- “Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung” by Usman Malik (horror novelette)
This is an unusual issue of Nightmare in that it has only a single original story (a fairly long novelette) instead of two (usually both short stories unless one is a very short novelette). In the snaky “Dead Lovers,” a Pakistani heroin addict makes his statement to a cop. He describes how he was saved from an overdose by a man who was looking for his lost wife, whom he’d bought when she was a child. With the two men’s lives now entwined, they head off to a sort of mystic religious music concert near a shrine where the husband thinks she may have gone in search of the “Cobra Stone” which fascinates her. When they arrive, the tone and nature of the story becomes much darker and graphically violent and those are only the first steps in the escalation.
The characters are interesting (and become more so in different ways) and the narrative voice, itself, works but the awkward strategy of making this be a person’s long-winded statement to a cop doesn’t help, shown most vividly when the story breaks from first-person narrative to introduce into evidence a key letter written by the missing woman. (On the other hand, one superb element of this story is that you are definitely in Pakistan and there are many unusual or outright unfamiliar words and concepts but it’s lightly done and never obstructive or isolating but invites you in with a strong sense of place and culture.)
The story does a fairly good job of somehow maintaining some interest but over 8000 of the 12000 words are prologue and mainstream prologue at that. When we finally arrive at the climactic section, the narrator’s frozen horror is initially unconvincing. Sure, we’re in an underground cavern a snake has just come out of and some creepy guy is singing weird stuff to the weird friend but either there’s not enough there or it’s not written so that it seems like enough. Then it goes from not enough to too much, jumping straight to a gross-out with a graphic description of viscerally repulsive stuff. The next phase (no spoilers) is actually well done but calls into question whether this is even fantasy at all.
Finally, this seems rich with thematic material and symbolic imagery and could tie together moths and flames, fireflies and snakes, humans and transcendence, along with the obvious intrinsic connections of heroin needles to viper fangs but instead is overly explicit about arbitrary “white queen” stuff instead. It was ultimately interesting but extremely mixed for me, though readers’ reactions will probably run the gamut.
- “The Inheritance” by Joanna Parypinski (horror short story)
- “A Mother’s Love Never Ends” by Halli Villegas (dark fantasy short story)
This issue of Nightmare introduces us to Madeline and Miriam and, while only Miriam observes that a town looks “frozen sometime in the 1950s.” both stories have a little of that in them.
When a disturbing stranger appears on her doorstep talking about an impossible “Inheritance,” unhappy Madeline must decide whether to let him in. The tension of the meeting is done well enough and the nature of the “inheritance” is clever enough, but the woman is characterized too much to be Everyone yet too little and too negatively for much sympathy and the story is slight. In “Mother’s Love,” Miriam is riding the bus with her mother’s ashes and, while on the bus and at the various stops, experiences a surreal swirl of past and present and Never as intimations about her broken home and the games parents play arise and we learn about their effects. While overly disorienting on one hand, it was effectively creepy on the other, with an ending which may resonate for some.
- “House of Small Spiders” by Weston Ochse (novelette)
- “True Crime” by M. Rickert (short story)
“True Crime” is a single, 971-word, non-speculative block of short sentences babbling about how a Women is killed by a Men.
Much more interesting (and therefore, ultimately, disappointing) is “House of Small Spiders.” Susan’s cutting herself in her closet as the story opens and we find out its related to the fact that her mother’s recently stabbed herself to death on top of the washing machine. We later find out that that odd detail is connected to more tragedy. Meanwhile, dad vividly attacks a couple of religious proselytizers and we learn about blood, ideas, and houses with souls and spiders. The bursts of horrific violence were quite effective and there are some nice observations and ambiguities or paradoxes but the villain ultimately comes off as clownish with incongruously pedestrian motives, the “morality” of the “heroine” is hard to take, and the resolution is far too talky.
(There’s another, arguably smaller, problem with the end which is hard to articulate without spoilers. And, while I’m at it, Craftsman was a Sears brand which is now sold at Lowe’s via Stanley Black & Decker, not Home Depot (as far as I know), “condemning them that it is their fault” isn’t good English, and the extra word after the final sentence in my copy isn’t good proof-reading.)
- “Dead Air” by Nino Cipri (novelette)
- “Crook’s Landing, by Scaffold” by G.V. Anderson (dark fantasy short story)
“Dead Air” is listed at 10,204 words, but I only get 7,643. It’s a novelette, either way. It features Miss Nosy and Miss Dark Secret (basically the extent of the characterization) and details their romantic relationship and how Nosy talks Dark Secret into returning to her hometown of Garbled and re-visiting the scene of The Accident. Naturally, horror ensues. All this is told through the narrative gimmick of audio recordings and a third character giving really elaborate stage directions.
“Crook’s Landing” is much more appealing though I should disclaim that I’m a sucker for posthumous fantasies (this isn’t really a horror story or even as dark a fantasy as it might be). In this “Bill? Barry?” is hanged two days after his younger brother and, as a crook, ends up in the titular place. Most people suffer almost instantaneous amnesia but BillBarry holds fast to his brother’s memory and looks all over Crook’s Landing and other afterplaces trying to find him. Finally, the murderers from Cutthroat Cove arrive to offer a deal. It’s all a little pat and has some really sentimental murderers and some other issues, but it was a decent read.
- “Ways to Wake” by Alison Littlewood (short story)
- “Kylie Land” by Caspian Gray (fantasy short story)
This Nightmare‘s original fiction features two stories which have strong elements but start better than they finish and don’t seem to fully fit in a speculative dark/horror magazine.
“Ways to Wake” presents us with an old man in a retirement home who is disturbed by the resident cat who knows “whenever anyone’s going.” The man starts feeling like the cat may be a killer or a witch’s familiar or any number of other things and contemplates harming it and fellow residents including a Nurse Ratched character. While initially interesting and effectively creepy and insane-feeling, it then wanders around and has one of those “non-endings.” There’s actually nothing necessarily speculative to it, either.
“Kylie Land” describes the meeting between Kyle Eland, a strange outcast, and the new outcast to the school, Ramage, who is a semi-retired mind reader. Not daunted by the fact that Ramage warns him it will be painful and by the fact that Ramage has previously “erased” a guy, Kyle insists on being read in an effort to find out what’s wrong with him. Turns out there’s nothing really wrong with him… his father, on the other hand… The story ends too easily and, despite Kyle’s long-standing trauma, doesn’t really meet the definition of “horror” or even especially “dark fantasy” to me but I thought both protagonists were well-crafted oddballs and the quirky style was appealing. While not entirely satisfying, it was an enjoyable read.
- “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” by Nibedita Sen (dark fantasy short story)
- “Red Rain” by Adam-Troy Castro (absurdist gore short story)
Did you ever read a story written entirely in second person questions? Did it really annoy you? Would you read it if you didn’t have to? Because “Red Rain” is such a story and involves apparently millions of people falling out of the sky to their deaths while “you” get drenched in gore as “you” try to duck and cover. This is conveyed by some inexplicable entity asking “you” a lot of questions which are essentially declarative sentences with an interrogative stuck up front and a question mark stuck on the end. This device and the unaesthetic lack of proportion combined to completely dissociate me from any effect this story might have had. I’m sorry, but I’d rather read John Shirley’s Three-Ring Psychus or something.
(Incidentally, one gets the sense these people are falling from great heights at great speeds but one person hits a power line and bounces off before landing and getting shredded when, even in a fantasy, he ought to have just gotten cut right in half—with guts spewing in both directions, presumably. And why stop with just one line? He could have gone through several like an egg in a slicer. Maybe there was some sense of limit or proportion to the story after all?)
On the other hand, for the second issue in a row, Nightmare has a really good story. “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” tells the tale of a captain of a whaling vessel on a world that is and is not of our world and history. On this voyage, a scientist is busy trying to create a whale communicator of sorts, using parts of whales the ship’s crew have killed. Unsurprising but hauntingly effective descents into madness follow.
While there may be a a glitch or two in the narrative voice of the captain as recorded in his plain, direct, but beautifully written log, it is generally solid and his character is well-realized and effective with initially benign aspects growing to altered effect as the story progresses. The plain description of the whaling activities, however normal they may have been, produces a natural darkness before the unnatural darkness even properly begins. The ending contains its message but is relatively subdued rather than overt and, unlike most stories of this sort, is more concerned with empathy and equity than simple vengeance. There is a problem with the narrative device and the ending which does ask for some charitable work on the part of the reader to work around but, otherwise, this story was superbly done and captivating. I’m not one to say “I wish this was a novel” about a story since I think that tends to deprecate it as a story but this was definitely the sort of story that I could settle into and my only real complaint was that it did wrap up quickly.
- “Ally” by Nalo Hopkinson (fantasy short story)
- “Bride Before You” by Stephanie Malia Morris (horror short story)
In “Ally,” Sally used to be friends with Pete when she was Jack but that change put a strain on their relationship. Nonetheless, she’s at the funeral of Pete’s husband, Iqbal, and Pete wants to go for a drink afterward. He then tells her the true story of his upbringing as a foster-child by an initially evil woman and the initially abusive relationship he and Iqbal had. Then a breakthrough both occurred and occurs.
You might think this is Pete’s story but it’s not: it’s all about Sally, with Pete’s trauma being a vehicle for Sally’s all-important validation. That’s really all that needs to be said but, for a couple of minor points, I don’t know why it was necessary to dump a dozen names on us in an early paragraph when this story has only two characters (or one) and I also don’t see how the fantasy element of this is dark, much less horrific (except in the very background regarding the evil foster-mother and only from her point of view).
“Bride Before You,” on the other hand, is very much horror and much more effectively about its narrator. Before the story opens, an upper-class black woman had gone to the conjure woman to find out how to become magically pregnant as part of a plan to get herself out of the “South” of Washington and back to New York but had gotten carried away and produced two children: a beautiful boy and his elder sister… a black spider. Her plan misfired in terms of moving, as well. The narrator spider, who can only creep about in the dark as an outcast, believes in the class-tradition of the eldest marrying first, so takes a dim view of the brother’s fiancees.
This can probably be read in a lot of ways and it’s obviously some extreme sibling rivalry but I can’t help but also think of a rich and poor divide that says, “Don’t ignore me or leave me behind or think you’re better.” The narrator’s speech rings almost perfectly right in the abstract but it could be seen as a problem that a spider that grew up in such a high-falutin’ house would have it unless it has symbolic/thematic purposes. A more serious problem is that the ending seems a little shaky, not in content but in narrative approach, after having such a focused point of view and strong voice. Speaking of that personality, it may just be me because I have a sometimes strange sense of humor but, while this was a very dark and horrific story, a couple of moments seemed almost funny in a demented way. Despite some questions or quibbles, this was a stimulating and fascinating story.