"SS" by Nathan Ballingrud
"A Drop of Ruby" by Cody Goodfellow
"In the Family" by Scott Nicholson
"Going the Jerusalem Mile" by Chaz Brenchley
"The Return" by Conrad Williams
"The Sixteenth Man I Killed" by Martin Simpson
"The Western Front" by Patrick Samphire
The 3rd Alternative seems to have settled into a focus on dark spec fic, leaving the SF and F to Interzone, now its sister magazine. I can see why they did this—there are few good magazines that focus specifically on dark fiction—but I have to confess I miss the mixture. That said, I found a satisfying spectrum of dark fiction in this zine, which is very stylishly produced. In fact, the production team really deserves the golden palm. Everything—the feel of the paper, the fonts, the illustrations, the layout—is a pleasure, and and matches the mood. And the content lives up to the visual promise.
Nathan Ballingrud‘s "SS" is not a conventional story, though the author resorts to some of the conventions of horror. Nick is a teen, living precariously with his mother after being abandoned by his father. When the mother is nastily taken out of the work force—yet still lives—Nick has to drop out, get a job, and care for his mother. He’s a dishwasher in the hot, humid atmosphere of Louisiana, working with a couple of gangbangers for a grimly penny-pinching boss. Small wonder Nick, when at least he meets a girl, not only falls instantly for her but for her secret cadre of neo-Nazis. The structure of the story is the most conventional aspect—the dream near the beginning you know will have significance at the end (and it won’t be good), and the scenes with the mother are horror-story staple—what keeps one reading is not just Ballingrud’s excellent prose, but his vivid evocation of Nick’s thoughts, words, deeds. We’ve all known kids like Nick, seen them, avoided them. Heard about them on the news and shaken our heads. Ballingrud does a first rate job of showing just how Nick comes to do what he does, a transformation as chilling as it is convincing.
Cody Goodfellow‘s "A Drop of Ruby" concerns a child kept in a basement for years, and the doctor who claims her. Again, conventional in that you know that has to be bad. "They called her Jane Doe Seven, the seventh unidentified female of the year when they found her at 1:30 a.m. on April 13 of last year.The media, with its unfailing gift for degrading tragedy, christened her the Mole Girl and the El Segundo Cellar Dweller, and so gave her the names by which many of you included her in your prayers." Goodfellow unflinchingly shows you just what can be done with such a story, even when you think there’s no more horror to be plumbed. Good writing can always open the trapdoor to the emotions, catching you by surprise as you fall through.
Scott Nicholson‘s "In the Family" is another well written tale, this time about an undertaker who really loves the work he inherited. But his mother, who married into the family, really hates it, and wants him to sell up and leave. It’s probably totally unfair to want a story to be another story, but there was one extremely darkly funny scene that prompted me to wish Nicholson had used the comic potential more. As it is, we know where it’s going fairly early on, and it does go there, though the author takes us there with style.
Chaz Brenchley‘s "Going the Jerusalem Mile" is one of my two favorites of the issue. Exquisitely written, this is the story of a man who loves his wife because she’s a loser, who will do anything for her because she will never succeed herself—because she’s defined by her eternal effort. We never know her name, or what she looks like, but she is alive before us just the same: meeting, eventually marrying the narrator, heroically (with the same indefatigable emotional disquiet we find in the diaries of women as disparate as Virginia Woolf and L. Montgomery) trying to confine the restless seas of desire and dream into the domestic teapot. The culmination of domestic perfection is to produce a child. She joins a church, and though she throws herself into every aspect of worship she seems determined to force the doctrine of faith into a ritual of magick. This determination is bound round a strange maze that is only opened a few times a year, on certain holidays. She walks it, subsequently gets pregnant, but despite all her care, the child does not thrive. And so she determines to walk it again, on the most perilous night of the year—and the narrator, who is living evidence of how love is both ineffable and dangerous (or maybe it’s dangerous because it is ineffable) goes with her.
"The Return," by Conrad Williams, is a strange story that packs a powerful ending. We open wandering about the countryside with the narrator, who keeps drifting back in memory to a devastating event, as he travels between touchpoints of the tragedy. Along the way we meet fascinating characters, deftly sketched—which is what makes the ending a rip to the viscera.
Martin Simpson‘s "The 16th Man Killed" is probably the most conventional of all the tales, concerning a man who kills for money, whose life is disturbed not by what he does, but by the mysterious appearances of a dead man. I suspected from the opening what was coming, but Simpson writes well, and made the trip well worth taking the time to get there.
As soon as you see the word ‘Passchendaele’ you know that Patrick Samphire‘s "The Western Front" is not going to be a rough ride to hell—something those millions of young men did not know, nearly a hundred years ago. Samphire does an excellent job getting inside the heads of the men who hope to win at Ypres, and what happens to the mind under the appalling circumstances of trench life in unending rain. A sudden touch of beauty is all the more wrenching for its unexpectedness—and its effects. This powerful story was my second favorite, and an excellent choice with which to close the issue.