The first part of a feature on Hippocampus Press that originally appeared in Black Static #54:-
It’s been fifteen issues since we did a feature on the output of US publisher and weird fiction specialist Hippocampus Press, so let’s take a look at some of the short story collections they’ve produced in the intervening two years.
Despite its association in the minds of many with the work of H. P. Lovecraft weird fiction is a broad church, and by way of underlining that claim we kick off this feature with a book from Welsh writer Rhys Hughes. BONE IDLE IN THE CHARNEL HOUSE (Hippocampus Press pb, 246pp, $20) is the work of a writer focused on wordplay and ideas, the absurd and the grotesquely comedic, and for whom plot and characterisation are perhaps of secondary concern. Endlessly inventive, Hughes reminds me of the Lem of The Cyberiad infused with the manic, slapstick energy of the Marx Brothers and with logic taken to the extreme where its workings are indistinguishable from madness. This book is billed as “A Collection of Weird Stories”, but that’s simply a flag of convenience, and given different packaging it could just as easily be marketed as science fiction, fantasy, absurdism, comedy, or simply literature. Which is not to say that there is nothing here for the horror aficionado. Hughes knows the genre well and is adept at playing with its tropes, though in doing so he often points out their absurdity and ridiculousness.
After an introduction in which the author lays out his relationship with and methods regarding the weird genre of fiction, we get into things proper with ‘The Swinger’ which, when it appeared previously in the anthology Dark Worlds, I summarised as “the author taking an idea that sounds superficial and then seeing how far he can go with it and not fall flat on his face, in a plot that involves a haunted hotel, a writer and a novel concept of time travel, the story delighting with its profusion of ideas and the audacity of execution”. I see no reason to revise that opinion on a second reading. ‘Bitter in Sour’ has a man arriving in the port city of Tyre and finding himself the doorman at Hotel Sour, the story cleverly reversing the usual context of such matters with guests paying to leave the establishment and take up residence in the outside world, Hughes using the concept to examine his protagonist’s inner feelings. Warren and Curtis seek ‘The Old House Under the Snow’, built by the Baron and rumoured to contain treasure, but instead they find a series of increasingly larger houses one on top of each other, constantly sinking ever deeper into the snow, and Hughesian logic leads to the conclusion that one of them must be the Devil. It’s an audacious story, with one idea coming fast on the heels of another and the whole as clever as it is whimsical and amusing, taking familiar concepts from the horror genre such as the demonic pact and playing with them in an entirely unfamiliar and original way.
Using the whole six ‘Degrees of Separation’ thing, Clute decides to kill himself as a way of hurting the man he really wishes dead, the misery of his death communicating itself through linked associations, the story an elaborate and entertaining exercise in cutting your nose off to spite somebody else’s face. Mathematically rigorous, ‘The Warlord’ constantly doubles the subjects he has to rule, until another warlord defeats him and reverses the whole process. Underlying the central conceit, the story has something to say about the nature of the will to rule others, and along the way we get some amusing word play on the theme of warlords. Logic propels the protagonist of ‘Vampiric Gramps’ to the conclusion that all mirrors are vampires and from this in turn he deduces that he too is a vampire, the tale ending with a final, shocking revelation as to the nature of that narrator, Hughes again delighting with his wit and bizarre version of rationality.
Title story ‘Bone Idle in the Charnel House’ is the longest in the collection and, to my mind, the most accomplished, the tale of an effete and narcoleptic aristocrat who is forced by the state to leave his decaying palace and work in a charnel house. It’s a lovely concoction of ideas and imagery, playing with the tropes and stage scenery of the horror genre, deftly skewering many of the clichés, and along the way offering a pointed critique of DWP practice and the demand for everyone to contribute to society, regardless of aptitude or temperament, though possibly here I am only pushing my own concerns onto Hughes narrative. It ends with a shocking discovery, one that implies that the Earth is just a giant decapitated head, with a skull at its core, similar to the sort of thing you used to find as an illustration on the cover of ancient horror paperbacks. I loved this story.
A man for whom cold is ‘What I Fear Most’ finds that he cannot accept the death of the sun after his own demise, and so travels to the Arctic to acclimatise himself to the cold. Again it’s a case of logic taken to extremes, and written in a tone somewhat similar to that of Poe pontificating about premature burial. ‘Casimir the Converter’ preaches the gospel of Segrob to vampires, their newfound faith rendering them immune to the symbols of all other religions, and in doing so he seeks revenge on the human race that he feels has so badly wronged him, the story cleverly undermining vampirism and posing conundrums regarding the nature of religious faith. One of the less satisfactory stories, ‘Smuggling Old Nick to Newfoundland’ recounts how a smug preacher is given the chance to lecture the Devil, but really it all seems a bit random and episodic, even by Hughesian standards. More disappointment in ‘Shelling the Toad’ wherein a couple of characters meander aimlessly through the plot and then one of them kills the other when they erect their tent round the body of a toad to fulfil a folklore prophecy that someone must die. Some interesting imagery in the story and some entertaining dialogue, but taken as a whole it really does feel like something the author is making up on the hoof.
In a story that, more pointedly than any of the others, brings to mind the work of Stanislaw Lem, an astronaut finds himself marooned in a community of ‘Chameleons’, who take on not only his physical appearance but also his attitudes and thought patterns, which in turns leads him to question if he is not a chameleon himself. The story is brittle and amusing, with an underlying philosophical density, so that what we are really exploring here is a question as to how we know what or who we are, a reversal of the Cartesian cogito. ‘Happiness Leasehold’ is a deal with the Devil variation, with Hughes adding a strong metafictional element, introducing the author as a character and directly addressing the reader. Overall it is an entertaining diversion, with some neat tricks in the writing. ‘Life and the Plumbline’ is a murder mystery of sorts, with nobody who or what they at first appear to be and the crimes worked out along lines of the rigorous logic that is Hughes stock-in-trade. Imagine Fantômas reinvented by M. C. Escher.
A zoo keeps a cage full of cages in ‘The Unsubtle Cages’ and a visitor purchases one of them to start his own zoo inside his hotel room, but only other rooms come to see the show. This is another story that didn’t quite work for me, Hughes doing little more than present the ideas. Taking in astrology, the Old Ones, and racism/eugenics, ‘Sigma Octantis’ is an audacious brew of a story in which an academic is enlisted in the plans of a mad Patagonian potentate to create a zodiac for the Celt race alone. It’s a story bubbling over with ideas and impertinences, zestful and entertaining from first word to last. Finally we have ‘The Century Just Gone’ in which two lonely men on New Year’s Eve reflect on the century’s biggest serial killers and imagine the hundred most successful pitted against each other in an arena, an idea a time traveller offers to make real, and in agreeing they also become successful serial killers and contestants. It’s a story that casts a jaundiced eye over our unhealthy obsession with the macabre and reality television, with a dazzling logic at the core of the story, and a convincingly original end to a collection of short stories in which the ideas dominate the fiction.
(In parenthesis, Bone Idle contains two more stories which I’ve reviewed previously, and I will add my comments on them to the Case Notes blog rather than repeat here.)
James Robert Smith is “a distinctive new voice in contemporary weird fiction” according to the back cover blurb on A CONFEDERACY OF HORRORS (Hippocampus Press pb, 235pp, $20), though I’d argue with that “distinctive”. In fact, with the exception of that of Hughes and Goodfellow, most of the work produced by these writers is cut from the same cloth and operating in a recognisable tradition, which fortunately is neither here nor there as regards quality. The collection contains twenty five short stories and is divided up into four sections, loosely themed along the lines of ghosts, revenge, obsession, and blood.
First section ‘A Confederacy of Ghosts’ opens with ‘Listen’ chronicling a man’s fascination with an isolated and abandoned house, and how he falls victim to the entity that dwells inside, a presence that likes to talk, to whisper secrets and terrible things. It’s well done, highly suggestive while playing with the usual tropes, even down to a Halloween climax, but at the same time was a little too oblique for my liking, a tad too ambiguous to entirely satisfy. In ‘Through Becky’s Eyes’ an elderly woman bears witness to the sins of the past and terrible killing, but the real guilt lies with the priest who cares for her, the story another that is obliquely told, but this time more successfully with the reader only gradually understanding what is going on, and a denouement that is thoroughly unsettling. A paranormal investigator in ‘Of Rodents and Sinking Vessels’ is assisted by the family ghosts when a rival attempts to steal one of his trophies, the whole story a concoction of suggestion and unlikely coincidences, with again the sense that it is all just too obliquely slanted to satisfy.
When sex goes wrong in ‘Toke Ghost’ gentle giant Bryan kills a girl and hides her body, but extra special marijuana grows from the corpse infested ground. This time there seems to be some logic to the story, even if the element of teen lust does feel a little naff, like Laymon on an off day, but I liked the plot and the obsession with teen concerns, while the end twist was a very nice touch of detail (and by nice, I mean extremely nasty). Harry is haunted by the accident that happens to his son ‘Tommy’ and the aftermath in a sensitively written tale that conflates the horrors inflicted on us by outside forces with those we visit on ourselves. We have an original twist with ‘Moving’ in which a rich man accustomed to getting his own way displaces a church to make way for his new, larger home, but over the course of several weeks the church slowly returns to its original position. Yes, this one I thoroughly enjoyed, not least for the pleasure of seeing Gordon Hughes get his comeuppance, and the way in which zombies are used, or at least the spirits of the dead. There’s a comic eroticism to ‘The Pool’ as Frank is snared by two ghosts doing a lesbian routine, the story short and pleasing with its final revelation after the slow burn build-up in which social mores are played hard and loose with.
We move on to the revenge section with ‘On the First Day’ which has about it a Twilight Zone vibe as man’s ascendancy is undone by a plague of spiders sent by God, with the children having prophetic dreams. It’s a tale that is both effectively dystopian and sinister, with a surface comedy that delights, especially in the unexpected but entirely appropriate end stroke. More flash fiction than story, ‘The Jawbone of an Ass’ describes two racist fuckwits getting beaten up by a large man whose fat is really muscle, the story satisfying for the fate of the racists but otherwise rather insubstantial. The protagonist of ‘Dope’ decides to deal drugs but then has his mind changed by what he sees happen to some rats. Again, it’s a little too oblique for my liking, but with an interesting storyline, though one that in retrospect feels like it’s rambling rather than heading to an actual conclusion and with elements that felt like plot conveniences. In ‘Translator’ a Japanese prisoner of war carves terrible sculptures, with dire consequences, the story quietly and efficiently told, with good pacing and an awareness of the historical backdrop. ‘Love & Magick’ tells of an attempt on the life of a black magician and the grim but necessary steps he takes to save himself. It reads rather like a modern reimagining of the magic duel in Corman’s version of The Raven, with attention paid to the fine details of the magical contest and a thoroughly nasty undercurrent, one that powers the story to its shock ending, a twist that forces us to re-evaluate much that has gone before and ask questions about what we would do to survive.
Next section ‘A Confederacy of Obsession’ begins with ‘NUMHED’, the surreal tale of an unemployed man’s descent into madness and criminality, a story that comes with the subtext “There but for the grace of God”, but at the same time is just too strange to really connect with the reader; we feel for Craig’s situation, but can’t quite put the events into any meaningful context. There’s another strong central conceit to ‘A Last, Longing Look’ with an entity that shifts from one human body to another trying to re-establish a connection with the woman he loved in his previous identity. Underlying the text is a consideration of the nature of character and the plasticity of our lives, the stretch that is required for some kind of emotional authenticity. We get another very short story in ‘Symptom’ with a man on the phone appealing for a politician’s help in exposing pollution, but the real story is rooted in the things that are being crossed off a list, giving the story a very sinister and telling interpretation.
With constant water in their duplex the couple in ‘Wet’ face a horrendous shift in their reality, with the possibility that this conceit is a metaphor of sorts for how the man feels himself to be drowning in his new existence courtesy of his partner, though if so not enough is done to pin this aspect down, it remains a tantalising what if. ‘One of Those Days’ is an apocalyptic tale, set in a time when everybody is turning into homicidal maniacs and detailing one man’s journey home to be with his wife and child, the story cinematic and exciting, culminating in a nasty twist at the end where we finally learn who the monsters are in this scenario. A young man’s obsession with the sea is explained in ‘The Call’, as a woman tries to lull him into becoming the victim of an ancient evil from another plane of reality, the story deftly building to one of those sleight of hand end twists that Smith seems especially good at. In backwoods horror ‘Just Like Jesus, He Said’ a young woman is threatened by the revenant of her rapist, the story unremittingly grim, with aspects to what takes place that are sadistic and misogynistic, given that Annie does nothing to deserve the things that happen to her’.
Finally we come to the blood section of the book. Ty, the protagonist of ‘It’s Not a Blessing, She Said’ is an art critic with no creativity of his own, a hole in his soul that lures a vampire to him. The inference here seems to be that only those with a kind of artistic sensibility can be truly human, those without are monsters feeding off of the vital energy of others. An android prostitute joins forces with a vampire in ‘Just a Gigolo’, the story obliquely addressing the question of what it means to be human, of how one’s identity is not something that can be conferred on you by others, but which you must take for yourself. In ‘The Old Man’s Final Visit’ Father Christmas bequeaths some of his blood to a child vampire so that the boy can experience some of the things missing from his own life, the offering an act of compassion, the story striking for the originality of the imagery and the collision between competing and entirely contradictory mythologies. A group of friends in search of a reward give chase to a wanted Chinaman in ‘Ice Bounty’, not realising that he is a vampire, or something far worse. Smith excels in his descriptions of the snow and ice blasted landscape in which the story is set and the camaraderie of his bounty hunters, with the nature of their quarry left satisfyingly ambiguous but still minatory in the extreme. The longest story in the collection it is also one of the most purely entertaining and satisfying.
Not so much vampirism but definitely involving sucking is ‘The Reliable Vacuum Company’ in which a redneck couple invite Mr Jeng from Leng into their home to demonstrate his machine, the story a delicious black comedy but with undertones of the truly outré in the material. I’m not sure I fully understood what was going on, but I loved the characters and the quintessential weirdness of the situation. Last up we have ‘Pure Southern’, with a Southerner taking on the Mob when he is charged with protecting cargo at the docks, the twist in the story being the identity of our hero. It’s an engrossing story, with a neat twist at the end, even if the hero of the piece seems a bit contradictory, on the one hand a ruthless killer and on the other not willing to turn away when larceny is contemplated, or perhaps I’m just being too picky. Closing out the book we have an ‘Afterword’ by Stephen Mark Rainey in which he talks about Smith’s work but says almost as much about Deathrealm magazine.
(TO BE CONTINUED)