Authors Matt Hayward and Patrick Lacey inject fresh life and more than a few sparks of originality into some familiar and well-worn tropes in PractitiAuthors Matt Hayward and Patrick Lacey inject fresh life and more than a few sparks of originality into some familiar and well-worn tropes in Practitioners from Bloodshot Books, genre-hopping with apparent ease to flesh out a novel that feels like a dream come true.
On the trope side of things, we have police officer, Henry Stapleton, who is reeling from the death of his wife and is fueled by revenge. Thankfully, Hayward and Lacey upend our familiarity with such a heavily trod character almost immediately. Stapleton, it turns out, is completely off his rocker and his vivid recollections of finding and torturing his wife's killer are psychotic breaks with reality. What's more, he's having waking dreams that lead him to a spate of fresh corpses. His attempts to control his lucid dreaming send him even deeper down the rabbit hole, straight into a paranoid nightmare that could reshape and destroy reality.
Practitioners is a novel all about escalation. The more things Stapleton tries to fix, the worse things get. While Hayward and Lacey embrace the initial noir aspects of their pseudo-cop drama, their story stretches beyond any one genre, preferring to take an everything but the kitchen sink approach. Equal parts cop shop, horror, and fantasy, Practitioners is a hefty blend of cross-genre scares that admirably chugs along without losing sight of its cataclysmic destination.
Stapleton's journey from police officer to dream warrior comes off far more plausible than it should, which is a credit to how well the author's have constructed this story. It helps that Stapleton is initially presented as a bit of a suspect character and we're never quite sure how crazy grief has made him. Hayward and Lacey slowly weave in the supernatural elements, giving us small doses that are just enough to jilt expectations, while embellishing Stapleton's waking-world life with enough paranoia, New Age mysticism, and investigative do-right to prepare us for the headlong dive into madness. This is a book that starts off small and personal and blows up in a wildly cataclysmic and bloody climax that presents a war on two different fronts of consciousness.
It's heady stuff to be sure, but the authors make it all look disconcertingly easy. Practitioners is a highly successful collaboration and the styles of Dublin-based Hayward and Massachusetts-native Lacey mesh seamlessly. I didn't notice any peculiarities in syntax, cultural oddities, or awkward turns of phrase that occasionally occur between authors writing together from opposite sides of the pond.
If I must voice one complaint, though, it's that the various dreams and dream worlds Stapleton journeys through never quite felt strange enough for me. Through it all, there's a certain linearity and even almost-normalcy to it, despite even the occasional appearance of strange creatures. While there's a healthy dose of oddity to the surrounding events that prompt Stapleton to travel between his neighbor's dreams, I wish some of the dream states he found himself in were even more unusual. More often than not, the authors rely on presenting dreams that are either alternate realities where the dreamer engages in particular sexual fetishes or the book's setting of Bellville is depicted as an apocalyptic wasteland. While this latter depiction of Bellville is well-rendered, I could have done with a bit more variety in the various dreamy landscapes. It is also possible I'm simply too inured to stories of my wife's crazy dreams.
While I loved Practitioners and its pulp-noir and chaotic creature-feature sensibilities, few things within Stapleton's lucid dreams are as weird as my darling wife's dreams after she's had Chinese food. This is perhaps too high a bar to set, though, as even the most wildly inventive and creative writer would have a tough time competing with some of my wife's doozies in dreamland. Personally, it's rare that I even remember any of my own dreams, so it's entirely possible my wife is just weird and Practitioners depictions of dream-life are more common and realistic than my spouse's anecdotes would lead me to believe. So, as far as complaints go, this one is certainly nothing to lose sleep over.
Hayward and Lacey pack in enough freshness and a few honestly earned surprises to make Practitioners a book I can easily recommend. It really did hit all the right buttons for me between its awesomely designed cover by Rachel Autumn Deering, and a highly cool concept and well articulated vision from the authors, one that exists on multiple planes of reality and features some neat-o fantasyland magic and killer monsters. I mean, who doesn't love killer monsters?
[Note: I received an advanced review copy of this title from the author.]...more
In his foreword, Simon Dewar discusses the themes behind the period of dusk, noting that this is a moment of change, a "time between times", when lighIn his foreword, Simon Dewar discusses the themes behind the period of dusk, noting that this is a moment of change, a "time between times", when light turns dark, when good can turn bad. It's a flashpoint for life and death, an instant where the inevitable can turn on a dime, where one's greatest fears or greatest hopes can be realized, a time when people are forever altered and either ruined or reborn. Collected in Suspended in Dusk II are 17 stories that realize these instances of change, to varying degrees. Some are poignant, others are subtle, and all work together to make this a seriously strong anthology of dark fiction.
Much of this strength lies in this anthology's commitment to diversity. Plenty of hay has been made, in certain social media circles, over the lack of inclusiveness in certain high-profile anthologies recently announced and how, in 2018, certain publishers, editors, or compilers could release an all-white male anthology and completely ignore the breadth of voices dark fiction has to offer. Suspended in Dusk II makes no such mistake, giving readers a number of strong voices from across the gender and sexual spectrum. Dewar has collected here several powerful women, writers whose names may be instantly recognizable and lesser-known talents who deserve to become household names, people of color, authors with a wide range of religious affiliations or no religion at all, from a handful of continents. Each, of course, are storytellers first and foremost, but their works carry a certain depth and breadth of experience to challenge publishing's oftentimes default homogeneity.
Take, for instance, Dan Rabarts's Riptide. Rabarts is a New Zealand author, and his story of loss and revenge is built upon the foundations of Māori mythology as a bereaved father and widower battles a taniwha. Gwendolyn Kiste tackles issues of childhood abuse and sexual trauma through an allegorical tale of monsters. Karen Runge, too, tackles similar subjects and their fetishization in this anthology's opening story, Angeline. It's a powerful opener, and Runge's writing is flat-out wonderful. I haven't read Runge's work previously, but you rest assured her novel Seeing Double will be in my hands soon.
Suspended in Dusk II runs the gamut of dark fiction. Not every piece included here is a work of straight-up horror, although it's certainly an element common to most of the stories here. Some are more subtle horrors drawn from the tapestry of life, or death in the case of Bracken MacLeod's story of an injured hiker. Christopher Golden's The Mournful Cry of Owls is a fantastical coming-of-age story, and an incredibly well-drawn one at that, told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl about to celebrate her Sweet 16, as she passes through the dusk separating adolescence from adulthood and the secrets in between. Others carry overtones of the apocalypse, such as Paul Tremblay's There's No Light Between Floors, a sort-of 9/11 event with Lovecraftian overtones, and Ramsey Campbell's Another World. Campbell's in particular is an excellent use of a decidedly foreign perspective, whose central character encounters our modern world through the filter of religious extremism. Letitia Trent takes her own tract on another world, giving us an encounter with infected, rabid children cast out into the wild and fenced off from society.
Dewar does a fine job balancing the tonal rhythms and themes of each story, giving the anthology a unique pulse. The stories dovetail between their similarities and differences, giving readers slight arcs across the narratives, book-ending them all between Runge's and MacLeod's wildly different, yet thematically similar, stories of a central figure cast out, either by choice or by circumstance, into the wild and left to survive by their own wits, suspended in a moment of dusk.
[Note: I received an advanced reader's copy of this work from the publisher, Grey Matter Press.]...more