“Halfway Home” by Linda Nagata is the first original story in this issue. It’s a stunner set in the real world; no supernatural beings or powers are at work here, just human evil. It starts so prosaically that one is lulled into a false sense of security, even boredom. Two women are speaking to one another as their flight leaves from the Philippines for Los Angeles. They are strangers, each traveling for her own reasons, one starting a conversation with the narrator as the narrator browses through the airliner’s safety brochure, making sure she knows where the exits are in case the worst happens. The narrator is basically a professional adventurer — a photographer and mountain climber — and has been in bad spots before; being prepared has allowed her to survive deadly situations more than once. The other woman does engineering appraisals of biohazard containment procedures under laboratory conditions, so for her “worst case” is part of her daily grind, but only in theory, not in the real world. They’re a perfect pair to react to an emergency when the plane starts to go down. And that’s where the story really starts.
The first reprint is Robert Kirkman’s “Alone, Together,” is a sad story about a man who is married to the love of his life for four wonderful years before the zombie apocalypse. Things are pretty dire in the narrator’s today, but he’s found someone new to love, probably one of the last women on earth, and she loves him in return. They are alone in this horrible new world, but they are together. They’re surviving, until the narrator grows a conscience. Troublesome things, consciences.
The best story in this issue is C.S. McMullen’s “The Nest,” the first publication for this story. It made my skin crawl, in all the best ways. It’s about a man who has built his house in such a way that the walls are ant farms — all the walls, throughout the house, with hundreds of thousands of ants burrowing from room to room. The homeowner has put a lot of thought into his construction, making sure that the farm lives and breathes, rather than perishing like the cheap red and clear plastic constructions of our youth, that merely suffocated the ants in a week or so. And he keeps them fed, though he does so in the cruelest way possible: by making meat the prize in a war between rival ant colonies. They are fire ants, deadly if they swarm, but perfectly safe in small numbers despite the pain that their bite inflicts. The narrator of the story has been brought into this chamber of horrors in a bizarre rite of passage in her real estate office: she is supposed to set a value on the house. Of course, no one in her office warned her what she was getting into before she arrived. But they, and the vicious homeowner, reckoned without her strength of character. The story reminded me of George R.R. Martin’s “Sandkings,” though it is also entirely its own tale. It is very creepy.
Peter Straub’s “A Short Guide to the City” is a strange bit of writing; it’s a Frommer’s or Fodor’s guide as written by someone who sees the world far differently from most of us. You probably don’t want to visit the city, given that the first sentence in the guide reads, “The viaduct killer, named for the location where his victims’ bodies have been discovered, is still at large.” No, thanks, I don’t need to visit that city, no matter how pretty the lakefront. Though really, this lakefront doesn’t sound all that appealing, either, not when the most important information we get about it is of the bodies found there and the starving people who live nearby. This is Straub at his darkest, and that can be very dark indeed.
“The H Word” this month is about horrible women, the few women who show up as figures of evil in our literature. S.P. Miskowski chose these particular literary figures to demonstrate how ordinary they are. “When real women do awful things, we pretend that the behavior is freakish. I think this habit is unhealthy,” Miskowski says, and it tends to shadow women, to keep them as slightly unreal figures. It’s a counterintuitive proposition, nicely supported in Miskowski’s argument.
Fred Fraser’s art is unsettling. In his interview, which accompanies a gallery of his work, he explains his complicated process of wet plate portrait photography, an old technique he has reinvented. His explanation for why he uses such a difficult technique when digital photography is so easy to manipulate is worthy of respect.
The main interview in this issue is of Joe McKinney, who is identified by Lisa Morton, the interviewer, as “one of the reigning kings of zombie fiction.” McKinney has won a Bram Stoker Award for one of the novels in his DEAD WORLD series. McKinney is a Texas police officer with a master’s degree in English who writes when he has time. Even if you’re as tired of zombies as I am, you’ll find this interview more interesting than most.
September’s Nightmare also contains the usual author spotlights of the writers of each of the four stories in the issue. These spotlights seem to be getting better as time goes by, with more insightful questions. They round out an excellent issue that’s a fine cap to the first full year of publication.