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Monday, November 24, 2014

BURNT BLACK SUNS by Simon Strantzas – review by Gary Fry


 


I came to this book with a reasonable (if far from completest) knowledge of Strantzas’s fiction. What I’d read, I’d liked a great deal, even though his approach to horror was commonly more oblique than my own. Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading this latest collection of his weird tales and finding it so hard-hitting, often graphic, and written in a constantly energetic, rhythmic prose.


I’ll offer comments on each of the tales, before rounding up with some thoughts on his overall approach. I don’t plan to reveal plots – if you want that, read the book – but will rather comment on the things which struck me about each of them. Spoilers will be noted in CAPITALS.


 


- On Ice


A solid opener, with a mounting sense of unease as researchers come a cropper one by one in an icy climate. I find tales, particularly relatively short ones, in which lots of characters are present from the opening sometimes hard to get into, but by focusing closely on one guy, this story just about got around that structural difficulty. There were some nice time-honoured methods used here – footprints outside camps, body-parts found in disturbing isolation from their owners, etc – and the conclusion was satisfying, even if [SPOILERS FROM HERE] the monster was presented (to my tastes) a little too explicitly. I’d have preferred a little blur and confusion during the beast’s description, maybe a snowstorm distorting perception of it – something maybe to render it more elusive. But the Lovecraftian “reveal” is always a hard trick to pull off, and Strantzas does a nice enough job here, so don’t let me be churlish. Good opener.


- Dwelling on the Past

A solidly handled story, with – not the final time Strantzas will use this device in the book – a tragic backstory, from which all the narrated events gain resonance. The guy’s [SPOILER] descent into the pit towards the end was effective, as was the fur thing creeping upon him. I liked this layered story a good deal.


- Strong as a Rock

One of my favourites of the shorter pieces, this tale of two halves – first a climbing trip involving an accident, and then a rush for medical support – simply darkens and darkens, with its protracted, subterranean conclusion building to a great last scene, fully playing on psychologies established earlier. I particularly enjoyed the feel of the old hospital, with all its decay and ineradicable stains. Aickman is all over this piece, but so is Lovecraft, and that’s a fine combination in anyone’s book.


- By Invisible Hands

This was one of the two tales with which I didn’t get on very well. I suspect that’s because I’m not steeped in, nor drawn to, the kind of fictional landscape it seeks to explore – Ligottian, I’m guessing. I’m not the best person to judge, so I’ll remain relatively quiet about this puppet-based story.


- One Last Bloom

As the most overtly Lovecraftian piece in a Mythos-infused book, this story, the first of two novellas, is most remarkable for its characterisation, with the lead guy a particularly unsympathetic (though not uninteresting) person: self-regarding, privately ambitious, romantically fickle. This sour human backdrop forms a suitable framework for a journal-based side-story, involving a second narrator detailing the events of an ocean-based research trip. And what comes back from there is not pleasant at all – in fact, it’s genuinely mysterious, insidious and gruesome. I loved this tale, which includes a genuinely frightening scene (hint: it involves a visit to a flat) – one of those moments of terror that hold us all in the genre, reading story after story until someone does the same business again. Strantzas certainly manages that here. Fantastic tale.


- Thistle’s Find

I really enjoyed this snappy, pungent story of a rather alluring creature plucked from an alternative realm. It had the cosy framework of an old-fashioned crazy-scientist tale, but with a risqué sequence of events. I liked the narrator’s “street” voice, as well as the manic scramble for safety at the end. A solid tale.  


- Beyond the Banks of the River Seine

Another tale that didn’t really push my buttons, but I enjoyed it more than the puppet story above, maybe because I’m interested in all that “old music”. An enjoyable, lyrical story.


- Emotional Dues

Along with “Solid as a Rock”, this was my favourite of the shorter pieces, with its slightly surreal events clearly functioning as a metaphor for artistic expression and what this demands and then takes from the artist. The ending is brilliantly orchestrated, and [SPOILER] the image of that thing entering the room still burns in me now, days after completion. As in “One Last Bloom”, Strantzas is excellent at stage-managing visually vivid horrors, to such a degree that frantic characterisation and firm, rhythmic, precise use of language conspire to drive the scenes home powerfully. Great tale.


- Burnt Black Suns

For a book that starts in ice, where else to end but in baking sunshine? This novella, along with “One Last Bloom” is the collection’s most outstanding work, a brilliantly brooding, painful study of familial obsession and divided loyalties. Whereas I sometimes thought “On Ice” might have benefitted from a more laboured depiction of the icy landscape, there are no problems here (possibly because of the extra space available): far-flung Mexico is depicted in all its perspiring, poverty-ridden, semi-neglected, fly-blighted dereliction, with the central character’s childless desperation perfectly represented by such a carefully wrought sense of place. (Strantzas must have visited somewhere similar, surely.) Anyway, the plot is quite straightforward, involving the search for a decamped wife and son, but the horrors it involves, including strange dreams, dark suns, untrustworthy clergy, etc, builds to a brilliantly intense conclusion, one worthy of the rise of a Great Old One. This is latter-day Lovecraftian fiction at its finest, all rendered in a Graham Greene-ish, Sergio Leone-esque manner. The characterisation reminded me of Patricia Highsmith and the prose of Emile Zola. But maybe that’s just me. Whatever the facts are, this was, in my opinion, the best story in the book.

 

Okay, having commented on all the fiction, mainly in terms of how it affected me, I have to say that the two novellas are among the finest horror I’ve read in years, while the shorter works have their moments, too. I think Strantzas works well on a larger canvas, and I look forward to more novellas and – who knows – maybe a novel from him soon. I think his storytelling approach is rich in detail and needs space to manoeuvre, as does his striking sense of place. The cosmic visions he presents require an accumulative orchestration of effect, and if the longer pieces here are hints of what’s to come, I genuinely look forward to sampling more.

I think Strantzas’s prose is strong. It rarely demonstrates pyrotechnics, but possesses an inner-energy, a quality arising from poetically consistent vocabularies and variations in rhythm. Sometimes – only very occasionally – he lapses into a minor bugbear of mine: the use of stock phrases. For example, in one tale, a character pledges to “play his cards close to his chest”. I just feel that every line is an opportunity for good writers to shine with invention, and using overfamiliar phrases robs them of this opportunity to do so. As I say, not a serious issue, and hardly a frequent one. But – if my opinion counts for anything – I think Strantzas would be as well striking out the few, and coming up with his own more-than-able alternatives.  

As I’ve said, characterisation is another strong point, and Strantzas seems to thrive on privately manipulative, irrepressibly intense, and sometimes narcissistic young men. These rich portraits, with all their realistic reasoning processes and psychologically accurate quirks, lend the dark world Strantzas depicts a chilly, sour atmosphere, and that’s all to the good. I’ve often felt that the best dark writers have some acid to dispense, and there’s plenty of it here, seeping out. It’s a real virtue.

To conclude, let me say that I greatly enjoyed this book, was genuinely surprised by it (I’d expected more of Strantzas’s previous quietness and allusions), and – most importantly of all – I was, in at least three significant passages, really rattled by it. Hey, some writers don’t do that even once in a career. So, do it to me again, man – I challenge you.
 

3 comments:

  1. I think Simon Strantzas and Laird Barron are two of the best today writing strange stories. I get everything written by both of them. I loved very much "On ice" and "burnt Black Suns" the most but all the tales were a lot of fun to read and enjoy.I heartily recommend this book. Thank you.

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  3. I rarely write reviews for books because it's rare that I love a book so much to do so. This was amazing. The pacing and characters were amazing. You gets hints throughout the book that something is not right but it takes you all the way to the end before you know what's going on. Loved it!!

    Marlene
    Senior Housing Seattle residence

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