I, Ghouljaw

ghouljawGhouljaw & Other Stories is one of the finest debut collections I’ve had the pleasure to read this year, every bit as impressive as Jason A. Wyckoff’s Black Horse (2012) and Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters (2013), sharing with these works a breadth of originality that makes it required reading for both readers and writers of Weird Fiction.

As the back cover blurb accurately declares, these are tales of “the squalidly ordinary and the terrifyingly extraordinary.” Most feature characters whose personal traumas quite literally begin to take on a life of their own. This metaphoric style of storytelling is evident from the very first offering, “Benthos”, in which a graduate student, lured to a party and soon thereafter into cheating on his girlfriend, becomes the very benthic horror of his guilt-ridden psyche. In “Dirt on Vicky” we encounter a single father recalling and then visiting (at the prodding of his curious young son) an abandoned farmhouse appropriately named “the Aikman place”, where memories of his dead wife take shape. This is a tale that the late Robert Aickman might very well have included in his Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories series.

In the introduction to this collection, S.T. Joshi points to Smith’s originality in regard to “the weird conception.” This is perfectly exemplified in “Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite” (the simplicity of the title should not fool you; this is a brilliant and complex tale), which focuses on the seemingly disparate elements of dust, bugs, a deceased companion, and a vacuum cleaner, and renders each into an entity you will not soon forget. While all the tales are chilling to a degree, one of the most terrifying was “Like Father, Like…”, which begins ordinarily enough, with the main character returning to his hometown to attend his father’s funeral; but, as a series of unusual events begin to occur, he realizes that there is a very different purpose for his being there. The denouement quite literally clamps both reader and protagonist into an inescapable nightmare. And this is just one of the many things Smith does so well: ending his tales in unexpected and satisfying ways.

While most of the offerings are cast in varying shades of bleakness, one notably exception was “Corbin’s Gore”, in which something as simple as an unwanted sweatshirt becomes a world into which the protagonist can experience an aspect of his life previously aborted. Perception and memory figure into many of the tales as well. In “The Hatchet”, two brothers are forever changed when they unwisely disturb the occupant of a darkened house on Halloween. At one point the protagonist (who is now middle-aged) has this to say about the house: “It was as if the entire property resided in a faulty pocket of perception.” Such a conceit might very well stand as the modus operandi of the entire collection.

There is a deep literary and genre feel to Ghouljaw & Other Stories, and Smith has more than succeeded in crossing the streams, as it were, to fashion something profoundly unique. These are tales that are a pleasure to read, both for their literary acumen and for the way they bore deeply into the brainpan. Amid all the fine offerings being released this year, Ghouljaw is a standout, and a certain contender for best collection.

As an addendum, I should also mention the existence of a “book soundtrack” (available via iTunes), which was specifically produced by Shadeland frontman Allen Kell. It makes a worthy, and quite eerie, accompaniment to the words, adding another delectable layer to the whole.

The Gods of Elsewhere

Burnt Black SunsThe compulsion to read a book for a second time, directly after finishing its last page for the first, strikes me now and again. More often than not, however, I shy away from the impulse, only too aware of all the new offerings which lay in wait. Not so with Burnt Black Suns. I simply had to re-examine these nine finely textured tales—and I am glad that I did, for they bloom even more darkly on the second go-round.

It is clear that Simon Strantzas has spent a substantial portion of his existence poring over the volumes that comprise the Library of Weird Fiction. Aickman, Barker, Klein, Ligotti, Lovecraft: these are just a few of the scribes who come to mind; their shades are here, dark gods whose strengths the author has transmuted into his own, into works powerful and new; carefully-crafted Horror, strong as rock.

On Ice — A group of scientists land on an island in the Arctic Ocean, searching for fossil evidence of ichthyosaur. “There is something worth finding no matter the cost,” says the expedition lead. What they discover shall not be revealed here, though a certain character name (Dogan) might point you in a possible direction. Strantzas does an excellent job creating a supremely chilling atmosphere of isolation, and it is obvious that he has done his research in the realm of arctic exploration.

Dwelling on the Past — A “fixer” named Harvey returns to his disreputable employer (Henco Industries) to settle a land dispute between it and indigenous protesters. The protests, however, are only a front for what is truly going on, as Harvey quickly discovers during his investigations. Both “fixer” and protesters dwell on the past in their own way, and that past is anything but cheerful. Strantzas excels here in relaying the horrors of memory, and how those memories can in time bury us.

Strong as Rock — Two brothers, polar opposites in personality, fill the void of their mother’s passing in their own unique ways. The adventurous Rex eventually lures Garrison out of his basement depression, believing that a rock-climbing expedition is just what they need in order to reconnect and “move on”. As one might suspect, Garrison can’t quite handle the climb and is injured in a fall—and from there the story grows increasingly surreal, as the brothers end up in a mysterious hospital in the middle of nowhere. The denouement is appropriately bleak and riffs nicely off said personalities.

By Invisible Hands — A supreme Thomas Ligotti tribute. On the surface we have a tale centering on an elderly puppet maker lamenting the passage of time and the fact that his skills have become obsolete. He is “a relic of a bygone age where creativity had value, and skill was paramount.” Out of the blue he receives a handwritten note from a mysterious figure named Dr. Toth, who seeks to commission the elder in fashioning a life-sized (and quite nightmarish) marionette. This is ouroboric fiction at its finest, with a mind-numbing conclusion that completely took this reader by surprise.

One Last Bloom — This begins prosaically enough, focusing upon two university students (Randal and Olivia) awaiting the return of their beloved Dr. Markowitz. The professor is off researching aquatic life that exists around a super-heated “vent” off the coast of Mexico; his hope is to gain a better understanding of the resiliency of said life and apply this knowledge to assist humankind when it one day ventures into deep space. When a package containing samples arrives ahead of Dr. Markowitz, the two researchers can’t resist opening what turns out to be a veritable Pandora’s Box. The implications of the professor’s discovery are terrifying, and the “monsters” which Strantzas has fashioned are quite literally ingenious.

Thistle’s Find — Reminiscent of Bob Leman’s classic “Window”, but narrated by Holden Caulfield. Strantzas does a fine job making the reader question whether the proceedings are real or mere fantasy as seen through the eyes of two damaged souls—in this case “Doctor” Thistle and the first-person narrator, Owen, who befriended the elder in his youth, against his parents wishes, and who now returns after a long interval. Even at tale’s end, one is left wondering whether the “find” is real or imagined (or a combination of both). This back and forth is quite unnerving, given the limited character history and the very real subject matter the author is bold enough to present.

Beyond the Banks of the River Seine — A fine historical piece centering around a pair of music students studying at the world-renowned Conservatoire in France. Valise, the narrator, recalls his best friend’s descent into madness and his subsequent (and meaningless) rise to fame after he transposes a certain diabolical play to music. This is a fine addition to the “yellow mythos” of the late Robert W. Chambers. Strantzas perfectly captures the seedy milieu of 19th century Paris, not to mention “lost” Carcosa.

Emotional Dues — This Barkeresque tale might well have been subtitled, “Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Young Man”. Shill is an emotionally damaged painter whose dark work attracts the attention of a wealthy patron named Elias Rasp. The corpulent and diseased Rasp entices Shill to take up residence in his palatial abode; all Shill need do is paint his emotionally-charged “masterpieces”. But the wheelchair-bound benefactor is not who he seems, and in time will become the “subject” of Shill’s final work. The ending is perfectly orchestrated and as captivating as watching Jackson Pollack fill his massive canvases, albeit with the lens of Horror affixed.

Burnt Black Suns — Noah and his pregnant girlfriend, Rachel, arrive in a small Mexican village, searching for his kidnapped child and the ex-wife who took him. The premise immediately brought to mind the very real struggles, a few years back, of David Goldman to retrieve his own son from Brazil. It also had the isolated and death-knell feel of the Spenser Tracy film, “Bad Day at Black Rock”. Most townsfolk want nothing to do with the couple, and it quickly becomes evident that no one can be trusted. The ending is an emotionally wrenching masterwork in itself, a “burnt offering” you will not soon forget. This is one of the most flawlessly conceived novellas, this side of T.E.D. Klein, that I have ever read.

Burnt Black Suns is an inspired and inspiring collection, one in which every story seems to out-perform the previous in some small way, so that by the time we set the book aside our perceptions have been altered to something as unnerving as the cover image which is our entry-point. While there were numerous aspects which impressed me about this collection (the writing was consistently excellent; the plots evolved with surety; the characters were fleshed out, or suited in flesh), I think perhaps what impressed me most was the author’s sheer ingenuity and finesse in regard to concluding his tales. This, as any writer knows, is no easy task. Strantzas (like the persistent and methodical creatures featured in a certain unnamed story from above) annihilates all past notions of Horror, making it seem so glisteningly fresh and new.