|Art by Tanya Varga|
It’s a special anniversary issue of The Dark Magazine as the publication turns 50! 50 issues, that is, and to celebrate there are all new stories, four in total, to terrify, unsettle, and maybe inspire. It’s a nicely paired issue, as well, with the stories looking at complicity and injustice, each one finding characters dealing with how to live in a world that is dangerous, where there are forces that want their destruction. Do they slink back, try to hide? Do they run? Do they try to fight back? Are they crushed all the same? The works show how complicity works in many ways, how it’s often nearly impossible to reject completely, but how sometimes people can resist allowing injustice to continue, and by standing up to it can begin to work towards a world where it doesn’t play as huge a role in society. To the reviews!
“Who Will Clean Our Spirits When We’re Gone” by Tlotlo Tsamaase (5045 words)
No Spoilers: Wame is a woman looking for answers, braving a storm-filled night to find a supernatural phone booth to make a call. To find answers from the only person who has them. From someone who’s not longer living. The piece unfolds as an interview of sorts, but one loaded by the personal connection of the characters and the tragedy that has consumed them. It is a story of curses and superstitions that are much more than stories told to scare children. It’s a bit of a bleak story about the ways that people spread tragedy to others, unable to escape the hungry things following them, seeking to draw them down into the dark of sorrow and loneliness and grief.
Keywords: Ghosts, Curses, Debts, Queer MC, Phone Calls, CW- Rape(?)
Review: This is a rather heartbreaking read, coming as it does with a gravity of loss and violence that proves to be too strong to escape, to pull free of. And I really like the framing of the story, a journalist seeking an interview, a grieving woman wanting answers from her partner. Wame begins as the main character but the story becomes more about her girlfriend and the woman she died with, a story that can twisted what Wame had and made her question everything. And really so much of the piece for me is how loaded against these characters this world is, how they pass loss between them like an infection, where there is something always coming after them, seeking to destroy the delicate peace they have together. For the relationship described in the interview, abuse and violation play a key role in tearing the women down, in making them hope that maybe if they are perfect, if they sacrifice all they have, all they might have, to some higher power they might be saved. But that power, if they are listening, only sells them on, takes their sorrow and asks for more. The women find that there is no perfect enough, no saving enough, no good enough in a world that sees them as inherently worse, tainted, evil. And so they try to find ways to be and find instead that they are being pursued at all times. By a monster that drags at their knees, that weighs down their steps. By a world that judges them, that seeks to erase and crush them. And the piece is deeply sad, a yearning loneliness finding only sharp edges in the dark, draining money and blood itself without really bringing happiness or closure. It carries a style that to me is poetic, that stretches the literal in order to get at a more blatant truth that language typically tries to talk around and conceal. A danger that for these women is sharp and real and pressing but for everyone else is just a shadow they shut their eyes to, hoping to be passed over. A difficult but rewarding read!
“The House Wins In The End” by L Chan (4290 words)
No Spoilers: Jia survived a haunted house—the House that took her sister, her mother, and her father. She survived, and moved away, but that didn’t mean that the House was done with her. Now she travels from haunted house to haunted house, trying to use them as screens for what’s chasing her. It’s a piece steeped in violence and grief, the loss of her family visceral, traumatic, and yet somewhat unresolved. She’s running from a hungry presence but there’s a lot else she’s running from as well. Things that need to be confronted lest she call to their waiting jaws. It’s a somewhat unsettling read, full of gore and fear, and it creeps under the skin, seeking something in the reader, leaving behind a mistrust of structures and what ghosts they might be hiding.
Keywords: Ghosts, Haunted Houses, Family, CW- Suicide, Movement
Review: I love the idea of someone fleeing from a haunting by using other ghosts as a shield. Entering willfully into other haunted spaces in order to keep your own at bay. It’s a neat concept and the story does a lot of good with it, building up Jia and her trauma, her guilt, her need to keep moving so that things don’t catch up with her. It’s her memories and feelings that she seems to be avoiding as much as the violent ghost that killed her family, though. It’s like if she stays put then the memories come flooding back, the knowledge of the ways that her family died. Her sister crushed by a wardrobe, her mother dead in the bathtub. Her father...well, the story doesn’t quite reveal everything, but it does paint a rather grisly picture of what happened, something that has messed Jia right up. And the ways that her trauma manifests, and the danger she puts herself in, seems to be a way of coping, a way of wondering what it is that will kill her. Her own House or another one? Her own ghosts or someone else’s? The piece shows how in this case the House is infectious, not hunting Jia rather than tethered to her by her own fears and hopes, her despairs and self-destructive tendencies. It’s only when she can begin to let that go, to accept the tragedies that she’s survived, that she is able to put the past to rest, to slip free from the tremendous weight of her memories and maybe start working toward a place that will allow her to heal and move. And I like that the first thing she does with that is seek to help another, to hope that other people can shake off their ghosts and put them to rest, and step back fully into the land of the living. A powerful and rending read!
“The Dead Kings” by Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría, translated by David Bowles (3882 words)
No Spoilers: This piece opens in dialogue with a long story being told to the narrator by Grandfather, a teller of tales and a maker of orbs through which the “reader” can experience those tales. The story that the narrator receives, though, seems more fantastical than ever, a story of persecution and tyrant, undead kings ruling over a heavily policed and terrified population. It’s a story that ends up having a profound impact on the narrator, and that illustrates the ways that fictions can reveal truths in the real world, can change people and how they experience reality, sometimes even if they don’t want to, even if they desperately wanted to remain unchanged.
Keywords: Stories, Illusions, Dissent, Kings, Rivers
Review: I really like the way this story explores how fiction can tap into some deep truths and alter the way people see reality. For the narrator, the orb they get seems almost ridiculous. Shadows that twist flesh, centipede riders, undying kings who see everything—it sounds like a nightmare, like a dream. And yet there’s some compelling to it, something that draws the narrator to it. Perhaps the knowledge that it’s tapping into something unseen, something so often ignored. Because on experiencing the story, they are unable to remain ignorant of the evils of the system they are participating in. What they called ridiculous is actually the way the world works around them, and it takes seeing it in a perhaps-exaggerated way in order to really understand that it’s not exaggerated. It’s not that false or strange. That really seeing it in that way makes it something that can’t be ignored, that can’t be looked away from. It puts in terms that are actually easier to understand, and it does change the way the narrator sees things, so that around them the world transforms. Or, as they themself observe, not transforms, but is revealed. And I love that distinction, that here something like speculative fiction is being used to change something in the narrator that gives them the ability to see through the layers of benign and banal lies and to the horrifying truth of undying kings and hunting centipedes and people being murdered because they are different, because they’ve seen past the mask, through the illusion, and are dangerous. It recognizes that stories can be the vector by which the truth spreads like an infection. An infection that here is very strictly dealt with, and that people believe makes one deserving of death because they don’t want to question the system, because they don’t want to see what’s under it all, and they haven’t been made to. A wonderful story!
“Thin Places” by Kay Chronister (5105 words)
No Spoilers: In the town of Branaugh, on the island of Branaugh, there are rituals to be observed. Festivals to be be conducted. Songs to be sung and dances to be danced. And if no one really knows why that’s the case, then at least everyone knows that they must be. Until one year when a new lighthouse-keeper appears with his wife and daughter, and one of the townspeople begins to question things...and comes against answers she was not ready for. It’s a dark and creeping piece that to me speaks of complicity and the willingness to sacrifice, to accept suffering and loss if it upholds the status quo—if it gives the illusion of safety.
Keywords: Rituals, Islands, Lighthouses, Schools, Sacrifices
Review: For me this story speaks so much to complicity and the weight of ritual, of upholding the status quo even when you know it’s wrong, even when you can see that the safety it promises is not safety for all, or even for you. That anyone might have to be sacrificed at the whims of some force in order to help maintain the way things are, the rituals and the connections. For Miss Augusta, the school teacher, this is something that’s not obvious at first, because when she sees the young girl who comes to town, she sees a person. Sees a person and hopes that other people will see a person, because she doesn’t fully understand the rituals of the town and she wants to believe in what she does, that she’s helping people. Especially children, so when she sees that the daughter of the new lighthouse-keeper has fallen rather ill, she grows concerned and wants to help, and despite assurances from the rest of the town that she shouldn’t get involved, that it will only make it worse, she tries. To a point, at least. Because what she discovers horrifies her. The foundation on which her town is built, the history and celebrations that cover over not just the terrible things that the island has done in the past but the continued violence that is required to keep the island thriving. And the terrifying thing here really is that she’s willing to accept the injustice even after knowing about it, does not walk away from Omelas, as it were. Because here she knows that if she tried, she’d join the others being ground up, being sacrificed for the “greater good.” And so she continues the dance, made complicit and so made forever tied to defending the rituals now. Making the conscious choice rather than the ignorant one to support an evil she knows is wrong but will have to see as The Only Way if she expects to continue. Which is a familiar and dark message, and a perfect way to close out the issue!