It took an act of faith for me to read the new issue of Phantasmagorium – the second in its run. The first quarterly issue, published in October 2011, was disappointing despite its lovely cover photograph, which suggests an angel taking flesh from a stone sculpture. A few stories were well-written, but not particularly original or frightening: Scott Nicolay’s “Alligators,” Simon Strantzas’s “Strong as a Rock” and Stephen Graham Jones’s “No Takebacks.” They were overwhelmed by the inexplicable “Cardoons!” by Anna Tambour, a humorous fantasy story about dragons made soft by modern living, and the incoherent “And this is where I go down into the darkness,” a lengthy, stream-of-consciousness tribute to Thomas Ligotti by Joseph Pulver. Genevieve Valentine’s “Bufonidae,” good as it is, was not sufficient to save the issue.
But the magazine is edited by Laird Barron, who writes the scariest stuff around and knows the genre inside and out. His recommendations for good reading have always been on the mark before. So, I thought, maybe the first issue was just making the transition from writer to editor with a touch of uncertainty. Maybe the second quarterly issue would show an editor more in command of his material.
It does. The January 2012 issue of Phantasmagorium is shorter, tighter, and much better. It contains three stories and two poems, about half the content of the first issue – but twice the quality.
In the first story, “Endless Life” by Nadia Bulkin, a ghost is mistaken for another ghost. Melanie, a hotel maid, was a woman who was unnoticed when she lived and unmourned when she died. Now she is trapped in the room where she slipped and fell while cleaning the bathroom. It happens that the room was also the spot where General Jon Henry Fest, known as the Jackal or the Black Ribbon, killed himself after being ousted from his bloody dictatorship. Lauren and Ed, a pair of “dark tourists” – those who seek out the places most relevant to the lives of horrible people who are now dead – visit the hotel room in the hopes of meeting up with the General’s ghost. Instead, they get Melanie. But Melanie sees her chance for glory, and impersonates the General. After all, who can tell which ghost was the one who oozed ectoplasm? The horror here is not what the “dark tourists” experience, nor the haunting; it is Melanie’s life, and death, and afterlife. This thoughtful, sad story is haunting.
“Almost, Majic Man, Posters and Doors that Never Lock” by Chesya Burke takes place in 2111, when a pandemic of psychosis hits a small town. No one knows why people have suddenly taken to carving up their own bodies, not to kill themselves, but to root out an evil they perceive inside themselves because a loved one has told them so. Is this some new form of communicable disease? The stricken are taken to the hospital and left there, where they are patched up and live in peace. Oddly, no one visits them – not parents, not spouses, not friends. But they do not seem bereft; they are calm and happy. What, exactly, is going on here?
The best story of the three is Paul Tremblay’s “House of Windows.” In this surreal tale, a building appears right next to a big city library one day. It’s pink and aqua-blue, looking as if it belongs on an island instead of smack in the middle of a city. There are no doors, but plenty of windows. Not that the windows offer any clues, because they’re all covered with draperies on the inside, making it impossible to find out what’s going on in there. The police cordon the building off, but inexplicably, do not break a window to gain access; instead, they simply try to keep the curious crowds from touching it. But all bets are off when the building begins to grow, and when more of them pop up around the city. This is a wonderful, weird story that paints pictures with a tropical palette with one hand and the grays and blacks of endless urban routine with the other. The story was my first exposure to Tremblay, but it won’t be my last.
The poetry is mixed. “Having Sex with Sylvia Plath” by Steve Harris seems like the recitation of a dream, and is about as interesting as other people’s dreams usually are (that is, not very). “Budding” by Mike Allen is a better poem about parents troubled by the apparent artistic talent of their baby, who seems to be painting like Francis Bacon while still in her crib. Those parents are proud as can be, but worried – maybe even scared. It’s a successful horror poem with some nice imagery (“sketched houses with screams for doors,” for instance).
There is promise in this new magazine. I’m looking forward to the April issue.