"The Suicide Club Membership Drive" by Stephen Antczak
"How You Die" by Karl El-Koura
"Nothing Without Faith" by S. Patrick McCully
"Trick or Treat" by James C. Bassett
"There Once Was A Man Who So Loved His Wife" by Tommy Goround
"Keepsakes" by Michael Laimo
"Pearl" by Lynn Carney
"The Harlequin" by Teri A. Jacobs
"Dust Boy" by Jack Fisher
"The Further Adventures of Star Boy" by Forrest Aguirre
The arrival of Surreal #2 was accompanied by a satisfying thwack as it fell to the floor from the letterbox. I ripped open the envelope and weighted the pleasurable heft in my hands as I admired Pierre Bourgeault‘s eerie, sepia toned cover art. Flicking through, I saw it packed page upon well laid out page with prose. If I had seen it in a shop, which is highly unlikely as I live in England, I would have needed no other persuasion to buy it.
Was it all that my cursory examination had promised? Well, wait until nightfall, light a small lamp, snuggle under a blanket and judge for yourself.
The unnamed narrator of the first story, Stephen Antczak‘s "The Suicide Club Membership Drive" is the ghost of a twenty-seven year old rock star who killed himself with a shotgun, leaving behind a wife and baby daughter. As any horror fan knows, the genre can excel or it can be unbearably hackneyed and realizing that the main character is most likely Kurt Cobain isn’t the most auspicious start. However, it’s not what you think. It doesn’t matter who he was only who and what he is.
The tale explores the motivation behind those ghosts who urge the living to join them, as the narrator, and the souls of two other suicides belonging to him, travel across America in search of the suicidal—a journey which mirrors the main character’s growing awareness of what motivated his own demise. Antczak elicits compassion for his alienated characters without giving up their inherent self-absorption. It’s worth more than one read.
Karl El-Koura‘s short shock "How You Die" proves there’s no suspense more delicious than those involving boys telling horror stories by candlelight. The familiar, yet satisfying tale tells of two brothers home alone in a power outage. The elder tries to scare the younger with "look into the mirror and say…" legends. The tension builds steadily into the wonderful climax and I could easily see this making a leap into the verbal horror tradition that spawned it.
The next short, "Nothing Without Faith," the story of a man of the cloth struggling with his faith, by S. Patrick McCully was the weakest work in the issue. Not that it was bad, the character and his motivation were emotionally real for such a short piece, but it was a matter of reading it until the inevitable, telegraphed by the artwork, came to pass.
This was followed by James C. Bassett‘s horror fairytale, "Trick or Treat," which is currently vying for my favorite of the issue. In it, sixty-eight year old Gerard Hughes, his life blighted by the long shadow of a childhood tragedy, returns to Branstock to clean out his family’s old home. The discovery of a papier-mâché mask he made before the incident tempts him to believe he can be free of his past. Bassett beautifully captures the magic of Halloween in the build up to the revelation of what happened and an icing on the cake ending.
"There Once Was A Man Who So Loved His Wife" by Tommy Goround is a light, humorous short about a man who continues to care for his wife even though she’s dead. Beneath the fun, it’s actually quite touching and realistic, in an obviously gruesome kind of way. Unfortunately, the final scene undermines the emotion as it feels tacked on purely for amusement purposes.
Despite a couple of amusing visuals (dolls make me laugh), Michael Laimo‘s "Keepsakes" was almost a relief to finish given its emotional impact. It’s the one year anniversary of the death of Daniel Andrews’s wife, his young daughter has a fever, a storm has cut the power, and Daniel becomes aware that his wife may somehow still be with them.
There is much to be said for using a basic plot that has been done in a variety of ways before. It keeps the reader on their toes, unable to predict what will happen next. Add in the innocent-looking doll from the illustration, and the uncertainty causes palpable tension in a reader already emotionally battered from Laimo’s merciless depiction of Daniel’s grief.
"Pearl" by Lynn Carney is a vignette featuring that horror staple, a drowned child. It’s a well-written, evocative piece that shows just why children are so successful as subjects in horror. Their selfish amorality, which is more usually directed at toys and food in life, becomes chilling when applied to the things the dead concern themselves with.
Now we come to the story competing for my personal first place. "The Harlequin" by Teri A. Jacobs could hardly be more different from Bassett’s gentle tale. The bruise-colored Harlequin of the title, who wears "barbed wire in blood-diamond patterns," visits the narrator one violently stormy night and tells her she won’t live to see sunrise if she sees the procession in the woods. We know where the story is going, but Jacobs takes a turn in how the character gets there. For me, this story reveals the heart of the horror fan; the genre is twisted, but we love it.
I almost don’t want to review Jack Fisher‘s fantastic "Dust Boy" because I don’t want to feel the heartbreak again. Logan, the main character, and his parents have moved house, and when Logan goes up to the attic to explore, he finds the dusty remains of a small, skinny boy. Throughout the story, Fisher never lets up on a lost little boy’s desperate need for love. Read it. I defy you not to be affected.
The final offering, Forrest Aguirre‘s "The Further Adventures of Star Boy" is a stylistic surprise and serves to shake the reader out of their complacency about what Surreal has to offer. With neither emotion nor judgment, the author recounts the bleak life of a manchild so deformed by his mother’s drug use that he looks like a star. With no cues from the author, the reader is free to derive whatever meaning they want from the story, whether it is a case of literary rubbernecking, pity, or a metaphor for the ills of real life.
I hope Surreal is a magazine that makes it. The quality of the stories within is high, and it will appeal to a wide horror audience—from those who prefer traditional ghost stories or shocks, to those with a more macabre taste.