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.

Strantzas’ Song

There is a masterful consistency to be found in the fiction of Simon Strantzas which inspires and motivates me to work that much harder when crafting my own work. Strantzas is the author of three collections: Beneath the Surface, Cold to the Touch, and most recently Nightingale Songs, all of which are available from Dark Regions Press. He is continually compared to Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman, and I find this mix delectable. Besides producing one exceptional story after another, he also keeps a regular blog. I have a printed version of one such post (dated March 21, 2010) which I retain as a permanent fixture in my “weird fiction notebook”. It is there to remind me of the importance of biding your time when developing your first collection, making certain you are including only your strongest material and arranging it in the best possible manner. As hard as it is to set aside something you have written, remember that no artist creates a perfect piece each go round. I encourage all new writers to visit Stranzas’ website. And then be sure to read everything this phenomenal author has written.

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.

Weird Heritage

One of the most pleasing discoveries of my life came whilst researching my family roots: I found that I was related to an individual by the name of Jonas Lie (1833-1908). I had never heard of this Norwegian author before, but the fact that he was an author was more than enough to inspire me to find out all I could about the man. I discovered, of course, that Lie (pronounced Lee) is a big deal in Norway, linked with Hamsun, Ibsen, and Bjørnson as one of “de store fire” (the big four). I became obsessed, to say the least, obtaining as many books as I could find by this famous relative of mine. Weird Tales from Northern Seas is just one of many I have amassed over the years, but it is by far (at least to this weird writer) the most inspiring and meaningful.

The Man Who Collected Samuels

An author who consistently impresses me, and from whom I draw inestimable inspiration, is Mark Samuels. While I do not recall the online story which began my obsession, I do know that it affected me greatly and pushed me to seek out any and all of his works. First came his collection The White Hands from Tartarus Press, then Glyphotech from PS Publishing, and most recently The Man Who Collected Machen from Ex Occidente Press and Chômu Press, respectively. Mr. Samuels is responsible for inadvertently encouraging me to revisit my own weird fiction roots. Indeed, this was the form in which I first attempted to write in my late teens, and which preoccupies my thoughts and scribblings these days. Mark Samuels has that rare ability to seem both modern and classic in the same instant. He is an author who will be read and admired well into the coming centuries.