Nightmare is celebrating its first anniversary with Issue 13, and it starts off with a humdinger of a story by Norman Partridge called “10/31: Bloody Mary.” The use of the date is a deliberate reminder of 9/11, and connotes a catastrophe of equal or greater weight. On 10/31 — this year, next year, last year, we’re never told — all of the monsters became real. Somehow, on Halloween, “werewolves and witches, mummies and zombies, and other nameless things the boy would rather never see” become real. The boy (the protagonist of the story) hides during the day, never going out to forage for food and other necessities of life until night. He is utterly alone. Then one day a young woman appears, one who is very fast with her sawed-off shotgun when a Jack o’ Lantern attacks. She takes the boy under her wing and teaches him how to fight back instead of hide. The plot isn’t particularly new, and it goes much as you would expect it to; but the setting is vivid, conveying the notion that a darker world comes alive on Halloween, and that one year it might not die away again when the porch lights all go off and everyone goes to bed, fingers sticky with chocolate.
In Kaaron Warren’s “All You Can Do Is Breathe,” Stuart is trapped underground for five days when a tall man appears and stares into his eyes. At first he thinks it’s his partner, trapped with him, but behind a different wall. But then he notices that the thing is not a man; it’s too elongated, and it smells of sour cherries. The thing terrorizes him, but the cherry smell makes him so hungry that the terror is driven out, and he pulls away from the thing. It nods, steps away, and is gone. Two days later, they find him, those people out in the world, and they rescue him. There’s a media frenzy, and there’s his wife and daughter, and it’s quite a ruckus. People think he’s something special just because he survived, as if he had some magic power. But one night, in a bar, Stuart meets up with the elongated man again. And that’s when it starts to look like maybe Stuart didn’t entirely survive after all.
Megan Arkenberg draws a picture of a post-apocalyptic world in “The Crowgirl.” The title character is traveling with her older sister and a few other companions in a world full of zombies. They’re in a station wagon, crowded together with gasoline, weapons and crows. The crowgirl’s sister is pregnant. The crowgirl is so called because crows began saving her life when she was only seven, before the zombie plague; they followed her everywhere, flocking on the sidewalk in front of her home, sitting on the ledge outside her classroom, protecting her from the bigger girls who bullied her on the playground. The crowgirl’s tale is told through the eyes of her sister, in a style that is distanced, angry, unhappy, a style that communicates that the crowgirl’s sister feels acted upon rather than acting, in a world that makes no sense. Even when the Dead approach her to make a deal, the decision is taken out of her hands. The story conveys a powerful sense of helplessness and rage against a meaningless world in which survival is the only good. It weighs heavily on the reader.
“The Score,” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, is told in prose fragments, from internet chats to medical examiner’s reports to newspaper and magazine stories, to transcripts of news shows. All of these fragments deal with Jake Pray, a 26-year-old protestor and songwriter who was discovered dead in his holding cell the morning after he was arrested. There is no obvious cause of death, according to the medical examiner, and it is assumed by his fellow protestors that he was killed by the police while in custody. His death seems to magnify his life, and to greatly increase the impact of his one hit protest song. Of course, there are naysayers, including one of his fellow protestors who turns from the cause of peace to become a reader of Atlas Shrugged, as he says in an interview with Tucker Carlson. Other people claim that they see Jake’s ghost. All these squibs of material culminate in a years-long series of emails between Violet Omura, Jake’s girlfriend, and Zacharias Tibbs, who sounds delusional at best with his long, complicated missives about a secret mathematical formula that can explain everything in the world. In the meantime, the political situation in the world goes from bad to worse. It’s a depressing story that makes you wonder if one person can really make any useful impact on the world.
One of the especially cool things about Nightmare is that it includes “The H Word” each month, an essay about the nature of horror or a subgenre of horror. This month’s offering is subtitled “Reveling in the Literary” and is written by F. Brett Cox, an associate professor of English at Norwich University, as well as a writer. Cox posits that there is a four-stage structure to most horror stories, as set forth by the critic John Clute in The Darkening Garden: A Lexicon of Horror (2006). Cox briefly summarizes it as “1. Something’s wrong. 2. Here it comes. 3. Omigod! 4. We’re screwed.” It’s a perfect short paradigm for any number of stories. Cox is particularly interested in the third stage, which Clute called the Revel, arguing that in many stories of a more literary bent, the Revel virtually disappears. Although Cox is dealing with some fairly high level concepts of literary criticism in this essay, it is written so well, with the argument set forth so plainly, that most readers will find it lucid and well worth reading.
The Artist Gallery features art by Peter Mohrbacher, which is worth looking up in full color and size on a real screen instead of just peering at it on your cellphone, tablet or Kindle. This is some seriously creepy stuff. I was particularly fascinated by the images of bodies with dissociated parts — a division in the torso where the waist would be found in one image, arms separated at the elbow yet still somehow whole in another. This career will be one to watch.
The featured interview is of Margo Lanagan, who came to the notice of the SF/F/H world with her story, “Singing My Sister Down” in her collection, Black Juice. It’s a magnificent story, nominated for awards in all of the genres — science fiction, fantasy and horror — and I highly recommend that you track down a copy and read it as soon as you can. In the meantime, this interview discusses a number of Lanagan’s works that I did not know existed, including a collection called Cracklescape that is now residing in my Kindle. Lanagan gives us a window into the mind of a writer who works in many styles, with many subjects, and many sources of inspiration, suggesting that creativity ultimately benefits from remaining open to whatever in the world might catch the writer’s attention.
This issue also contains the usual Author Spotlights for the contributors. Read Norman Partridge’s Spotlight for the best answer to any question in any of the Spotlights: “Do you have any personal spooky Halloween experiences to share?” Partridge’s answer is surprisingly deep for such a straightforward question.
This issue of Nightmare hangs heavily upon the soul. Its stories, as wild and unnatural as are the events they describe, lead one to introspection and existential despair if one takes them seriously. But don’t let that stop you: Nightmare is essential reading for any fan of horror.