Monday, April 8, 2013

Review: Black Altars by Mark Samuels

In my review of The White Hands and Other Tales, I had nothing to say but gushing praise. Afterwards I made sure I had all of Mr. Samuels's work on my shelf. Black Altars was published in 2003, the same year as The White Hands, yet is definitely the collection of his earlier work.

Black Altars is a very small collection, weighing in at only 85 pages. There are six stories within, only two of which have been reprinted and one that has been published previously (albeit in 1989!). The book is extraordinarily difficult to find, because it only had the single, small print run. The bad news is that Mark Samuels is not really happy with the stories, so has no plans of ever reprinting the volume.

I think that may be a little extreme, because the stories within are not bad. The stories pale in comparison to the stories in The White Hands. Let me be clear, they are NOT bad stories. They read as more of a showcase of potential rather than polished stories.

After a wonderful introduction by fellow writer of the weird Quentin S. Crisp, the stories begin with Lichen. This one was one of my favorites of the collection, and is a science-fiction horror reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Nephilim is the second story, and one of two which has been reprinted. This story featured in Stephen Jones's collection Visitants, and is about a man haunted by dreams so dark that his hair goes white. As he seeks answers it becomes apparent that he's fading from one world into another.

Another favorite, Patient 704, is the second story Samuels found to be worthy of reprinting. A revised/altered version appears in Glyphotech, the author's third collection. The story itself deals with an inspector and his investigation into a psychiatric "rest home". The man finds himself assimilated into the horror of the place, which involves a group obsession with a TV signal broadcasting disturbing and repetitive images of a mystery patient. The story was excellent, and I look forward to reading the revised version and seeing the differences.

Mysteries of the Abyss was first published in Dagon magazine in 1989 and follows a man driven mad by "connecting the dots" in various occult tomes and science books. Whatever dark truth he glimpsed was enough to turn him into a wandering, homeless drunk.

The Ailuromorph seemed like a mixture between Lovecraft and Ligotti. An insomniac in a dull corporate environment (Ligottian) takes late night strolls when he comes across a strange building that the neighborhood cats seem to gravitate towards (Lovecraft's cats).

The book finishes with another personal favorite, Dedicated to the Weird. Following an introduction written by a fictitious author, the story is told in the form of e-mails from a disgraced, failed writer who is holed up in a creepy, small town which is very much like Lovecraft's Innsmouth. This story may have been the best one in the collection, and I really hope Samuels decides to allow this one to see print again someday.

I understand that Samuels as a writer has the right to not allow his works to be reprinted, and as great as his other works are I can almost understand why he would choose not to have this collection reprinted. On the other (white) hand, the stories are NOT bad. They are just not at the level of his other works. Regardless, I would like to see the book reprinted someday, so Samuels fans can have a chance to see how far he has come as a writer.

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