The Nameless Dark by Ted Grau – a review by Gary Fry
Ted Grau can write – let’s make no bones about it. My first impression while reading this collection, even during the opening story, related to the strength of the prose, the jaunty, hip, rhythmic, colourful, witty, acerbic flow of writing which possesses a power all of its own. That makes reading Grau a real pleasure, whatever the kind of tale he relates, whether or not it – to coin a lame metaphor to which this author would never stoop – floats your boat.
But then there’s the tales themselves, which, although thematically related via an incestuous relationship with cosmic horror (particularly that master of one-night stands H P Lovecraft), are varied and differ in tone, exploring such issues as alternative cult road-trips out into the Nebraskan deserts and a bereaved child’s observation of the fathomless heavens.
It will come as no surprise that I rather enjoyed this energetic collection of some of Grau’s more muscular stories. Now, I’m not saying he’s exclusively a man’s author, but it seems to me that many entries are fuelled by an ample boost of testosterone. That’s true of the book’s grand finale, the Innsmouthian ‘The Mission’, with its pack of male hunters hunting while actually being hunted. It’s also true of the wicked ‘Beer & Worms’, which, like ‘Return of the Prodigy’, dramatizes cynical male cruelty and casual indifference. And in ‘Screamer’, the brutal manmade regime of capitalism is taken to task with surreal obsessiveness.
But let me not suggest that this is a collection of only masculine adventures. It has its tender side, too. The opening tale, ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’, explores a young boy’s burgeoning relationship with a sympathetic assistant. In ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’, a girl looks to the heavens to see what has become of her late mother, her innocence blighted by the approach of something quite monstrous. And there’s weird sibling chemistry occurring between the narrator of ‘Clean’ and his sister, and if the acts to which she is drawn are hideous, it takes the love of a brother to make them so.
Other tales fall into various categories: the perverted fairy tale that is ‘Mr Lupus’; the weirdly ghostly ‘Expat’; and the modified legend that is ‘The Truffle Pig’. There were a few stories here I didn’t entirely get along with, but that’s to be expected in a 100K+ collection. ‘White Feather’ seemed a little wordy, with its horror material crammed too tightly into the end; and I felt as if ‘Free Fireworks’ lacked any centre of character-based gravity, its stacks of frightful imagery seeming overly descriptive.
In fact, if I had one issue with this book, it concerned some of the tales’ pacing. Very occasionally, Grau, such an effortlessly inventive writer, feels at mercy of his own ability, saying in three paragraphs what might be achieved in one. With such lush prose on display, this is hardly a massive fault, and I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but even so, from time to time, I did find myself wondering how the story would have fared without such surface glitter.
But don’t let me be churlish. This is a marvellous collection and I’ll finish by discussing a couple of my favourite pieces. In ‘Transmission’ (a tale in which I felt the excessive wordage was justified), a guy seeking answers in life heads into a desert when his car radio starts picking up an intriguing broadcast. Where this leads, in a breathless finale, yields a real sense of the otherworldly and one which can be considered a genuine contribution to the field of cosmic horror.
Similarly, ‘Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox’, which shares (non-)spiritual kinship with the foregoing tale, possesses an equivalent power to unsettle, its subterranean conclusion packed full of weird things and big choices. It’s a typically Grau-like tale; because, you see, having read only this, his first book, I already know what that means. This only occurs with artists who have a confident idiosyncratic vision, and the author certainly possesses that. His fiction is caustically observant, cosmically oriented, existentially deprived, and jammed with dark laughs. As I say, Grau can write, oh yes indeed.