Midnight Street #12

Review by Steve Redwood

Midnight Street #12 keeps to the same format as earlier issues, a mixture of fiction (and a pretty eclectic mix too, this time), interviews, reviews, and two regular bar eccentrics, the querulous Dodo wobbling on his stool (his annual clock has just advanced with an ominous 'tick') and Mystic Meg transmogrified into Mystic Michael.

For me (and, I suspect, for most readers) the fiction’s the main dish, but the scattered side plates are a definite plus, an advantage a magazine has over a book of short stories, a break from and contrast to the tales. In this particular case, I have to admit, the interviews did not exactly excite me: Guy N. Smith comes across as eminently unreadable – disaster scenarios, especially mutant animals/plants, unless in superbly capable hands (like Wells’ Food of the Gods) do not usually make for engrossing reading (likewise disaster films) – and the introduction to the interview has far too many punctuation and other mistakes (OK, I confess, I’m after the Dodo’s stool if he should slide off!); but the writer obviously has a legion of fans, and I still found the interview interesting, and the man himself likeable. But devoting six whole precious pages to a self-confessed ‘psychic vampire’, Michelle Belanger, seems to me a bit unbalanced: surely it is precisely horror and fantasy readers and writers who have a strong core of realism, and are least likely to swallow that sort of nonsense; what’s wrong with Byron simply being extremely charismatic? That space could have been more excitingly filled with my own shudderingly frightening story about giant mutant motile vampiric carrots (ever wonder why parsnips are so pale?)

Other extras include, as already mentioned, the Dodo’s coming of age (the ageism he talks about depresses me every time I return to the UK; in Spain, or at least in the central parts not colonized by Brits as ancient as me, it is noticeably absent), and his terrifying image of ‘pissheads with droopy trousers who will one day inherit the Earth’; Michael Lohr’s little article on Ambrose Bierce; and various book reviews, always valuable for bringing new authors to the attention of potential readers. One of those new authors, by the way (new, in terms of a first collection) is a certain Trevor Denyer, a couple of whose stories I have read in the past and found satisfyingly subtle and intriguing (bet the cad and all-round bad egg feels guilty now about rejecting my carrot-parsnip story!).

Right! The main dish. Not a weak story in sight. It occurs to me this is possibly the one beneficial effect of the otherwise sad demise of all those ‘independent’ press mags that flourished a decade ago, some of which published stories so bad (mine, for instance) they are the print version of Plan Nine from Outer Space. In the last couple of years, the few that are left (and a few new ones, such as Murky Depths or Polluto) have had the pick of the many good writers who have not enjoyed commercial success, and even some who have. Although, not to be misunderstood, Midnight Street and its predecessor, Roadworks, have always had a high proportion of good writing.

I escaped from the Morlock-like atmosphere of central Birmingham when I was around twenty, the first chance I got, but poor old Joel Lane stayed there, and this shows in his writing, which, while highly competent, is from what I have read unrelentingly grim and depressing, as shown in his story here, ‘The Last Gallery’, set, possibly, in a very near future, or a bad-hair-day version of the present. I see the point of the story, the aptness of what goes on in the ‘Gallery’ at the end, the wonderful line ‘Perhaps there were as many reasons as scars’, but I simply cannot relate to the characters, whose self-mutilation as a reaction to a bad situation (even when they have each other) I find hard to accept. But other readers who haven’t been away from grim English city life for forty years will no doubt be more moved by the story and its creation of a dramatic symbol of inner-city despair.

Allen Ashley’s ‘Waving Not Drowning’ is an even stranger kettle of almost-fish! Forget everything you thought you knew about sirens and/or mermaids. ‘Cheapskate landlubbers! Sling their ‘ooks’ is not quite Homeric. But when someone’s skin holds ‘the lustre of the interior of an oyster shell’, delicate language may not be of prime importance. Apart from these ladies lounging around on rocks near what I suppose is Yarmouth, we have a social situation where a PM King (Parliamentary Monarch) is determined to make everyone eat vegetables, and all-night kebab stalls have been replaced by all-night broccoli stalls (at least it wasn’t cauliflower!). A third major element is that the narrator is forced to wear a painful electronic tag for a ‘crime’ of carelessness once committed, and a fourth a probation officer who sleeps with him. I found this all very entertaining, although I’m not quite sure if these elements, a mix of surreal and day-to-day, presumably a satire on health fads, over-zealous PC and media-arselicking, all fuse well enough, despite an attempt at the end to give some kind of moral to the story and draw out the mythical meaning of the siren song.

Quite different is Carl Barker’s ‘The Man who Came to Dinner‘. It’s pretty clear from the beginning who this ‘man’ is – he’s about as gauche in human company as the Queen would be at a Goth party – but the story is carefully constructed, with two main protagonists, one on the point of death, who act always in character, and an ending, if not exactly uplifting, at least comforting. This is apparently the writer’s first published story, and a very worthy one too.

You thought the Twa Corbies were a sinister pair? The Crows‘ gathered by Tony Richards have much bigger game in mind than a slain knight. It’s always difficult to do justice to a story without revealing too much, but let’s say there is a superb build-up here from a single crow sitting on a fence to tens of thousands of them all heading in a certain direction. The story is all the more effective as the viewpoint character is a retired man with little knowledge of (or interest in) politics or world affairs, who only very slowly begins to realise the significance of what is happening around his quiet country retreat. Because his reactions are similar to what ours would probably be, we have no difficulty accepting what he finally comes to accept.

All these stories are fine and entertaining, but for me there are three stand-out ones, each very different from the others. First, ‘The Turning of the Screw’, by William Mitchell. If written from a present-day POV, one could criticise it for unnecessary and irrelevant detail at the beginning, and a delay in getting to the main story. But it purports to have been written by a young Victorian gentleman, and (from the vague wisps of memory from my MA studies in Victorian Literature – oh yes, we have all had our crosses to bear!) it catches the tone and style immediately. Moreover, we soon see how the early details serve to characterise the two friends who witness the horrific events of the story, which concerns a sword-swallowing act where something goes horribly wrong. I mean, really horribly. Horror stuff like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street is for me unutterably boring (even with the delicious Jamie Lee herself as mitigation), but this story manages to become pure horror, and work! I think I’ve managed to analyse why, but I can’t tell you without revealing the plot, sorry! Just imagine you had a grudge against a sword-swallower… but I still don’t think you would anticipate this marvellous story and its masterly climax.

I would have to give top prize in the magazine to Marion Arnott’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’, which is very different, dealing obliquely with a more modern horror, that of the Nazi regime of terror. This story may possibly be based on what happened at Aradour-sur-Glane in central France in 1944, but any wartime act of reprisal (not only Nazi) against civilians would have served. It is by far the most moving story in this issue. Of course, one could claim that a writer who deals with real horror, real atrocities, has a lot of their work done for them; simply describing the acts of savagery actually committed is horrific enough. But just compare, for instance, a factual only ( if the word ‘only’ isn’t meaningless in this context) account of the German massacre of their Italian ex-allies in the Acqui Division in Cephalonia with the fictionalised (meaning adding fictional characters to a real event) account in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and the difference screams out at us. Arnott’s skill here has been in slowly unfolding the story, focussing it not only through the memories of an old lady who believes she should have died and plans to do something about it, but also through the exasperation of a self-serving young relative of hers who is fed up with her old stories, and can’t see their relevance today. The details are exquisitely chosen (the tree stump, a bloodied green ribbon, Jacob flapping at the flies with his newspaper to keep them off the bodies), the timing perfect, and a detail within the text itself gives the raison d’etre of such stories as this: Courcelette insists on sending for the memorial plaques one by one instead of in a bunch because the victims ‘had been remembered collectively for too long, she said’.

But a second top prize has to be for one of the strangest stories I have read for some time, ‘The Cabaret at the World’s End’ by David Gullen. Grab yourself a bunch of drag queens, some extremely randy and violent walruses (but with a strong sense of what is right and proper), some Haitians in a boat exporting a problem for which their island is notorious, plonk them all in a bar in exotic Alaska together with two very efficient Inuit and two Eiffel Towers – and From Dusk Till Dawn becomes staid by comparison. And ‘that gorgeous tube of juice and wobble’ is not Salma Hayek! It was only on re-reading that I noticed, despite the wildness of the ingredients, how carefully the whole story is developed; even the main (human) character’s drawing on his Marlboro (which put me on edge in the very first paragraph, as it seemed like a typical ‘filler’ by a bad writer) is really a part of the story, and a natural lead-in to its weirder part. A lot of what proves to be vital information is presented as if almost in passing (even the outcome for Valdez and Anchorage), not a whiff of dreaded info-dump. A real humdinger of a story, with moments of surprising tenderness where least expected, and superbly constructed. ‘Who is the Walrus? Form a queue, ladies. Form a queue!’

So you all know what you have to do now if you haven’t already done it. Details at: http://www.midnightstreet.co.uk.

Steve Redwood’s short story collection, Broken Symmetries, will be published in August by Doghorn Press.