Surreal, Vol 1 Issue 3

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“Turrow” by Kealan Patrick Burke
“Marathon Days” by Mikal Trimm
“Controls” by Steven Prete
“Apple Jack” by James Walton Langolf
“The Man who was Afraid of Holes” by Robert Heinze
“Pliable Polly” by Bryn Treacy
“Shrieks” by Jack Kincaid
“Five Second Fantasies” by Scott William Carter

Surreal comes across as a little fannish, despite the quality of the cover.  To some extent this is true, but they’ve struck a delicate balance between referencing mainstream horror and the fan clique.  One of Surreal’s strengths lies in its non-fiction, with a brilliant analysis of the Hannibal Lector novels and interviews with several authors, both the renowned and the emerging.  There is an excellent video-game review, and overall the presentation of the magazine isn’t bad.  The line artwork is passable, though it does drag the quality of the magazine down to a fandom level.  This doesn’t reflect the professional horror market Surreal is meant to represent, or at least not the magazine that is promised to the readers by the glossy cover art.

The fiction is mostly good, and ranges from the thrilling “Five Second Fantasies” by by Scott William Carter to the quirky “Pliable Polly” by Bryn Treacy.  Nothing in this volume is outstanding, but there are some decent tales to be found.  It is quite a meaty read, with the fiction spread evenly throughout the interesting articles and numerous interviews.

“Turrow” by Kealan Patrick Burke is a tale with a film noir taste about a broken man simply going through the motions.  His wife is a shrieking harpy bent on making his life hell, and he treads a fine line between stubborn pride and displeasing her to the point where the Council will come and “deal with him.”  The subtle slipstream nuances threaded throughout this story aren’t bad, but ultimately the story fails to deliver much in the way of substance.  A slightly anticlimactic ending mars what the beginning promises, which is a shame as the gritty opening really draws the reader in.

“Marathon Days” by Mikal Trimm is one of the better stories in this issue.  A man simply runs for no reason, heedless of all danger, headlong into traffic and disaster.  The narrative tension is masterful for a short, and the idea is simple and original.  A real thought-provoking tale, the central premise being a bizarre curse similar to the one in The Ring.

“Controls” by Steven Prete is a difficult story to classify: while it has a vivid introduction and a flavor of disturbed adolescence throughout, this story of a boy afraid to mow a particular part of the lawn fails to finish on a satisfying note.  Prete has given “Controls” an interesting subtext, that of power and control.  He shows the weakness of the incapable, and how a fearful situation can be defeated through sheer primal rage and nerve.  It is a multilayered and cleverly written story, and Prete almost manages to carry it off.  It is still worth reading, but it would have been interesting to observe the development of this story had it been given one more edit.

Like a fable gone wrong, “Apple Jack” by James Walton Langolf is a definitive take on the stories of the Brothers Grimm.  It is the tale of a terrifying nature spirit, the Apple Jack of the title.  With twigs for fingers, and leaves and bark for skin, Apple Jack torments the protagonist, an orphaned little girl.  He stalks her through the wall-space, murders her cat, and mimics her grandmother losing her head.  Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do…and the little girl finally snaps!

This is a great little ripper of a read with a solid ending.  While there is little here in the way of visceral horror, the true power of this tale lies in how it references the mundane and binds it to the darkness of the old fairy tales.  The fecundity of Apple Jack is truly disturbing, and while this type of story is nothing new, this is a fresh look at an old school of writing.  Great!

“The Man who was Afraid of Holes” by Robert Heinze is not the best story in this issue.  The protagonist, Lyle, is Afraid of Holes (He saw something scary in one once).  We follow him through his therapy and eventual cure, only to come to a wholly unsatisfying and unconvincing ending that smacks of failed black humor.

“There are no monsters,” Lyle says, but he’s wrong; there are monsters.  They are the editors that allow this sort of stuff out of the slush pile.  Possibly the only good thing to say about this piece is that the scenes with Lyle’s doctor seem quite plausible, and perhaps with a little editing this might have worked.

“Pliable Polly” by Bryn Treacy is a cute little piece that could possibly appear as a children’s SF story.  Here we meet Polly, a little girl with the powers of amazing elasticity.  When mum leaves the house, the rest of the family like to play silly games with their stretchy sister.  But don’t let mum find out!

While not horror per se, this is a quirky tale that is almost guaranteed to bring a chuckle.  This serves as a good way of breaking up the gore and the slabs of non-fiction work appearing throughout this issue.  Harmless, entertaining filler.

“Shrieks” by Jack Kincaid is one of two long pieces.  When strange noises are disrupting an old theatre, the mystified manager calls in a favor from a police officer friend.  They roam the old sewers beneath the building where a little girl is rumored to have vanished some years ago.  Then things begin to get strange…

This begins a little slowly, but Kincaid delivers some scary moments.  He follows one of the great formulas of horror: put the characters out of their comfort zone, surround them with something scary, and make the torch go out.  It is what it is, a neat little scare piece.  The eventual revelation of the Big Bad Beasty is a little disappointing, but all told, this piece is quite competent.

“Five Second Fantasies” by Scott William Carter is the best story in this issue.  A man loses control of his body for five seconds while driving, in which time he deliberately swerves into a bus, killing his entire family.  Why did he do this?  Why are there other incidents like this occurring across the town?  Carter leads us on the journey of a broken man searching for answers in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy.  When he finds the supernatural origin of the disasters, he goes prepared…or is he?  If his body can be stolen again, what will happen to him when he confronts the thief?

This is an amazing idea, cleverly plotted and brilliant.  “Five Second Fantasies” borrows some themes from Crash but puts a surreal horror twist into the mix.  The ending is a real treat and rounds off a great story nicely.