Beware the Dark is a new horror and dark art magazine currently scheduled to be published three times per year. A new horror magazine is always good news, as there seems to be much more horror being written than there are outlets in which to publish it (which explains why Beware the Dark is presently closed to submissions). This magazine suggests, however, that the reason there are so few outlets is that there is little good horror being written. I’m hoping that further editions of the magazine improve on the first, which was disappointing.
Issue 1 begins with “Potential” by Ramsey Campbell. Scoring a story by Campbell to open a new magazine would normally be a triumph, except that this story, a reprint, is very minor Campbell indeed. First published in 1973, this tale of a be-in has not aged well. The protagonist, Charles, misses out on the plastic bells, but snags one of the last paper flowers to thread through the buttonhole of his out-of-place gray suit as he walks into the ballroom where a band named Titus Groans is playing, though it appears that the word “playing” is used loosely; the guitars are screaming when they’re not drowned out by the shrieks of the abused speakers. Charles meets a journalist, Cook, who suggests that they leave when fights break out over flowers tossed into the crowd by the band. Cook tells Charles he has some friends who are “experimenting with the mind,” and suggests they seek them out. Charles agrees, which turns out to be a mistake of Lovecraftian proportions.
James B. Carter is given the unenviable position of following the Campbell — which, even though past its prime, is a competent story. “The Dying Season,” Carter’s novelette, is not. Carter’s protagonist is Robbie, a sixteen-year-old boy whose parents have recently died in a car wreck, forcing him to live with his unpleasant grandmother. His older cousin Wes decides spends a few days with Robbie while he adjusts to his new circumstances. The two immediately confront their grandmother, who starts chasing them around with a huge butcher knife. This is odd enough, but this scene is also where language errors nearly ruin the story: Wes pushes his cousin “passed” his grandmother (a mistake repeated at least thrice), who has taken “acception” to a remark he made. The story goes increasingly off the rails as the grandmother edges closer to the boys in a “tactful” manner. The plot doesn’t work much better, as Grandma is given no motive for her murderous behavior; and after the boys kick her down the stairs (an incident in which she suffers no injury, despite her being at least 80 years old, and despite the fact that they could hear the “sickening thud of her skull crashing randomly into every other blunt step”), they manage to lock her out of the house — or at least out of the upstairs (the story is unclear on this point). After Grandma falls asleep, they sneak out and start a campfire, encounter a monster, get rescued by Wes’s older brother, and so on. The plotting plods, the “horror” is more of a gross-out than horrific, and the writing is not very good, even if one overlooks errora like “My attempt was in vein.” Where was the proofreader? Where was the editor?
“Si or No?” by Timothy McGivney begins with a couple on a camping trip in the middle of sex, told from Heather’s unsatisfied point of view. Just as Jacob is approaching his climax, Heather realizes that an old condom from another man is stuck inside her. She rushes into the woods to get rid of it, and Jacob follows her. He fails to catch her in the act of retrieving the condom, and is ready to return to the tent when he stubs his toe, an act which somehow leads to a convulsion and a good bit of bleeding. Heather tries to call 911 on her cellphone, but can’t get a signal. Jacob goes from bad to worse, and Heather flees. The story also goes from bad to worse, seemingly intent on wringing horror out of the merely disgusting. I expect the author was shooting for erotic horror, but there is no eroticism here.
“To Turn a Blind Eye” by Jeremy Terry is about domestic violence, and the tendency of those around it to pretend they hear and see nothing, whether out of fear, apathy or laziness. In this tale, Mary is afraid of what she hears from her neighbors’ house — the pleas of the son, the shouts of the abusive father, a crash and a scream. When the father catches her peering out her window, he comes over to Mary’s house and makes his threats explicit, physically demonstrating what she can expect to suffer if she tells anyone what she’s seen and heard. The mother visits Mary the next day, explaining that her husband is really a good man, he just has bad days. But, predictably, the violence escalates and Mary can’t escape it. It’s a straightforward, competent telling of an everyday horror that needs nothing of the supernatural to make it a proper part of a horror magazine.
Fraternal twins June and Henry are the stars of Jack Ketchum’s story, “Twins,” reprinted from Peaceable Kingdom. Henry tells the story of their closeness almost from the moment of their births, and the strange, strong bond between them. As they grow older and come to understand what sex is, they start experimenting with one another. All of this, though, is but prologue to the rising of the dead. It’s vintage Ketchum.
Aaron J. French’s “Asleep with the Black Goat” is less successful. The narrator is a man who hangs around at a bar called The Pierced Nipple, which is just about as lovely a place as the name implies. Ashley approaches him there, demanding that he smoke, and she approves his drag and subsequent vomiting. It turns her on, apparently, and they leave the bar for her bed. We get a graphic description of what happens there, apparently in an attempt at eroticism that will meld with the horror that follows when the goat of the title appears. The two discuss the meaning of the goat, Ashley certain that it’s merely an hallucination. Then Ashley disappears. What follows ties everything up in a bow, but the resolution feels imposed on the story rather than a natural outcome from the events narrated therein. It’s not shocking or horrible, though the author seems to be striving for those reactions.
You pretty much know something horrible is going to happen to Stephanie’s eyes from the first sentences of “Cross My Heart, Hope to Die,” by Sheri White: “Stephanie hated eyeballs. The look of them, the mention of them, and the mere thought of them.” She’s had to give up eating grapes, and now hard-boiled eggs were grossing her out, too. When her boss says he’s going to keep an eye on her because she’s doing so well, she’s horrified, imagining eyeballs sticking to her body. When she can’t sleep as a result, she flicks on the television, and, of course, the first thing she sees in the scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex’s eyes are mechanically held open as he is forced to watch violent films. The next morning, Stephanie gets shampoo in her eye as she showers, and things go steadily downhill from there. This story roiled my stomach, as it was meant to; eyes are too precious to mess with, but mess this author does. Again, though, the ending seems to arise too quickly; it is not earned by what has gone before.
Russell C. Connor’s contribution to this issue is “Pool Days.” Rick enjoys swimming on a perfect summer day, when his lover is off earning their keep. He’s supposed to be searching for a job, but the day is just too perfect for the pool. He’s the only one at the pool one morning, so he decides to engage in a favorite vice: using the high-pressure jets on the pool to stimulate his penis. You can probably figure out what’s going to happen from here, and the presence of a tiny green hand doesn’t change things much.
In “Company at the Lavoisier,” a novelette by Terry “Horns” Erwin, Gary brings his sister Aubrey to the Lavoisier estate, a lovely mansion that has been uninhabited for years. There, they meet up with a group of others their age who are apparently into kinky group sex; Gary has brought Aubrey along as the price for his license to have sex with Terri. None of them lives in the estate, and it’s never clear how they gained access to the place. Along with the sex, they are also interested in finding out whether there are ghosts in the place, as has been rumored. Terri’s group is plenty debauched already, and Gary and Aubrey are both innocents, so, as is the case with several stories in this issue, you can pretty much guess how things are going to go, especially after the ghosts appear. It’s a catalog of perversion melding into horror when the sex toys turn out to be toys of another sort.
Kealan Patrick Burke has the third reprint in this issue, “Empathy.” Bill and Melanie are talking deep into the night, when Bill can’t sleep and inadvertently wakes Melanie. Bill’s unemployed, but hasn’t done anything to find a new job since losing his old one; he’d like to try to write, but isn’t sure than Melanie, who does have a job, will go for it. Now, though, he’s having trouble sleeping because of a video he saw on the internet. When he closes his eyes, he sees what they did to that woman in the video, only in more detail than was shown in the clip — and the woman is Melanie. The images won’t leave him alone. Bill decides he needs help, and visits a psychiatrist friend, Don. Don counsels patience, but Bill’s nightmares continue to worsen, to become so bad that Don suggests he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And then the dreams start to invade reality. It’s a frightening piece, well-executed.
There are several articles in the magazine as well. An interview with illustrator Vincent Chong is accompanied by a fine gallery of his art. Ray Garton writes about a horrible experience with a spider, leading from that into a discussion of how horror fiction works. Nancy Kilpatrick has a reprint essay about bone crypts in England, plentifully illustrated with photographs. Robert Morrish is the author of a column entitled “Nightlight,” in which he plans to write about anything he pleases, essentially, from reviews of websites to discussions of horror films and television to reviews of reference works in the field. The column this month deals with the state of horror short fiction markets. He also speaks of his ten greatest disappointments in fiction in the field, earning my respect with his mention of Stephen King’s Tommyknockers, which I believe is King’s worst novel. Ty Schwamberger has a column entitled “The Dark Spot,” about the writing life. There is also an interview with Kasey Lansdale, a writer and musician and the daughter of author Joe Lansdale, and another with Luke Brady, a filmmaker. Finally, the magazine concludes with reviews of film and books by Vi Reaper and Nancy Kilpatrick.
This issue of Beware the Dark has a few good stories: the Ketchum and the Burke are the highlights. Mostly, though, the fiction published here went straight for the gore, attempting to win a reaction from a reader without working for it through literary techniques of tension, plot and character, but through blood and gore and kinky sex. At first, I thought that perhaps I wasn’t the ideal audience, but the fact is that I’ve found merit in a number of bloody and sexy horror stories and novels — just not in these. I so disliked what I read here that I’m not tempted to try another issue. Perhaps it will improve as it settles into its market niche; but reading this issue was a distinctly unpleasant experience.