In the introduction to Written in Darkness, Reggie Oliver declares Mark Samuels “the poet and prophet of technological dehumanization.” Having read the majority of this London-based author’s work, I tend to agree. Of course, this is not the only decrepit alley down which Mr. Samuels has trod. There are others as well, those whose bleak entries bear the age-worn signage of decay, decadence, transformation, and dreams.
The first tale, “A Call to Greatness,” finds a modern-day (and highly disillusioned) bureaucrat in a Paris cafe, encouraged by a mysterious stranger to read a 1921 account of a fanatical leader and his failed efforts to wipe out Bolshevism. The majority of “Greatness” is a replica of this document, and in it we learn of the leader’s almost supernatural ability not only to tell friend from foe but to miraculously avoid injury during his various incursions. When we are thrust back to the bureaucrat’s world we cannot help but wonder if his ragged companion is linked in some way to the figure he has just read about. Thankfully, Samuels fashions a darkly humorous denouement which leaves no clear answers.
In “The Other Tenant,” we encounter a truly despicable individual named Robert Zachary, suffering at present an “undiagnosed organic illness” which has forced him into retirement. His previous job saw him as a trade union rep who “[possessed no] real sympathy for his fellow man.” Zachary moves into a new flat, with which he is almost immediately displeased because of an adjacent renter’s blaring late-night television (“a devotee of strange and disturbing pre-recorded programs of a macabre, even deranged nature”). Zachary’s issuing of a complaint proves useless, for the flat in question turns out to be mysteriously untenanted. Zachary thus takes it upon himself to break inside one evening, only to discover little else but the blaring object of his fury. The television, however, is the least of his concerns. There is an empty chair, a claw-hammer, and thirty nine-inch nails awaiting him. The imagination reels at these carefully arranged descriptors. Suffice it to say, Zachary gets his comeuppance, and in a most unusual way.
Said technological dehumanization comes into play in “An Hourglass of the Soul,” which to my mind was executed to perfection. Robert Drax, newly hired by Deregand Computer Systems (headhunted, in fact; a term used to mind-numbing effect here), is sent on a mysterious mission only days into his employment. The owner of the company sends Drax an email implying that failure to comply to this simple request will result in immediate expulsion. And so, in a matter of hours our frazzled hero is shuttled to Mongolia and from there to a city called Gholraqy, where the company has recently established operations. His required task is to test “a new type of mainframe device,” which in the hands of Samuels becomes something truly sinister…as in Philip K. Dick/David Cronenberg sinister.
The influence of Thomas Ligotti comes to the fore in “The Ruins of Reality,” perhaps the bleakest of the nine tales. In it we witness the effects of a catastrophic economic collapse, where mass unemployment and suicides have become the norm. A company calling itself the “N Factory” rises from the ashes, offering steady employment and “regeneration” from the horrors (both mental and physical) currently suffered by the populace. The narrator, having no choice but to sign on, has this to say about his employer: “Time spent on the production line was akin to a state of dreaming so horrible that the mind blots out the recollection.” And this is only one of many new adjustments our protagonist can look forward to in this dystopic new dreamworld. If this tale could be matched to a visual equivalent, it would be to the art of Aeron Alfrey.
Probably my favorite, “Alistair,” begins with a wonderfully atmospheric description of Gryme House (built in 1706): “Rotten and festering, projecting from the thorny undergrowth in the manner of a colossal fungus.” Herein we encounter James Thorpe and his wife Amelia Gryme, inheritors of the place, as well as their young child, Alistair. James has a terrible time adapting to the rundown environment, while Amelia and Alistair thrive. Such distancing also crops up in James’ feelings (or lack thereof) toward his son, which Samuels, in a brilliant piece of foreshadowing, phrases “[as having] no genetic continuity with the boy.” A few years pass, and one night, when Alistair gains the dexterity to look out his nursery window, he glimpses nocturnal creatures (in his terminology, “strange dogs”) wandering about the cemetery on the hill. His curiosity is piqued, and he finds himself compelled to join the festivities. Samuels does a wonderful (and quite humorous) job of infusing cultural references into what is essentially a Gothic tale of the highest order.
The theme of amnesia is played to brilliant and horrific effect in “My World Has No Memories,” where a man awakens on a small vessel at sea without a clue as to how he got there. His only link to his past seems to be his golden wedding band. Connection to the outside world has been severed, as in “all compasses aboard were wildly unreliable, their needles pointing in differing directions.” Investigating the vessel, the man discovers a jar in the hold containing a monstrous white rose “that had suffered some hideous malformation or disease,” and which shares an almost telepathic link with him. Disgusted by the alien visions flooding his mind, he tosses the jar overboard, only to experience a migraine so excruciating that he passes out. When he wakes again, he finds the flower returned to its original place, along with others. And from here the tale begins to riff rather wickedly off The Body Snatchers. Though believe me, Samuels’ vision is even more terrifying.
In “Outside Interference,” the longest tale of the collection, we encounter a select few employees of the Bloy Company (“the most unfortunate and ill-regarded”) performing “the last rites of transfer to new premises”—essentially digitizing all of the remaining paper documents from the old building. Days into their task, they become completely snowed in, and soon discover something fantastically strange about the building itself. The lift seems connected in some strange way to a previously unknown subterranean passage. Those who unwittingly descend are transformed into “burnt men with white eyes” who begin refashioning the soon-to-be-abandoned building into a new kind of workplace. This tale is a perfect example of Samuels’ at his best, fashioning metaphorical horror to make us think twice about the way we live now.
“My Heretical Existence” culls the life and work of the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz, with a firm nod to the films of the Brothers Quay. The narrator, reporting from the “city of exiles,” becomes fixated on the idea of “hidden tribes” existing within the metropolis: “Certain families…had dwelt in this quarter for generation after generation.” In a pub he learns of a certain Sartor Street, a place that even locals avoid; those who do go never come back. Wandering about one evening, he enters a Schulz-inspired hostelry called “Under the Sign of the Hourglass Stilled,” and is shocked by the appearance of the patrons within, who in turn are equally astounded by his appearance. He comes to realize who (or perhaps what) he is destined to become.
In the final tale, “In Eternity Two Lines Intersect,” the essence of Arthur Machen comes into play. The narrator is released from an asylum and given temporary housing in a flat during his “reintegration into society.” The living quarters, vacated quite abruptly by the previous tenant, contains all of the vanished man’s things. The narrator is extraordinarily grateful, for he has little to no possessions of his own. In time he begins wearing the clothing (which is decades old) of the lost tenant, and begins to experience strange dreams which deliver into his reality items of an historical nature. His life thus becomes entwined by reality and dream, all leading him toward a mystical realization concerning his true self.
To conclude, I must turn the spotlight on Egaeus Press, who should be commended not only for manufacturing such a beautiful book, but for keeping the fictional focus on such a fantastic and influential writer. Written in Darkness is a perfect fusion between author and publisher, wherein words and design elevate and enliven the whole. I’m not certain I can sum up any better than Reggie Oliver does when he states: “[Mark Samuels’] work has a passionate intensity and integrity. His vision can be bleak, but it is realized with a kind of grandeur that makes it inspiring. You emerge from it, as you emerge from Dante’s Inferno, purged by pity and terror, and strangely uplifted.”
Written in Darkness is available direct from the publisher, Egaeus Press.