A brace of reviews from Black Static #30:-
While many small publishers seem intent on dragging forgotten ‘classics’ back into the light of day or base their business model on printing limited editions of work by established writers, Tartarus seem equally committed to the discovery of new talent, as with recent books by Michael Reynier and Jason A. Wyckoff, both previously unpublished and now making their debut with collections from a World Fantasy Award winning press.
Produced to Tartarus’ usual high standard, Reynier’s FIVE DEGREES OF LATITUDE (TP hb, 269pp, £30) consists of five long short stories or novellas. Opening the proceedings is ‘Le Loup-Garou’ which is set in France just prior to the Revolution and is the account of the scholar Hortholary, who travels to a remote region to investigate rumours of a monster terrorising the countryside. The subject matter and setting inevitably invite comparisons to the film Brotherhood of the Wolf, though in lieu of balletic wire work and bone crunching martial arts we get a convoluted detective story whose methodology perhaps owes more to The Name of the Rose, a tale of fear and betrayal in which the supernatural elements are only hinted at, the whole wrapped up in a pitch perfect delivery.
‘No. 3 Hobbes Lane’ begins with the discovery of a house that is facing the wrong way, overlooking a magnificent view but with no windows on that side of the building to take advantage. Reader interest is piqued by this image as much as that of Reynier’s protagonist, who is so disturbed by the idea of such a thing that he decides to investigate and what emerges is a fascinating story of genius loci and their unnatural demands, the air of ambiguity carefully maintained so that we can’t really be sure if madness is involved or something more sinister as the plot suggests.
In ‘The Rumour Mill’ an academic researches the implications of a children’s game and ends up developing a powerful tool of political oppression, with each step along the way carefully detailed and at the story’s heart the idea that there is no such things as ‘innocent’ research, pure science being regarded as a somewhat fanciful notion. Enriching the work is the humour evident in the interplay between the narrator and various other characters.
‘Sika Tarn’ is perhaps the most traditional of these stories, as two men run across an isolated and forbidding tarn, one that appears to be haunted, and then later learn the terrible story of what happened there, only the person who informs them of this is perhaps not wholly reliable. With hints of Machen and Blackwood, this is a disturbing exercise in rustic terror, its one moment of violence underlining how unsettling the rest of the narrative is.
Lastly we have ‘The Visions of Lazaro’, conceptually and structurally the most ambitious of these works, and one that could easily pass muster as science fiction. With two plot strands, one giving the history of a religious movement and the other detailing a man’s visit to a remote outpost in the desert, and then with a revelation of how the two events dovetail, the story brings to mind the creations of Borges, with its cleverness and artifice, and underlying it all a trust in the reader’s intuition.
Wyckoff’s BLACK HORSE AND OTHER STRANGE STORIES (TP hb, 266pp, £32.50) contains sixteen stories, leading off with ‘The Highwall Horror’, which involves the discovery of an entrance to an alien dimension in an office workplace, the story full of oblique angles and shifting perspectives, as the protagonist’s worldview comes unravelled. And then, after setting out its stall of horrors, Wyckoff delivers an ending out of left field, one that’s almost unparalleled in horror fiction: a character acting sensibly and walking away from it all. Or does he? ‘The Walk Home’ confronts us with an outwardly idyllic situation, but slowly reveals the backdrop against which it takes place to leave a terrible, bittersweet taste in the mouth. It is understated and elegiac, a ghost story told from the point of view of the ghost, but with an uplifting feel to it even as we stare horror full on in the face. There’s a subtext of incest and suppressed feelings to ‘The Night of His Sister’s Engagement’, but the main thrust of the story gives us an alluring trip to an island in the middle of a lake and encounter with three ‘wild’ women, the story obliquely suggesting ideas of ritual and sacrifice, and satisfyingly ambiguous throughout.
A musicologist is lured to his doom by a mysterious song in ‘The Bells, Then the Birds’, the story surely constructed with hints of the numinous in the text and a feeling of inevitability to how it all plays out, as Zach ignores all the warnings he is given. For my money ‘A Civil Complaint’ is the best story in the book, a delicious black comedy in which every word counts, as a nosy neighbour and an officious bureaucrat join forces to deal with a house that has no business being where it is. The joy of the story is in the slow, tongue in cheek build up to the revelation of the true nature of the offending desres and the identity of its owner, Wyckoff wisely avoiding the temptation to over explain. In ‘The Mauve Blot’ a woman and her children appear to be getting out from under the heel of a husband who gambles, but as the story progresses and supernatural elements intervene, we learn that things may not quite be as they seem, the author deftly playing with the reader’s perceptions of the situation through the medium of his possibly unreliable narrator.
Title story ‘Black Horse’ is another highlight, with the eponymous nag willed to a man who discovers it has a supernatural aspect and will bring him the things he desires in return for sacrifice. A strange offbeat tale, with hints of the wild hunt in the text and echoes of Shaffer’s Equus, but with a quality that is uniquely Wyckoff’s own and posing awkward questions as to our personal limits. ‘A Willow Cat in Meadowlark’ is a poignant story of what happens when a case of mistaken identity lets a young woman into the life of a dead mother, with coincidences that suggest fate is playing a part in all that takes place, the story melding prosaic and magical to the betterment of both. Wyckoff goes down market for the black comedy of “Hair and Nails”, in which an attempt to raise the dead and find the location of buried treasure goes disastrously wrong, with a gleefully macabre resolution in a cemetery.
‘Knott’s Letter’ recounts the death of a crypto zoologist at the ‘hands’ of a Sasquatch, with horrific hints of slaughter to come, the danger in this story somewhat more concrete than elsewhere, and Wyckoff showing that he is as adept at writing the overtly horrific as he appears to be with more abstract material. In ‘An Uneven Hand’ a man runs afoul of feral children on the subway, but there is a powerful suggestion of the supernatural and vampiric about these children, the story laden with unsettling imagery. And finally we have the metafictional ‘A Matter of Mirrors’ in which a vampire explains why his kind do not reflect, the author poking gentle fun at the current vogue for vampire confessionals, then adding a chilling final twist.
These are excellent volumes, and it’s encouraging to reflect that there are new talents of this calibre waiting to be discovered by readers. Kudos to Tartarus for bringing them both out of the shadows and demonstrating once again that the genre we love isn’t suffering from any lack of gifted writers.