Filler content with small packages – Part 4

Following on from Monday’s post, the final part of a feature on novellas (mostly) that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-

IN SMALL PACKAGES (continued)

I didn’t note any mention of kudzu, but that aside MUSCADINES (Dunhams Manor Press hc, 60pp, $25), our second offering from S. P. Miskowski, is a compelling work of dark fiction with a Southern Gothic feel to it. Martha lives with her younger sister Louise on an isolated property, where they follow strange rituals and brew muscadine wine. The nicely balanced applecart of their lives is upset by the return of older sister Alma from the big city. Alma’s head is full of big city ways and she encourages slovenliness and defiance in Louise, much to Martha’s disgust. As the three sisters carry on, resentments about the past arise, with old stories about how their mother Ruth made a living coming to the fore, and Alma wanting to return to the old ways. We suspect that something very bad is waiting in the wings, and those suspicions are totally justified.

This plays out like a feminist reinvention of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, without the cannibalism. But while not shrinking from acts of violence, Miskowski is too canny a writer to give us pure atrocity show. The end product is a horrific and disturbing tale, one of creeping dread as we learn more about the Parker girls and what they are capable of, with the unease focused not so much on what the sisters do, which is bad enough, but on the twisted psychology that causes them to act in such a manner. Alma is perhaps the easiest to get a handle on, the one with ambition who wants all the good things in life but doesn’t want to work too hard at getting them. Using men to forward her ends is second nature to her, something she will do either one way or another. Martha is the responsible one, trying to cope and finding that things always run out of her control, bullying to her younger sister and not quite able to deal with Alma’s enthusiasm. She thinks she is the strong one, but ultimately will go along with whatever the others decide. And Louise is the monster. We believe that she is an innocent because of her age and how Martha treats her, but at the end her true colours show and the picture that emerges is of a ruthless sociopath, simple in the head perhaps, but with something deadly lurking at the back of all her childish games.

What makes the chain of events even more compelling and credible is the back story which is gradually revealed, that of the mother who decides she has had enough of men and will prey on them, instead of being a victim to their passions. It is the story of the femme fatale, filtered through the persona of an Aileen Wuornos, luring men to their doom through the folly of their own desires. Under the influence of Ruth Parker, the three girls are raised to be monsters, taking as natural behaviour that would horrify the rest of us, with their sexuality tied into acts of violence and their nights disrupted by bloody dreams. At the end all three have found a place where their lifestyle is in accord with their deepest desires and something akin to happiness, but it is rooted in ground soaked with the blood of their victims. Complementing the text are illustrations by Dave Felton that have about them the look of linocuts and are brutally effective in portraying the moments of violence that permeate the narrative. Overall this was the best novella I read in 2016, the one that cut the deepest.

Gary Fry returns with THE DOOM THAT CAME TO WHITBY TOWN (Gray Friar Press pb, 98pp, £6). The title is an obvious allusion to Lovecraft’s ill-fated Sarnath, but for Fry the site of destruction is his hometown of Whitby, possibly on the basis that if it was good enough for Stoker and Faber then it’s good enough for him. The novella opens with the never named narrator, a retiree to Whitby, speaking of the town’s history and his reasons for loving the place in tones of which the Tourist Board would fully approve. This love is then put to the test by the events that follow a 2019 collapse of part of the town’s East Cliff – a barrage of Lovecraftian effects, including local fish tasting bitter, seagull shit turning even more toxic, strange insignia found inscribed in public places and on the beach, terrible dreams, to name just a few. Rumours abound that something was released when the cliff collapsed and is being preserved in a warehouse freezer by the local council, concerned about the effect such a revelation might have on tourism. Matters seem to reach a head when violence erupts, a serial killer mutilating his victims, this in turn leading to the mad artist James Ward, with his visions of the alien Cutzar, destroying harbingers of a life form from another dimension. But all this is only the forerunner to much worse that is to come.

Doom is a novella along typically Lovecraftian lines, piling up details that taken individually are simply odd, but cumulatively amount to something much greater than the sum of their parts and far worse. Fry is excellent at doing this, giving the reader plenty of material to digest, capturing our attention and making us wonder what will happen next. Of course we know that it is fated to end badly (the title is a big clue), but the entertainment is in learning the precise nature of the catastrophe. Aspects of the plot, such as the serial killer and the mad artist, grip the attention, not least for the way in which they deftly conflate human evil and something more cosmic, and in the Cutzar (with echoes of HPL’s shoggoths in their servile status) Fry takes it up a notch to give us a truly memorable otherworldly entity, one that is mostly created by means of suggestion. There is nothing really new here, and the work is not on a par with What They Find in the Woods, but it is a virtuoso performance by a writer who knows all the tropes of Lovecraftian fiction and how to use them to telling effect, and a compelling entertainment in its own right.

Finally we have EAT THE NIGHT (DarkFuse pb, 194pp, $16.99) by Tim Waggoner. This novella opens in 1981 with a ceremony at Placidity, a religious community built along Jonestown lines and ruled over by Mark Maegarr, a former rock star who has plans to usher a new reality into being through a rite of mass sacrifice. Next up we cut to the present day and the married couple Joan and Jon Lantz, who have just discovered that there is a hidden basement in the new house they have moved into. Joan is being tormented by dreams of Maegarr, in which she takes on the identity of Debbie, the woman who he thinks betrayed him, and there are terrible experiences locked into Joan’s past. Finally we have Kevin, an operative for Maintenance, a Millennium Group style organisation that is dedicated to combating supernatural and entropic incursions, maintaining the status quo at an ontological level. These three strands deftly intertwine to produce a compelling story that involves a fight to preserve existence itself.

Superficially this is a straightforward horror story involving the activities of a doomsday cult, with plenty of wet work along the way, and on that level it works very well. Waggoner draws us in straight away with his account of the community of Placidity and the orgiastic and bloody events that take place there, while Kevin and his fellow workers encounter threats that are both human and alien, but always monstrous and entailing copious scenes of gore. Finally there is Joan, who has undergone harrowing experiences as a child, events that have made her stronger through having survived them. As atrocity show, the story works splendidly, but there is nothing gratuitous about the bloody mayhem that hits the page, with Waggoner showing how these events all tie into a cosmic and higher reality.

And it is this aspect of the story, with its revelation of the existence of the omnivorous Gyre and its insatiable appetite, that gives the tale its metaphysical underpinning, with a vision of the universe that is bleak and nihilistic. There is evidence here that the writer is creating an overarching mythos to much of his work, the Gyre having been previously encountered in the novel The Way of All Flesh. In the face of such cosmic nullity it is up to humans to impose values on the fabric of reality, and both Maegarr, who is an idealist however misguided in his intentions and methods, and the agents of Maintenance who simply strive to keep things together that little bit longer, are attempting to do this. But perhaps the real triumph lies with the likes of Joan/Debbie and Kevin, who are elevated by their struggle, becoming stronger and better people, while still retaining human flaws, so that at the end we have a hint that whatever new reality emerges from the morass of existence they will have a part to play in shaping this fresh iteration. In conclusion, this was a wonderfully entertaining work of fiction, but one that almost as an aside also explores the nature of reality and our ideas of truth, of how we are to conduct ourselves in the face of existential despair. And there’s also lots of blood, gallons of the stuff. I loved it.

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