Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Visitor: Review (Spoilers)

  Their faces--no longer marred by the horror of Dream transfiguration--were still intact. What she had been afforded was a glimpse into the future world. Of the fate that the song would condemn them to, as it had done to her over time. Rook knew at last what would become of all things. 

My first introduction to the work of Farah Rose Smith, and it did not disappoint. A chapbook published by Ulthar Press, The Visitor is about Rook, a musician in a goth rock band, who longs for fame and fortune. Her desire for wealth is so great, that she allows herself to be seduced by a being known only as the Visitor, from a place called the Afterworld. Rook travels to the Afterworld in her sleep, and receives lessons from the Visitor. Unfortunately, she cannot remember the sounds in her waking hours. One song, in particular, captures the ear of Rook; she says it would change the Rock 'n' Roll landscape. In exchange for bringing him to the realm of Earth, the Visitor tells Rook he'll give her the song. It's a Faustian bargain that will not only end badly for Rook, but the entire world.

What really stands out in The Visitor is Smith's prose. She deftly merges the beautiful with the grotesque, creating a vibrant, surreal world; reality and fantasy are blurred, as if you are experiencing a fever dream. The atmosphere is simultaneously ethereal and dreadful, possessing a dizzying effect. You wonder if Rook is in a sort of liminal state, caught between the real world and the Afterworld. Smith's language flows in and around you, smooth, exotic, and rotting. With such a level of quality and care, you can't put it down. 

At the heart of Smith's tale is not just Rook's bargain with the Visitor, but the power of music, as well. Rook is desperate for a change; she wants to get out of her trailer; she wants a life of wealth and luxury. Without giving any thought to possible consequences, Rook is all too eager to make a bargain with the Visitor, even at the expense of her secret lover, and fellow band mate, Miller, which does eat away at her, after the deed is done. Rook takes the life of Miller, allowing the Visitor to use his body as a vessel, giving him free reign over thie human world. It's terrifying scenarios like this that remind us of the mutability of our flesh; they remind us of our vulnerability to beings that far surpass us in every aspect, and are capable of using us as vessels, tools, puppets, playthings, and much more. Rook soon becomes aware of what she has let into her world, and the horror that is to follow. 

The Visitor touches on the power and lasting effects of music. Smith vividly describes the Visitor's music as being otherworldly; it's not meant for human ears, and it has a maddening effect on Rook and the rest of her band mates, during their practice. This being the first time the Visitor plays while in Miller's body:

The overture was a quiet orchestration. One of abysmal melancholy, growing ever stronger with each passing whir of the strange, ethereal guitar. It grew shriller, louder, until the rapturous pounding of rhythmic muscle overcame the subtleties of the beginning. It had theatre, poise--an erotic tension so powerful that one would feel as if a serrated wheel ran back and forth over the genitals, ever-satisfied with a cosmic teasing. Every second thrust the listeners into a seemingly orgasmic fury. A lustful thirst unquenchable in the land of men. 
The outro commenced. An exhaustive depression hovered over Rook--an omnipresent cloud. The others struggled to recover, overcome by the mad genius of the composition.

Music being used in such a manner brings to mind stories like Lovecraft's The Music of Eric Zann, which, I believe, is similar in the use of music never before heard by human ears. The vibrancy of the story is akin to Anya Martin's tale, Sensoria, featured in the anthology, Giallo Fantastique, published by Word Horde. Both Martin and Smith's tale touch on the power and lasting effects that music can have on us; how it can change not just us, but the landscape, as well. 

In the case of the music played by the Visitor, Rook doesn't realize what it's true purpose is until it's far too late. At the beginning of the story, Rook is in the Afterworld with the Visitor; however, it is in ruin. It is merely a husk of what it used to be. Vegetation is gone, dusk is eternal, forests destroyed. It is a land in peril. Through his music, the Visitor plans to restore the Afterworld to what it used to be, by sacrificing the inhabitants of earth. It starts with Rook. After the band's first practice, essentially, Rook's body begins to break down; and that is what will happen to everyone else, as Rook sees in a vision at the concert they are playing at, towards the end of the story:

The swaying of limbs, the flashes of flesh. Women and men alike removed their clothes and took to pressing their bodies together in a hypnotic rhythm; a new and obscene ritual that only the sound of Rookie Swallows could incite. The thrashing of arms, waggling of tongues, the clattering of genitals. And then, a single face was illuminated--a harbinger to a devil's denouement. A melted face of flesh, indecipherable amidst the muck and mortar. A frozen form so like Rook in the land of dreams, in the throes of flesh-melt; the highest form of dream transfiguration.

Much to her horror, Rook understands what will happen to everyone, and there is nothing she can do to stop it. Everyone will be used as fodder to bring life back to the Afterworld. "This was the song in its proper form--an indelicate means of melting man into feast, into fertilizer. It was terrible. It was magnificent. It was... over." That last bit about the proper form of the song as being terrible and magnificent at the same time is a great way of displaying human thought in the face of something way beyond our comprehension. How do we respond to such sites? How do we perceive them? It's also interesting to ponder the character of the Visitor. It can be argued that there is a level of ambiguity to him, concerning him being bad or good. As in, good intentions with horrifying consequences. He saves one world, but destroys another. And Rook is the one responsible for the fate of everyone; she let the Visitor into her world because she wanted wealth, even though she came to greatly regret her decision. 

 With The Visitor, Smith has weaved a tale of how we let our desires and obsessions cloud our judgment and ability to make rational decisions, often ending with terrible results. It's about music and the language it produces; how it impacts and changes us and the world. It's a haunting, grotesque, beautiful work of literature born in the dark recesses of some unholy world.  If this is what is to be expected from the rest of what Farah Rose Smith has to offer, you can call me an instant fan who eagerly desires to devour more of her work. 

Palladium at Night: Review (Spoilers)

What could no longer be called time passed nonetheless, replaced by a cold, lightless void with no activity save for perpetual dilapidation, existence dwindled into inert useless particles. All Irepani could do was witness this reverse of Creation. 

In a short amount of time, Christopher Slatsky has established himself as a credible force in the realm of Weird fiction. Starting off with a few chapbooks published by Dunhams Manor Press, followed by his debut collection Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales, also published by Dunhams Manor Press, Slatsky's work has been devoured by many readers, garnering much--and rightly so--praise. Since the release of his debut collection, Slatsky has been featured in periodicals such as Strange Aeons, and numerous anthologies, which include Year's Best Weird Fiction vol. 3, published by Undertow Publications. With so much quality Horror and Weird fiction work being put out, it's difficult to keep pace with all of it, but I do try and make it a point to keep up with anything of Slatsky's that is published, which brings me to his novelette, Palladium at Night, brought to you by Dim Shores. 

PAN centers on Irepani, a recovering alcoholic who lives with his cousin, Lorena, in Portland, Oregon. Formerly homeless, and undocumented, Irepani spent a long time living on the streets of California, and in a bottle. After successfully making his way over the California border and into Oregon, Irepani has been living with Lorena for the last six years. He made great strides in turning his life around; he got sober, and found himself a part-time job at a diner. Wanting a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, Irepani decides to venture out into the wilderness with his dog, Cadejo the Third, and stay at the abandoned Leman fire lookout tower, where he believes he can find some much needed peace and solitude. What Irepani doesn't know, however, is that his little trip will turn into a nightmare of cosmic proportions.

In the majority of his fiction, Slatsky incorporates big concepts that are epic in scope, and PAN is no different. There are many components to the story: alcoholism/recovery, military intervention in the name of security, the occult fused with science, god/god-like/the divine as terror, and the concept of time. While there is so much packed into the story, Slatsky balances all of it rather magnificently; you don't feel overwhelmed or bogged down with what's being explored and communicated, even as the story goes back and forth between Irepani, and a group of scientists and military personnel, which helps add depth and tension to the story. Helping to move the story along is the feeling of dread and unease that slowly builds with each turn of the page. The atmosphere brings about a certain awareness that something is not right; nothing is what it seems, as Irepani soon discovers.

While Irepnai is all about seeking solitude at the lookout tower, many of his companions do not think it's a safe place to stay. The tower is something of an urban legend; it's a source of various stories and strange things, and Irepani's companions believe the city is much safer, offering relative safety, warmth, and sustenance. Driving Lorena's jeep, Irepani turns down a gravel road that leads to the lookout tower, and it doesn't take long for him to begin feeling a sense of fear. Cadejo whines and paws at the passenger window. Pulling over to let her out and go to the bathroom, Irepani notices the dashboard clock is dim, showing only dashes instead of numbers. Cadejo is gone longer than Irepani is comfortable with and finally calls her back; she returns, but Irepani is already on edge:

His heart hammered in his chest. Why was he so riled up? Cadejo had never been in any danger. The hustle and bustle of the city was comforting; the vastness of the wild held too many unexplored regions, places dimly lit where only cloven hoof and paw had disturbed the carpets of moss. Too many places for Cadejo to get hurt or lost. That must be why he was so on edge. 

During other parts of the story, Irepani feels exposed and vulnerable; he feels a sense of menace in the woods surrounding him. Slatsky does well in establishing a dichotomy between the wilderness and the city; a sort of wilderness vs. civilization. Over the centuries, perceptions of the wilderness have changed from being a dreadful place full of monsters and terror, to a place where people go to get away from city life; they desire the beauty and tranquility of the forest, so that they can forget about their life in the city for a while. In the case of Irepani, he very much wanted to get away from the city, much to the dismay of his companions, who view the woods surrounding the lookout tower as a cursed place where strange things take place. It's safer to stay in the city, the pinnacle of civilization. What I think Slatsky is delving into here is--at least to me--are the flawed and changing perceptions we have of what the wilderness is to us. An interesting essay that discusses this topic at length is by William Cronon, called The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Give it a read, if you are interested. 

Some major themes that Slatsky explores in PAN are time, alcoholism, and what we would probably call religious experience. The core of the story is how human perceptions of time differ at a cultural and individual level. Some cultures have no concept of time at all, while others may measure time by the changing of the seasons. Western culture lives and dies by the clock. At the individual level, one person could perceive an event as dragging on, happening in slow motion, while another person perceives the same event as happening so fast, they aren't exactly sure what happened. You could perceive a certain memory as happening a couple months ago, when it actually happened two years ago. Out in the wilderness, the clock in the jeep doesn't work, and Irepani's watch and phone are dead, so he has no way of keeping track of time, and he's basically guessing how long it takes him to get from the lookout tower to the Leman Observatory, and back again. In addition, the second narrative in PAN is the group of scientists who have been able to weaponize time; they can change the course of history by altering years, hours, minutes, even seconds. 

Of great interest is how the feat of weaponizing time is achieved through fusing mysticism with science. It's no coincidence, either, that Irepani says prayers to give him strength concerning his recovery from alcoholism, and the scientists and military personnel make mentions of God, and beings that would be considered god-like. More specifically, a Quasi-Temporal Eternality:

Sorry. A QTE is a being that experiences its entire life all at once, the past present and future simultaneously. With that in mind, an eternally existing God must experience everything that has ever been or will be. 

This is deliberate, I believe, on Slatsky's part. Some of the steps in recovery involve believing in something greater than yourself, and giving yourself over to that power, to help you recover. What Irepani experiences towards the end of the story, could be considered a religious experience. In the presence of the alien, QTE, whatever you want to call it, Irepani experiences the birth, death, and rebirth, of the entire world; he's reliving his past over and over again. He's experiencing the past, present, and future, simultaneously. In the face of something so powerful and far beyond human comprehension, how do we view such a thing? Is it divinity? Is the divine actually terrifying? Is this what Matt Cardin refers to as "Holy terror"? Does Irepani feel safe in such a presence? These are powerful questions that we may not want answered. Slatsky also creates a relationship with time and alcoholism; they parallel each other. When Irepani drank, it helped him:

But he wanted a drink. This wasn't just a craving, but something far more primal, addiction stained into his very soul. It was a cliche to say alcohol numbed him from the realities of life, but there was that and something more--drinking helped retain those rare moments when he'd felt happy about being alive, slowed everything down, prolonged the good times, the joyful memories moving as if sinking in molasses. Blotted out the anger and loneliness. Everything else was pushed aside, speeding by so quickly drunken brain couldn't acknowledge the struggles and pain.

We see how alcohol altered Irepani's perception of time. Drinking slowed everything down for him, allowing him to savor and enjoy the good times. Everything outside of that whizzed by him in a flash of light; he forgot about everything else. Another aspect is the loss of time. It can be interpreted that Irepani drank the bottles of vodka he found in the lookout tower, which could explain why he wasn't sure if the form he sees on path moved or not, or why some experiences seemed to last longer than others, or the opposite. Can Irepani account for everything that happened? Slatsky does so well in pairing an epic concept with the humane, weaving a powerful tale with multiple layers. 

We also see military intervention in the form of using time in the name of national security. Major General Targ wants to see that the security of the United States is not in any way threatened, but also wants to cultivate weapons out of time to "send enemy soil back 1.5 billion years when their land was at the bottom of the ocean." Such an amazing discovery and all we can think to do is use it for weapons. On the other hand, is it wise for us to traverse uncharted realms? Are we being careless with science? Just because we can, does that mean we should? By delving into the unknown, are we risking ourselves and the entire planet? 

Once again, Christopher Slatsky does well in solidifying his place in the contemporary Weird fiction landscape. He has crafted a tale that truly embodies what Weird fiction is. PAN is more than just about exploring the unknown and our place in the world and universe; it explores our perceptions and how they differ from culture to culture, and from person to person. It's about how we try and make life better for ourselves, no matter where we are from and what our circumstances may be. It's about understanding, and showing compassion for those who are suffering and in need. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Too Late: Review

You never believe in us. You assume we are made up, to explain the nature of man. Child, we are the nature of man, because we have infiltrated humanity, time and time again. Every foul act you blame on your evolution, on your 'human nature' we take pride in under veils of delicious shadow, and hate, and psychic refuse. We bask in the glory of your undoing, one rape, one child murder, one genocide at a time. And you say 'God is dead.' You couldn't be more right. The battle for the world was lost long ago, and as your preachers thump the pulpit with bloody fists, we throw another body on the pyre.

Right out of the gate, Sean M. Thompson comes swinging with his debut collection of stories, Too Late. In just 62 pages, Thompson manages to violate and decimate you with tales of lust, betrayal, murder, urban legends, and demonic possession. Thompson's visceral, hardcore prose will bludgeon you until you are at the threshold, leaving you a whimpering, bloody pulp. And if you manage to survive, his stories will linger within you long after you are done reading them; trauma locked away deep down inside you.  

Thompson's collection technically contains five stories, but a sixth story is added as bonus material. While the stories are not related to one another, there is a sense of cohesion, as they all take place in various parts of Massachusetss; this makes the stories, I think, more intimate for the reader, thus having a stronger impact. Thompson's stories are about very real, very flawed people who find themselves in unreal situations that challenge their perceptions of reality. There are terrible, unfathomable things on the fringes that are hungry for both flesh and spirit. 

The first story in the collection is Fickle Mortality. A serial killer is on death row, and during her final 60 minutes of life, she reflects on her crimes and how much she enjoyed them; the thrill of the hunt, and taking pleasure in her victims' final moments of life. Our killer also hints at something greater at work, indicating that she will be reborn and live on. Is she telling the truth, or is she just insane? That's for you to decide. With some commentary on childhood abuse, and the celebrity status of serial killers, Thompson starts off nice and slow, tying you to a chair and giving you a small taste of what is coming for you.

The next story, and my favorite of the six, is Stranded in the Storm. Josh and Karen are driving in the middle of a snow storm, on their way to party. Their car spins out of control and crashes into a snowbank. Josh calls for a tow truck to get them out, but is told it'll take about an hour for it to arrive; in the meantime, Josh and Karen sit tight, but have no idea that something is out in the woods, something huge and unnatural, and it's stalking them. Thompson's detailed descriptions of the snow, cold, and the menace that is looming over Josh and Karen, really help to dial up the dread, making you anxious and shaky. This is high-octane horror with a hint of tragedy at the end that is enough to make you shed a tear or two. 

Jumpin' Jack is tale about how you can never truly know someone. Our narrator reveals that Jack Brentweather, his co-worker, massacred fifteen girls in one night, and reflects on how no one could've known that Jack was capable of something so horrible, but also reflects on the self-guilt that ravages his mind. The narrator plays back over and over about how he should've been more aware, more in tune with the fact that something was wrong with Jack. It's a great commentary on how we punish ourselves for not doing something, anything, that could've stopped a horrible tragedy from happening. And like in Fickle Mortality, there is some commentary about how killers are immortalized and glorified through songs, stories, the media, and any other medium. Thompson also leaves this one up to the reader to interpret if Jack was just insane, or if something greater was at work, something guiding him.

Dust is my second favorite story in the collection. It's a fine Weird Western, something that we don't have enough of, if you ask me. Clickin' Clarence and Red Robert are looking for a place to shack up in, after robbing some people who were passing by in their wagon. Not wanting to get caught in the sandstorm that is rapidly approaching, they find shelter in a town called "Dust," except that it's deserted. They soon discover, especially Clarence, that there's more to the town than they truly know. This tale is dripping with atmosphere; it's creepy, and nicely paced. The theme of betrayal is at the center of this tale, but I love how Thompson fleshes out the town of Dust and its ghostly residents, and even making the town a character itself, in the sense that it's always looking for people to visit, except they never leave. 

 The End of Humanity is a maniacal, apocalyptic tale about an author who is in a creative slump. He searches the web for some ideas and come across the site of a demonologist by the name of Henry Scatherty, who only lives a few towns over. Unbeknownst to the writer, Mr. Scatherty is not what he appears to be. The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of the writer, giving the read a palpable sense of the doom that is approaching, and the feeling of degeneration in the writer, as he loses more and more of his humanity, taken over by something malevolent. Reading it makes you feel like the apocalypse is really happening, or that it's almost at your doorstep; it's too late for you to do anything. There is no interpretation to be made here: there are things that exist in places that we only see in nightmares. They are real, and they want you. 

The bonus story is Those Damn College Kids. Four friends are on their way to cabin for a little getaway, but things slowly begin to fall apart for them. Tempers flare, motives are revealed, and a tale of folk horror turns out to be true. Thompson adds a sort of commentary within the commentary, as the friends talk about what would happen in a horror movie, but that those things wouldn't happen to them because they are in the real world. The story has the feel of a Friday the 13th movie; there's lust, sex, alcohol, running and tripping, woods, and killer on the loose. 

With his debut collection, Thompson brings to the table a nice mix of stories that range in tone, themes, emotion, power, humor, and varying levels of horror and madness. Above all, though, Thompson brings the reader a powder keg of entertainment. These stories are akin to a late night at the drive-in, so bring a friend or your significant other, get yourself a beverage, some popcorn, and sit back for a fun night of gore and terror!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Muscadines: Paperback Review (Spoilers)

All my life I've made arrangements for unwanted men. I thought, once upon a time, Mother was searching for one she could keep. But she wanted what they owned, whatever she could get. She chose the ones who were proud of the size of a wallet, or the gold of a tie clip. Most were liars. They flashed a dime store pinky ring, called it a diamond, and said there was a lot more where that came from. Card sharks with fake names. Vacuum cleaner salesmen, hundreds of miles from home. Lonely men. Nobody looking for them, nobody expecting them home. They weren't afraid to travel alone. They should have been afraid. 

Ever since I read S.P. Miskowski's Skillute Cycle, I have been a fan of her writing. She creates creepy, dreadful, oppressive atmospheres, along with engaging, flawed characters. She digs deep into these characters--with great skill, I might add--and reveals grisly portraits of broken homes, fractured child/parent relationships, poverty, family cycles, identity, self-preservation, past deeds, and much, much more. In her story, Muscadines, Miskowski does not disappoint, crafting a fine piece of Southern Gothic Horror literature that left me staggering. 

Muscadines is published by Dunhams Manor Press, with art by the great Dave Felton. Felton's cover is a truly accurate, ghostly and terrifying depiction of what awaits the reader. Honestly, I can't imagine anyone else doing the cover. Muscadines tells the story of Alma, Martha, and Louise, three sisters living in their family home in an unknown, rural part of Georgia. At first, it's just Martha and Louise living together, but after many years of living in various places, Alma returns to assume the role as head of the household, much to the consternation of Martha. Told through Martha's fragmented narrative, we are treated to a horror show of family secrets that involve abuse, their deceased mother, poison berries, morbid rituals and traditions, and murder. 

Miskowski immediately establishes the mood of her story by not telling us exactly where it takes place. We know it's in a rural part of Georgia because of other areas mentioned in passing, such as LaGrange, Stone Mountain, Warm Springs, and Chipley, but that's all we have to go by. What we are told is:

Down here, in our part of the state, the roads disappear in the dirt and weeds. Houses are half a mile or more apart, and some are deserted. Farming families that didn't lose husbands in the last World War lost sons in Korea. So there's nobody working the land now but a few old ladies. Their houses are like ours. No fancy driveways. No lawn jockeys. No estate names. We're not on any historic route. For that you're better off heading to Warm Springs or Stone Mountain. Even chicken farmers from Chipley think of this place as the sticks. 

Miskowski puts the location in a sort of weird state; she gives it a sense of otherness, something alien-like; it exists outside a state of normalcy. She writes that travelers usually pass on through, rarely stopping. And if they do stop, it's to take a picture of a cotton field, or some other site or object. To the travelers, the location is something different, something they don't normally see; or even something that's forgotten, or even hidden, like a kind of hidden poverty. In other instances, travelers find themselves lost while on their way to some other destination. This gives the story the feel of a twisted, dark fairy tale, something that's hazy and dream-like. By immediately setting this up , Miskowski is telling you that you are in for a brutal, deranged, and hallucinatory ride.

Muscadines is told in the first person, by Martha. The narrative is fragmented, in that some chapters are only one or two sentences, while others are anywhere from one paragraph, to multiple paragraphs. It makes you feel like you are reading a diary of sorts; something you'd find in an old abandoned farmhouse. It definitely makes the story feel more personal, adding heightened levels of emotion, rawness, and pain. Some of the things Martha says are enough to make you recoil in horror, causing you to put the book down and catch your breath. The story is perfectly paced, as Martha reveals more and more with each page turned, all the way until the very end.

At the heart of Muscadines is the theme of unbreakable family cycles, and abuse. We learn that Martha, Louise, and Alma's mother, Ruth, grew up in a fanatically religious, abusive household. Ruth's parents, Ophelia and Desmond Parker, attended church three times a week, and always asked for the congregation to pray for Ruth, who Desmond said had a demon in her. No one was to believe anything Ruth said. She would receive beatings from not only her parents, but Sunday school teachers, as well. Miskowski doesn't pull any punches in her descriptions:

Once Ruth was unconscious, or at least couldn't move, Desmond would put on his dentures and unbutton his collar. He'd take a flashlight down off a shelf in the hall, and go to search for signs of the demon on his daughter's body. Taking special care to check all the hidden spots where that crafty monster might leave his traces. After a thorough search Ophelia would bathe Ruth, change her nightgown, and put her back into bed. 

The family cycle of morbid rituals and traditions doesn't begin until Ruth is eighteen years old and inherits her house after her parents die. Since she was a kid, Ruth kept a berry plant hidden underneath the back steps of her home. With the discovery of what the berries could do, and the appearance of muscadines growing on her land, Ruth established a new vocation that would ensure her survival, and would be passed down to her children. She would ground up the berries to a fine powder and mix them with the muscadines to make wine that could render someone unable to move. Thus began the ritual of Ruth going out to find men to bring back to her home, sometimes having sex with them, drug them, tie them up, murder them, and take their possessions; and her children played a part in it, as well. And we later learn that all three girls have a different father that fell prey to Ruth.

When Ruth dies, and Alma leaves, Martha takes over the household and cares for her sister, Louise. Martha does everything she can to break the horrible cycle that her Mother started. But when Alma returns years later and assumes the role as head of the household, the cycle comes back, as Alma begins doing the same thing her mother did: bringing men back to the house to be drugged and murdered. At first, Martha fights it; she hates that Alma is back and wants her out, but as the story reaches its end, all three girls fully embrace the cycle, and vow to continue it. 

What's so great about Horror and Weird Fiction, is that strange, bizarre, and horrifying ordeals are effectively used to highlight numerous themes. In this case, Miskowski crafted a tale about an unbreakable family cycle, and that no matter how hard we try, we are destined--or doomed, which may be the more appropriate word--to fall into the those cycles, some of which began generations ago. We always talk about how we aren't going be like our parents, and our parents said they aren't going to be like their parents, and so on and so forth, but it's inevitable. Even the best of us maintain certain aspects of a cycle, despite our best efforts not to. Whether it's your father's temper, or your mother's gambling, something is going to stay with you. In the case of Alma, Martha, and Louise, it's their mother's ritual killings. 

Once again, S.P. Miskowski has shown us why we should be reading her work. It's her skill at writing evenly paced stories and smooth prose, coupled with her incomparable ability to dig deep down into peoples' souls and unearth all their complexities and layers. With Muscadines, Miskowski brought us a tale that's, brutal, raw, and unwavering in it's onslaught of the reader's being. If you haven't read Miskowki yet, now is the time to start doing so; she is taking literary Horror to new heights. 

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.