“Sleep Paralysis” by Dale Bailey is the opening story of the April 2014 issue of Nightmare, getting things off to a fine start. Bailey’s first person narrator, a skilled undertaker, has found comfort in his wife, beautiful and young, while he is plain and in the autumn of his years. The wife is extremely active in charity work, gone most days and many evenings, leaving her husband to work and spend nights at his club — a situation that has caused rumors that she married him solely for his money, and is engaged in rather more private charity than she admits to. The narrator refuses to give the rumors any credence, but they begin to weigh heavily upon him despite his resolve. Bailey writes in a formal style appropriate to the narrator’s profession and the time in which his story is set (which is never explicitly stated, but appears to be around the turn of the last century), setting the tone for a classic story with a fine twist at the end.
“Nimitseahpah” by Nancy Etchemendy takes place in 1905 in Pactolus, a small mining town in the Nevada desert that is just a step away from turning into a ghost town. The narrator has just recently become the teacher of the one-room schoolhouse in town, and her husband is a mining engineer. The story has its heart in the Pahpocket Mine, which was closed long before the narrator arrived in town; a tragedy occurred there, killing 150 men in the tunnels. There’s a lot of legend and rumor around that accident, and no one knows quite how it happened, but some say the mine came to life. Now a tufa stone statue sits before the mine, a sort of gargoyle hauled there at the expense of an old Indian woman. The collision between several of the schoolchildren and the abandoned mine forms the heart of this story, with Nimitseahpah, the gargoyle playing a key role. This story has a friendlier, more personal tone than does Bailey’s, but once again the tone is just right for the story. As charming as the tone is, though, the horror is real and unexplainable.
Martin Cahill writes about a boy who eats only smoke in “It Was Never the Fire.” The narrator, one of the smoke eater’s classmates, is a tough kid who made himself that way to deal with a drunken, abusive father. He’s intrigued by Smokey — “Obvious name,” the narrator says — and the two form a strange friendship. Smokey’s a weird kid, who thinks a lot about death, philosophy and religion, a heavy combination for someone so young. And as he gets older, his powers become manifest. The key scene, toward the end, is heartrending and horrifying at the same time, and the final scene is quietly spooky. Cahill is a fairly new and promising writer.
“Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy A. Snyder is the final work of fiction, and displays an imagination that is perverse, weird and so far out there that some may find the story too much for their stomachs, if you’ll forgive the pun. The first person narrator is suffering from a virus that can be controlled, but with difficulty; it’s hard not to read this story as a metaphor for AIDS. This virus, though, is called Polymorphic Viral Gastroencephalitis, and it comes in three types. Type One is benign, hitting the victim no harder than the flu. Type Two is worse; its victims have a constellation of symptoms that seem a lot like vampirism. And it’s progressive. Type Threes don’t seem to have a place among humans, and they seem as much like zombies as they do like vampires. But if you’ve got money, you can get blood, and you can a medication that more or less controls the craving for brains (just like the rich could get AZT when it was first available, but most couldn’t). If you don’t get your blood or brains, you turn into a Type Four — which means you’re dead. Our narrator wants to stay alive, and he has good health insurance and so has the medication, but that doesn’t control his appetite. What happens then is stomach-turning, even as it is the logical progression from what has gone before. It’s an excellent story, but not for those who like their horror hinted at instead of explicitly spelled out. Despite my usual dislike of splatterpunk, I found this story to be the best in this issue.
The nonfiction is up to Nightmare’s usual high standards. “The H Word” this month is by Nicholas Kaufmann, and is about hardboiled horror — that which has its genesis in the work of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Horror takes the work of those men and turns it even darker, Kaufmann says, and gives his evidence. He makes his case convincingly. Federico Bebber is the featured artist with a gallery of “surreal and sensual digital portraits through photo manipulation.” Bebber is a self-taught artist whose work is highly experimental. Julia Sevin conducts a fine interview with Bebber. Lisa Morton interviews Darren Shan, the author of the Cirque de Freak series for young adults, The Demonata series, and his latest venture, Zom-B, featuring a young British antihero in a projected twelve-book series. The author spotlights give insight into the featured fiction.
This issue contains some bonus material that may be limited to subscribers — basically an April Fool’s joke that works nicely in an “inside baseball” way; those not intimately familiar with some of the history of science fiction, fantasy and horror publishing are unlikely to get it, though they can enjoy the Lovecraftian flavor of it. I suppose when you’re dealing with zombies and vampires as a steady diet, you need a few laughs now and then. I did enjoy the chuckles. But I liked the horror more.