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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: In the Friendly Dark

4th Aug, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking (which I reviewed on Monday) wasn't the only book by Tom Johnstone to see print in May 2022. From Omnium Gatherum we had a paperback edition of In the Friendly Dark which is billed as 'The Fry & Spiegel Omnibus' and collects together three interconnected novellas dealing with themes of racism and antisemitism.

Herb Fry and Dan Spiegel are two friends who relate their adventures to each other over a brew in the local watering hole. Black man Herb lost his mother and sister to race hate atrocities, while Dan barely escaped the Holocaust, though his wife got left behind and, although she managed to survive, was never the same woman again.

"The Monsters Are Due in Madison Square Garden" is primarily set in the 1930s when Herb was an investigative journalist looking into a series of murders based on the setup in various horror movies of the time. Herb comes to realise what all the victims have in common, which presents him with a moral dilemma, but this is only the iceberg tip of the nightmare into which he has stumbled.

In "Star-Spangled Knuckle-Duster" Dan takes up the story, telling of his escape from Germany and how he took up with the Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky who is using his mob to crack down on the American Nazis. His secret weapon is Lady Golem, a woman with unmatchable martial arts skills, acquired with the help of a rabbi. But a white supremacist fanatic is creating a comic book chronicling the adventures of a superhero titled the Guard Dog, one whose destiny is to destroy Lady Golem, and reality is beginning to mirror fiction. It's on Dan and Meyer Lansky to avert disaster.

The mic passes back to Herb Fry for the final novella, "The Song of Salome". The title is the name of a legendary film that allegedly caused a massacre in the theatre at its premier and of which all copies were subsequently destroyed, but a wealthy collector thinks that a print still exists and hires Herb Fry to track it down. Naturally he succeeds, but he also finds the woman who wrote the script and intended it to fan the flames of race hate, resulting in a personal rite of passage for Herb. The two drinking buddies find possible connections between the events in these novellas, some of which put their friendship under strain.

There's a lot to unpack here. Fry and Spiegel are brilliant creations, reminiscent in a way of Lansdale's Hap and Leonard. Both of them are given back stories of suffering and personal struggle that add stature to the characters and make us sympathetic to them, while an element of tension between the two adds yet more credibility. With storylines that range back and forth in time, from the early nineteen hundreds to the sixties, the novellas paint a picture of a period when fascism in one form or another was a constant danger in the USA, be it the atrocities of the Klan or the ravings of the American Bund, offering a different view of the Land of the Free to the one the nation might like to present, and with the rise of Trump and his ilk that message seems all the more pertinent today. This isn't something that happened long ago and in a land far away; it's an abiding evil that needs to be smashed whenever it raises its ugly head. Both Herb and Dan have suffered directly, and the depiction of their trials gives a human face to what otherwise might remain simply theoretical and easy to dismiss as just politics.

Woven into the text is an awareness of comic book and film culture. Herb gets to interview Bela Lugosi and his love for genre films is touched on, with accounts that many readers will find fascinating and identify with. Similarly the early days of the comic book's rise to prominence are brought to life, with heroes as positive role models, such as Superman and Captain America. But this is a double edged sword and implicit in what Johnstone has to tell us is that fiction can be used to promote negative and hateful viewpoints just as easily, if not more so. Films and comic books are powerful tools in the service of social change, but those same tools can be used by those whose message is not as forward thinking. Dreams can inspire us, for both good and evil. Fiction can affect how we view the real world and the way in which we interact with it, as with Guard Dog and The Song of Salome, products of a bigoted mind and sowing the seeds of dissent. And, on that note, if fiction can influence for good or bad, then I hope that Johnstone's book, with its empathic undertones, will soften the heart of at least one bigot, even though my inner cynic fears they'll just stop reading or interpret it in ways far from what the writer intended. Regardless of such considerations, the three novellas to be found In the Friendly Dark  form a whole far greater than the sum of their parts, weaving together a story that is as compelling as it is eventful. Recommended reading.



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