Five reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #44:-
A REHEARSAL FOR DEATH: TIM WAGGONER
If they don’t know him from elsewhere, Black Static readers will at least be aware of Tim Waggoner from the three stories he has had published in the magazine. My guess would be that most will know him from elsewhere: Waggoner is one of those writers who eludes easy categorisation, producing bizarro fiction and traditional horror with equal facility, writing splatterpunk as readily as he does stories with a philosophical underpinning, and sometimes blurring the boundaries between them. He is an everyman writer, working in the universes created by other hands or dreaming up nightmarish scenarios that are entirely his own, and bringing the same craft and care to each endeavour.
This versatility and skill is clearly seen in the eighteen stories that comprise BONE WHISPERS (Post Mortem Press pb/eBook, 290pp, $13.81/$6.41). Superficially there seem to be similarities between many of the stories – the coffee shop setting, the graveyard, the car journey, characters with homespun names like Daniel and Kevin, Lindsey and Lauren – but these things are only incidental, and as you dig deeper the uniqueness of each work is revealed, making this one of the most varied collections of recent years.
After an enthusiastic introduction by Michael A. Arnzen, the collection proper kicks off with ‘Thou Art God’. Written in the second person, it details how a man makes this discovery but learns that “knowledge is hell”, the story offering a sober and salutary antidote to the underlying philosophy in Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land. God has His problems too, just like the rest of us. In title story ‘Bone Whispers’ Kevin returns to the graveyard where he experienced something terrible as a child, and he manages to revisit the encounter, only this time it has a very different ending. The story has enough in the way of chills and thrills, but underlying that is a deep and abiding sense of sadness, regret for the things we did wrong, the words never spoken and deeds never done, awareness that our time on this earth is limited and constantly running lower.
A friendless man visits what he believes to be a brothel in ‘Some Dark Hope’, but actually it’s something else entirely, and within its walls Greg finds a home and personal worth in a clever variation on the vampire trope that deftly solicits sympathy for this underdog only to then shift him to the top of the heap. Surreal and bizarre, the flash fiction that is ‘Harvest Time’ offers another visit to a graveyard, the off kilter story holding interest until the killer end line is delivered, capping a delightful black comedy with severed tongue firmly in cheek. ‘Best Friends Forever’ is the story of Ron, who is haunted by the ghost of the stuffed dog that was his best friend in childhood, his daughter Lily wanting to possess Biff, but as events unfold a much darker picture emerges, and we realise that Ron’s ghosts are not quite as we first believed. And yet at the same time it is in clinging to these fantasies that he finds a way to cope with the terrible tragedy and loss that occurred in his life.
Daniel in ‘No More Shadows’ stops to help someone he went to school with escape from a supernatural menace, but there’s a nasty twist waiting in the shadows. It’s an intriguing concept, the story in some ways a variation on the earlier ‘Some Dark Hope’, but Waggoner uses this to address the nature of hope and the need to let go of the past instead of becoming its victim. There are always choices to be made, and Daniel’s choice at the end of this story is a masterstroke of understatement. ‘Skull Cathedral’ is presented as a series of vivid and increasingly violent fantasies, the thoughts of a creator who is having surgery to remove the possibility of such lurid ideas taking root in the future, but in an end twist Waggoner presents the idea that in using such thoughts aesthetically we prevent them taking on flesh in the real world. It is a disturbing and unsettling work of fiction, with some truly gruesome effects woven into the text. ‘Country Roads’ utilises the old urban legend of the ghostly hitchhiker, with Eric revisiting the back roads of his youth where the incident occurred more than twenty years ago and seeking out the woman in white again, by way of confirmation that existence is “more than just going to work, paying bills, and marking time until I die”. In a way it is a comforting tale, a confirmation that mystery and even horror can enrich our lives by demonstrating that there is possibly more to life than our bland, materialistic philosophies will allow.
‘Darker than Winter’ is the obliquely written tale of would be cartoonist Patrick who is cursed with a lack of imagination and so has to copy the actions of his brother Mark in the hope that something will rub off. Ostensibly he is killing snowmen as the inspiration for humorous greeting cards, but there is the suggestion that something more horrific is going on, that Patrick has finally discovered his imagination in rendering people as snowmen, the story one that will probably reward further reading and with a construction that is undeniably clever, so that ambiguity becomes all. Another short, ‘Swimming Lessons’ has the parents at a local pool transformed into the water in which their children swim, thus enabling them to get away from all the workaday world cares that drag them down. It was well written, but to my mind the least interesting of what is on offer in this collection, doing little more than presenting the idea to the reader. Lines between fact and imagination become blurred in ‘Conversations Kill’, as at the suggestion of his psychiatrist Walter tries to deal with his issues by role playing the murder of an imaginary woman who embodies all the flaws found in those he actually knows, the story told from the viewpoint of the victim who feels the requisite suffering even if she doesn’t actually exist. It’s a clever concept, one that Waggoner uses to explore issues of misogyny through the character of the whiny, blaming Walter.
The end of days begins with a rain of blood in ‘Long Way Home’. The story is rich in detail, giving us an exciting fight for survival, with the odds set firmly against Lauren and her son Alex until the final revelation that a mother will do whatever it takes to save her child, no matter how terrible, and finding in this a kind of consolation and comfort. Gordon starts to learn terrible things about his family and neighbours in ‘The Faces That We Meet’, and eventually must decide whether to act on these revelations or turn a blind eye to conserve the idea of an idyllic lifestyle. Again Waggoner is excellent in unsettling the reader, showing how the most terrible things lurk beneath the surface of everyday suburbia, while still leaving room for ambiguity, the possibility that the problem may be with Gordon and not the world. The final revelation is rich in peril and all the more startling for the understated way in which it is presented. Reality collapses for the protagonist of ‘The Great Ocean of Truth’ as he moves to a greater awareness of the purpose of human existence, or at least his own, the story surreal but with clues in the text that hint at personal dissolution and a meld between macro and microcosm. It manages the neat trick of being both unsettling and, in an oblique manner, oddly reassuring, giving a fine note on which to bring down the curtain on this collection.
The first of three novellas by Waggoner in my TBR pile, DEEP LIKE THE RIVER (Dark Regions Press pb, 66pp, $10.95) is the story of Alie and her sister Carin, who go off on a canoe trip down a slow moving river. It’s supposed to be a chance for Alie to heal, to recover from the loss of her baby. Only en route they find a baby abandoned by the side of the river and Alie determines to protect this child at any cost, as a way to atone for how she couldn’t save her own child. As the sisters struggle downriver, carrying the baby to safety, the scenario becomes nightmarish, with a giant snake in the water and a giant bird in the sky overhead, and some monstrous creature lurking in the woods and following them along the bank, while those they turn to for help are transformed into inhuman enemies.
So far, so nightmarish, but as the story develops and we get drip fed details of the past we realise that not everything is to be taken at face value. The sisters have paddled off the map and into some psychodrama based on events in Alie’s early life, the tormented years of her childhood, and we also learn that there’s quite a bit more to the death of Alie’s baby, a truth that she is trying very hard to ignore.
There’s a surreal quality to this story, with the outwardly monstrous horrors of the narrative playing counterpoint to the even more horrendous events of the past. In fact the horrors are an outward manifestation of those events. At the end we don’t know exactly how much is externalised, if everything taking place happens inside the confines of Alie’s skull or if a giant bird really does attack Carin, a giant snake sinks the boat, while the monster in the woods commands them to do so. In a way though that is partly the point of the story, that such things can seem real when psychological circumstances leave us vulnerable.
We are also forced to re-evaluate our attitude to Alie, moving from sympathy for the grieving mother to something less approving as we discover the degree of her culpability. She remains someone we can care about, but at the same time we want her to stop making excuses, to face up to what she has done, and this story is the mechanism by which that can be accomplished. The big question is whether she will do so, or seek some other method of escape/denial. A deeply felt story, this is a narrative that works superbly well, taking us on a journey into some heart of darkness that is the psyche of a damaged individual, showing us the horrors with which she has to contend. I loved it.
There’s more of a cosmic scope to the second Waggoner novella under consideration. THE LAST MILE (DarkFuse eBook/limited edition hc, 48pp, $3.49/$32.50) is set in a milieu designated the World After, and though their names are never invoked it seems obvious that what we are talking about is the return of Lovecraft’s Old Ones to our world, or at least some reasonable facsimile thereof. In the new reality matter is fluid, with objects warped out of true and twisted into nightmarish new forms at the whim, or simply as a side effect, of whatever eldritch deity happens to reside in the area. Humans survive as either prey or servants, and Dan has taken the latter option to save the lives of his wife and child. He is driving the last mile, bringing the young woman Alice as a sacrifice to his master, a journey that is fraught with peril as he has to tackle mutant wildlife and a rival servant who wants his prisoner.
It’s fast paced stuff, with hardly a moment for the reader to catch breath before we’re plunged into another desperate situation, but along the way Waggoner manages to fill in the back story, telling us about the day the world changed and the terrible aftermath, of the events that forced Dan to take on the mantle of servitude. We also learn of Alice’s past, that she is anything but an innocent victim. And then there is the one simple act of kindness that is the McGuffin for the story, but in the World After no good deed goes unpunished.
This is a grim story, one in which none of the characters have clean hands, even if there is on occasion an element of altruism to their actions, or at least they manage to persuade themselves that this is so. It begs the question of how we ourselves would act in such extreme circumstances. And it is in describing those circumstances that Waggoner’s story truly comes into its own, depicting a world in which absolutely anything can happen and humans have no purpose to their lives other than the amusement of elder beings through their suffering. It is a warped reality, with horrific descriptions on nearly every page, and everything going one pitch darker just when you think things can’t get any worse. Waggoner has produced a powerful work of horror fiction, one that shows the cosmic indifference of the Mythos deities in action, but it is most definitely not a work of fiction for those of a squeamish disposition.
Third up, we have A STRANGE AND SAVAGE GARDEN (Samhain Publishing eBook, 86pp, $3.50). Having left Trinity Falls many years ago, Lauren returns for the funeral of her father, but no sooner is she back than manipulative grandmother Madelyn is sending her off on a guilt trip. More significantly, she keeps noticing inexplicable changes in the world around her, things seen out of the corner of an eye that tie into the warning she was given while en route to Trinity Falls. Bubbling away in the back of Lauren’s consciousness are images of something terrible that happened to her in the town, but the arrival of old boyfriend Stephen pushes such concerns far away. And then there is the creature that lurks in the woods and is kept away from the town by the Offertories.
This is a clever story, one that is harrowing in places (there’s a good reason for the gaps in Lauren’s memory) and deeply effecting in others, with some intriguing concepts as its underpinning. There were parts of it that reminded me of The Village, but in philosophical terms it goes much further, with reality itself up for grabs and a subtext about what can arise from religious mania gone wrong. Although she is undoubtedly a monster, such is Waggoner’s skill that we can understand the motivation of Madelyn Carter and even feel some sympathy for how she ended up this way. Overall then what we have here is a well plotted and excellently crafted novella, one that takes the archetype of the witch and rings some new changes on this tried and true formula.
And so finally we come to Waggoner’s zombie novel THE WAY OF ALL FLESH (Samhain Publishing pb/eBook, 248pp, $15/$5.50). The Blacktide plague has spread around the globe and in the wake of its passing two thirds of the human race is dead, while the majority of those who survived have been turned into flesh eating zombies. David Croft is one such zombie, unaware of his condition and with his whole world filtered through a unique perspective, regarding the survivors as demons who wish to hurt and kill him. But lately a new consciousness has been emerging inside of David, so that he isn’t quite so ravenous for flesh, is willing to share what he has with other zombies and will even resist his unnatural appetites to the point that his prey can escape. A wish to be reunited with his children takes over, and in this the mysterious Simon, a boy who seems somehow familiar even though David can’t quite place him, offers his assistance.
David’s sister Kate is one of those who survived the plague, living inside a fortified stronghold with the majority of the other survivors, sallying forth on raids as a Ranger to kill zombies and scavenge for supplies. Kate’s girlfriend Marie is obsessed with all things zombie and has a pet theory that what is happening is a new form of evolution, one for which the world has been primed by our abiding preoccupation with the zombie archetype. And Kate’s Ranger partner Nicholas is, unbeknown to anyone else, a monster with a secret hideaway where he takes zombies and tortures them, especially females, but lately he is getting tired of the walking dead and plans to branch out into real people, with Kate and Marie at the top of his to do list. With Nicholas abandoning all pretence and David mobilising the zombie horde to attack the demons in their stronghold, the scene is set for a dramatic finale.
This is an interesting book, with Waggoner doing so many things and most of them so very well. Although we are meant to sympathise and perhaps even identify with David and his efforts to do the right thing in trying circumstances, Waggoner doesn’t soften the reality of what he is, a flesh eating zombie, with scenes of violence and grue that will resonate with fans of Romero and his undead progeny. And, in giving us a zombie’s eye view of reality, showing a world in which eating flesh is very much business as usual and normal human beings are reified as demonic entities, he introduces an element of freshness into the work.
The overarching structure of the book, with its novel concept of the zombie as an evolutionary next step, one predicated by our own obsession with the archetype, is fascinating and a novel twist on the zombie subgenre. Marie’s hypothesis as to the origin of Blacktide and its aftermath, might be correct in the broadest terms, but Waggoner gives it an agreeably off the wall twist. It’s a conceit that, while it may perhaps be echoed in the work of other writers, as far as I am aware has never been spelled out so clearly as here, and to say any more would deprive you of the pleasure of discovering Quidam and the Gyre all for yourself.
Against all that is the human side of the equation, with Kate desperate to put her brother out of his misery but at the same time unable to pull the trigger and take the necessary shot, so that her psyche is torn apart by the conflict, adding to the guilt she feels about other matters regarding defence of the community of which she is a part.
Nicholas is Kate’s polar opposite, a monster who has thrived under the new conditions, finding a niche for himself as a killer of zombies and others. His actions, undercut by a grubby misogyny, are far worse than those of any zombie, and it is in his character that Waggoner makes his one misstep I feel, with Nicholas at times reduced to the level of a comic cut out villain from a straight to DVD gorefest as his atrocities grow ever more crude, riffing on Reanimator along the way and culminating in his “I am Death!” declaration. Yes, he is obviously mad as the proverbial hatter, and there’s good reason for his being so as regards future plans (the hint of a sequel), but all the same it feels unconvincing, too over the top to be taken entirely seriously. A minor quibble though.
Waggoner has produced a novel that satisfies as in your face horror, a grue fest of the first blood, and gripping storytelling, but at the same time one that gives us a bit more to think about than aren’t the zombies like Black Friday shoppers on the rampage. It’s an excellent work of horror fiction, one that stretches the boundaries of the zombie subgenre while gleefully and intelligently giving the finger to all the staid old conventions attendant on this venerable trope. There’s even a touch of black comedy, with some scenes set in a former eat as much as you like restaurant now catering to zombie clientele.
If you haven’t read Waggoner’s work yet, or read only the stories that have appeared in Black Static, then I’m here to tell you there’s a veritable mother lode of quality horror fiction out there just waiting to be discovered.