Following on from last Friday’s post, the fourth part of a feature on ‘recent’ releases from American publisher Fedogan & Bremer that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-
FEDOGAN & BREMER (continued)
John Pelan’s collection DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND (F&B hc, 232pp, trade $34.95/limited $100) opens with an introduction by Ramsey Campbell in which he identifies Pelan’s pulp antecedents and comments briefly on the stories that follow. Many of these stories are set in a pub called The Smoking Leg, with our writer protagonist regaled with tall stories from either barman Ian or one of the regulars. Such is the provenance of opening story ‘The Sailor Home from the Sea’ with Arne telling of his time on a fishing boat, the sadomasochistic relationship between skipper Eric and the woman Tanya and what came of it, the terrible revenant that stalks him and other members of that crew. It’s a fairly predictable outing, with the sexual aspects the one element that doesn’t seem entirely clichéd, but done with a real zest and some vivid, unsettling images that elevate it above the familiar material.
‘An Antique Vintage’ takes another familiar template, with a wealthy man purchasing an old house with a chequered history and finding that the reality is so much worse than the stories hint, telling his truth in a document that will be found by those who come after. Again, it’s all rather splendidly done, with the reader’s interest piqued by the way in which Pelan deftly dispenses compelling details and the lurid imagery with which they are sometimes accompanied, a barrage of effects that mounts assuredly to a climax, and underlying all that the possibility that it might simply be a case of an unreliable (insane) narrator. It was a heady and entertaining brew. We’re in Machen territory with ‘Old Songs Waken’, the account of an encounter with the numinous in the wilds of Wales, both the setting and the train of events never less than convincing, and the strong suggestion that the old ways are always there, waiting for their moment to push through into our world. ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ has a millionaire buy a house that appears to be haunted by the ghost of a nymphomaniac mental patient who killed herself when it was a halfway house for disturbed teenagers, and finding that regardless of the threat to those near him, he rather likes being the love object of this entity. Fascinating as all that is, Pelan rings extra changes on the material by offering us his character’s genius loci explanation for hauntings, and adds a modicum of humour through use of a mynah bird.
Street people find a safe place in Seattle, but the protection offered by the murderous Longcoat in ‘Lord of the Jungle’ comes with a high price. Pelan is excellent at capturing the desperation of broken lives, the things that these people will accept to feel safe, if only for a moment, and there is in his story an element of condemnation of an uncaring society, with hints in the theme of Ellison’s Deathbird Stories, the appeal to some of new and bloodier gods. In ‘Twins’ a maker of customised dolls suspects that one of his customers is abusing her daughter, this sinister little tale moving along neatly to a chilling end twist, one that the reader will have seen coming but which is no less effective because of that. ‘TV Eye’ is a tale of mounting madness, the first person account of a man who believes that aliens walk among us and are recording our actions by means of concealed cameras. Told in a matter of fact and entirely reasonable manner, once again this is a story whose chilling end reveal elevates the material above the familiar and formulaic elements inherent in its use of genre tropes. A psychiatrist releases repressed memories of childhood satanic abuse in his patient in ‘Memories Are Made of This’, but again the story comes with a neat twist after a deft and convincing build up.
Spectral vengeance is involved in ‘Armies of the Night’ when a man’s obsession with creating military dioramas alienates his wife and leads to murder. Of course Pelan leaves room for a psychological explanation, with guilt as a motive behind what happens, while underlying it all is a skilfully wrought portrait of an unhealthy obsession. In ‘For Art’s Sake’ a selection of spoiled and soiled aesthetes are invited to a private viewing of the latest work by transgressive artist Stonebraker, with disturbing results when they see the most horrid thing of all. I wasn’t convinced at all by the final revelation here, with its echoes of Dorian Gray, but Pelan is excellent at portraying the art world, with its love of controversy, and the kind of people who are attracted to extreme material (and perhaps as an aside there is an invitation to self-examination for horror fans implicit in the material). A man returns to the isolated community in which he was born and raised in ‘Homecoming’, bringing back bad memories of the past and revelations about the nature of rural magic in a story that holds the interest, but doesn’t quite seem to achieve whatever effect it was aiming for.
In ‘Spider’ a man is haunted by the illusion that a spider tattoo is moving up his arm, with the reader left to discover the back and end story. It’s competently done, with a love of the material obvious, even if the story turns out to be entirely predictable, especially in the end twist. An academic is recruited by the military to investigate a strange phenomenon in Afghanistan, but comes to the realisation that he is ‘An Outsider’ and charged with protecting gateways between the worlds. This is the most far reaching of these stories, one that attempts to recreate the doomed cosmic outlook of Lovecraft, albeit in a story that feels rather artificial and more like something Burroughs would have manufactured in his Barsoom days than the eeriness that was needed. The desired sense of cosmic awe felt very muted to me. Sherlock Holmes investigates ‘The Mystery of the Worm’, getting drawn into a plot by Dr Nikola to achieve immortality through summoning ancient entities from beyond the stars, the story a delightful conflation of various literary oeuvres, never less than fun to read and with deft touches of detail for the cognoscenti to pick up on.
Written in the form of a letter, ‘Blind Chivvy, Green Door’ tells of two poets on a glorified pub crawl and how they learned that the age of poetry is past. It’s a fascinating concept, with the rivalry between Greek gods culminating in the binding of Apollo and the ascendancy of warlike spirits, so that the story is an elegy for the passing of better times and grim foreboding of what our future holds. Gangsters from Chicago head ‘Out West’ in search of new territory to exploit, but find that a small town holds terrors they couldn’t comprehend. It’s an engaging read with a neat end allusion to Innsmouth, but overall doesn’t really have much substance to it and the characters felt very clichéd. A librarian’s interest in a homeless man who comes to spend the day in his library leads him to take a bus to the ‘Last Stop’ in a story whose plot could be seen as a metaphor for xenophobia. Fear of the other is at the heart of this tale, with those who are different to be suspected, and in this case those suspicions are entirely justified, though equally it is Schumann’s low level nastiness that leads him to his fate.
We return to the Smoking Leg for our last offering, this time told by the barroom drunk who, in ‘Curly’s Story’, explains why he is afraid of spiders, telling of a hunting expedition and encounter with a giant arachnid. Despite all the horror, it’s a light-hearted and fun end to a showcase collection that is never less than entertaining, with author Pelan putting a brand new shine on old tropes and familiar plotlines, along the way dropping literary references that genre aficionados will have no end of fun picking up on. Complementing the text are some striking black and white (but heavy on the black) and evocative images courtesy of artist Allen Koszowski.
TO BE CONTINUED