Welcome...

Come along here for reviews of other's work, news on my own, and -- well -- whatever I feel like posting, really...




Sunday, November 13, 2016

Nightmare’s Realm, edited by S T Joshi -- a review


Nightmare’s Realm (Dark Regions) – edited by S T Joshi

 

Review by Gary Fry

 

In his introduction, S T Joshi shows how dreams have played a major role in the history of weird fiction, with many major practitioners writing tales influenced by or incorporating this most mysterious of human characteristics. The editor’s mission statement here is to continue in the latter-day this long tradition, and so let’s see how well the modern writers he chose fared.

 

The Dreamed by Ramsey Campbell

This is one of Campbell’s tales set in a foreign location, with all the sense of dislocation his characters experience heightened. A guy checks into a hotel but is soon confused for another, and as the plot unfolds this convergence of identity becomes more and more apparent, until… Well, I won’t spoil it; all I’ll say is that the tale demonstrates Campbell’s uneasy dark humour and suggestive powers to the full. A great opener.

 

A Predicament by Darrell Schweitzer

This brief tale involves a trial in some olde worlde locale, its documentary prose leading up to an excellent final line. Almost like a prose poem.

 

Kafkaesque by Jason V Brock

More dark comedy is at work in this lively piece, which has a guy encountering Kafka in a dream and, via progress through hell, discovering a new piece of fiction written by the great Czech. It’s a very inventive and wry story, which I really enjoyed.

 

Beneath the Veil by David Barker

Another brief piece, this tale has a satisfying symmetry as two versions of the same key life event – a wedding – are presented, one ostensibly the reality and another a garish dream. But which is which? The author leaves it pleasingly ambiguous and all the more powerful for that.

 

Dreams Downstream by John Shirley

A longer tale detailing a modern landscape invaded by tech-induced dream hallucinations. I rather enjoyed it, being reminded of J G Ballard all the way through.

 

Death-Dreaming by Nancy Kilpatrick

This one wasn’t quite for me – that’s always going to happen, in all anthologies – but that’s not to say I perceived any specific faults here. I certainly found the prose evocative.

 

Cast Lots by Richard Gavin

Gavin’s tale captures convincing shifts of perspective as dreams fuses with everyday life, ending with a great image of some malevolent thing. It’s nicely paced and neatly written.

 

The Wake by Steve Rasnic Tem

A surreal tale involving the death of the central character’s father, with dreamlike events during the wake adding to the piece’s poignancy. A clever and heartfelt story.

 

Dead Letter Office by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Again, this is not my kind of thing, but I actually enjoyed the story a lot, with its colourful evocation of a future era and location, along with a killer last few lines. Even Radiohead are referred to, so yeah, big tick from me.

 

The Art of Memory by Donald Tyson

This was one of my favourite tales here, its protagonist experiencing an unusual haunting involving memory and violated dreamscapes. While the central idea put me in mind of one in Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, the wry conclusion made me smile in that laconic way we searchers after horror always relish.

 

What You Do Not Bring Forth by John Langan

Another very short story, ostensibly a crime caper but with a quirky and effective conclusion. Langan continues to play successfully with form and that’s certainly apparent here.

 

The Barrier Between by W. H. Pugmire

Again, not really my thing. I’ve enjoyed Pugmire’s work elsewhere, but I’m not the best reader to comment on such material here. Sorry!

 

Sleep Hygiene by Gemma Files

Another of my favourites, Files’s tale is wonderfully evocative, streetwise, pungent and sinister. I really enjoyed the way she evoked (invoked?) the invader of dreams. Her prose, although choppy, has a vibrancy and life which seriously impressed me, and I’ll be reading more from Files.

 

Purging Mom by Jonathan Thomas

More superb prose. Thomas’s clever tale is full of striking phrases and vividly conjured scenes. Its English locale coupled with an American traveller make for many fun, creepy sequences. Great entertainment.

 

The Fifth Stone by Simon Strantzas

From spiky, colourful writing to something much more controlled and sombre – but Strantzas’s tale, given its material, is all the better for that. A life-spanning tale of a character holding back something unthinkable with object-focused faith, its final images are potent in their clinical evocation, their matter-of-fact horror. The author excels in depicting the character’s obsession and vulnerability. Fine piece.

 

In the City of Sharp Edges by Stephen Woodworth

Perhaps the most traditionally structured story here, Woodworth’s clever exploration of a blind-man’s trouble-with-dreams ends with an unpleasant image of something monstrous…but something which the character, as for us readers, cannot see. A neat conceit executed well.

 

An Actor’s Nightmare by Reggie Oliver

And here we have perhaps the book’s most striking piece. Oliver’s depiction of the cattish world of theatre is highly convincing (as you’d expect from a former actor), but it’s the concluding dream sequence which blows the mind. Despite his restrained English style, Oliver can occasionally be completely bonkers, and his descriptions here of an ill-at-ease character’s subconscious at play is magnificent. ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ comes to mind. And the final lines, although perhaps anticipated, nail down the whole mad tale. Perhaps I even dreamt it.

 

As you can see from my comments, I found this an impressive anthology, with several standout tales and many which were also extremely good. The book’s theme is a promising one, and Joshi and his accomplices have fulfilled it admirably. A really good, varied collection. It’s even top and tailed by a bit of Messrs Poe and Lovecraft. Sleep easy, all.

Monday, October 24, 2016

BEST NEW WEIRD FICTION, VOL 3 – EDITED BY SIMON STRANTZAS -- a review


BEST NEW WEIRD FICTION, VOLUME 3 – EDITED BY SIMON STRANTZAS

 

Review by Gary Fry

 

The thing about “best of” collections is that, although they’re commonly chosen by only one editor, readers are not going to love everything selected. These books are often varied, celebrating the wide range of fiction published each year in a specific field. That is why, as I review this book, I’m going to pull out the pieces which spoke particularly to me (although I can’t say I disliked any story here).

 

Let’s zero in immediately on the book’s big coup, a previously unpublished story by Robert Aickman. ‘The Strangers’ is as good as I could have hoped, one of the author’s queasy explorations of male sexuality. I’ve no idea why Aickman never included it in one of his collections, but wonder whether he felt it was too similar to certain of his other masterpieces. Whatever the truth is, this is a wonderfully suggestive and typically perverse story involving all the usual Aickman tricks: high culture, low morals, vampish femmes, and callow young men. It also contains a new candidate for his most M R Jamesian line (the existing champ being one about rags in a treetop at the end of ‘The Fetch’). This one involves bones in a suit. But I’ll say no more than that. Other than it chills deep down. Wonderful tale.

 

Almost up there with the Aickman is Robert Shearman’s ‘Blood’, a near-repulsive elucidation of a sordid trip to Paris taken by a teacher and his underage pupil. The suggestiveness is Aickmanesque, with a scene in a manky restaurant involving a hideous dining experience, and then a conclusion as enigmatically weird as anything Shearman has done previously. A really unpleasant tale. By which I mean, superb, of course.

 

In Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Fetched’, a man undergoes some kind of Kafka-esque transformation in an offbeat location full of blackly comic character-clashes and spatially impossible imagery. In Reggie Oliver’s ‘The Rooms are High’, an amiable narrator gets caught up in a seedy sequence of events as he visits a peculiar hotel in the place where he grew up. Full marks for one of the most loathsome characters I’ve read in years. Both stories are archly surreal and highly effective.

 

I really enjoyed Nadia Bulkin’s reworking of Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’. In ‘Violet is the Color of your Energy’, Bulkin reinterprets the classic tale from the mother’s point of view (or maybe, a mother’s), focusing on the violating cosmic force through the dynamics of her male family. It’s a striking and intertextually impressive piece. In D P Watt’s ‘Honey Moon’, a recently married couple – he initially eager, she prudish – undergo a modification of sexual roles, as a landscape and its history tease out the limbic forces in both, drawing them inexorably into animalistic passion. The tale’s deceptively simple, cleanly written surface only enhances the power of its truly wild conclusion.

 

I consider Lynda Rucker’s ‘The Seventh Wave’ one of the most effective ghost stories I’ve read in a long time, the frisson achieved through a combination of modern narrative techniques and traditional nautical legend. Tim Lebbon’s ‘Strange Currents’ is similarly haunting, with an adventure-style main section leading to a genuinely creepy closing image. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is the most potent, and that’s rarely more true than here. 

 

‘Julie’ by L S Johnson is a compellingly written piece of alternative literary history, with feral transformations standing in lieu of shameful human behaviour. I’ve always considered Rousseau rather overrated anyway, so it was nice to see him getting a good hatchet job here. Johnson’s prose is a delight and the story memorable. As for Sadie Bruce’s dark fable about the generationally inescapable adoption of exhibitionist female desires, well, it’s dark and grotesque, as it should be. ‘Little Girls in a Bone Museum’ is required reading for all.

 

These were the tales I enjoyed most in the book, though I should add how impressed I was by Matthew Bartlett’s juicy, rhythmic prose. Marion Womack’s ‘Orange Dogs’ was filled with evocative passages, and Christopher Slatsky’s tale finished with a killer last line. I’ve reviewed the Brian Evenson story elsewhere, and consider it a fine one.

 

All in all, then, I greatly enjoyed this broad-ranging collection of the best new weird of 2015. Strantzas has read widely, choosing his tales with an eye for variation and style. I did wonder why two tales involving the sea – the Rucker and Lebbon – were placed side by side, but that’s a relatively minor matter when both were among my favourites here. I was also struck by the large number of female authors represented – heartening stuff.

 

The genre’s in rude health, it would appear – both in terms of the authors writing such great new gear, and the editors sitting up to take notice. I very much look forward to next year’s entry. 
 
 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

THE SEARCHING DEAD by Ramsey Campbell -- a review


THE SEARCHING DEAD by Ramsey Campbell
Review by Gary Fry
 
Over 25 years ago Campbell wrote a book called MIDNIGHT SUN, which he now, with typical humility, describes as an “honourable failure”. Would that the rest of us could pen such failures! I know I’m not alone in considering that novel a very fine contribution to the field of cosmic horror, but perhaps we should be happy that the author is never satisfied with his stuff and always aims higher.
In interviews around that time, Campbell claims that “maybe in another 20 years” he’ll have “another go” at scaling the peaks ascended by Lovecraft and Blackwood. Well, he’s done so already in several works – THE DARKEST PART OF THE WOODS (2003) and “The Last Revelation of Gla’aki” (2013), both considerable successes – but when I heard that he’d chosen to write a trilogy of novels focusing exclusively on a Mythos theme, I grew more than a little excited.
And so here we have the first entry in what promises to be Campbell’s most ambitious project yet. I understand that these three books will focus on different stages of their narrator’s life, documenting the decades in which Campbell himself has lived and worked. This opening piece is set in the 1950s, in the author’s native Liverpool, and anyone who’s read a little about Campbell’s youth will realise that quite a bit of this (with significant exceptions; for instance, the narrator’s parents appear rather less fractious than Campbell’s own were) is autobiographical.
Campbell’s post-WWII Liverpool is packed with evocative details, from bomb-damaged downtown property to cinemas in the city centre, from adverts saturating high streets to daily life at a Catholic school. Scenes in which the narrator’s juvenile self attends classes, hangs out with friends, and negotiates an ever-perplexing adult world possess an air of fond nostalgia, something which feels quite new in Campbell’s work. Indeed, the tone of this book put me firmly in mind of King’s IT and other works of that stripe.
But it’s not only the minutiae of ’50s English city life under scrutiny here; Campbell also explores social developments of the era, with much reference to international conflicts, gender politics, the resilience of religion under attack by new sciences, Trade Unions, and much more. This novel, fundamentally the intimate tale of a boy entangled in the activities of his decidedly sinister schoolteacher, has a broader dimension which hints at all the cosmic material which will surely be explored in later volumes.
Such rich, detailed world-building lends the book intricacy and completeness. The narrator’s early life is depicted with merciless attention to the circumstances which mark his development from reticent child to teenage artist. It is here that I believe that Campbell’s autobiographical material becomes most prevalent, with memorably vivid passages concerning how it feels to start out as a writer: the nervousness when revealing new work, the transformative impact of latest literary enthusiasms, even the way writing fiction helps one to understand one’s own life and can even lend one courage (like Burt Lancaster, the star of the piece can never die).
I feel that this is perhaps the book’s most significant theme: the role of fiction, particularly from the 1950s and the ubiquity of cinema, in shaping the way people in the modern age think about themselves and their actions. Campbell’s young characters are constantly borrowing phrases from the films, structuring their lived experience with mimicked behaviours.
Indeed, the more fiction the narrator writes, the more he comes to think of himself and his friends as characters in a story – and so they are. His tales of an intrepid gang become entwined with the narrator’s retrospective account of his youth, to such a degree that the older incarnation inevitably wonders how much he’s recalling in accurate detail and how much he might be elaborating according to fictional conventions and how they patch up incomplete memory.
This is a deep (and yet unobtrusive) strand of the novel, but let me not suggest that the book welshes on its horror material. Campbell’s tale of a young boy becoming involved with the dark shenanigans of a guru-like adult has more than a hint of King’s REVIVAL about it, but while King focuses intertextually more on Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (despite his prefatory reference to “The Great God Pan”), Campbell’s novel feels more firmly rooted in the world of Machen’s seedy suburban adventure.
Something is amiss at an elderly friend’s house. When this lady suffers a breakdown as a consequence of some species of meddling by the insidious schoolmaster, the narrator’s boyhood self must figure out why and what caused it. This leads him into a sequence of events whose underlying pungency and escalating dread peak in images of hallucinogenic weirdness (a scene in a cinema’s bathroom is particularly fine) and a tantalising vision of imminent cosmic terror.
The narrator, looking back from a hitherto undisclosed future time period, repeatedly claims that the world is over now, but this first novel hints at only a third of the reason how. Its concluding scenes, one of them set under a creepy old church, provide both a fitting ending to this low-key exercise in mounting unease and a mouthwatering taste of what’s surely to come.
Well, that’s the traditional horror narrative, right there. But as I hope I’ve made clear, THE SEARCHING DEAD is about so much more than dark frights. Campbell’s parallel depiction of his narrator’s sensitive youth, particularly the social and existential forces which make him what he’ll become (a reflexive adult author), is tender, true and (in a great many places) painful. Indeed, prior to the unsettling finale, the narrator witnesses something equally disturbing in his personal life, and the way this prompts his literary aspirations, even reorients his religious affiliations, feels both right and real.
It’s a powerful ending to a novel which looks set to become one third of Campbell’s masterpiece: a trilogy about who he is as a man and what he’s always striven to achieve as an author. Bring on BORN TO THE DARK, I say. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I relished every page of THE SEARCHING DEAD.
 
 
 
 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Greens by Andrew Hook -- a review


The Greens by Andrew Hook

Review by Gary Fry

 

I read a lot of Hook’s short fiction back in the day, during the good-natured rivalry between us hard horror types and his fey slipstream folk (joke). Hook’s fiction always struck me as inventive, cleanly written and often unsettling, so I was looking forward to what he was up to lately in this lengthy novella.

The tale begins with a prologue of sorts, detailing the emergence of a couple of unusual children in an olde English community. It’s an intriguing opening, and when the piece switches to the latter-day, with a woman going about her familiar domestic routines, the stage is set for some kind of ancestral connection, some merging of the presence with the past.

And so it goes. The central character’s husband is researching his and his wife’s genealogical trees, soon chancing upon a decidedly odd episode among her family’s distant relatives. But what have these strange children to do with this woman’s obsessive compulsive behaviours, the way she tries to keep her own offspring safe with torturous daily rituals? Well, that’s the basis of this novella.

Hook’s narrative, arrestingly written, takes us on a voyage from very normal everyday British family life to the horror of a snatched child, to a manic billionaire intent on discovering one of the world’s great secrets, to outlandish conspiracy theories and forbidden knowledge, and finally to a stirring conclusion set among agents eager to take more than their reticence threatens.

It’s a derring-do story, with traditional Wellsian strands and some nice speculative history concerning the likes of Hollow Earth. The narrative switching between characters works well, even though I felt that the piece’s big traumatic scene – a snatched child – was rather underplayed. I would have preferred to hear a bit more anguish from both parents in the immediate aftermath.

I think Hook tackled the issue of OCD quite sensitively, given that it’s a serious psychological disorder and shouldn’t necessarily be twisted to genre ends. I’m a sufferer myself and recognised the woman’s obsessive routines, her irrational and yet psychoLOGICAL belief in the power of her actions. The way this strand dovetails with the plot-proper also worked well, with a particularly strong conclusion tying up loose ends.

Overall I enjoyed this offbeat adventure a great deal. It’s very Andrew Hook, a reminder for me of that earlier work (some of which I enthusiastically published) and his capacity to take aspects of everyday life and make magic out of them. An intriguing, readable and satisfying piece.
 
 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

THEY SAY A GIRL DIED HERE ONCE by Sarah Pinborough -- a review

THEY SAY A GIRL DIED HERE ONCE by Sarah Pinborough
Review by Gary Fry
 
I read this short novel in a single sitting and I can’t remember the last time I managed that (maybe a reread of Jackson’s similarly concise ’Hill House a few years back). If “unputdownability” is the ultimate yardstick against which we judge popular fiction, then Pinborough’s latest has a helluva lot going for it.
The book opens with its central character, Anna, living with her all-female family: sister, mother and grandmother. Her grandmother is experiencing incipient dementia, and it soon becomes apparent that Anna suffers a similar memory-related problem, which isn’t spelled out for the reader until later in the narrative (but those sensitive enough to detect apposite clues will work it out in advance).
It’s a tense, intriguing opening, and as the plot unfolds to incorporate the family’s new home and location, these matters are driven deeper, as other residents become both friendly and threatening, with Anna’s secret lurking at the heart of why she refuses to engage with them too quickly. She has a low-key job in the area, but when folk get too close, she shuts them out, clearly experiencing psychological residue of her trauma.
It is this aspect of the story which appealed to me most. Pinborough, as she demonstrated in 13 Minutes, is excellent at depicting slightly pissed-off, fearful, resilient female youth. Anna’s relationship with her sister is particularly convincing in this sense, as Anna simultaneously resents her innocence and is scared of how the 10 year-old will soon lose that shine.
Anna’s difficult relationship with her grandmother is similarly real and touching. The older woman, formerly an unimpeachable churchgoing type, has been changed through her illness, becoming less restrained by the moral chains of her community and expressing both her independence and the true values of life (the smoking episodes are especially well done in that regard).
Indeed, while dementia and its effects on memory (the book’s central theme) have set the grandmother free, it is Anna’s experiences in this new residential location which must perform a similar trick on her. But it isn’t going to be easy.
Now that everything is nicely set up, the plot-proper takes wing. Anna continually finds her grandmother up late at night, standing near their house’s cellar and experiencing the kind of mental fugue which makes her mutter suggestively weird comments (including the novel’s evocative title). Anna soon discovers from elsewhere – the only person she lets into her life, a similarly acerbic young female outsider – that two girls died in the community and that their killer hasn’t been apprehended yet. Can these dead girls be speaking through Anna’s grandmother, using her illness as a supernatural conduit?
Without giving too much away, let me say that Anna’s investigations will land her in all kinds of trouble, including blackmail, erroneous suspicions, an act of cruelty on her part, and a revelation which comes right out of leftfield. By the end of the book, the novel’s previously suppressed spookiness takes an original twist, and the final chapter does something so unexpected that I had to go back to the start to absorb all its tricksy implications.
In short, I truly enjoyed this tense, intriguing and original short novel. If it had any faults, I’d cite that hard-to-avoid part of the conclusion where the villains vocally reveal the backstory while stalking the heroine. On a technical note, there were one or two repeated phrases in the same passages (e.g. Anna twice thinks something like “if grandmother was going to intervene, this would be a good time”) which hint at a need for a further polish.
But these are relatively minor matters. The book remains a clever, different, and psychologically convincing narrative, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those in the mood for something dark, gripping and (maybe its best feature) original in its payoff.
On this evidence, Pinborough is the go-to mistress of well-characterised, arrestingly written, and intriguing story. What else can we ask for?
 
You can buy a copy here, and also check out newcomer Polly Morris’s suitably pungent and sulphurous cover artwork.
http://www.earthlingpub.com/sp_theysay.htm

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood -- a review


The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood
Review by Gary Fry
 
There seems to have been a small revival of fictions dealing with “hidden people” lately. I’m thinking of Ramsey Campbell’s exquisitely weird novel The Kind Folk and the recent (modestly effective) film The Hallows. Perhaps there’s something about the true nature of fairies which appeals to us all during these dark days of global strife overlaid by media-enforced bogusly sentimental discourse.
Anyway, here is Alison Littlewood’s latest novel, also focusing on the hidden people of yore. It’s narrated by a young Victorian rationalist (Albie), in the thrall of social and industrial revolution in 19th Century Britain. He’s committed to scientific enlightenment, and yet when he meets his young cousin, the pure Lizzie, he experiences some ineffably magical connection with her which haunts him for years to come.
Then, some time later, she dies. Having gone their separate ways, Albie to the city, Lizzie to the wilds of Yorkshire, our narrator must now venture to the countryside, with all its backward-thinking residents and strangely ancient lore. Here he will investigate just what led to his fair cousin’s premature death.
The early sections of this book will feel very familiar to wide readers, and that’s no bad thing. There’s almost a cosy, Victorian-novel feel to the opening events, each scene delineated by Littlewood in a highly convincing pastiche of the great storytelling masters’ prose (Eliot, et al). Indeed, it’s the quality of the writing which makes these introductory passages soar, with landscapes populated by flora and the villagers’ closed community depicted with all its questionable traditions.
The plot when it gets going takes the form of an investigative mystery, with many a sinister set-piece – visits to mystical seers, troubling dreams, and grave-digging – and off-the-page spookiness. Littlewood is adroit at relating her story without ever giving away to the reader just what kind of book this is: straight horror story, historical drama, dark crime?
This clever evasion of categorisation keeps us guessing right to the end, and the conclusion, once it comes, is highly satisfying. It’s hard for me to discuss this part of the book without giving away key moments, though I will say that its borderline ghostly nature and focus on familial events in the near-past put me most closely in mind of Barbara Vine’s macabre mystery novels.
In short, this is a compelling book, but not one which readers of hardcore dark fiction are necessarily going to relish. Its references to the titular hidden people remain allusive throughout, and if such quiet, suggestive horror is your preference, you’re in for a good time here.
The characterisation is solid throughout, and although even I, a dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshire-man, struggled a bit with the vernacular dialogue at times, I found the book a particular joy to read. Littlewood is excellent at capturing locations, while her understanding of human psychology is – essential here – never less than convincing.
Did I have any issues with the novel? Well, I did think Littlewood used the “it was only a dream” motif once too often to start a chapter, but that’s a minor issue and, in fairness, these passages did crank up the accumulating tension. The plot, as I’ve suggested, is, in the early stages, rather traditional, but whether you consider that a fault or a pleasure is your business. For me, the latter held sway; I’ve always been a big fan of the 19th Century melodramatic novel.
I particularly relished the final chapter, which, following a sequence of events that assert the narrator’s hardnosed rationalism, challenge this simplistic assumption with some mystical reflections and transformative perceptions. Just as Albie appeared to fall in love quickly at the book’s beginning, he’s learnt, by its end, that not everything in life, especially us “wild” people, work as mechanically as all the clocks and devices he’s observed at the Great Exhibition in the opening chapter.
This is a compelling, weird and knowing conclusion to a deeply satisfying book. I have no hesitation in recommending it to both genre and non-genre readers.
 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Fisherman by John Langan -- a review


The Fisherman by John Langan
Review by Gary Fry
 
I came to this book after hearing from peers how great it was, and that’s always a dangerous thing for an author. Can s/he ever live up to whatever hype a new title has garnered? I’d loved Langan’s earlier work – his inventive short stories and novellas – and so I was highly hopeful that this new novel would cut considerably more than the mustard.
The plot focuses on a guy who’s lost his wife who meets another guy who’s lost his wife and family and who together go fishing. That’s it. That’s the plot. Hollywood is not salivating. But that’s no bad thing. Because as we literature lovers know, it’s what authors do with such material that truly matters.
And here Langan gets off to a strong start. His pen-portrait of a man experiencing grief – the disjointed narrative, the ruptured habits, and transformed perceptual experience – has a pungent air of authenticity, the whole elucidated in a lyrical, laidback, breezy style that put me firmly in mind – even down to turns of phrase (e.g. “…when you get right down to it…”) – of Stephen King.
The narrative itself is riskily ambitious. After our central character meets his new fishing buddy, they go out on the road and hit a diner where some fella reveals the backstory of the place to which they’re headed. This section constitutes half the book. It’s a Machen-like “tale of terror” full of suggestive imagery and tell-and-not-show documentary realism.
Such stories within a story give the book a “modernist” feel, with a focus on communicable history and the agents upon which it relies. This strategy lends the book both verisimilitude and factual tension, as this frankly “unlikely” tale of a mysterious visitor and all the occult-ish events in which his arrival-in-town prompted may or may not have consequences for our fishermen’s imminent outing.
And so it goes. By the time the pair arrive at their destination, the suspense has been cranked up to such a degree that the landscape thrums with threat. Langan is excellent at bringing life to locations, at capturing the minutiae of everyday existence. This gives his fiction a sense of vibrancy, and if some readers might tire of what occasionally feel like over-descriptive passages or unnecessary longueurs while documenting a character’s thoughts, then they’re wrong, simple as that. Patience is required here. The prose has a density which is all grist to Langan’s mill. He’s creating a lived world, and all material is essential. The reader needs to believe in both the characters’ psychology and the location’s organic power.
As for the book’s “scary bits”, well, what can I say? These events are simultaneously familiar – a corpse walking across town whose movement isn’t right, whose misaligned bones clank together – to the strikingly new and audacious. The image of some great beast tethered to a coastline is particularly vivid, as is the presence of water forming tunnels in woodland, along which intruders must venture. All this feels mythic, packed with brain-tingling depths and fodder-for-reflection.
These sections, inescapably there as a result of more of that verbose prose, lend the end of the book much more weight, including a startling closing image (in the final paragraphs) which will, I imagine, haunt you forevermore. It’s a fine ending to a strange, intense, fussy narrative which feels both lean (it’s only 100,000 words) and packed with material (those 100,000 words essentially focus on a single day out fishing).
In short, I really enjoyed this book. Its thematic ambition and aesthetic textures greatly impressed me. But did I think it had any shortcomings? Well, I’m not sure this is a fault per se, or even whether it’s just my personal reading, but at times – hell, a lot of the time – the prose did feel very much like Stephen King. As I’ve said, even some of King’s pet phrases turn up here, but there are other things – the way Langan’s characters reflected and communicated – which felt similar. Late in the book a homeowner takes a tray of sweet comestibles around to a newly arrived neighbour (folk are always doing that kind of thing in King’s novels). This is just a petty example, but it illustrates how very Kingian this narrative felt. It’s for this reason that occasionally the book felt, to me, slightly derivative. Even the execution of the mythic material felt like the King of Lisey’s Story or Rose Madder. Maybe I’m being harsh or am in error. But I also want to be honest about my response to the book.
Another minor quibble I had involved the lengths to which the central character went to explain how he’d remembered all the details of the backstory after hearing it only once in spoken form. There’s no way he’d have recalled it in such detail, and his attempts to account for having done so felt unconvincing to me. He might have been better admitting that his recollection would be imperfect and based perhaps on familiarity with the speaker. It’s possible that he was deluding himself in this claim, and also causing the reader to question his trustworthiness (later in the book, he does wonder whether material he recalls was actually mentioned by the storyteller), but even so, this short section felt a little awkward to me.
However, let me not suggest that these issues were a hindrance to my enjoyment of such a finely pitched, rigorously structured, and genuinely unsettling piece. The best of it is uniquely Langan, the stuff he’s done so well in earlier work and synthesised here to a remarkably dense degree. It’s a memorable novel which is apt to gain only in power as time advances and all its implications fail to leave you alone.