I was excited by the first issue of The Dark, which I reviewed in 2013. The following issues fulfill the promise of the first, containing lovely and mysterious stories of dark fantasy. Reading the sweep of the magazine from Issue 2 to Issue 7 reveals that a particular type of story is likely to catch the editors’ eyes: stories that are often elliptical, gentle, hinting at more than they say, and rich in poetic language.
Issue 2 is as wonderful as was Issue 1. “Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton opens prosaically, when the protagonist’s car breaks down two hours away from the city, in the middle of a forest. He can’t get a cell signal, and there’s no passing traffic, so he’s feeling at a loss when he sees a girl wearing a red coat in the forest. He follows her because she seems like the only source of help available to him. Events change dramatically from the prosaic to the weird when she leads him to a church on wheels, dedicated to the titular saint, and he falls into the practices of the odd religion. The oddity of this story, and the lack of any explanation for the existence of the church or what happens to the protagonist, make this a delightfully surreal read.
Saints are a theme in this issue. “The Nameless Saint” by Willow Fagan, is about a woman who disguises herself as a crazy cat lady so that people will not truly understand that she captures and keeps imprisoned the miseries that plague them. Then one day a girl catches her at her task and won’t let the matter drop, persisting right up until the woman decides she needs an apprentice, and this girl will work as well as any other. Who will come out on top in this battle of wills? The inability of the reader to determine whether the girl or the woman is correct in her treatment of the miseries, or, indeed, the value or lack thereof of the miseries, makes this story mysterious. I’m not sure it works, but I’m also not sure it doesn’t.
E. Catherine Tobler’s “Wrought Out From Within Upon the Flesh” is the marvelous story of Cassandra, whose arms and legs end in chains, just as she has been crafted by Emery, her lover. But Cassandra’s body is changing, even as a woman she does not know watches her transform. This lengthy and beautifully written metaphor for domestic violence is both dark and vivid, telling a tale of terror without the need to exhibit a single blow.
“Five Boys Went to War” by Amanda E. Forrest is set in an unnamed country after World War II has ended. Clara has lost all five of her sons to the war, but they have nonetheless come home to her. The story is strange and sad, but it does not quite work: the strangeness is for the sake strangeness, rather than used to tell a story.
Issue 3 starts off with “Dream Flight” by Douglas Smith. The story is about the Hoyl, the Crystal Angel of the Heroka, who in her human form is merely Lilith Hoyl. She has flown too long, and landed hard on the roof of a children’s hospital. Through the eyes and mind of a dove, she sees and befriends a girl who, against all odds, is able to hear her and understand her nature. One expects magic with this set-up, and magic does, indeed, follow, but pain cannot be forever vanquished, for either the girl or the Hoyl. The story charms as well as pains. In other hands, it would be mawkish, but Smith avoids all the pitfalls and gives us something bittersweet instead.
“Worse That Alligators” by Steve Berman is told from the point of view of Jameson, a young man in love with his boyfriend on a perfect autumn night. It’s the sort of first love when one’s boyfriend has no faults, but when one must still resist the pull of the night and love in order to look after the slumber party of seven ten-year-olds his parents have entrusted to his care. The excuse the two boys used for leaving the party for a while — walking the dog — has been used up, and it’s time to go home. The girls have been up to the kinds of party games that are supposed to hold a delicious scare, but things get a bit too real. It’s a fine case of “be careful what you ask for.” Berman conjures memories of adolescence that bite even without his spooky plot.
In “Zarequesh in Absentia,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew works hard at writing beautifully — and she succeeds — but her plot suffers. A police officer and a private detective team up to solve a mystery involving a missing girl, and what happens to all three of them is ultimately made clear, but we’re missing the whys and wherefores. A little more clarity would not have harmed the poetry of this story, and would have improved it.
Helena Bell, in “Burial,” buries almost nothing, for nothing is wasted on the island that is the setting for her story — most certainly not the bodies of the dead. The Shipmaker is a living deity on this island, disposing of all that remains when life has fled. This prose poem is lovely to read, despite its complete lack of a plot.
S.L. Gilbow opens Issue 4 with “Mr. Hill’s Death,” about a high school English teacher’s attempts to teach his students the true meaning of “tragedy.” The student who gives a presentation defining the term — satisfactorily, though without much insight — uses a short YouTube video of an automobile accident to prove her point. Oddly, the car involved in her film seems to be Mr. Hill’s own, a distinctive yellow Mustang. Is YouTube visiting the future to grab footage? The story is more straightforward than most of what we’ve seen in the first three issues, with a more conventional plot and less attention to crafting beautiful sentences. It is well-crafted, if not as original and imaginative as stories in earlier issues.
“Perfect” by Yukimi Ogawa is a return to form, however. The story is told in the first person by a woman clad in her wedding dress, with a skirt made entirely of magnolia blooms, long after age has taken her beauty from her. She has found a way to reclaim that beauty, a way that dooms those who appear beautiful to her in one aspect or another: lovely smooth hands, perhaps, or gorgeous eyes. This works just fine for the protagonist, if not so well for the beautiful people who cross paths with her. But the narrator’s desire to take on the characteristics of others ultimately becomes her desire to become the beauty of nature, and the tale takes a strange and wonderful twist at the end. Ogawa says much about a woman’s need to be a conventional sort of beauty in this world until, suddenly, she doesn’t; and then she is free.
“Phrase Book” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia finds the narrator in the northern Ontario wilderness, where she has moved to keep her Japanese boyfriend company while he works on his doctoral thesis. The odd thing is that Tetsuo isn’t even there; he had to fly to Tokyo to deal with a family problem. The narrator is left alone in an unfamiliar place with nothing but two boxes of Japanese books that she can’t read. Tetsuo is writing about Japanese folklore, and particularly about inugami. An inugami is a possession spirit, and one of Tetsuo’s books about the creatures fascinates the woman so much that she finds herself continually paging through it. As the tale progresses, one begins to wonder whether the woman is being haunted by an inugami, or whether, perhaps, she is one herself. It’s an odd, ambivalent tale that possesses a stark and wintry sort of lonely beauty.
Alekos, a diver who harvests sponges from the ocean floor in the early days of diving suits is the protagonist of Natalia Theodoridou’s “The Land Baby.” It is dangerous work, especially because the physical effects of water pressure are not entirely understood, and Alekos suffers from the bends as he returns from the first dive we see him take. His seven-year-old daughter is an expert at cutting the sponges; as she works, she tells Alekos she has seen her dead mother crying on the beach. It is a story of loss, both to those who dwell on the earth and those who live in the sea. It has the feel of a fable coming to life, with no fairy tale flourishes, but only the hard realities of a life lived where land and water meet.
“When Swords Had Names” by Stephen Graham Jones is the first story in Issue 5. The narrator is a deserter so intent on not being captured by his former comrades in arms that he winds up lost in a forest, slowly starving to death. When he is just on the edge of oblivion, he is rescued by a group of men with strange dietary habits. They give him food that he does not merely eat, but is himself consumed by. All other food tastes like ashes afterwards, even when he discovers the origin of the meat his rescuers served him. And thus does he become a monster. Jones writes well, but it is an ugly story with no moral, no ray of hope.
“Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley” by Octavia Cade is the story of a boy who has an affinity for glass. Glass wants to tell him things; it wants to translate for those who do not speak his language, and, ultimately, it wants to help him break codes during World War II. It’s a charming story that made me think of Alan Turing and his code-breaking work with the Enigma Machine.
The first sentence of Emily B. Cataneo’s “Not the Grand Duke’s Dancer” seems both whimsical and foreboding: “I’m teaching earthworms how to dance ballet when the Grand Duke comes to steal me from Petrograd.” Instead, though, it’s just weird, and not in a good way. The narrator is a dead ballerina whose lover wants her resurrected to dance for him again, while she wants only to be dead. That should be enough for a story, but Cataneo goes further, making her ballerina the Queen of the Underworld. There is both too much here and not enough; there is plenty of event, but too little emotion.
“A Fairy Tale Life,” in which Darja Malcolm-Clarke imprisons her protagonist inside a dream program of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” is more complex and full of fear — even as it reminds the reader of things going wrong on the holodeck in the various modern Star Trek series. Daniel can’t find his way out of the program, no matter how many times he says, “Program abort!” He’s hungry and tired and the three bears are not in the least harmless. Worse, his abusive Aunt Mary is in there with him, even though he didn’t write a single line of code that should have allowed that. And his quarrels with his wife about his young son have followed him into the program as well. Add in a revolt by technology against humans, and you have a story stuffed with incident as well as regret.
Issue 6 starts out strongly, with Sara Saab’s “Calamity, the Silent Trick.” It is a turn on the ancient Greek story of the Fates, updated to a time that understands (sort of) quantum physics. There are 29 Fates in this story, and each carries three cups, which are dealt at a time when a human hangs between life and death. One of the Fates, Au (the Periodic Table’s symbol for gold), is called upon to deal the cups for Luccas Santo, a boxer who has been struck what could well be a killing blow. I enjoyed the poetry of this story, as well as Saab’s attempt to orient it within a world of science.
“The Three Familiars” by Eric Schaller is about a witch who was the miracle child of Boston Brahmins who were told they would never have children. She seems more like a spoiled child than a witch, though, until we see her engaged in animal husbandry with a spider who drinks only blood. Things get a lot weirder from there, with rats and potatoes making special appearances. This very dark character sketch is more a series of vignettes in the life of a witch than it is a story. The writing is skillful, but one wonders what the point of drawing such a fine portrait of such an ugly person could possibly be.
Patricia Russo tells us the story of the wild and strange Arrani in “Mourning Flags and Wildflowers.” Russo’s society is matriarchal, and it is the women who do the courting. Arrani seems to be courting Borro, but it’s a strange courtship, and Arrani is wild and odd; she speaks to Borro of how he will be the father of wildflowers if he stays with her. Russo paints a vivid picture of a strange coupling that brings great change to this society. I liked the picture of a world so different from our own, and Russo’s somewhat cryptic manner of telling her story.
“Home at Gloom’s End” by Naim Kabir is about intelligent squids and crabs and the shrimp colonies that form themselves into gods. Kabir has fun painting life under the sea as a complex society comprised of numerous species, and even more fun creating a religion for them. But the story is ultimately predictable, and offers none of the darkness or strangeness one has come to expect from The Dark.
Angela Slatter has become one of my favorite short story writers since I first came across a story of hers about a year and a half ago. “Bearskin,” the opening story in Issue 7 of The Dark, tells the story of 12-year-old Torben, a boy who doesn’t want to hunt but is forced to do so by a brutal master who doesn’t instruct, but only hits. Torben waits in a blind in the winter woods, freezing, while Uther checks his traps. In a moment of fright, he kills a bear cub who has been wandering about unseasonably instead of hibernating, as he should have been. Though Torben weeps for the cub, Uther is for once pleased with his apprentice. Tove, Uther’s servant girl, asks Torben whether the bear was a true bear or one that was only a bear some of the time, and it’s only then that we get an inkling of what this story is about. Slatter does a fine job of putting us inside Torben’s head, even as his life changes dramatically in the wake of the cub’s death.
Patricia Russo appears in the second issue in a row, this time with “In the Dreams Full of Sleep, Beakless Birds Can Fly.” A child is dying, and a woman who speaks to the spirits comes to the house of her grieving parents, as always happens. There is a ritual at work here; no one ever calls the women, but they simply appear, and there is a protocol about how they are to be treated. This woman, though, is impatient with the traditions, as is the child’s father, who speaks out of turn (for this society is matriarchal, as is the society in Russo’s earlier story). She is far more forthcoming about the spirits than any other spirit woman they have had dealings with, and she is far more inventive with her suggestions about caring for the child. It is a terrible thing she asks of the parents, but it offers their only hope. The tale is sad and hopeful at the same time, a tricky combination, but one that speaks truly to the circumstances of the story.
“Welcome to Argentia” by Sandra McDonald is a tone poem of sorts about an island off the coast of Newfoundland. McDonald tells of its history and its people, and is fairly straightforward and utterly lacking in the fantastical save for touches that could be merely within the imaginations of those spending military time on the island. Then Lieutenant (j.g.) Sandra McDonald appears and experiences has her own brush with ghosts; after transferring out, she is killed in a traffic accident, and the reader is left to wonder whether this character is supposed to have any relationship to the author. History continues to move forward, always with the touch of the strange, until we reach the sting in the tail. The story is hauntingly beautiful instead of horrifying, which it rightly should be. It is deftly written, hinting at what would be unremarkable if made explicit.
The closing story is “A Spoke in Fortune’s Wheel” by Brooke Wonders, is about a village called Kille in which “Every child born in the year of our prince’s ascension to the throne came into the world possessed of a supernatural and supremely useful limb.” A blacksmith’s son has a pair of tongs for a left hand; a baker’s son has a rolling pin for a chin; and Sarasponda, the daughter of the village tailor, has a spinning wheel on her shoulders instead of a head. I spent far too much time reading this story trying to imagine what Sarasponda looked like, without much success. When the children turn 16, each of them is asked to present a gift to his Highness; but the prince merely laughs at Sarasponda’s finespun silk, unable to discern any special properties in it. Sarasponda tries to find a way to make her gift more wonderful, visiting the other children born with special tools, and is told that they each had a teacher. This take on the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale is a delightful, dark take on what has always been a coal-black story.
Reading six issues of The Dark back to back, covering a little more than a year, has given me the full flavor of the magazine, and it’s a flavor that I like very much: dark, bittersweet, and rich like the finest chocolate. I’ll look forward to future issues, and no longer set them aside to await binge reading; they are to be savored.
A note: back in the days when magazines existed in hard copy only, a review like this would have been frustrating to the reader, as back issues of the magazines would be difficult to find. In this brave new world, however, magazines are available in electronic format for an indeterminate amount of time. Anyone reading this review can buy all six copies of the magazines discussed here; there is nothing dated about them.
Dark, bittersweet and rich… this sounds like a great magazine!
For some reason, I read the author name Berman as “Batman… ” twice. I think the word “dark” prompted my mind to play that trick, since you spelled it correctly both times.