The latest issue of Nightmare Magazine opens with Angela Slatter’s chilling tale, “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter.” Hepsibah Ballantyne is the titled daughter, the inheritor of her father’s business and haunted by his ghost. In this world, great care must be taken that the dead do not come back as ghosts; corpses must be tightly wrapped and mirrors covered. Coffins must be sturdy, with locks. Hepsibah is therefore an important part of the community, even if she is not well liked. But Lucette D’Aguilar will flirt with her, even indulge with her in a kiss or two, if that’s what it takes to make sure that her father stays in the grave where he belongs. One would feel sorry for Hepsibah, if it were not that she seems a thoroughly unlikeable person. It’s no wonder that this story won the British Fantasy Award.
Marc Laidlaw’s new story, “Bonfires,” sets a mood of darkness and despair in the midst of libertinism. Bonfires are lit all along the shore of a large body of water, and around it dance the narrator and others like him, including the girl who has laid claim to him for the night: “[W]e could devour each other and never run out of <i>other</i> to devour.” Their bacchanal lasts until “they” come, and we learn the nature of the narrator’s existence. It’s a vision of hell that is enough to make you start fingering your rosary beads.
Elizabeth Hand has long been one of my favorite writers, and “The Bacchae” demonstrates why. This reprint is both beautifully written and imagined in great detail. It looks a bit like our world, but here it is women who are the predators of men, rather than vice versa, and men have plenty of reason to fear dark and lonely places and even their own mates. The menace Olivia poses for Gordon, despite their relationship, is palpable. As dark and frightening as the story is, the prose makes the darkness shimmer: “She put her hand into the water and lifted the fish upon it. It curled delicately within her palm, its fins stretching open like a butterfly warming to the sun as the water dripped heavily from her fingers. It took him a moment to realize it had no eyes.” Horror in the midst of beauty, danger from one’s most loved; it’s like coming face to face with a Siberian tiger, gorgeous but deadly.
“Gravitas” by Weston Ochse is set in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a place both beautiful and bleak. Dave is a drunk, but a sophisticated one who drinks only the finest of California wines, a handful of bottles each night. He is sowing a field with the glass from the bottles in anticipation of performing a penance for his sins. The local sheriff, Lamont Cranston (the name might sound familiar), comes by to point out that the field is a hazard for the buffalo who roam the land; “You don’t want those deaths on your hands too, do you?” he asks. We slowly learn what deaths Dave is responsible for, and the complicated manner of his responsibility. If you’ve ever spent any time in the Black Hills, this story will especially resonate for you.
Dale Bailey’s monthly column, “The H Word,” deals this month with haunted houses, including the one in which Bailey grew up. I was unable to properly appreciate the Artist Gallery, featuring the art of Steve Meyer-Rassow, on my basic Kindle, but even in a small black and white reproduction, it is intensely disturbing. I was surprised to learn in the interview that accompanies the gallery that the art is created through the manipulation of photographs. The interview in this issue is of Sarah Langan, and made me very much want to read her novels. Author Spotlights on all four of the authors who contributed stories to this issue are more interesting than the average interview, with well-thought-out questions and thoughtful answers.
Nightmare continues to produce high quality issues every month. I recommend it.