls with our tongues missing.”
Sensing something is wrong, Eileen travels across the country to visit the father who has told her not to come. She discovers, in Matthew Cheney’s “Hunger”, that something is very wrong indeed at the old homestead. The dead must be appeased, but not in the way you might expect. The well-executed and unexpected ending makes this one special.
In “The Last Sound You Hear” by Steve Rasnic Tem, frail Connor enjoys visiting his eccentric, unpredictable Grandad who always teaches him something. This time, it is a lesson the grandfather wishes he had not taught. It’s not a twist ending, but a commendable one that’s both heart-wrenching and heart-warming.
The Dark #78 also presents four originals. In the haunting “We’re Always the Ones Who Leave” by H. Pueyo, a strange gentrification comes to a quaint street in a small Brazilian town as neighbors disappear and are replaced by rich folks. Soon, only Carol, her sister Sofia, and her mother remain. In Ai Jiang’s “Catcher in the Eye”, 16-year-old Ino sees ghosts – and more – with her right eye. It’s not something the optometrist can cure. An eyepatch helps, but she realizes the ghosts – and truths – are still there. It’s an interesting story, but the ultimate theme, that the mother and daughter are more alike than the girl thinks, isn’t as well-integrated as one might like.
“The Thing With Chains” by Rob Costello: It’s fall of 1980 in LA. Former child star Benji isn’t as comfortable as the other “boys” – aspiring actors – weekending at Palazzo di Bacco “auditioning” for the bigwigs. Then he encounters El, who says he is the pool boy, and enters a nightmare and/or discovers the meaning of his life. A bit over the top. Phoenix Alexander’s “Dance, Macabre” isn’t as excessive, but it bites off more than can be effectively handled in a simple short story. The narrator goes to a club for the first time to celebrate his birthday. He later realizes the club is more than it appears. The story of his life is revealed.
“Holderhaven”, Richard Butner (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, 12/21)
“A Minor Demon in Adams B-12”, Kate Francia (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 12/21)
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 2022 issue of Locus.
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