Following on from Monday’s post, here are the remaining four reviews from a feature on DarkFuse novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #34:-
DARKFUSE NOVELLAS (Continued)
The mad artist is a familiar figure in horror fiction, and Nicole Cushing gives us the apotheosis of the type in CHILDREN OF NO ONE (DarkFuse eBook, 49pp, $2.99). The wealthy MacPherson is in Nowhere, Indiana in search of the behavioural artist Thomas Krieg, known to the public as Krieg the Sadist, Krieg the Torturer. There are rumours of a labyrinth where young children are held prisoner, wandering alone in the dark and reliant on Krieg’s ‘angels’ for food. But the truth is much darker, as MacPherson discovers. Krieg’s partner, the Englishman known only as Mr No One, is a chaos magician intent on raising the Great Dark Mouth in a ritual that will see MacPherson realise his own true nature, the fascination with death that drives him in everything he does.
This is a superb novella, one in which Cushing tackles many different themes, as with the friction between anarchy and art, symbolised in the antipathy between her two main characters, Krieg and No One, each of whom is brilliantly captured on the page and wonderfully larger than life, with dialogue that hums with power as you read. There are echoes of Greek mythology in the work, from the labyrinth itself through to the masks that the characters wear, and the naming of No One, and also perhaps a hint of the Fowles of The Magus. MacPherson is the third player in this drama, the one who is led to a brutal truth about himself, the heartless aesthete emotionally isolated from all that makes his love of art attainable and worthwhile. Krieg, the shock master par excellence, plays on this aspect of MacPherson’s nature, asking how far we can go in the name of art before boundaries are crossed that should have remained inviolate. And then there are the boys in the labyrinth, abused beyond belief and yet still capable of a certain nobility in the way they cling to each other. Finally we have the bag lady who appears at the story’s end like some avenging avatar, her triumph mirroring that of chaos and nihilism, everything else reduced to fodder for her larder in a wonderfully ironic coda. Cushing is a new writer to me, but on this evidence one that I hope to see much more from.
Time for a haunted house story, and so enter from stage left Ronald Malfi with THE MOURNING HOUSE (DarkFuse eBook, 74pp, $2.99). After a car accident in which his wife and child are killed, Sam Hatch takes a leave of absence from his old life, driving away in a car and never looking back. Two years later he stumbles across an old, abandoned house in Maryland that ‘calls’ to him. Sam buys the house, later finding that it has a certain reputation in the area, and as he works to fix it up he has experiences of his own, in particular sensing the presences of his wife and child.
There’s not a lot to be usefully said about this. It’s an effective haunted house piece, with an underlying mood of uncertainty, so that you can never really be sure if the house is malevolent, though that is the suggestion. The heart of the story lies in the inability of Sam Hatch to leave his ghosts behind: he carries them with him until he arrives at a place where they can find an outlet, the house feeding on his inner torment. Malfi writes well, creating a strong sense of place and unsettling atmosphere, with the book’s chills in the main delivered by means of suggestion rather than any outright gore, while the characters are competently written, Sam’s feelings of guilt and grief coming over particularly well. A sombre piece that doesn’t outstay its welcome, but doesn’t bring much that’s original to the table either.
Similar themes can be found in HOUSE OF RAIN (DarkFuse eBook, 74pp, $2.99) by Greg Gifune, which is scheduled for release at the end of this month. It’s the story of Gordon, living in poverty and grief stricken by the death of his wife from cancer, haunted by other things including memories of what he did in Vietnam, and the circumstances that brought Katy into his life but at a terrible cost. Watching a homeless man get beaten by three punks is the straw that breaks this camel’s back, long suppressed emotions erupting in street violence and vigilante justice.
Except that’s really not what it’s about. Superficially, Greg Gifune’s story seems to be a variation on the deal with the Devil template, Gordon believing that his personal happiness with Katy was purchased at the cost of another’s life. But as the story progresses and details are slotted into place, mostly courtesy of best friend Harry, we learn how Katy really died and there is the suggestion that the Devil is simply an aspect of Gordon’s subconscious, that things did not really take place as he remembers them. This shift in perspective would be impressive enough, but Gifune doesn’t leave it there, instead introducing a meta-fictional slant, with two sections that bracket the main story suggesting events on the street are being observed by some other Gordon and Katy, layers of fiction and reality overlapping to the point where there is no real truth, only what we and the characters choose to believe.
Another strong suit of the story can be found in its depiction of grief. As we witness his behaviour at a therapy group and in conversation with Harry, we can at one level or another identify with the sense of despair that Gordon is experiencing, both personal remorse at what he thinks he has done and what has been taken from him, and a greater grieving for the changes in society, the contrast between his fighting in Vietnam at nineteen and the young of today who prey on the vulnerable on the streets. There is anger inside the character as well as despair, a feeling that all he has done has been for nothing.
Gifune’s forte here is the unreliable narrator, the man who is hiding from himself as much as he is hiding from the world, with reality filtered through his skewed perspective. The end result is a powerful work, one that plays deftly with the reader’s head and confounds our expectations.
STALKING YOU NOW (DarkFuse eBook, 43pp, $2.99) by Jeff Strand is a more straightforward tale. Twenty five years ago Clyde (not his real name) gained notoriety as the Flatside Killer, bludgeoning young women to death with the flat side of an axe, only to have his career nipped in the bud by an overly zealous security guard. Now he’s back from Mexican exile and looking to revenge himself on the man he holds responsible for ruining his life. Only Terrence has a wife with a grudge of her own and she is intent on getting in on the action. You just know, it’s all going to end badly.
Most of the pleasures found in this book come courtesy of the characterisation, with whiny Clyde and the delightfully matter of fact Mindy playing well off each other, while Terrence is pitch perfect as the picture of machismo undone. The story is fun, with some twists and turns, as Clyde realises that he may finally have met his match in the wannabe Mindy, the balance of power shifting first one way and then the other, with the reader hanging on to find out who will have the upper hand at the end. The one serious credibility issue I had, Clyde coming after Terrence after all this time, is addressed satisfactorily by Strand in the story, making it all part of his character’s makeup, yet another string to his pettiness. Best comparison I can come up with to suggest what you may be getting for your money, is the kind of black comedy/crime fiction that is Carl Hiaasen’s stock in trade, but with a streak of absurdity that is all Strand’s own in lieu of the environmental concerns that have weighted down the former’s work in recent years. It’s a fun way to spend an hour or so of your time.