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.

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.

Cosmic-chthonicon

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.

“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.

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.

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.

Lonesome Places

Recently, upon informing a friend that I was planning an excursion to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, with a side trip expected to Sauk City (the hometown of August Derleth and Arkham House), I was told that I must seek out “the lonesome place”. Now, it should be said that this friend of mine has amassed quite a collection of Arkham House books over the years and was gracious enough to lend me his copy of Lonesome Places (1962) so that I might better prepare myself for this journey into the dark heart of my neighboring state. While I have read my fair share of Derleth, I had never once heard of this particular “place” or the volume in which it first appeared. Needless to say, I consumed the book in the space of a few nights; and, while I enjoyed most of the offerings, the two which stood out as exceptional pieces of literary weird fiction were “The Lonesome Place” and “A Room in a House”. Both center upon the “dark things” which are given life through a child’s terror of (in these instances) either having to pass by an unlit grain elevator at night or spending time in a darkened storage room as punishment for wrongdoing. In my opinion, Derleth is at his very best in these particular tales. They are perfectly crafted and offer a delightful view of small town life. Both are definitely worth seeking out. Indeed, I have already added them to my own ever-growing anthology of weird treasures.

Wyckoff’s Black Horse

My first encounter with Mr. Wyckoff’s Black Horse came whilst browsing a favorite local book haunt a few months back. My reasons then for not purchasing the beautiful hardback were both financial (as much as I love Tartarus Press, my limited income keeps the rate of their acquisition to a minimum) and the fact that I had never heard of the author before. So, regrettably, I passed. The following night, as I researched the book online, I discovered that it also existed as an e-book (a practice which Tartarus has undertaken as of late, and for which I am entirely grateful). While I am most definitely a book lover (in the physical, typeset, printed-and-bound sense), I always jump at the opportunity to get my hands on the words of an author, no matter the format.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read such an inspired collection of writing. I wish that my word alone held sufficient authority to encourage you to purchase Black Horse, but alas that is not how it works. Then again, I in no way wish to explain away even one of the tales, for that would deprive you of a series of fine experiences indeed. Suffice it to say, each of the tales contained within are uniquely original gems told in a masterful voice. Like Robert Aickman, Mr. Wyckoff has classed his fictions “strange stories”, and while the former would be the logical comparison, one is sure to sense the presence of many another past master. This is not to say that the author is concerned even remotely with pastiche. No, Mr. Wyckoff is a complete original.

This may be the first collection which I have read wherein each succeeding story seems to outdo its predecessor. This is not to say that the first tale is mere ordinary fare, while the last exceeds all powers of storytelling. It only feels that way, which just goes to show how well the collection is arranged. Perhaps, too, it has something to do with the masterful variety of viewpoints housed within. Additionally, there is a wonderful sense of ambiguity relayed at the end of many of the tales — allowing us to chew on the bit, as it were.

The fact that this is the author’s first collection, it is thrilling to imagine what future brilliance Mr. Wyckoff will bestow upon us. Any burgeoning writer interested in crafting their own “strange stories” would do well to read, re-read, and then continue an intimate study of Black Horse.