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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Suspended in Dusk

11th Jan, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Last Wednesday we were back with the monsters in 2011. This week we skip forward three years to 2014 for Suspended in Dusk (Books of the Dead pb), the first anthology from editor Simon Dewar, an achievement Jack Ketchum lauds in his introduction to the book, as well as noting the wealth of new writers and diversity in the horror genre. In a subsequent note the editor talks about the themes running through the anthology.

Opening proceedings proper is Alan Baxter with "Shadows of the Lonely Dead", a sensitively written piece in which revenge is taken for the sins of the past. There's a novelty element by virtue of the relationship between the protagonist and the residents of the care home at which she works, but what makes the piece memorable is the back story of abuse and how its effects can linger, with the need for closure central. Anna Reith's "Taming the Stars" delves into the criminal underworld in France, with a monster taking a hand in the outcome. This story does a lot of things well - the vivid depiction of the French setting, the interplay between Michele and Antoine, Esther's feelings about her outsider status, and some gratifying wet work, with everyone getting the ending they deserve, more or less. I liked it a lot.

In "At Dusk They Come" by Armand Rosamilia a man makes a deal with the monstrous creatures that invade his trailer park at night, but things escalate quickly and then go belly up. The story is intriguing, and I liked the interplay between the various characters and the sinister creatures, but against that I felt that some of the characters didn't behave in a convincing way, as for example the police failure to stake out the site of several murders or leaving one victim's children to their own devices. There's a subtext about how if you cooperate with evil you get sucked into ever more monstrous behaviour. Icy Sedgwick's "A Woman of Disrepute" has a writer in search of a muse learn the truth behind the story of Mother Goose to his cost. At times this one seemed a bit strained for effect, as with Edward's rivalry with his painter friend, but I did like the idea of Mother Goose and the way in which she 'saves' fallen women. In "Burning" by Rayne Hall the story is told from the perspective of a seven year old girl, whose innocent account of witnessing a fire reveals something even more horrific and brutal. It's a subtle piece, one in which so much is conveyed by what isn't said.

Chris Limb's "Ministry of Outrage" has a man with a dubious moral compass employed by a secret government department to help provide the general population with the modern equivalent of bread and circuses. It's a clever piece, one that sadly sounds all too plausible in the current political environment, with a neat albeit not entirely unexpected twist at the end. And I liked the sinister character named Cadaver, while there seems to be an interesting subtext about the morality of journalists, or at least some of them. There's a strong Goth vibe going on in Toby Bennett's "Maid of Bone", with Allie trying to win her dead beloved and becoming a slave to the denizens of the graveyard. Superficially this felt a little contrived, with more needing to be done to make Allie's love credible, though the way in which she is hoist by her own petard at the end is gratifying. Preacher Patrick's attempts to lay to rest the souls of the women of Miriam Vale are resisted by the town's men in "Shades of Memory" by Stacey Larner. Set in Australia post some sort of apocalypse, this story is an elegy for all the things lost in the flood and has an insightful portrayal of the tension between religious fanaticism and genuine faith.

We get another apocalypse with J.C. Michael's "Reasons to Kill", in which plague victims find a way to extend their lives. It is, in all but name, a vampire story, made interesting through the interplay between the three lead characters and the nature of the sinister stranger in their midst. "Digging Deep" by Ramsey Campbell is a subtle, understated piece in which a man who appears to have been buried alive tries to get help. It builds gradually, with revelations about the protagonist's character making us wonder if he deserves what has happened and an ending that is no less satisfying for being anticipated. A great tale of mounting dread, with comic touches along the way that enhance the journey. From Brett Rex Bruton we have something experimental with "Outside In" in which a private eye collaborates on a case with the author. It's a fun and frothy confection that doesn't take itself seriously or outlive its welcome.

In Karen Runge's "Hope Is Here" a man living on the streets is offered a second chance by a religious organisation but nothing is quite what it seems. Runge does a good job of bringing her anti-hero to life, making us feel sympathetic to him even though we suspect he has done something terrible, only to have him offered hope of a kind and then see it viciously snatched away by the self-righteous. It's a timely reminder that even those we consider social outcasts have some humanity and of the horrors of any final solution. Another guy goes mad in space in "Would To God That We Were There" by Tom Dullemond, a story that just didn't grab my interest. It had little to offer that hasn't already been done better elsewhere. Twin sisters pass through a time portal to visit a hellish theme park in Wendy Hammer's "Negatives", a story that sucked me in completely. I was fascinated by the ruins of Professor Future's Fun-Land, and even more so by its spectral counterpart with the menacing figure of The Night Manager, while the sibling camaraderie between Viv and Maddy added another fillip of enjoyment.

Shane McKenzie's "Fit Camp" is in contention to be my favourite story, as negligent parents abandon their overweight children to the tender mercies of the titular camp, with its obnoxious and bullying counsellors, whose horrendous secret is stumbled upon by Baxter. It's a story that starts well and builds effectively, with readers expecting the worst and yet still shocked at what is happening here, while Baxter's attitude to his discovery adds a nice touch to the story's end game. Andrea fights to survive in "Quarter Turn to Dawn" by Sarah Read as her luxury holiday hotel is overrun by what at first appear to be zombies, but then are finally revealed as something else altogether. This was great fun, with plenty of action, a wry sense of humour particularly when it comes to relationship stuff, and an ending that in the circumstances could pass for upbeat. Anna finds a strange young girl hiding in the attic of her deceased grandmother's house in Benjamin Knox's "A Keeper of Secrets", the story playing out predictably as she is ensnared in the girl's web of deceit. This was one of the weaker stories, and yet still fun in a pass the time sort of way.

People serve as dreamcatchers in "Spirits Having Flown" by John Everson, bottling up the nightmares that haunt the night hours. But what happens when the nightmare catcher dies? It's a fascinating concept, rather like that of the sin eater, and Everson develops it with skill and feeling, making us share in the protagonist's plight and his sense of loss at his friend's death, perhaps in part because of what it means for him. Finally we have Angela Slatter with "The Way Of All Flesh", another story set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, with Sweet Bobby Tate arriving in town in search of a particular kind of fun and finding the girl Annabel Adams, who has plans of her own. It's a pleasing variation on the theme of the catcher caught, with the off kilter characters delineated in matter of fact terms that make them all the more disturbing, and the mask completely pulled away at the end. I loved it, and it made the perfect end to an anthology with a lot more hits than misses.






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