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Inaugural magazine issues are important not because of the quality of fiction and articles they contain, but because of the kind of trend they are attempting to establish. Readers can hope that the quality of the writing will improve as the magazine gains a wider audience, but the magazine's style remains mostly unchanged in its course to garner readership, otherwise its concept is flawed at the core. With so many publications available, it's nice when something fresh or different comes along. I was for the most pleased when I received my copy of Dark Moon Digest, a new publication from Stony Meadow Publishing. The glossy publication does feel fresh, and primarily due to its classic pulp approach.
The first issue of is good, better than I had expected it would be. I have little faith in new genre publications since there appears to be a sudden increase in the number of small press anthologies being published, and having perused through a few I find that, despite some nice artwork, the fiction is uninspired. I do like to purchase first issues of new magazines both as a collector and as a supporter of new fiction, and from the little buzz I encountered I expected a low-cost, cheap little thing. Frugally produced, yes, but definitely not cheap. I like the glossy cover: the stock photo is well rendered. The inner pages are well designed, simple and easy on the eye, reminiscent of early pulp mags and comics with their call for submissions and letters to the editor notices boxed in the leftover spaces. The tiny photos for each story are a nice touch, and the fillers are amusing, everything from quotes by Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King, to contest results (though no mention of what these contests were about) and "best of" poll results (though I can't find the logic with a modern horror novel being selected among the top five all-time horror novels while not making the list of the top five modern horror novels). In a highly competitive market Dark Moon Digest feels fresh, and if nothing else it has at least set the tone for a publication that will involve its reader (note all the calls for submission as well as for feedback) and, stories aside, be considerably fun.
There were some oddities that caught my eye: the cover lists story and article titles rather than author names, and while the authors are not well established and wouldn't catch anyone's eye, story titles mean little no matter who wrote them (though I admit "The Skunk Ape" did make me blink). Moreover, this magazine is sold online and not in a magazine shop, so the cover does not need to try to sell the issue beside any competitors. I would have liked to have seen include better copy-editing. There are some typos (excusable) but several instances of faulty grammar and awkward sentence construction immediately make the publication appear less professional. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but while I can (if in the mood) forgive bad editing online, I cringe when I see it on the printed page. The second thing I would have liked to see is a different kind of introduction. Editor & publisher Stan Swanson provides a truly brief opening reminiscent of those often ghost-penned Alfred Hitchcock introductions that aim to poke and tease rather than inform. While this is not a fault in the publication, I would have preferred something along the lines of K. Allen Wood's introduction to Shock Totem's 2009 inaugural issue, which developed the magazine's evolution to print, and even a little about the included work. There is something personal about Wood's approach, which is truly ironic since Dark Moon Digest appears a friendlier work, despite the more distanced editorial approach.
Dark Moon Digest #1 contains seven original short stories, one reprint, three articles, one book review and some poetry. It promises in the future (there is a COMING IN ISSUE #2 notice on the back cover) to include longer works as well as a graphic novel and "Carnivorous Cartoons" (an alliteration that, if you think about it, doesn't make much sense. But I digress). Overall I would recommend it, if only to help it become a better publication. Both print and electronic copies are available, and cheaper than a quick lunch at a fast-food outlet.
The classic reprint is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 psychological drama "The Yellow Wallpaper." While I think it is a strong story it is also over-published. I like the idea of classic reprints and hope that the magazine will continue to print them, but I'd recommend they seek out less recognizable works and avoid following Gilman up with, say, W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw" or any of Edgar Allan Poe's more famous works. Of course "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a safe bet for the first issue, and I am curious as to what is on tap for the follow-up. I do, however, like the inclusion of background information; it's a considerate touch. Another reason why Gilman's story works here is that along with a previously unpublished feminist examination of masculine control, it book-ends the magazine nicely.
"Slut" by Erin K. Coughlin. A teen-aged girl and her family are being controlled by an unseen, seemingly demonic admirer. A good story and an interesting, somewhat abstract take on the stalking phenomenon. It is well written with an even tone and simple structure. I am not sure if it is the best lead-in story simply because of its thematic weight, but as I mention above it does nicely to bookend "The Yellow Wallpaper." While "Slut" begins as a suspenseful stalker piece, it transforms into a teenager's personal journey to womanhood (though at the expense of her family). It is a feminist statement about identity and control in an indifferent society; the girl is being continually defined by her unseen tormentor (society, really) in one of two distinct categories, slut or Darling (with the capital D), depending on her actions. When behaving as the stalker insists (or as society deems proper) she is Darling, while any show of independence renders her slut. The story could have gone in many directions and I do like the ambiguity of the anticipated showdown. A good story, it's first fault lies in the title. I would recommend something along the lines of "obedience" or something evoking control, or even the duality of slut/Darling. The second flaw is that it is at times over-written: "A thick gust hit me, as if he'd blown a whistle." Not sure what the intent is with that sentence but it's a little nonsensical. 7/10
"Jack and Jill" by C. W. LaSart. While "Slut" dealt with issues of patriarchal control, in "Jack and Jill" it is the woman who controls the man. Obsessed with the woman he encounters at a bar one night, succubus-like she seduces him, and soon Jack finds himself responsible for providing for her unnatural needs. Unlike "Slut" this is a fairly straightforward horror story, and while not terribly original it works well within its concept. "Jack and Jill" is better in whole than in its individual part. No individual scene feels new, no technical element is a challenge, yet taken as a whole it works quite nicely. Surprisingly we discover that the story is not just about a man trapped beneath the spell of a supernatural evil, but is in reality trapped by his own impotence, his inability to take control of the situation and make a drastic change. Though Jack insists that he is living a modern hell, it is clear that he has ample opportunity to free himself from his shackles, and nonetheless continues with his role as provider. The last line plays very nicely, and even gave me a little chill. This is one of the stories that is unfortunately marred by the weak copy-editing. Re-worked, shortened a little and properly edited, this could work well in an anthology. 6/10
"Moon Medicine" by Christopher Leppek & Emanuel Isler. The most striking aspect of this story is the inane writing. I can't abide by self-indulgent comments such as "I'm glad she really can't read my mind. Not a place most want to go," and "Vengeance dies hard." This is silly and alienating, the authors trying too hard to create a rough and grizzled narrator, a retired homicide veteran tough guy wallowing in past exploits and grumbling about how he knows pain and has seen every kind of death. I'm surprised he didn't start barking. To be fair the idea is neat and could have worked, but the story comes off as a series of coincidences. The retired detective is reminiscing about an unsolved case and guess what: he gets re-entangled with that past. He reminisces about someone who had mysteriously disappeared, and guess what: ... This artificial form of story-telling is not terribly fair to the reader. 3/10
"Remaining Zheng" by Corey Kellgren. Now this was a good story. Original, well written and overall a pleasure to read. During the construction of what has eventually become know as The Great Wall of China, soldiers encounter a group of diseased men who live in a commune in the path of the steadily rising wall. These men, essentially living dead, request that the wall bypass their home, or else. The troop leader Zheng Sanbao is a man of honour with a patriotic duty bound in seeing that construction progresses as his homeland has ordered it, and this sense of honour is being challenged as much as the wall's intended route. (Incidentally, San Bao is a practice in kung fu that attempts to unify the self with body and mind, making it a great choice for the character's name.) 7/10 (though I could be talked into an eight)
"Skunk Ape" by Nicholas Conley. A fun read about some friends who discover the body of an odd-looking creature. The suspense is good though the characters are generic and the prose could have used some tightening. I liked the idea of the skunk ape but would also have liked more detail about the legend. Less focus on the violence and broken bodies and more on the element of unknown would have improved the story and its inherent mystery, and the ending is a little too simple and convenient. 6/10
"The Interrogation of John Walker" by Jay Wilburn. Another fine story. Over two thousand days into a zombie holocaust, a group of soldiers find an autistic boy who has mysteriously survived the epidemic. The story is well written, suspenseful and generates an interesting kind of threat, successfully painting a tired society in which everyone is a victim. Of all the stories listed here, this is the one that continued to dwell in my thoughts. 7/10
"Darkest Before Dawn" by Kevin McClintock. A weak title and a slow start are unfortunate factors to a good story about a strange menace that comes to a suburban neighbourhood following a nasty cold spell. This one is similar to Stephen King's novella "The Mist" in that the threat appears mysteriously following a storm, remains a completely unexplained foreign element, and the story ends in a similar vein. Nonetheless it is its own story and I thought the black menace quite interesting. I would think, however, that a slow-moving threat would have left the world ample time to declare Marshal Law and evacuate the town, or at least would imagine that the couple we are experiencing the threat with do have some friends or acquaintances who might at some point during the storm weekend communicated with them in some way (this is the age of communication, is it not?). Despite these thoughts intuding throughout the story I did like it, but think with some more work it could have been a better addition to Issue #2. 6/10
The non-fiction entries are not as good as the fiction. The book review by Don Webb (Black Wings, edited by S.T. Joshi, PS Publishing) fails to give an in-depth overview and spends a quarter of its two pages listing the contents. I would have preferred more analysis and if curious could have found the contents online. I am pleased, however, that they chose to review something by such a quality publisher rather than resort to the generic paperback.
"Chattering Bones: A Brief History of Zombies" by Manny Frishberg gives an overview of zombie fiction, making a couple of glaring errors along the way. For instance, claiming that 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later are the best among "decaying-corpses-come-back-to-life films," when the movies are actually about living people getting infected with a "rage" virus. He finishes the article by claiming that "not even cable networks have premiered any live-action series featuring" zombies, when in the same month of release of this issue appeared the long-awaited first episode of AMC's series "The Walking Dead," based on Robert Kirkman's graphic series published by Image Comics, adapted for AMC by Frank Darabont.
In "From the Dark: Demonic Children," Jeremiah Dutch attempts to reconcile his birth decade with the rise of demonic children in film. The better column of the bunch, it nonetheless avoids to mention earlier incarnations of demonic children, everything from "Village of the Damned" to "The Bad Seed" and even Jerome Bixby's still haunting 1953 short story "It's a Good Life," filmed for The Twilight Zone in 1961. Furthermore, he claims to disagree with assertions made by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, but does not replace their claims with any of his own. A good idea which needs a couple of more pages to develop and a few more theories tossed into the bowl.
Finally, Assistant Editor Michael O'Neal's end-piece, "Under the Basement Stairs: Shadow Soul," is somewhat pointless.
I do like the addition of horror-related non-fiction, but it must be interesting, and combining the space of seven pages into a single essay would allow one column to delve into detail about a particular subject rather than three that only skim the surface.
My criticism of the non-fiction is overall a minor qualm since these columns (appropriately titled; they are not articles in the true sense) take up a total of nine pages. I would still recommend that the genre supporter lend their support to Dark Moon Digest as I do believe in a year or so it could turn out to be quite the contender.