Filler content with nightjars

A feature on Nightjar Press that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

QUOTH THE NIGHTJAR

While they remain part of many publishers’ bill of fare, in theory if not in practice, as far as I’m aware within the speculative field Manchester based Nightjar Press is the only publisher to specialise in chapbooks, releasing new volumes at the steady rate of two every six months. And over the past year and a half they have produced six (you probably figured that out for yourself).

Central to JACKDAWS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 11pp, £3.75) by Neil Campbell is the first person narration describing a rural setting where heavy snow and floodwater have completely transformed the landscape, giving it both a magical and minatory feel. Campbell is superb at capturing this vision of a washed out world, the beauty of nature and also the ways in which it can threaten human life, with vivid descriptive writing that brings it to life on the page. And over it all hangs the shadow of the jackdaws, silent observers of all that takes place, knowing far more than we do, if only they could tell. Woven into this text, by means of throwaway remarks and casual asides by the narrator, is the gist of the story, references to the death of a young girl, who may have drowned or perhaps met a more terrible fate.

There are scenes here that ring true from our nightly news feeds, pictures of floral tributes laid by the bereaved and the intrusive presence of the press, police divers going about their work, all of which the narrator observes with a keen eye, but never giving them too much importance. We suspect, but can never really be sure, that we are inside the mind of a killer, and how mundane it is, almost matter of fact or indifferent to the terrible thing that has been done, as if the character were no more invested in what is happening than the floodwaters or the jackdaws. And it is this monstrous indifference that cuts deepest in a remarkable depiction of outsider psychology.

Christopher Burns’ tale THE NUMBERS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 16pp, £3.75) opens with Danny arriving at the farm worked by his brother Martin and wife Sarah, and it is immediately obvious that his presence is not welcome. Danny is not good with numbers and has squandered the proceeds from his share of the family business. Now unable to get a job of any kind, he looks to his family for support, but they also find him to be of no use, more a hindrance than help, and in the past he has blotted his copy book too many times and in too many ways. Slowly Danny’s feelings of self-pity and being the recipient of an injustice mount, and the stage is set for horror.

Burns shows how Danny’s fragile mental state unravels, the feelings of worthlessness that contribute to the inevitable outcome, though there is no hint of any sympathy for the character; Danny’s ills are entirely of his own making and exacerbated by his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions. The transformation of a peaceful rural setting into a scene of violence is handled with panache, the shift from family visit to terror taking place almost in an instant and as horrific as it is unexpected. Danny is not good with numbers, but in the end, even though he doesn’t count his victims, it seems that people are only numbers to him, their lives to be ended with a chilling casualness. Like ‘Lexicon’, Burns’ previous Nightjar offering, this chapbook is the story of a killer, but here one who has no real reason for what he does beyond self-pity, and as with ‘Jackdaws’ above given an immediacy and relevance by the things we see on the news and read about in the papers. Burns seems to be saying that everywhere is a killing ground and everyone potentially a murderer.

The unnamed protagonist of FURY (Nightjar Press chapbook, 15pp, £3.75) by D. B. Waters is a crime scene investigator called late at night to a house where a family of four have been killed. From the very start, with his supervisor sitting outside the house and unable to function effectively, he realises that this is not going to be an ordinary case, and what awaits him beyond the splintered front door confirms this premonition. As the investigation continues the man’s sense of dread mounts, with further evidence that demonstrates something outré has taken place, not least the way in which the parents and their children have been killed.

In the early stages of this story we have the conflict between routine procedures, established ways of doing things, and the reality of the house which defies all logic and rationality, showing that this is an occasion in which those methods, tried and true though they are, simply won’t work. As the protagonist moves deeper into the house we see increasing signs that nothing here is abiding by the laws of cause and effect that we know and understand, and the sense of dread mounts as Waters deftly lays on his details, so that we too wonder what has so traumatised supervisor Lynn and fear what we will learn as the final pages approach. It is a bravura performance and one in which Waters doesn’t set a foot wrong, but the resolution he provides, with its hint of the protagonist’s complicity in his own undoing, feels weak and tacked on, rather than throwing any real light on what has gone before. Great journey, but not so good on the destination.

In ROUNDS (Nightjar Press chapbook, 12pp, £3.75) by Wyl Menmuir, Alice Hooper is moving into a new flat, even though she is scared of leaving the bosom of her family. As the story progresses we learn that she suffers from panic attacks and is seeing a counsellor. Her emotions become focused on a young girl on a bicycle who she sees making her rounds down the street, and in her imagination she envisages terrible things happening to the girl. The description of the girl’s smile as “satiated ferocity” has about it a hint of vengeance or the demonic even, though this could just be Alice Hooper’s interpretation.

Rounds is a strange and enigmatic tale, with Alice’s anxiety made very real to the reader and the hint of something terrible in her past as its root cause. We cannot say whether the girl is somebody real on whom Alice has fixated, a figment of her imagination, or possibly a ghost. The suggestion implicit in the material is that in some way, shape or form, a girl just like this has appeared in Alice’s past and was the instrument of her undoing, or perhaps she represents the freedom for which Alice longs but can never achieve, having not learnt to ride a bike. The title of the story and the end line suggest a cyclical quality to the events described, that what goes around comes around to quote the old cliché. The power of the work lies in this ambiguity, the sense of a bigger picture, one that the reader and Alice can only suspect is lurking outside in the wild wood seen from Alice’s window.

PAYMON’S TRIO (Nightjar Press chapbook, 16pp, £3.75) begins with aesthete Greville purchasing an occult book from an antiquarian shop, only to find hidden inside the lining of this Infernal Dictionary a musical composition that is dedicated to Paymon, accompanied by a drawing of an extraordinarily ugly man mounted on a dromedary. With two friends who are also musically inclined, he attempts to play the piece with unfortunate consequences for all concerned.

Published more than sixty years after it was written and the only work of author Colette de Curzon, this is a story of supernatural horror, the kind of thing that Reggie Oliver does so well. De Curzon isn’t quite on a par with Oliver, but the story is well told with some nice touches of detail, striking characterisation, and a growing mood of menace, while the payoff is gratifying if not entirely unexpected. It passes the time in an entertaining enough way and I am glad that it finally saw publication, though it feels very much of its time, and I suspect the moment when such a piece might have made a real splash in genre circles has long gone.

Finally we have THE AUTOMATON (Nightjar Press chapbook, 19pp, £3.75) by David Wheldon. Ostensibly a manuscript found among the effects of a British infantryman who fell in the Third Battle of Aisne, this story is set in 1905 and told from the viewpoint of a young man, the son of the caretaker at the Comedy theatre. To raise funds a chess playing machine fashioned in the form of a beautiful woman is introduced into the theatre, and our protagonist becomes fascinated with her. But eventually the regularity with which the automaton wins its matches means that the stream of gamblers dries up, and so the impresario who owns the machine intends to handicap it.

Inevitably this piece will lead to thoughts of the story ‘Moxon’s Master’ by Bierce and Poe’s exposure of ‘Maelzel’s Chess Player’, but Wheldon is his own man and has produced a many layered story in which the nature of the automaton is almost a side issue. The boy’s relationship with the machine is one of fascination and almost love, with his awareness and growing appreciation of its uniqueness and abilities, while to the impresario it means nothing more than a means to riches. The question of machine intelligence is slightly touched on, but always of secondary concern to the motives of human beings. And overlying everything is a sense of sadness and doom impending, with the suggestion that human beings are every bit as programmed and conditioned in the ways they act as any machine, and so we are inevitably marching towards the horrors of World War One and all that has come since. There is very much a feel of the end of things as we know them; that machines will change the world in ways we can only imagine; that our sense of wonder and ideas of value are on their deathbed; that the old class order and everything it entails is slowly passing away, ready to be reduced to its essentials in the fiery furnace of universal war. Ultimately this is a sad story, a fin de siècle piece, powerful for what is implied as much if not more than for what is actually said. I loved it.

Price shown includes postage within the UK and each chapbook is produced in a signed, limited edition of 200 copies. For more details check out the publisher’s website at nightjarpress.weebly.com

 

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Filler content with short story collections – Part 3

The third part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS (continued)

From Australia we have THE ABANDONMENT OF GRACE AND EVERYTHING AFTER (Brimstone Press hc, 288pp, AU$16.99) collecting together thirteen stories by Shane Jiraiya Cummings, three of which are original to this collection. In addition we have some forty odd end pages, with samples from Cummings’ other works, and Cummings provides explanatory afterwords to each individual story.

After an introduction by Stephen M. Irwin, we get into things proper with title story ‘The Abandonment of Grace and Everything After’ which has about it something of the film Prophecy as a demon and a fallen angel confront each other and discuss the End of Days. It’s an intriguing piece, Cummings giving an original spin to such matters as the Fall and the coming of the apocalypse, in a story where sparkling dialogue vies for attention with moments of visceral horror. Len is drawn to ‘The Song of Prague’ only to find himself enlisted in an epic conflict on the outcome of which the fate of reality may depend, the story starting slow and thoughtful and then moving to a crescendo of sorts, just like a symphony itself. There’s an old school horror feel to ‘The Garden Shed Pact’ which details a man’s relationship with a fearsome spider, with more than a suggestion of Dahl in the mix. Ultimately it is a slight piece, but nonetheless eminently entertaining.

In hospital and rendered deaf, Blaine finds that he can hear things nobody else can or should have to in ‘Hear No Evil’. The idea is an interesting one, that being deprived of a vital sense can open up our perception in other ways, but Cummings doesn’t really explore the implications so much as use the concept to empower a schlock horror outing that is satisfying but not really convincing in how it plays out with mad doctors committing carnage in the hospital basement. ‘Dark Heart Alley (An Urban Fable)’ contains a powerful evocation of a blighted urban landscape, one in which a remorseless killer stalks his victims, inflicting horrible death. Cummings extrapolates the slasher trope into stranger territory, taking it to a place where creatures from other dimensions fight for a foothold in our world and the desuetude on every side is symptomatic of some spiritual/metaphysical decline. Beautifully written and with striking imagery, engaging characters and novel concepts, this story is one of the highlights of the collection, giving us an original and striking monster and offering food for thought along with the expected thrills and chills.

Summoned to a hotel room in which a young woman has hung herself, Detective Taylor finds evidence of an occult ceremony, but ‘A Picture of Death’ reveals the true and alarming state of affairs. Expertly crafted, this story has the ring of verisimilitude about its depiction of police procedures, such contrastingly mundane matters playing counterpoint to the occult aspects in a piece where only the reader is privy to the whole story. ‘Blood on the Indian Pacific’ combines the romance of a long train journey with the threat of vampirism in a fast paced and gripping story that is superficially entertaining but doesn’t have much to offer in the way of originality other than the setting. As with a long train journey, we enjoy the trip but are slightly disappointed to find ourselves at a place that is really no different from the one we departed. The nadir of the collection for me is reached with ‘Ian’ whose premise might have made a decent flash fiction at two pages but stretches credibility and reader patience at six. Actually credibility was never really an issue, but in this case the attempt at ambiguity didn’t really come off. It might have been better simply to have the story’s protagonist unaware of how strange their situation is and leave the reader to fill in the blanks.

Rising television starlet Danica is abducted in ‘Razor Blade Anthropology (Guerdon for the Beautiful People)’, but the nature and motivations of her captors have about them more than touch of poetic justice. At heart this is a punchline story, initially appearing to give us a depiction of an afterlife of sorts, then snatching the carpet out from under the reader’s feet to reveal something far more intriguing, albeit it does fizzle out somewhat with the slice of black comedy at the end while seeming to promise so much more. ‘The Black Door’ reads like a metaphysical or weird version of Saw with Dr. Innes both threatened and cajoled to step over its threshold. Psychological horror entwines with the supernatural and hints of murder in a story that felt like it had more substance than was actually there, with the final cut feeling like a melange of special effects rather than a journey with any end in mind. Egyptian mythology features in ‘Sobek’s Tears’ as a soldier makes a pact with a god to wreak vengeance on Moses and the Hebrews who have overthrown all that he holds dear. This was a clever story, one in which humans are used by beings that are older and more powerful, and yet who also depend on our worship for their continued existence, in the process suggesting an explanation for the way in which the Jewish people have suffered at the hands of history in the many centuries since their flight from Egypt.

Also included are ‘The Cutting Room’ and post-apocalyptic novella ‘Phoenix and the Darkness of Wolves’, both of which I have reviewed previously. As with the Oliver above, I’ll post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blogCase Notes blog for the benefit of completists.

And last, but certainly not least, we have ZOOPRAXIS (Gauntlet Press hc, 220pp, $60/$150), the new collection from the word processor of Richard Christian Matheson containing twenty two stories, twelve of them previously unpublished. There are forewords by John Shirley and Chet Williamson, and an afterword by the author, who also provides pithy, informative introductions to each story. There’s also an afterword of sorts from artist Harry O. Morris detailing how he first met Matheson, and in addition to this Morris provides a number of his distinctive black and white illustrations as interior artwork as well as the cover image, all of which makes for a very attractive package. The book is produced in a signed numbered edition limited to 500 copies and costing $60, while for those looking for something that truly bit special (and collectible) there’s a 52 copy signed traycased lettered edition retailing at $150.

Opening story ‘How to Edit’ starts off calmly enough, with a professional writer giving advice on how to write better, but as the story progresses the tone changes, with hints of insanity creeping in and the reader left to discover how far our narrator will take his worship of minimalism. Given Matheson’s own reputation for word economy it could also be taken as a case of the writer poking gentle fun at his own methods. ‘133’ uses an idea that I’ve previously seen used by Orson Scott Card, but Matheson’s take is shorter, smarter, more cutting, as a serial killer gets his deserved comeuppance in spades. The longest story in the book at a mere seventeen pages, ‘Transfiguration’ presents us with a snapshot of madness in the form of a long haul trucker driving through the Alaskan landscape, the bleakness and inhumanity of the setting a reflection of the character’s fractured psyche, with the reader left to fill in the gaps and figure out for him or herself how much of this is real.

‘Infomercial!!!’ is another short, sharp shocker, with the nature of the product being peddled enough to traumatise the most hardened devotees of the shopping channels, and a subtext that satirises our love of consumerism by wondering if there is anything we won’t buy. ‘Making Cabinets’ is a subtle examination of the effects of serial murder on the innocent, unsuspecting relatives of the killer, the guilt engendered and mixed with inevitable feelings of horror. A man develops the ability to ‘Listen’ to the point where he is almost psychic, in tune with all of creation, but too much information proves more curse than blessing, the story delivered in staccato bursts of communication, with the layout at times suggesting lines of poetry spewed across the page. ‘Dead to Me’ is a deal with the Devil story without the Devil, Julie cursing her ex and the joy of the story resting in the delicious twist in the tale that Matheson serves up. Communicating with your pet dog turns out to be something of a double-edged blade in ‘New Tricks’ as Mike learns more than he bargained for from a pooch with attitude.

Next up we have a different spin on the subject of ‘Bulimia’, with a woman attempting to expel her personal demons, the story striking for the originality of the conceit and the feeling of toxicity conveyed by the stream of words. We get a form of survivor guilt in ‘Venturi’ with a man who has lived through a fire that burnt down his neighbourhood finding that he is now hyper-alert for the roar of flame, his whole life poisoned, the story giving us a vivid picture of what it means to be haunted by a premonition of personal doom. The shortest piece in the book, ‘Demise’ is a bitter and heartfelt threnody on the theme of imminent death, and that theme carries over into the next story, the harrowing ‘Sea of Atlas’ in which Matheson addresses a very personal fear, the words cutting like razor blades and nesting their imagery deep beneath the reader’s skin, so that we can never look at things the same way again, never feel so blasé about a simple, everyday aspect of our global village. It reads like an hour and half long disaster movie condensed into a mere two minutes, and is all the harder hitting for the brevity.

In ‘Kriss Kross Applesauce’ we peer into the psyche of a mental patient, a woman driven insane by the enforced bonhomie of the festive season, the effect rather like having Michael Myers reinvented as a suburban housewife. Abandoned lovers find a consolation of sorts courtesy of ‘The Embalming Machine’, the story a metaphor for the ways in which we try to preserve the past, the best of days, underlining how hollow and sterile such endeavours are, a way to side-track our lives. We’re back with bizarre mental states in ‘Pronoia’ with its tongue in cheek depiction of a man who puts a positive spin on everything. ‘Slaves of Nowhere’ concerns JoJo, who finds herself cursed by the expectations of others, words blistering on the page, evoking feelings of both compassion and dread.

There’s a double whammy of plot twists in the tale of a man who collects ‘Last Words’, offering us a meditation on the nature of suffering and death, and at the end the reader feeling just a slight twinge of sympathy for the monster who was made rather than born. Another two pager, ‘Ground Zero’ is a study of revenge gone awry, soliciting understanding from the reader and horror at how badly it all comes undone. The next story is as close to light-hearted as Matheson gets, in ‘Evil Twins, Temporary Blindness, Bikers, and Amnesia’ inviting us to wonder about the relationship between a writer and the characters he creates and how deep run the waters of imagination and the life of the mind. ‘Bedtime Story’ puts a novel twist on the idea of night terrors, the hag who comes and sits on your chest as you sleep and steals your breath (but Matheson’s iteration is nothing like that). More a joke than story, ‘Interrogation’ made me chuckle, though I won’t argue that it isn’t the weakest story here.

Finally we have ‘The Talking Man’ in which various experts try to make sense of the life experience of Jasper Quillar, who never stopped talking, his whole life one unending and unpunctuated monologue. It’s a Fortean tale and, taken in conjunction with first story ‘How to Edit’, a fitting way to bookend this collection from a writer for whom brevity seems to be not only the essence of wit but the heart and soul of horror. A true original, one of those rare few whose work is remarkable not just for its subject matter but also for the highly distinctive way in which he writes, Matheson is at the cutting edge of the genre and this state of the art collection is a demonstration of what horror is capable of in skilled hands and when illuminated by intelligence and a penetrating insight into the human condition. I loved this book.

 

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Filler content with short story collections – Part 2

The second part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS (continued)

Another beautifully produced book from Ireland’s Swan River, THE SATYR & OTHER TALES (The Swan River Press hc, 240pp, €30.00) brings together title novella ‘The Satyr’ from 2010 and three stories previously published in 2011. As author Stephen J. Clark explains in his introduction much has been reworked, and Clark also provides some beautiful black and white illustrations to accompany the text. The book is produced in a limited edition of 350 copies.

The figure of artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare (1886 – 1956) is central to novella ‘The Satyr’. Among the ruins of London during the Blitz, the fugitive Hughes and a girl who has taken the name Marlene, after the film star Dietrich, wander in search of Spare, who she regards as her artistic mentor. They are pursued by Doctor Charnock, the overseer of an institution in which Marlene was once a patient. With snatches of poetry and song lyrics, plus excerpts from Charnock’s reports on Marlene, and the girl’s own attempts to create a mythology of Spare, the story has a surreal feel to it, a sense of decadence and end of days hanging over everything. It is a rite of passage of sorts, with vivid writing and descriptions that burn into the mind, while overall there is the hint of some truth hovering just out of reach, so that you suspect it is a story that will reward further reading.

While not as ambitious in scope, the three stories grouped under the title ‘The Bestiary of Communion’ that take up the second part of the book are perhaps more accessible, Clark taking on familiar themes and tropes of the genre and giving them his own unique spin. In ‘The Horned Tongue’ bookseller Metternich is mourning the loss of his wife, but in trying to discover the secrets of her last days he stumbles into the clutches of Professor Woland, who assigns him a task and may well be the Devil in disguise. A fusion of the deal with the Devil trope and the occult text device, this was a thoroughly engaging and unique foray into the world of witchcraft, as if Daryl Van Horne had wandered onto the set of Suspiria. In ‘The Lost Reaches’ Jan and Marek are smuggling fugitives across the border, but deep in the forest they stumble across a mysterious house that appears to be a projection of the subconscious of the artist Bruno Schultz. Again there is an almost hallucinatory feel to this story, as manifestations of the artist’s ego take concrete form, or perhaps all the characters are dead and this palace of memory is simply an attempt by their dying psyches to make sense of what has happened to them and preserve something of the past. Finally in ‘The Feast of the Sphinx’ we travel to Prague in 1939 where a Czech policeman is assigned an impossible case, knowing that failure will bring him to the attention of the Gestapo. Guided by the artist Nemec he feels close to discovering something of the numinous, secrets that date back to the reign of Rudolf II and are rooted in alchemical practice. Again it is a fascinating and hallucinatory journey, one in which the threat of Nazi brutality rubs shoulders with the idea of something greater than the life which we know. I’m not sure how much I understood of any of these stories and all of them would reward a second or third reading, but Clark’s subtle prose, vivid and disturbing imagery, and the concepts he weaves into his stories make them irresistible to those whose senses have been jaded by more common fare.

Michael Reynier introduced us to Horthólary in his previous collection of novellas from Tartarus, Five Degrees of Latitude, in which the scholar had to deal with ‘Le Loup-Garou’, and now he gets his own book, HORTHÓLARY: TALES FROM MONTAGASCONY (Tartarus Press hc, 350pp, £35), produced in a limited edition of 300 copies. It contains four novellas chronicling Horthólary’s adventures in fabled Montagascony, a region of eighteenth century France that lies somewhere to the west or east of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne and is every bit as unique.

After an introduction in which the author does his best to convince the reader that his protagonist was a genuine historical figure by means of mock erudition and scholarship, we get into things proper with ‘The Angel of Pessane’, in which a university town appears to have been gifted an angelic visitation and at about the same time an outsider’s corpse is discarded in the woods bordering the town. Charged with investigating by his old friend the Sénéchal, Horthólary is soon unravelling a tale of miracles and metal with strange properties, while at the same time the two friends must outwit Bishop Rapin’s plans to use the death as a pretext to attack the local gypsies. The second story ‘Dii Nixi’ takes us back to Horthólary’s childhood when he and his young friends must confront an infestation from the stars in a story which reads like a conflation of Alien and Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’. ‘The Nephilim’ is set in his student days, when Horthólary and another prize pupil are sent to Montagascony to investigate reports of giant bones being unearthed, stumbling into something far more fantastical and outré than they could ever have imagined. Finally old age arrives for Horthólary and in ‘Nemestrinus’ the plans of his lifelong rival Rapin (now an Archbishop) come to fruition with the capture of a reputed wizard and the leader of the Palbanite sect.

These four novellas are far more complex than my “bones of” summations might suggest, with a greater story arc playing out over the course of the book, deepening our understanding of the various characters and their motivations. Horthólary reads like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael. Like the great detective he has a brilliant mind and can be annoying to those such as the Sénéchal who simply can’t keep up with his mental processes, but he also has something of the Holy Man’s humility and compassion, is a person who always seems to have had an old head on his young shoulders. In a book that has many pleasures perhaps the most delightful is Reynier’s exposition heavy manner of storytelling, with elaborate and sometimes rambling asides that flesh out the material, so that we can’t be introduced to a character, no matter how minor, without a potted history, or visit a place without getting a description that would put National Ordnance to shame with its detail. In less skilled hands such methods could be alienating to the reader, but Reynier writes with such luminosity and obvious relish in what he is conveying that the reader can’t help but be drawn in. It is the art of a natural raconteur, bringing the characters and locations to vivid life, but never patronising the reader. Woven into the text are matters metaphysical and gnostic, so that at times it feels like Reynier is creating a mythos of his own, one in which the miraculous is central but at the same time propped up by a scientific knowledge just beyond our own. Central to it all is the Montagascony itself, an area that is fertile for the imagination and rich in folklore and legends of magical beings and witchcraft, a wild place, a locale where the borders have worn thin and monsters like the Egregore are constantly pressing up against the barriers. There are echoes of Lovecraft, but Reynier is his own man and his creation is as original as it is vivid and entertaining, with issues such as misogyny and xenophobia deftly woven into the text to give the stories extra relevance for modern day readers. Be sure to put Montagascony on your travel itinerary in the near future. You will not be disappointed.

Lovecraft is most definitely central to Brian Lumley’s EARTH, AIR, FIRE & WATER (Fedogan & Bremer hc, 336pp, $34.95). With a stunning full colour wraparound cover by Bob Eggleton and striking interior black and white illustrations by Jim Pitts, this assemblage of four novellas by one of the foremost writers in the Lovecraft tradition is undeniably a thing of beauty. Each novella is based on one of the four elements of classic Greek philosophy and science.

We kick off with Earth and ‘Lord of the Worms’, which originally appeared in 1983 and recounts an early event in the life of Lumley’s psychic sleuth Titus Crow. It’s 1945 and a newly demobbed Crow (though his contribution to the war effort was somewhat more esoteric than that of most) seeks gainful employment by cataloguing the library of wealthy occultist Julian Carstairs, but naturally Carstairs has other plans for our hero, plans that intend Crow harm. There are echoes here of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic adventures and his class obsessions, though put to much subtler use, while providing a solid foundation for the story is an attempt at injecting verisimilitude by the introduction of fabled occult texts, numerology, and magical practices, so that the whole has a feeling about it of somebody in the know sharing arcane knowledge. The duel of magic, of bluff and counter bluff, move and evasion, between Crow and the evil Carstairs (echoes of M. R. James’ Karswell), is fascinating to follow, culminating in a moment of pure pulpish undoing. It’s a grand curtain raiser, for both what follows in this volume and the career of Titus Crow.

We go back further still, to 1975 for the Air story, which is aptly titled ‘Born of the Winds’. Set in a snow girt area of Canada, the story makes strong use of local legends, such as that of the Wendigo. Meteorologist David Lawton agrees to help Lucille Bridgeman search the frozen wastes for her son Kirby. Bridgeman’s deceased husband Sam was an anthropologist who held some strange theories, such as belief in an entity known as Lord Ithaqua, the Wind-Walker (a creation of August Derleth). You can probably guess the rest, but as with the Earth offering the lack of any real plot twists or surprises doesn’t in any way detract from the pleasure of reading a story with an engaging narrative voice, a finely tuned plot, and a satisfyingly enigmatic resolution. Lumley introduces a plethora of incidental details, accumulating fake scholarly treatises and subverting actual facts to give his monster a solid grounding in our world, and his evocation of the snow covered landscape in which the bulk of the story takes place is powerful and foreboding.

‘The Gathering’ is the longest story in the collection and the only one that hasn’t been previously published. Set in Lovecraft’s New England, it is the tale of Andrew Gilman who returns to The Hamlet after the death of his father. The whole community seems to be focused on preparing for an event known as The Gathering, and it’s up to Gilman to piece together family history and the strange occurrences that are taking place in an attempt to make sense of it all and find his own place in the greater scheme. Given the setting and the presence of inbred locals, this story brings to mind HPL’s Innsmouth, though here pitched as a Fire story rather than one of amphibian outsiders. I have some reservations, particularly regading the ease with which Andrew takes up with his father’s mistress, but overall it is a well-paced and intriguing tale, one in which the monsters are given a fair shake of the tentacle and shown to be simply different, rather than objects of fear (albeit some of their actions and outer appearances are certainly shudder inducing). Gilman is given a moral dilemma, whether to reject or embrace his heritage, and as a backdrop there is a strong sense of the numinous and cosmic vision.

Innsmouth is referenced in Lumley’s introduction to the Water novella, 2012’s ‘The Changeling’. The story’s unnamed protagonist encounters a stranger on a deserted beach in Greece and hears out his tale, which offers up a very different conception of how life functions and the identity of the dominant species, one that has implications for the narrator. It is the shortest story here and the least, but still powerful stuff with its depiction of bodily transformation and the way in which it touches on our horror of the outsider, while Lumley underpins it with historical and mythological details that create a sense of verity. It is a fitting end to a very strong collection of novellas, one that will be every bit as entertaining for latecomers to Lovecraft’s work as to those steeped in mythos fiction.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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Filler content with short story collections – Part 1

The first part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

Ramsey Campbell has referred to Reggie Oliver as “quite possibly our finest modern writer of spectral tales” and there is no doubt that, when it comes to tales of ghosts and related matters, Oliver is one of the masters of the form, with a distinctive and eminently readable prose voice, one that radiates elegance and affability in contrast to the terrors his work contains. A professional playwright, actor, and theatre director since 1975, Oliver’s background is part of his appeal, adding the feel of authenticity to the tales rooted in theatrical life and underlying his vivid creations of time and place.

With a striking cover illustration courtesy of Santiago Caruso, THE SEA OF BLOOD (Dark Renaissance Books pb, 408pp, $27.95) is a retrospective collection of Oliver’s work containing twenty three stories ranging in time from 2001 through to 2015. It opens with a fascinating introduction by the author in which he details how he came to start writing and identifies his major concern as “the strangeness of existence and the unsettling interaction between the physical and the metaphysical”, a theme he returns to over and over again in the stories that follow.

Of the stories on offer, I’ve reviewed eleven of them on previous occasions – ‘Beside the Shrill Sea’, ‘The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini’, ‘The Blue Room’, ‘Bloody Bill’, ‘The Skins’, ‘The Time of Blood’, ‘The Constant Rake’, ‘Mrs. Midnight’, Flowers of the Sea’, ‘Come into My Parlour’, and ‘The Druid’s Rest’ – and see no point going over old ground here, though I will post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com for the convenience of those who missed them first time around.

The first ‘new to me’ story is the fifth in the ToC running, ‘Among the Tombs’ in which a group of ecclesiastics consider the argument for sainthood in the case of hospice worker Meriel Deane, one of them recounting his personal experiences of the woman and what became of her, raising the possibility of demonic possession. It’s an engrossing story, and in the matter of fact telling and the muted details of what took place it has the stamp of credibility and conviction. ‘Lapland Nights’ has a woman giving a holiday home/respite care to an elderly couple who turn out to be something other than what she bargained for. It’s a disturbing story in which details mount up, with unsettling and macabre moments, all hinting at some other form of life preying on human beings, but at the same time allowing that our heroine might have found her own solution to the problem of an invalid mother, and that is even more sinister.

A distinguished actor who calls his girlfriends ‘Puss-Cat’ ends up in trouble when his philandering results in the suicide of a young woman, and trouble takes the form of a monstrous black cat that haunts him. Once again the theatrical world, in this case the luvvy end of the spectrum, is created convincingly on the page, primarily as backdrop to a lively ghost story, one of spectral revenge. ‘Mr. Poo Poo’ is a sinister children’s entertainer and religious fanatic who exercises a malign influence over a young woman in this story told from the viewpoint of the couple who employed them both at one point and so get drawn into the attendant drama. There’s disturbing imagery here, and a subdued portrait of madness, an obsession that pulls everyone and everything else into its orbit.

The narrator’s writer aunt is drawn into the circle of a medium in ‘The Old Silence’, a powerhouse of a story in which so much is taking place, with a terrifying evocation of the numinous at its heart and playing counterpoint to that the presence of a sinister young woman who trades sexual favours for influence, the whole a dazzling and inventive concoction. In ‘A Donkey at the Mysteries’ a student travelling in Greece discovers rather more than he needs to know about the history of an isolated archaeological site. Oliver excels here in his creation of place, with the setting brought to compelling life on the page, and there is the trademark accumulation of details that slowly reveal something momentous and macabre lurking in the background of the narrative.

We learn of the rivalry between theatrical dwarves and midgets in ‘Baskerville’s Midgets’, a story of unsettling and larger than life characters, and the way in which they seem to suck the spirit and life out of a theatrical landlady. ‘Minos or Rhadamanthus’ are the names given to his canes by a head teacher with an unhealthy addiction to corporal punishment, and in this story one boy discovers his terrible secret. And underlying all this is a ghost story that has two men meeting as equals for the first time, and the one wreaking a kind of justice on the other.

In ‘Holiday from Hell’ a seaside guest house plays host to a group of old people from a town in Norfolk, but the implication, laid forth with an enviable subtlety on the part of the author, is that the seven guests and their place of origin are somewhat other than what we are initially led to believe. There are lovely touches of detail here, suggestive prose used to put an outré cast on events that might otherwise be merely mundane, with some nightmarish imagery at the story’s climax, and as a lifelong resident of Norfolk I can vouch for the fact that you get some strange folk in certain parts of this county. In ‘Absalom’ a scholar uncovers the terrible truth behind the death of a debauched student back in the seventeenth century, the story almost a textbook example of how to tell a Jamesian ghost story, replete with accumulating details, old documents, and the hint that in some ways the evil may linger into the present day, with some things that only the reader can truly grasp.

Oddball characters inhabit a guest house where ‘The Rooms Are High’ and the story’s protagonist ends up finding out that not all is as it seems. With some wonderful touches of characterisation and an unhealthy sexuality underlying the narrative this is another superbly sinister outing from Oliver. Finally we have ‘Trouble At Botathan’ with a student on an academic retreat learning about the inglorious past of the house at which he is staying and its former owner through the means of lost documents and visions of a drowned girl. At the heart of the story is past attitudes to mental illness and the shame that families felt when one of its members went astray, this in turn leading to a kind of abuse and much worse. Intercut with all this, as in so many of these stories, is a sense that there is far more to reality than we know or dream of, that though these things manifest in a minatory manner they also prove the potential for the miraculous and other dimensions to our existence. This was a brilliant collection, one that will undoubtedly be cherished by every lover of traditional ghost stories told with a modern panache and sensibility.

Oliver provides the introduction to WRITTEN IN DARKNESS (Egaeus Press hc, 128pp, SOLD OUT) in which he lauds author Mark Samuels for his “passionate intensity and integrity”. The book was produced in a limited edition of 275 copies and is now SOLD OUT according to the publisher’s website, though you may still be able to find copies via dealers or online, and for those with a budget Chômu Press released a paperback edition in May of this year and followed up with an electronic version in July. Of the nine stories the book contains, four are previously published.

The fiction begins with ‘A Call to Greatness’ in which Egremont has an encounter with a mysterious stranger who gives him some papers detailing the exploits of Baron Maximilian, who tried to turn back the tide of communism after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the story underlain by a time slip element or projection of madness, you choose. Maximilian acts rather like the Marlon Brando character in Apocalypse Now transposed to a more northern setting; there is the same sense of ruthlessness about him in the pursuit of his goals, a fanaticism fuelled by religious conviction and absolute self-belief. It is an intriguing tale, touching on the moral and spiritual decay of the west, though Samuels doesn’t really make the case for this and his Baron’s solution seemed very much like a poisoned chalice, which may in part be the point of the story. Egremont is little more than sounding board, a latte sipping Brexiteer (probably) who is vaguely dissatisfied with the way things are but doesn’t really have any solutions to offer. ‘The Other Tenant’ is the story of Zachary, who embraces a whole shitload of high ideals (among them atheistical communism), but nevertheless is alienated from people by his lack of any compassion, with their suffering and joys simply parts of a social justice equation to him. Eventually he falls victim to the void in his own soul in a text that seems to want to be a ghost story but is held back by political point scoring, though at the same time Samuels’ apparent view that some people care more for the party line than each other carries weight. Drax in ‘An Hourglass of the Soul’ is sent to Mongolia charged with jump starting the super computer that has been built by the company he has worked for the last three days. There are concepts here that are reminiscent of the work of Ligotti, but Samuels is his own man and ultimately the story hints at the vacuity of life, that all is just endless repetition in the forlorn hope of achieving something spectacular, but with no reason at all for even that.

In the dystopian future of ‘The Ruins of Reality’ the only hope seems to be offered by the N Factory, but in fact the story’s protagonist comes to believe that this building is the source of all the world’s ills, the nightmare factory (another Ligotti concept), the text offering up a picture of mankind’s self-empowered fall from grace. ‘Alistair’ gives us a variation on the changeling theme in a story that is packed with genre tropes such as the old house next to the cemetery, the strange grandparents, and a child with tastes that are not within the usual parameters, but Samuels deftly turns it all on its head to produce something that is both striking and sinister. ‘My World Has No Memories’ starts with a man alone on a ship and no idea how he got there, then segues into a tale of transformation and the end of the world, culminating in a vision of what’s to come that is both uplifting and undermining at the same time.

There are echoes of J-Horror film Kairo in ‘Outside Interference’, with the remaining staff at an abandoned office building trapped and finding out that reality is nothing at all like they previously thought. The story works well as an account of human beings in extremis, fighting to survive against an inexplicable foe, and underlying all of that is an effective subtext about the dehumanising aspects of our IT powered society and its redefining of the world of work. The protagonist of ‘My Heretical Existence’ wanders far from the familiar parts of the city in search of a woman he is attracted to, but finds far more than he bargained for in a story of transformation and peeling back the veil to see reality as it actually is. ‘In Eternity Two Lines Intersect’ tells of a man whose spirit communes with that of the previous tenant of his rooms, an occultist in search of the Holy Grail. A sombre piece, it seems vaguely minatory, before culminating in a moment of epiphanic release and transformation.

My feeling is that Samuels is, in most of these stories, critiquing modern life and finding it bereft of spirituality and the belief that gives meaning to existence. I suspect reader response will be mediated by how much in tune you are with the belief systems that the author appears to be espousing. While they certainly can be appreciated without taking on board his perspective in full the end result is something of a mixed blessing, one where effects perhaps outweigh the philosophy behind them, though that in and of itself is not undeserving of consideration. At least that’s how it played out for me, with the most successful stories those, such as ‘Alistair’, with the least ideological baggage.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

 

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Filler content with ghosts and haunted worlds

Reviews of two collections by Jeffrey Thomas that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-

ANCIENT & MODERN: JEFFREY THOMAS

Like many past practitioners in the weird tradition, including most obviously Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft himself, American writer Jeffrey Thomas has a foot in both the science fiction camp and the territory occupied by the spectral tale.

By way of illustrating the point, we have his 2013 collection GHOSTS OF PUNKTOWN (Dark Regions Press pb, 254pp, $17.95), which was popular enough to merit a second printing in 2016. Arguably Thomas’ most famous creation, Punktown is a city built by human colonists on the Choom inhabited planet of Oasis. It has become famous for both the diversity of life forms that dwell there – not just creatures from other planets, but those from other dimensions – and the high level of crime. It is the milieu in which Thomas has set this collection of nine science fiction tales, all with a strong horror element.

After a far ranging introduction in which the author discusses the nature of ghosts, Punktown’s history, gives us some of his thoughts on each story, and provides a guide to Punktown eateries (just in case you ever visit), we get into things proper with ‘In His Sights’ a story featuring recurring character Jeremy Stake (I reviewed the novella Red Cells in #41), who is a chameleon like individual, able to alter his appearance to look like somebody else. Unfortunately here he has become trapped with the appearance of an alien member of a race mankind is at war with, and thus the target for an assassin who thinks he really is what he appears to be. It’s a strange, off kilter story, one in which the past and present overlap, as do matters of personal identity, with not even Stake knowing clearly who he is. But while the philosophical concerns add depth to the story, Thomas knows to give us the requisite bang for our buck, with some heavy armaments drill to liven up the chain of events. Fallen out of love, Cynthia returns to the Punktown of her childhood days in ‘Relics’, only to become embroiled in the competition between two collectors of alien artefacts and the computer that serviced all her wishes when she lived there before. It’s an intriguing, multi-layered story, one that contrasts religious statuary with mechanical life forms, and shows that both cling to a tenuous existence courtesy of the humans they serve and who serve them.

There’s murder in a museum in ‘A Semblance of Life’ and it’s up to LeBlanc, a clone and former super soldier, to figure out where his loyalties lie. Superficially this is a very simple piece, one in which there is a mystery to be solved and a bigot gets his just desserts, but underneath all that there are serious questions being asked about the nature of humanity, of what it is and how we can recognise it. Short enough to be classified as flash fiction, ‘Bitter Brains’ is a slight but well told account of an alien festival and the humiliating tradition that impinges on it, the story not really going anywhere, but scorching with the self-loathing of the protagonist.

Roy, the protagonist of ‘Disfigured’, is a surgeon specialising in horrific body modifications for the rich and attention seekers, but he refuses to operate on a beautiful young woman in a moment of principle. Again the story delights with the wealth of invention, the various ways in which people can hurt themselves and others, but at its heart is a debate as to what is acceptable in the realm of cosmetic surgery, with both sides of the argument given a fair hearing. It is a story that has more than a tad of bearing on our modern world and the things that can be done to enhance and alter appearance. In ‘Imp’ a man who delves into the darkest corners of the internet finds himself haunted by an image that even he finds disturbing. This is perhaps the most extreme of these stories, credibly so given the subject matter, touching on our addiction to pornography and need for ever more “potent” material. It brings home to us exactly what this means by giving a very human face to the suffering, making of the objectified victim an albatross for the consumer’s neck.

‘The Room’ tells of the strange relationship and love affair of sorts that arises between syndicate fixer Quick Billy and the genius student Candy, whose studies go terribly wrong. It is perhaps the least convincing of these pieces in the details, the cogs and cranks of storytelling, but with a mood of poignancy and sense of loss that makes me forgive and overlook anything else. Swift in ‘Into My Arms’ is adopted by one of the Bliss, an alien race that thrives on suffering and seeks out humans to inflict pain. From Swift the Bliss wants the nanomites that help recreate his memories of Talane, the woman he loved and lost. Underlying the surface of this story is a meditation on the nature of pain, both physical, mental, and emotional, the ways in which it operates in our lives, the purpose if any, and in contrast to that an examination of the way in which memory works, all of it wrapped up in an engrossing story that put me very much in mind of the early SF of George R. R. Martin (‘A Song for Lya’ etc.).

The longest story in the book, ‘Life Work’ begins with the android Hanako befriending an elderly lady in the building where they live, while gangland enforcer and assassin Huck is falling out of favour with his employer. It ends with them both engaged in a life or death firefight with the teen gangs that have turned a nearby park into a no go area. This is the story in which Thomas lets rip, piling action on top of action, with a Die Hard vibe running throughout, and yet another strand of the story arising from the presence of a sentient plant that imitates the form of others. I loved every second of it, and it was a powerful and effective end to a dashing collection of science fiction horror stories.

With a 1 August release date, hot off the presses collection HAUNTED WORLDS (Hippocampus Press pb, 248pp, S20) is a fusion of traditionally slanted and futuristic fiction, showcasing Thomas’s talent. The book has a superb cover and evocative interior illustration by Kim Bo Yung. It opens with an introduction by Ian Rogers, after which we get to the fiction, conveniently divided into two sections titled ‘Our World’ and ‘Other Worlds’, which is I hope self-explanatory.

In ‘Carrion’ fifty five year old Lambert, having been abandoned by his younger wife, takes up residence in the country, becoming fascinated by a piece of roadkill he sees every day on his drive to work. The roadkill and the process it is going through become emblematic of mortality and the certainty of death in a story that builds its effects with real skill, detailing the development of Lambert’s obsession with the idea of death and the growing feeling that for him everything is over, in all but name. In a way it feels like a horror rendition of the male menopause. The narrator of ‘Spider Gates’ is an adult relating an adventure from her teenage years, when she and a group of friends became momentarily fascinated with the legendary cemetery in the woods of the title, and subsequent events concerning a missing girl and her autistic brother’s visions. It’s an unsettling piece, moody and atmospheric in its evocation of the landscape, at the same time capturing perfectly the feel of teenage angst and then injecting elements of the weird and macabre, with the truth behind the myth even more disturbing, for what it reveals of mortality.

Kent, the protagonist of ‘Feeding Oblivion’, has a mother in a retirement home whose roommate is suffering from visions of centipedes crawling out of the walls, but coincidental with this is the overturning of his own comfortable life and signs that the rot has set in to the world itself. Again, this is a story where, like ‘Carrion’, insects becomes emblematic of decay and signifiers of mortality, but it is made all the more powerful by the subtle and understated way in which Thomas conveys such truths, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and trusting that our imaginations will provide more in the way of chills than his text ever could. A rather sinister figure, ‘Mr. Faun’ is a living exhibit at an art gallery, one who becomes the focus of attention for an artist whose work has been denigrated by the gallery’s curator. It offers a compelling storyline, one that explores the foibles of the art world, while at the same time incorporating themes of morality and aesthetic indifference to human plight, all ending with a deliciously cheeky punchline.

Like Lambert in ‘Carrion’, the protagonist of ‘The Left-Hand Pool’ drives down country backroads to work every day and is fixated on a female co-worker, but at the same time he is immersed in memories of the past and his failed relationship with his father. The story builds a mood of anticipation, and then delivers its wonderfully understated and subtle payoff, with once again the reader left to anticipate what will eventually happen, the nature of the tragedy for which the foundations have been so assuredly laid. I loved it. In ‘riaH gnoL’ the attendant at an amusement arcade tells strange, obliquely slanted stories to the customers, the effects mounting until we can no longer be sure of what is happening. There is a lovely sense of ambiguity to this tale, with the reader left to wonder if there is a ghost in the machine or something more sinister going on with Nanette, the narrative continually wrong footing us on its journey to the unsettling end reveal. Nate in ‘The Toll’ is contacted by an entity that sets him a terrible choice, Thomas bringing this simple piece to an elegant conclusion, one that hints at the redemptive power latent in the human condition, while at the same time asking if there really is any point to it all.

Lan’s decision to give a Christmas present to a street person in ‘Saigon Dep Lam’ has unforeseen consequences of the “no good deed goes unpunished” type. Thomas does a splendid job of bringing his Vietnam setting to vibrant life on the page, showing how the days of the war still haunt that country, while Lan herself is brilliantly realised, a victim of wartime injuries who is determined not to let her disfigurement rule her life, the story finally culminating in a revelation that touches on the true nature of this reality. There’s a zombie feel to ‘The Green Hands’ as Zetter is pursued through the world by people with green hands, whose touch made his wife disappear. It’s a story in which paranoia takes centre stage, as the protagonist begins to suspect everyone of being in league with those who are hunting him, finally culminating in his being overrun by the “monsters”, but along the way we have clues that hint at an unhappy relationship in Zetter’s marriage and suggestions that what is happening is simply an externalisation of some inner conflict.

The ‘Other Worlds’ section of the book opens with another story titled ‘The Green Hands’, this time written with a surreal vibe, as Zetter wanders through an alien landscape and bears witness to various wonders, but at the same time never escapes the feeling that he is the fox being hunted by the hounds, making it a mirror image come dream state rendition of the previous tale. It’s a story that oozes a sense of the unreal, but at the same time is grounded very much in our own reality with a final revelation that suggests what is really going on with Zetter, though Thomas is too canny to do more than hint and the story all the more effective for it.

There’s a similar sense of the nightmarish in ‘Good Will toward Men’, with its opening depiction of the torments of the Damned in Hell, made even worse by a visit by a deputation of Angels who inflict the “joys” of Christmas on a chosen few, including protagonist Andrew. In a way the story serves as a metaphor for the state of affairs in our own world, with punishment in lieu of justice and unfairness at the heart, the consolations we receive simply whatever crumbs drop from the high table. Beneath the surface of the narrative, Thomas along with Andrew appears to be raging at the injustice of it all, the hypocrisy of do-gooders who stick plasters on wounds instead of addressing the real causes of suffering, with a side swipe at the two-faced nature of the Christian religion and its concept of “forgiveness”. Despite the back drop that is almost cartoonish in nature, this is arguably the most serious minded and polemical of these stories, with the protagonist (and possibly the author – certainly this reader) finding hope only in the form of those who fight against this system, the rebels determined to bring down both Heaven and Hell.

‘The Temple of Ugghiutu’ reads like something Dunsany might have penned, though with sharper edges, chronicling a shepherd boy’s encounter with the worship place of an alien deity, and what he learned of the terrible truth behind the legends. It’s a comparatively mild piece, a tall tale told to the credulous around the campfire on a night when the wind howls and there are wolves off in the darkness. We’re back in Thomas’ home away from home of Punktown for ‘Drawing No. 8’ in which an artist is hired to replicate a destroyed work of alien art, and finds himself involved in a plot to summon the alien deity Ugghiutu. It’s a fascinating story, told with real verve, capturing the joy of artistic creation and at the same time conveying something of the sinister nature of black magic, a dark tale in which dreams and reality overlap and where a good man is suborned by his ego into serving a bad cause. Echoing back of the very real bloodshed is something of the cosmic, a monstrous being who is inimical to life as we know it.

When ruthless developers move in on an area of Punktown, street urchin Posy gets to ride the ‘Redemption Express’ in a heartfelt story at whose centre is the idea that community is not a place but the shared bonds of the people who live there. It is undershot with a subtext disapproving of the exploitation of the urban landscape, what we in our world refer to as “gentrification”, albeit in Punktown imposed along far harsher lines, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the bad guys get what’s coming to them, even if it’s tainted with the realisation that there are always going to be more bad guys. What you take away from the story though, is the caring personality of Posy, the way in which she stands by her friends, even those who have passed away, Thomas showing us that there is more of compassion and concern and dignity in her person than all the mercenary scum and corporate punks in cheap suits. It’s a great end to a strong collection, albeit it’s not quite the end because Thomas gives us some lengthy story notes, revealing the origin of each piece and some of the things that went into these stories. These are two collections that deserve a place on the shelves of any lover of good fiction.

 

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Filler content written on the land itself

A feature on the work of Daniel Mills that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-

WRITTEN ON THE LAND ITSELF: DANIEL MILLS

Though his writing is set firmly in the weird tradition, Daniel Mills’ body of work has a more specific focus and distinctive identity than that of his wider ranging peers. His oeuvre is pinned very firmly to a certain place and time: the great nation of the United States in its formative years, and more specifically to the forests and towns of his native New England. One could make a case for Mills being a writer of historical fiction, every bit as much as he is a practitioner of the weird. And yet the history that he gives us, like the Puritan America of Miller’s The Crucible and Robert Eggers’ film of The Witch, is one in which the boundaries between superstition and faith, fact and theory are blurred, with evil as likely to arise from the human heart as it does from some outside, cthonian cause.

Mills’ 2016 novella THE ACCOUNT OF DAVID STONEHOUSE, EXILE (Dim Shores pb, 114pp, $11) was produced in a limited edition of 150 and is already sold out according to the publisher’s website, but you may be able to pick up a copy from a dealer or second-hand. I’ve only seen a PDF, but with a stunning wraparound full colour cover and striking interior illustrations by artist Steve Santiago, it certainly looks the part of a collectable and thing of beauty.

This story is told in the form of a journal kept by David Stonehouse, recording his life in an isolated house in the woods, alone with the dog Judah, but there are entries in the journal by another (female) hand, on which Stonehouse passes no comment. His back story is slowly filled in, how as a baby he was abandoned by his mother at the gate of a religious community known only as the Village. His life in this community, waiting for God’s gift to be bestowed and forming a relationship with the girl Jerusha, whose dreams he is charged with interpreting, and with whom he is forced into exile, eventually ending up at that house in the woods and besieged by the revenant of its previous owner.

To foreshadow the conclusion of this review, Mills has produced a powerful and beautifully wrought work of fiction, one that addresses the failures of belief even as it underlines the tragic power of love. Given the author, one assumes the story is set in the forests of New England and references to the “Era of Manifestations” and “days of Mother’s Work” (terms relating to the Shaker religious movement, according to Wiki) pin it down to the middle of the nineteenth century. And yet there is a sense of timelessness about the situation, so that you could just as easily assume the story was set in some post-Apocalyptic world.

Mills’ descriptions of a community based on faith, one in which policy is dictated by revelation, are convincingly detailed, capturing something of their idea that they are special, God’s chosen, with all the privileges and harsh responsibilities such a role entails. For Elder Job, who is David’s mentor in many ways, the events that lead to Stonehouse’s exile, are a crisis of faith, bringing back to him the trial by fire of his own early days, and in the younger man’s fall he sees something of what might have happened to him. This “mirroring” is a device that Mills uses throughout the book. The events of David’s genesis mirror that of his own child’s fate, and in a similar way the fate of Jerusha and her child are echoes of what happened to the wife and child of August Fitch, the previous owner of the house in the woods.

Mills is similarly excellent at bringing to life on the page the forest setting that is the base for much of his story, with the woodlands assuming a stance of both wonder and terror. His imagery is ripe with menace, the trees taking on almost demonic and unearthly qualities, and the wolves howling at night in the lonesome forest. Both people and secrets are buried in this landscape. While at heart this is a tale of spiritual devastation, in David’s fight against the Fitch revenant and his life post the Village, Mills gives us plenty of action, and accompanying much of this a plethora of disturbing and gory imagery, so that aficionados of more conventional horror needn’t feel short changed.

Ultimately the story evolves into a ghost tale, but the vital question is exactly who is haunting who, and in a way all of the characters are haunted by the events of their past. It is an astonishing and highly accomplished work of fiction, one that will undoubtedly throw up new meanings on each subsequent reading.

Mills’ second novel, following on from 2011’s Revenants, MORIAH (ChiZine Publications pb, 320pp, $17.99) addresses similar themes. The central character is Silas Flood, a former minister who lost his faith after witnessing the terrors of the American Civil War, and who now works as a journalist for a New York paper. He travels to Moriah in Vermont and the Yellow House, where Thaddeus Lynch and his younger brother Ambrose, assisted by sister Sally, work as spirit mediums. Flood’s job is to write an article for the paper opining as to whether they are genuine or fake.

At the Yellow House Flood meets an assorted cast of characters, including Mrs Ambler and the Bauers, clients of the Lynch brothers who are desperate for some proof of the afterlife, hoping to make contact with those they have lost and gain some form of absolution for past sins of omission. Thaddeus Lynch is desperate to hold onto the family house and farm, while Ambrose is mentally ill and Sally so eager to leave that she attempts to seduce Flood, while hovering at the back of it all is cousin John Turner, who has his own designs on both Sally and the Yellow House. There are suggestions of something terrible in the past of the family, a bullying father and his untimely end, while for Flood himself there is the spectre of his dead wife and child, who passed away while he was off at War, having refused his young wife’s pleas to remain. It is a recipe for tragedy and tragedy is what we get in the final act, though the seeds are planted well before then.

The book’s structure consists of dated chapters, mostly told from the viewpoint of Silas Flood, but sometimes related from the perspective of Thaddeus and Ambrose. Intercut with these are journal entries made by Rebecca, the dead Lynch sister whose fate is central to the story. Heading up the book is a dramatis personae with Mills’ cast listed under the subheadings the Living, the Dead, and the Spirits.

The title Moriah has more than the one meaning; as well as being the name of the town in the book it was also the mountain where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed to God as a test of his faith, and the obvious intention on Mills’ part is to show that similar tests have been imposed on the characters here, most obviously on Silas, whose decision to fight led to his wife’s death and subsequent loss of faith.

Mills writes with a short, almost terse style, one that is marvellously effective at both propelling his story forward and evoking the feelings and visions that he wants the reader to experience. He is superb at capturing the feel of the time, an era when the Civil War was starting to dim but the pain of that conflict lived on – everyone here suffered loss, everyone is carrying their own wounds. The abiding sense is that of a nation that badly needs to heal, and which is open to the kind of spiritual panacea the Lynch brothers are peddling.

Again Mills is excellent at capturing the feel of their séances, the ways in which such mediums go about their business, and leaving the reader to guess how much is false and what is genuine, before the final reveal. There is a strong sense of the supernatural whispering behind the surface of the narrative, a feeling that stands regardless of whether there is any truth to the actions of the Lynch brothers. The presence of spirits is debatable, but there is a sense of immanence present in the landscape through which Flood wanders, where the legends of the past are woven into the trees and the ground, a genius loci of sorts that makes belief in native spirits feel not only reasonable but incontrovertible.

Mills’ touch when it comes to the various personalities involved is equally assured, with each member of the cast given distinguishing characteristics and a back story, each of them nursing tragedy, holding it close and almost revelling in the pain that it provides. As with David Stonehouse, ultimately what we have here is a ghost story of sorts, with the past coming back to haunt them all in a finale that costs the members of the Lynch family dear, ripples spreading out to effect the others in their circle, not least Silas Flood, who is left with hard decisions of his own to make. Flood’s last words to Sally are ‘Forgive me. For everything’, and the final image of the book is of weeds growing to cover everything, a sombre note with which to end.

In both these books Mills comes across as a writer with no easy answers to offer, but he eloquently poses the question of how we can reconcile belief in God and the spiritual with the pain and suffering that is so evident in the world, and he does so without flinching or compromising, showing a skill and sensitivity that won’t leave curmudgeonly old atheists like myself spluttering with indication and feeling preached at. Preaching is the last thing Mills is about. He is, perhaps more than most, a writer using weird fiction to work through issues of faith and philosophy, and while you may not always agree with his conclusions, or lack thereof, the way in which his fiction frames these things is enthralling and beguiling. I loved these two books and heartily recommend them to those who are looking for something more from their fiction than just another reason to be scared. And while you’re about it you should also seek out his previous novel Revenants and short story collection The Lord Came at Twilight. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by anything from his pen.

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Filler content with escapology

A review of a collection by David Sakmyster that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-

David Sakmyster’s 2014 collection ESCAPE PLANS (WordFire Press pb, 248pp, $14.99) contains nineteen “dark tales of fantasy and suspense”, all of them previously published, and each accompanied by a cheery note from the author detailing its genesis and addressing the themes that concern him. There are echoes of the early Ballard’s crowded cityscapes in opening piece ‘Ladders’ with its search for free space, the story told from the viewpoint of a man who has made a career out of retrieving those who exist on ladders. It is a bittersweet dystopian tale, the backdrop not at all convincing (but then it’s not meant to be) and with the real thrust of the drama having to do with the need to find a niche in the world, no matter how hopeless or simply awful that world feels.

There’s a deal with the devil feel to ‘Five Star Review’, with its depiction of an unusual and sinister eating establishment, where people can possibly be cured of cancer, but dependent on what they are prepared to offer in exchange. Kendricks’ feeling of helplessness at the plight of his wife is well realised, and the atmosphere prevalent in the aptly named Stage Four restaurant is deliriously unsettling, with hints of something terrible taking place in the background. An unhappy marriage and a somewhat intrusive GPS device that seems to know more than it should are the main elements of ‘Roadside Assistance’, with the suggestion that all that is taking place is simply a guilt driven hallucination inside the mind of cuckolded Monty, the story deftly interweaving the personal and the technological, slowly revealing the true state of affairs. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Wrong Basement’ has a couple finding their basement displaced by another, one that contains a mint collection of highly valuable comics. I loved the comic collector backdrop and the interplay between husband and wife, as they are torn between profiting from the find and doing the right thing. Although there is an element of sadness in how it all pans out, the end revelation brought a smile to my face.

‘The Red Envelope’ picks up on a Taiwanese custom and has a westerner married to a ghost, but his failure to provide her with children has dire consequences. It’s a silly idea when looked at in the abstract, but Sakmyster’s amiable prose makes it work, the story leading in to a rueful end. ‘Bait’ which previously appeared in Black Static #7, concerns a killer disposing of bodies at sea, only they are transformed into zombies. It is one of the weaker tales, not explaining why Mr. White acts as he does to any satisfaction, but still engaging for the account of diving, the imagery, and the casual camaraderie between boat bums Jack and Trent. I liked it without being blown away, and so damn with faint praise. There’s a frantic energy to ‘Past Tense’, a tale of quantum physics in which reality changes in every paragraph, the joy of the story residing in its madcap execution and the probabilities that Sakmyster throws at the page. Along similar lines, ‘Guardians’ is told from the galactic equivalent of search and rescue workers who come to wonder if in fact the catastrophes whose damage they work to mitigate are a tool of evolution. The idea is interesting, but as played out here failed to convince, with everything on a scale that seemed both too fast and too small. Overall then, a good idea but with poor execution.

‘Plastromancer’ is a tale of divination, with Xian Li telling the future from reading the plastrons of an ancient sea turtle. Despite the author’s best efforts to meld personal and political, the story doesn’t really go anywhere and there is little to appeal beyond the novelty of the method of divination used. The ‘Blackout Man’ has the power to erase people simply by crossing out documents in which they are mentioned. In this story he meets a woman who still has memories of her husband and wishes to be erased so that she can join him in whatever place the Blackout Man sent him to. There’s an almost X-Files feel to this one, with the government having the power to alter reality in what could very well be the ultimate conspiracy theory, but Sakmyster gives it a very human dimension, making us care about his characters and empathise with their very different plights. ‘Combers’ take a look at the motivations of volunteers engaged in the search for the body of a missing boy. It’s a piece that is mainly driven by dialogue, with a sense that the real action is taking place just out of sight, in what is left unspoken rather than what is actually said, with well-drawn characters and a desperately sad and physically dreary backdrop to the action.

A psychiatric doctor becomes infected with his patient’s belief that aliens are freezing time and altering reality in ‘Time Frame’, the story engaging but with little new to offer on a familiar theme, a vein of speculative ore that Philip K. Dick, for one, virtually mined out. Flash fiction ‘Hotline’ has somebody who mans a helpline finding her life endangered by a caller who has cast a spell to have her life totally erased. It’s a clever piece, one that grabs the interest, albeit the eventual payoff becomes predictable before we reach the end. We’re back with the theme of divination in ‘Internal Affairs’ as a soldier who believes he can tell his future through examining entrails is caught gutting victims on the battlefield. There’s an interesting clash here between the character’s avowed intentions and the methods that he uses, with attendant questions of end justifying means, the story carrying the reader along to the inevitable tongue in cheek ending with its wreak of poetic justice. ‘Turning Time’ deals with the Madagascan rite of turning the dead, the idea a fascinating one, although the twist in the tail doesn’t seem entirely plausible, gratifying as it was.

In ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ we get a ghost story of sorts, as the officer charged with delivering news of a service man’s death comes to realise that it is he himself who has been killed, the story eloquently setting out the plight of the protagonist, but with little new to offer in the telling, and most canny readers will guess what is happening long before the end. There’s a lovely black humour permeating the words of ‘For Sale’, ostensibly an estate agent’s description of a haunted house, the story just perfect in delivery and with delightful touches of detail along the way. Perhaps the most emotive story in the collection, ‘Restoration’ takes us to a world where death has been conquered and people are coerced into accepting immortality regardless of their personal wishes. Only there is a fly in the ointment – reincarnation is a fact, and with nobody dying or being born, the system becomes clogged up with terrible consequences. Played out over thousands of years through the relationship of administrators Martin and Camilla, it’s a story that is both heart-warming and sad, asking the truly important questions about the nature of life in the cosmos, what the purpose of pain, suffering and death is. Of course it only works if you accept reincarnation, and if you don’t then the picture is one of an idyllic society that eventually fails under the burden of its own senescence.

Finally we have ‘The Smithsonian Objective’, which comes as something of an anti-climax as an Indiana Jones wannabe with the ability to see into the future helps a lady archaeologist discover something about the origins of life on Earth that other parties wish to remain a secret. Again, as with one or two other tales, I couldn’t quite believe in what I was reading, with scenes rushing by too fast for credibility and no real sense that what was taking place was necessary given Xavier’s foreknowledge. It was a mildly entertaining skit at best, possibly because it ties into a series of novels by the author dealing with the same themes and characters, and so really isn’t anything more than an adjunct to that longer work.

On this showing, Sakmyster is an ideas man and always an interesting writer, better than most when he hits the nail on the head. Overall though this is a collection that, while it entertains also feels uneven, perhaps because it gathers so many disparate genres and themes under the same umbrella, and where the workmanlike writing, plotting, and characterisation in some of the stories don’t quite measure up to the quality of the concepts they contain. Ultimately there’s more to enjoy than not and it will reward the reader, but with a bit more consistency this could have been an outstanding collection.

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