Karen Munro opens the February issue of Nightmare Magazine with “The Garden,” a Weird story of Darlene, an Australian immigrant to South Korea, and Sook Joo, her Korean lover. Darlene is supposed to be teaching English, but she spends most of her time with Sook-Joo, watching her get high or bargain with her drug dealer. Sook-Joo loves drugs, just about anything she can get. One night Sook-Joo offers Darlene a handful of mushrooms, but Darlene refuses to indulge much, taking only one small brown chip; Sook-Joo swallows down the rest in one gulp. Even the small amount Darlene takes makes her gruesomely sick to her stomach, but not before she sees tiny golden filaments falling to the earth all around her. Sook-Joo disappears under the Wonhyo Bridge while Darlene retches, and they don’t meet up again until the next day. It’s immediately apparent that Sook-Joo’s experience with the ‘shrooms has been much different from Darlene’s. Those gold filaments seem to have invaded Sook-Joo’s body. From there, the story becomes stranger and increasingly inexplicable, horrifyingly so. I was left with an impression of lost, wasted, depressed lives, ending horribly. Or, in Darlene’s case, continuing horribly — though the horror for her is more that of one who lives aimlessly, loving and being loved by no one. It is a multi-layered story with considerable nuance, and so strange in its imagery that it will stay with you a long time.
“Fishfly Season” by Halli Villegas is another complex tale in which much stirs beneath the surface. Marisol and her husband have just moved from the city center to an established suburb along a lake, full of old money, the elegant properties it can buy and the WASPs to whom it belongs. Marisol doesn’t fit in the way her blond husband does, with her dark hair and her dark skin, traits she inherited from her Mexican father. The way she experiences the disapproval of her neighbors, though, is the stuff of waking nightmares. Are Marisol’s perceptions off? Is she really seeing what she thinks she’s seeing? Is something terribly wrong in Grand Beach, or is Marisol losing her mind? The ambiguity of the story merges with the revulsion caused by the swarming of the fishflies to leave the reader dizzy with a sort of existential nausea. The story is skillfully constructed, and imagery is vivid. This is the first story I’ve read from this Canadian author, but it won’t be my last; I’ve ordered her collection of ghost stories, The Hair Wreath and Other Stories, and am already looking forward to her first novel and next collection.
Carmen Maria Machado writes a variant of the “club story” in “Descent”; rather than well-fed, cigar-smoking men meeting at their club, she gives us suburban women sipping bourbon and eating potluck at one of their book club meetings. They’ve all brought the book they’re to discuss with them, but the evening does not go as planned. Instead, their hostess, Luna, tells them a series of nested stories about her awful week. She had two new students in her AP English class, survivors of a school shooting. She tries to help them, hearing Selma’s tale of how she survived the shooting, and in whose company. Luna acknowledges that none of this is her own suffering, but that it is nonetheless upsetting her tremendously. It all comes together in an ending that’s as creepy as anything I’ve ever read.
Brian Evenson’s “Cult” is a disturbing story of a man who does not seem able to resist being in a relationship with a woman he doesn’t even like. She is abusive, but he is compliant for reasons he doesn’t understand: “It was like he was watching someone else move from humiliation to humiliation, but was powerless to do anything to stop it.” The relationship finally ends when she stabs him and flees, even though the mechanisms she has set in motion in his mind move him to forgiveness before he’s even dialed 911 (she didn’t bother). It takes time for him to recover, both mentally and physically, but he reaches a point at which he can refuse her telephone calls, rather than needing to have a friend forcibly take the phone from his hand. And finally he reaches a point at which he no longer thinks of her. Months later, though, he answers his cell when a number he doesn’t recognize lights up his screen, and it’s her. She needs him to come pick her up at a convenience store to which she’s been exiled by a cult. And so it starts again. Anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship will recognize how this man reacts, almost as if he is two different people, as if he is watching himself act in a way sure to cause his destruction, helpless to stop himself. Evenson captures precisely how an abuser can subvert the logic and intelligence of his or her victim. It’s an excellent story.
The nonfiction in this issue is as informative as one has come to expect from this magazine. In “The H Word: Dissonance and Horror,” Helen Marshall discusses the use of humor to tell a horror story: “[O]ne of the tricks I have found to tell a good horror story is to trick the audience into thinking they aren’t reading a horror story.” The Artist Gallery showcases the work of Johnny Dombrowski, who explains in his interview how he came to draw the cover for this issue, his graphic style, his work as an art handler for the Society of Illustrators in New York, and what scares him. The featured interview with Chuck Palahniuk persuaded me to read this author whose work I’ve been actively avoiding until now, despite his admission of “an amazing use of excess”; he sounds so thoughtful about his work and the effect it has on people that it becomes impossible to resist. The usual Author Spotlights, in which the writers of the four pieces of fiction in the issue discuss their stories, offer insights into their writing and what they’ll be serving up next.
The February 2015 issue is especially strong, offering stories by three writers who were new to me (and still relatively new to the world of horror fiction), as well as a strong tale by the more established Brian Evenson. Nightmare remains an essential publication for any devoted horror reader.