Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: Beneath The Surface by Simon Strantzas

Simon Strantzas has become one of the leading writers of weird horror, and along with Richard Gavin, Ian Rogers, and a few others he is proof that Canada has much to offer in this genre.

Beneath The Surface is Simon's first collection, and the fourteen stories found within each stand strong as an example of his dark talent. Several of Simon's influences can be seen throughout the stories, and include such famous names as Lovecraft, Ligotti, Aickman, and Cronenberg. His love for the numinous is also quite plain to see, and it is no surprise that the author of this book went on to edit an anthology about thin places.

Many of the stories feature loners and outsiders as protagonists, often caught in a bleak world. A Shadow In God's Eye opens the collection. The protagonist feels empty, and in searching for spiritual satisfaction comes in contact with a shady religious group. There's many good things to say about this one, and Simon paints a picture of a bitter man who experiences a few horrific moments. It Runs Beneath the Surface also features a withdrawn main character. The man has a career in social work, which has drained him and left him a cynical husk of a man. His anxieties about the city's filth start to manifest when a new client comes to the office. Both of these tales were instant favorites.

The Constant Encroaching of a Tumultuous Sea is a surreal story that is reminiscent of a nightmare, which is what it was based on according to the author's afterword. A Thing of Love features a reclusive writer who is still grieving over his dead mother. Hints dropped about an incestuous relationship gives the story an uncomfortable feel from early on. When the writer receives a mysterious package, things only get creepier.

Off the Hook, another instant favorite, revisits the theme of a filthy city. The city is plagued by constant rain and foul odor due to a garbage strike. A grumpy librarian finds a strange notebook, and starts to hear a ringing in his ears that just won't go away. Combined with a few other surreal scenes, the story has a terrifying climax. More to Learn is a short tale concerned with a man rebelling against the creature within him.

Another favorite, Behind Glass, combines Lovecraftiana with Ligotti corporate workplace horror, making for an unsettling story set in a creepy office building in a creepy part of town. Following is In The Air, a beautifully dark tale of a grieving widow looking for closure.

You Are Here takes place in a fictional, abandoned version of Toronto's PATH. This version of the underground "shopping mall" is very atmospheric. It reminded me of the story of Orpheus, in that the main character enters the underworld on a quest. This man's quest to fix himself only leads to terror in what amounts to be a highly effective horror story. The Autumnal City is about a man in a city where everything continues in the same manner. The man seeks freedom, and has glimpses of a mysterious woman that he thinks can lead him to being free.

The Wound So Deep is a revenge story featuring much body horror. Another favorite, this one follows a man who is picked on by coworkers, and at their insistence embarrasses himself by asking out the female member of the group. He is hurt so deep that his hurt begins to manifest itself in a physical, vicious way. Thoughtless continues with the body horror. A girl who finds herself incapable of feeling agrees to try a radical, mostly untested new drug. After her injection her arm begins to change and she enters a state of delirium. I loved the ambiguity of the story. Was the woman really experiencing true events and seeing past the veil into the true world or was she just having a delusional episode?

Leather, Dark and Cold involves a book that opens the door to so much more. An impressionable student helps a man he admires steal the book, but is horrified by the events that occur. Years later, the man comes back into his life. Drowned Deep Inside of Me is an interesting weird tale and a good choice to close the book. The city is gripped by an unnatural darkness, and a troubled man waits through it with his neighbor and her daughter. Not everything is explained explicitly, but from hints and events it becomes clear by the end that the narrator has a deep darkness within him as well.

Strantzas is one of the modern masters of the weird horror tale. His first collection explores urban horrors, and the horrors within us all with just the right amount of Ligotti bleakness and cosmicism to satisfy any horror reader. Like the best horror, everything is not always explained and ambiguity is sometimes used quite often. An essential volume to any weird horror collection.

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