Monday, January 11, 2016

REVIEW: Do You Like to Look at Monsters? by Scott Nicolay


“Green green green…”

            In a year of many exceptional releases in the Horror/Weird Fiction genre, 2015 proved to be especially significant for author Scott Nicolay. Do You Like to Look at Monsters?, a chapbook from Fedogan and Bremer books, won the 2015 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, further solidifying Nicolay as an important inclusion to the Weird Fiction community. Originally included in chapbook form exclusive to the deluxe edition of Nicolay’s debut collection Ana Kai Tangata, Monsters is now available to a wider readership as an eBook on Kindle.

            The setup of Monsters is deceptively simple. Centering on a young boy with a love for viewing reels in his Viewmaster, we enter the story from the perspective of a child curious about violence, perhaps unknowingly so. He enjoys seeing fantastic depictions of dinosaurs battling near erupting volcanoes, or sub-aquatic creatures terrorizing deep-sea vessels. In seeing the world through the boy’s innocent eyes an immediate sense of normality is established, yet intersecting the dinosaur fights and deep-sea menaces is the introduction of a troubled uncle returning from Vietnam. The equilibrium of simple, child-like wonder is disrupted, and things only get stranger from there. We are shown, strictly through our young narrator, a boy gradually exposed to a horror beyond his comprehension, culminating in an ending that truly frightened me.

            There are narrative layers to explore within this story, pieces and parts that, should you choose to ponder, will begin to align themselves to form a darker picture – not unlike assembling disparate pieces of film to place in your very own Viewmaster. Those already familiar with Nicolay’s work will find his trademark versatility on full display here, not to mention his use of succinct and powerful language. However, beyond those talents is another important piece to his fiction, and that is his voice. The atmosphere of this particular story, the connection we feel with its characters, is built entirely upon the believability of the narrator. Nicolay has a tremendous gift for replicating the thought patterns of his young protagonist and reporting back how the world looks to him. That is what I consider the true strength of this story, and why it was one of my favorite reads of 2015. Voice is paramount in this piece, and it is done beautifully.

            The need for the boy to see the world through the reels of his Viewmaster is no different than our need to view it through any other medium. In Do You Like to Look at Monsters?, Nicolay is asking a question he already knows the answer to, one we often ask ourselves yet feel shameful in admitting. The car accident we slow to see, hoping to spy a hint of red on the pavement; the ever-present calamity we see on the nightly news; the simultaneous repulsion and delight in viewing a grisly horror film - these things, if we choose to listen to them, reveal to us the primal inclinations we’ve possessed since birth. It no longer becomes a question of whether or not we “like” to look at monsters, but a matter of “needing” to. In that respect, there is another question hiding within the narrative of this piece, one possessing the same ambiguity and child-like wonder embedded in the tale itself, and that is:

Does looking at monsters, in turn, make monsters of us? 


Purchase Do You Like to Look at Monsters? on Kindle

Also available in physical and eBook form -  Ana Kai Tangata


Friday, September 25, 2015

REVIEW: The Friendly Horror & Other Weird Tales 2nd Edition by Jessica Burke and Anthony Burdge


I do not often think of horror as being friendly. And while I've never disputed the fact that horror and comedy are often found on the same spectrum together, I've never seen them appear in equal measure: I am always either laughing hysterically or cringing in terror, never both, bringing me to the conclusion that, at least for me, the two cannot coexist and must always remain mutually exclusive. Jessica Burke and Anthony Burdge have shown me the error of my ways with The Friendly Horror & Other Weird Tales. They have taught me that it is possible to feel the creeping dread of cosmic horror with a smile on my face, and that laughter is often the best response when faced with the unknown.

This is the second edition of Burdge and Burke’s debut collection of weird fiction, complete with new cover and interior illustrations by Luke Spooner. The duo runs the fantastic independent publishing company Myth Ink Books and continues to impress with their high quality releases.

The collection opens with two poems, one from each author. It’s not too often you find poetry within a collection of weird fiction, and I wouldn't mind other authors taking note and implementing this into their own work. The poems are well-written and show a definite focus on word choice, and you get a small sample of each writer’s style before digging into the more meaty prose.

The first story, A Guide to Acclimating New Felines to their New Home, is an interesting piece that reads like a pet owner’s manual, if that manual were written by someone obsessed with the occult and scientific theories relating to household animals. It is not a conventional story, but that is part of its charm.

Next up is A Daddy & Me Day, a comical little story that uses the “bring your child to work” idea to great effect. This is a nice example of how the authors use everyday experience as a starting point for what typically becomes a strange, otherworldly episode. The normal events their characters are confronted with often cascade seamlessly to a believable conclusion, and this story is no exception.


Hungry Snow just might be my favorite of the bunch, relying heavily on ambiguity rather than clear detail to instill dread in the reader. The story is an account of a strange childhood episode with an ending that reminded me of something Brian Evenson might write. Replete with a dead brother named Jimmy, a crazy mother who loves Begonias more than anything else in the world and a strange, many-toothed beast that may or may not be eating houses. This story is a bizarre and delightful trip into the weird.

If you’ve ever wanted to get inside the head of a serial killer too deranged for television, you will find Keepsakes to be just what you’re looking for. This is probably the darkest story of the collection and is quite different from the others, both in tone and style. Those who prefer their horror cosmic rather than visceral might find it shocking, yet there is a supernatural aspect to it that most will find enjoyable.

Concerning the Storm is similar to the aforementioned Hungry Snow in that it deals with aspects of nature, though the way it is presented is very different. A woman recently hospitalized during a natural disaster has a strange bedside visitor who asks her to recount the accident. She and her husband have been severely disfigured by something unexplainable, something too great for the human mind to comprehend, and as the story unfolds we realize the woman’s visitor is not at all what we expected. This story reminded me of Stephen King’s The Mist in how it presented an individual against the outrĂ©, culminating in an ending that is as bleak as it is devastating.

Lastly we come to the title piece The Friendly Horror, a story about Lovecraft, the Deep Ones and ice cream. By this point in the collection the reader is aware of how these two authors tell a story: the unique writing mannerisms they use; the way they build a genuinely funny and/or horrifying narrative; the way they keep surprising you with truly original concepts. What is perhaps most interesting about this story, however, is the setting. They've taken their home of Staten Island and merged it with the Cthulhu Mythos, even going so far as to make Lovecraft himself a character in the story. The Friendly Horror reads like a love-letter to Lovecraft without ever coming off as pastiche, and it was fun to see a new take on the expansive tradition of weird fiction. It was obvious at the onset of this collection that Burke and Burdge were fans of the Man from Providence, but this story showed me how well-versed they are concerning the historical aspect of his life.



While The Friendly Horror & Other Weird Tales is considered a Lovecraftian collection, and proudly pays homage to that legacy, it also has a very modern sensibility. Doctor Who gets a mention, as does Jeff Lindsay's Dexter, Miami’s infamous serial killer. The fanboy in me geeked out over a brief reference to Gaiman’s Sandman series, and I could practically smell the coffee and cherry pie at the Double R Diner when a story talks about Agent Cooper of Twin Peaks. The frequently embedded cultural references add a welcome layer to the stories, allowing readers with similar interests to relate with the characters on a deeper level. That said, readers unfamiliar with the references may feel left out when they don’t “get” them. However, it is important to realize that these nods to popular culture are simply spice added on top of already enjoyable prose, and not knowing what color the stripes on Tom Baker’s scarf was during his stint as the fourth Doctor will not detract from the enjoyment of these well-written tales.

This is a collection that wears its influences overtly but comfortably, successfully blending the familiar with the uncanny in a refreshing way. Many of the stories begin with a foot cemented firmly in reality, only to withdraw said foot and show us a completely different reality, or perhaps the dark truth behind our reality. Yet, there are no mind games being played here; everything that happens in these stories feels genuine and believable.

This wide assortment of tales invites you in with a kind smile and a gentle nudge and, like with a friend or partner you trust implicitly, you invariably walk hand-in-hand through the darkness. However, you soon realize that the person holding your hand isn't who you thought they were; you wonder how you ever managed to get them mixed-up with someone else in the first place, but by then it’s far too late, and far too dark, to turn back.

Support a great small press and order The Friendly Horror and Other Weird Tales directly from Myth Ink Books.

Friday, August 7, 2015

REVIEW: Ghosts in Amber by Jeffrey Thomas


Micropress Dim Shores is rapidly proving itself to be an integral component in what esteemed author Scott Nicolay has coined the ‘Weird Renaissance.’ With an eye for quality, and a particular focus on the heavy-hitters of contemporary Weird Fiction, editor Sam Cowan is releasing short-run, collectible chapbooks for true devotees of the genre. That being said, it was no surprise to learn that the inimitable Jeffrey Thomas would be penning the story for Dim Shores’ debut, offering up a little tale titled Ghosts in Amber.

First and foremost, I am in awe at how well-crafted this chapbook is. From the quality of the paper to the immaculate, hauntingly fitting illustrations by Serhiy Krykun, it is clear that Dim Shores is just as concerned with its presentation as it is with its content. If this release is any indication of what is to come, I see a very bright future for this venture.

The plot of Ghosts in Amber centers on a listless man trapped in an existence that, while resembling life, is truly empty at its core. He goes through the motions, retracing the same tedious steps each day, seemingly persisting merely to persist. Though we are offered a vivid picture of who this man is, we are never actually given a name for our protagonist - a decision I believe effectively serves to enhance his alienation from the world while simultaneously allowing us to identify more closely with him.

The beginning of the story feels intentionally claustrophobic, as if mimicking the restrictions the protagonist himself is feeling. Soon, however, the narrative and its character begin to branch out, gracing fingertips along shadowed walls of a time and place best left forgotten. 

“He wondered if he was dissatisfied with his apathy, or apathetic about his dissatisfaction.”

Despite being married, the man’s wife is little more than a roommate. They suffer a strained marriage endured purely out of habit, as if it would require too much energy to bring to an end. With no human intimacy to keep him grounded, the protagonist’s only companion is memory, which plays perhaps the most significant role in the story. Recollections of his childhood creep into his waking moments, urging him to seek respite from the nothingness of his existence. He is a man searching for a way to be alive again, relying on memory to bring him peace.

 “It was as though even sound had been stripped from this place…”

What follows is a fast descent into much darker territory. Thomas masterfully makes use of the protagonist’s introspective nature and leads him away from the tedium of his life and into an abandoned factory across the street from his apartment. The factory, which quickly becomes his obsession, reignites a sense child-like wonder in him. He finds a strange sort of pleasure in the place, though that pleasure is short-lived. As is true of much work in the realm of Weird Fiction, the horror of this piece subsists just out of sight, and yet is all the more potent for remaining there.

At its heart, Ghosts in Amber is a stark examination of a man unable to relinquish his past. It is a beautifully written story concerning the terror of existing without truly being alive. Thomas delivers a tale only he could have written, and fans of his will find his continual artistic prowess at work here.

Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful chapbooks I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and Sam Cowan has gone to great lengths to create a product worthy of being considered a collectible. Limited to a mere 100 copies, and with stock levels running low, I highly suggest getting a copy before they're gone.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Scott Nicolay's The Outer Dark Podcast

"There are weird things out there, my friends."

With the release of his debut collection Ana Kai Tangata, Scott Nicolay has proven himself to be a valuable voice in the weird fiction community. And while others may be content to rest on the laurels of such a successful first collection, Nicolay is not one to sit still for very long. So, in addition to illuminating the dark places of the world with his own fiction, he has turned to Project iRadio as a base of operations for his new podcast, The Outer Dark

In a community that thrives almost exclusively on word-of-mouth, a weekly podcast fronted by one of the field's leading voices is more than a good idea, it is absolutely brilliant. Hearing authors such as John Langan, Livia Llewellyn and S.P. Miskowski discuss their work is pure fun, and despite the average run-time of about an hour per episode I still find myself wanting more. Nicolay asks pertinent questions and allows conversation to move naturally, deviating where it should without losing sight of the topic of discussion. I commend Nicolay for his energy and enthusiasm, and am excited to see where his podcast goes in the future. That being said, if we are indeed experiencing what many consider to be a 'Weird Renaissance,' I believe The Outer Dark to already be a major contributor to that claim. 

You can follow the links to download the episodes, and can even show your support for the podcast by purchasing a shirt.

Links:

Thursday, June 4, 2015

REVIEW: Over the Darkening Fields by Scott Thomas



Scott Thomas is my kind of writer.

I have a particular fondness for quiet, atmospheric fiction: stories that rely on suggestion instead of an overload of exposition. I enjoy fiction that allows me to participate in the story, to give me the freedom to fill the dark places with my own horrors. When I find that quality in an author, that ability to evoke unease solely through implication, there’s nothing better. Over the Darkening Fields has that quality, but it also has so much more.

In true weird fiction fashion, it is the hint of horror that is most disconcerting. To me, that is a sure sign of a writer confident in their abilities. Throughout this collection, Scott trusts us to draw our own conclusions, letting us place our ear against a door to decide for ourselves if there is anything waiting on the other side. Very often, there is.

While I am tempted to give my impression of each story – and believe me, every tale is absolutely worth your time – part of the joy of reading this collection involves not knowing what to expect beforehand. Too much detail would be a disservice to both the stories and your experience, so instead I’ll simply mention a few to give you a small taste.

***

The House of Murals opens the collection, a story that does a fantastic job of introducing you to Scott’s use of description and delicate word-choice. This story also gives you an excellent sense of his fondness for architecture and antiquity. It is a wonderfully strange tale about disconnection and loneliness, and a man with a peculiar fondness for visiting an old house late at night.

A Certain Gravity is a thoughtful story about horror that lurks beneath the surface. It has a Twilight Zone-esque feel to it, utilizing the shows strangeness without mimicking its usual dramatic endings. Every event in the story leads to a climax that, while surreal, feels oddly applicable to contemporary perceptions of gender and beauty.

The final story I’d like to mention is The Girl in the Attic, and for a very specific reason. Up to this point, I’ve commented on Scott’s use of subtlety to communicate his unique brand of quiet horror. This story on the other hand uses a very different approach, one that relies on a quick pace and a heightened focus on physical horror. The writing style is intentionally less languid here, and Scott enters some pretty dark territory. While it does diverge from his usual slow-burn method of storytelling, it in no way feels out of place in the collection. In fact, I’d say it serves as a great example of his ability to shift gears depending on what the story calls for.

***

When it comes to writing ability Scott is a natural. He knows how to construct a beautiful sentence, and does so only in service to the story. On several occasions I re-read entire paragraphs in an attempt to glean just how he pulled something off so eloquently. One gets the feeling that Scott is very meticulous about his word-choice, or perhaps he simply plucks poetic phrasings from the ether while he dreams. Neither would surprise me.

I think what I find most alluring about Scott’s work is how focused it is on communicating his deep affection for autumn. Many of the stories in this collection occur during the fall months, yet not once does that feel tedious or overused. Instead, it allows the reader to glimpse the many facets of the season, proving there is still much fertile ground to be explored when coupling autumn with the weird tale. I can think of no other writer who even comes close to painting the beauty and mystery of the season on a page.

With a confident yet unassuming voice, Scott masterfully articulates his love for nature and the inevitable change of seasons. This collection is an invitation to wander old forest paths, to listen to the voice of the wind on barren branches, to step gingerly through puddles of fading autumn light. It is a gathering of stories that celebrate the warmth of tradition and the deep mystery that lingers wherever shadows touch the ground.


Support small press publishers by ordering Scott's books below:
Over the Darkening Fields from Dark Regions Press
The Sea of Ash from Lovecraft eZine Press

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

REVIEW: The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud



“Inside it’s all just worms.”

You will not be prepared for this story. You may think, as I did, that having read North American Lake Monsters, you'll have an inkling about what to expect from Nathan Ballingrud. But, like me, you will be wrong in this assumption. This is an author who strives to challenge us with each new offering, all the while employing a unique blend of visceral imagery and quiet, creeping dread. Perhaps there is no truer testament to that than his latest work, The Visible Filth.

Being deeply impressed with Ballingrud's debut, I did not hesitate to order this chapbook from Michael Wilson's This is Horror. And I must confess: even if I weren't familiar with Ballingrud, I likely would have purchased it anyway solely based on the artwork. Artist Pye Parr has done a wonderful job with minimal use of color. It's a haunting image to look at, regardless of its connection to the story.

The novella's main character, Will, works as a bartender at a dive in uptown New Orleans. He's a listless fellow, sharing an apartment with a woman he doesn't love and generally going through life on autopilot. Despite a rather active social life, Will appears emotionally isolated; his only joy stemming from an intense affection he has for Alicia, an old friend and frequent patron of the bar. As luck would have it, however, she is already in a relationship, leaving Will with the burden of a love that can only ever exist as one-sided.

The characters are well-defined and relatable, so of course Ballingrud wastes no time leading them straight into hell. A bloody confrontation occurs at the bar one evening, causing Will to discover a smartphone left behind by a college student involved in the brawl. He takes it home for the night, keeping it safe with the intention of returning it to its owner. Only, someone begins sending disturbing text messages to the phone. Not long after that, things much worse than messages begin to arrive; things that eventually lead Will and the people in his life to a conclusion that will leave your jaw fixed solidly to the floor.

Ballingrud has a gift for creating damaged characters. Put another way: he is exceptionally versed at showing us who we truly are. His fiction often serves as a mirror, allowing us to see the dirt and grime coating what we’d always thought was so pure. While reading The Visible Filth, you will find yourself sympathizing with the very worst facets of his characters, and you will feel ashamed for doing this. Yet, there will be another part of you that revels in that shame, a part that is intrigued and made more complete for feeling it. The reason for this is simple: Ballingrud populates his stories with us: men and women plagued by strange emotional disturbances, endlessly striving for connection where there may be none. We are merely insects making our way in the dark, forever seeking refuge from the light.

In this effective novella, Nathan Ballingrud shows us the filth inside each of us. He opens us up, allowing the grime to spill outward like a billowing nest of roaches. He strips the paint from our walls to reveal what's been crawling underneath, squirming and skittering and hissing ever so softly.
   
I have noticed some other reviewers voicing dissatisfaction with Ballingrud's use of ambiguity in this story. They appear to feel let-down that certain aspects of the narrative are implied rather than unequivocally presented to them. While I respect that opinion, I wholeheartedly disagree with it. As stated above, I believe the strength of Ballingrud's fiction to be his ability to meld the subtle with the violent and visceral, a blend that gives his work a distinct and unique texture. I applaud authors who don't reveal every aspect of a story, trusting instead in the reader's ability to formulate their own conclusions. I firmly believe the things you don't see are often more terrifying than the things you do. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

REVIEW: These Last Embers by Simon Strantzas

          

 “…and his eyes were bored so deeply into his skull they were but pricks of light in the dark.”

A story, at the very least, should be an experience; a window into our world as seen by another individual. It’s a communication of feeling and insight, a record of what an author believes, or wants to believe, about how the world works. While some stories hold your hand and escort you to safety, ensuring you all the while the threat is not real, there are other stories that lead you into the dark with barely a whisper of what is to come, offering no comfort and no surety that things will end happily, or even end at all. These Last Embers is one such story.

The first in a new chapbook series from Michael Kelly’s Undertow Publications, These Last Embers tells us the story of a young woman named Samantha returning to her childhood home. Her homecoming, however, is not one of choice but necessity: financial issues have forced her to retreat back to the life she outgrew years prior, back to the suffocating walls of her parents’ home in the woods. Things have changed though, as she finds the rear of the house damaged due to a fire. She shows concern for her mother and father, if only out of habit, but is mostly worried for her twin brother, Lemule, as it appears the fire originated from his bedroom. Unfortunately, it appears Lemule has gone missing. What follows is a tense journey through memory and revelation, and for being a story just over 10 pages there is a quite a bit of depth to the narrative.

"She moved toward the light and that light too moved toward her."

I will admit I was hesitant about this story at the outset; after all, the return to a childhood home after a prolonged absence is a common set-up for a story. Yet that hesitation was wasted, as Strantzas’ tale is anything but common. He may use a familiar device to lead you into the woods, but what he shows you upon arriving there is drastically different from what you’d expect.

The restrictive quality of Samantha’s situation is in perfect opposition to the openness of the forest behind her home, and as a growing sense of suffocation builds throughout the story, we come to identify with Samantha, feeling her terror as if it were our own. We feel for her as she searches for her brother, digging through the remnants of a life gone up in flames.

On this note, something I've always appreciated about Strantzas’ work is how he skillfully embeds layers of tension into the story. As you read, you can feel the piece building upon itself, growing outward and moving toward something. This is where the “horror” of his fiction really lies. Like Robert Aickman before him, Strantzas is not trying to shock you; instead, he is trying to unsettle you, to lead you into the dark and leave you there, too frightened to scream for fear of what might be listening.

“Samantha gazed deep into the woods, unable to tell if it were day or night.”

It is impossible to talk about this chapbook without mention of Drazen Kozjan’s beautiful wrap-around cover illustration. The image wonderfully complements the story, and without it the piece would feel different somehow. Not that the story relies on the cover to work, but rather it feels like part of the story itself; a visual accompaniment to the narrative. It does a very nice job of enticing you to read and, upon finishing the story, provides a knowing representation of the entirety of the piece.

These Last Embers is a tale about returning home and finding it was never quite what you thought it was. Strantzas has turned the “spooky forest” tale on its head, showing us that there are times the darkness of the woods isn’t necessarily dark at all, and that it is sometimes preferable to the harshness of the world beyond it.

Michael Kelly has succeeded in offering fans of weird fiction the perfect story to spearhead his series of chapbooks. He knows quality when he sees it, and he knows what unsettles readers. As of this writing there are only 5 copies of These Last Embers left, so I highly recommend ordering yours while you can.

Also of note is Michael Kelly’s own book of short fiction, Scratching the Surface, which is definitely worth your attention.