Sunday, May 28, 2017

Grass: Review

Can a body be a forest? A deep dank overgrown woods? A tangled jungle of viscous vegetation that requires a machete to slash a pathway to its dark, dark heart?

From the thickest, darkest depths of a long forgotten swamp, comes Anya Martin's novella, Grass, another knockout book from Dim Shores, a vanguard of Weird and Horror fiction. Huge props to Jeanne D'Angelo, for creating such a lush, alluring, alien-like cover that emanates vibes of mystery, erotica, and science-fiction, accurately capturing Martin's humid and swampy tale. I can honestly say that, out of Dim Shores' current catalog, it's my favorite cover.

Grass centers on Sheila, a woman living in Georgia who receives a call saying that her alcoholic, abusive ex-husband Dave, and his wife Monica, were killed in a plane crash. Due to Dave never updating his medical records, Sheila is still listed as an emergency contact and must drive to Camden County in southern Georgia to identify the body, ensuring that it is indeed Dave. After two years of trying to forget Dave and all the pain he caused her, he is suddenly thrust back into Sheila's life, and as a corpse no less! Sheila gets much more than the corpse of her ex-husband, though; she leaves the morgue with a stowaway; something alien, a primordial being that takes Sheila to new levels of passion and pleasure.

After two readings of Martin's novella, I feel like it can be considered something along the lines of a treatise on abuse against women. All the elements combined to make her tale are backdrops, where at the forefront of the tale, is Sheila's struggle to survive, attempting to live her life one day at a time, in the horrible wake of Dave's brutality against her. One would think that Sheila would have been thrilled upon hearing about Dave's death, and while there was some exultation, there were more emotions that flooded throughout her mind:

The biggest surprise was a sudden emotion of loss, sadness--no, not love! Should she be crying? Did Dave deserve her tears? She never thought she'd ever cry if he died. He deserved to die, didn't he, for what he had done to her? No, she didn't have any reason to cry. She didn't love Dave, couldn't even remember saying she did. The emotion churned, intensified into hate, the back of her head burning as it used to after he slammed his fist into it. She closed her eyes and grasped above her forehead, wincing at the pain.

For those who have never even remotely experienced what Sheila went through at the hands of Dave, it's difficult to understand why anyone would feel anything other than happiness at the death of such a disgusting human being; is it really for us to understand? Are we ever actually going to truly understand? Perhaps Sheila remembered the more pleasant times with Dave, and may have even missed those times. And, perhaps, Sheila turns to hate because, in a sense, Dave got off easy; he's dead and gone, and the majority of people who knew him will never know just how terrible he was. Worst of all, Sheila is still alive, and still dealing with the mental and emotional scars that Dave left upon her. Every single day, Sheila has to muster the mental and physical fortitude to keep going, compartmentalizing her trauma, focusing on taking care of her flowers and plants, giving her a sense of comfort

Another aspect of abuse that Anya deftly explores is the 'why'. Why did Sheila stay with Dave for as long as she did? For some, the simple answer is, "You should've left him the moment he laid his hands on you." We all want to believe it should be that easy, but, unfortunately it isn't. Anya doesn't provide the reader with a single response, but rather, through Sheila, opens up the reader to a world of reasons and the psychology behind them. Dave wasn't always abusive to Sheila; there relationship didn't start off that way, it was gradual. Even then, there were periods of calm between Dave's violence. Maybe Sheila thought the last time would be it. Maybe she found herself normalizing it. Perhaps she just focused on the better times, and that it wasn't like this all the time. She could've felt trapped, or thinking that she would never find something better than life with Dave. Dave's mental and physical abuse kept Sheila down, and in fear. Then, Dave divorces Sheila, leaving her to wonder if she was the problem the whole time, further fracturing her self-esteem and confidence; now, clearly, Sheila wasn't the problem, but you can see how Dave completely destroyed everything about her. At one point, Sheila actually contemplates suicide, wondering if it's a better alternative than living a life of trauma, triggers, and constant anxiety. 

The creature, alien, whatever you want to call it, serves as not only a source of comfort for Sheila, but as a source of pleasure; something new, something different. Did Dave ever please Sheila? If he did, she can't remember when, or if he ever did. Is this the Unknown for Sheila? Because of Dave, would Sheila ever be able to let another man into her life? The swamp creature--something from a more primordial time--does more for Sheila than anyone ever did. Much like Dave, however, Sheila discovers the true nature of the creature: it must have water, and will devour anything it can to survive. Sheila found herself in the same situation she was in with Dave for all those years, and had to get out of it as soon as possible, leading to the abrupt, yet jaw dropping conclusion.

Of course, these themes and elements would be nothing without Anya's smooth prose. She uses language that creates a lush, humid, vibrant, and tragic tale. Her descriptions of the Georgia heat and humidity greatly emphasize the oppression felt by Sheila; so much, in fact, it's more than capable of making the reader heavy with the weight of Sheila's experiences. And Anya's erotic passages involving Sheila and the swamp creature are quite juicy, and do well to express what Sheila had never quite experienced.  Blending Horror, Erotica, Science Fiction, and referencing such films as Swamp Thing, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and more, along with themes of abuse, post traumatic stress, tragedy, anxiety, and pleasure, Anya Martin crafted a tale that is on the level of being discussed in a college literature course. Anya expertly navigates these themes that many do not understand, nor, to some extent, want to acknowledge. I was only left with one question: when are we going to see an Anya Martin collection? 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Nameless Dark: Review

There is beauty and horror here, wisdom and madness, and I have drunk deeply of it all. Will you do the same? 

But man is an arrogant ape, and so here we are, disturbing the Old Ways, while bashing out the brains of every fellow human being that doesn't look exactly like us, or bow to the same flag, sing to the same savior. Ridiculous, arrogant ape, swinging a club like a demigod. 

 I'm a terribly slow reader. It can take me upwards to a month (maybe a little longer) to finish anything that's over two-hundred pages. In the case of T.E. Grau's debut collection, The Nameless Dark--published by Lethe Press--it took me much longer. Not because I found it difficult to read, or that it was boring (totally the opposite). No, it was because every page, every word, had to be slowly absorbed; it demanded to be savored. The Nameless Dark is a strong debut, featuring varied and complex stories that span time and geography, combining old and new elements, making the collection fresh and exciting.

Grau's writing is gritty and raw, highly reminiscent of the work of Laird Barron. Some of his stories slowly gnaw away at your being, and some of them assault you with cosmic punch after cosmic punch; there is no defense against such powerful and primal writing, and you are left on the brink of mental lassitude and physical exhaustion. You are taken on harrowing journeys through hollowed-out urban settings, desolate desert landscapes, and far away lands that will devour you whole if you do not offer them the right amount of respect. Grau's characters are innocent, flawed, macho, hardened, vulnerable, and downright terrible.

In a few of Grau's stories, there is a focus on the concept of masculinity; or, perhaps, more specific, American masculinity, mixed with arrogance and patriarchy. In Beer & Worms, misogyny and patriarchy are taken to the extreme when Russ, the main character, admits to his friend that he killed his wife. Why? Because he couldn't stand the thought of having to ask his wife if it was okay for him to go fishing. It casts a cruel light on this poisonous mindset that is nothing short of detrimental to society as a whole. Russ is a prime example of a male dominated society; that a man should be able to do whatever he wants, and women are not his equal. Men like Russ have zero respect for women. Asking your partner if it's okay to do something doesn't make you less of anything; it's called being respectful and considerate.

In Return of the Prodigy, one of the more Mythos-oriented (Lovecraft) stories, Gary exemplifies American masculinity and harbors racist views towards anyone who is non-white. He actually reminded me of an old co-worker who basically said he saw no reason to leave the United States because it's the greatest country on Earth. Gary is just like him. He caves in, though, and agrees to take his wife, Gladys, on the honeymoon they never went on. While not like Russ in Beer & Worms, Gary takes Gladys for granted, and is often annoyed by her, despite the fact that she loves him dearly. Gary's racism prevents him from appreciating all aspects of life and culture, and is damaging to not only him, but his wife, and also the world as a whole. In Expat, more masculinity is at play, along with more American arrogance. It explores, I believe, American-centered ideas of backpacking across Europe and 'roughing it' in parts of the world that we would consider to be less modern, a means of escape. It's egotistical and disrespectful, as it tends to cast European countries in a negative light, especially Eastern European countries. And when you don't have enough respect for those places, there are consequences to be paid.

Innocence is another theme explored in Grau's collection, and how parents try to protect their children from the horrors of this world, and, in some cases, other worlds. In Free Fireworks, Jacob is a young boy living in a version of the United States where a great war happened, resulting in the worship of the Elder Gods, and the remaining followers of the monotheistic religions have become, for all intents and purposes, terrorists. It's actually a nice "the shoe is on the other foot" scenario, where one can point a finger and say, "It sucks to have religious views forced down your throat, and be made to feel less than human, doesn't it?" Jacob's father, William, wants to protect Jacob from the horrors of war as long as he can; to prolong the inevitable. It drives home the point that children are affected the most, whether it's being born in the midst of it all, or actually seeing it happen. Either way, it's traumatizing. In Twinkle, Twinkle, Phillip buys his daughter, Emily, a telescope for her birthday, so that she may look to the heavens to find her mother who had recently passed away. Emily believes she found her mother, showing Phillip, who actually thinks she discovered a new star, or something else. What it really is, though, is something so terrifying, that when Phillip finds out, he doesn't even tell Emily; he wants her to enjoy what little time is left on their planet. It's a touching and heartbreaking story; innocence in the face of inevitable annihilation. In Grau's world, it doesn't matter who you are or what you do, the universe simply doesn't care.

In Tubby's Big Swim, Alden is a young boy who knows how to navigate the not-so-nice areas of where he lives. His situation is one where he must fend for himself, as he is generally neglected by his mother because she is too buy looking for the next man to take care of. She absolutely loves Alden, though, but her priorities are messed up, and Alden often embarks on his own adventures--to escape the troubles in his life--and, even in his naive youth, manages to survive; he has to depend himself, and only himself. Other characters in Grau's stories are searching, in some form or another, for identity, or a place that they can firmly root themselves in and call home; they want a purpose. Transmission tells the story of Max, and man who never finds himself staying in one place for too long, traveling further and further west, in hopes to leave behind a checkered past. However, he finds his calling in the Nevada desert, in the form of a mysterious transmission that Max cannot stop listening to. Grau does an excellent job at making the desert frontier seem unexplored and alien; you see things... unnatural things that shouldn't exist, but you aren't sure if what you saw was real, or if it was all in your head. Max finds his destiny in a small, lonely shack, where he continues the transmission of his predecessor.

The search for identity can also be found in Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox, a story that was first published in The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron. Nelson, a nomadic-type person, immerses himself in a world of drug exploration and follows the guidance of a man named Doyle, who has numerous followers and ends up becoming fully indoctrinated into a cult that worships something far more ancient than any god or goddess created by man. Grau, with great deft, captures the sort of primal atmosphere that Barron is known for, and a universe with a voracious appetite that actively seeks you out, rather than waiting for someone to seek it out. The Screamer is a corporate horror story that made me think of Christopher Slatsky's story, Corporautolysis, along with Ligottian corporate stories. Here, Grau creates a hollowed-out urban world where people go about their lives in a rather drone-like manner. In the case of Boyd, he works, goes home, maybe sleeps, wash, rinse, repeat. It's like a life of decay, and the look of the city is a reflection of that decay. It's not until Boyd hears the scream that he sort of snaps out of the doldrums, awakening him, but it doesn't matter, because in Grau's world, it all leads to extirpation.

Clean is another story that features children surviving on their own, and explores the all too real world of child predators and the horrifying things they do; yet, Grau turns the tables and creates one of the most anxiety-filled tales I have ever read. What makes it so effective is Grau's use of subtlety, ratcheting up the dread and leaving much to the imagination of the reader. White Feather is another war tale that focuses on the choices we make, based on fear and paranoia, and how those choices not only stay with us for the remainder of our lives, but how we are ostracized by the people who once called us friend or family. Mr. Lupus explores the loss of magic and imagination as the world increasingly becomes more modernized, and how greed can lead to horrifying consequences. Yet, there is something there about feeling a spark when you discover that magic is not lost, how it changes you, but then you want it all for yourself and you take it out of its element, isolating it and changing the course of things. It's a twisted fairy tale that makes for great reading around Christmas time, and it's one of the more original werewolf tales I have read. The Mission is an Old West tale that focuses on our sins, and how we must pay for those sins. It's also a meditation on racism, colonialism, and how, in the end, for all the hate and killing we commit against one another, the only thing that's waiting for us, is extinction.

With The Nameless Dark, T.E. Grau has assembled a collection of memorable stories that evoke a multitude of emotions and touch on myriad themes and issues that are more relevant today than ever. Whether it's a Mythos-inspired tale, or a Laird Barron tribute, Grau writes in a style and voice that are all his own. He has firmly planted himself in the Weird Renaissance we are currently experiencing, and should be on the radar of every reader, critic, writer, and publisher. Grau is drawing power from primordial wells, and everyone will feel it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Autumn in the Abyss: Review/Analysis (Spoilers)

The impossible scenario witnessed by eyes wide with panic and ears praying for silence suggested truths the mad display confirmed. Everything he thought he knew was false or at least altered.

My first experience with the writing of John Claude Smith was his chapbook, Vox Terrae, published by Dunhams Manor Press. It contained classic elements of Weird fiction but written with a fresh voice that took readers on a nightmarish journey through horrifying realms that no human being had any business knowing. In his collection, Autumn in the Abyss, I think Smith took the formula of Vox Terrae, mixed it with some black and abyssal ingredients from the tenebrous depths of places that even angels won't set foot in, and created a new mutant strain of Horror that deftly balances characterization, plot, pacing, and narrative, culminating in an experience that will fill you with disgust, sadness, and even a hint of both optimism and hope.

Published by Omnium Gatherum, Autumn in the Abyss is a collection of five grotesque and disturbing stories that explore a variety themes, such as obsession, desire, humanity, redemption, hope, identity, insignificance, and the power of words, all while traversing through places that make us uncomfortable; places that we tend to stay away from and turn a blind eye to. Smith's writing in this collection possesses a grimy and corrosive quality; it slowly eats away at you, digested by the dregs of life. The atmosphere Smith creates is like a haze of thick smog that chokes and disorients you; it weighs you down and slows your pace, so that you have no choice but to take in Smith's unsettling and horrifying imagery. You have no choice but to witness the worst that life has to offer; a side of humanity that is so revolting, it makes your stomach turn and inevitably numbs you. 

Some of the protagonists in Smith's stories are at the bottom of the barrel of humanity. They are people who are detached from the rest of the world; they are plagued by obsessions and desires and will stop at nothing to pursue and achieve them; they prey on others who they deem as being less than human, but fail to see their own inhumanity. Some of them are so far gone, there is no hope for them; they are beyond reach. Others, though, are still inside the circle of redemption and will take the necessary steps to make things right for not just themselves, but for those they hurt as well.

In the story, La mia immortalità, Samuel Nisi is an artist who has been successful in photography, oil paintings, and now in sculpting, a profession he took up several years ago. Despite his success, however, he is searching for everlasting fame. He wants to create something that will be remembered and revered long after he is gone. He wants immortality, no matter the cost.

His aspirations had grown cunning. He would attain his goals at any cost, which had cost him friends, colleagues, personal relationships- not that they mattered to him. Anything that got in the way of his life's purpose, as whittled to spear sharp intensity as the years tolled, was easily discarded.

Nisi cares not for his current girlfriend Claire. She wants to talk to him but he cannot be bothered. He cannot stand the fact that he is associated with the human race; he sees himself above everyone else. Claire tells him she's pregnant and all he can say to her is to get an abortion; he wants nothing to do with Claire or the baby. So much, in fact, that he's willing to murder Claire and his unborn child. All that matters to Nisi is his quest for immortality; he cares only for himself and what he wants. The story, Broken Teacup, also explores this theme of detachment and viewing other people as being less than human. The story explores the depraved lives of Mr. Rickart, Lemmy, and Elvis. Mr. Rickart and Lemmy prowl the bowels of small towns in Texas, looking for the "lowest of the low" hookers and propositioning them to perform "the most disgusting encounters imaginable". They record their encounters and responses form the hookers and use the footage and sound bits for their sleazy noise band, Texas Chainsaw Erection. 

Lemmy and Mr. Rickart's deplorable acts were turning heads but not bringing in the money. Their particular venture, however, draws a unique fan base and brings them cringe-worthy, nauseating requests, which eventually leads them into the realm of murder. Being offered a lot of money, coupled with this sick idea of taking your act to a whole new level of depravity and inhumanity, is something that cannot be passed up by them. 

The killing was odd in the beginning. No problem for Lemmy, but I only did a couple girls before I realized that wasn't my thing. That said, most of these girls, hell, they haven't been living for a while, so it's not like they was missing anything important. It was not like their missing would be noticed.

Once they decide that these women have nothing to live for; that they have no family that miss them and are looking for them; that they are somehow less than human... it is they who crossed over into the realm of inhumanity. It's almost as if there is this sort of predatory hierarchy. This is how genocide begins: the moment you begin to view the other as being beneath you; as being sub-human and not worthy of life. Broken Teacup is not an easy read, but Smith is exploring a side of our existence that is all too real and horrifying. Becoming Human is also in the same vein. In this story, we have two men who are on opposite sides of the human spectrum, but both have lost touch with humanity and the world around them. 

Before his years of spiraling into physical and emotional decline chasing Corbin Andrew Krell--also known as Krell the Destroyer, Krell the Creator--Detective Roberto Vera was an idealist. He was strong in both motivation and spirit. 

He'd believed in justice, in right and wrong. Black and white. Rather patented and predictable  and sounding like the spiel from some cigar chewing TV detective, yet he believed it to his core. He knew and understood there would be many sullied signposts along the way, showing him scenes and situations that measured darkness in blood and power, in minds gone to rot and obsessions mired in immortality. His resolve was stalwart.

Many of us are like Vera, or have been Vera, or even want to be Vera. Yet, we all have that one encounter; that one experience that tips the scales and changes us for the worse. For Vera, his tipping point was his experience with Krell. Krell is the Joker to Vera's Batman. Krell is viewed by Vera as being an evil monster who represents the worst of our kind. What started as killing his victims soon turned to rape, torture, and mutilation. Krell saw himself as changing, and he was changing his victims, too, reducing them in nature, humanity, and identity, while he saw himself as ascending. Through his crimes, he's transforming. He wants to "not be". In his self-perceived transformation, Krell is moving beyond evil. In a face-to-face with Vera, Krell says this:

I strive for something else, beyond evil's claustrophobic clutches. I strive to transcend evil by becoming pure nothing. I strive as my followers strived. I am, yet I strive to not be. 

Krell and his ultimate goal are beyond Vera's comprehension. Yet, Krell is Vera's whole life. Vera is consumed by his obsession to try and understand Krell, along with putting him away for life. Vera's partner, Derek Sommers, ended up taking his own life because of the horrible things committed by Krell. Derek witnesses true evil and cannot bear to live. Vera loses his marriage, his ideals, humanity... everything. Smith does a rather skillful job of reflecting the horrors we experience in real life and on an almost daily basis. Many of us cannot help but wonder why some people do the things they do. Why would someone leave a helpless baby out in the cold to die? Why would one group of people commit genocide against another group? We try to comprehend why we commit such horrifying acts against one another. We ourselves are consumed by these thoughts, and sometimes are reduced to Vera's state: we are left numb. 

There is an interesting twist to Becoming Human, though; a twist that adds tremendous depth, power, and emotion. In the present parts of the story, Krell is in prison, and Vera is tracking down a Krell copycat killer. Once Vera is face-to-face with the copycat, he discovers that it's Krell. How can that be?? Vera's next discovery is that the copycat Krell is, in fact, an alien from the darkest depths of the cosmos. Vera asks it, "What are you?" The alien responds with:

I am nothing, in search of something. In search of... being. I... I and my others, fragments splintered off the deep shroud... out there. We fled to the farthest reaches of... infinity. We are connected by thoughts. We hear each other's thoughts. Our aim is to fit in. To... assimilate into the society of those whose planet we choose to... be on. To be. We find a random figure of the primary race of the planet we've chosen and follow it, learning the ways of the beings we wish to... live with. It takes time to get all the nuances... precise. From nothing to something takes time.

This is what makes Becoming Human easily the most powerful, gut-punching story in the collection. Here is an alien being that is nothing, but wants to become something. Of all the people it chooses to help with its assimilation, it chooses Krell, a monster who is something, but wants to become nothing. The irony is so palpable. The innocence of the alien makes the story even more effective. It knows nothing about right or wrong, or what is good and what is evil. It simply wanted to fit in with humanity, but it ended up choosing the worst example of humanity and continued Krell's awful crimes. It is through this experience, though, that Vera rediscovers his own humanity, as he explains to the alien the kind of human Krell is, and goes on to explain the other side of humanity, the side that works together for the betterment of mankind; the side that is capable of displaying compassion and empathy; the side that is capable of love and kindness. 

After much discussion between the two, the alien wants Vera to take it to Krell. It wants to give Krell what he most desires: to become nothing. I think Vera is somewhat baffled as to why the alien wants to do this for Krell, but I believe the alien is displaying a small amount of compassion for Krell, despite his monstrous nature, and, perhaps, as a way of saying, "After all I've done through copying Krell, let me make it right by doing this." It also clicks in Vera's mind that Krell will cease to exist; the alien would be doing the entire human race a favor by "taking out the garbage". It's the scene between Krell, Vera, and the alien that makes the title of the story so appropriate. After all of his philosophical talk of transcending evil and becoming nothing, when Krell discovers what is happening, he experiences a common human emotion: fear. He breaks down and becomes the very  human he doesn't want to be. He's granted his wish but is scared to death, reduced to a child being left alone in the dark and calling for help. As for Vera, he realizes there is still hope for himself; he can turn his life around for the better, and he starts by reconnecting with his wife. 

Smith's stories also explore themes of balance and insignificance. Four out of the five stories have one thing in common: Mr. Liu, an enigmatic figure who traverses a realm between humanity and something other. This also creates something of a shared universe, adding an element of connectivity. The characters in the tales exist together but in different places, yet they all have doomed and unpleasant encounters with Mr. Liu. He acts as a messenger for what he calls "caretakers of the universe", and all we know is that they, according to Mr. Liu, maintain balance. 

In the case of Lemmy, Mr. Rickart, and Elvis, they are commissioned to do a rape, torture, mutilation and murder piece; however, it's a means to set them up and make them pay for swinging the pendulum too far in one direction. They have a woman they call "Broken Teacup" and are ready to perform their end of the deal, when Mr. Liu appears and Broken Teacup makes short work of Lemmy and Elvis. Believing that some people are salvageable, Mr. Liu offers Mr. Rickart and opportunity "attain a kind of dignity amidst the chaos, within what is left of your existence". Broken Teacup wants to be shown love. It's an opportunity that cannot be fulfilled though. You see, how can a person like Mr. Rickart possibly know what love is? He's so far gone from humanity, considering the horrible things he has done with his now dead cohorts, he's never felt, let alone shown, love. Not wanting to end up like Lemmy and Elvis, he better learn fast. 

Samuel Nisi also encounters Mr. Liu. Not knowing who Liu is, he accepts a commission from him to sculpt a piece that he is given free reign over; however, it's all a ruse, as Nisi must not be allowed to end the life of Julie and the baby inside her, for the baby is to have, according to Mr. Liu, an incredible future, and Nisi is just to awful to exist, so he inevitably experiences the horrors of the caretakers. In the case of Derek Jenner in the story, Where the Light Won't Find You, his curiosity causes him to encounter Mr. Liu purely by accident. Liu set the stage for another person to be disposed of; someone who outlived their usefulness, and Jenner was there to see the whole thing, much to the dismay of Mr. Liu, who sees no choice but to dispose of Jenner as well. After much discussion with Jenner and the higher beings, Mr. Liu agrees to let Jenner go, but makes him swear that he is never to speak of this event. It's an ending that is similar to how Becoming Human ends. Jenner isn't quite in the same boat as Vera, but he's not perfect. After what he witnesses, though, he decides to try and live a better life, starting with his girlfriend Daisy. He promises himself that he's going to love her right. These two endings help highlight that it's possible for us to turn things around in our lives. Sometimes, we are not beyond hope and redemption; we have a chance to makes things better for ourselves and the ones we love. We no longer take certain things for granted. They're not happy endings, but, rather, nice reminders of the kind of people we can be, and of what we have and should appreciate and be thankful for.  

The first story, Autumn in the Abyss, is the longest out of the five and also explores themes of identity, balance, obsession, and how words have the power to change the world around us, for better or for worse. Mr. Liu appears only briefly, but the caretakers are in full effect. The story revolves around a man who is obsessed with finding a poet named Henry Coronado and a poem he read, called Autumn in the Abyss He suffers from a rather severe case of agoraphobia, coupled with a weight problem. His days are spent eating Ramen noodles and looking under every rock and in every nook and cranny searching for Coronado. The man eventually learns the truth about Coronado, himself, and his place in the hierarchy of the universe. 

Smith's collection is packed with grotesque imagery and disturbing situations that, on the surface, makes you want to turn your head, but the stories do well in addressing how people let themselves be consumed by their obsessions and desires, and the terrible consequences that often follow. These stories emphasize that to be human is to be flawed. We are not perfect. We are capable of doing good things, and we are also capable of doing bad things. We can be selfish one day, and altruistic the next. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves crossing over that line of no return, and the farther we walk, the more difficult it is to come back. We can be afforded opportunities to make things right, though; we can turn around and walk in the other direction and back over the line. Then, there are some who walk so far they can never return. Smith's stories have a duel effect of painting a gruesome picture of how awful our kind can be. And they also make you thankful for what you have; appreciate the things we take for granted.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Incoming Tide: Review

Fishing isn't only about catching fish. One of the things it's about is how a fish fights -- and just as importantly, how you fight a fish.

I've known of Cameron Pierce for some time. I've seen his name mentioned on many Facebook updates and passed around in various literary circles. When I read that he was an avid fisherman whose stories heavily revolved around fishing, I said to myself that I would purchase one of his books and give it a read. I noted before in my review of Steve Rasnic Tem's story, The Fishing Hut, that I have loved fishing ever since I was a kid. And while I don't get to do it as often as I used to, I still enjoy the occasional fishing day, whether it's with my family or by myself. Now having a son, I look forward to taking him fishing when he is old enough. 

Published by Broken River Books, The Incoming Tide is a pocket-sized book that is less than a hundred pages, consisting of flash fiction and poetry. While fishing is at the heart of Pierce's writing, it's used as a means to explore themes of life, death, parenthood, man and nature, maturation, memories, the simple things in life, and even the strange and alien. The stories and poems are also broken up with passages titled Beer Commerical, serving as a sort of brief intermission for the reader, where the joys and sorrows of life are reflected through having a beer. 

Reading the passages within The Incoming Tide, you can feel the warmth and passion that Pierce writes with. The writing blanketed me with a sense of tranquility, and, at other times, nostalgia and even mystery. Pierce also does well in exploring the unknown, and emphasizes that we do not just find horror and the grotesque in it, but we can also find beauty and wonder. In the story, Ragged-Tooths, a few fisherman hike out to the sea to catch some sharks. Pierce sets the mood by having the story take place at night, wording it in such a way that conveys mystery and darkness:

What I am saying is there were four of us in the nighttime, miles from anyone else, except for the hermit who lives in a cave at the river mouth. His cave was dark this night.

Just four men and the night, fishing for one of the most feared predators in the sea. Yet, when the narrator finally catches one and releases it back into the dark waters, it's described as "the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen." We may fear the dark and wonder what lurks just beneath the surface, but that doesn't always equate to horror; sometimes the most beautiful things can emerge and stay with us forever. In Winter Rainbow, beauty in the form of rainbow trout are pursued on a chill December morning. The narrator and his wife, K, catch rainbow trout and bring them home to make trout sandwiches:

There's nothing better than waking before first light in December, then returning home in the afternoon for hot coffee and a fresh trout sandwich. That's why in the darkest part of the year, you'll find me pursuing rainbows.

Even the the coldest, darkest parts of the year hide beauty in its depths. It's also about the simple joys that can be found in sitting down with a loved one over a cup of coffee and a trout sandwich. These are things that should be cherished the most, yet we sometimes take them for granted; we get caught up in the stresses and chaos of life, causing us to miss out on what's right in front of us; causing us to overlook the little things. In Even if the Earth Floods, you get the sense that Pierce is conveying to us to enjoy the good things we have:

                    Someday the dead sailors may rise up.
                    Someday we may even drown.
                    For now, let me hold you.
                    Even if the dead sailors flood the earth,
                    let me hold you

                    Let's dig one more clam before dark.
                    Let's drink one more beer before dawn.
                    We can always climb onto the roof
                    if the earth floods.

You get the feeling that we need to enjoy the here and now. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow. Go ahead and have one more beer with that special someone. Go ahead and meet your friend for a late night cup of coffee. Enjoy the times with your friends and family. Life can be crushing, but we mustn't allow ourselves to be weighed down all the time. You can really glean that from the story, Fishing Derbies, where the narrator says, "Fishing isn't only about catching fish. One of the things it's about is a how a fish fights -- and just as importantly, how you fight a fish." I take this as a meditation on how we go through life; it will sometimes put up a great fight, and how you fight back will dictate the outcome. 

Elements of spirituality can be detected in some of the writing. My favorite poem in the book, The Promise of Water, puts an emphasis on man and nature; being alone outside, just you,  your thoughts, a cup of coffee, and your fishing rod:

                    Some mornings I wake before the sun rises
                    to fish the Willamette.
                    I fish on cold winter mornings, alone.
                    Coffee thaws the frost on my lips
                    as I walk the desolate downtown streets.
                    I cross the river to the Eastside
                    to fish under Burnside Bridge
                    where sturgeon lurk in the deep water.
                    I bask in the frozen glow of Old Town's neon sign
                    as I make my first cast,
                    heaving squid-on-hook into the dark.
                    And yet I don't wake early just to fight with dinosaurs.
                    I wake because the promise of water
                    isn't a thing a man can hold for long,
                    like a love song from another world.

My interpretation is that there is a hint of spiritual oneness here, being outside, alone, on a cold winter morning. The day promising to bring water. Just being there, at the water, is enough to uplift your spirits and make you feel truly at peace. It's a true appreciation for nature and the privilege to experience it in that manner. It may, perhaps, be akin to a religious experience, but not quite. Although I think spirituality is more appropriate here. The water being older and more primal than the dinosaurs you are fishing for. This theme of fishing alone, and that spiritual feeling, can be found in other stories and poems in the book as well. Alone Among the Driftwood projects that same theme, along with the give and take nature of the seas, as the narrator watches a dog jump in the water and under the channel, only to never surface. A similar incident happens in Fishing on the Jetty After Midnight, where the narrator witnesses a man scuttling "like a crab across the rocks and splashed with the roiling dusk." Rather ambiguous, as you know nothing about the man except that he went into the water. It's enough to make you wonder why he did it, and exuding an element of strangeness to it all. The things you see (or think you see) while fishing at night. 

Stories and poems explored are but a fraction of what can be found in The Incoming Tide. The poem, Mother Steel involves a pregnant woman having a mother-to-mother moment with a pregnant fish on a wooden dock, telling the silver hen that her children will be all right. It's a short, yet powerful piece on the universality of motherhood, and the caring, nurturing nature of one mother to another. Blood for Blood is another short poem that revolves around fishing to feed your family; you're trading your blood for the blood of another. Pierce even charts a course for our absurd little rituals that are unique to each of us, in the story, Cooking Shellfish in My Underpants. Or how we all have that one special fishing spot that you can't divulge to just anyone, as told in XXX Creek. Through fishing, beer, rituals, haunted lawnmowers, Pierce has written an evocative, reflecting and though-provoking book that can be appreciated by anyone who has ever stopped to take the time to enjoy the little things. Anyone who has taken the time to savor that beer with your friends; anyone who has taken the time to stop and tell that special someone that you love them. It's for anyone who has endured the hardships of life and came out stronger. This is a book that appreciates life for it's beauty, mystery, strangeness, and all the stuff that happens to us in between. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Books of Bartlett

Don't startle or scare. Disturb. Upset. Remove the floor and dissolve the walls. 
- Abrecan Geist, Sinister Mechanisms p. 45

When I'm working my seasonal job, there are some days where I do not finish until one o'clock in the morning, sometimes two. My commute home is just over an hour, and to help with it I usually listen to talk radio. I primarily listen to NPR, but I'll sometimes scan the radio waves for something different, anything from religious talk, to something revolving around the paranormal. Driving on the highway at such a late hour, pitch black all around, scanning the radio, your imagination tends to run wild. I often think I'll discover some sort of pirate radio station that broadcasts strange discussions on strange topics; the kind of topics that make the hairs on your body stand up, or send chills up your spine. I wait for a voice to say, "Have you seen the Yellow Sign?" or, "The whole family is buried out in those woods." Fortunately, that never happens, but there is something about radio broadcasts that can create atmospheres of mystery, serenity, and even dread. Matthew M. Bartlett, a black star who has ascended to a far corner of the Weird cosmic frontier, takes that dread and multiplies it by a thousand, using the twisted radio broadcasts of WXXT, your discount butcher of all living things. 

Gateways to Abomination is a collection of stories of varying length. Some are more along the lines of flash fiction, while others are standard short story length, but they are all connected, creating a living, breathing, organic world of tremendously disturbing proportions. Bartlett's prose is finely-tuned and precise; his stories are carefully crafted, bordering on vile and sinister poetry. Reading Gateways is like being cut by the dull blade of a surgical knife found in the basement of an abandoned home, belonging to a serial killer surgeon. It's also akin to being bitten by a rabid hunter you encountered in the deep woods. The wound festers and spreads, causing delirium; you can't distinguish between what's real and what's not. These stories creep, squirm, and crawl their way into you, transforming and binding you to WXXT. This is the kind of fiction that takes form in the leaky, dank basement of your grandparents' house, where you once found old slide films of naked men and women in your grandfather's trunk. It's the kind of fiction that takes form in a fort built in the woods behind a junior high school by some thirteen-year-old kids, where you'll find damp Hustler magazines and a soaked half-pack of Marlboro Reds or Camels. 

If you ever find yourself driving through the small town of Leeds, Massachusetts, it would behoove you to keep your radio off. If not, you risk tuning in to WXXT, and it's all downhill from there. Leeds is besieged by this mysterious and disturbing radio station. All manner of weirdness can be heard, from twisted sermons, weeping children, uncontrollable moaning, to deranged polka music. Listening to WXXT is akin to reading the Necronomicon, or the second act of the King in Yellow: you'll never be the same. What's interesting about WXXT, though, is that it's not easily found; you almost have to be precise in your tuning. There are some who know how to find it, and others happen upon it accidentally. It's like it exists in it's own fold of space; it's outside of all that is logical and rational, at least, from our own feeble perspective. Those who are unfortunate enough to listen to it, however, see things in a whole new, disturbing and horrifying way. On top of all that, every day life in Leeds is a warped carnival of horrors, featuring winged leeches, worms in suits, twisted sexuality, walking corpses, bipedal goatmen, and backwoods rituals that make the Manson family look like the Tanner family from Full House. Leeds is very much a place that is haunted by a corrupt and tragic past that goes back centuries, and people harbor family secrets that refuse to stay hidden.

In his stories, Bartlett cleverly takes the fears and fantasies of both children and adults, and amplifies them by distorting and reshaping them into bizarre, grotesque, and unspeakable things. In the ballad of ben stockton verse 2, visits to the dentist and oral surgeon are made even more terrifying than we already make them out to be, which helps to amp up the dread and anxiety that permeates Bartlett's stories. A boyhood fantasy about a friend's mother is contorted and reformed into something terribly disturbing and gross, yet it vociferates volumes about very real issues and problems about our society. Leeds is also rife with religious fundamentalism and hardcore patriarchy. In the theories of uncle jeb, themes of a male-dominated society are explored, as is the overall theme that we are a cancerous lot, eating away at everything, including ourselves. This entire world will collapse because of us. 

If you read carefully, you'll also pick up on the fact that Leeds has been poisoned and corrupt for centuries. The world has been messed up for a long time. With this knowledge, you'll sense the normalcy in all of it, especially in the gathering in the deep wood, where a man walks into a diner carrying his brain, and everyone just goes about their business like it's not happening; however, the man sits next to the person who is narrating the story, and it's only then that the narrator wants him to go away. On a larger scale, this can be seen as a case of people not wanting to deal with societal and worldly problems until they come to their homes and knock down their front doors. Leeds is a fractured, unhinged, chthonian reflection of our own world, which is pretty bad, considering how messed up our world is. We live in a time where we turn our heads to the problems that plague us; we don't want our cozy lives disrupted, because then we would have to deal with all of it. We never do anything until it appears in our backyards. It's a sad and painful truth that Bartlett effortlessly engages. 

Bartlett also places great emphasis on those who are truly affected by the poison and corruption: children. Nearly every story in Bartlett's book features children who suffer in a plethora of ways. Children are left in a warehouse while their parents are off performing some sort of ritualistic orgy. Some children are kidnapped; others grow up not knowing who their real fathers are. In when i was a boy - a broadcast, a young boy is seduced by a much older woman, resulting in both disturbing and pleasurable experiences, but the boy is changed for the worse, and he ends up burning down the house with the woman in it. This theme of innocence lost pervades the entire book. Children are stripped of their childhoods; they are no longer free from corruption as they experience the horrors of the world, and they will be haunted by those horrifying experiences for the rest of their lives. Some may be able to live semi-normal lives, while others may continue the disturbing and grotesque trends that poison Leeds. 

Another theme explored is commercialization, or, corporatization. Leeds is an example of a small town that loses certain facilities, replaced by parking lots, Wal-Marts, and other corporate mega structures, designed for mass appeal and consumption. Mental institutions are torn down, the patients have nowhere to go, rendering them unable to seek the proper care they need; they are left to wander on their own. These are real people with real problems, yet they are treated as sub-human; a parking structure is more important. Greed and callousness cast a dark, poisonous cloud over Leeds. 

Another strength of Bartlett's book stems from the self-publishing aspect. The simplistic style of Gateways to Abomination makes it somewhat believable. Crazy, right? Yet, many passages read like clippings found in the archives of a library, such as those of uncle red reads to-day's news. If I didn't know any better, I'd travel to Leeds and conduct my own investigations to see if there is any truth to the depravity that afflicts the town. Some of the shorter pieces excel at illuminating just how fast and easily rumors can spread in small towns, and how a normal event can turn into something much more exaggerated. A person who tends to not socialize and live as a recluse can instantly turn into a pedophile through local gossip. All of these elements combined serve to enhance the overall effect the book has on its readers. While reading Gateways, I kept thinking about John Carpenter's film, In the Mouth of Madness, and how Bartlett could easily be Sutter Kane, causing one to wonder: is this real? What the hell is going on? Bartlett has crafted a masterpiece of cult literature that should be on the shelves of anyone who loves Weird Horror. 

Anne Gare's Rare Book and Ephemera Catalogue

A chapbook put together by Bartlett, Anne Gare's Rare Book and Ephemera Catalogue is a real treasure to have. It's fictional non-fiction, containing a list of books found in the rare book room of Anne Gare's bookshop, which is referenced more than once in Gateways to Abomination. Some of the books listed are tied to characters who we read about in Gateways, such as the Libellus Vox Larva, The Stockton Pamphlets, and the Dither Family Cookbook. Other books are tied to characters we have yet to be acquainted with, like Grancois Trumbull Sr. There is even a book by Stephen King listed in the catalogue. Each book comes with a brief description of what it is, including it's history and significance. The book is more of a companion piece to Gateways, further enriching the Leeds Mythos that Bartlett has created. On its own, with its simplistic style, one could easily be duped into thinking the contents are real. It looks like the kind of book you find in the attic of your dead aunt's house, which you inherited and had to move three states away to claim. It does well in creating an atmosphere of mystery and curiosity, and I could easily see myself packing my bags and setting out to track down the contents. 

The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts

Containing fictional biographies of various people  who inhabit(ed) Leeds and the outskirts of it, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, in the same vein as the Anne Gare book, serves as a companion piece, adding to the dark, twisted Mythos that Bartlett has created. Here, we get some backstories to some of the colorful, wicked, and unbalanced people we only vaguely experienced in Gateways to Abomination. We learn more about Father Ezekial Shineface, a rogue priest whose sermons go against all that is holy, his vile incantations broadcast by Alan Rickey of WDDI, who had no idea Shineface was going to slither out such terrible words. We get a look into Abrecan Geist, a man who decided to wage a campaign of war against god, due to the loss of his parents. 

Even though many of the characters in this book can do things that defy human logic and our laws of physics, they are still people who have suffered in some form or another. Bartlett explores themes of loss, temptation, corruption, etc.. A person loses their parents and blames the world, wanting revenge. A woman walks various paths in search of herself, for her place in life, but ends up on a path to darkness. A priest becomes corrupt by the world around him. Some people are products of their environment. We read of suicides and unforgettable events of feasts gone terribly wrong. Bartlett achieves real balance with this work. I wouldn't be surprised if one found this book in the "Folklore" section of a bookstore, or even a "Local History" section for those living in Massachusetts. 


A chapbook published by high quality-producing Dim Shores, Rangel tells the story of Gaspar Bantam, a man originally from Leeds, Massachusetts, now living in Los Angeles. At forty years old, he is still haunted by the disappearance of his younger sister, Rangel, thirty years ago, just before Halloween. With Halloween just on the horizon, Gaspar feels compelled to journey back to Leeds and find out what exactly happened to Rangel. 

Rangel is some of Bartlett's best work. You can clearly see the evolution in his writing; he just gets better and better. This a haunting, disquieting, well-crafted tale; another macabre and bone-chilling chapter in the expanding Mythos revolving around Leeds, comparable to what S.P. Miskowski has done with her Skillute Cycle. In Rangel, the passage of time is explored through how much Leeds has changed since Gaspar was last there. Instead of Dynamite Records, an Oriental Rug shop has taken its place. Gone is Gwen and Deb's Yogurt. In its place, a bank, along with several different cell phone shops replacing other stores, as well. For Gaspar, this is disheartening, and resonates with those of us who have seen our favorite independent stores go the way of the Dodo. We could always count on those places for excellent customer service and friendly faces. The owners knew you by your first name, and went out of their way for you. Despite these changes, Leeds is still shrouded in darkness, and Gaspar soon discovers that. 

Bartlett also does a great job with exploring the theme of loss, and how it can split a family apart and whisk away your childhood. The disappearance of Rangel causes great stress for Gaspar and his parents, Red and Shirley. For five years, Red and Shirley desperately clung to hope. Every time the phone rang, every time a little girl resembling Rangel was spotted, Red and Shirley thought they got their child back. Eventually, they arranged a funeral with an empty casket, in an attempt to put it all behind them, but as the years progressed, the family grew further apart. Gaspar's parents became strangers to them; they even stopped going to work. Gaspar didn't just lose his sister and his parents, but he lost his childhood. The loss of his sister created a void that never went away. Another form of childhood loss we see is being told you need to grow up, as Gaspar experienced the older he got. The other kids at school would tell him that Halloween is for little kids, and he needs to put such childish things behind him unless he wants to be a laughing stock among the entire school. Yes, we must grow up, but that doesn't mean we still cannot enjoy the festivities and imagination that come with celebrations like Halloween. 

At the heart of all this, though, is Gaspar trying to solve the mystery surrounding Rangel's disappearance, as she was last seen walking into the woods all those years ago. The more Gaspar investigates, the more entrenched he becomes in the legend and lore of Leeds. He discovers that Rangel isn't the only child to have gone missing. He experiences the strange local radio broadcasts of WXXT; trees are growing everywhere, through sidewalks and homes; he sees the names of all the missing children scratched on the door of a bathroom stall. And, finally, at the end of all of it, a bizarre ritual that the entire town is engaged in, and Gaspar cannot help but take part in it, which eventually reveals the painful truth of what happened. You see, Gaspar needed to go back to Leeds, to confront the past. Being so close to Halloween, it seems only fitting that Gaspar travel to Leeds when the veil is thinnest, allowing him to view what really happened. Rangel saw two print runs, so if you missed out on purchasing it, fear not, because you will have another opportunity to read it. 

Dead Air: Radio from Beyond the Grave

This rare gem was published well before Gateways to Abomination, and I saved it for last because of it's rarity. To my knowledge, only a handful of people own this book. Some of the fiction within can be found in Gateways, but there is much that is not; original stories that actually delve into the history and inception of WXXT Radio, and the pasts of characters such as Ben Stockton. Within these sinister pages are dating ads for ghosts (hey, the dead need companionship, too!), gut-wrenching and vomit-inducing confessions, brief transmissions from the damned, and tainted promotions and shadowy mission statements from WXXT. 

What makes Dead Air so effective is, once again, the look of the book. It has the look of a book that should be out on a coffee table, waiting for someone to pick it up and glance through its menacing pages, initiating conversation with the owner. Enhancing this effect are pictures that accompany a majority of the stories. Pictures of old houses, forests, storefronts, and people who have passed on to the other side long ago. The book works on so many levels. It works as rumor/gossip; as twisted folklore; as non-fiction; as twisted history. Dead Air succeeds even more than Gateways as a book that--if someone didn't know any better--would wonder if there are hints of truth and actuality in its repulsive passages. If you are so inclined to seek out this dreadful tome, you should contact Mr. Bartlett and inquire about it. It's truly a remarkable work, and, like the rest of his books, adds to the growing wicked world that Bartlett has sculpted with his own frightening mind. 


Saturday, October 24, 2015

after: review/analysis (spoilers)

Sandy had made a shambles of conventional cause and effect. Strange synchronicities, unexpected conjunctions...sorrows that could only be suffered in silence. 

There are some stories you read; you enjoy them, have positive things to say about them, memorize certain passages, and you may even read them again somewhere down the road. Then there are stories you experience. These stories touch you so deeply, personally, and profoundly that, once you finish them, they are forever etched in your mind, and you are changed. Maybe your thinking on a certain matter has changed, or maybe your are more aware of current events; maybe your entire outlook on life has been altered. Either way, something about you is different, and it's because of that one story you read. One such story is after, a novella written by Scott Nicolay. 

Published by Dim Shores, after tells the story of Colleen, a woman living a stagnant, toxic life in Sourland Hills, New Jersey, with her abusive husband Derrick. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Colleen decides to travel via bus to Seaside Heights, at the Jersey Shore, so that she may assess the damage done to their summer home. When it's time to take the bus back home, however, Colleen suddenly decides she would rather stay behind, than go home. Violating curfew and dodging the police, along with having no power and running water, she holes up in their summer home, but soon discovers that she is not the only one seeking shelter there. Something very large, something unknown to man, is also staying there, and Colleen will soon have no choice but to confront not only it, but her own lonely existence. 

Aesthetically, the cover art by Michael Bukowski is not only beautiful, but both haunting and gripping. The summer home has one window lit by a flashlight; the sky is dark and somewhat cloudy; the moon is visible, and you see this bizarre, scary looking creature, named the "Creeper" by Colleen, partially inside the home. It instills an element of instant dread; it's pulse-pounding, inching you ever so closer to the edge of your seat. Your only source of security is a single room, a flashlight, and whatever else you may have, but is it enough? Do you even know the Creeper is there? The cover succeeds on every level in drawing you into the nightmare that awaits. Please, proceed with caution. 

Nicolay excels at slowly building up the suspense and dread in after. From the moment Colleen arrives at the Jersey Shore and steps off the bus, you immediately feel something brewing around you, a tension at first, and then it slowly forms into suspense; it burrows its way inside you, attaching itself to you, mind, body, and soul. Then, that suspense transforms into dread, your heart pounding, palms sweaty, hands shaking. By this point, Nicolay has you, in the sense that, you want to keep going, despite the terror and dread that is permeating everything you are. There is also a heaviness to the writing. Nicolay gives an in-depth exploration of Colleen, revealing every nook and cranny of her life. You begin to realize you are building a relationship with Colleen. You care about her, you are concerned about her horrible marriage with Derrick, her terror-filled nights with the Creeper, and her overall survival. The story becomes very personal. You feel the weight of Colleen's life heaped upon you, devastating and gnawing away at you. You are being hit from all directions, experiencing a variety of feelings to the point of mental lassitude. Born and raised in New Jersey, you can sense the level of emotion that Nicolay put into this story, it's personal for him, and you can feel it emanating from the pages. Nicolay always writes stories that are nothing short of phenomenal (Do yourself a favor: read Nicolay's debut collection, Ana Kai Tangata. You won't regret it, I promise!), but after is on a different level altogether. 

Colleen comes to Seaside Heights to assess the damage done to her and Derrick's summer home, bringing with her an empty to suitcase to pack up things that weren't damaged by Hurricane Sandy's wrath. Walking north on Boulevard, Colleen immediately takes notice of a couple things:

Right away, she noticed a couple things strange. First, no birds. There were never not gulls over Seaside, gulls and a few terns, the gulls ever ready to pounce on the least scrap of dropped food, not only on the beach but for several blocks inland.

Colleen also notices that Boulevard has no sand on it, when it normally has a thin coating of sand. Not even traces of sand in the cracks could be found, yet she sees sand coating the side streets.

Yet she saw sand coating the side streets despite the tracks of plows. Sand there rose up around road signs and heaped against house fronts in drifts like low snowbanks a foot deep or more. Why not Boulevard as well? Why was that one road so clear? Had Sandy done this, was there some pattern in her chaos, her fury?

Additionally, there are no other animals of any kind, no wildlife, no cars; the town is completely silent. Seaside Heights is completely different now. It's a place that is out of the ordinary; it's separated from the rest of the world, quarantined. Colleen is in a place where nothing makes sense. Hurricane Sandy turned the town inside out, and upside down; there is no logic, it exists outside rational thought, and strange, unnatural things now take place. Seaside Heights is now home to the unknown. And while the unknown can be fascinating, drawing you in, it's also dangerous, and Colleen will soon discover just how dangerous. 

Colleen and a number of other people are sitting on a curb, waiting for the bus to arrive and take them home. Meanwhile, Red Cross volunteers are handing out takeout boxes of food. Chunks of canned pineapple, cubes of unrecognizable meat, some kind of dark orange paste, and the bottom half of a burger bun. Something about this scene, this moment, makes Colleen decide to stay. She couldn't be "one of these people, couldn't eat their food or get on their bus." It's almost as if Colleen feels like someone living in a shelter, maybe for abused women. Maybe she feels like a special needs case. It's like she is receiving pity, or feels like a charity case, someone who cannot help herself. She does not like how the whole thing makes her feel. 

Rather than getting back on the bus with everyone to go home, Colleen decides to stay. Why on earth would anyone want to stay in such a dangerous, desolate place? Police are out on patrol; there is a curfew, and violating it leads to being arrested; there's no power, no running water; all businesses are closed. Why does Colleen stay behind? For all of its risks and dangers, Seaside Heights is a better option than going back to an abusive husband; it's better than going back to a life that cannot even be *called* a life. 

Colleen's decision to stay in Seaside Heights greatly reveals the nature of her life at home with Derrick. Basically, she knows nothing else. Derrick made her quit her teaching job, which pretty much left her at home all the time. She spent nights wondering if Derrick was going to lash out at her, physically or verbally. She tried to create some sort of schedule that could help her predict when Derrick might become violent, whether from drinking, or even just being sober. Her life consists of tip-toeing, wearing drab clothes, not talking, and accepting the rut she is in. Now, in Seaside Heights, Colleen is on her own, basically; in a sense, starting over. She knows she doesn't have much in the way of food and drink at the summer home, so she must resort to looting other homes if she is going to stay there for the foreseeable future. She has a maglite, and a hammer that she works through her belt, thinking of it as a utility belt, and herself as Batman or Batgirl. This playful nature puts an emphasis on just how little she knows about surviving on her own; this is all new to her, and somewhat exciting. 

More emphasis is put on Colleen's child-like nature through the various memories she has of her and her father, and all the things they did when she was a child. Thinking back to all those times is also a clear indicator, that her childhood was the best time of her life, and are the only memories worth remembering. After that, what else is there? Meeting Derrick, marriage, and all the horrible things that ensued throughout, that's what. Those childhood memories of spending time with her father are all she has to fall back on. Well, those and her memories of Paul, a man who rented out the basement apartment for two summers. It wasn't uncommon for Colleen to visit Paul in the basement apartment while Derrick was upstairs, passed out from a day of heavy drinking. Paul filled the void inside Colleen, and she did the same for him (his wife died of cancer). "They lived in the moment as the old phrase went. But those were the moments the lights came back on inside," never making plans to run away and be together. Paul made Colleen feel alive and secure; he made her feel like she mattered, that she was something other than the walking dead, and Derrick's punching bag.

Not only did Hurricane Sandy destroy the place that held her childhood memories, she took Paul from her, too. You can imagine the pain Colleen felt, when she found out Paul died, crushed by a tree while attempting to save a husband and wife trapped inside their car. Paul was a first responder, killed in the line of duty. He's a true hero, and Nicolay reveals the all too painful reality of first responders, like Paul, being nothing more than a statistic added to the death toll, unworthy of news headlines that are reserved for crappy and insulting television shows like The Jersey Shore, which Nicolay is not afraid to address, weaving in the uncaring and backwards nature of the media.

The Creeper itself is a long, monstrous being, around thirty feet in length At first glance, Colleen thinks she is looking at a fence, but quickly realizes just how mistaken she is.

But as the fence rippled and she watched, she realized it wasn't either a fence--nor was it anything she recognized in form. Neither men nor fence slats but rows of bowed staves or spears or...spines, all shifting and bristling in suspect motion.

Colleen tries to process what she is seeing, thinking that it's some kind of new, innovative security system,  even telling herself that it's an oarfish, but she knows it's neither of those things.

Jointless, squat and thick, the maybe legs still appeared to support the horizontal central trunk. It was all one creature. It was nothing she knew. And she knew right then it was nothing known.

No explanation as to where the Creeper came from is ever given. It's just there. Colleen speculates on a number of possibilities, but none of them are ever substantiated. It also just so happens to spend its nights in the basement apartment of Colleen's home. When she first sees it in its full form, it begins moving in her direction. She runs and runs, dodging and ducking, until she returns to her summer home, only to have the Creeper return there, as well. She could not tell if it was after her, or if it just went there to sleep. Rather than leave Seaside Heights, Colleen remains there, knowing full well that a thirty foot monster is in her basement, wheezing away. Why does she stay? I would have gotten the hell out of dodge. Why not alert anyone to the presence of this monster? On the surface, Colleen makes all these justifications in her head. No one will believe her; she'll get arrested; even so far as to think the police will taser her and dump her body somewhere. She doesn't leave, and she doesn't tell anyone. Instead, Colleen chooses to work around the monster's patterns. What? Is she crazy? Well, it's because that is all she knows. She falls into a routine with the Creeper that mirrors exactly what she does with Derrick.

During the day, Colleen is out and about, but at night, when the Creeper returns to the basement, Colleen secures herself in the upstairs bathroom, sleeping in the bathtub, which is reminiscent of her sleeping in her kids' room, barricading herself from a drunk, pissed off Derrick. Even the wheezing of the Creeper can viewed as Derrick in a drunken slumber. Everything about the Creeper reflects Colleen's life at home. It's a manifestation of sorts, her horrible life, her monstrous marriage made tangible, into this gargantuan monster, and she's married to a monster. Colleen does achieve a level of comfortability with the Creeper, though. She knows the Creeper's schedule, much more predictable than Derrick's erratic behavior. That eventually changes, though, and Colleen is now faced with unpredictability. Again, why stay? Concerning Colleen's marriage, she pretty much accepts that she is in a rut; it's been that way for so long, she's used to it. Sure, she comes up with all these reasons as to why she stays, but she's just stuck in this rut, in this routine, and Colleen even acknowledges that she no longer loves Derrick, possessing no feelings of any kind for him. Below the surface, though, there is another reason: fear. It's not just fear of Derrick and his abusiveness, but it's the fear of leaving, of what happens next. If Colleen left Derrick, where would she go? What would she do? Would he find her? If he did, would he kill her? If she went to the police, would they be able to arrest Derrick and convict him? Would the case fall through? There are too many 'ifs' for Colleen, and she's just too afraid to make any kind of change that would improve her life, or even save her. Making the decision to stay in Seaside Heights is the first major change for Colleen, even though it doesn't last long.

At one point in the story, Derrick's friend Jordan, who owns a house in Seaside Heights, comes to the summer home, under the guise of checking on her. He knows she's there because he saw her leave the line of people waiting for the bus to take them back to their homes. Colleen knows better, though. Jordan is there for other, more terrible reasons. Armed with butane and hairspray, Colleen decides enough is enough, and is finally, for a change, going to fight back. The Creeper takes care of Jordan, however, making short work of him. The Creeper then turns its attention to the bathroom Colleen is in, and slides a tongue, or appendage of some sort, under the door. Colleen doesn't hesitate, spraying a flame at the creature, sizzling it, resulting in its retreat. Colleen never sees it again, after that. Now, at this point, it seems that Colleen did what she needed to do all along: she fought back. She needed this experience to face her monster of a husband, to show him that she will not take his abuse anymore; however, when Derrick finally shows up to get Colleen and bring her back home, rather than showing any kind of resistance, she says, "Okay. Let's go." She acquiesces and goes home with him. It's angering to read, but it's another painful reality that Nicolay addresses. Sadly, this is an outcome that happens all too often with women in abusive relationships.

In after, Nicolay explores the harsh reality of abuse, using Weird Fiction as a backdrop, and painfully making the reader aware of that reality. He also reveals the negativity of the media, and the ridiculous subjects that pass for headlines. The important issues are cast aside for television shows, and which celebrity was seen at an ATM. Nicolay explores the tragedy of Seaside Heights in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. All the memories that were destroyed, the lives lost, the first responders no one will ever know about, the people with childhood ties to the town, and to certain attractions it once had. after is a memorable piece of fiction, powerful and resonating. Heartfelt, painful, sad, and intense...Nicolay reached a whole new plateau with this one, and it deserves the highest praise. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ghosts in Amber: Review/Analysis (Spoilers)

Or, had it been an ill-conceived shortcut in evolution...a noble but failed attempt to aspire to something greater than was within this primitive life form's capacity to attain?

It is an exciting time to be a fan of Weird Fiction. Without a doubt, we are in the midst of a Weird Renaissance. New and talented writers are emerging from the dark recesses of nature, changing the Weird landscape as we know it. There are some writers, though, who are already established voices in the Realm of the Weird; they are firmly rooted in the primal dirt of the Earth, and are forging dark, evocative, powerful stories from the aether. Jeffrey Thomas is one such writer. A high ranking member of the Weird Elite, Jeffrey Thomas has been synonymous with all things Weird and beyond. A prolific and profound author who writes short stories and novels that span galaxies, traverse post-apocalyptic America, explore monsters and myths, dissect the human psyche, and even illuminate the crushing weight of failed economies in small towns. He's a Renaissance Man in the Weird Renaissance; hell, he helped usher in the Weird Renaissance. Known for such notable works as his short story collections all revolving around Punktown, novels such as Boneland, and a panopoly of other collections and novels, Thomas isn't just rooted in the primal dirt of the Earth, he's entrenched in its core. 

Ghosts in Amber is the product of an unholy union between Jeffrey Thomas, artist Serhiy Krykun, and Sam Cowan, under Cowan's new publishing imprint, Dim Shores. You want to make a strong, impressive debut with your new publishing imprint? You bring in the big guns, and this triumvirate did not disappoint. Krykun's eerily beautiful cover takes hold of your mind and forces you to venture further into Thomas's tome of unsettling horrors. The success of this first chapbook has solidified the position of Dim Shores among the dark, vast cosmos of the Weird Fiction landscape. Now, let's delve into the story itself. 

Ghosts in Amber takes place in the failing town of Gosston, and centers around a man simply referred to as "he."  He is a lowly factory worker in Gosston. He and his wife live in one part of a house that was converted into an apartment. They get by, living day to day, and I use "living" very loosely. One early evening, arriving home from work and grabbing the mail, he looks across the street at an old, abandoned factory across the street, nestled against a pond. His curiosity, combined with his desire to find new places to go to before coming home from work, prompt him to explore the factory the very next day. He will do more than just explore an abandoned factory, though. He will be entering a repository of his past, gazing upon museum-like pieces frozen in time. Here, he will be confronted by loss and regret, and a life that passed him by. 

As stated in the above paragraph, the protagonist of the story is referred to as "he." This serves to drive home the point that he is just your average person, a garden variety citizen. He is you, me, your friend, your dad...any one of us. He gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, and repeats the cycle five days a week, and probably works some weekends for overtime, just to help keep up with the bills that he and his wife are mired in. He merely exists, rather than live. His life is a reflection of the town of Gosston itself. He represents a class of citizen affected by the crumbling economy of Gosston. Gosston is a town that probably once thrived, but is now in the grip of the cold, merciless, greedy hands of several banks. In fact, there are nineteen banks in Gosston, and he couldn't tell you which one he and his wife took their home loan through, and he certainly couldn't tell you which one now owns his home, hence the apartment they now live in. 

Akin to S.P. Miskowski's town of Skillute, Gosston is the kind of town that most people probably never leave, and if they do, they most likely find themselves back in its confining boundaries. It's a character all its own; alive, haunting, decadent, and cognizant. Gosston's atmosphere is redolent of oppression, and will beat you down to your knees and keep you there. He has lived in Gosston all his life, and has held various factory jobs since he was young. Not once has he ever been out of Gosston, and he may even be too afraid to leave. Despite the shackles it casts on you, Gosston probably provides some sense of security for people like him, because it's all they know. 

Gosston isn't the only thing weighing him down. His marriage with his wife has been stagnant for what appears to be some time now:

As it was they had never fought badly enough for either of them to have even uttered the word divorce. They didn't seem to possess the passion to become that angry or discontented. Sometimes she criticized him for remaining in the same relatively low-paying job for these many years, for lacking ambition to the point of apathy, but he supposed it was this quality of acceptance that had kept them united.

They are in what I would call a comfortable rut. They are so used to the way things are, that they do not bother with divorce, counseling, or anything that would drastically change their current life, which is in the doldrums. Their marriage may have reached its current state after they lost their house, but it's not certain. She worked nights, and he loved spending time alone on his front porch, reading a book. It was his "little piece of the universe." Just before they made the move after losing their house, his wife switched to a day shift like him. Now, he doesn't like coming home right after work. He looks for places to go hang out, such as the library, or the market to pick up a few things, or even the cemetery where his mother used to take him on picnics. There is a sense of regret in him. You get the feeling that he thinks he should have, perhaps, married someone else, or should not have married at all. If he wasn't married, would his life be better? He and his wife also live above a horrible woman who hears every bit of movement they make, to the point where she pounds and screams hysterically, and tells them, "I hear you moving around up there," as if they are rodents or insects, perhaps indicating their station on the human hierarchy. 

The factory is not just the epicenter of the story, but of his banal and completely unfulfilling existence. Up until the day he took notice of it, the factory never really caught his attention. Running out of places to hide out in before coming home from work, he figures the factory--never having explored it--is the next best place to spend an hour in before coming home. It makes one wonder, though: has the factory always been there? If it has always been there, why did he suddenly decide to explore it? I think it goes much deeper than him wanting to go to new places before coming home. Perhaps this is the work of Gosston itself. Maybe the town wants to show him something, manifesting the factory into existence. It's also quite possible that the factory became tangible through him. All the apathy and dissatisfaction that he had accumulated over the years, they created the factory, a sort of emergent property. It's also possible that this all happened in his head. At the very end of the story, he does not recall ever leaving the factory and coming back to his house. He doesn't see his car, and he realizes that his wife is not home, and the horrible neighbor below them has been gone for a while now. He may have had something do with her being gone. At one point, he told his wife that he is going to have to do something about her. Maybe he did something to his wife, too. There is an undetermined amount of time that cannot be accounted for. It's all open for interpretation, which makes the story all the more engaging. Let's look at the factory more closely.

The factory is delineated by the Gosston Canal and the pond, which serves in emphasizing its unreal nature:

He faced forward again and continued downward until the ground leveled out and he stood before the pond, with the factory on the other side of a stream that disgorged into the body of water. He realized this stream must be the Gosston Canal. It separated him from the factory like a castle's moat.

He is now entering an area that is not governed by the laws we have placed on our planet, and the universe overall. The clock tower is another indication of the sort of limbo he is entering.

A clock tower rose above the rest of the factory's flat roof and was twinned in the obsidian pond as if painted on glass, but where it's face should have been there was only an empty black skull socket now as though the clock itself had dropped out and been lost under the water. His imagination still stimulated, he pictured the clock lying on black muck at the bottom of the pond with its arms even now turning unseen as the years passed.

In this area where the factory sits, time does not exist, or the area and the factory are frozen in time. Yet, outside the designated boundary, time will continue to pass. I think it could also symbolize how time has passed him by, and will not wait up for him. The universe doesn't care what he has/hasn't done with his life. 

The inside of the factory is like a decayed museum of his past. Everything inside is a piece from his past, frozen in time. Even the smells are reminders of his earlier days. He recognized the varied and putrid smells from his early days of working as a leather cutter for a boot manufacturer, and, at a later date, working in a pocketbook factory. Both factories were located in Gosston, and the oppressive, pervasive smells are just one way of reminding him of his long, meager existence in Gosston. The majority of the rooms in the factory are empty, just as his life is. He finds a rather mysterious photo album that just so happens to be from his wedding, though he didn't realize it at the time. He decides to pull up an old chair and flip through it:

He was charmed by these photos and especially by the bride, a youthful beauty whose white dress and veil set off all the more her dark hair and dark eyes. Her fresh face and petite figure had struck him from the first image. The groom was similarly young and attractive and he was jealous of this man though he couldn't be bitterly resentful, because the groom's smiling face conveyed how happy he was and how lucky he knew himself to be. 

There was once a time when he and his wife were happy. They were young, attractive, and invulnerable. They had their whole lives ahead of them; they were going to grab life by the horns and make it theirs. Somewhere along the way, however, the opposite happened. Life grabbed them, especially him, and held them down. Time flew by, and, one day, he woke up and was much, much older. It makes one wonder what happened all this time; when did things turn around for them? Later on, at home, his wife brings the album to him; she found it in one of his drawers. This made her happy. "Wasn't that just the best day of your life?" she said. A long time ago, maybe. She chooses to view their life a bit differently than he does. There is still some spark left in her, where he is becoming more and more of an empty husk. 

Among the other pieces of history in the factory, he finds wooden lasts for shoes and boots to be formed around. He couldn't wrap his mind around lasts being left behind unless they were rendered obsolete, which is a reflection of him being obsolete. He sees leather cutter's clicker machines, just like the ones he used to operate back in the day. The most disturbing thing he finds in the factory, however, is a human form made entirely out of amber, completely still. In fact, there is hardened amber hanging from the ceiling of the factory, as if the entire factory was made out of it. The figure is on a raised platform that supports a clicker machine, as if it was once operating the machine a long time ago. 

The figure was that of a slender young man though of course the matter's uniformly honey-like color prevented one from telling the model's hair or eye color, the effigy's eyes just blank golden orbs in a glassy golden head that seemed to glow inside with the mellow light that angled in through the window behind.

While being an amazing, mysterious creation of something beyond us, the figure, and its lack of features, are a reflection of him. He is a nobody; he's nothing special. There is nothing exceptional about him, and he is the same as any other person like him, and is just like his fellow factory co-workers. He is the product of a failing town that is suffering from a depression. He even talks to it, asking if it is working overtime, and how, even though he worked overtime, he still lost his house; his little piece of the universe. Any aspirations or dreams of achieving something greater than himself were gone.

There is yet another figure he encounters that is also made out of amber. Earlier in the story, he peeked into a room that housed a web orb containing hundreds of spiders, something that he was greatly afraid of. Later on, after hearing a piercing shriek that brought him back to that very same room, he found an amber figure curled on the floor. It was a nude woman, and her appearance was that of being pregnant. He saw a figure moving in the belly: 

No sooner had he recognized the shadowy outline in her abdomen for what it was than he thought he saw it move, kicking out with both of its feet at once as if to pound them against the constraining wall of her womb. 

He suddenly realizes that the child is alive, and must be saved. He uses a hatchet to hack away at the amber belly of the female figure. He hacks and hacks until the belly breaks apart. He thinks he can bring the baby home with him, so he and his wife can raise it; however, the black mass breaks apart into thousands of tiny spiders, causing him to scuttle backwards. One may wonder how a baby fits into all of this. Well, earlier in the story, he wonders what life would have been like for he and is wife, if they had a child. Would they be happier, or would they collapse from mental and financial stress? It can be interpreted that his wife may have, at one point, been pregnant, and they lost the baby, and it has haunted them all this time, hence his eagerness to bring a baby home with him. The loss of a child is something that never fully goes away. 

The use of amber in this story is an interesting one. The human forms are made out of it, and there are hardened amber droplets hanging from the ceiling. Scientists often study insects that have been preserved in amber for millions of years. Amber is a time capsule, a window into the past. In his case, his past, youth, history, loss, regret, they are all preserved in amber, allowing him to explore, study, and ruminate. He is in a museum of his past.

Ghosts in Amber is a strong debut for Dim Shores, and a testament to Jeffrey Thomas's ability to write Weird Fiction of varying degrees. Thomas wrote a story that hits close to  home for a lot of people. He crafted a crushing, haunting, and oppressive atmosphere that seeps through your skin and permeates your entire being. He cleverly creeps ambiguity into the story, making it all the more mysterious and engaging, leaving much room for interpretation and discourse. Thomas brilliantly explores failed towns and the human psyche, giving us a look into a world that many live in, and one that others hope to never be in.