Murky Depths #11, Spring 2010

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“Heart of Clay” by D.K. Thompson
“The Last Precinct: Hostile Takeover” by Luke Cooper
“Sarah 87” by Camille Alexa
“Hush Little Brother” by Richard Rippon
“Thank You and Good Night” by Steven Tanner
“Low Tide” by Lisa A. Koosis
“We Know Where You Live” by Matt Finucane
“Dead Girls: Episode 3” by Richard Calder
“Loose?” by Mike Wook
“Served” by Ruairi MacInnes
“The Story of Andrew Haddock: Part II” by David Barnett

Reviewed by Nathan Goldman

Hailing itself as a “quarterly anthology of dark speculative fiction,” Murky Depths is a publication unsatisfied by work that is merely passable. It seeks to push the envelope, and while the stories it prints succeed or fail on their own merits, each carries with it a desire to go beyond the average style or subject matter of modern speculative fiction. Furthermore, by including serialized comics as well as prose, and by commissioning artists to illustrate the non-graphic stories, this publication stands out. Murky Depths’ eleventh issue is an uneven collection, but the successes outweigh the duds, making the final product a satisfying and exciting snapshot of the modern speculative fiction landscape.

D.K. Thompson’s “Heart of Clay” is the most recent in a series of stories set in the fictional universe of “St. Darwin’s Spirituals.” (Another story in the series, from the Triangulation: Dark Glass anthology, was previously reviewed here.) The tale follows the creation of a renegade golem constable, brought to life by a burning slip of enchanted paper, and deals with the immediate reasons for and causes of his creation. Unfortunately, the intriguing concept is not artfully executed: the story is all description and event; there’s simply no characterization, and the cast of odd creatures, interesting by design, has no depth. This could be a symptom of the story being a part of a series, but nonetheless, it detracts. Add to this the stale, bad movie-esque dialogue and ho-hum diction, and the story ultimately disappoints.

In “The Last Precinct: Hostile Takeover,” Luke Cooper brings a series of dark fantasy comics to a close. Cooper wisely includes a refresher on recent events to educate those of us who didn’t get to read the rest. These recent events include a battle with Satan and an assassin in the employ of God – pretty over-the-top, absurd stuff, but in this installment the plot only gets weirder. And this is the piece’s downfall: too much weirdness and attempted edginess with not enough substance. Between the action movie dialogue and bouts of unnecessary swearing, the piece ends up a mess, or, at best, a first draft.

“Sarah 87” by Camille Alexa opens like a love poem but quickly darts into SF territory with the revelation that the beloved is a “hive creature of Antholos System.” The intriguing opening leads into an equally intriguing tale of a group of isolated planet miners and the lengths to which they go for some sort of human(ish) contact. Despite a few mangled clauses here and there, it’s artfully written. The end is as beautiful as the beginning, making this sad, touching musing on loneliness and the human condition a must read for fans of speculative and literary fiction alike.

Following love with horror, Richard Rippon’s “Hush Little Brother” is a story of supernatural sleep and the danger of those who awaken from it. As a topic this is nothing new: it’s the subject of plenty of zombie flicks, good and bad. But Rippon’s feels unique. It’s well crafted in language and structure; it’s gripping and suspenseful. Generally the language is merely efficient, but at times it’s superb, especially the similes – “snoring like a chainsaw.” Rarely does a story grab you and refuse to let you go as well as this.

“Thank You and Good Night” by Steven Tanner is a brief standalone comic. At first it’s difficult to comprehend, but eventually it dawns on the reader what this is: a thank you note from Death to mankind for its assistance in piling up the bodies. Though not the kind of piece you’re likely to return to, it’s clever and effective, and the first graphic piece in this issue truly much improved by the art.

Lisa A. Koosis’s “Low Tide” is another achingly poetic tale. At first the lack of spatial orientation is irksome: though it allows the reader to float pleasantly through the first few paragraphs, eventually you demand a chance to be grounded. By the story’s middle, though, the poeticism is fully comfortable, and there’s no need for grounding. This tale of the seaside retreat of the nameless may require a few reads to really understand – but it’s worth it.

“We Know Where You Live” by Matt Finucane is a brief, odd story with little exposition or context. It’s slightly off kilter, almost Douglas Adamsish: Wallace, the protagonist, certainly has a lot of Arthur Dent in him. It’s a perplexing little tale with too little in it to describe without giving away far too much. It’s worth the time it takes to read, but no more than that, and you’re unlikely to dwell on it much after the fact.

The issue’s next comic, Richard Calder’s “Dead Girls: Episode 3,” is based on an over-the-top, kitschy premise that involves a species called Dolls that are part android, part vampire. Silliness aside, the art is mature but still wistfully superhero-ish, and the characters are immediately compelling. This episode, a couple pages long with almost no dialogue, is frustratingly brief. There’s not really enough time to tell if you like it, but it is remarkably intriguing, certainly enough to make the reader anxious for Episode 4.

“Loose?” by Mike Wook is the kind of story that piques the reader’s interest just enough to keep going and gradually builds in strangeness and excitement right until the end. This eerie tale of a man who has conned his unknowing wife into taking less than her fair share of a witch doctor’s life-extending “Shells” exudes an eeriness that’s hard to come by. There are some awkward phrasings to stumble over, but at times the writing is truly eloquent. The exposition process could be more integrated, but the revelation of information is not intrusive enough to take away from how interesting the information itself is. This is undoubtedly an author to keep an eye on.

Ruairi MacInnes’s “Served” is a modern day (or, rather, future day) Poe monologue, darkly subversive as well as poetically rhythmic. Besides being peppered with clever concepts (a future in which executions are done by viewer vote, reality show style), the protagonist is as utterly compelling as he is deranged. The language is quick and artful, and, most importantly, the end is marked by a stupendous twist even Poe would envy.

The issue ends with a short graphic piece, David Barnett’s “The Story of Andrew Haddock: Part II,” wherein the titular character uncovers a library book about his life and becomes engrossed in its pages, oblivious to the actual life going on around him. The story is clever and holds reader interest, but it cuts off too quickly, without sufficient development, leaving what could be a great ending feeling unsatisfying.

Murky Depths seeks to be unique, and it appears to be succeeding. No other modern magazine so successfully blends speculative comics or prose. But this publication’s appeal goes beyond this gimmick. The dark science fiction and fantasy found in the pages of Murky Depths has a cohesive feel to it – unsettling yet beautiful – and, despite a few missteps, this issue is of outstanding quality.

Publisher: Murky Depths (March 2010)
Price: £6.99
Paperback: 82 pages