Black Static 23 Reviewed

Black Static for June / July 2011 contains the usual reviews and commentary, while the stories are mostly by returning regulars.

V. H. Leslie appears for the second time in three issues, and already looks to be the magazine’s most prominent newcomer of the year. In ‘Time Keeping’ Howard believes that he keeps time running smoothly. It’s a demanding time-consuming job, so when he meets Helen, Howard couldn’t shake the feeling of danger. Leslie has an elegant, assured style, and while the story may need more than one reading, the (initially) opaque timeline does eventually come clear, and the reader learns what the danger is. Recommended.


‘Hail’ by Daniel Kaysen is an extremely busy story –there is much more plot than is usual with Black Static stories, which tend to concentrate on atmosphere- but it’s no less effective for all that. The narrator picks up a girl while sheltering under an awning from the rain, and she asks him directly if he wants to go back to her flat. When she has want she wants, she throws him out, from which point the more the nameless protagonist tries to escape his fate, the more tightly he is caught in its web of inevitability. Highly Recommended.


From the moment the protagonist (and therefore the reader) gradually awakens to the sound of the underground, it’s clear that Carole Johnstone’s ‘Electric Dreams’ is something special. Eli is a young man accepting food and shelter, and occasionally –perhaps enough to just get him by- money in return for hearing what people need; whether he can work miracles, is a god, or  previous events are just coincidence, Eli’s supplicants believe that he can

kill the wife’s lover

put the office rival out of action (“You won’t kill him, will you?”)

cure a woman’s mother of end-stage breast cancer

save the rats on the Underground.

Now Eli has to decide whether it’s time to change again. To start again. Two years was a long time –the longest yet- and success bred notoriety. It’s a top-notch story, one of the best in recent months.

World Horror Convention

Robert Davies won the 2011 World Horror Convention / Black Static short story contest, and from its opening line of When Jackson Cade woke and felt his right lung missing, he knew the Harvesters had come again, ‘The Harvesting of Jackson Cade’ makes it clear why. There are a couple of irritating non sequiteurs early on, but the story of physical disintegration at the hands (or should that be at the mandibles?) of the nightmarish Harvesters is unrelenting. Recommended.

Joel Lane ends the fiction for this issue with ‘For Their Own Ends,’ in which Barry awakes from a heart attack in a private hospital to find that patient care has taken a back seat to ‘market awareness.’ Lane’s prose is as precise as ever, allowing him to generate that frisson of fear with the most apparently innocent of phrases: a young man took Barry’s left hand and felt his pulse, then jabbed a needle into the vein of his wrist. Without speaking, he attached the syringe to a drip stand holding a bag of crimson fluid. Highly Recommended.



As always the fiction is enhanced by the quality of the non-fiction embracing it. Stephen Volk’s ‘Coffinmaker’s Blues’ looks at [moving] the debate about so-called “evil” away from the realm of religion and moral philosophy into the realm of science. Christopher Fowler is interested in how Spanish cinema seems to be adopting the mantle of the main maker of horror movies with the power to move audiences. Finally, Mike O’Driscoll studies the work of political philosopher John Grey, whose latest book is a brilliant dissection of our continuing desire to console ourselves with delusions, either in the form of a secular afterlife, or through the deification of humanity by means of “the abolition of death.”



Peter Tenant interviews new horror star Tom Fletcher and reviews his novels, The Leaping and The Thing On The Shore, both Cumbrian-set contemporary horror novels. Other Case Notes feature chapbooks from Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell and Gary McMahon, plus three anthologies; Dark Minds Press offer the eponymous Dark Minds, The End of the Line is published by Solaris, while Tor provide an American perspective in Nick Mamatas and Ellen Datlow’s Haunted Legends.


Finally, Tony Lee reviews DVDs and Blu-Rays, such as Natalie Portman’s appearance in Black Swan, and the Stanley Kubrick boxed set Visionary Filmmaker Collection, as well as a reissue of the classic Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price. It’s a good way to round out another excellent issue.

• August 5th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

End Games

People are always talking about the openings of stories. It’s an often quoted truism -especially by me!- that the first dozen lines of a story are critical. They are the unsolicited writer’s escape from the slush pile, or the path to a sometimes bewildered rejection. For the story that has been sold, a poor opening is a potential return to be To Be Read pile, from which there may be no return.

Perhaps as a reflection of that, half of the workshops that ran at alt.fiction were about beginnings, openings, settings, and establishing characters. It’s as though if you get the beginning right, the ending will take care of itself.

But if the beginning is important, how much more important is the ending? If the story works, it’s what the reader remembers. Think of Paul Atreides’ mother standing beside Chani and uttering the line, “history will call us wives,” or –no, better you go and read Alfred Bester’s “The Pi Man,” or John Varley’s “Air Raid,”  or Gardner Dozois’ “Morning Child” — because I’d hate to ruin the ending.

Because to get to the ending, you have to go through the story. The ending isn’t something a writer just tags on the end; it flows organically out of the story, and should tie the threads together and leave the reader with a sense of completion. Context is everything, because the ending isn’t just about the ending. Maybe that’s why the topic is often ignored.

How the writer gets there, of course, is a journey that has as many routes as there are writers. That’s for another time.

we’ll talk more about this later.


• August 3rd, 2011 • Posted in Writing • Comments: 0

F&SF August 2011, Reviewed

The August 2011 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is heavier than usual on the science fictional part, with around half the stories -including most of the longer ones- being SF.  


‘Bronsky’s Dates With Death’ by Peter David is the story of an old man who can’t stop talking about death. Bronsky is the ultimate salesman, because he’s perfectly sincere. Just as he’s sold beauty products, vacuum cleaners and anything else that a man can sell, so he sells people the idea that he’s reconciled to death by never stopping talking about it. Initially irritating, then laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately poignant. Recommended.


Peter S. Beagle’s ‘The Way It Works Out And All’ is a tribute to the late Avram Davidson, and like its hero, the story meanders like few other writers can manage. As evidence of the authors’ skill, take the word “Overneath” which Beagle uses to portray the magical realm through which Davidson shortcuts in his globe trotting – just that one word sums up all the strangeness of the realm, while the story itself is charming, and the circumlocutory style reminiscent of Lafferty at his best, as well as Davidson. Outstanding.


In Rob Chilson’s ‘Less Stately Mansions’ the last member of the Mannheim family continues farming the land in the face of glacier advances, buy-out offers from Earth’s now-independent colonies, and  greedy grandchildren scheduling a competency hearing. Infused with the spirit of Clifford D. Simak, it strikes a suitably timeless agrarian feel. Recommended.


In ‘The Ants of Flanders’ by Robert Reed, our world faces the strangest alien invasion since Gardner Dozois’ classic ‘Chains of the Sea.’ But the tone is entirely different, and with Bloch, the six-foot-five sixteen year-old “mental defective” who feels no fear, Reed has written perhaps his most engaging protagonist. As well as terror in the face of the apocalypse, Reed writes of wonder and joy in one of the best novellas of the year; Their driver was barely three weeks older than Bloch and barely half his size, nothing could be more astonishing than the extraordinary luck that had put him in this wondrous place. “I can’t fucking believe this,” said the driver, lifting up on the brake and letting them roll forward. “I’m having the adventure of a lifetime. That’s what this craziness is.”


Joan Aiken’s ‘Hair’ is a splendidly Gothic piece about the widower of a young woman who has burnt out and died too young. It manages to unsettle without ever actually offering any overt threat. Outstanding.


Steven Saylor’s ‘The Witch Of Corinth’ is one of F & SF’s regular excursion’s into historical fantasy, but by depicting the setting in no small detail and combining it with a mystery and a true historical event –the fall of Corinth- it’s a considerably above average of the sub-genre. Recommended.


‘Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons And Other Things’ by Richard Bowes is a curious Arthurian tale filtered through a science-fictional perspective.


Michael Alexander’s ‘Someone Like You’ isn’t quite up to the standard’s of last year’s ‘Ware of the Worlds,’ or ‘Advances in Modern Chemotherapy,’ but it’s still one of the better time travel stories with a new take on The Grandfather Paradox.


In ‘The Ramshead Algorithm’ by KJ Kabza an inter-reality traveller based on earth comes into contact with his family when his father decides to rip out the hedge which is the basis for his being able to slip between planes.


With Book Reviews by Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Hand and Films reviewed by Lucius Shepard,    science from Paul Doherty And Pat Murphy, and humour from Paul Di Filippo, it’s another enjoyable issue, at times edging the sublime.

• July 15th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

The Feline Queen, Reviewed

Joanne Hall is the author of the Hierath trilogy of fantasy novels, which has attracted a small but loyal following. Her first collection, The Feline Queen, has just been published by Wolfsinger Books.

            Subtitled Tales of Myth and Magic, The Feline Queen is made up of nine short stories published in small press magazines between 2005 and 2008, together with three original stories. The opener, ‘Candlefire’ establishes several recurring themes; a woman accused of witchcraft and threatened by a brutal husband and seeks help from the local witch, who uses cunning to defeat the villain. The villains in these stories are almost always male and use physical brutality as a weapon against women who are unable to adequately fight back, although ‘The Witch On The Wall’ runs counter to this trend (but even here, the witch’s ‘evil’ is explained). In the second story, ‘The Last of A Million Wishes,’ a fairy is trapped by a spoilt young boy who tortures her until she is rescued by her friend in a satisfying twist.

            It’s interesting to see Hall ring the changes on the various archetypes that she uses; the title story is one of two featuring Hoff the Barbarian, a muscle-bound ox of a man who has more cunning than intelligence, but who is amiably entertaining when meeting a lost tribe of amazonian warriors. Better though is ‘The Caves of Otrecht’ in which he undertakes a quest with other warriors, all of whom claim to be ‘the chosen one. The ending is clever and unexpected.

            All but two of the stories are set in a sort of archetypal fantasy kingdom, two of which (at least) share the same setting; ‘The Ship-Breaker’s Daughter’ features a young-girl with a siren-like voice who must choose whether to obey her tyrannical father and cost men their lives, or revolt. In ‘Ismay’s Run,’ runners pass messages from town to town, but Ismay, who loves to run, finds herself betrothed to a local lord.  

            These recurring themes are distilled in ‘The Company of Women,’ the last –and longest- story in the book, in which a quasi-immortal liberates battered women from their oppression and founds an independent and isolated community away from male oppression. But when they try to free the women from a major temple, the violence escalates and threatens to spiral out of control.

            It’s a fine way to conclude a short but effective collection in which fantasy is used to mirror and magnify contemporary concerns, and should establish Jo Hall’s reputation.

Cover art by Andy Bigwood.

• June 17th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

The Hammer by KJ Parker, Reviewed

KJ Parker’s twelfth novel in thirteen years is detailed, slow-building but ultimately utterly compelling.

Gignomai (known as within the family as Gig) met’Oc, youngest son of the illustrious met’Oc family, is a loner in a family as skewed as anything created by Mervyn Peake. But Parker’s land is more like an early Australia, complete with savages who seem unable to see the settlers, and Gignomai seems at first read a much more ordinary youth.

The Hammer of the title refers to a device that Gignomai begins to build seven years after something happens at home – what it was is only made clear toward the end of the book, but it’s sufficient to cause the young man to run away repeatedly from home, and to bend his whole personality toward exerting a terrible justice.

In this vast, almost empty land, where a lone settlement and outlying farms are overshadowed by the plateau on which the met’Oc mansion rests, the met’Oc live by their own laws, refusing to accept that they no longer live in ‘civilization.’ 

The Hammer is a slow burning book that is laden down with the weight of detail of making things – of swords, carpentry and primitive heavy industry. It is also, with one exception, almost entirely devoid of the Fantastic, save for one important point that could be defined as SF or Fantasy. That the novel is classed as the latter is the rural -but certainly not bucolic setting- and the publisher’s classification.

KJ Parker is perhaps the most self-effacing writer since James Tiptree Jr. entered the field in the late 1960s – even Parker’s gender is unclear, although French publisher Bragelonne’s website implies that Parker the author is female. Without a single piece of short fiction published until 2009, Parker didn’t even have the traditional medium within speculative fiction for building a following – the novels have had to build a base on their own.

What is known about Parker is that she has previously worked in the law and as a journalist; nowadays she “makes things out of wood and metal,” and this fascination with craftsmanship runs right through her prose. The book is so full of the minutiae of manufacturing that initially it threatens to sink the story (though it does give it a refreshing solidity), a handicap that it gradually overcomes. In some ways The Hammer resembles a narrative avalanche; slow to start, almost unstoppable as it roars toward its climax.

• June 10th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0

Black Static 15, Reviewed

Today’s scheduled –as opposed to the unscheduled venture into theatre criticism yesterday- is the latest issue of Black Static.  It’s here.

• February 28th, 2010 • Posted in General • Comments: 0