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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Trailer Trash – A Ghost Story

Now this looks different, in a good way.

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Filler content with skein, bone, and water

A feature on the work of V. H. Leslie that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-

A SENSE OF UNEASE: V. H. LESLIE

Most readers of Black Static will already be familiar with the work of V. H. Leslie. Her first published story was ‘Ulterior Design’ which appeared back in #21, and she’s been a regular in the pages of the magazine ever since then. Five of her six Black Static stories and another that appeared in our sister magazine Interzone are reprinted in Leslie’s first short story collection SKEIN AND BONE (Undertow Publications pb, 290pp, $18.99).

Name is destiny in opening story ‘Namesake’. Cecelia J. Burden hates her surname, though she does consider that it would be appropriate for a serial killer. To rid herself of this shameful moniker she decides to marry Andrew Blithe, but he has a secret, and the loft in his flat is strictly off limits. The discovery of what Andrew is hiding leads J, as she likes to be called, to a dramatic reconsideration of both her name and role in life. There’s more than a hint of Bluebeard going on here, though Leslie takes the story in an entirely different direction. The nature of Andrew’s secret doesn’t quite ring true to me, stretches credibility a bit too far, despite the occasional news report that assures us such things do, indeed, take place, but once you allow for that what follows is a compelling and engaging study of the genesis of a serial killer. It is perhaps a story best read when not considered as realistic, a thing of coincidences and contrivances, and on those terms a hugely enjoyable and blackly comedic piece of work. Laura and Libby, two sisters travelling in France, enter an abandoned chateau in title story ‘Skein and Bone’ where they fall prey to the wiles of the spirit that haunts the place and feeds the cannibalistic dress that is the chateau’s resident monster. There’s a lot going on here, with the story part driven by the antipathy between the two sisters, the carefree and adventurous Libby contrasted with the younger but more responsible Laura. Ironically, though Libby wants freedom her love of fashion is what enslaves her to the dress with its imprisoning corset, while the more scholastic Laura is momentarily trapped in the library of the chateau. On one level this works as an old fashioned haunted house story, but Leslie takes things a step further and gives it a feminist subtext, so that the two sisters are ultimately the victims of outdated social notions, and there is an almost masochistic element to the way in which they are enslaved.

‘Ghost’ is the name of a koi carp whose life is slowly draining away in a festering pond that Annette neglects after the death of her husband Fergus from a prolonged illness. In her mind the fish becomes emblematic of her husband and its refusal to die a kind of torment that reminds her of those terrible last days with Fergus. It is, as the title would suggest, a ghost story of sorts, with a final line that gives the story an entirely different, and more genre traditional, interpretation, but at heart the subject being addressed is one of dealing with chronic and fatal illness, the ways in which our loved ones becomes ghosts in our eyes long before they actually die, and the grief attendant on that process and its aftermath. In ‘Making Room’ Julie is haunted by the idea that there is a monster lurking under the bed, but all that’s really there is the detritus from her past relationships, and there are dire consequences for new boyfriend Rob when he insists that she clear it all away. It’s a short piece, only four pages long, and for some would count as flash fiction, but the narrative drive of the story seems to lie in the implication that Julie’s past is what prevents her from establishing a new, lasting future with another man, or you could come at it from another direction and believe that an attempt to render somebody’s past irrelevant is what destroys that possibility of a future.

‘Family Tree’ is the story of Tyler, whose father has gone feral and lives in a tree house at the bottom of their overgrown garden, while his mother makes her own accommodation with the way things are. It’s a strange, off kilter story, one in which events are laid out before the reader’s eyes and we can’t quite believe what we are seeing. The subtext of the story, which comes to glorious fruition in Tyler’s closing thoughts, seems to be that a son needs the love of his father and will reinterpret events to achieve this end. While the reader believes that his father’s behaviour is entirely symptomatic of neglect, for Tyler the strangeness becomes a kind of proof of the affection that is so obviously missing from his life. Howard, the protagonist of ‘Time Keeping’ works as a horologist and is way beyond obsessive compulsive when it comes to good timekeeping, but the arrival of the woman Helen in his life upsets all Howard’s carefully calibrated plans. Delightfully written and imagined, with a strand of wry humour running through it, this is a story that revels in its ambiguity. Superficially, it is a tale of personal madness and how that impacts on the life of another, with Howard not quite able to get a handle on what he has done to Helen, thinking that he may have saved her by the drastic way in which he incorporates her into his life. On another level there is the idea that what Howard does may have a universal impact, that in some strange way he really is charged with taking care of time itself and anything that prevents him going about his duties will have repercussions for us all. Leslie plays her cards close to her chest, leaving enough wriggle room for either explanation, with Howard’s delightfully askew comments muddying the water all the more. And finally there is the Dahlesque sting in the tail, the possibility that actually Helen’s ultimate fate is other than it at first appears.

Another flash fiction, ‘Bleak Midwinter’ tells of an eternal winter and the menace of snowmen that do not melt, but are drawn to the warmth of human habitations. At the heart of the story is the relationship between a mother and daughter, with only the former aware of how much has been lost to the enduring cold, not just physical things but also a part of their humanity. It’s a bit of a stretch, but in ways it made me think of a zombie story only with snowmen in lieu of the living dead. Gwen is holidaying alone in Italy after the end of her relationship with painter David, and finds herself haunted by the inmates of ‘The Blue Room’ at the Hyde Hotel. This is a subtle, sensitive story, one that sets out its stall early on as some sort of supernatural/haunting fare, but as the story progresses it appears that inner demons are being dealt with. Gwen moves from an idealisation of David and their relationship to a state where she can deal with the fact that she has been abused by him and realises that she is ready to move on. It is, ultimately, a story of liberation, of the outré leading to a better understanding of our own reality, acting as a kind of catalyst for self-knowledge.

Inspired by genre classic ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, ‘Ulterior Design’ reverses the gender polarity of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s tale. Control freak Daniel allows partner Robyn to paper the nursery, but the paper she chooses haunts him with its tangle of woods and the strange bird that lurks within the foliage. The paper symbolises nature red in tooth and claw, the aspects of life that Daniel can’t control no matter how he wishes, and at the same time it comes to represent his antipathy towards Robyn, the feeling he has that he has sacrificed some of his freedom, been trapped into giving up something of his identity. Finally, with the nature of the bird revealed as a cuckoo, there is the unspoken suspicion that the baby Robyn is carrying is not his, all of which leads to an inevitable and violent capsizing of the couple’s relationship. Like the protagonist of Gilman’s tale, Daniel goes insane, but his madness takes a far more horrific turn. In the future world of ‘The Cloud Cartographer’ the only free space left is high up in the clouds, and Ahren is charged with mapping this terra incognito, only an encounter with some rogue settlers leads him to remember the tragedies of his past and reconsider the future that he is helping to shape. It doesn’t feel like it, but this is in many ways a dystopian piece, one in which personal concerns and the greater good of the world as a whole are deftly interwoven. Ahren chooses to go his own way, rather than contribute to the general demise and, while this may be seen as selfish, there is no denying that he makes the right choice, that while he may not be able to halt the landslide that is coming there is no need for him to loosen any more rocks (or clouds).

Set in the wake of WWII, ‘Preservation’ is the story of Dulcie and Niles. As well as fruit and vegetables, Dulcie bottles up her feelings, while Niles won’t talk about his, refuses to discuss what happened to him in the war. It’s a clever tale, one that sells the reader a dummy with the possibility that Niles is having an affair while in reality he has other concerns, and offers the picture of blissful domesticity with all sorts of turmoil simmering away beneath the surface. The subtext seems to be that the home front is every bit as fraught with danger, while the need for a couple to talk to each other is paramount, that in trying to protect a loved one we can actually undermine them. Vernon is a ‘Wordsmith’, an immortal who tends to the world tree and creates new words to constantly replenish the language, but his belief in his mission is undermined by love for the woman Felicity and her eventual death. This is a quiet, subtle tale, one whose core lies in the way a man deals with grief, but here given a mythical dimension so that we come to see how language and the manner in which we use it to create stories is a vital part of how humans define themselves and place the problems that confront them in a viable context. In some ways Vernon is analogous to Howard from ‘Time Keeping’, but his way of dealing with his problems are far sounder.

In ‘The Quiet Room’ we have Terry moving into a new house and for the first time caring for his daughter Ava, kept from him all these years by estranged wife Prue. But as Ava’s behaviour changes, Terry comes to realise that something is terribly wrong with this house and that Prue may not have gone entirely. Again, as with the best of these stories, the macabre element is used to highlight and illuminate very human feelings, such as the distress we feel at the loss of a loved one and how animosity can linger on past the moment of death to sour our future existence. Finally there’s ‘Senbazuru’ the tale of a diplomat’s wife in Japan in the days before WWII broke out. In this story the supernatural element is muted, nothing more than having the woman’s internal dialogue outwardly manifested as a swarm of cranes. Her account is gripping, a blow by blow reiteration of wrong decisions taken, all culminating in a dramatic act of self-harm, but at the same time we are conscious of the fact that our protagonist is not a reliable narrator and all the things she is describing may simply be the imaginative contortions of somebody in a mental hospital. It’s a fine end to a superb collection of stories that, while they are undoubtedly horror fiction in the main, stretch their wings and fly that bit higher, that bit closer to the sun like poor, doomed Icarus.

Feminist concerns permeate many of the stories in Skein and Bone and are also seen in Leslie’s first novel BODIES OF WATER (Salt Publishing pb, 134pp, £8.99). This is a very short book, and in fact it could easily be classified as a novella, but it packs a considerable wallop.

Bodies tells the story of two very different women living in different periods of time, with the narrative focus alternating between each one (and, as far as that goes, with the theme of the “fallen woman” it reminded me very much of the film based on John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman). In the present day, after the breakup of her ten year old relationship with boyfriend Lewis, Kirsten moves into Wakewater House, a hydropathy establishment in Victorian times that has been turned into modern apartments. The only other occupant of the building is Manon, a scholarly recluse who is obsessed with the river Thames that runs by outside the building, and in particular with the dead women who were pulled from its waters in Victorian times, mostly prostitutes who found their lives intolerable. Back in 1871 Evelyn, a young society lady who has exhausted herself in trying to help fallen women, is admitted into Wakewater House and the care of Dr. Porter, who is to administer the Water Cure, though we suspect that this was her father’s idea, rather than Evelyn’s own. As we learn more of her back story we discover that Evelyn had formed an attachment to one of the young women she was supposed to be saving, the beguiling Milly, or Melusine as Evelyn names her, and the tragic end of this relationship was in part the root cause of her breakdown.

Within the confines of Wakewater House, both women in their separate periods begin to experience strange events. For Kirsten there is the omnipresent water, leaks that she can never truly locate, so that her whole apartment becomes saturated, and down by the side of the river is a strange and minatory figure, a woman who remains always tantalisingly out of reach, and who she comes to fear approaching. In Evelyn’s time there are problems with the plumbing at Wakewater House and she believes that the ghost of Milly visits her and tells her what to do. For both women it is all fated to end in violence, though acts of a very different nature.

Enhancing the story is the wealth of research Leslie has done into aspects of the Water Cure and similar medical procedures of Victorian times, but she wears this learning lightly, with information imparted by means of conversation among the patients at Wakewater and simply woven into the text of the book, so that we discover what is necessary but never feel that we’re being subjected to a history lesson. It creates a convincing backdrop and sense of verisimilitude that makes the supernatural aspects all the more sustainable when they occur.

And at the heart of this novel is a ghost story, though Leslie leaves open the possibility that there may be a psychological aspect to what the women are going through. Of course, with the neat dovetailing of events, so that actions in the life of one woman almost seem to mirror those in the life of the other, it’s almost impossible to argue that there is no supernatural element, but at the same time it is the psychology of the two leads, the baggage they carry and that society imposes on them, which renders them so susceptible to the paranormal. Through the use of lush descriptive language Leslie creates a vivid atmosphere, one of slowly mounting unease in which the pervasive drip, drip, drip of water seeps into the psyche of the reader as surely it does into the environment occupied by the characters. Wakewater House itself is not haunted. Rather it is the river that runs by outside and the things that lurk in its depths that cause the trouble. Reinforcing this oppressive atmosphere is the character of Manon, an eccentric and a convenient source for info dumps about the women who committed suicide by throwing themselves into the Thames, and the uses to which those women’s cadavers were put by the medical establishment in Victorian times. From Manon Kirsten learns of the plethora of female entities that are associated with water, especially the Rusalki. In Manon’s book she reads – “It is believed that when women die in or close to water, especially those who have committed suicide or those who have been intentionally drowned by others, they often return to haunt that particular body of water. Women who are pregnant at the time of their death are believed to be especially potent.” – two sentences that foreshadow the menace that is to come.

And all this talk of female spirits leads to another theme of the book, that of sexual politics and the oppression of women in both Victorian and modern times. Kirsten has been damaged by the way in which Lewis brought their relationship to an end, his promises of everlasting love revealed as a sham. She feels that he didn’t want a real woman, someone with “human frailties and imperfections”, but a doll akin to the anatomical figures shown in Manon’s books, nothing more than “a beautiful package”. Kirsten comes to identify herself with the hordes of dead women she senses in the water, creatures whose avatar is the lonely figure standing by the waterside, and whose brooding presence comes to dominate her existence. Similarly Evelyn is a victim of the patriarchy, her love for Milly denied and the fate of her physical body dictated by first her father and then the experts into whose hands he delivers her. In Wakewater House she enters a society of women, but their every action – how they dress, when and what they eat, the exercises they do – is dictated by the men on the staff, and with the hint of far worse punishment for those who baulk at this control. At one point in the story Evelyn examines the instruments of the doctor’s profession and compares them to devices of torture.

What is especially interesting is the way in which the two characters react to their newfound knowledge of male domination, the ways in which they express this previously sublimated rage and resentment. For all her aspirations to be independent of men and behave better, Evelyn acted out a male role in her relationship with Milly, was every bit as controlling as her father, though she doesn’t see things in that way. When she finally revolts, it takes the form of an attack on one of her supposed persecutors and then a flight from Wakewater House and into the embrace of the river. For Kirsten though, sacrifice to the spirits of the Thames, the hordes of dead who float beneath its surface, is the only solution, the only way to appease their hunger, but the irony is that the victim she focuses on is not a man but the old and feeble Manon, another woman. She attempts to act out the basest desires of the patriarchy even as she struggles to reify her existence along less patriarchal lines. For both women, and for the reader also, Leslie allows nothing in the way of comfort at our journey’s end.

This is a harrowing novel, one that punches far above its weight, and in combination with Skein and Bone is an assured debut mapping out the concerns and aesthetic sensibilities of a writer who may well go on to become one of the most significant new voices in our genre.

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Song for a Saturday – Stolen Car

Another of my favourite Springsteen songs.

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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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Trailer Trash – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Oh my, this looks pretty.

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Filler content with small packages – Part 3

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

IN SMALL PACKAGES (continued)

Benny, the protagonist of STAG IN FLIGHT (Dim Shores chapbook, 42pp, $7) by S. P. Miskowski, has a whole battery of mental health issues – fear of going out, anxiety, compulsive list making, and horrible memories of his childhood. An interfering neighbour arranges psychiatric help for him, but analyst Dot has strange methods that mostly involve telling Benny about her own perfect life, or at least that is how it appears to him (Benny may be an unreliable narrator). One day in her office a stag beetle lands on his shoulder and this simple event is the key to Benny’s transformation.

Miskowski gives us an unusual story, a case study of mental illness, soliciting our sympathy for somebody who is undoubtedly one of life’s natural victims through no fault of his own. Ultimately though it turns into a variation on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with Benny adopting the traits of the stag beetle on a psychological level, dreaming that he is a beetle, identifying with the insect’s desires. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the identification with the beetle gives him carte blanche to embrace his own atavistic impulses, a misogynistic subtext hinted at and resentment of psychiatrist Dot taking the form of violent fantasies in which she holds centre stage. The story ends on a note of ambiguity, one of those moments where we are paused to discover what happens next, fearful of what awaits the two women knocking at Benny’s door. It is a story of transformation, of one of society’s outcasts finding a moment of epiphany, and the subtext is that Benny has suffered so much that only by identifying with another species entirely can he endure and find meaning to his existence, but the resulting metamorphosis is not necessarily beneficial. Miskowski gives us a character who elicits sympathy for what he has gone through, but from whom we recoil when he comes fully into his own reality. As a final note, artist Nick Gucker provides some striking illustrations to accompany the text.

Nina Allan provides a cover blurb for THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES (Unsung Stories pb, 128pp, £9.99) by Aliya Whiteley, which is appropriate given that, just like The Harlequin, it is set in the aftermath of WWI, but there the resemblance ends. This novella takes place in a rural community and is told from the viewpoint of farmer’s daughter Shirley, sixteen going on seventeen years and with ambitions in life. Shirley wants to go away to teacher training college, but her father wants her to marry a young man to take on the farm after he has gone. And she has also set her cap at the teacher Mr. Tiller, despite local gossip that he was injured in the war and is not a real man. But when she spies on Mr. Tiller Shirley discovers that he has been changed far more than anyone suspects by his experiences at the front, and she becomes involved in a conspiracy to shape the future history of the world. The true question for Shirley is if she wants this future that she is being asked to create, and how much of her own happiness is she prepared to sacrifice to make it happen.

It’s a beautifully written work, with prose that illuminates the subject matter, and in the redoubtable Shirley we have a feisty, get up and go kind of heroine, one with whom readers can sympathise as she tries to find her way in a society where all the odds are stacked against her, simply because of gender and circumstances of birth, even as we are somewhat reluctant to approve of the methods she uses to get her own way, which at times border on blackmail. But at the same time for me this was the one weak spot in the novella. Shirley’s qualms about the future envisaged by Mr. Tiller and those he is channelling basically boil down to the idea that it’s a world run by old dead white men, and while I can understand her dismay at the role of women in this ‘perfect’ future her other reservations seem modern in outlook to me, rather than something a person from a rural community in the years immediately after WWI would have been concerned with. There is absolutely no hint of diversity in the life we are shown, so that when Shirley notices and is so concerned by this missing element in the future it doesn’t ring entirely true to me. Her objections are, of course, entirely valid and I thoroughly approve of her attitude, the stand she takes, but I can’t quite believe in it given who Shirley is. That aside, the story grips with its concept of a future in peril and people in the present being required to do absolutely anything to preserve that possibility, even commit murder. For Shirley there is the moral dilemma of being called on to renounce her own dreams, which turn out to be entirely impractical anyway, and then having to give up those she has accepted to serve some higher good. It is this dilemma, the question of what we are prepared to do to ensure the good times to come, both in our own lives and for the world at large, that makes the story interesting, and adds hidden depths to its depiction of an outwardly idyllic, if somewhat restricted, rural community. One could make the case that, thematically at least, it has echoes of M. Night Shyamalan vehicle The Village, though the polarity of present and future are reversed.

THE GRIEVING STONES (Horrific Tales Publishing hc, 141pp, £12.99) by Gary McMahon is the story of Alice, who has joined a small therapy group as part of dealing with the suicide of her husband Tony, and is given the opportunity to be part of a weekend retreat at isolated Grief House. Under the leadership and guidance of grief counsellor Clive the party set off, along the way having a collision with what they believe to be a deer. At Grief House, which used to be the property of two sisters accused of witchcraft, and is close to the Grieving Stones, ancient stone megaliths to which are attached various local legends, Alice feels strangely at home. There is the sense of mysterious forces at work in the building, with Alice seeing things, including an entity she refers to as the Backward Girl because of its strange method of perambulation. She stumbles across documents that reveal more of the house’s history, and is slowly led to the conclusion that there is a mystical link between her and the sisters, and that she belongs in Grief House which is rebuilding itself to accommodate her, while the others are interlopers who must be made to leave.

Superficially this is similar to Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House with a group of people taken to a building with an unenviable reputation and one of their number particularly susceptible to the occult influences that live within its walls, but there the resemblance ends. Clive and his group of the bereaved are not psychic investigators and guinea pigs, while Alice as viewpoint character is an entirely unreliable narrator. As we learn more of her past and the events that have shaped her life, we come to see that while projecting outwardly a harmless and thoroughly domesticated persona she is perhaps more deadly than the house itself, McMahon making her at first sympathetic and then snatching away even this safety net for the reader’s perceptions. With the atmosphere building and strange events taking place, such as the appearance of the Backward Girl, the accidents that befall the others, the way in which the derelict house is repairing and tidying itself, we begin to wonder how much of this is actually taking place and how much of it is down to Alice’s mental state, or rather whether it is Alice herself who enacts these atrocities. McMahon is superb at building tension and an atmosphere of fearful anticipation, with little details accumulating, while at the same time effortlessly muddying the waters as to how reliable his narrator is. At the end we are left with the knowledge that something terrible has taken place, but uncertain as to why these things have occurred and unsure to what degree Alice is a victim, with the real terror of the story and its ability to disturb having to do with the complexity of the human emotional response rather than any supernatural agency.

TO BE CONTINUED

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