Brit Mandelo’s story, “And Yet, Her Eyes,” opens with a sentence that snags attention immediately: “Sasha came back from Kandahar in pieces, a sack of broken glass in the shape of a woman.” The mood of the story is set in that single sentence, and everything that comes after is the piecing together of that broken glass as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, gradually forming a picture of deep grief and loss. Sasha is met at the airport by her lover, Liz, whom she would not allow to visit her in the hospital; she couldn’t be sure that the wounds to her face and head, her hand and her arm, her abdomen would be sufficient to result in her discharge, and in the days before the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, being revealed as a lesbian could result in a dishonorable discharge and the end of her benefits. But now she’s home, and she’s hopeful that everything will be all right. Even though she’s no longer the big strong marine who can get the jar of sauerkraut open. Even though she wakes at night with a ghost knife in her gut. Even though she’s no longer herself. This is a horror story so rooted in the real world that it hurts.
“The Krakatoan” by Maria Dahvana Headley is about the child of an astronomer at Mount Palomar Observatory. The astronomer has wrecked his life: his third wife has just left him, and he, in turn, leaves his child with a carton of Neopolitan ice cream to head for the telescope. The child, who narrates the story, sits with the neighbor, Mr. Loury, who sets him to digging in his yard. The hole is already the size of a swimming pool. When the child asks why they’re digging, Mr. Loury tells him they’re making a volcano. This story, too, is about horrors springing from the real world, though this time it’s about the horrors we create domestically, in our own neighborhoods and our own families, instead of the horrors of foreign wars.
As much as I was able to admire the first two stories in this issue, it was the third that captured my heart: “They Called Him Monster” by Anaea Lay. A sprite was summoned centuries ago by a 16-year-old boy who “burned with a need to become great.” He thought that the sprite would bring him greatness if properly summoned and used, and use her he does. It gets him a position as an architect’s apprentice for the building of a great cathedral, which in turn brings him strength, knowledge and his choice of wives; and so he builds a room underground for the sprite and leaves her there, bound in hemlock. It is not the sort of crime a man escapes unpunished, and the story ravels and unravels and ravels again from there, and not necessarily in the ways you might think. I loved the ending.
Ramsey Campbell wrote the final story in the issue, a reprint entitled “The Companion.” It is about a man who visits a deserted fairground, a hobby of his. The Ghost Train lives up to its name rather too well. It is vintage Campbell, full of atmosphere and fright.
“The H Word,” the monthly column about the art of horror fiction, is by Lisa Morton this month, and is entitled “The Horror of Small Town America.” Morton writes about a plot horror readers know well: a disillusioned middle-aged writer returns to the small town where he grew up to reunite with the friends he had as a child, so that together they can fight the evil that nearly destroyed them decades earlier. Morton traces the story from Ray Bradbury through Stephen King and Peter Straub, but mostly gives the impression that those small towns no longer exist. Suburbs have all blurred into one another, all with the same big box stores and no jobs except those a long commute away. Does the trope work any longer? Morton suggests that it may have been replaced by the urban fantasy, in all its variety.
The art of Adam S. Doyle is featured in this issue. He is especially articulate in his interview, with a deep knowledge of art history. He clearly puts much knowledge to use in crafting his works.
The interview is with Joe Hill, the author of the exceptional collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, and the novels Heart-Shaped Box, Horns and, most recently, NOS4A2, as well as the graphic novel series Locke and Key from IDW. It, like the Doyle interview, is more interesting than the average, with a wealth of information, particularly about the new novel. It is the first part of a two-part interview, and I’m looking forward to reading the second half next month.
The author spotlights, as always, provide insight into the thoughts and methods of the authors of the short stories in the issue. I was particularly taken by Headley’s discussion of her story, and the physical and psychological violence in it: “I feel like I should nod quietly and talk about how I struggled to conceptualize the kinds of people in this story, but honestly, it was easy. People are people, people do really vicious stuff to other people all the time, and some of the most destructive cruelty I’ve seen was sincerely done with good intentions.” Horror stories don’t really have to come from far away.
I say this month after month: if you are at all interested in the horror genre, you need to be reading this magazine.