Filler content with dreams and a void

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

DOUBLE ACTS: PHILIP FRACASSI

Philip Fracassi made his mark as a screenwriter, but is now proving to be a force within the horror genre. His debut collection Behold the Void won a This Is Horror Award for 2017 (as did Black Static – let’s blow our own trumpet) and we’ll come to that in a moment, but first let’s talk about 2016 novella FRAGILE DREAMS (JournalStone Publishing pb, 106pp, $9.95).

Matthew has just turned up for a job interview when an earthquake brings the building down on top of him. Trapped under tons of rubble, he is forced to relive memories of his past, deal with physical and psychological pain, and nightmarish visions of what is happening to him. For the reader the experience is distinctly unsettling, ranging from unfocused sadness at the vagaries of life in this world, through body horror and the trauma of life threatening injury, to an almost metaphysical and Lovecraftian vision of the apocalypse.

Fracassi is superb at characterising Matthew, so that we instinctively sympathise with him and wonder at the things that have happened in his short life – the loss of friends and family, the joys of love and parenthood, and all the other stuff that most of us go through in one form or another. The way in which his psyche is so cunningly unravelled is masterly executed, with an ending that leaves us open to believe he has been saved (though for what?) or that this is all simply the last, deathbed hallucinations of a mind whose synapses are burning out, a near death experience. It is an impressive and immersive experience, one that rewards the reader with more than enough in the way of thrills and spills, even if the protagonist is pinned in place, while touching on archetypal human feelings and situations. In so many ways it made me think of how it must feel to be a survivor or trapped in such catastrophes, not only those thrown up by vagaries of the natural world, such as earthquakes and tidal waves, but inevitably the manmade alternatives such as 9/11.

By way of bonus material we have the story ‘Death, My Old Friend’ in which the protagonist has Death as a best friend, the relationship inevitably strained by the demands of the role. It is a clever conceit, executed with a delightful wit and tongue in cheek humour, the mood eventually shifting to one of sadness and acceptance, so that ultimately the story is uplifting, a negation of the idea that we all die alone. I loved it.

BEHOLD THE VOID (JournalStone Publishing hc/pb, 294pp, $29.95/$18.95) contains nine meaty stories, of novella or novelette length, and gratifyingly only four of them have been previously published. After an introduction by Laird Barron we get into things proper with ‘Soft Construction of a Sunset’ whose title and modus operandi reference Salvador Dali, but which in mood and narrative complexity reads like a particularly fine and challenging episode of The Twilight Zone. We start with a dream and end with a nightmare, and in between there is madness and the impossible, as Fracassi takes an old plot device and turns it into a fabulous new confection of pure distilled horror, making the perfect curtain raiser for what is to follow.

‘Altar’ has an otherworldly incursion at a public swimming pool, but playing counterpoint to the numinous aspects of the story are real world horrors of a difficult divorce, childhood fears, bullying, and sexual abuse. It’s a story that starts with the prospect of joy, then reminds us through shifting perspectives that such happiness is all too often brief and illusory, a patina pasted over the real terror of the world, until in the final pages that horror moves centre stage in all its ghastliness, while at the same time offering a kind of benediction to the benighted. Gabino is ‘The Horse Thief’ stealing thoroughbreds for his employer Fat Ted, who sells them on to people with “exotic” tastes, but in this story the pair have a client who is far weirder than their usual customers, with the occult thrown in for good measure. This is a story that starts almost mundane, if perhaps more than a tad horrific thanks to its backdrop, but slowly gets further out as the story progresses, with Gabino’s night time journey and encounters along the way setting the scene for the arch-weird vibe of the story’s finale. It’s an intriguing and compelling piece, with a suitably macabre atmosphere and larger than life characters, and made all the more satisfying for the lack of any real explanation, simply hints that something truly outré is taking place.

Sylvia’s Nana tries to teach her the secrets of the Old Wood and witchcraft in ‘Coffin’, but the young girl cannot keep such things to herself, resulting in horrific death and leading on to a denouement even more unsettling. In a way this reminded me of The Witch, with its similar feel of something momentous and awful taking place just out of sight and beyond understanding, and the reverence it holds for the wild wood, playing counterpoint to the sassiness and fearful exuberance of a wilful young girl. ‘The Baby Farmer’ is a story that challenges conventional ideas concerning good and evil, with echoes of film Frailty in the underlying concept. A priest is involved in an illicit affair with a woman who has an unhealthy interest in Amelia Dyer, a renowned killer of babies, but the payoff gleefully muddies the water as to the motives of all involved. With larger than life characters and a rich back story, including verbatim text from the confession of Amelia Dyer, the narrative both horrifies and undermines our beliefs in a moral world order painted in terms of black and white, and I suspect will fiercely divide readers on the rightness of what takes place.

Adolf’s life is turned upside down by the terrible and unusual death of his father in ‘Surfer Girl’ and his mother takes up with Steve, who brings the family down to Mexico for a holiday. This strange, rambling story seems to be cataloguing the events that lead to the birth of a serial killer, as Adolf’s actions become more deranged and his nihilism poisons everything. For the reader the horror resides in our fear of what he will do to the young girl who has fallen into his clutches, and Fracassi has enough sense to let the story’s finale take place offstage, with a hint that Steve isn’t so different from Adolf. ‘Mother’ reads rather like something a novelist of social realism might produce, only with the added element of witchcraft and a monster at the end. It is the story of Howard and Julie, their idyllic love affair and marriage, and how it is consumed by bitterness and failure, leaving one to turn to the dark side and the other to become a victim. The power of the story lies in the interplay between the ordinary and the outré, two sides of the same coin, each reinforcing the other, with touches of chilling detail along the way that disturb and unsettle the reader as our sympathies veer between the two combatants.

‘Fail-Safe’ is, to paraphrase something in the story itself, the werewolf version of Schrodinger’s Cat. When mother turns, she is locked in a room in the basement with various fail-safe devices, including a poison gas release. But when father also becomes trapped in the room, their young son must decide on whether it is safe to release them or not. This was a fascinating conceit for a story and Fracassi plays it to the hilt, sucking every drop of tension out of the idea and showing how the son’s own psychology might involve a wish to see his parents die. I loved it. Finally we have ‘Mandala’, which reads like Gerald’s Game played by two kids out of a Bradbury story, except Mike and Joe are way too wise in the ways of the world and this is not idyllic Green Town, but somewhere far darker. A children’s game goes horribly wrong with dire consequences for one of the participants and with a malevolent spirit thrown into the mix. Everything here is damned near perfect, with a situation ripe with potential for mayhem and Fracassi raising the stakes with every turn of the page, taking the reader to the edge of his seat and back again several times, and with a back story and very human characters that we can believe in and empathise with even if we don’t quite like them as much as maybe we ought to. It is a very strong end to a first rate collection.

There’s a kindle edition of the collection available for those with shelf space issues and, according to an announcement on the author’s website, later in the year there’ll be a new edition of Behold the Void released by the good people behind The Lovecraft Ezine. Watch that space.

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