Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dark Moon Digest #2 (January 2011)

Dark Moon Digest #2, January 2011. Edited by Stan Swanson, Florida: Stony Meadow Publishing. 107 pages
Website: darkmoondigest.com
Dark Moon Digest #2 at goodreads.com
Review of Dark Moon Digest #1

(I was flattered to receive two separate requests to review this issue. Any requests or other comments can be sent to casual.debris@gmail.com.)

The second issue of Dark Moon Digest delivers on its promise of surpassing the quality of its predecessor. The stories included here are overall superior and there are more of them (eleven versus eight). The non-fiction is generally better written and more involving, though there is still plenty of room for improvement in this area. The issue maintains its easy on the eye interior design, and as for visuals it invests a good deal more space by including artwork, photos, page one of a graphic horror story as well as a zombie cartoon. The variety makes for an evening of entertainment on the couch with a glass of scotch or a mug of cocoa (or both, as is my habit).

The classic reprint here is Kate Chopin's 1894 short short story, "The Story of an Hour." As Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" proved a good companion piece to the opening story of DMD #1, "The Story of an Hour" does a great job in highlighting the techniques of flash fiction writing, and serves well to enhance the two flashes included in issue #2. I have always been mixed about Chopin (nor have I latched onto the recently popular flash fiction bandwagon), but this particular story, aside from illustrating the effects of good flash fiction, contains enough ambiguity that it is well worth a revisit. It can be read online at the VCU site.

Issue two of DMD continues to promise more future excitement by way of themed contests for each of the next three issues, so writers working in genre fiction can keep in mind the deadlines for DMD's call for submissions in these areas: vampires, the paranormal and ghost stories. Visit the website contest page for details or check out the back cover below.

The lead-in story is a little problematic (I am discussing it here in terms of its treatment; the story proper is discussed in its own space below). I am a stickler for reading journals beginning with page one and then working my way through to the end. Editors spend a fair amount of time decided how to organize content, so that anthologies and journals are designed not simply to share individual stories with their audience, but also to create a cohesive whole. We judge these collections not only on the merits of their individual content, but on the merits of the construction of the book. Sitting down to read a journal of horror fiction I am psyched for, well, horror fiction, along with its implications: the suspense and the tension that I enjoy. Lights dimmed and a warm blanket over my feet, a glass of scotch to enliven the experience, and I open the titillating glossy cover to be struck head-on with a comedy. Of course, I can always move over to story number two, but of course I don't. Comedy horror is great, but works better as a brief respite from the tenser bits of fiction.

Moreover, the copy is poorly handled. The rest of DMD #2 is cleaner in terms of copy, far cleaner than issue #1, but this story seemed to have been forgotten in the course of the editing process. First of all there is the incorrect and even inconsistent formatting and use of the dash, which is formatted as a hyphen and frequently used in place of a comma. Secondly, the grammar is all too commonly improper: "All you have to do is lay there" (6: should be "lie") / "bachlorette party" (7: missing an e) / "crows feet" (7: missing an apostrophe) / "during his University years" (7: odd upper casing) / "the wind seemed to push us forward rather than against us" (8: so the wind was nearly pushing them against themselves?) / "double checked" (8: needs a hyphen) / "The paramedics might as well of announced" (8: preposition in place of a verb as of should be have) / "even though I barely had a scratch on me" (8: redundant since you can't exactly have a scratch on someone else)... and the list goes on, adding to it a number misused or altogether missing commas. These errors made for a clunky read, though I was relieved when the other stories were so much cleaner. Perhaps this was a late entry, I don't know, but irksome nonetheless.

"I Married a Zombie" by Craig Garrett. Betrothed to the son of a wealthy and powerful family while still a child, a woman must endure the wedding and marriage despite the groom's recent death. An original idea that loses out on its inherently rich potential by placing the bulk of its emphasis on humour and violence.

The story is well structured. It begins in the middle, at the wedding, skips over to the past and works its way into the future. This is a good way to grasp a reader's interest, by plunging them into the unique depth of the plot and slowly revealing what brought our protagonist to such an odd predicament, and then working into the denouement of the whole fiasco. And the denouement of the story is, unfortunately, a fiasco in itself. What I was hoping for was to learn more about groom David's family and their influence on society. A mysterious organization that has the ability not only to intervene in people's lives, alter the nature of their personalities (as with our protagonist's hapless father), but also achieving the ingenious task of bringing their heir back from the dead. No Corleone, Soprano, Hapsburg or Kennedy family was ever able to manage even that. I liked that the nature of the family was not explicitly explained; it did not need to be and really the fun is not in what they are made of but what they can do. The "past" of the story works very well in this respect, but the "future" sequence seems to have forgotten its family history, and resorts instead on blood and guts.

Please forgive this aside: It is an unfortunate trend for quirky ideas to be treated as comedies. Standard concepts work better as comedies as they evoke ideas of parody and satire, using familiar plots and conventions to bring across new ideas, or simply reworking the norm so that it becomes fresh and re-invigorated. Quirky ideas should be treated seriously. It is difficult in this day and age to be truly original, so when an original idea comes along it can be used to illustrate or to illuminate, to make people think of the world around them in a different light. Kafka's Metamorphosis was serious indeed, revealing a common family situation and a boy's alienation in a truly thought-provoking way. I can even recall first reading the haunting Orson Scott Card story "Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory" though several years have passed, and its impression remains with me simply because it's unusual treatment of character and guilt made me think. I would like to recommend that writers with the ability to evoke original ideas take the time to examine its possibilities, to consider what important aspect of the world around us can be challenged through a different lens, and to approach with the hope, rather than of making someone laugh, but of inspiring them to think. 5/10

"Barking" by Tracie McBride. In session with a psychiatrist, a man recounts the recent events that reveal his sudden dog-like behaviour. Only the behaviour is not that of lap-dog but something wilder, even rabid. This story is well paced and written with a good amount of energy and humour. The exaggerated manly world-view makes the story work, and is particularly comical knowing this was written by a woman. The opening is unnecessary (the story should begin at "After checking into my hotel...") as are the last three short paragraphs. 6/10

"Miss Webster's Little Arm" by Frances Augusta Hogg. The boys at the Holy Martyrs Home for Abandoned Children are creeped out by their instructor Miss Webster. It's her cold meanness that trouble them, yet this is not made easier by the fact that she has an extra little arm that grows from her neck. This is a great idea that is fairly well delivered. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to have considered a longer version with more interaction between the kids, but if that were the case I might have read it thinking it would work better had it been shorter. (Writers are doomed to evade perfection, I suppose.) I wasn't too crazy about the end as it was standard fare, and the epilogue seemed pointless, but the story has quite a bit going for it: a great beginning and some terrific character names, such as Prissy Ingram and Sally Potts. I can't really believe that our hero Kenny can borrow binoculars, a flashlight and camera from fellow orphans (and where would he go to develop the film?); could he not be a little more resourceful and find a bazooka or hand grenade? Maybe a can of bug spray? 6/10

"Thirteen Seconds" by George Morrow. The winner of the DMD flash fiction contest deserves the prize. Late eighteenth century Paris, waiting for his head to be lopped off by way of guillotine, Manget is tormented by a compulsive rush of stats, and he soon recalls the myth that a person's eyes continue to blink thirteen seconds after the head has been severed from its body.

I have never been excessively fond of flash fiction but Morrow does a great job in economizing. The story idea is perfect for something so brief since it is aiming at a singular effect rather than an all-encompassing form of story-telling. The characterization is minute and we're drawn in via sympathy with the simple fact that we know Manget is innocent; this ploy will forever make a reader anxious of the story's outcome and the character's fate. The ending is well delivered, for whether we anticipate it or not (and most of us would) it is nonetheless rendered to its intended effect. 7/10

"Family Ties" by Chris Doerner. During a zombie Outbreak, a man holed up at home with his wife and daughter must venture out again in search of food. This is the simple premise for this short piece, and though little happens the narrative does a great job at bringing about the conclusion. I was fooled by this one, and pleasantly so. Tightly written with a consistent character sketch of our protagonist, the story is more than just its clever ending. 7/10

"Tenants: Part One" by Kevin McClintock. The first part of this serialized novella is well done. McClintock is the only returning fiction author from issue #1, and I liked his first entry so am pleased to see him once again within these pages. The story opens on a scene of post-carnage, and we learn that the woman responsible is afflicted with a unique condition: her body is frequently tenanted by an avenging angel that leaves a bloody path of deserving victims that our hero must awaken to flee from. I am glad that the author chose not to open with the carnage itself, since the mystery here is greater, with the reader at a loss to the actual destructive event just as the character is. The title is excellent, serving to illustrate different aspects of "tenancy" in the story, not just our hero's own unusual frequenter but, without giving anything away, the tenants she discovers in the basement. Moreover, the title invokes the notion of fate and destiny, as we wonder if each of us are merely tenants of someone else's grand scheme that simply drags us around in its shell. I am certainly looking forward to part two. 7/10

There are some glaring errors in copy and content in this one too, though less frequent than our opening story. "Then" is used rather than "than," and simple verb conjugation needs fixing: "the flesh about the eyes and along the cheekbones are scraped and worn." (46) The term crocodile tears is misused. I am also confused about the time-line in the story's history. We are told that that our hero has been possessed since the age of twenty-four (52), yet later we learn that she was first possessed after recovering from a suicide attempt brought on by the death of her fifteen year-old daughter. Which mystery is greater, her occupying avenging angel or the fact that she became a mother at the pre-pubescent age of nine?

As an aside, the story's title page artwork by Marc Olivent is a nice touch.

"The Sidehill Toggler" by Steve Scott. An old man wanders horseback down an isolated path, and is closely observed by a nearby resident as he takes a moment to rest. The boy approaches and the old man begins to tell him the tale of how many years before he vowed to avenge his brother's death by defeating the strange creature known as "the Sidehill Toggler." And an odd beast it is, but whether or not the old man is spinning yarns is an even greater mystery. With a quiet, almost dull beginning, this story is the greatest surprise in the bunch. Its unpretentious delivery promises nothing, yet the build-up is wonderful as the old man speaks, his story and its telling both inventive and humorous. But how can a story of a potential lie come to an end? Very nicely, I think. A story worthy of being anthologized, perhaps even for its title alone. 8/10

"Running with the Pack" by Graham Williams. No, the title is not referring to someone fleeing with a box of cigarettes, but rather to an unhealthy interest in lycanthropy. Hannah wants so much to be a werewolf and Lonnie transforms her in time for the full moon. Yet as short stories have been telling us repeatedly since Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," watch what you wish for. This story is a parody of the modern notion of regular teenagers wishing to become supernatural creatures, a need partly rendered by young love. (Had I fallen to the whims of my own "first love" I would now be living in a jungle meting out spiritual advice over the internet; but thankfully that fate has fallen to the next guy she dated). Hannah learns soon enough that being supernatural does not make you invulnerable, and that young love, alas, is surely fleeting. 6/10

"Down Cellar" by Jeremiah Dutch. Old man Eli Sparks recounts a little childhood adventure featuring bitter elderly neighbour Mrs. Eunice Walker, her strange unwanted nephew Louis and a little spider living in the down cellar. A great title and a good narrative voice makes for a quiet and effective read. To balance out the needless violence and gore of "I Married a Zombie" we have some sincere suspense and good character interaction between all concerned, including the bit players. I was, however, troubled to learn that old Mrs. Walker turns out to be fifty years of age, which to me is really quite young, and as I read until that shocking revelation I was picturing a woman of about seventy-five. 7/10

"The Book of the Month Club" by Graham Williams. Loving husband and inattentive father Harlan Creed answers the door to a quiet man he assumes is a member of his wife's book club. The irony is made obvious early on: he is in fact a zombie munching on more than just the plentiful snacks Mrs. Creed has laid out. The story is amusing yet is too long for what it is. Since we're in on the joke early the events become a little repetitive. It's by far better to round out a magazine on a light note, I think, than to begin on one, so the light humour of this piece is well placed at the end. 6/10

1 comment:

Craig Garrett said...

Thanks for taking the time to read DMD#2 and to write such a thoughtful review! You've given me a lot to consider when crafting future stories.

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