Black Static #68, March/April 2019

Wednesday, 13 March 2019 21:16 Jason McGregor
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Black Static #68, March/April 2019

"Unchain the Beast" by Stephen Volk

"In a Dry Season" by David Martin
"Totenhaus" by Amanda J. Bermudez
"Roiling and Without Form" by Kay Chronister
"The Stop-Tap" by Tim Lees
"The Beast in the Palace" by Tom Johnstone

Reviewed by Jason McGregor

This issue of Black Static contains two novelettes and four short stories whose quality is almost uniformly inversely proportional to their length, with the shortest story achieving excellence, though a few may be sufficiently creepy to entertain.

"Unchain the Beast" by Stephen Volk

This story about Pepe and Beeno, who are crazy about movies, reads a lot like Dale Bailey's "The Ghoul Goes West" (Tor.com, January 17, 2018) except that they are two Mexican best friends rather than two American brothers but it soon morphs into a sort of alternate history political story in which good people are made bad by institutions and horror is unleashed. Unfortunately, while it feels like there should be, there's no real speculative element to this (only hearsay and conjecture about off-stage things) and the moments before the close, which contain a horrifying image and put forth a brutal picture of conflict and compromise, are stronger than what follows.

"In a Dry Season" by David Martin

In this, "you" are trying to write a book to exonerate yourself for something, accompanied by a voice in your head. You meet a man who is a social outcast and who then creates a very interesting piece of art for you. This causes things to melt down and we learn that you're even crazier than it seemed at first.

I've never liked second-person present tense and, as more people jump on the bandwagon and I read it more, I dislike it more and more. People who aren't distanced from the story might enjoy it more, as it has a particularly creepy scene and some nice surrealism but this is the second story in a row about someone with creative (and destructive) inclinations and which focuses on sociopolitical guilt and responsibility, and which has little speculative element (just insanity and surrealism) while also making me think of The Shining and Simon Avery's "Why We Don't Go Back" (Black Static #64, July/August 2018).

"Totenhaus" by Amanda J. Bermudez

Sometime after the French Revolution, a French woman sits with the dead in a "Totenhaus" where corpses reside for some time before burial to make sure they're really dead. Aside from the narrator, this story focuses on Ingrid, who has been killed by a carriage accident which left fingerprint bruises on her neck.

This is a short and extremely creepy story that had me literally on the edge of my seat. Very good stuff, from the bigger picture to remarkably effective details, like the cut foot.

"Roiling and Without Form" by Kay Chronister

Molly's living at a strange hotel populated by a few monstrous regulars and the even more monstrous Mother. She's been there as long as she can remember, since the marshes came up and became the world. Naturally, when a couple of visitors arrive and, unprecedentedly want to stay for awhile and then offer to take her with them, she's curious. The marsh would have to be greener on the other side, wouldn't it?

This story is almost a little too nightmarish (in a low key way), as it's hard to get a grip on. Unlike the first two stories, this one may be too speculative. Other than an element about confusing "ravishing" and "ravaging" in the romance novels Molly reads which would seem to introduce gender topics, this doesn't seem to be about anything in particular and only works on a dreamlike level of despair though symbol readers may see more.

"The Stop-Tap" by Tim Lees

This is the story of two crazed kids. One is a nervous wreck from being tormented by the other, his psychotic "friend." When the nervous one finds a gizmo in the woods that freezes the world when he turns the knob and fills him with a sense of peace, he thinks he's got it made...until the other kid finds out about it.

The gimmick at the conclusion regarding the range near the "stop-tap" doesn't make a lot of sense and the fact that things like bees and glass in doors are resistant to change while frozen and things like plastic flamingos and garden gnomes are not makes no sense. The villain is one-dimensional and the protagonist isn't appealing, but the description of his home and school life are well-done.

"The Beast in the Palace" by Tom Johnstone

A strange story within a story about an escaped slave and the beast in the palace who would imprison her in his own way. This achieves novelette length mainly because it's, depending on your taste, stylish or overwritten and focuses mainly on colonialism, race, and gender. Aside from its concerns and dark ending, it mostly reads as a twisted fairy tale more than a dark fantasy/horror story.


More of Jason McGregor's reviews can be found at Featured Futures.