Release Day: CMQ #1

Chthonic Matter Half-coverHappy Spring, everyone! I am delighted to announce the release of the debut edition of Chthonic Matter Quarterly, a new venue dedicated to dark fiction. Fans of the Nightscript series won’t want to miss out on this one.

Table of Contents:
“Love Is A Ghost You See With Your Heart” by Luciano Marano
“The Dead Radio Broadcasts” by Charles Wilkinson
“Song of a Crow” by Eygló Karlsdóttir
“Amusement” by Perry Ruhland
“The Low Thing” by Eli Wennstrom
“Somewhere Warm On A Golden Beach” by Kevin Brown
“Vasilisa Who Ran” by Patricia Lillie
“A Love So Deep” by Christian Riley

Vol. 1, Issue 1:
> Paperback or eBook: via Amazon
> Paperback (Publisher): via PayPal ($12.99 + shipping)

> One-Year (4 issues) via PayPal ($45 + shipping)
> Two-Year (8 issues) via PayPal ($85 + shipping)
> 3-Issue “Catch-Up” via PayPal ($30 + shipping)
   For those who have already obtained Issue #1

Come October

Come OctoberCome October showcases 16 tales of “autumnal horror” — stories that take as their theme this glorious and ever-changing part of the year.

The Table of Contents is as follows:

This Familiar Autumn Hour — Michael Kelly
Man of Leaves — Douglas Thompson
She Leaves — Tara Laskowski
The Loosening Bones — Tom Johnstone
All the Faithful Departed — David Peak
Autumnal Rites — James Pate
Children of TOW’R — C.W. Blackwell
Gossamer — Kurt Newton
The Scare Groom — Patrick Barb
Pop Art Madonna — Xavier Garcia
Far From the Tree — Tim Major
This Thing of Straw — Melissa Elborn
Autumn Reunion — Charles Wilkinson
Swing Back — Robert Helfst
The Spring Makers — Armel Dagorn
Winter is Coming — Mark Howard Jones

Planned publication date is October 1, 2023

Secondary Roads

Half-cover“A strangely beguiling collection of frissons.
—Michael Kelly, Undertow Publications

My sophomore collection, Secondary Roads, releases today, and I couldn’t be happier. The book contains twelve tales (eight previously published and four new), and I hope you will be well-pleased with its “strange and darksome” contents. Thank you for your support!

Available on

Praise for Hidden Folk, my 2018 debut collection:

“Remarkable…The best stories do a lot in a very short space.”
—Brian Evenson, author of A Collapse of Horses

“The writing here is so assured it’s hard to believe it’s a debut.”
—David Longhorn, editor of Supernatural Tales, on “Vrangr”

“Muller’s stories are sorrowful and stay in my head like folk tales…They haunt me long after finishing them.”
—Christopher Slatsky, author of Alectryomancer

“An excellent, enigmatic, and precise examination of the topography of the weird. Recommended!”
—Michael Kelly, editor of Year’s Best Weird Fiction

“Darkly didactic…Those who follow Muller through these thresholds will remain haunted.”
—Clint Smith, author of Ghouljaw and The Skeleton Melodies

“An author of strange fiction to keep a close eye on.”
—Simon Strantzas, author of Nothing is Everything

“A landmark collection.”
—Des Lewis, Real-Time Reviews

Nightscript — Vol. VIII

N8 HalfcoverNightscript received some truly amazing dark fiction during its open reading period this past January, and today I am pleased to reveal the contents of volume eight. Thanks to everyone who submitted!

Here, then, are the “nightscripters” of 2022:

N is for Night — Steve Rasnic Tem
I Came Back — Christi Nogle
The Mythologization of Tymber Prescott in Five Selected Photos — Luciano Marano
Homecoming — Joshua Rex
The Abandoned — Jo Kaplan
Kindling — M.C. St. John
The Drums of Baron Ridge — John Garland Wells
Sophie Anne — Harrison Demchick
Ghosts of the Pantal — Daniel Braum
Hairberg — Sam Dawson
The Change — Justin A. Burnett
Queen Bee — Grace Lillie
Malocclusion — Dixon March
Limber Lost — K. Wallace King
Ghost Girl — J. S. Kuiken
This Night I Will Have My Revenge on the Cold Clay in Which We Lie — LC von Hessen
The Wardrobe — Gordon Brown
It Goes Without Saying — Patrick Barb

Available on

Oculus Sinister

If you dip into a single anthology this year, make it this one.”
—Justin A. Burnett, Silent Motorist Media

Available on

Oculus Sinister features 20 dark visions of “ocular” horror.

Lucida Seán Padraic Birnie
The Other Floor Brian Evenson
Black-Eyed Susan Elana Gomel
Brad Dourif’s Tears Douglas Ford
Dead Bread Head Shannon Scott
The Other One Timothy Granville
The Obscurantist LC von Hessen
Doorgrave To the Bittersea Mark Howard Jones
The Eyedom Rhonda Eikamp
The Visible Changes Charles Wilkinson
Director’s Cut James Pate
Contrition (1998) — J.A.W. McCarthy
Angelica’s Elegy Christopher K. Miller
When This is Over Selene dePackh
The Bells Line of Road M.R. Cosby
Your Desolation Will Be Great Michael Kelly
When You See It Rebecca J. Allred
Vile Jellies John Langan
E is For Eye Steve Rasnic Tem
We Are Eternal Sam Richard


Twice Told Cover“If you thought that the old gothic trope of the double is tired and stale, think again.” —Dejan Ognjanovic, Rue Morgue

Available on

Twice-Told features 22 unique visions of the Doppelgänger.

Here is the table of contents:

“The Last Salvador” — Tim Jeffreys
“Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow” — Clint Smith
“Zwillingslied” — Patricia Lillie
“Static” — Chris Shearer
“Stuck With Me” — Shannon Lawrence
“The Fifth Set” — Charles Wilkinson
“Murder Song” — Craig Wallwork
“The Final Diagnosis of Doctor Lazare” — David Peak
“Endangered” — Jason A. Wyckoff
“The Half-Life of Plastic” — Esther Rose
“Eidetic” — Steve Rasnic Tem
“They Are Us (1964) : An Oral History” — Jack Lothian
“Birds of Passage” — Gordon B. White
“The Half-Souled Woman” — Nina Shepardson
“Released” — Timothy B. Dodd
“As With Alem” — Farah Rose Smith
“The Fall Guy” — Tom Johnstone
“Scordatura” — Jess Landry
“Stringless Puppetry” — C.C. Adams
“The Bath House” — Tim Major
“Picky Yunn” — J.C. Raye
“One Last Mile” — Erica Ruppert

Hidden Folk

Hidden Folk Cover“Remarkable…The best stories do a lot in a very short space.”
—Brian Evenson, author of A Collapse of Horses

“The writing here is so assured it’s hard to believe it’s a debut.”
—David Longhorn, editor of Supernatural Tales, on “Vrangr”

My debut collection, Hidden Folkcontains twelve previously published tales that first appeared in venues such as Shadows & Tall Trees, Supernatural Tales, and Weirdbook. I am thrilled to finally be releasing this volume, and I hope you will be well-pleased with its “strange and darksome” contents. Thanks so much for your support.

Available on

“Muller’s stories are sorrowful and stay in my head like folk tales…They haunt me long after finishing them.”
—Christopher Slatsky, author of Alectryomancer

“An excellent, enigmatic, and precise examination of the topography of the weird. Recommended!”
—Michael Kelly, editor of Year’s Best Weird Fiction

“Darkly didactic…Those who follow Muller through these thresholds will remain haunted.”
—Clint Smith, author of Ghouljaw and The Skeleton Melodies

“An author of strange fiction to keep a close eye on.”
—Simon Strantzas, author of Nothing is Everything

“A landmark collection.”
—Des Lewis, Real-Time Reviews

Interview: Charles Wilkinson

‘A Twist in the Eye’ – Egaeus Press (2016)

Readers of Nightscript will no doubt be familiar with the name Charles Wilkinson. He has, after all, appeared in each edition of the anthology since its inception. And for good reason: he is one of the finest practitioners of the weird tale (or “strange story”) currently working today, with numerous publications to his credit. 2016 saw the release of his first Egaeus Press collection, A Twist in the Eye, which is followed this year by Splendid in Ash, currently on sale here. Mr. Wilkinson is a true gentleman and scholar, and was kind enough to answer a few questions about his writing.

Youve established quite a name for yourself in the field of Weird Fiction these last few years, and I would be curious to learn a bit more about your origins as a writer. When did you begin writing and has Weird Fiction always been an abiding interest of yours?

Thanks for asking me to do this interview, C.M. Your encouragement of my work is greatly appreciated.

I started writing poetry when I was around thirteen. Before I left school I published some of my work, which was not very accomplished, in obscure ‘little’ magazines. The first of my poems to appear in a good literary journal was written in my last year at school. Although a horror story of mine appeared in the school magazine, I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until I was in my thirties. I subscribed to London Magazine, which was edited by the poet Alan Ross. After reading some of the work in there, I thought I’d try my hand at a short story; Alan took the first one I sent him.

Although I remember reading a great number of anthologies of horror and ghost fiction in early adolescence, including the Fontana series edited by Robert Aickman, I was addicted to crime fiction; however, by the time I was in the sixth form I concentrated on set texts and non-genre literary fiction.

As a mature student, I was accepted into an M.A. course in Creative Writing, the only one there was at that time in the U.K. Once, stuck for suitable subject matter, I wrote a ghost story as a way of getting started. The piece went down well and was in my first collection of short stories, The Pain Tree, which appeared from Alan Ross’s London Magazine Editions. It included a crime story, as well the supernatural tale, and one piece that was experimental, but the rest of them were ‘dark’ rather than ‘strange’ or ‘weird’.

‘Splendid in Ash’ – Egaeus Press (2018)

I came to focus on ‘weird’ and ‘strange’ fiction rather late. Once I was able to kick the day job into touch, I moved to Birmingham (U.K). I had the idea of writing a series of linked short stories set in that city, where was I born in 1950. When I joined a local writers’ group, I met Joel Lane, a poet and writer of weird fiction who was of great practical assistance to me. His name will no doubt be familiar to many of your readers. I’d just written another ghost story and had no idea where to send it. He put me onto David Longhorn’s Supernatural Tales and subsequently Michael Kelly’s Shadows and Tall Trees, as well as Black Static. He mentioned presses, such as Tartarus and Eibonvale, and introduced me to Thomas Ligotti and other writers I’d not previously come across. I realized there was a range of magazines, writers and small presses that I’d overlooked. Although I didn’t stop writing mainstream fiction and poetry, I gradually moved more in the direction of ‘slipstream’, ‘folk horror’ and ‘the strange’ and ‘the weird’.

I owe Joel a great debt. Tragically he was only fifty when he died and had just won a World Fantasy Award not long before. As we shared the same poetry publisher in Birmingham (Flarestack), we met each other at literary events as well as at the group’s meetings. Although I saw him fairly frequently for two or three years, I was wary of dedicating a volume to his memory as I might have seemed to be claiming a closeness that was never really there; however, when his very good friend, John Howard, agreed to write the introduction to Splendid in Ash I thought it fitting, providing the dedication came from us both. John kindly agreed.

Joel was a very fine writer of novels, short stories, criticism and poetry. He was also a generous supporter of other writers, as I discovered to my great benefit.

Many of your tales remind me, in a way, of the strange storiesof Robert Aickman. They are exceedingly well-written and contain just the right amount of ambiguity, not to mention a bold originality in regard to content and theme. To your mind, what are some of the elements that define a successful weird tale? How do you hope to affect the reader?

The Robert Aickman story I first remember being hugely impressed by was ‘Ringing the Changes.’ Although I’d heard of him, I didn’t get hold of the Tartarus and Faber volumes until Joel Lane told me that he preferred him to M.R. James, who was an early favorite of mine. I think it’s fair to say that some of my strange tales are indebted to both Aickman and James.

I think a good weird tale, like a good poem, contains an element that cannot be neatly paraphrased; in other words, its effect is more than the sum of its narrative. There are plenty of good stories that don’t do this, but to my mind the very best have an elusive quality, perhaps a sense of ‘the other.’

We’ve all read plenty of stories that we’ve enjoyed but haven’t stayed with us for more than a month or so. If some of mine linger in the mind for a little longer, I’d be happy. When I was around thirteen the masters at my school read us Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost,’ Conan Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band,’ and ‘The Alabaster Hand’ by A.L.N Munby, who was an obscure disciple of M.R. James. It was probably about fifty years before I came across the last of those stories again, but I could still remember the ending clearly.

What is the writing process like for you? How does a story develop, and are you a stickler for a routine schedule?

I think it’s important to find the time when one writes best. I’d love to be one of those people who can get up at 6.00 am and have the day’s work done before breakfast at nine, but that doesn’t work for me. I write best in the afternoons and early evening. When I was living by myself in Birmingham, I sometimes managed to put in an hour before lunch; it was a struggle, but later I sometimes got off the mark speedily as a result; I’d miss the evening session if I’d made enough headway.

Now I’m in Wales practically all of the time, I have domestic responsibilities that mean it’s not easy to write at home. I have an office on an industrial estate at the edge of the small town where I live. I go there to work five days a week from around 2.30 to 5.00. At the moment, I’m writing just one or two stories a month; however, I also continue with my poetry when I’m between projects. Of course, quite a few hours are devoted to revision, research and proofreading. There’s no internet connection, which prevents me from being distracted; nevertheless, this does mean that some of the research and fact checking has to be done at home.

What inspires you to write? Who have been some of your greatest influences over the years (writers, artists, filmmakers, etc.)?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was about twelve. Stories can start with an overheard phrase or a recollection of some event in one’s past; at other times it’s being in a particular place – there isn’t a single source. Nowadays, I occasionally respond to a theme chosen by an editor, which was the case for my story in your forthcoming anthology Twice Told: A Collection of Doubles.

As for the writers, they are too many to list! William Trevor was an early influence on my short stories. I’ve read all the novels of Muriel Spark and recently I’ve particularly enjoyed novels by Michel Tournier (The Erl-King) and Curzio Malaparte (Kaput). I’ve already mentioned Aickman and M.R. James. I like the neo-romantic school of British painters: Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Craxton, John Minton, Keith Vaughan and others. I don’t watch as many films as I’d like. Over the years I’ve been impressed by Bergman, Tarkovsky and Peter Greenaway.

Have you lived in Wales your entire life? How important is place to you, and in what way does it inform your writing?

No, I was born in Birmingham and this was home until I went to university. My parents moved first to Worcestershire and then Herefordshire. I went to a boarding school on the Welsh Marches. It was a couple of minutes walk from Shropshire into Wales. I’ve now owned a house in Wales for twenty-five years, although my work took me to other parts of the country, where I lived in rented accommodation. I’ve been in Wales full-time for the past eight years. It takes me two minutes to walk to England. I lived in the Republic if Ireland for a year when I was doing another postgraduate degree, also as a mature student.

Yes, place is very important to me, especially those areas of the United Kingdom where I’ve lived the longest: Birmingham, Norfolk (M.R. James country) and Wales, the Marches in particular. I’m just north of the landscape immortalized by Arthur Machen.

As a follow-up to this, what is the writing community like in Wales? Are you involved in a writing club, and do you attend conventions?

The poetry scene in Wales is lively. I regularly attend events and I also helped to put on a series of readings in the town where I live. My poems appear in Welsh literary magazines. I’m a member of a poetry group, which is based on the Welsh Marches. We meet most frequently in Shropshire in a house that used to belong to the playwright John Osborne. Sometimes we meet in Wales, Hereford and Worcestershire. I have already mentioned that when I lived in Birmingham I was a member of a fiction group. I continued to attend the meetings until last year, when my domestic responsibilities became more arduous. I don’t go to conventions because of these commitments.

Youre known primarily as a short story writer and poet. Im curious to know if you have any desire to write longer works, i.e. novella- or novel-length fiction?

Unfortunately the short story is held in less regard in the United Kingdom than in the U.S.A.; moreover, we don’t have the number of literary magazines, many of them funded by universities, that you have. When I had literary agents, they were always telling me to write a novel as commercial publishers aren’t interested in short stories unless they are by big names who have already published novels. I succumbed and wrote a novel. As I had a day job, it seemed to take me forever – about ten years on and off. It found an agent, but not a publisher. I should have stuck to the stories. The book of linked short stories that I mentioned has a novella in the middle of it. After I retired, I wrote the draft of a novel in four months. The moral is – don’t start a novel unless you have the time to finish it; even then you may be wasting your time if you’re a short story writer and not a natural novelist. There is also another novella that I may work on.

I wonder if you might list at least five of your favorite short stories?

One of my favorites is ‘Un Coeur Simple’ by Flaubert, but I suspect you are thinking of stories in our field. Here are five that have impressed me hugely: ‘The Stalls of Barchester – M.R. James; ‘The Frolic’ – Thomas Ligotti; ‘The Hospice’ – Robert Aickman; The Color Out of Space – H.P. Lovecraft; and one that’s closer to horror than the weird/supernatural: ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ – Angela Carter. I have my doubts about Lovecraft. I also came to him very late and with a degree of skepticism; none the less, as he seems to have invented the term ‘weird fiction’ and his ‘cosmic horror’ is indeed truly distinctive, he deserves his place amongst writers who are in my view his superiors. Ask me tomorrow and I could pick five different tales.

I suspect well be seeing a lot more of your fine fiction in the years to come, but are there any future projects youd like to share?

A collection of my poems is due to come out from Eyewear next year. All of the stories in the book of linked fiction, apart from the novella, have appeared in magazines. It’s a mixture of literary and genre fiction, which could be why it’s having some difficulty in finding a book publisher. I’m hoping next year will bring good news. I’ve completed a ‘calendar’ of weird short stories: one for each month and two for January. I’m placing them at the moment. One is in the current Nightscript. I have enough stories to send another manuscript of stories to Mark Beech, who has done such a wonderful job for me at Egaeus Press, for a third volume of standalone weird and strange tales. Even if he wants to do another book with me, they won’t appear for a while yet. Next year I’m tempted to try my hand at a book-length novella. The two I’ve written were only around 20,000 words each. But I could just as easily chicken out and stay with the stories and poems instead.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Charles. Any parting words of advice to writers just starting out in this genre?

It’s important to write regularly, especially if you’re working in longer forms. Try to find the time that suits you best and stick to it. Don’t get too upset by rejections; everyone gets them. Watch out for places where writers you like are appearing. Duotrope and Submittable are invaluable tools for short story writers and poets. A course or a writers’ group may be of help, but don’t join one if you are too sensitive to criticism or very defensive about your work. You will only upset yourself and annoy everyone else. Show appreciation to the hard-working editors who are bringing your work to the public (thanks, C.M!). Don’t accept all criticism – concentrate on the points that seem fair or helpful; however, if editors keep making the same criticisms, at least consider that they may be right.

Splendid InteriorCharles Wilkinson’s newest offering, Splendid in Ash, is currently available from the fine folks at Egaeus Press.

It is limited to 300 copies.

“Splendid in ash…”
— Sir Thomas Browne, ‘Urn Burial’

Nightly Horror: An Interview

I had the distinct pleasure recently of being interviewed by Gwendolyn Kiste, an accomplished author of dark fiction whose work I have long admired. In the interview, I discuss my origins as a writer, some early and current influences, and of course the continuing saga that is Nightscript, my annual anthology of “strange and darksome” tales. Don’t hesitate to investigate Gwendolyn’s blog, which is an essential resource for new and established writers, featuring as it does numerous author interviews and insights into the writerly life, as well as a list of venues where you can submit your work!

Nightly Horror: An Interview with Gwendolyn Kiste

Defining ‘Quiet Horror’

I was asked recently by Acep Hale, a contributor to Lovecraft eZine, to provide a definition of quiet horror. Here is what the ol’ brainpan came up with:

Quiet horror is that abandoned farm house at the end of the country road, the one you’ve returned to again and again, attracted by its grotesque beauty, its dilapidation, its mystery. It fills you with wonder, and most of the time you’re not entirely certain why. And that’s okay. The unknowns in life make things interesting, prod the imagination into fashioning the subtle horrors it so often seeks. You’ve snapped dozens of photos of the derelict structure, not only of its exterior but the interior as well, a select portion of which now reside along your apartment wall in sleek obsidian frames. The bustling metropolis outside your bay window is another kind of horror, more visceral, more in-your-face, brimming with not-always-wanted noise. But there is escape. You need only return to that spectral wall and gaze at the subtle, dreamlike images you have captured, experiencing that quiet and satisfying thrill yet again. The solitude of open space and the broken bit of mystery which lies upon it—a sensation and an image which linger long and challenge easy resolution.

Be sure to give the full article a look-see, as it contains four additional (and perhaps more illuminating) write-ups of quiet horror.

Scripting October

FullSizeRenderToday marks the official release-date of Nightscript, and I must say that I am overjoyed (and a bit relieved) to finally be able to craft this entry. When I originally announced, back in January, that I was planning to publish an anthology devoted to “strange stories,” I was amazed by the positive response. I can only hope that now, ten months later, this interest still holds. Now that the journal has become a reality, it’s hard to imagine that I nearly shelved the idea, thinking the project would take away from my own writing and (even more importantly) family life. But the exact opposite occurred. During the stages of fashioning the anthology, I found myself in the midst of various (and most welcome) surges of creativity, and my kids were delighted to see how a book comes together. I can only hope that I have created an exciting new venue which will thrive (in the form of numerous subsequent volumes) for many years to come. And now, good reader, it’s time to take the plunge. The nøkk awaits…

Nightscript can be purchased from

Thank you for your patronage!

Of Dreams & Decay

samuels-written_in_darknessIn 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.

The Chance Reader

The Moon Will Look StrangeI’ve only recently become acquainted with Lynda E. Rucker’s excellent nonfiction column “Blood Pudding” in the pages of Black Static, and while familiar with her debut collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, I came to it a bit like the shadowy figure in one of the book’s finer offerings, “The Chance Walker,” a character who loops the neighborhood waiting for the appropriate moment to infect the protagonist’s world. There is a right time for everything, and I am thankful to whatever force (well, okay, social media) that pushed me beyond the moon-haunted cover and into these eleven strange stories. Every tale was a joy to read, though I did of course have favorites: “The Burned House,” “No More A-Rovin,” “Ash-Mouth,” as well as the above-mentioned tale, are modern classics that beg revisiting. As Steve Rasnic Tem so eloquently states in his introduction: “Rucker’s great talent is that she is able to carefully build a perceptive portrayal of the real world and in the process of that exploration find that edge where the everyday dissolves and the numinous begins.” Many of Rucker’s protagonists dwell on the past, and this past oftentimes creeps into and becomes inextricably linked with the present. “The Burned House” is a perfect example, where an elderly resident lingers before a neighborhood house recalling memories from her past, and the further she investigates (literally and in memory) the more “attached” she becomes not only to the house but its scarred “residents.” In the “Author’s Note,” Rucker admits that her own past does not fade with age, but is ever-present, and this is one of the engines which power her tales. Place is also an important driver, and the collection is filled with a delectable mix of locales. Whether this be the west of Ireland (as in “No More A-Rovin”), the North Georgia mountains (as in “These Things We Have Always Known”), or the urban labyrinth of the Czech Republic (as in “The Chance Walker”), we are met with tales rich in place-detail, often to an overwhelming degree. It might be appropriate to end by quoting from this latter tale, speaking as it does to the stories’ contagious staying power: “That something was always waiting in Cold Rest we all knew….When you dreamed it you never could remember the following day, just a kind of uneasiness like something had crawled into your brain in the night and left the faintest of markings behind, a gloss of breath where your own thoughts used to lie.”

The Moon Will Look Strange is published by Karoshi Books and can be purchased from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Also, be sure to visit Lynda E. Rucker’s blog as well as her column in Black Static.

Clint Smith — Interview

In my previous post, I profiled Clint Smith’s Ghouljaw & Other Stories, which to my mind is one of the finest debuts of 2014. The author, a bright new talent in the field, was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions.

What dClint Smithraws you to the writing game, and Weird Fiction in general?

Saul Bellow wrote that a writer is a reader moved to emulation, and like many writers (I’d venture to guess) I fell in love with the act of reading before I started making (amateurish) attempts at penning anything considered “work.” Around that same period, I’d exhausted myself (and quite frankly lost intrinsic interest) in dabbling with other artistic mediums—illustration and music among them. I saw writing and poetry as solo crafts, ones that really spoke to those with “loner” tendencies (though this notion is a bit misleading, as the craft is dependent upon human engagement for the whole damn thing to work). Writing was simultaneously solitary and humanistically reciprocal.

The gravitation toward Weird Fiction was, and still is, a pretty natural compulsion. Though, I’d have to say that—owing both how I was regionally socialized (rural legends, agrarian ghost stories) and some of the aesthetic choices I was enamored with as a boy—I am more or less hardwired to literarily drift in the direction of the “weird.” To put another way, the essence of “weird” and “strange” is the taproot of my artistic temperament.

When did your desire to tell stories begin, and who were some of your earliest inspirations?

First, I think being read to as a small child was a tremendously indelible thing for my parents to do. Yes, when you’re little there are pictures portraying action in front of you, but when you begin developing your own day-dream narratives those layered, mental pictures begin to distort themselves and take on new shapes. One book in particular that resonates (in a multitude of ways) from my childhood is The Magical Drawings of Moony B. Finch by David McPhail (I still have the original copy and have passed on the tradition by reading to both my little ones). Eventually, the imagistic “training wheels” are removed when you move on to bigger books and begin pairing those deeply-aesthetics with black-and-white narratives.

Old radio shows, too, had a formative effect. Back when I was a kid, radio stations, late at night, would air broadcasts of old radio shows—mysteries, romances, ghost stories. I’d drift to sleep with stories and soap operas playing out in my little head. This medium of entertainment was important because, similar to reading, listeners are provided with words and action, and it’s the audiences job to do the mental illustration, to formulate images. The Shadow, Dark Fantasy, Inner Sanctum, and The Black Museum are still my favorites.

As a sort of sidebar, though I was not raised in a fundamentally religious home, it was difficult not to have some exposure to biblical texts and tales; and as a kid I confronted some inextricably disturbing horror stories and weird tales in the Bible—chief among them is the seductive betrayal, graphic torture, and revenge of Samson, along with the supernaturally subjective and prolonged abuse of Job.

Something Wicked This Way ComesBut Ray Bradbury, more than anything, stands out most prominently during those formative years. For the sake of brevity, I’ll quickly cite “I Sing the Body Electric” and Something Wicked This Way Comes as having profound aesthetic and thematic influences. Even David Grove’s movie poster artwork for Disney’s adaptation of Something Wicked is vividly tattooed in my imagination with heavy ink.

The story of Something Wicked is itself entertaining, but it was only years later when I re-read the prologue—“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys”—that I was intrigued by the trick of forming images as it related to text. It was the way Bradbury captured places, people, and unfolded stories that now had my attention: “And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” Lines like this made me wonder, How the hell does a writer do that? I wanted to learn the trick, wanted to emulate a similar “illusion.”

Who are your greatest writerly influences, both past and present?

I’ve mentioned Bradbury as a sort of bedrock influence, but after I began to seriously approach the craft of writing (as more of an apprentice than anything else), the authors that placed the most nascent impressions on me were Dan Simmons, Shirley Jackson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Matheson, Poe, Joyce Carol Oates, Charles L. Grant, Lovecraft, Flannery O’Conner, and Nabokov. In particular, I’ll point to the horror and dark stories of Dan Simmons (Summer of Night, Carrion Comfort, and the short fiction in Prayers to Broken Stones) as leading influences still today. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the poets Thomas Lux and Charles Simic.

As far as writers who’ve had a more contemporary influence for me—ones that I admire for their voice, style, and narrative approach—are Joe Hill, Stewart O’Nan, Norman Partridge, Benjamin Percy, and fellow Hoosiers Ben H. Winters, Michael Koryta, and Frank Bill. I’m reading Donnybrook by Bill right now. Deliciously ferocious.

In your opinion, what are the ingredients of an effective weird tale?

The “weird tale” is, for me, a class that’s sustained by a deeply-threaded discordance and an impossible-to-erase echo—yes, in part owing to the single-effect that Poe discussed, but what I’m referring to is the reader becomes unsettled by the underlying approach. Maybe some key ingredients would be an element of fatalism, moral or mental deterioration (whatever requires calling into question the accuracy of perception), and maybe a satisfying though indeterminate denouement (something in the vein of classic John Carpenter films).

Joseph Conrad wrote that a writer of imaginative prose stands confessed in their work, and I think that a weird tale works if the fabric of the tale is (whether consciously or not) constructed by someone with intrinsic strangeness, someone who is literarily mercurial—a bit of a wild card. Weird tales don’t really fit in, and neither do their designers.

Are there any particular stories from the “Library of Weird Fiction” (or outside of it) which you feel are worthy of constant study?

I’m certain this comes off as passé but I’ll be brief—I’ll start with Lovecraft. The first story I read of his was “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and the tale provided me with a lot of direction. From there, I would submit “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and (one of my all-time favorites) “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

Shapes of MidnightAnachronistically moving around a bit, I’d devote time to writers like Ambrose Bierce (“Beyond the Wall,” “The Spook House”) and Nathaniel Hawthorne—Mosses From an Old Manse and Twice-told Tales both have marvelous stories. It may be a lesser known name, but Joseph Payne Brennan’s collection The Shapes of Midnight was a real revelation for me, and I’d highly recommend “Canavan’s Back Yard,” “The Corpse of Charlie Rull,” and “The Horror at Chilton Castle” for those seeking satisfying tales. Robert W. Chambers (“The King in Yellow,” “The Yellow Sign”) is an outstanding practitioner, and I think any student of the “weird” would do well to examine “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (supremely sinister) by Clark Ashton Smith. “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen is indefatigably disturbing, and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from it over the years.

In the introduction to Ghouljaw, S.T. Joshi rightly commends your originality in regard to “the weird concept”. Do you fashion your tales around such concepts or do they take shape in the telling? 

Really interesting question. It’s like that adage, I suppose: there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them. From an external standpoint, my sensibilities have been so profoundly shaped by weird concepts (in addition to the book-based stories I grew up loving, I also relished Serling’s Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, both of which are responsible for formative impressions) that it’s difficult not to confront them, in one aspect or another, as I write. And yet—though I’ve mentioned the writerly impulse of emulation—I’m more satisfied by independent assembly.

I have a profound respect for this particular genre or weird “school,” and when I begin to tread too close to what I think is predictable or cliché, I veer off in a different direction. This may cause another dilemma in the narrative, but it’s worth it to mentally construct an alternate route.

The only story I’ve consciously utilized as a sort of scaffolding is Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (which it looks like I’ll discuss presently) for the piece, “The Tell-Tale Offal.”

It is evident upon reading your macabre tale “The Tell-Tale Offal” that you have spent a great deal of time in the culinary industry. Is there a correlation between fashioning fiction and food?

Personally, there is a great deal of correlation. I began writing in private around the same time I enrolled in culinary school in Chicago. This was the early 2000s, and at that point I’d already been in the restaurant industry for several years. But it wasn’t until much later that I began to draw parallels between the vocations of writing and culinary arts.

More than anything, writers and chefs have to trust what is on their respective pages and plates. I rely heavily on Henry James’s sentiment that there is only one recipe: to care a great deal for the cookery. In both crafts there are totemic techniques and innumerable ingredients, but it’s how we utilize, balance, and respect those components that creates harmony and lends itself to resonance.

Whether a writer submits a manuscript from a desk, or a cook sends out a meticulously presented plate to a dining room from the kitchen, both have to deliver a satisfying message. Everything should be communicated there—the hours of practice, research, references, tradition, personality. What’s on the plate and what’s on the page should tell you the whole story.

Do you have any personal favorites among the fourteen tales which comprise Ghouljaw? If so, please describe their genesis.

For the sake of sentimentality, I’d point to the titular story, “Ghouljaw.” This is one of my earliest “apprentice” pieces, and it’s the story that I supplied to S.T. Joshi the first time I met him after a lecture he’d given in Indianapolis. A few days later he contacted me about submitting another story (which ended up being “Benthos”).

To pick favorites would be “What About the Little One” for its slowly-constructed conclusion and “The Day of the Earwig” for the small tricks I attempted to imbed within the narrative.

Towns such as New Bethel and Deacon’s Creek appear in many of your stories. Are these real or imagined or a combination of both, and do you plan to create fictional havoc in these locations in the future?

New Bethel is a sort of composite for the best and worst of small town life (more or less a flawed version of Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois), and sometimes the stories and psychologies seem more suited to a place that may provide hope, yet, as perception becomes distorted, may become more of a haunting environment.

But there are definitely more supernatural elements in Deacon’s Creek. I’ve always viewed Deacon’s Creek as fundamentally sinister, sort of a Midwest Bermuda Triangle for monsters.

Readers of Ghouljaw have the option of purchasing a “book soundtrack”, which contains a track for each story. How did this collaboration with Allen Kell come about?

I must say that, in addition to a list of literary comrades and acquaintances, I’m profoundly fortunate to have creatively-driven friends—people I’ve known since childhood who’ve refined their skills in adulthood.

Allen is a good friend with whom I grew up. He lived in the same rural “region” as I did (we’ve heard the same ghost stories, same farmland legends), and I’d venture to say we share many of the same creative sensibilities and appreciate similar aesthetics. I’d never heard of a fiction-music collaboration, and when I began seriously tinkering with the notion, Kell was the first guy that came to mind. As it happens, Kell has been dabbling in this sort of thing as a side-project between creative bouts with his main band, Shadeland. So as grateful as I was (and am) that he agreed to this project, I think he was eager to accept the challenge for the sake of his own creative process.

Are there any current or future writing projects you wish to discuss?

I’m currently completing a short stack of stories (line-editing, some narrative whittling) and drafting two longer tales (a farming-related narrative and a food-related story), one of which will be transformed into a novel.

Additional information pertaining to Clint Smith’s work can be found at his website.

Ghouljaw: The Book is available through Hippocampus, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Ghouljaw: The Soundtrack is available through iTunes or cdbaby.

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.

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.

Fawver, in Pieces

Forever FawverIn the biographical sketch of Kurt Fawver’s debut collection, the author states that “when he’s not writing nightmarish arcana, he’s teaching college students the joys of reading Clive Barker’s Books of Blood.” Being an acolyte of Barker’s work in my university years, I think I would have quite enjoyed such a professor. Those days long past, the next best thing is having a listen to the sustained dark lecture that is Forever, in Pieces.

The collection contains ten longer stories, interspersed with eight masterful vignettes. It is bookended with tales focusing on the sea (both planetary and cosmic), stories which evoke a fear of the unknown in fresh and masterful ways. “The Waves From Afar” concerns a zombie-like virus which entices people to wade into the sea and simply stare at the aurora borealis which the now alien waters have become, remaining there until they literally disintegrate and float off to whatever dark god awaits. The story is told from the point of view of a grieving father, whose wife and children are among the afflicted, making it an unexpectedly poignant tale.

If my mention of “zombie” has turned off potential readers, please do yourself a favor and cast aside all your preconceptions. Personally, I am no longer a fan of the ever-pervasive zombie genre, but after reading this (and many other tales in which Fawver examines the trope), I can honestly say that my interest in the undead has been reanimated. In “Rub-A-Dub-Dub”, we encounter a satisfying mix of said nursery rhyme and “Cthulhu Mythos” tale, wherein three convicts are chained in a “tub” and cast into the sea to be subsumed by the leviathan residing within. I mention “Cthulhu” only in the sense that the story involves a dark deity of the sea whose influence affects all of humanity. But this tale goes far beyond any Lovecraftian pastiche.

Indeed, Fawver has an original, and at times twisted, imagination. He is also a great stylist, and has that rare ability of layering his fiction with philosophical and symbolic meaning which blends effortlessly with the visceral text. I am reminded here of something which Thomas Pynchon once said about the way he constructs and edits his own work: that with each read-through a new layer to his story is added, like the transparent leaves of an anatomical chart of the human body slowly conforming to a whole. And, riffing off said anatomical chart, these tales do at times get rather visceral—read the title story and you will undoubtedly recall Barker’s “Hellbound Heart”, what with its strange box and hellish birth.

While it’s hard to pick a favorite of the bunch, I think that the one which resonated most with me was “Birth Day”, which reaches deep into the anxiety-bombarded psyche of most expectant fathers in the days and hours leading up to the birth of their first child. I can only speak for myself, of course, but that tale completely captured the trepidation of becoming a parent for the first time.

I could go on and on about these wonderful tales, but it might be best to quote a passage from Fawver himself in his introduction (one of the best pieces of “lead in” literature I’ve read in a long while): “While there’s plenty of splatter and shadow in my stories, my explicit intent is neither to shock nor cause bouts of nausea. No, for the most part, the purpose of my fiction is to unsettle. I want my readers to come away from my stories with a chink in their preconceptions and a tremor in their beliefs. If you’re entertained by my work on a visceral level, I’m thrilled. But if my stories also force you to exercise your intellect—even just a little bit—then I’ve truly succeeded as a writer.”

In my humble opinion, Mr. Fawver has more than succeeded in what he set out to accomplish. This is a rich collection of dark gems, every bit as absorbing as the aforementioned Books of Blood. I should also mention that the majority of the “pieces” are illustrated by Luke Spooner, adding yet another terrific layer to the whole. And that cover! You’re wondering what it’s all about, aren’t you? You’re curious, I can tell. Go on, open the box.


Ana Kai TangataCosmic, chthonic, horrific, ouroboric, erotic….These are just a few of the adjectives I would select to describe Scott Nicolay’s debut collection, Ana Kai Tangata. For this is the tome of a powerhouse, of a writer who has read widely both in and out of his chosen field, culling language and modes of storytelling and molding them into smart and compelling narratives. Whether it be the pulpy noir madness of “Tuckahoe”; the poignant tale of cosmic horror, “The Bad Outer Space” (which is one of the finest examples of this class of fiction I have ever read); or the supreme Easter Island tale, “Ana Kai Tangata” (which brings to mind, and in fact rivals, Donald Wandrei’s classic The Web of Easter Island), the reader is served up some seriously intoxicating narrative cocktails. These eight tales read as though the author has experienced every last aspect of them and has only now been given a lighted sanctuary in which to share his dark marvels. This perhaps sounds cliched, but in this instance I encourage the potential reader to prove me wrong. Two authors who readily came to mind during my reading were Terry Lamsley and David J. Schow. Readers familiar with either of these scriveners know how powerful each can be in their own realm of storytelling. So, am I suggesting a cross between “strange story” and “splatterpunk”? Well, in a sense. Let’s just put it this way: Nicolay likes to have fun with his lengthy narratives, and he’s not afraid to tackle subject matter which others might shy away from (intense erotica, if you must know; indeed, the author even warns his own mother from proceeding any further than the acknowledgements page). There is a delectable mix of classicism and over-the-top pulp horror to be found in the pages Ana Kai Tangata, and I for one have been altered by the text. This is a tremendous and important debut, and one which firmly places Scott Nicolay into the upper echelon of writers currently operating in the field of weird fiction.

Ana Kai Tangata is available direct from the publisher, Fedogan & Bremer.

An Exquisite Ghost

Alice WalksOne of my favorite novels of the past year was this ghostly little gem. Here is a mini-review I penned on Goodreads back in August.

There are few books which infect me to a degree that I simply cannot put them down, books that need to be carried around or kept in close proximity even when I am not actively reading them. Such was the case with Michael Aronovitz’s exquisite first novel, Alice Walks, which contains a narrative power I have not encountered since The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist is a young boy whose “voice” is the equal of Holden Caulfield, though not derivative; and this, coupled with the inventive (and wholly original) ghost story on display, makes for quite a scintillating read. The ghost of Alice Arthur is one of the most chilling antagonists ever to see the light of day (or in this case, the dark of night).

Alice Walks is available direct from the publisher, Centipede Press.

Acceptance in Shadows

STT2014This has been quite a week for the old scrivener. On Tuesday morning I learned that a story of mine, entitled “Vrangr”, was accepted for publication in the esteemed journal Shadows and Tall Trees (edited by Michael Kelly).

It is equally thrilling to report that this is my first official sale. As a writer who has faced his share of rejection letters, such an acceptance (and in a journal that I have always held in the highest regard, and which has published some of my very favorite authors) is cause for celebration; and believe me, I have done my fair share.

The issue containing “Vrangr” is due to be published in May 2014, in both trade paperback and e-book formats. What will I do in the interim? Write, of course. And with the added impetus of this future publication, I have received a boost of confidence that is absolutely priceless. Every writer questions themselves from time to time over the validity of their work, so to have a story accepted by an editor (especially one so respected in the field) is beyond words.

Writing is, as we’ve all heard before, a solitary endeavor wherein you spend countless hours writing, revising, and trying to perfect your work to the best possible degree. And the idea of seeing that work in print is always the light at what can seem at times like an endless tunnel. Finally arriving at that light, and then stepping through, is a bit overwhelming. You stumble forth a changed person. Not in the sense of ego, but in that of future possibility.

When I started this blog a little over a year ago, one of my secret desires was to one day craft such a post as this.

And here it is at last….

“Surface” Redux

Scratching the SurfaceMore often than not, upon encountering an author who intrigues me, my first impulse is to hit the internet in search of their corpus. And, almost invariably, I encounter that certain book which has either slipped into obscurity or is available but at a cost well beyond my means.

Such was the case with Michael Kelly’s first collection, Scratching the Surface, which was originally published in 2007. Having recently read the author’s 2009 collection, Undertow and Other Laments, I quickly began pining after the first.

Thankfully, Mr. Kelly has answered the call, having recently republished the book under the auspices his own imprint, Undertow Publications. It contains twenty stories, all of which hold magic enough to linger in the mind long after they have been consumed.

The title story alone is worthy of the purchase of this book. It concerns a man known only as “Silva” and the young boy who first befriends and then learns his strange craft. The name Charles Beaumont (of Twilight Zone fame) is brought up in an illuminating introduction by John Pelan, and I must say that the tale is as wonderfully conceived as any by that past master.

Some of the other standouts include: “Thin Red Wire,” an excellent dystopian tale which brings to mind the work of Richard Paul Russo; “Warm Wet Circles”, which had the obsessive oddness of Michael McDowell’s Toplin; “Sea of Ash and Sorrow”, a beautifully horrific post-9/11 tale reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s “The Lake”.

And while I could continue down the line through all twenty tales, I shall end by encouraging any and all who love carefully crafted works of horror to pick up a copy, for all the tales are brilliant in their own way.

Do visit Mr. Kelly’s website for ordering details, as well as information pertaining to his esteemed journal, Shadows & Tall Trees.

RIP — Jack Koblas

Jack KoblasIt was with profound sadness that I learned of the death of Jack Koblas this past Friday. Mr. Koblas was 70 years young and was the author of numerous books, primarily in the historical and weird fiction vein. He was a member of The Magpies (a group of musicians recently inducted into the Music Hall of Fame), a co-editor of the seminal small press magazine Etchings & Odysseys, a close personal friend of Donald Wandrei (and various other members of the Lovecraft Circle), and an all-around fascinating individual. Last year he was the recipient of the Minnesota Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and saw the release of two new books: Ghost Stories and Other Dark Tales (see my review here) and The Lovecraft Circle and Others. Both of these volumes had been in the works for over a decade and were greatly anticipated by many in the Lovecraft community. While the former collected nearly all of Mr. Koblas’ fantasy/horror/weird fiction, the latter contained interviews and reminiscences of numerous authors connected in some way to the Lovecraft Circle. Both are fascinating reads, and each hold a prominent place in my Weird Library.

I first met Mr. Koblas over twenty years ago, when I was invited to join a writing group devoted to Lovecraft and various other matters. And while the time I spent with Mr. Koblas might be considered limited in the scheme of things, I have and continue to draw inestimable inspiration from him. In a roundabout way, I consider him my mentor. Many years ago, when I learned of his intent to use the opening line of one of my early (and quite forgettable) horror tales in a writing course he was teaching, I was dumbfounded and elated both. But this was the type of writerly generosity Mr. Koblas was known for, as I am sure numerous of his other friends can attest — particularly those who found themselves cast as the protagonist in one of his tales.

Of late, I too found myself fictionalized into a story which Mr. Koblas was planning to include in a new collection of horror fiction. It is entitled “Mere Image” and still resides in a first draft stage, but it is more than a fitting keepsake. Rereading it this past weekend brought tears to my eyes, not for the selfish reason that it will most likely never see print, but because of the cold, hard fact that the Old Scrivener, my friend and my mentor, has been silenced, and far too soon.

But, oh, what a stunning oeuvre this Literary Lion did roar!

Thank you, Jackal, for everything….

Fearsome Altars

If I were limited to one word in which to describe Richard Gavin’s new collection of tales, that word would quite simply be: rich. Rich in symbol, rich in characterization, rich in imagination, rich in utter uniqueness of plot, and last but not least, rich in its use of language, which is very fine indeed. From its first tale, “Chapel in the Reeds”, to its concluding novella, “The Eldritch Faith”, we are immersed in some of the finest weird tales the field has to offer, which run the gamut from traditional to Lovecraftian, but always told in Mr. Gavin’s inimitable voice.

The book is dedicated to Clive Barker and to the memory of Algernon Blackwood. While the latter is not so surprising (since Mr. Gavin’s tales are as carefully-wrought as any of that past master’s), the former struck me as odd, but in the most pleasing and nostalgic way. Barker was a scribe who I near worshipped back in the beginning, back when I was starting to understand the power of good writing. And in Mr. Gavin we find this in spades. It’s not often that a collection this consistently good comes along. Don’t hesitate to obtain a copy, what with its lovely Harry O. Morris cover, and its overwhelming richness….

At Fear’s Altar is available through Hippocampus Press.

As a side note, Mr. Gavin has also been doing a series of highly enjoyable essays on Horror, which can be found at The Teeming Brain.

Time to “Aim High”

I am happy to report that Aim High is now available for purchase. This marks the culmination of a nearly year-long project undertaken by myself and A. M. Decker. For this weird scrivener, it has been the project of a lifetime.

From the front flap: “The wonderfully weird work of Joseph A. West has graced the covers and interior pages of many a small-press magazine over the years, but until now it has never been collected in a single volume. Aim High exhibits the majority of Mr. West’s poetry, prose and artwork. Weird, macabre, morbid (call it what you will) no one does it quite like the inimitable Joe West. Horror and humor intermingle to stunning effect in this monumental collection by one of the true masters of the field.”

Aim High is nearly 300 pages and is available in paperback and hardcover. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, please visit

Koblas’ Dark Tales

October has always been a favorite month for this weird scrivener, and this year it has been enhanced tenfold with the release of Jack Koblas’ exceptional Ghost Stories and Other Dark Tales. Winner of the 2012 Minnesota Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievment, Mr. Koblas is no stranger to us North Country folk. In fact, he is a bit of a local legend. And while he is perhaps best known as a writer of historical non-fiction, it is his influence in the dark fantasy scene of the 70s and 80s which is beyond compare, co-founding no less a publication than Etchings & Odysseys, as well as being the core architect (with Eric J. Carlson) of MinnCon, an annual convention begun in 1971 and which continues to this day under the name Arcana.

Reading through the forty-seven offerings in Ghost Stories, I was struck first and foremost by the absolute command of language, and second by the sheer diversity of the tales. While there are numerous Lovecraftian nightmares, here too you will find history, sci-fi, outlaw fiction, and a few gems that would make Rod Serling proud. Mr. Koblas’ range is utterly astonishing. Here is an author who has studied and learned well from past masters, and who has fashioned tales which can stand right alongside the masterworks of the last century. Mr. Koblas knows his craft inside and out, and in addition to this he is an exceptional poet. One particular tale, “The Pond”, contains a line which I find, in context, absolutely haunting: “It [the pond] was like an eye of the earth, lined with lashes of dark dead stands of wavering birch and pine…”

But not only is the writing stylistically exceptional, the command of material is second-to-none. Whether the tale be centered in the Wisconsin backwoods, a movie theater with John Dillinger, the Himalayas, an observatory in Anoka, a cavern in New Mexico, an elevator in the Empire State Building, or on some distant inhospitable planet, Mr. Koblas has done his research. We not only receive terror-inducing chills, but a history lesson as well. Not many writers have the ability to both terrify and edify, but we find these qualities in spades in the dark and inimitable fiction of Jack Koblas.

Ghost Stories and Other Dark Tales is available from George A. Vanderburgh’s Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, a Canadian small press which has also released another Koblas gem — the enticingly titled The Lovecraft Circle and Others.

Both of these titles are available locally at DreamHaven Books.