Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #43:-
Back in Black Static #33 I reviewed S. P. Miskowski’s Shirley Jackson Award nominated novel Knock Knock and her follow up novella Delphine Dodd. Now here we are nearly two years and ten issues later, and it’s time to cast an appreciative eye over the two novellas that complete the Skillute cycle.
While Delphine Dodd was a prequel to the novel, ASTORIA (Omnium Gatherum pb/eBook, 112pp, $10.79/$3.28) overlaps and continues directly on from Knock Knock, opening with a recap of the events leading up to the funeral of Connie Sara, and told from the viewpoint of Ethel, who finds herself scared of her own child, terrified by the thought of what the girl might be capable of doing to her and others. After the funeral a distraught Ethel leaves Skillute, driving away with no goodbyes and no destination in mind. She takes on a new identity and finds a job housesitting in upmarket Astoria, but the man who hires her unexpectedly dumps his son on Ethel, spoiling the plans she has made for herself. There are other signs that not all is well with Ethel, that what is actually taking place happens only inside her head.
While characterisation is a vital component of all these books, it is in this one that it plays the most pivotal role, with the personality of Ethel placed under a microscope. Central to the story is the sense of guilt she has regarding Connie Sara, reeling from what she feels others may be thinking, sensing that they regard her as somehow culpable in what the child has done, that all of her evil is down to Ethel being a bad mother. This guilt follows her and makes any form of escape impossible, so that only fantasies remain as a viable alternative. In a telling moment, when asked what book she is reading, Ethel answers Frankenstein, the story of a man who made a monster, and it seems that she feels she is in a similar situation, that her child is equally unnatural and somehow this is her fault. Miskowski presents us with a compelling portrait of a woman’s dissolution, with happiness granted to her but proving short lived and illusory, and the ghosts of the past, particularly the boy she believes Connie Sara murdered, coming back to haunt her. A powerful performance, this is a nuanced and subtle work that shows Miskowski at her best and will reward many readings.
Which brings us to IN THE LIGHT (Omnium Gatherum pb/eBook, 110pp, $11.99/$3.06), the final volume in this trilogy of novellas. While Delphine Dodd preceded the events of Knock Knock and Astoria overlapped, this volume moves the story on, bringing us up to speed with what has happened to the characters and at the end offering closure of a kind. It’s told in three sections, each from the perspective of a different character, and lurking at the back of them all is the demonic entity that is Skillute’s monster in residence.
The first section is told from the viewpoint of Ruth, a child whose parents wish to buy the old Colquitt house where, we now learn, Marietta the psychically gifted engineer of Connie Sara’s death herself perished in a fire. Online Ruth learns of the house’s dark past and the murders that took place there, but while exploring the ruins she makes a grim discovery of her own. The second section is told from the viewpoint of Alicia, the wife of Marietta’s son Henry, mulling over past events in the moments before Ruth arrives at her door. In the third section Henry is trying to persuade local people not to oppose his plans to reopen the house as a shelter for the homeless, and also looking back at the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death. His return home to Alicia is not a happy occasion.
This is a cleverly constructed tale, one that fills in the backdrop to the story and ties up some of the loose ends, as well as offering a different slant on some of what has gone before, all by way of setting us up for a final, showstopper of a confrontation. In her creation of the small town setting Miskowski is as good as ever at giving her work a solid foundation, the concerns of ordinary folk grounding the horror and making it seem all the more real. Ruth is the archetypal outsider, bullied by other children and “humoured” by her patronisingly right-on parents. She becomes a conduit for evil, even though she herself is innocent. And against this evil stands the bumbling Henry, a man who has turned his back on his supernatural heritage, his birth right, but nonetheless through his purity of intent and general goodness is fit to oppose the demonic entity that threatens them all. And that final confrontation crackles with power, the demon shown in all its hideousness, a creature that is not human but which seems all too recognisable, a coagulation of the worst traits to be found in our nature. Its utter disdain for life blazes off of the page, making this monster one of the most memorable of recent horror fiction. In the Light is a fitting final chapter to a work of great power and authority, and I can’t wait to see what Miskowski produces next.