Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #44:-
The never named protagonist of the titular story in John Claude Smith’s collection AUTUMN IN THE ABYSS (Omnium Gatherum eBook/pb, 100pp, $4.52/$11.45) is a seriously obese agoraphobic who is obsessed with Henry Coronado, a poet affiliated with the Beats who disappeared off the face of the earth in 1960. In particular he is interested in a public reading Coronado did of his poem ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, which appears to have caused some traumatic psychic shift in all those who were present, many dying in a fire that gripped the venue or committing suicide afterwards. The man is warned not to dig any deeper, but when he discovers that a close associate of Coronado lives nearby he summons up the willpower to leave his house and make the journey, but what he learns about the poet’s eventual fate is rather more than is welcome.
This is a vibrant and clever novella, Smith weaving real people such as Kerouac and Ginsberg into his narrative, and adding snippets of “news” to give it that extra frisson of verisimilitude, so that at some point we too begin to wonder if Henry Coronado ever existed. His portrait of an agoraphobic seems to be spot on, cataloguing the physical and psychological bankruptcy of the character’s situation, the attendant obesity that makes him a figure of scorn even in his own eyes, someone to elicit sympathy and/or pity from the reader. But underlying these surface details is an almost profound reverence for the use of language, a schema in which words are living things, and at the story’s core a conception of mankind’s low place in the greater scheme of things that is every bit as unnerving as the cosmic indifference of Lovecraft’s Old Ones. A subtle and multi-faceted work, this is a story that is written with the same love of language that it celebrates and which will reward future readings with ever new discoveries.
From the chillingly sublime to something of more appeal to the gore hound demographic in ‘Broken Teacup’, with two failed musicians who have made a career out of staging snuff films and selling them on to their select clientele. Broken Teacup is the name one of them gives to a woman they pick up off the streets to star in a specially commissioned production, but it turns out they have bitten off rather more than they can chew. It’s a story that is not for the squeamish, with a level of violence that will give many pause even though it mostly takes place off page, and made all the harder to process by the callous and indifferent attitudes of the characters, though that also makes their comeuppance all the more satisfying. What raises this story above common or garden torture porn, apart from the quality of the writing and depth of characterisation, is the evocation of higher entities with an interest in human suffering and the preservation of some nebulous balance, a conceit that was also present in ‘Abyss’ and in one form or another carries over into the other stories. It is here represented by the character of Mr Liu, a catalyst for the story’s action and somebody who may be thought of as a cosmic arbiter responsible for eliminating anything the higher powers find offensive and/or facilitating events for them.
Mr Liu plays a similar catalyst role in ‘La mia immortalità’, commissioning a special sculpture from Samuel, a talented artist whose desire for immortality has turned him into a self-obsessed monster, one who doesn’t care that his actions hurt his girlfriend and their unborn child. Smith is excellent both at depicting the yearning to produce great art and showing how there are human values that need to take precedence, with Samuel’s ambition realised in a way that has just desserts written all over it.
There is more repellent and graphic violence in ‘Becoming Human’, with a detective tracking down a copycat killer who is exactly reproducing the atrocities of the monster Krell, but what he finds is something else entirely, an alien entity with an agenda of its own. The scenario felt slightly contrived to me and I couldn’t quite take it at face value, but paper over this crack with a roll of suspension of disbelief and the end result is an intriguing story, one that shows terrible actions can be committed out of a noble motive, and that to be human is something that has a very wide range of alternatives, with who you take as a role model simply a matter of circumstance.
In final story ‘Where the Light Won’t Find You’, Derek Jenner steps into the wrong screen at a multiplex and is witness to something he shouldn’t have seen, forcing him to bargain with the facilitator Mr Liu for his own existence, the story valuable for the way in which it confirms the general scheme of something cosmic and abstract lurking outside human ken, shaping our reality even as we are unaware of it. While that theme runs through all of these stories, it is only here in the mundane nature of the life that Derek has decided to embrace and in Mr Liu’s response to his decision that it seems almost benevolent. It’s a fine end to a strong collection from a new talent with interesting ideas and an engaging prose style to bring them to life on the page.
My last encounter with Lucy Taylor’s oeuvre was the collection Unnatural Acts which would have given John Claude Smith a run for his money in terms of gore and sexual deviance, but the novelette A RESPITE FOR THE DEAD (Omnium Gatherum eBook/pb, 52pp, $3.56/$6.99) finds her in a much quieter mood.
Zack and his family move to New Mexico for a variety of reasons, but primarily so that wife Kaitlin can produce a book of photographs of descansos, roadside shrines to the dead, but they develop an unhealthy fascination with one such shrine. It marks the spot where a family of three ran out of the woods into the path of a truck driven by their neighbour Guzman, who had been drinking at the time. Guzman is still a drunk and a careless driver, something that arouses Zack’s ire, not least because he thinks the man is interested in Kaitlin and she is responding (an affair in the past acts like a burr under his saddle). But the real question here is what was pursuing the family that dashed out in front of Guzman’s truck, and learning the answer is definitely not something Zack and his family want to do, though it may already be too late for them.
Respite has a plot that hinges on human weakness and uses it to make us prey to something unnatural, something that lurks in between the folds of reality emerging only when it wishes to bite. The alien nature of the sun smitten landscape of New Mexico comes powerfully alive on the page and the interplay between the various characters is beautifully realised, so that you can sympathise with Zack even while knowing that he is acting like an over protective jerk. The shrines symbolise our fascination with death and the unknown, here transmuted into a source of horror. The end result of all this good work is a compelling and totally engaging story, one in which the strangeness is woven deep into every line of the text, both that of the outré and that of the human heart itself, the ultimate terra incognito.
Omnium head honcho Kate Jonez is a fine writer as well as being an editor and publisher, and so I’ll review her novel CANDY HOUSE (Evil Jester Press eBook/pb, 334pp, $3.52/$15.14) under the OG umbrella even though it isn’t published by them.
Roland Childe has always been fascinated by the beautiful woman who lives next door to his parents’ house. Hesperia and her companion Aubrey, who can transform into a cat, are part of a non-human species similar to the fairies and/or witches who feature in our folklore and most cherished stories (there are echoes of the Gingerbread House and Hansel and Gretel in the text). For a never clearly delineated crime, they have been sentenced to reside in this world and deal with humans whose scientific discoveries might endanger the shared environment. Roland is a scientist close to making a significant breakthrough in DNA, a discovery with even more potential to upset the apple cart than atomic energy, but he is held back in all his dealings by a subsidiary personality, a beast that he acquired when attending one of Hesperia’s parties as a child, that continually urges him to acts of violence. Goaded by gaoler and enforcer Finn, who has his own designs on her, Hesperia somehow convinces herself that she is in love with Roland and to win him away from pyromaniac Julia she must become fully human. A desperate Roland injects himself with his advanced DNA, which is when the shit really hits the fan.
And that’s only the tip of this iceberg of a story.
Candy House is a book regarding which I’m in two minds and I read it twice just to decide what those two minds were. There’s a lot here to like. The writing is evocative, and I loved the way in which the old legends are woven into the text, while Hesperia and those I will, for lack of any alternative, refer to as the others are beautifully realised, human enough to empathise with but also different enough that we don’t make the mistake of doing so completely. And there are some delicious sketches in all the minor characters, such as Roland’s lackadaisical father Jack, his ballroom dancing mother with all her carefully delineated foibles, the fire starter Julia who grows madder with each passing page, the smug doctor and the kindly orderly, the professor who stokes Roland’s paranoia, the wannabe girlfriend from his past, and so on and so forth. And adding zest to it all is Roland’s beast, with the sense that he must continually struggle to keep his worst nature in check. It’s in these little things that Jonez is superb in execution.
Where she doesn’t seem as assured to me is in the bigger picture. The DNA research that Roland is conducting, and why it’s so significant, is never really pinned down. When he takes the drug it doesn’t seem to offer much more than a hallucinatory trip, one that perhaps allows him to see more of the true nature of reality, but nothing that gripped or energised my connection to the book. Another query is why, if her mission is so vital to their continued existence, the others entrust it to the badly flawed Hesperia and then hamper her with so much conditionality. And nothing I read made Hesperia’s readiness to transform into a human being a decision I could believe in. So in conclusion, there are a lot of good things here, much to enjoy and plenty of reasons to seek out the book, but ultimately I never really felt that they added up to more than the sum of their parts.