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.

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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.

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.

“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.

Southard Skies

Red SkyRed Sky is rewarding on so many levels. The story itself is simple yet ingenious, the characters likable, the monsters equally likable, and the writing spot-on. If you can get past the somewhat garish cover (which is tame compared to other Deadite Press offerings), you will be thrust into a highly enjoyable tale.

The story begins with a botched bank robbery, from which the main protagonist and his crew narrowly escape. They need a place to hole up for a few days, and they make the mistake of doing so in an abandoned factory in the deserts of New Mexico, once operated by a mysterious company called Red Sky. But the place is far from abandoned, as our battle-scarred crew soon discover.

While this is a fairly short novel (just barely tipping the 200-page mark), it is as rich and developed as works twice its size; which just goes to show how talented Mr. Southard is. Concise plotting, pitch-perfect dialogue and descriptive prowess make this novel rise above the common fare.

Endings are almost always problematic (for both writer and reader), but I must say that Mr. Southard pulls off an amazing (and quite emotionally powerful) denouement. Those looking for an intensely horrific story filled with brilliant patches of humanity need go no further than Red Sky.

Occam House

“The Colour Out of Space”, Lovecraft’s seminal tale of cosmic horror, is an absolute favorite of this weird scrivener. It is a tale which has lingered in my mind ever since I first consumed it some twenty years ago, and which entices me back to at least one annual reread. When I learned that Jonathan Thomas (a writer whom I greatly admire and whose two short story collections, Midnight Call and Tempting Providence, I hold as textbooks on how to construct an effective weird tale) was working on a novel that envisioned Lovecraft’s “colour” into the present, I was enthused to say the least. Knowing how strong Thomas is in the short story mode, I was curious to see how he handled a novel-length treatment.

I was not disappointed. Indeed, The Color Over Occam is one of the most enjoyable narratives I have read in a long, long while. Thomas’ talents are mind-altering. I could not help but think that if Lovecraft was working in the current day and age he might very well be writing in a mode similar to Thomas. Smart, funny, satiric, idiosyncratic, erudite. Thomas, like Lovecraft, is a brilliant storyteller, whose ability to turn a phrase is, in my humble opinion, unrivaled in the field of weird fiction or, alas, in Ivory Tower territory. Here is an author who has studied literature and life for many a year and who, like some venerable sage, has only now begun to bestow us with the gifts of his learning.

The novel takes as its main protagonist an Occam civil servant named Jeffrey Slater, who in his free time is an amateur paranormal sleuth. The opening of the novel finds Slater and his companion investigating the Gorman County reservoir (the very reservoir which was hinted at in the finale of Lovecraft’s tale) for “corpse-lights” which have become visible therein. This is a perfect set-up in which to re-introduce the nefarious “color”, and the remainder of the novel follows its gradual infiltration (via the water supply) into Occam’s organic life, to horrifying effect. Thomas, it must be said, is a master of horror and humor, and I found myself experiencing both emotions throughout. A delectable combination, I must say, a sort of cosmic comicism. Thomas is also a master of characterization, and Slater’s cool reserve and pop culture hipness bears comparison to the unique souls who roam the work of Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami.

While it is clear that Thomas was greatly inspired by “The Colour Out of Space”, he makes the story entirely his own. Unlike most “mythos” novels I have read, Thomas does not rely too heavily on “mythos speak”, as it were. Indeed, the novel could easily be read and enjoyed without having prior knowledge of the story which informed it.

When the compulsion grows (like that damnable “color”) to revisit Lovecraft’s masterwork, I shall do so in conjunction with Thomas’ own.

The Color Over Occam is currently available from Miskatonic Books, and published by Arcane Wisdom Press.