Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dark Moon Digest #3 (April 2011)

Dark Moon Digest, Issue 3, April 2011. 125 pp.
Edited by Stan Swanson
Published by Dark Moon Books, an imprint of Stony Meadow Publishing

Issue three of Dark Moon Digest has a revamped cover style, and it's a grand improvement. The logo, layout and design, and the truly creepy cover artwork, make for an attractive issue. The handsome work is credited to Whendy Muchlis Effendy.

Once again DMD features a wide array of media, including short stories, flash fiction, longer prose excerpts, graphic work, calls for submission, and sentence-long micro-fiction. As per usual I am limiting my reviews to longer prose works, though I've included some brief comments on the flash fiction.

"Cirque des Facades" by Chris Thorndycroft. 6/10
In the seedier quarter of late nineteenth century Paris, along the lower Seine, lies the abject entertainment district, that part of town where people thrive on immoral theatre, on the basest forms of amusement. The district's star is Madame Babineaux, a former prostitute who has done well for herself by imitating the recently departed scandalous figures of Parisian society. It's thanks to their recent demise that her mimicry is so accurate, since she wears their faces on a purely literal level.

Despite its obvious direction, I enjoyed the story quite a bit. Vividly and darkly detailed, this district of Paris becomes the central figure of the tale, overshadowing Babineaux as well as the plot. The amoral figures are born into their decrepit existence, and ambitions for survival and fame lead them to practice their ghoulish acts, from Babineax herself, her mysterious rival and the mortician who sells her the peeled off faces for her act. I would encourage the author to consider more such tales, and perhaps re-working this one.

Now that I've openly stated liking the story, I'm going to pick on it a little. "A few miles downriver, the muddy banks of the Seine attracted the lowest elements of Parisian society. It offered the perfect place for the circuses, freak shows and gin houses to make their living well away from the turned-up noses and frowns of the better areas of the city."

The paragraph preceding the one above is set in the very district, so when reading "A few miles downriver" we're being taken away from the district to another, and I needed to stop and re-read to realise we're at the same place, as if the river were a circular body. The author meant to say that this particular seedy district lies a few miles downriver from the posher parts of Paris. Moreover it's Paris, so perhaps kilometres would be more appropriate.

Lately I've noticed a general trend in overusing prepositions. Perhaps it's the need for accuracy or clarity or some form of self-conscious tic, but it makes for clunky, jagged reading. I would recommend the following second sentence re-write: "The district offered a perfect haven for the circuses, freak shows and gin houses to make their living well away from the turned-up noses and frowns of the city's more affluent areas." Eliminating as many of thes and other prepositional connections eases the flow. In the meantime I've replaced "place" since it's too general, and I must shake my head at "better areas" as well, since who is to say they are better. I can't claim that my version of the sentence is better, only that it's more syntactically accurate, but each reader can claim for themselves which is indeed better. For instance, the seedy part of Paris is a far better locale for the story than the affluent areas.

Speaking of abstractions, some of the descriptions left me scratching my head. "The world returned to Madame Babineaux like some dark movement beneath the murky waters of the Seine." Hmmm... I think I know what he's trying to say, but a little overkill on the Seine and I really don't know what "some dark movement" means. It's an abstraction. It returns to her as though she were half-submerged in these murky waters? Or is the world moving underwater while she is watching from the dry shore? There are other examples but I'll stop here.

Once again I did like the story, I'm hoping only to help make it better. Or if not "better," at least more concrete :)

"Death By Scrabble" by Charlie Fish. 7/10
About a year ago someone at Goodreads brought this story to my attention (it was published online at in 2006) and I'm glad to see the story in print. The set-up is simple: a couple is playing scrabble on an uncomfortably hot day. There is tension in the relationship heightened by the sweltering temperatures. Told through the point of view of the husband who wants very much to win and very much to get rid of his wife, he soon learns that the letters spelled out on the board immediately manifest themselves in reality. He spells EXPLODES and the air conditioner blows up, and when he spells FLY a buzzing insect appears. Realizing the power of the scrabble letter tiles, he attempts to discover a way to get rid of his wife.

This is a simple yet fun story that works because of its sense of humour and the excellent pacing, and also because it's quite short so we don't get tired of the gimmick. "It's hot and I hate my wife," it opens, setting us up and hooking us in with only a few words.

(It also reminds me of the truly brilliant Richard Condie NFB film The Big Snit, a short film I am always pleased to be reminded of.)

"Blood on the Strip" by Axel Howerton. 3/10
An elderly cowboy stumbles into an old-style coffee shop off the strip in Las Vegas and tells the assembled crowd, and the reader, of the craziness he's just witnessed. His tale involves a magician, a mysterious shaman, a pair of white tigers... and meanwhile emergency sirens outside are consistently blaring by. The story is interesting and there is a fair amount of suspense, until the zombies appear and the needless violence takes over. Once we realize what's going on, we have to sit through a tired zombie attack, which is unfortunate, especially since we're only half-way through the story.

The author's bio was more entertaining.

"The Monster on Myers Avenue" by Greg Mollin. 6/10
Edgar "Dumpster" Dunston is cycling through his old school grounds the summer before junior high, when he's attacked by bully Charley Specter, who, unlike his name, is less than ghostlike. Charley wants to remind Edgar that he is supposed to break into the seemingly empty home of the reclusive elderly Mrs. Melody Oakenfold and to remove the treasures Charley is convinced are stashed away in the house. Earlier, in a brief prologue, we have learned that Mrs. Oakenfold is dead, and that there is a demonic presence in her house.

Then some stuff happens, which I won't give away. I liked this one but the prose needs to be tightened and the familiar characters and scenarios done just a little differently. What I like is that our (anti)hero Edgar is walking the tightrope of moral development, while we wonder which end he will fall into. Edgar is the son of a drunken and abusive man, and is a social outcast because of his imperfect speech and unfortunate hygiene issues. Moreover, he is depressed because the only person who did not avoid him, little Jenny Forester, was recently killed in a hit-and-run. We sympathize with the poor kid, yet don't fully trust his pre-developed sense of good and evil. Remember, Edgar in King Lear was the good son (not to be confused with his jealous and scheming illegitimate brother Edmund), so we have hope, but how can someone with so few prospects turn out good, especially when about to face a (literal) demon from hell?

Spoiler. Well, this demon (named Leonard) is trapped in time and place and in order to get back to his realm needs a human victim, and Edgar must choose whether or not to lead Charley simultaneously to hell and out of his life. This is where the story falls apart for me. The choice is Edgar's, and a serious one it is as it will affect the course of his moral development, yet the demon Leonard seals the decision by essentially choosing for Edgar, telling him if he won't supply a victim, then he himself will be the victim. The story would have been far more effective if Edgar heads toward Charley, considering his options, and only when seeing the bully makes the decision for himself. The last line would also make more sense as it is part of his downward moral progression. (Then we can wonder what junior high with Edgar would be like.)

Finally, there is another problem in that Leonard, an almost non-stereotypical demon, tells Edgar that once he has a victim he will leave this realm, yet at the end is still in the house. I prefer the idea that the demon is eternally trapped (or at the least trapped long-term) with the subtle implication that Edgar must feed it from time to time. This will add emphasis to the end, as well as to the title.

"Voices Carry" by Tom Wortmann. 7/10
In 1944 a team of allied foot soldiers are canvassing southern Poland searching for the remaining concentration camps, scouting the land ahead of the tank troupes. The story, told through vignettes from the points of view of several different and varied characters, tells of their long march and of the frightening discovery at an abandoned camp.

Wortmann's story received the Dark Moon Digest prize for best entry in its recent vampire short story contest, and though I haven't yet read issue four of DMD, I am ready to award it the figurative prize for best short story to have appeared in the magazine's first year. The best thing about "Voices Carry" is that it is well written, competently focusing on character and using its smaller details effectively. Whatever this story was going to be about, whatever sub-genre it would introduce, I didn't care since I was hooked early on and read it quickly through.

To be honest, I am a prejudiced reader, and don't care for vampire stories (I've been disappointed too often, and the mythology has the tendency to become silly and self-conscious), but even knowing this piece was vampire-related, the writing and story progression managed to take hold my prejudice and slap me with it. Well done, Mr. Wortmann. The thing is, it's not really about vampires; the undead here illustrate the severing from life of those who have been severed from both their homes and from the comforts of home through the horrors of war. Far more frightening than a bite on the neck.

The only problem I have with the story (which is why I graded it 7/10 rather than a deserved 8), is that the final vignette is a weak and unnecessary finish. The previous vignette's image and last line is far more powerful, and leaving the reader with that final, frightening image would have been exemplary.

"Tenants, Part Two" by Kevin McClintock. 7/10
As we follow Angela's exploits in trying to get to her daughter, we must survive a detailed car chase and a confrontation with a cop with a history. What makes "Tenants" work is not the plot itself, which is essentially an extended chase with promise, nor the writing per se, since despite it being told through the point of view of a woman it is clearly being written by a man, but the pacing and energy. McClintock infuses his tale with some truly energetic writing, so that the seemingly unending car chase is never dull, and the eventual violence does not feel overdone.

The cliffhanger here doesn't work too well, since we know there are two parts remaining and hence Angela cannot die, at least not yet.

"Rub Me the Wrong Way" by Heather Durkin. 6/10
Massage therapist Abby's first client of the day proves to be challenging, since she turns out to be a zombie. Abby works for a clinic that does not exclude or prejudice, so vampires, shifters and zombies are all welcome. The problem is that zombies are known to occasionally go ballistic and try to munch on the brains of the living.

There is no real story-line here, but that's what makes this an entertaining read. a massage therapist herself, author Durkin does well in pacing the narrative, told through Abby's point of view, around her skills while informing the reader of the various complications with massaging zombies. Well written despite the misuse of lay/lie, was/were, and other minor bumps along the sentences.

"Kindread" by Richard Moore. 6/10
Poor inbred child Lyle. As he's trying to carve up a pretty young girl, his mother crawls back home to interrupt his plans. The whole business is shocking, especially since it's been two weeks since he's killed his ma, and the best part, why she's crawling, is she doesn't have any legs. Well, not exactly, since they're out front running around. It turns out the swamp water Lyle dumped his mother's body into, after having cut her in two, has the ability to fuse different organisms together, a process that I suppose also revives the dead. The final sequence is reminiscent of John Carpenter's excellent The Thing.

I enjoyed this story more than I thought I would, since I'm not too fond of comedy horror. It wasn't exactly funny, but it was entertaining. I just wonder what the author could have done if he treated this idea seriously. Sure it's outlandish, but outlandish story ideas don't necessarily need to be relegated to horror's least effective sub-genres.

"All Consuming Hunger of Love" by Araminta Star Matthews. 6/10
Margaret Cron's husband Robert was just killed in a car accident, leaving the woman in a near paralyzing state of grief. Following years of co-dependency, former librarian Margaret is losing her grasp on reality, and is determined to get her Robert back. The story flows fairly well and the plot is well developed with an unpredictable denouement. It has some pacing problems though, mainly in that it's overly long, especially the closer we near the end. Shortening some sequences and tightening some elements would help the story considerably, and the strong plot elements deserve this.

A fairly polished story, there are nonetheless some unfortunate oversights, the most embarrassing being that the prestigious Paris university Sorbonne is referred to as the Sarbonne.

"The Smell of Death" by Graham Williams. 4/10
Three members of a (probably metal) band and their (probable) groupie Jessy are stuck in a food-depleted house during a zombie uprising. Our intelligence-deficient quad have run out of zombie repellent, and attempt to concoct a lotion that would allow them to pass through the neighbourhood hordes and get to the nearest club for a bite and maybe a brew. As I've stated, horror comedy does not digest well with me, and I hurried through this one.

Flash fiction:

"The End" (or "Finis") by Graham Williams. 5/10
A straightforward piece of a pair of collaborators completing their sure-fire money-making masterpiece. It would work better if it were flashier (as in shorter), though I like the play with the title.

"The Fourth Girl" by Grier Jewell. 7/10
Three girls are cloud-watching, but there is that fourth girl whose name no one can remember. This one managed to impress me, especially with the nice and creepy surrealist quality. Three girls are cloud-watching, but there is that fourth girl...


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