Filler content from F&B – Part 1

The first part of a feature on ‘recent’ releases from American publisher Fedogan & Bremer that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-

FEDOGAN & BREMER

Like Hippocampus, covered last issue, Fedogan & Bremer are an American publisher with a particular interest in weird fiction, though their product is a bit more upmarket, with the emphasis on dust jacketed hardcover books with interior illustrations, and separate limited editions for those looking to diversify their investment portfolio.

Scott Nicolay is an American writer who over the past few years has produced a body of work that has seen him acclaimed as one of the most original and distinctive voices in the field of weird fiction, winning a World Fantasy Award in 2015 for his short story ‘Do You Like to Look at Monsters?’ ANA KAI TANGATA (F&B hc, 358pp, trade $30/deluxe $95), Nicolay’s first collection, is a lavishly produced and beautiful showcase for his work, with a striking cover and interior black & white illustrations provided by artist Dave Verba. To me these illustrations bring to mind the idea of slides of blood or pond water placed under a microscope, the resultant imagery filtered through the artistic sensibilities and palette of a Klimt or Mondrian, and they capture perfectly the organic feel of Nicolay’s work, where the weird is not something that intrudes from the outside, but internal, coded into our DNA and the sub-atomic particles of whatever passes for reality. In Nicolay’s stories it feels as if the characters don’t confront the outré as an invasive presence so much as perceive what has always been there, lurking in the shadows.

There are only eight stories in the collection, but most weigh in at either novelette or novella length, so nobody gets to feel short changed, quite the opposite in fact. After an introduction by Laird Barron, we get into things proper with ‘alligators’, the story of Russ who, haunted all his life by a dream of the “Watchung pit of sacrifice” and his father’s death, decides to go back to his childhood home to confront these fears, and of course it all ends badly for him. Superficially then it’s a common or garden plot device, the premonitory dream which the character acts out in real time, but what makes this text stand out from the herd is the way in which Nicolay loads it with back story – urban legends of alligators in the sewers, native mythology, satanic rituals, and gangster violence – so that the pit comes to seem like an unearthly place, a crack in reality through which bad things can flow. Further reinforcing the narrative is the way in which Russ himself is layered, a fully rounded individual who has career ambitions, lusts for women other than his wife, feels acutely his shortcomings as a father, and is never quite the man that his mother wants him to be, and in so many ways these things drive the plot and make its protagonist susceptible to the doom that is waiting for him, and at the end we can only look at the false steps taken, the mistakes made, and wonder how it all came down to this.

Shortest story in the book, ‘The Bad Outer Space’ has an unnamed child narrator who is taught a new way of perceiving reality by his playmate and friend Sari, but the things that he now sees are unsettling. At the heart of this story is the idea that the world is very different to a child, that while adults have a handle on things to a child the landscape is permeated with terrible threats and scary monsters. Our narrator gets to see the truth of this reality, Nicolay capturing perfectly the tone of voice of a confused adolescent, one who feels let down by the adult world but at the same time uncomfortable in his own version of reality. And there are subtle hints that something else is going on in the background – references to the police searching for something and a child who no longer comes to the park to play – so that we can’t be sure if the fears the child feels are simply internalisations of what is going on in the exterior world, or if seeing the world in this new way is to penetrate beyond a veil to some awful truth.

Title story ‘Ana Kai Tangata’ is set on Rapa Nui (Easter Island, to you and me) where a group of archaeologists are investigating a cave system, but one member of the team is slowly losing touch with reality. Max had a strange experience on a past expedition, one that resulted in the loss of a friend, and this seems to be preying on his mind now and making him susceptible to the terrors of the outré. Nicolay builds his story with a quiet confidence, giving us details of Rapa Nui history, convincingly creating the backdrop of spelunking and cave archaeology, showing us a cast of characters who are both flawed and credibly human, revealing the tensions that run deep in the group, but all seen through the eyes of the unreliable Max. In some ways it brought to mind the scientific expeditions in the work of Lovecraft, but here played out on a minimalist scale, so that rather than having the narrative expand out into time and space instead it collapses down into the confines of the human mind and physiology, and for the reader it is the inability to perceive where reality ends and madness begins that is the measure of the true horror.

‘Eye Exchange Bank’ is reminiscent in some ways of the Carpenter of They Live and Prince of Darkness, particularly in the protagonist’s sense of dislocation, but with the kind of eerie, subtle spectres to be found in the oeuvre of M. R. James. His life in pieces, Ray travels to visit an old friend, only to find that nothing was the way he truly believed, and this realisation in turn is given an ontological twist, as he wanders through a blighted urban landscape in search of signs of life and finding only the products of his own folly and madness. In ‘Phragmites’ the search for a remote cave of scientific interest is at the centre of a story concerning tribal culture and personal jealousy. Austin, the story’s protagonist, has largely turned his back on his people, seeing their hidden places and most sacred stories as nothing more than a means to his own advancement. Nicolay makes the story work with a wealth of background detail, so that we can feel something of the keenness of the hunt, and against that the antipathy between what Austin wants and respect for the traditions of his people, further layering the story with an element of personal animosity in the character of Austin’s nemesis. And all these issues relentlessly drive the story to it terrible end twist, one that shouldn’t seem quite so unexpected, but in context jumps out on the reader like a mugger with a switchblade knife.

Jaycee, the protagonist of ‘The Soft Frogs’, is bewitched by the woman Eye, driving out to the isolated Convent where she stays to see her, and so devoted that he abandons his usual one night stand rule. The frogs are creatures that surround the Convent at night, giant mutations that would be a danger to human life if they weren’t so slow. At the heart of the story is the character of Jaycee, the way in which he treats women like disposable objects, and how now that he has fallen for Eye, despite all his attempts to believe otherwise, cannot bear the idea that she will not share with him. In addition to this, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the background, strange occurrences in Jaycee’s boarding house, and the suggestion that the frogs have devoured somebody previously, with a final revelation about the nature of Eye, all setting us up for the horrific ending. Nicolay makes the frogs creatures of nightmare, overtly non-threatening, but ultimately proving deadly, his vivid descriptions conveying the sense of a natural world that has become warped into an unknown shape through man’s tampering, while in the person of Jaycee he gives us a protagonist who is misogynistic and flawed, but also with virtues, such as his love of insects, so that he is not just a cut-out bad guy fashioned to illustrate a point, but somebody we can care about even as we are on occasion appalled by his behaviour. In ‘Geschäfte’ Cal is staying with a friend in San Francisco, running from something in his past, but the landscape in which he finds himself, both within the building and on the streets outside, is uniquely unsettling, with endless signs of disintegration, both moral and physical. As with these other stories, it is the wealth of incidental detail Nicolay provides that elevates the story, with the reader plunged from one minatory incident to the next in a helter skelter of plot switches, and becoming just as unmoored as poor Cal.

So far we have a very strong collection, but with ‘Tuckahoe’, the last story in the book and the longest, Nicolay takes things to a whole new level. It opens with an autopsy, detective Donny Cantu in attendance, and charged with finding what caused an accident on the highway that resulted in the deaths of three people. It should be an open and shut case, but things don’t quite make sense, and Donny’s subsequent investigations lead him into strange, dark waters. A simply magnificent work of weird fiction, this is a story that takes on board many of the tropes and stylistic flourishes of the genre and crosses them with those of noir fiction, so that we have inbred families living in isolated mansions, hideous life forms, morgue humour, femme fatales, and half a dozen other things beside. Nicolay juggles it all effortlessly, allowing the story to build slowly and steadily, painstaking in his plotting and characterisation, and the way in which he brings the decayed landscape to such vivid, festering life on the page, before reeling it all in with the horrific revelations of the final pages. Provocative and never less than entertaining, it is a blend of so many diverse influences, with elements of the Gothic in the text and other strands that brought to mind the work of James Ellroy, particularly in the cop talk and Nicolay’s portrayal of Donny Cantu, with hints also of The Wicker Man and a monstrous progeny akin to Innsmouth’s slimiest. It is an impressive achievement, and a fitting end to a first collection of strange tales by a new writer with a distinctive voice and original vision.

TO BE CONTINUED

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