Wednesday, March 25, 2015

When it's Time for Dead Things to Die: Review


Alexis had provided scant, agitating hazy details, but those were enough to reshape Lowe's perception of reality and the things that subsisted on the fringes

My body is chilled, my soul engulfed in shadows. Why? Because I read Clint Smith's novella, When it's Time for Dead Things to Die. I was in the grip of Smith's ice cold, tenebrous prose; immersed in a labyrinthine, stygian landscape filled with shadows, empty streets, and abandoned, dilapidated buildings. My abyssal experience didn't happen in another world; it didn't happen in some fairy tale realm; and it didn't happen in a city hidden beneath the surface of the earth. No, it happened in a small town on the outskirts of Chicago. Smith brings otherness--he brings the alien--to urban streets in the form of a man (I use that term loosely) who has been around for centuries. A sinister man who was bestowed a dark gift. 

Published by the leader of Weird Fiction, Dunhams Manor Press, When it's Time for Dead Things to Die revolves around Joseph Lowe, a street-smart man who has been in and out of foster homes since he was eight. Now, in his mid-twenties, Lowe works as a line cook at a private club called The Tudor Quoin, owned by Gregory Bath, a Godfather (Krestnii Otets, крестный отец) in the Russian mafia. Lowe didn't get the job on his own, however; it was given to him by Bath because Lowe is in his debt, in the form of an undetermined term of servitude. Lowe got himself into this mess because he had been sleeping with Alexis, Bath's granddaughter, and got her pregnant. Rather than kill him, Bath spared him, making him part of the family,  which, in some sense, is worse. While cleaning the dishes one night at Gregory's house, Lowe is approached by Arthur Bath, Gregory's son. Arthur offers Lowe a proposition, one that puts Lowe in conflict with himself. He has to make a choice; he has to make the right choice that will ensure his survival.

Smith's novella is a dark, soul-chilling tale about survival, family, and loyalty. Since the death of his parents, Lowe has been in and out of orphanages and foster families since the age of eight. He had to endure an endless barrage of "cold-blooded counselors, useless church organizations, and the conveyor belt of flaky foster families." These unfortunate, harrowing experiences shaped him, at an early age, into a survivor; someone who grew to depend on himself and no one else. He alone is the master of his own destiny. The only thing he actually relies on are his cooking recipes. Growing up, he had become a kitchen apprentice, and honed his skills over the years. While life can be chaotic and unpredictable, Lowe's recipes never changed or let him down. Once Lowe finds himself in the grip of Gregory Bath and his family, he loses all control he had over his life; it was now in the hands of Gregory. He was "fortunate, he supposed, that he was still among the living. More or less." He really wasn't among the living, in a sense, though. His life no longer being his, he never knew if he would live to see the next day. Each time Bath approaches him for something, he immediately thinks this is it, he's done. He constantly contemplates running away, but knows he won't make it very far, for Bath's power extends far and wide. Lowe sees his life as an "existential cul de sac." His life is at a dead end, and having no control over it is a fate worse than death.

On the surface, the Bath family seems like your typical mafia family. Everyone has their place, and their unquestioning obedience to Gregory, the pakhan, is tacitly expected. What sets the Bath's apart from every other mafia family is Gregory being over six hundred years old, and Arthur, Gregory's son, is ready for a regime change. The relationship between the two is shown as Arthur expecting to do what he is told, and Gregory will not tolerate anything less than obedience. He does not hesitate to cut Arthur off from speaking. Arthur is incredibly ambitious; he has the ability to "achieve and possess anything he wishes." Gregory, at his frighteningly old age, is on the precipice, and Arthur is prepared to give him that extra nudge to push him over; he wants what he feels is rightfully his, and is tired of waiting for the old man to die. When Arthur informs Lowe of his plan, and his wanting Lowe to be a part of it, Lowe considers the benefits of Arthur's betrayal to his own father. Lowe thinks he'll be safe under Arthur's "venal wing." He sees himself as no longer merely surviving, but thriving. Arthur's takeover will gave way to a more "tranquil period," dispensing with the old, and bringing in the new. Lowe, however, comes to a swift revelation. Gregory spared his life, instead of taking it. Despite the near nine months of servitude, Lowe has--I feel, at least--come to view Gregory as his family, of sorts. No orphanage or foster family ever "spared" Lowe. He has been a loyal member of Gregory's family, and here his own flesh and blood, Arthur, is ready to do away with him, and Lowe must quickly decide where his loyalty lies.

Smith infuses his craftily weaved tale of family and loyalty with elements of the Weird. As stated in the previous paragraph, Gregory Bath is far from normal, and Lowe clearly knows this. Speaking with Alexis about her grandfather, he is provided with "scant, agitating hazy details, but those were enough to reshape Lowe's perception of reality and the things that subsisted on the fringes." This is key, because Lowe now knows that there are things that exist outside his periphery; things that shatter the perceptions and barriers he has created for himself. The world is not as it seems. This makes Bath ten times more terrifying than he would be, if he were a regular person. Arthur is not exactly like his father, but is still not your average human being. Smith's use of atmosphere and language paint a dark and sinister portrait of both Gregory and Arthur. Gregory is never fully seen, always obscured by shadow, dim street lights, or moonlight. The lights in Gregory's Cadillac are disconnected, so Lowe never gets a clear look at him, except when thin streaks of light come streaming through the windows. "Bars of industrially bloodless light bloomed and faded, bloomed and faded, as Gregory, with those spidery-maestro movements, narrated a route back to Highland." Other instances when Lowe does get a look at Bath, are of a nebulous nature. He sees Gregory's angled face, vultured head, distracting long fingers, and beak nose. He catches a scarecrow silhouette of him. It can be said that Bath walks between light and dark, life and death, which makes sense when considering how old he is, and the gift he received centuries ago. He is in a "homeostatic extension." Perhaps, the dim light shone on him represents his fading humanity, as he is always vaguely described as being more animalistic, his human side fading more and more as the centuries come and go. Even though Gregory is far older than him, Arthur is the more savage and feral of the two. A confrontation between Arthur and Lowe depicts Arthur as such:

Arthur weakly pushes himself up on from the concrete, up onto all fours; he is still on the verge of where the paltry curtain of light gives into the darker recesses of the basement, and in this in-between space Arthur's face is the carnivorous mask of a feral thing--his eyes catching the light with silver-flash iridescence, the pale flesh, where not glistening with dark fluid, is wrinkled around the folds of a sneer. Teeth. Though, in the gloom, Lowe cannot discern if Arthur's teeth have shifted to an unnatural sharpness or if they've simply broken unevenly as a result of the violent fall. Arthur lifts a hand, his long fingers forming into shivering claw

This paragraph not only exemplifies Smith's dark, fluid prose and bone-chilling atmosphere, but, in an obscuring manner, depicts Arthur as something less than human, whether it is because he's Gregory's son, or because his ambitions, desires, and greed reduced him to such a state. Vagueness and obfuscation are key elements in Weird Fiction, and Smith utilizes those elements masterfully. 

Clint Smith has written a truly dark and terrifying tale that takes you into the seedy underworld of mob affairs. It also illuminates family matters and themes of betrayal, loyalty, and survival. It's an exemplary work of Weird Fiction, showing us that we don't have to be taken to other realms to be terrified, but to the very streets we live on. We have no idea what's in the house next to us. 



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