ShortFic Review: Dark Horizons #49
(This is the second in a series of posts retrieved from NFI’s predecessor, the short-lived Neverscapes. The third and final post will be appearing on Friday.)
I’ve found the British Fantasy Society publications I’ve received during my first year of membership to be of a disappointingly low standard. Prism, for example, is less impressive than most fanzines I’ve seen, and is mostly composed of news that’s already aging by the time it hits the doormat. What’s the point of carrying news in a quarterly ‘zine in the age of instant online content delivery? Then there are the reviews of small press publications written by the publishers and authors of other small press publications, also reviewed in the same issue. I suppose the coverage is nice, but it’s all a bit navel-gazing, isn’t it? Still, I’m told the BFS do good conventions, which must go some way to making up for the annual membership fee.
Anyway: Dark Horizons. This is the British Fantasy Society’s fiction magazine, and it’s meatier than its sister publication in both volume and production values. Unfortunately the design and layout still leave much to be desired. Many images used throughout are of a terrible quality, presumably having been forcibly resized by someone with no knowledge of graphic manipulation. Even the advertisement on the back and the BFS logo on the front are so pixellated you might struggle to read what’s written.
But let’s move on to the true focus of Dark Horizons: its fiction. Perhaps due to the magazine being an unpaid market with a readership unlikely to extend beyond BFS members, this is something of a mixed bag. The first story, ‘Enough’ by Mark Morris, is a psychologically flat horror yarn marrying inexplicable corn circles and generalised contempt for the braying masses of self-destructive humanity. The tale does not try to offer an answer or explanation for humanity’s self-destructive urges, instead settling for the still more orgiastic destruction of some undefined form of divine judgement. The less interesting interpretation is heat-induced fever visions. I was surprised to discover from the byline that ‘Enough’ was written and published in 1993. A stronger, contemporary lead story would have been a better choice.
Then things look up a little, with a short but endearing piece from Neil Williamson titled ‘The Gubbins’. It’s the story of the archetypical tinkering grandfather and his life’s work, as told from the point of view of his grandson. After the grandfather’s death his family find they cannot gain access to his workshop, which the grandson recognises as a challenge left to him. I’m sure this story will resonate with a lot of people who, like me, had parents or grandparents that loved to hoard this-and-that for the purpose of some unexplained project or another.
Ramsey Campbell weighs in next with ‘Napier Court’, another reprint – and this one’s from 1971! Still, Campbell is a recognised name, and since short stories do tend to go out of print quite quickly its inclusion is less unreasonable. ‘Napier Court’ takes the basic haunted house concept and connects it to the troubled mind of its protagonist. This young woman struggles with her isolation, alienated as she is from her fiance and her less-than-close friend Maureen. The prose is evocative although the conclusion is bygone and can only represent the surrender we have inevitably foreseen.
Tim Lebbon’s ‘Kissing at Shadows’ is a poignant piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, with a father leaving his daughter behind whilst he journeys to see his dead wife. It segues from suggestions of a terrible sense of sadness and loss to glimmerings of hope, as it hints at releasing the past and looking instead to the future. Allen Ashley & Tim Nickels round out the issue’s fiction with the collaborative tale ‘Dreamsheep’. Packed tightly with absurdist imagery and dialogue, I didn’t find it to my taste but I can’t accuse it of any actual fault.
The magazine also contains quite a large quantity of reviews, which sadly leave something to be desired. The reviews are broken into three parts: general book reviews, indie press reviews, and games/RPG reviews. These categories seem almost superfluous, as the ‘indie press’ category focuses on magazines and several small press books are reviewed in ‘general books’. Similarly, the ‘games/RPG’ section contained one review of a Babylon 5 RPG and six reviews of Black Library novels (all based on Games Workshop IP). In the grim darkness of the far future there is only media tie-in fiction? Kidding. My point is that the reviews sections clearly require better planning. They need focus and forethought, and as far as six Warhammer novel reviews on the trot are concerned (taking up 8 pages), judicious editing.
Overall, then? Dark Horizons #49 is a disappointing, lacklustre and unfocused magazine. At first glance I would be unlikely to pick it up, and having read it I’d be unlikely to read another issue (were it not sent to me anyway). There’s little more damning for a magazine than such a statement. However, starting with #50, two new warm bodies will be taking the helm. Perhaps they could steer this magazine away from that dark horizon before it plummets off the edge of the world.
(I should probably note, in the interests of fairness, that Dark Horizons has seen a steady improvement in quality under its recent editorial teams, to the extent that the last issue I read I thought quite highly of – good fiction, decent design, and clearly produced with some imagination and talent under the hood.)