I’ve been meaning to do this for a few weeks, but with my own writing locked in high gear, I’ve been too busy. Until now. (Not that I’m not still busy, oh no, it’s just time.) This is in no way comprehensive, it’s more an overview of most, but not all, of what I read over my summer here in Rome, Italy. At least when it comes to collections and chapbooks.
The Dim Shores titles come with art prints, too. I can't wait to hold them in my hands when back in the states soon.
Before I get started, a note: there are a lot of links in this post. Please go to those links and support these wonderful writers by purchasing the books. I wouldn’t be writing about them if I didn’t think every one was worth your attention. In some cases, though, with the sold-out chapbooks, I’ve linked to a writer’s Amazon page, Goodreads page, or something pertinent that relates. Again, every one of them deserves your attention. Every one of them inspires me, as a writer. We live in phenomenal times for speculative fiction of all sorts, and Weird fiction specifically.
(Really. I mean, I’m sitting here writing up recs, cobbling together notes and impressions, while my brain is still humming from the absolute brilliance of Kristi DeMeester’s opening salvo from CM Muller’s first volume of Nightscript, “Everything that’s Underneath,” a story I read over a week or two ago! More about Nightscript in a follow-up blog post, otherwise, this one might overload and erupt all over your computer monitor. Like I said, we are living in phenomenal times for the lovers of all branches of speculative fiction.)
Without further ado (as I backtrack to move forward)…
Last year, being a member of the Horror Writers Association, my inbox was inundated with Opt-In requests, meaning: when a writer or publisher has a novel, short story, collection, etc., they want to opt-in to HWA members with a free copy of said novel, short story, etc, for Bram Stoker Award consideration. At some point, I noticed Taylor Grant opting in with three tales. I thought, sure, let’s see what Grant is about as a writer, since he seems a cool guy otherwise. I remember reading those three tales and was blown away by them, the natural voice, and the dread and horror he threaded through each. One tale, “The Infected,” stands as one of the finest straight-up Horror tales I’ve read over the last few years. I remember getting in touch with another writer friend (Jason Duke, who, trust me, once he gets his novels out, all bets are off, my friends. He’s a truly fabulous writers and I can’t wait for you all to read what he can do. One novel, Wolves & Lambs, that one’s going to leave an impact much like a crater left by a nuclear bomb…) (Yeah, excuse that, but I’m just rolling with this, so…roll with me) and telling him, “Hey, Taylor’s damn good. He knows what he’s doing.”
When Grant asked me to blurb his debut collection out later this year, I was more than happy to comply. And what a collection it is! Now, with blurbs, one must say more about the overall impressions and less about specs, it seems, so this is more like that. Also of note, I don’t actually read a lot of primarily Horror, most of what connects with me is from the Weird branch of Horror, but this collection is pure Horror. Straight-up and to the grisly point. In a way, it re-invigorated my love for Horror. Here’s the blurb I wrote for Grant’s debut collection, The Dark at the End of the Tunnel:
“Taylor Grant brings the writing chops of a seasoned pro to his debut collection, The Dark at the End of the Tunnel. His style is crystal clear and scalpel sharp, but his intentions are laced with blood and dread. There’s no messing around as Grant tosses the reader into the horrific fray from page one. These beautifully crafted tales culled from the deepest recesses of Grant’s devious imagination feature an array of horrors, including faces shaped by our dark side yearnings, shadows baring sharp teeth (though the origin of these shadows is even more shocking), how a secret hidden away in a footlocker spreads like an infection, and even vampires at the far edge of the universe. Grant’s obvious glee in depicting these horrors and more makes this collection a joy for the reader into the work of classic horror writers such Richard Matheson and Stephen King, yet it’s his talent as a storyteller dealing with modern themes that lends these tales depth and humanity of which we all can relate. Highly recommended!”– JohnClaude Smith, author of Riding the Centipede & Autumn in the Abyss.
(Yes, please excuse the shameless promotion of myowndamnself by adding the links, but since linkage is happening…ahem.)
(Grant’s collection is not yet available for pre-order. I’ve linked to his website.)
(Yes, I thought it amusing as well I would link you to Matheson and King. :-P )
The Nameless Dark: A Collection—T.E. Grau
“A Collection,” it states. Grau’s The Nameless Dark is so much more than that! This collection is a beast, unafraid to wield words in every way imaginable to make its points. Spitting and snarling, the writing is full-bodied, muscular. It growls, it roars, and slashes with a mighty talon. Okay, enough of that, but you get my point. Grau is fearless. Description and details, the depth of ideas—nothing here settles for ‘small’ in the scope of the horrors unleashed. Apocalyptic, often Lovecraftian designs are threaded through many of the tales, though not in a familiar manner. The best tales? All of them. There’s no clunkers here. “The Screamer” resonates eternally, like the wail in this tale of corporate hell on a global level. “Clean” is a nasty dollop of perversion made more so by the unexpected place it goes. When I finished reading “The Truffle Pig,” I actually paused and said aloud, “Goddamn!” A Jack the Ripper tale that takes a decidedly different turn, this might be my favorite JtR tale Ever. Just read it and see. “Mr. Lupus” feels like a Christmas Fairy Tale, but then it gets so much Grimmer. I think one of the finest tales that showcases exactly what Grau does is one that at first seems quite light (I was thinking this, knowing what was to follow; more on that in a second), “Twinkle, Twinkle.” It seems a simple tale, a contemplation of grief and how a young girl and her father deal with it, yet Grau takes this precious connection…and annihilates it with a discovery made through a telescope. Never small, nothing Grau does is small. And what follows? “The Mission,” in which the old West is brought to life with precision (the staging, the details, the language; as throughout this collection, Grau is a master at conveying these elements as if he were there himself) (he may be a time-traveler, he’s that good!)…and what the group of grizzled men on a mission discovers is something to behold. This one’s a stunner, and brings the collection to a grand finale.
Impressive is an understatement. Grau’s The Nameless Dark a beast ready to devour the minds of readers of Weird Horror willing to make the sacrifice. I can still hear it chewing on mine!
Then there’s Christopher Slatsky. Oh, Christopher, Christopher…
Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales by Christopher Slatsky
I‘d never read anything by Christopher Slatsky until Jordan Krall's Dunhams Manor Press branch of Dynatox Ministries published a chapbook by him (they are also the publishers of this collection), “No One is Sleeping in this World.” That one wormed into my head, intrigued me in curious ways. The best fiction, as far as I care, does this. I wasn’t initially sure about the characters, then realized upon re-reading the tale a couple times, how perfectly constructed they were within the constructs of their exploration of the living city/architecture…and those who live within that dark place. Utterly fascinating. Then the title story of this collection was published…and I was stunned. Here was a tale so different from most any other I had read within the realm of Weird fiction…or any fiction. Slatsky combines Depression-era cockfights, a unusual book, UFOs, a suggestion of time-travel and more, to create, well, excuse me, I’m going to steal from my Goodreads review here: “…it’s all wrapped in a hallucinatory realm that feels, because of some peripheral elements, as though they might have been plucked from a Daliesque nightmare. There’s a sense of a dream within a dream…and I’m not sure if either thread qualifies as “reality” as we think we know it.” There’s such a breadth of ideas woven into each of the tales here it’s rather mind-boggling. Beyond that, the variety of characters and ‘voices’ for each tale are so well defined, even with a tale that had me stumbling at first—“Scarcely Have They Been Planted”—when I found my footing (I needed to find it, no fault of Slatsky’s as he knows exactly what he’s doing), I adjusted to the ‘simple’ voice of the narrator, a voice that rings so true the reader is captivated by the strangeness that unfolds.
I figure it works like this: Slatsky reads widely and whenever a subject comes up he is intrigued by (and, judging by the scope of these tales, there’s not much that doesn’t intrigue him), he writes it down on a small piece of paper and drops the paper into a hat; a magician’s hat, of course. The hat is overflowing with ideas. Slatsky reaches in and picks out two, three…maybe five ideas at a time, and then molds the disparate ideas into a single unique tale, a Slatskyian tale, a polished gem of indescribable beauty and oddness, something only he could do. The wonder of discovery for the reader is not only in the strange confluence of ideas, but the depth of diverse characters and, ultimately, the presentation, how he stitches it all together. Because Slatsky is a student of the Weird…and makes it his own. Every tale brings a dollop of magic, intelligence, and story-telling panache of the highest caliber. Because these ARE utterly Slatskyian tales, and what he does IS magic.
Either that or he’s from another planet, studying the human race, trying to figure us out while he studies every facet of our world. I’m going on a bit, wanted to get into more of the 13 thought-provoking tales in this collection (and expect to with the release of the hardcover next year, with two additional tales) but you get my gist, don’t you?
Yeah, it’s rather obvious: I am in awe.
Briefly, two more collections from before my summer that demand your attention. These are more mini-reviews or blurbs, but I cannot dismiss them because they were not major parts of the last couple months of reading:
These are emotionally wrenching tales sculpted from the body, digging to the bone, the brain, the essence of what it means to be alive and human and, primarily, female, though any reader with a wee bit of empathy can fully relate to the splendor, dread, and often grim circumstances overcome in many cases. Rich, enthralling, felt as much as read. Walters’ tales wipe me out, exhaust me; it’s as if I live in them, an astonishing experience. She’s one of our best and a writer well worth the attention of everybody into all branches of speculative fiction.
I find it hard to read Pulver’s tales. Not for any negative reason, but no other writer triggers the creative juices for me than Pulver. And it’s less about tales and more about paragraphs that sing and soar, screech and howl. Pulver is a poet first, and it’s obvious. His mastery of the way words should play together, the way he lets words frolic freely, with no inhibitions, is a revelation I gleefully embrace. My appreciation of the beauty and horror in this stellar collection is unbounded. I love to dip in, read a tale (a few paragraphs, a sparkling sentence), and step back, my brain reeling, my imagination on fire. Joseph S. Pulver is a marvel! Highly recommended.
PS. There's separate links for the title and the author for the previous two reviews, click on both.
Oh, Christ, I’m running long. I will try to be a little more precise with these brief overviews of some Dunhams Manor Press and Dim Shores chapbooks. (I expect I will fail miserably...)
PS. I've linked some of the artists below, too. Both publishers are putting together some eye-catching books.
The Infusorium—Jon Padgett
The Infusorium combines many elements that make the astute reader of Thomas Ligotti smile, yet Padgett breathes humanity into the elements and this strange tale set in a dense, fog-swathed town in which our narrator, Raphaella Castellano, a female homicide detective, makes bizarre discoveries, including elongated skeletons, that leads her to The Brotherhood of the Black Fog. I enjoyed Castellano’s voice, her perceptions, and the way Padgett keeps adding to the weirdness as the tale goes on. Good stuff, and Padgett has a collection coming out next year, The Secret of Ventriloquism, I’m eagerly looking forward to reading.
Joseph Lowe, a man with no allegiance to anybody but himself, makes the mistake of getting the niece of an aristocratic magnate, Gregory Bath, pregnant, after which a kind of warped symbiotic connection is made between him and the rich, very old—immortal…?—guy. The events unravel when one of Bath’s sons, Arthur, decides it’s time he got his slice of the family fortune. I like the way Smith fills this tale to the brim, often overflowing. And the ending is exquisite! Of note, Smith’s tale from Nightscript—yeah, it’s what I am reading right now—is excellent as well.
Gasper Bantam is a man whose sister, Rangel, mysteriously disappeared thirty years ago. Time alters memories. Memory often alters itself in need of self-preservation. We shape our memories so we can move forward. But for Bantam, those memories won’t let him go as he is driven to head back to the town of his youth, and sister’s disappearance. The finale takes place at the town’s Halloween celebration, which turns into a beautifully bizarre Boschian nightmare. After the celebration, the reader is given a glimpse of the truth; a truth not altered by the memories of our protagonist. Bartlett has a clean, crisp style. Just enough details, before he pulls the knot out of the ribbon of reality and the unraveling nightmare is all that remains. This is perhaps my favorite Bartlett tale so far, but I’m happy to report there’s a lot in the pipeline, what with a collection out later this year (Creeping Waves from Muzzleland Press), and another one next year (The Stay-Awake Men from Dunhams Manor Press).
Art for Rangel by Aeron Alfrey. When I first saw the cover, I thought, “This is so perfectly Bartlettesque!
How does one deal with a broken, abusive relationship that goes on and on, with no viable means of escape? For Colleen, ditching responsibility and heading out to inspect a post-Sandy seaside cottage she and her significant (shouldn’t that be detrimental?) other, Derrick, own, the break seems mandatory. It gives her time to contemplate strategies she’ll never embrace...
The key to what Nicolay does as a writer is how he willfully gives in to every nuance as dictated by each tale. With “after,” we are fully immersed (full immersion IS what Nicolay demands of his readers) into the details of…everything—the details are honed to piercing clarity. But the details aren’t only about what Colleen observes all around her, on the outside, so much as the inner workings of her spiraling through chaos mind: the questions wondered and random thoughts that traipse through the undertow of sour thoughts are the glue that holds “after” together. Stephen King is a master of this kind of inner dialogue; here, Nicolay is better. Early on, Colleen decides to stick around, even though supplies (and sanity? Maybe…maybe not; I’ll explore this below) run short. Colleen decides to break into the houses of her absent neighbors, but while walking along the beach, she is stunned to discover a strange creature. Does this creature scare her off? No. Not exactly. Any sane person would leave. Yet, who are we to judge another’s sanity? Colleen, like many a protagonist in the work of J.G. Ballard, especially the early novels, embraces the situation. (“Embracing One’s (Personal) Apocalypse: The Desolate Path Toward Psychological Fulfillment in the work of J.G. Ballard and Scott Nicolay’s “after.” That’s an essay I want to read in Thinking Horror.) (Another Ballard connection: the repetition of questions within the inner dialogue. That’s a stand-by for Ballard’s mid-to-late period work. Crash is built on repetition.) What does she do? She sets up a schedule, trying to elude the creature while still sticking around…until the creature’s presence is made unavoidable.
An aside: I can justify in my mind that the creature in the tale is a purely psychological manifestation of what Colleen needs as much as a statement on personal survival when one is in a relationship that is destroying one’s soul. Think about it. No matter her constant evasion of the creature, she doesn’t just leave the abandoned seaside town, as most people would do. She stays, because leaving, even when life is being balanced on the edge of the razor and any false move might lead to death, is the worse choice. There’s still discovery to be made by staying and dealing with the creature. (And really, what’s to say the creature’s intentions are malicious? Because it’s so different, the reader may think the creature’s intentions are of a negative design, but in reality, or at least the reality of the tale, it might simply be something new and different and curiosity might be its sole purpose in exploring the town as it does, or finding solace in the same house as Colleen.) (You’ll find out for sure when reading the tale in Nicolay’s follow-up collection to my personal favorite book from 2014, Ana Kai Tangata; the new collection should be out in 2016.) In leaving, she knows what she faces. In a way, dealing with the creature presents a less harrowing existence, the better choice for survival beyond misery and anguish.
“after” is a breath-taking exploration of the lengths one person will go in order to avoid (what they sadly deem) the unavoidable, as much as it is about a woman secluding herself in a cottage and her dance with a creature that might just be her star-crossed lover…
All kidding aside, I consider “after” a modern classic of the Weird.
I really dig Michael Bukowski’s art for this tale, too. Having read the tale as a beta-reader, more or less, many months ago, seeing the cover, well…Bukowski really captured the essence of "after."
The Dim Shores titles come with art prints, too. I can't wait to hold them in my hands when back in the states soon.
I will be breaking this blog post apart and posting the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads in a few days, probably when back in the states next week. I am also a member of the HWA and at some point (also next week) I will be recommending every title here as well, along with much more—I’ve made a list and will be checking it twice, er…yeah, whatever… I figure the HWA could use an influx of Weird Horror...
This was fun. I should not take so long between blog posts and posts with reviews. I hope you enjoyed this. Me...my brain's fried, think I'll drop.
Whew! Done...for now. The photo below is how pretty much how it felt putting this blog post together. Writing here, reading notes there, checking for links, etc. I needed at least three heads just to keep everything straight.
Art by 25kartinok.