I’ve wanted to get this put together since August, but I was sidetracked by a rush of inspiration, completing three new short fiction pieces within about a five-week period. Considering the funky way the year has gone, I just had to strap in and ride them to completion. That said, there’s more story ideas (and a new longer piece started about three weeks ago) bubbling underneath, but before locking in with fiction again, I believe it’s time to deal with some of the wonderful books I’ve read this year.
Shall we? Oh, before we get started, there are links EVERYWHERE! Please click on them for maximum pleasure...or, well...
Let’s start with
One of the key elements in any Scott Nicolay (Ana Kai Tangata) story is a keen sense of frisson. He magnifies this aspect by diving into the mind of one of the characters on such a level as to bring the reader fully into the story on multiple levels. The staging of his tales runs the gamut of possibilities, some of which include starting off with the character already steeped in a bad situation and we’re at that point where something needs to change (“after”--though, of course, then the really weird stuff kicks in), or putting the character in a situation that gradually escalates into uncertainty (“Noctuidae”), while distorting the world around the character in such a way that ‘normal’ is no longer a part of the narrative (many of his tales; perhaps most of his tales, including the two noted in this sentence). In Noctuidae, we spend the duration of the terrifying tale in the mind of Sue-min, who is on a hike with her boyfriend, Ron, and Ron’s friend, Pete. She doesn’t like Pete. We don’t like Pete. The core of the tale takes place in a cave, at night, after Ron goes missing. The frisson rubs hard as the circumstances deteriorate to a point where the possibility of rape hangs in the air like a clothesline draped with soiled laundry, all while something indescribable looms outside the cave. The moments in-between are fraught with tension, fear, and exhaustion. The creature might seem the bigger peril, but for much of the tale, Pete is right on par with it. Toward the end there’s a beautiful moment that tapped the valve on the tension I was feeling, finally able to breathe again, though a few paragraphs later, I realize it was only the loosening/readjustment of a noose before having the chair kicked out from beneath me. Hope may play a role in the motivations of the characters, but ultimately, hope is the lie they’ve succumbed to in this powerful tale of truly weird and truly human horrors heightened to unbearable.
Happiness. We all want it, but our paths are distinctly different in what exactly happiness is, and how we attain it. Benny’s got issues, but perhaps these issues have been made static by medication meant to help, yet only really stalling any- and every- thing in his life. Benny is already afraid of living--of life itself, really--until an incident at his therapist’s office, and a friendship to make Kafka smile changes things for him. Perhaps Stag in Flight is a love story. Perhaps it’s a mad fantasy, a twisting of the fabric of reality as triggered by Benny’s mind. Perhaps it’s about one man achieving a form of unexpected, surreal happiness.
Using taut lines and clipped language, not unlike what a chorus of insects sounds like, Miskowski (Knock Knock + the just released, Muscadines, which I also will be reviewing at a later date) shows us once again why she is one of our finest writers with this absurd and, in a way, beautiful tale. Stylistically, the story ‘feels’ like it’s from another era, yet the focus keeps it firmly in the here and now.
Since I dig insects, the excellent artwork by Nick Gucker appeals to me. It is grotesque and, as with the tale, rather beautiful.
Join Gary, his older sister Abby, and their mother, Martha, as they look to enjoy a relaxing afternoon swimming in the pool at the recreation center. Seems everybody else has the same idea, so the pool is overflowing with bodies.
Just another normal day in the middle of a hot summer, right?
Far from it…
Fracassi expertly layers other characters and a gradually tightening thread of anxiety into the seemingly joyful setting, relayed to the reader mostly through the mind and eyes of Gary. Some of the anxiety is palpable, as his sister is dragged into a real-life situation fraught with menace. Even beyond that, though, the tension twists into a knot…and then normal is shown the door...and horror takes the reins. What happens as things escalate to a breaking point is wild, shocking, unexpected…and brilliantly imagined as Fracassi takes us to a place where…well, let’s just say, what he introduces to the situation has curious influence over many, and is hungry, so hungry.
Fracassi’s previous chapbook, Mother, crawled under my skin with a truly unnerving finale. With Altar, he does it again, with a master’s touch. Definitely a writer I will be following.
Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters was a debut collection that put him firmly on the literary horror map. Horror from a different angle. Writing that sings.
The Visible Filth follows Will and his girlfriend by default, Carrie, as well as his actual love interest, Alicia, her new boyfriend, Jeffrey, and Eric, “a plug of muscle and charisma,” who turns into an asshole when he drinks too much. That drinking leads to a bloody fight at the bar Will works at (and where Eric lives upstairs), after which Will finds a cell phone left behind by a group of college kids. What the cell phone contains infects both Will and Carrie, and sets a harrowing row of dominoes tumbling, ending in a place so bleak and shocking it knocked me sideways. Actually, replace dominoes with cockroaches, as they’re scuttling around everywhere in this horrific tale.
Seems Ballingrud had fun writing this tale, leisurely mounting the terror until it’s almost intolerable. But as with everything I’ve read from him, he writes it with such shimmering precision, one cannot look away. Even if one really, really wants to. It’s all rather mesmerizing.
Perhaps with his words, he’s infected the reader, just as the cell phone did to poor Will.
Intermission (a break between chapbooks and collections): How about some poetry?
The poems in The Operating Theater dissect with unflinching clarity what it means to be human; a human who feels too much. It’s a condition that constantly breaks down like-minded souls, yet we find a way to push through, rise above the waterline, gulp fresh air…before dipping back down into the depths of pain. These poems are raw, extremely visceral (“Holy Father Violation”), devastatingly heartbreaking (“The Right Time to Move On”), and even brutally fucked up, guilt-driven, no reason spared, all reason splayed open, all contemplation laced with poisonous self-emasculation (“The Loser Manifesto: Notes From Dirt”—really, this one’s hard to read, more an uncomfortable experience like…like remember the first time you saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Frank Booth came on and placed the oxygen mask over his face and…yeah, that’s the kind of discomfort wired into this one). Much of this poetry acknowledges a religious/spiritual foundation, and much of it is apparently born of autobiographical experiences.
Whew! After reading this collection, I am emotionally wasted, and gleefully so. Gleefully? Yes, because when art digs this deep, there’s a kind of understanding, a pact made with readers willing to go along for the ride: we are here and we hurt, but we find strength in our art, and in those who are brave enough to never turn away, no matter how deep the blade slices into the soul of existence.
Ropes recently released a chapbook, Complicity, that I look forward to reading soon.
Excuse me for this, but it’s what popped into my head when I went to put some words down about Michael Wehunt’s fabulous debut collection, Greener Pastures. I was inspired in…well… Read on.
At first, the sweetness is only a promise, a suggestion at the back of your thoughts, where expectation resides.
There it is, the promise touches the tip of the tongue. You close your eyes to allow no outside distractions.
Such joy. Such relief.
But then the flavor changes. Expectations disperse. You realize sweat is beading on your forehead.
You open your eyes.
The tea is stained with something red. Something that can only be blood.
You pull sharply away from the glass, wondering if it is chipped. A quick observation negates the thought.
From behind you there is laughter.
When you turn to see who would be so cruel, you are confronted by a mirror.
Your mouth is a splayed-open wound, yet when you wipe at it with the sleeve of your shirt, most of the blood disappears. A couple more swipes, and your mouth is suddenly sealed shut.
Screaming is no longer an option…
Yeah, well. This is a lot like what many of the tales in Michael Wehunt’s debut collection, Greener Pastures, feel like to me. He easily draws the reader in, a thread of loss being one of the major linking devices—we can all relate to loss--and subtly, irresistibly tells his tales. My favorite one is “Onanon,” which explores Adam’s family history via an infected text, curious photos, and a mysterious woman who seems to have been there for much of it. What it all reveals, well, I’ll leave that for the hive-mind to figure out…just read it. The title tale is road-weary when it starts during the graveyard shift at a diner, then veers into a really dark place between the gaps. I was reminded of the best work of Dennis Etchison, which brought a smile. Wehunt isn’t a one-note writer, though, as the nerve-wracking found footage circle within a circle construction (and constriction, really) of the “October Film Haunt: Under the House” can attest.
An excellent debut from a writer I look forward to reading more from. The writing is crisp, drawing the reader in, passing the reader a tall glass of iced-tea. Go ahead, have a sip…
As a matter of fact, if you want a taste of what Wehunt can do, and perhaps my inspiration for ordering the book, check out “Birds of Lancaster, Lairamore, Lovejoy” and tell me that doesn’t make you want more.
What Michael Griffin brings in his debut collection, The Lure of Devouring Light, is a deep imagination tethered to the quiet side of horror and weird fiction genres. Yet in saying that, weird and horror might just be touchstones, as his real strength is characterization. Nobody, I repeat, nobody does relationships, couples in all stages of their time together, like Griffin does. He’s particularly adept with couples who’ve got some years under their belt, like in the masterful “Far from Streets,” which I’ve previously reviewed and consider a modern weird fiction classic (and is included here). Another high point for Griffin is his use of pacing. I think it shows Griffin has confidence in his abilities as a storyteller, putting trust his instincts. Layering with finesse. Atmosphere is key as well...so what I’m saying is Griffin brings a jam-packed writers' toolbox, and uses everything for optimum impact. With his exquisite explorations and word-building, he’s painting a big picture, even as it might be intimate, as in the outstanding short (mystery leading into hallucinogenic terror into...?) novel that ends this collection, “The Black Vein Runs Deep.” That intimacy, especially in this tale, is brought to the forefront as the reader occupies Colm’s mindspace as he contemplates possible connections with Adi, as well as the underlying mystery. It’s good stuff, honest, never backing away, before the reality Griffin has built tumbles into a fantastical place…that might just be an illusion. Or is it cosmic and epic? The ambiguity leaves the reader contemplating what exactly just happened…in a satisfying way. The harrowing between-death (post-death?) tale, “The Accident of Survival,” left me disorientated, perhaps because I could relate to the confusion the narrator was experiencing. “No Mask to Conceal Her Voice” carries on with a different kind of disorientation as Hollywood train-wreck, Lily Vaun, looks to kick-start her derailed career, accepting an invitation to be in a film by the strange director, Leer Astor, leading to a surprising revelation in the finale.
All of this combines to introduce the readers to a writer who has a full grasp of his talents, yet also invites speculation on where he will go next. Griffin is one of those writers whose storytelling demands a large canvas. I can see many novels in his future. No matter what, more Griffin will always be welcomed by this reader.
(Muzzleland Press) <---of note: Creeping Waves is only $5 on the site until Halloween.
Matthew M. Bartlett made a major impression with many readers (including this one) with his debut collection, Gateways to Abomination, a rare self-published book that left a huge impact. Creeping Waves plays off of the ideas incorporated in Gateways, primarily the thread of the insidious WXXT radio station, as well as his two other chapbooks published in the interim, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts and Anne Gare’s Rare Book and Ephemera Catalogue, and combines, expands, and refines it all. I think of the GtA and CW much as I think of Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. Like the original Evil Dead, GtA is raw, but sets a striking foundation upon which the second book uses as a springboard, and furthermore, Bartlett’s writing has grown into a real force. Much like the second movie, Creeping Waves plays up the gruesome, the horror…and the humor. The meatier tales (though often laced with worms—just…just read the book) have real weight, but one cannot discount the slighter in-between tales, as they add character and depth to the all-around reading experience. “Night Dog” is corporate horror that pushes latter-stage Ligotti, or perhaps Mark Samuel, right off the page. It’s harrowing and unflinching, especially when our narrator witnesses the transformation of CEO Wren Black into…something truly nightmarish. (I may have said too much, yet the ride is full of witty writing, so you’ll want to take it anyway.) “Rangel,” which I reviewed before, messes with memory and loss before it stumbles into a bizarre celebration of Boschian proportions. (Just read my full review HERE.) “The Egg” is absurd and shocking and contains “chickens and eggs and flesh and love” and a whole lot of crazy shit!
I didn’t read this “collection” as a straightforward collection. It’s more like a mosaic novel (thanks for this, Nicolay), where all of the pieces, the shorter and often humorous and/or curious pieces, help to create an overall atmosphere upon which the longer pieces reach in and drag you through the abattoir of horror. The tone, the setting, it is all woven together with the skill of a spider, and the mind of a diabolical mad scientist. Wicked, brilliant, and always entertaining, Bartlett brings the goods and then some with this phenomenal…collection? Mosaic novel? Satanic songbook? er…whatever the hell it is, it works!
This was fun. It always is, but I am going to attempt to write and post reviews more consistently, as opposed to letting things stack up. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I did writing them.
Also: all of these reviews will be up on Amazon and Goodreads soon, probably next week when I get back to the states.
That's it for this one. Now...go out and purchase the books I've included here (at least the books still available, as a couple were limited--and write your own reviews.
These writers deserve your attention.
Painting by Andre Martins de Barros. This is pretty much exactly how I feel right about now...