It’s no secret that the shadow of cinema has loomed large over American horror fiction ever since the premiere of the country’s first devoutly supernaIt’s no secret that the shadow of cinema has loomed large over American horror fiction ever since the premiere of the country’s first devoutly supernatural chiller on Valentine’s Day, 1931. (That would be Tod Browning’s DRACULA for the philistines out there.) Since then novels and short stories alike have drawn inspiration from the silver screen and recycled its motifs—the reverse has held true less of the time—even, on some occasions, directly reacting to it and incorporating its characters and mythologies into its own form as well. This latter trend is, for the most part, a recent phenomenon, with genre luminaries such as Joe Lansdale, Norm Partridge, and David J. Schow being a handful of contemporary authors who proudly honor the celluloid gods and monsters of their youth by paying tribute to them in their stories. Orrin Grey may count himself a practitioner of this fine tradition.
While some writers choose to mask their influences in order to defer direct recognition, Grey is more than happy to call out his references by name. His characters react to situations as he conceivably might: by comparing them to a scenario from a movie and then judging what the next best course of action would be based on that knowledge. It creates a layering effect that becomes more complex and curious the more one thinks about it. Historical figures collide with beings from Grey’s imagination. Works of art that were never actually created or seen are treasured by aficionados in the stories. Characters talk of movies that exist in our reality while they themselves most definitely exist in a realm outside our own. Or do they? Painted Monsters becomes something akin to the climax of ENTER THE DRAGON, a kaleidoscope of images in a hall of mirrors that blur the lines of story and hi-story, revealing only further shards of homage and tribute upon any attempts to shatter them.
The first flicker of the camera comes with “The Worm That Gnaws,” a fun mood-setter in the spirit of the four-color bedtime gories of E. C. Comics and the intimate radio dramas of old. (The tale was originally written for Pseudopod, so its Cockney-accented resurrection man is a colorful narrator perfectly fit for the medium.) It makes a good bedfellow with “The Murders on Morgue Street,” which has less to do with Poe and everything to do with the rampant fantasies young, impressionable cinema fans concoct when the only access they have to a much-desired film is a set of evocative production stills. Grey constructs his very own macabre Monogram melodrama, replete with all the standard players (the determined detective, the beautiful damsel, the sinister and foreign doctor of strange arts, his trusty animalistic henchman) and plot mechanics along with a few anachronistic Rick Baker-esque transformations thrown in for good measure to create a thunderingly enjoyable piece that seems to crackle and pop with all the authenticity of a bad public domain print. The relative lightness of these two tales are indicative of Grey’s artistic goal of achieving a Jamesian sense of “pleasing terror” in his stories, a charmingly morbid atmosphere that is at odds with the heart-rending horrors of some of his contemporaries.
But Grey proceeds to demonstrate that he is more than capable at conjuring moods of oppression and sadness with his two riffs on the vampire myth. “The White Prince” might appear slight at first glance, adhering as it does to the classical style of the Gothics in its depiction of the hunt for a monster preying on the blood of a virtuous virgin, but Grey manages to fit in a jarring sequence where one of our “heroes” sees the beautiful core of the vampire underneath its hideous shell. Surely it is just a supernatural trick of the Beast, right? Perhaps, but there’s a bitterness to the crusaders’ victory that seems to say otherwise.
Just as this question plagues our mind well after reading, so does the beautifully depressing gloom of “Night’s Foul Bird.” The young girl at its center—an avid attendant of the movie-house who prefers her dreams in two dimensions—is not unlike a heroine straight out a del Toro film, or in this case the Frankenstein-haunted protagonist from THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. Grey’s character is the recipient of an enviable treat: she gets to see a screening of the lost-to-the-ages Lon Chaney vehicle LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. The curious stranger rooming in the girl’s boarding house proceeds to feed on the last remaining drops of vitality left in the aimless lives of his neighbors before his reign settles over the ensemble like the wing of a fallen angel. In a word depopulated of hope, it’s easy for a vampire to assume the appearance of just one more hardship to endure, as inevitable as poverty and winter. The tale is a masterstroke of sustained dread.
Grey channels direct authorial homages with “The Labyrinth of Sleep” and “Walpurgisnacht.” The former trawls the seas of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle and blockbuster action cinema to produce an interesting hybrid. There’s a wandering quality to the protagonist’s explorations of the ever-changing maze that complement the punchier secret agent search-and-rescue scenes nicely. The latter story occupies the mythical world of weird fiction maestro Laird Barron, and it’s one of the rare stories in which one can clearly see the strains of influence running through it while it stands as its own accomplished story. “Walpurgisnacht” is delightfully and unabashedly baroque, marrying Barron’s cosmic concerns with a wildly decadent vision of a Bald Mountain hotel swarming with witches and demons on the unholiest night of the year. If “The Murders in Morgue Street” is the Poverty Row chiller that was never filmed, “Walpurgisnacht” is the Italian Gothic starring Barbara Steele on the other end of that drive-in double bill.
Italian films are the inspiration behind “The Red Church,” or at least their robust images, and Grey manages to produce his own gruesome tableaux here. Utilizing one of the author’s pet themes—the mad artist privy to unseen vistas of insanity—the story doesn’t work as seamlessly as it should, but those familiar with the disjointed narratives of Argento and Fulci will find a like companion here. If the ultimate success of the giallo films rests on the power of their visual compositions, then Grey may be assured that his handling of them are in the true spirit of the form.
The gentleman from Providence is in evidence again for the eponymous “Lovecrafting.” It’s a Russian doll of modes and format, with a quote from H. P.’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” serving as the groundwork upon which the film treatment-styled main narrative is built upon, while also hosting excerpts taken from imaginary works of weird fiction as well. Self-confessed as “the weirdest story” Grey has written yet, “Lovecrafting” is a double-edged sword of wry parody and sinister implication bolstered by strong characterizations and an old-fashioned ending that mounts in tension before snuffing the lights out, its central horror kept to the darkness of our minds.
“Persistence of Vision” is another of the collection’s gems, one that only gets better on subsequent readings. Our narrator remains elusive even as he explains the spectral pandemic that has swept the globe, at turns lightly sarcastic, jaundiced, and melancholic in his assessment of the situation. He is another of Grey’s movie-savvy protagonists, but here the character’s knowledge and comparisons have a more direct and active role in the story, his mentions of KAIRO and PULSE serving to say “What’s going on here is even worse than that. We had no way of knowing. And there’s nothing we can do about any of it.” It combines the author’s talent for stark visuals (the red rooms, the medium’s cadaver in the summoning machine) with a tone of hopelessness unlike anything else in the book.
Ghosts appear to be a major preoccupation with Grey, as three other stories in the book deal with spirits of things left behind. It’s here that the author shows the influence of idol Mike Mignola in his yearning to conjure bizarre variations on classic tropes, as the shades that haunt the pages of “Ripperology,” “Remains,” and “Strange Beast” are all spiritual manifestations of a decidedly unique kind. “Ripperology” explores the legacy of fascination left in the wake of the Whitechapel murders, affecting in its glimpses into the lives of the lonely men who trace the evidences of true crimes to fill the void of their own existence. The form that the Ripper’s soul takes is actually a classic one, harkening back to stories like Renard’s The Hands of Orlac and Harvey’s “The Beast with Five Fingers,” but the effect that the story imparts is one of chilly minimalism.
“Remains” is also captivated with the long, deep scars left behind by murderers, but here the wounds are fresher as two friends attempt to exorcise the house of a noted child killer. The fact that Grey can grapple with the comic book action of one character’s battle with an amorphous monster-fog with expertly-handled emotional scenes of the friends trying to put their feelings into words is an impressive aspect of his craft. “Strange Beast” pushes the bizarro factor up a few notches by adopting the feel of a found-footage flick to unravel what happened to a documentary crew who attempted to settle the spirit of violence left by the disastrous filming of a giant Japanese monster movie on a deserted island. Under all the concerns with the mystery surrounding the eponymous forbidden film, the story acts a smart meditation on the process of making movies (and stories), namely how it is sometimes impossible to separate ourselves from our art and determine where “we” end and “the work” begins. For a collection obsessed with alternate worlds and the ouroboros of artistic influence, “Strange Beast” makes for an ideal ending.
But far be it for someone of Grey’s creature feature-mindset to let things go off without a bang. The opening quote from Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s novelty smash hit lets us know early on that “Painted Monsters” will indeed be a literal monster mash. It’s both a post-modern trip down the hallowed halls of horror cinema history and a pleasantly indulgent showcase of all the creepy, creaking, marvelously spooky atmospherics that make the classics of the genre so fun and accessible to audiences. Reading Grey’s concluding novella is like poring over a huge Valentine’s dedicated to the horror-shows from Universal, Paramount, MGM and all the independents in between of the 30s and 40s. For those whose cockles are toasted by the mention of wax museums, revolving bookcases, special makeup effects, shifty-eyed portraits, and rugose monsters coming to worship at the altar of their skull-faced master, then this one is for you. Read it close by the fire on a cold November night, bundling up against the scratch of bare branches upon the window. Painted Monsters is an invitation to a macabre masquerade, and one that we urge you to accept at the first notice. Orlok will be there to greet you upon your arrival.
When you get to his door, tell him Orrin sent you....more
Though he likely wasn’t aware of the fact, William Faulkner summarized a good majority of horror fict“The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
Though he likely wasn’t aware of the fact, William Faulkner summarized a good majority of horror fiction with this eloquent little truth. The artifacts of the past constantly surround us. They are buried in the soil of our land, the stone of our homes, the flesh of our minds, stubbornly refusing to relinquish their hold on us, grafting themselves to us with strings of impenetrable scarlet thread.
A more recent narrative trope popularized by film is of the victim running away from the inescapable horror giving chase to them, the hulking hockey goalie and gigantic prehistoric reptile equally representing our timeless fears in spite of their diverse guises. These two themes form the emotional bedrock of V. H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone, a collection of stories greatly preoccupied with the notion of fleeing the darkness of the past in the hopes of reaching some golden tomorrow. The past in Leslie’s stories is something to be avoided, swept over, tucked away and forgotten. Her characters do not view their lives as obstacle-laden journeys from which they will grow and learn from but as the meandering, cancerous roots of a traumatic seed, roots that bind them to the ground and keep them from flying towards freedom like the copious birds that surface in almost every story, crushing wings and hopes without discretion.
These trauma-seeds come in multiple forms, from the seemingly mundane despair brought on by an unfavorable surname (“Namesake”) to the incomprehensible awkwardness of having to live with a feral parent (“Family Tree”). Trauma also occurs to characters attempting to maintain the rigid formality of their existences while having to contend with change, that most dastardly of encroaching terrors, as seen by the protagonists from “Time Keeping” and “Wordsmith”, meticulous gentlemen of varied disturbances who find their senses of self and satisfaction upended by the arrival of women into their lives.
Leslie’s prose and characterizations are always on point, reveling in subtle and overt forms of wordplay that reveal the author’s love of the language and the intricacies of her characters in equal measure. In some stories the words mean everything, full of portent and wisdom and even sentience at times, with characters obsessing over all their double meanings and limitless interpretations. In addition to the burdened heroine of “Namesake”, there is the possibly-immortal Vernon from “Wordsmith”, a man whose facility for the language and gift for literally bringing words to life is limited to writing single phrases on slips of paper and planting them in the ground in the hopes that they will take root. The diplomat’s wife from “Senbazuru” faces a similar inability, her go-to move of choosing “paper” in the life-deciding games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” she plays with her husband made ironic by the fact that she can’t actually commit any meaningful words to paper when composing. The author shows us how our words hinder us as much as they help us, and how they almost always haunt us.
If the stories could be said to suffer from any one weakness it would have to be with regards to the endings. Many of the early entries in the collection start off full steam-ahead, as assured and graceful as anything else, but they tend to break down in little ways as they reach their climaxes. Some endings don’t feel entirely deserved, or deliver last-minute twists that compromise believability and investment in the characters’ plights. (The final section of “Family Tree”, for instance, asks us to accept a sudden, dramatic shift in a character’s mental makeup as a defined facet of their inner nature that had simply been dormant up until that very point.)
But even if a few selections seem to unspool at their conclusions, Leslie makes her natural gifts more than apparent in every story, ensuring that the reading of each is never without its valuable takeaways. Skein and Bone only seems to get better the further the reader advances in the collection, with the best of the bunch occurring right after the halfway point. (This halfway point seems to be yet another clever pun, as the seventh of the fourteen stories is a chilly anecdote of sinister snowpeople called “Bleak Midwinter.”)
Leslie delivers a great one-two punch with “The Blue Room” and “Ulterior Design.” Both draw from the long tradition of the ghost story in their own ways, the latter a direct recasting of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic study of deterioration, “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The former is noteworthy for the intense patina of colors that Leslie uses to sublime effect, infusing her eloquently-described passages with psychological resonance as a suffering wife attempts to recuperate in the shelter of the Hyde Hotel’s most sumptuous room and is haunted by both the shadow of all her failures and the crow-carrying spirit of a Picasso painting come to life. It all ends on a graceful note of hope perfectly delivered.
But Gwen could see her. She could see the way her shoulders hunched, the way she sat crumbled into the bench, a sense of sadness in her anonymity. How many invisible women were there in the world, sitting on park benches just like this one, their colour drained out of them by others, siphoned off so that they had none left for themselves? Slowly disappearing into a world that was too bright for them.
“Ulterior Design” is great for similar reasons, though its vision of triumph is decidedly bleaker than “The Blue Room”, detailing as it does the course of ever-deepening madness followed by a soon-to-be father as he becomes convinced that his wife is conspiring with the hummingbird-spangled wallpaper of the nursery room to knock him off his pedestal as family provider. Daniel, our beleaguered protagonist, has his insecurities literalized through dreams and visions that would leave Freud panting: cracked windows; cages fashioned from umbilical cords; chick-filled nests knocked down from branches “Rockabye Baby”-style.
The title story, “Skein and Bone”, pays homage to this spectral institution as well, kicking off with the tried and true setup of travelers in a foreign land–a pair of sisters here–getting lost and seeking shelter in an imposingly beautifully manse, here a French chateau from the Renaissance. (There’s even a callback at the climax that ghost story aficionados will recognize from “The Adventure of the German Student”, among others.) Leslie keeps the foreboding mood gently simmering for the early duration of the tale, raising the temperature with a patient hand as the light strangeness of the severe maid attending to the sisters’ needs and the room of mannequins dressed in incredibly preserved garments gradually increase until the horror becomes too heavy for the women to withstand, another pair of birds crushed under the weight of their dreams.
Moving on from the high of “The Blue Room” and “Ulterior Design”, Leslie shows she’s just as capable as navigating new and adventurous terrain as she is treading familiar territory. In addition to the aforementioned “Wordsmith”, the latter part of the collection gives us such poetic and surreal tales as “The Cloud Cartographer”, a story more in line with fantasy than horror but no less enthralling for its depiction of a navigator mapping out a New World in the sky while grappling with memories of his lost sister; “Preservation”, a poignant and marvelously strange account of a post-WWII happy-homemaker housewife literally bottling up her sadness and feeding her mentally- and physically-scarred veteran husband her evaporated tears when she suspects him of some kind of infidelity and he of her autonomic bid to displace him as man of the house (No doubt he’d see it as further testament to her not knowing her place, his semi-naked wife dancing around her cauldron.), even though the only thing they’re really suffering from is the quiet horror of emotional withdrawal; and the final selection, “Senbazuru”, another story of husbands and wives in the midst of the War, here delivered in a more oblique and refined fashion by Leslie, resulting in a piece of truly Weird Fiction that defies any other classification, a tale about sacrifice and cultural dissonance and the beauty of words, uniting Leslie’s fascinations for birds and the spark of hope that touches her best work to create a most satisfying end to her premier collection.
It can’t be denied that Skein and Bone represents a gathering of stories that are inextricably bound to their author, each fascination and passion of Leslie’s reprised time and again throughout the text, echoes resonating from the chambers of her mind. It’s said that as a writer one should know what their obsessions are, and Leslie is surely aware of hers. It’s a testament to her talents that she is able to use these themes and constantly reinvent and reinvigorate them in each story. They are stories that come straight from her heart, stories cut right from the bone....more
With the unleashing of The Nameless Dark, T. E. Grau has cemented himself as an author whose byline should spark in readers a joyful expectancy for whWith the unleashing of The Nameless Dark, T. E. Grau has cemented himself as an author whose byline should spark in readers a joyful expectancy for what surprises there are to follow.
Having spent his early days grinding away in the Hollywood dream machine, Grau has instilled the stories collected here with a cinematic beat and tenor. Many of them have the feel of miniature epics, stories of great change that course the classical arc and find his cast of rebels and hard-hearts attempting to desperately pick their way through life’s minefield before butting up against the high-powered electric fence of the unforgiving cosmos. Even at their bleakest—and many of the tales end badly for at least one person—Grau’s works satisfy with the rightness of their narratives, the feeling that the scales of the universe have attained their balance once more regardless of the insignificant lives that were overthrown to do so.
It’s hardly surprising then that literature in this nihilistic shade should find a comfortable niche within the Lovecraft mythos. While a number of the stories in The Nameless Dark integrate the thematic concerns or explicitly name-check sites of interest from Lovecraft’s body of work, Grau is an author who, like Ramsey Campbell before him, has carved his own distinct identity from the clay of the Miskatonic. Discontent to write mere pastiche, Grau brings fresh perspective to the Great Old Ones by framing them in a variety of lenses for us, each one adding a different note of clarity or understanding.
“The Screamer,” one of the book’s finest tales, takes us from the haunted hills of New England to the urban sprawl and office drone of Century City, California, a haven for lawyers and pristine skyscrapers that becomes invaded by the sonic madness of an interdimensional creature. It’s a tantalizing mystery that Grau cleverly baits us with, taking us from the painful futility of the protagonist’s existence to a climax of apocalyptic proportions that is all handled with the finesse of an old pro. “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Return of the Prodigy” use the emotional bonds of love and family to accent the impending intervention of dark forces. In the former, a father grieving his wife’s death tries to save face for the sake of his daughter, a precocious girl who’s recently developed a keen interest in astronomy, while the latter presents us with a middle-aged couple attempting to overcome their marital frustrations Tracy-Hepburn style and reignite the flame by taking a second honeymoon in the South Pacific. While love and compassion can act as a salve to life’s scars, Grau shows us that their healing powers can only ever be temporary in the face of incomprehensible terror. We can be the kindest parents and most thoughtful lovers in the world, but to the howling abyss we will always remain mulch.
A certain strain of machismo runs through the other Mythos-influenced tales. “Free Fireworks” and “White Feather” both describe male war “heroes” living under a cloud of fear, one from the looming threat of religious radicals and the other from the shame an act of cowardice during battle has garnered him from the citizens of his home village. “Free Fireworks” underlines the blindness of fanatical devotion to one’s country or belief system, the ease with which we view any faith or people different than ourselves as that reviled Other, destroyer of hearth, home, and honor. “Free Fireworks” may feel as if it is in the service of its “twist” ending, but those who know how foreign peoples have been demoted into sub-humans by our government will feel the chill of all-too-real parallels long before the tale’s end.
The folk adventure tone of “White Feather” is also present in “The Mission,” the jerky-tough Western novella that rounds out the collection. Here it feels as if Grau has truly utilized the celestial landscape of Lovecraft to his own ends, an address on the racial and historical borders that both unite and separate us as a people, for better or worse. Mostly worse. The message doesn’t click quite as seamlessly as one would hope, but that is perhaps most fitting for the subject: it’s a matter of differences for which the only easy answer there can ever be is total annihilation. Which just so happens to be the answer we prefer more times than not, as the band of bounty hunters running foul of their Native American targets soon discover when plumbing the depths of the tribe’s ancient religion and coming face to face with the darkness of their own sins.
The disillusioned male gets his due in a trio of literary blood brothers. “Transmission” bears the markings of Grau’s first foray into fiction, an effective build-up concerning a disaffected hipster runaway tuning into sinister radio broadcasts in the desert twilight that becomes slightly mired in the cyclical nature of the faceless broadcaster’s monologue. The author proves even better at conjuring images of disturbing potency in “Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox.” Here Grau combines his fascination with the Beat scene of the 50s with inspiration from the carnivorous cosmos of modern grandmaster Laird Barron, resulting in a story about a social transient making his way through the vista-expanding world of recreational drugs to a whole new level of eye-opening with his indoctrination into a cult following the prophecies of Old Leech himself. A reckoning of sorts also occurs to the lead of “Expat.” Ghost story aficionados might sense the plot’s trajectory—I, for one, was surprised—but Grau’s command of the off-kilter and darkly humorous shines through in this surreal little locked-room mystery.
Further down the chronological scale: a pair of tales concerning children, both of them accomplished in their own right. “Clean” is brief, quietly brutal, subtle for the way Grau softly sidesteps divulging the exact nature of the weirdness at the heart of it, and utterly disturbing in the way it paints child predators in a clear, unflinching tone. Pedophiles loom in the periphery of “Tubby’s Big Swim,” just another in a long line of tortures and disappointments in the life of our boy hero, Alden. Alden loves animals of all kinds, though he can never seem to keep one alive. (Alden thought cats always landed on their feet. This one sure as heck didn’t. City cats must live by different rules.) Alden seems to find his match in Tubby, a pumpkin-hued octopus he rescues from a shady pet shop that then proceeds to make all the problems in his life disappear. An original tale to the collection, “Tubby’s Big Swim” finds Grau conducting a symphony of emotional notes: achingly sad, unexpectedly funny, and genuinely heartfelt, it speaks to the inner misfits within us all who as children wanted nothing more than to send our faithful animal sidekicks before us to destroy the whole stupid world for all the wrongs it did us.
The remaining three entries in the collection display Grau’s penchant and talent for migrating from one diverse narrative to the next. “The Truffle Pig” is a black journal entry encapsulating the existence of none other than Saucy Jack of Whitechapel, an engagingly creative riff on history and fiction that binds both together with a gory thread. “Beer & Worms” is as succinct and surly as its title would imply, a fishing tale that doesn’t take long to set its homicidal hooks in you. Then there’s “Mr. Lupus,” Grau’s unabashedly fun turn at world-building, a Burtonesque Grimm Brothers musical of Yuletide cheer that adds a dash of lycanthropy to sweeten its overflowing pot of charms.
The Nameless Dark is an impressive collection by any standard, but to carry the knowledge that it holds within its pages Grau’s very first fictional experimentations can’t help but leave one wondering what great things we have yet to see flow from his pen, be they however black and bloody. A writer of his chameleonic skill is one to watch for, and though his stories may transform and change shape over time, his will be a name that you can always rely on....more
Even after all we’ve learned of mankind’s potential for harm, we still feel a small sense of shock whenever we engage with genre fiction and discoverEven after all we’ve learned of mankind’s potential for harm, we still feel a small sense of shock whenever we engage with genre fiction and discover that the writer’s most horrendous creations look uncomfortably familiar to ourselves. British author Ray Cluley’s first collection Probably Monsters seems to promise one thing while delivering something else; the curlicue tentacle weaving from the forbidden drawer on the book’s cover puts one in mind of the eldritch terrors of H. P. Lovecraft, but Cluley is one of the rare writers of dark fiction who seems to operate outside the long shadow of that infamous scribe from Providence and who writes of terrors unsettlingly closer to home.
With very few exceptions, Cluley’s monsters are described in simple terms with a minimum of the florid detail that seems irresistible to horror authors. And, as in the case of many of the book’s contents, sometimes the monsters we came expecting are nowhere to be found at all. In their place are characters whose tenuous grasp on humanity places them in a twilit world where they appear from one angle as our mother or our best friend but with a subtle shifting look more like… something else.
There are usual suspects here to be sure. The collection’s lead-in, “All Change,” is a Valentine’s to the literature that informs Cluley’s aesthetic bent, referencing everything from Bradbury’s eternal October Country to the denizens of Moreau’s island as we join a voracious reader taking his passion to new heights with a mission to eliminate all of the “real” hideous monsters hiding in plain sight. The story reaches a note of quiet poetry in its final passages that will recur again throughout the collection.
Over the course of the next two tales, “I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing” and “The Festering”, the focus shifts from the threat of supernatural takeover to the hardships of living within social and familial constructs built upon foundations of abuse. The reporter observing the poverty and desperation of the Nicaraguan fishing community may be a removed witness to the greater trauma occurring in “I Have Heard…” but he is just as moved by his questionable encounter with the luminous as Ruby is, the teeange girl from “The Festering” who seeks an outlet from dealing with her alcoholic mother by having sex with an older male neighbor and confessing her deepest secrets to the growing mass of protoplasm living in her bedroom drawer.
It’s here that we see Cluley at some of his most refined, elegiac, and moving; even if Ruby’s blobby companion has more screen-time than the briefly-glimpsed mermaids of the earlier story, both creatures act as fitting symbols for the hardened worlds Cluley’s characters populate, especially in the case of “The Festering,” where Ruby’s ordeal of trying to forge her own personality while also dealing with an irresponsible parent will undoubtedly resonate with those who grew up in similar circumstances. As these tales will illustrate along with others—such as with the tragic Charon-as-lover character towing the bloated corpses of suicides from the San Francisco Bay in “Night Fishing”—one must eventually learn to leave the dead behind and give vent to our darkest thoughts lest both of them devour us like the cancer they can become.
Children and young adults serve as the focal point for a number of Cluley’s fiction. “Knock-Knock” is an affecting tale of a sensitive boy literally living in the shadow of his father’s cruelty, here literalized as a menacing shade that haunts the boy’s nights by asking for admittance into his son’s one safe space. As in “The Festering”, Cluley shows adeptness at assuming a convincing adolescent tone as J-J attempts to make sense of the world around him, most poignantly in describing the one-sided struggle of his mother to provide him with as normal and loving an environment as possible. A ghost story without a ghost, as Cluley says in the book’s end notes, and one most effectively told.
The eponymous creature of “Bloodcloth” proves a more tangible and immediate threat to maturing preteen Tanya, as it does for the inhabitants of her village who work to appease the plasma-sucking fleshbeast under penalty of mutilation and death. At its best the story resembles a gloomy fantasy version of a Dust Bowl drama dealing with characters barely scraping by under conditions they don’t understand and won’t rebel against, likely for the rest of their lives.
The author introduces us to two enigmatic adult personas in “The Death Drive of Rita, nee Carina” and “The Man Who Was.” The former is a disturbing glimpse into the renewed life of an auto accident survivor, a widow and childless mother who now copes with her trauma by constructing an altar to a mechanized god who smiles upon the good works she commits by staging collisions on the interstate. Even when the plot appears to be operating under convenience, “Death Drive” generates a cold shiver of dread in applying a tragic, human face to the seemingly random crashes that appear to occur on the roads with clockwork regularity. The latter tale’s subject is more ambiguous, and rightfully so, as an event planner becomes romantically involved with the dazzlingly handsome and charismatic General. The title becomes the source of great teasing at first, as our curious hero tries to find out just what kind of man the General was and is, and after being repeatedly stymied in his mission he finds out more than he bargained for about how deep the General’s wartime scars truly run. And yet, can he say he knows “the man who was” any better than he did when he started out? Cluley should consider employing the slightly-antiquated voice used here in future stories; in his capable hands it goes down like a fine sorbet.
Even when utilizing mythic beasts of a more traditional strain as in “At Night, When the Demons Come” and “Shark! Shark!”, Cluley refuses to rest on his laurels and instead provokes his readers with uncompromising and immersive narratives that demand attention. The survivalist nature of the narrator’s attitude in “At Night” proves surprising and damning, a harsh antidote to the typical teamwork and bruised bonding that we see in other post-apocalyptic stories. Though the tale’s theme of female subjugation gets played a bit on the nose towards the end, it remains memorable for the hardened resolution of its climax. What amuses one most about “Shark! Shark!” is that it’s perhaps the most traditional story of the collection and yet is told in a devoutly non-traditional manner. You can sense Cluley’s glee at forgoing fourth-wall pretensions as he relates the bloody yarn of the husband-and-wife directing team of a new killer shark epic contending with a real man-eater on the set directly to the audience and dropping all manner of in-jokes and references along the way for our constant amusement. It comforts us in its reaffirming of beloved stories we’ve heard before while hooking us with a fresh approach that reels us along to its chummily droll conclusion. Quite deserving of its British Fantasy Award win.
As successful as a good amount of the stories are, Probably Monsters shows the slight risk authors run by including too many of their stories in one collection. One or two weak-by-comparison stories in a compendium of a dozen will do little to hamper the overall strength of the volume, while collections ranging around twenty stories, as Cluley’s does, have a higher potential for less-polished work getting through the gate. A tighter editorial hand might have ensured that curious trifles like “No More West” and “A Mother’s Blood” had been reconsidered or revised before inclusion. Though well-written and convincingly characterized, the standard issue “Indian Giver” still can’t generate a sterling recommendation for its well-trod plot of the Wronged Native American getting spiritual vengeance on the Nasty White Man. At other times, Cluley is conversely too obscure in his description of action (the inadvertent-murderer’s comeuppance in the Lansdalean Southern noir “Gator Moon”) and overly direct at other times (the bordering-on-absurd sexual assault from “Pins and Needles”).
The collection comes out strong thanks to a trio of tales that show Cluley at the top of his game. The most fantasy-oriented of the group, “The Travellers Stay,” is another case of the author’s sleight of hand: it starts out as the thing you expect—a painful family “vacation” receives an intermission at a rundown, out-of-the-way motel—but then becomes the thing you didn’t see coming, a meditation on what we expect from our lives and from ourselves, the ultimate emptiness of dreams, and the transition from human being to cockroach. The other two stories just barely straddle the line of unreality. “Where the Salmon Run” is arguably a straight drama, no questions needed, but there’s a certain alien coldness to the atmosphere that makes it feel as if the Russian environmentalist coming back to her homeland is at the mercy of wild forces demanding of her a sacrifice upon her prodigal return. If there’s anything in Probably Monsters that serves as testament to the point that Cluley is a damn fine writer regardless of genre labels, it’s this one.
So leave it to him to bring everything to a close with “Beachcombing”, a brief, silent encounter on the seashore between a boy who can see the history of an object by touching it and a man contemplating the endless ebb and flow of life. In many ways it is the ideal short story, bound to its solitary setting and allowing everything outside of it to fade away. There is only the boy and the man, treasures that are found, hope that is lost, artifacts left behind, questions left unanswered, and wishes made. It is the last trick in the book, the final moment when we come in expecting to see monsters only to discover there are none. There is only us.
Whether there is any comfort to be found in that or not is entirely up to you....more
Truly, for authors who are considering their first foray into the realm of self-publishing, Matthew M. Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination should be usTruly, for authors who are considering their first foray into the realm of self-publishing, Matthew M. Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination should be used as one of the prime texts in terms of both professional refinement and freedom of creative expression. There have been books issued by third-party publishers that have had more instances of typographical errors in a matter of pages than Bartlett’s work does in the whole of its volume, to say nothing of their lack of imagination. This might sound like damning with faint praise, but let me assure you it is not. Bartlett’s collection resonates with the care and enthusiasm that went into its preparation. This author respects his audience. Like a master chef, he knows that the presentation is just as important as the taste of the dish.
But, to belabor a metaphor with an idiom, the proof is in the pudding, and Bartlett demonstrates abundantly throughout his book that he is a voice worth listening to. The connective tissue of the collection is Massachusetts-based radio station 89.7 WXXT, a channel run by a witch cult of decrepit ancients who broadcast all manner of upsetting, mesmerizing, and ominous songs and monologues that enrapture and entice the listeners who happen upon it by accident or design.
The book’s contents—all of the titles are in lowercase like the scribbled descriptions on the side of transmission tapes—range from short stories of traditional length to vignettes spanning a few paragraphs. Of the vignettes, there’s really only one, “accident”, that feels too fleeting to make any kind of lasting impression. If anything though, this is just a further testament to Bartlett’s skill. In a volume spanning 33 individual entries in all, some of them running the same length as “accident” or shorter, each one of the contents feels as if it’s adding a little bit more to the cult’s sinister history while simultaneously keeping most of its mysterious workings pleasantly in the dark. It’s a tough balancing act but Bartlett makes it look easy.
The first entry, “the woods in fall”, perfectly sets the stage for what is to follow and provides us with themes and images that will recur throughout: a subtle insinuation of the radio station’s power; the first appearances of many by tall, thin men staring from the woods and interfering cats; a fascination with bodily ejaculations. More than that though, it assures us of two things. One, that we are in the hands of a writer with a facility for the language and an eye for baroque detail.
Leaves fall like dry, dead angels, piling up against the leviathan broken bones of storm-savaged trees.
And two, that we are in the hands of a madman.
An ungodly gurgle bellowed up from his throat and he vomited a thick stream of wriggling worms.
It’s this dichotomy that keeps us glued to Bartlett’s stories, the poetical turns of phrase mashing up against the scatological horrors of bleeding Leeds, MA in a dizzying mix of the sublime, the silly, and the strange.
There are trappings of classic weird fiction within the collection—the evil sects vying for domination, the books intimating forbidden secrets—but Bartlett puts his own spin on them by concocting images indelibly his own and far more surreal than your everyday tentacle. There are porcupine-quilled clowns with plastic rumps, flying leeches, brain-melting beetles, ravaged angels riding a stampede of ravening goats through fields of madness. As the sole creative force in control (writer, editor, publisher), Bartlett is the one holding the keys to the screaming metal deathtrap that is Gateways to Abomination. The doors are locked, the engine is cackling, and the author is grinning at us from the driver’s seat with a mouth full of too many teeth. All we can do is wonder where the hell Bartlett will take us next and hope that we’ll be ready for it.
Bartlett is at his best when dealing with the longer narratives, the stories that are given the space to breathe and bloom like sickly-scented fungi. “when I was a boy—a broadcast” feels like a deeply personal confession gone horribly wrong, the tale of a growing lad obsessed with the corpulent body of a friend’s mother whose burgeoning sexual longings are hideously fulfilled. It is a tale drenched in the sweet and stink of New England and the dirty, musty banality of sex. “path” follows a fairly original conceit, namely how a deranged murderer deals with a devilish horror greater than himself. The story meshes an effectively disturbing psychological insight (the killer’s method of detaching himself from the world) with the disconcerting bits of quiet horror (the discovery of too many knives in the drawer, the silhouettes of the hypnotized drivers listening to WXXT) that Bartlett handles so well.
Similarly great are the pair of two-parters, “the ballad of ben stockton” and “the arrival”. The former describes the narrator’s should-be routine visit to the dentist that takes a turn into obfuscation and disturbing hints at unseen gears turning that would make Thomas Ligotti proud. The latter tells its story in reverse, going from a rebirth in the woods to the precipitating events of a goat-man’s reign of terror and mission to devour information through radio antennae. Bartlett performs this narrative experimentation on a few occasions, forcing the reader to set the misarranged puzzle pieces aright only for them to find out that the finished picture still has deep pockets of impenetrable darkness. Bartlett also takes joy in revealing towards the end of some entries that they’ve actually been broadcasts straight from WXXT all along, insinuating that the station has already torn through the fourth wall and that its messages have nestled in our gray matter like contented maggots. It all makes for a delightfully teasing and immersive game.
Best of all the stories are “the sons of ben” and “the gathering in the deep woods”. The first concerns a teenager discovering his true unholy parentage and contains one of the most exquisite invocations of a nightmare that I’ve ever read. It fills up your heart with the shadow of familiarity and disquiet.
In a blink, I was driving on a deserted highway amidst tall black buildings with windows glowing red and shadows dancing somewhere within. Alongside the elevated highway raged and roiled a black river, bisected by ornate, spired bridges that passed somewhere below the road on which I drove. Looming above the arches and the terraces, a large skyscraper seemed to rise before me, tattooed with an enormous, neon red inverted cross. Below the cross sprawled unreadable letters that looked vaguely Arabic.
The city was vast, lit red, save for blue lights that blinked in patternless intervals atop the taller spires and rooftops. Stone-winged cathedrals, with many stained-glass eyes, crouched like tarantulas amidst the skyscrapers. Cruel looking helicopters, noses angled low, roamed between the buildings like wasps. When I glimpsed the vapor-lit streets, I saw loose gangs of figures in strange configurations, several lone people scuttling like crabs into and out of crooked alleys. I saw shadows of things maddeningly large and unthinkably shaped where the corners of light met the shadows…
I remember being afraid to look at the passenger seat. Someone was sitting there, and it seemed vital that I not look, lest… lest what?
And that hasn’t even covered the demonic construction crew working over the pit of dead babies. It’s this section that makes Gateways feel vast, bigger than even the sprawling New England terrain that serves as its focal point, this nightmare like a projection of a future hell where the hallmarks of our modern civilization are viewed through a kaleidoscope of diabolical shades. Look closely, Bartlett says. This is the Abomi-Nation.
“the gathering in the deep woods” is the account of a man invited to the titular event by a stranger who carries his own brain into a diner. Bartlett slowly builds the details to unnerving effect, culminating in the man’s journey through the layers of a party from the Underworld that includes blasphemous car top murals, children puking up slithering tumors, and a pile of shit wearing a party hat.
It’s this latter element of gross, impish, and seemingly out-of-place humor that surprises one more than the presence of any insanity-inducing horror. It’s another one of Bartlett’s balancing acts, and for the most part he pulls it off, with only a few entries, like “the first to die”, straining on the stitches of terror and humor that bind them. Readers who are adverse to characters contemplating the portent of their vicious, black stool are advised to practice caution, with “the theories of uncle jeb” being perhaps the nastiest of the lot in its depiction of the skull-faced, gnarl-toed title character opening up his cancerous, smelly navel and inviting his kind relations to beat his diseased penis in with a mallet. It’s a lesson in how much your nose can wrinkle in the span of a story.
It seems appropriate that Bartlett’s collection should end with “the reddening dusk”, a beastly man’s wailing diatribe to the dead wife he murdered that finishes with him burrowing into the stomachs of his enemies and screaming in delirium. It’s a tonal high note for the work to go out on, leaving the reader disoriented and slightly traumatized from all the absurd grotesquries that have unspooled from the crackling recordings of Bartlett’s imagination.
The author has promised a companion volume for future release to be titled Creeping Waves, a book collecting further chronicles of Western Massachusetts’ haunted airwaves. If you were provoked or enthralled or upset by the contents of Gateways to Abomination, as I was, I can only imagine the “sequel” will have more of the same in store. Which is to say that come the time of its release, my ham radio will be tuned accordingly and I’ll be ready to listen to the voices of the damned once more. But, then again, chances are I’ve been hearing them the whole time.