Filler content with dark regions

Here’s a not so little something that originally appeared way back in Black Static #30:-

DARK REGIONS PRESS – SHORT FORM

Last time I reviewed a book by William Meikle he was chronicling an adventure of Sherlock Holmes, and this time pulp fiction’s chameleon man is channelling the spirit of William Hope Hodgson to bring us the nine stories and one novella that make up CARNACKI: HEAVEN AND HELL (DRP pb, 250pp, $18.95), the tales given impressive illustrations by cover artist Wayne Miller.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, Carnacki (‘the Ghost-Finder’) was the protagonist of a series of stories by Hodgson, and Meikle conforms to the master’s template, in which each story takes the form of an after dinner tale related by Carnacki to a group of close friends over port and cigars. Meikle fleshes this aspect out a bit more than Hodgson did, and as far as that goes I think the spirits Carnacki needs to be most fearful of are those that cause cirrhosis of the liver, as an awful lot of imbibing goes on. This framing device injects a note of over familiarity after a while, veering off into outright repetition as nearly the same details are reprised time and again (four stories include on their very first page slight variations of the phrase ‘It was not long before Carnacki, Arkwright, Jessop, Taylor and I were all seated at Carnacki’s ample dining table’).

The stories also are formulaic for the most part, but it’s a formula that’s sound and they provide reliable entertainment, with a flash of something more on occasion. ‘The Blooded Iklwa’ sees Carnacki go to the aid of a retired officer who has become the nightly victim of a native spear, but the true story involves the spirit of a spurned soldier. In ‘The Larkhill Barrow’ he is called on to help the army out with a spot of bother at a firing range, while the spirits of long dead nuns accused of witchcraft, or something that presents in this form, are vanquished in ‘The Sisters of Mercy’. ‘The Hellfire Mirror’ touches on the history of the Medmenham Abbey crowd, while the revenant of an ancient sorceress is sent packing when excavations disturb ‘The Tomb of Pygea’. In ‘The Beast of Glamis’ Carnacki helps a Scottish nobleman cleanse his ancestral home and then nips off to deal with a disturbance aboard luxury liner ‘The Lusitania’.

It’s all good clean fun, written by somebody thoroughly familiar with the conventions of supernatural fiction, a writer who knows how to tell a story and carry the reader with him, no matter how improbable things become. And there are those occasional flashes I mentioned earlier, as with the appearance of the young Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen Mother, in ‘Beast’, something that isn’t pushed in the reader’s face but is there for the perceptive to pick up on. Carnacki’s distinguishing feature, the thing that sets him apart from the likes of John Silence and other psychic detectives, is his use of scientific method and technology (he has an electric pentagram) in resolving cases, underpinned by the irony of ‘the Ghost-Finder’ not believing in ghosts. For Carnacki, there are many realities and the things we ascribe to the supernatural are simply incursions from these other dimensions, and it is in developing this theory that Meikle builds on and steps beyond Hodgson’s work, with several stories contributing to Carnacki’s understanding, most obviously ‘The Lusitania’ in which the character gets a powerful impression of the forthcoming World War and the inner workings of reality.

Closing novella ‘The Dark Island’ is Meikle’s most ambitious offering, a work that valiantly attempts to capture the spirit of Hodgson’s visionary novels, with cosmic flights of fancy to the very ends of time and a desperate battle against swine creatures as Carnacki works to save a Scottish noble from an ancestral curse. Those familiar with The House on the Borderland and The Nightland will get the most from it, though readers without that grounding needn’t fear finding themselves adrift and rudderless, as the novella can be enjoyed in its own right, with enough thrills and spills to satisfy the yearning for cosmic peril. It is a fitting end to an entertaining, if at times too formulaic, collection, one that is worthy of sharing a bookshelf with its source material.

W. H. Pugmire’s collection GATHERED DUST AND OTHERS (DRP pb, 193pp, $15.95) contains eighteen stories, many of which take up only a few pages and would perhaps better be classed as vignettes. Critic S. T. Joshi has described Pugmire as ‘perhaps the leading Lovecraftian author writing today’ and ‘the prose-poet of the horror/fantasy field’, and that’s an accurate assessment, with the real interest in how those two aspects of the writer’s work interact with each other.

Title story ‘Gathered Dust’ is the longest in the collection, and while nearly all of the stories play with Lovecraftian tropes this is the one in which Pugmire does so most overtly, with an Arkham setting and an aspiring writer of weird fiction who gets involved with a ‘descendant’ of HPL’s Randolph Carter. The end result is a gloriously macabre horror story, filled with lurid and grotesque imagery, though in a way this is aimed more squarely at the reader than protagonist Hayward Phelps, for whom there is a sense of coming home, that he has finally found somewhere he belongs.

This is something that carries over into many of the other stories assembled here. While Lovecraft’s characters met the denouements of their tales with horror, for Pugmire’s protagonists there is more than a little willingness, a desire to embrace their fate and, through some uniquely macabre act of immolation, be elevated to a new state of being, even though consciousness itself may be expunged in doing so. It is a rarefied form of nihilism and, given the nature of the sexuality that permeates many of the stories, perhaps also an apotheosis of the S&M template, with the protagonists as Submissives while the Elder Gods and their progeny serve as Dominants in a cosmos devoid of safe words. And maybe I am getting a tad fanciful, but I find that Pugmire’s work invites such darkly delicious extrapolations.

‘Your Kiss of Corruption’ is permeated with incestuous longing as a brother tries to lure his sister into a tomb to cure her fear of darkness. Two lovers indulge in sacrifice to raise ‘Yon Baleful God’. ‘These Deities of Rarest Air’ is described as a prose poem sequence, seventeen individual sections that at first seem separate but gradually build effects and crossovers. Ultra-short ‘The Boy with the Bloodstained Mouth’ is a sharp, bittersweet tale of transference, of becoming the monster. In ‘The Woven Offspring’ a brother and sister conspire to return to life the friend they both loved, with dire consequences. Set in Pugmire’s city of Gershom, and with a protagonist who may or may not be Oscar Wilde, ‘The Tangled Muse’ is a tale of artists and their predisposition to worship the ineffable, often becoming its victim.

And so on and so forth, but while he does not stint on plot or characterisation, Pugmire’s work is not driven by either. Rather it is a love of words and imagery that seems to guide him, with a painterly style that uses the palette of language to transfer strange and wonderful visions from the writer’s mind to the page, and as with any painting it is up to us, the viewer, to interpret and respond, sharing the fascination if not the fate of the protagonists Pugmire guides to their doom with a such a subtle but compelling hand.

While others dwell on the existential horror of Lovecraft’s mythos and the less capable turn their hands to torture porn, Pugmire provides an eroticism of the language and objects of our undoing, conjuring up a spell of enchantment. His art may not be to everyone’s taste, with its subtext of fascination and dissolution, but in these tired and clichéd end of days his is a unique voice, one that eloquently offers up a different and refreshingly decadent perspective on the business of life and annihilation.

Containing twelve stories, four of which are previously unpublished, and with an introduction by John Langan, NIGHTINGALE SONGS (DRP pb, 181pp, $17.95) is the third collection by Canadian writer Simon Strantzas. In the afterword, Strantzas says that ‘many of the stories included here are the best I have ever penned’ and describes this collection as his ‘strongest’, and while writers are far from the most reliable assessors of their own worth, it’s an opinion I’m happy not to have to disabuse him of. On the whole, the stories here seem somewhat better plotted and more stripped to their essentials than those in his previous collections, though without any ‘dumbing down’ and retaining the sense of the numinous that makes his work stand out from the crowd. Having mastered technique, Strantzas is now free to concentrate on emotion, with the sense that these stories are infused with genuine sadness and pain, feelings of loss and despair, dredged up from somewhere deep inside the writer and displayed on the page.

Leading off is ‘Out of Touch’, a tale of childhood friendship, riddled with resentment as the narrator’s feelings about the chronically ill Mitch help drive the plot to a singular denouement, one in which their fascination with the old house over the road leads to an ambiguous ending. The story is remarkable for its unsettling touches of detail and the subtle, understated characterisation that helps to drive the narrative, with an air of mystery that is maintained to the very end, one that eludes easy classification under such flags of convenience as happy or sad.

In ‘Her Father’s Daughter’ Claire crashes her car and seeks help at an isolated house, but the sisters who live there are a strange pair and other events hint at something else going on behind the scenes. The events portrayed seem to take place outside of time, with an idolised/idealised but unattainable father figure taking a central role in the lives of all three women, suggesting dependency issues and the possibility of some internal psycho-drama playing out. A man cleared of a double homicide but condemned by the public is at the heart of ‘Unreasonable Doubt’, dragging his friend into the horrible mess, so that the story’s protagonist finds himself equally damned in the court of popular appeal, the story deftly manipulating our ideas of ‘justice’ and the power of public opinion, the plastic nature of reality itself, even as it offers a somewhat more prosaic and ghostly explanation for what takes place.

Resentment eats away at Halford, the protagonist of ‘Tend Your Own Garden’, with his marital house becoming a trap, though this may simply be a metaphor for the way in which he murders his wife and her lover. The story delights in its ambiguity, with the reader unable to tell where reality begins and fiction ends, how much is lashing out and how much internalised emotion. In ‘The Nightingale’ a man is fascinated with a nightclub singer, but then repelled when he discovers the fate of her admirers. The denouement here was pretty much as I expected, and yet thanks to the subtle hints, slow development and the grotesque nature of the menace it worked extremely well, standing out as one of the best stories in the book.

Set in the world of fantasy literature and the convention circuit, ‘Mr. Kneale’ was my favourite story, a beautifully paced and characterised account of a kind of psychic vampire, one who feeds on the creative energy of others and perverts it to his own ends, while by way of subtext we get a conversation about the purpose of literature, the divide between art and entertainment, a dichotomy that will strike a chord with many readers. Post-natal depression and a haunting coincide in ‘Everything Floats’, the story teasing with its hints that either could be responsible for the deteriorating situation and then bringing down the boom on the reader with a horrific ending, one that makes the reader’s own heart ache from the rawness and authenticity of the feelings of loss captured on the page.

Lastly we have ‘When Sorrows Come’, in which a woman disappears while staying at an isolated rural retreat, and then we follow the agony and guilt of her husband, only for the ending to turn things around completely, with a suggestion as to what may have been the fate of the missing woman, and a subtext that implies hope is a terrible thing to have as it can leave us prey to so many bad things in life.

TALES OF THE WEAK & THE WOUNDED (DRP pb, 223pp, $16.95) is Gary McMahon’s latest collection at the time of writing, though this ridiculously productive writer has probably published another one since. It takes its title from the film Session 9 and by way of a framing device has a TV personality exploring an abandoned asylum and finding a box full of ‘case notes’, the idea a neat concept, but not really adding anything much to the mix. Of the seventeen stories, seven are previously unpublished, and seven others I’ve reviewed before in different settings: given that we’re pushed for space this issue, I’ll ignore those seven and post details from my old reviews on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com

Opener ‘Guidance’ deals with an unhappy couple on holiday abroad, and the man finding an unusual guide book, one that leads completely off the map and offers a resolution of sorts to his marital difficulties, the story strongly characterised and with a novel use of the forbidden book trope. In ‘Bone Bag’ macabre creatures prey on the staff at a youth safe house, with the suggestion that these beings are simply an exteriorisation of inner fears and doubts. A father cannot protect his son in ‘Something Coming’, the story saturated with feelings of hopelessness and futility, and perhaps a slither of ambiguity that suggests this ostensibly loving father isn’t quite all that he seems.

The protagonist of ‘Cages’ becomes involved with a female painter who is trying to escape her violent ex, but the story’s resolution brings an element of ambiguity that hints you can never escape or, more accurately, do so only by ostracising yourself from the world. A man sexually involved with two sisters finds himself trapped in ‘The Happy Place’, which in the event isn’t a happy location at all, the story sidestepping the mundane to hint at something terrible taking place beneath the surface of the words and emotions. ‘The Leaner’ should be ridiculous, as teen thugs are stomped on by what appears to be an ambulatory tree, but it pulls back from horror farce by delving into our incipient paranoia and fear of what those placed in positions of authority over us are capable of.

One of the most powerful and moving stories in the collection, ‘Dead to the World’ pits two idealists against the zombie apocalypse, one of them choosing to die and the other becoming a monster of pragmatism. Underlying the narrative is a vertiginous sense of nihilism, the feeling that all our efforts are wasted, that there is no purpose to any of it as we are all only meat for the conqueror worm, even the good undone. It’s an uncomfortable message, but one that needs to be confronted, if we can. Joe becomes fascinated with a grieving mother who offers him sex in ‘The Gone-Away Girl’, the story chilling with its quiet mood of desperation and the idea that for some people life has become so meaningless that it doesn’t matter what they do, with a final image that shatters the narrative into pieces, even as it offers a crumb of hope.

Ostensibly presenting the predicament of a man trapped in the wreckage of his crashed car, ‘When the Dark Times Come’ veers off into territory concerning the tricks of memory and with more than a hint of King’s The Mist in its final workings. Celebrity contestants learn ‘The Nature of Things’ when they are taken to a desert island where an inhuman predator is waiting, one that puts them in touch with their most primitive instincts, McMahon stripping away the fake quality in celebrity and the veneer of civilisation to give us TV with rather more of reality than we’re perhaps ready for. And finally, by way of a coda to what has gone before, the framing device is resolved, with the reader left to decide if our unwitting protagonist has become a victim of the ghosts he has unleashed or been made into one of their number, and perhaps the leader of the host, a dilemma that might at a stretch be seen to apply equally to the reader of these stories.

With its panoply of tortured lives and battle weary survivors, Tales of the Weak & Wounded is McMahon at his best, and if you’ve appreciated his work in Black Static then you are going to want to read this collection.

 

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