Cosmic Cavalcade

LeechThis multifaceted grimoire, and the talent associated with it, is staggering to behold. Its co-editor, Justin Steele, sets the tone in a highly entertaining introduction, one which pits his fictional self against the very “carnivorous cosmos” he so innocently sought to collect. In many like anthologies that focus on the oeuvre of a specific writer, the works themselves rarely rise above pastiche—but this seems to be exactly what the editors wished to avoid when fashioning their tribute to Laird Barron. Steele brings this to the fore when singling out Ellen Datlow’s excellent Lovecraft Unbound as a source of inspiration. Potential readers who are not familiar with Barron’s work need not worry. The tales, while sometimes recalling certain tropes or characters from his fiction, can be enjoyed in their own right; and, I must say, the range of styles on display is consistently impressive. While I could speak to each and every tale, I have selected just a few of the seventeen.

“Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox” by T.E. Grau was an unexpected and wholly original surprise, and lives up to its hip title. The tale is told from the point of view of a card-carrying member of the Beat Generation named Nelson Barnes, who is caught under the spell of a Dean Moriarty-esque vagabond named Doyle. The language and milieu of the 1950s is perfectly captured by Grau, whose writing is muscular, witty and metaphorical in all the right ways. This is a “love song” to a lost generation, and scarier than hell.

“The Old Pageant” by Richard Gavin is a brief, but terrifying tale about suppressed memories. It begins with a couple arriving at the woman’s family cabin. Not long after, she begins recalling her childhood and the strange forest games she used to play with her sister and grandmother (one such game was called “The Old Pageant”, wherein participants attempt to replicate certain aspects of the forest). This is a chilling and atmospheric tale, and one which gives new meaning to “lost youth”.

“Notes for ‘The Barn in the Wild’” by Paul Tremblay is a cross between Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm”. It takes the form of a found diary written by a young man named Nick Brach, detailing his search for a young graduate student who has gone missing. Brach eventually discovers “The Barn” in question, and is forever altered by its history and his experience within.

“Firedancing” by Michael Griffin follows a failed artist named Lane who is invited to a fantastic retreat by a friend he hasn’t seen in years. The retreat is hosted by Mallard Hills, who is described as “one part Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, one part Kwai Chang Caine”. Hills eventually invites Lane to join him on a tour through his strangely designed pavilion, wherein Lane meets his fate.

“The Woman in the Wood” by Daniel Mills contains some of the most powerful and horrifying imagery I have read in a long time; it is also one of the author’s finest tales to date. The story (circa 1843) takes the form of a diary kept by a sensitive boy named James who is sent to live with his aunt and uncle at their farm in the country, in an attempt to recover from a recent illness. What he discovers soon after his arrival is nothing less than a hellish nightmare.

“Brushdogs” by Stephen Graham Jones was made all the more terrifying by its subtlety. A father and his son, out hunting, discover a series of strange black cairns. The man realizes, after they return home, that his son is no longer who he seems. Jones has a powerful and gripping style which brings to mind Faulkner and McCarthy.

“Ymir” by John Langan tackles the Norse myth of the same name, though only peripherally. The bulk of the story concerns a military contractor named Marissa who is hired, soon after her return from Afghanistan, to accompany a man in his quest to find an elusive figure named Tyler Choate. Langan’s towering narratives never disappoint, and this is no exception. Its denouement was absolutely stunning.

“Of a Thousand Cuts” by Cody Goodfellow went where few authors would dare venture; that of Barron’s short novel “The Light is the Darkness”, featuring at its center a gladiatorial “Pageant” which pits horrifically enhanced competitors against one another. Goodfellow is a wordsmith whose visionary fiction is mind-blowing on so many levels.

“Tenebrionidae” by Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay is one of the finest pieces of “rail literature” that I have ever read, every bit as absorbing as Charles Willeford’s I Was Looking For a Street. Rarely does one come across a tale as compelling and immersive as this. Powerful language and imagery, and a spot-on rendering of life on the rails, make this a unique tale that lingers in the mind long after it has been consumed. The mind-numbing denouement was simultaneously touching and terrifying. One can only hope that the authors (father and son) choose to collaborate on future projects.

A final note about the editors, who were kind enough to supply me with an ARC of Old Leech. While Ross E. Lockhart is a name many will recognize (as an established editor, author, and owner of Word Horde), Justin Steele may be new to a lot of folks. He is the sole proprietor of a well-regarded blog (The Arkham Digest), and this is his first big project as an anthologist. Considering the scope and ingenious concept behind Old Leech, he has achieved his first major success. One can only speculate as to where he will take his editorial skills next. If, that is, the “carnivorous cosmos” hasn’t already taken him first.

Available for purchase from Word Horde.

Of Twilight & Time

Lord Came at TwilightIn reading through the fourteen tales which comprise this remarkable debut, I could not help but wonder about the author’s method in creating them. Did his preparation include nineteenth-century garb, a pair of infinity-shaped eyeglasses, a dark chamber excluding all but antiquated desk, candle and quill? I share this fantastic premise simply because I am at a loss as to how Daniel Mills so perfectly taps into the era of which he writes. There is an effortless magic to both his prose and imagination, a magic which quite literally sweeps the reader out of their known world.

In his illuminating introduction to The Lord Came at Twilight, Simon Strantzas rightly includes Mills with a cadre of contemporary authors who have the ability to “re-contextualize what’s come before in new and exciting ways.” This is nowhere more evident than in “Dust From a Dark Flower”, which reads like an exquisite cross between the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Personally, I found Mills’ creation more terrifying.

“MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room”, which jumps up the time-stream only slightly to 1893, is one of the finest (and most imaginative) renderings of a “King in Yellow” story that I have ever read, not only in its seedy and convincingly-sketched backdrop but in its use of a very unique first-person protagonist—a certain gentleman who I simply cannot reveal for fear of spoiling the denouement.

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft (and I include myself here) will rejoice in “Whisperers”, which features two familiar characters from the old gent’s oeuvre—namely Randolph Carter and Henry Ackley. This is one of the few tales that ventures into twentieth-century territory. Indeed, the introduction of a Ford truck in the opening scene comes as a bit of a shock after acclimating oneself to the horse-and-buggy milieu of the previous century.

“House of the Caryatids” is a carefully-wrought tale which brings to mind the Civil War fiction of Ambrose Bierce (I’m thinking here of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), as well as Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”. The story involves three soldiers who stray from the battlefields of Shiloh, only to encounter stranger horrors when they stumble upon a seemingly derelict old manse in the woods.

“The Naked Goddess” features an elderly narrator recalling his experience as a young man in a secluded town made up entirely of blind residents. It is only at the very end of the tale (in the form of a historical pamphlet) that we learn of the diabolic cause of this oddity. While most of the stories in this collection are accompanied by illustrations, I found the one complimenting this to be the most haunting and effective.

Daniel Mills strikes me as writer who thrills at the idea of imagining the past, someone who will stop at the side of the road to admire a lonely field, derelict house, leaning barn or crumbling chimney. He understands the dark mysteries such structures hold and is only too willing to listen to the ghosts of the past. The Lord Came at Twilight is an important and original book in the field of weird fiction, belonging in all enthusiasts’ libraries.

Available for purchase from Dark Renaissance Books.