The first book reviewed on The Arkham Digest was A Season in Carcosa, edited by Joseph S. Pulver Sr. An all-star lineup of weird fiction writers had written their own stories of madness for this anthology in tribute to the King in Yellow stories by Robert Chambers. I can't help but look at The Grimscribe's Puppets as a companion piece to that volume. Both published by the wonderful Miskatonic River Press, both edited by Joseph S. Pulver, both featuring a perfect lineup of weird fiction authors, both with stunning Dani Serra cover art. The Grimscribe's Puppets is a tribute anthology to horror maestro Thomas Ligotti.
Thomas Ligotti, one of the finest horror authors, can be a tough pill to swallow. He has gained cult status, and logging onto the forums Thomas Ligotti Online (a great place for weird fiction in general) one can easily see the influence he has had over many readers and authors over the years. His work is definitely not for everyone though, casual horror readers would most likely be turned off by his particular brand of philosophical horror, yet everyone should read Ligotti at least once. His work explores decrepit, dying towns, dark corporations, and most always features loner/outsider/misanthropic protagonists. His stories are bleak, Gothic, and often have a nihilistic/pessimistic philosophical bent. They are brilliant.
For The Grimscribe's Puppets Joe Pulver has pulled together twenty-two top notch stories, from twenty-two esteemed weird fiction authors. After A Season in Carcosa, this volume was high on my anticipated reads list, so I opened the cover with high expectations. Thankfully, the anthology not only met those expectations, but far surpassed them.
The collection opens with Livia Llewellyn's Furnace, a tale of a dying town told through the eyes of a young girl. Llewellyn displays a wonderful use of language to add beauty to this dark story.
The Lord Came At Twilight, which gets the nod as my favorite story title in the anthology - hands down, is Daniel Mills doing what he does best. The story is a period-piece, and Mills excels at writing historical weird fiction. His language and style are reminiscent of the weird masters of old, and mesh perfectly with the narrative. This story is also the first story to be directly related to one of Ligotti's works, The Mystics of Muelenberg. Ligotti's story took place in modern day, but referenced events from long ago, and Mills gives readers a detailed glimpse into what happened in Muelenberg.
Michael Cisco's The Secrets of the Universe is a story only Michael Cisco could write. This stylistic piece follows a macabre conversation and leads to a nice twist ending.
The Human Moth by Kaaren Warren features one of the more disturbing narrators I've read. Warren takes the idea of the outsider to a whole new creepy level with this story.
Joel Lane's Basement Angels takes a typical Ligottian protagonist, a man suffering from blackouts that cause him to see his everyday life as a sham. The man seeks therapeutic help, but what he finds may leave him worse off than he was before.
Darrel Schweitzer's No Signal has a dream-like (nightmare?) quality to the story, as the main character goes through the motions as if he's part of a script, not knowing why he's doing what he's doing, but doing it anyway.
The Xenambulist: A Fable in Four Acts by Robin Spriggs starts with another Ligottian protagonist, a disaffected man suffering from insomnia. As he descends the stairs for a midnight jaunt, his counting of the steps produces a different number than it usually does. He knows this isn't right, and it begins his descent into unreality. As the man heads to an abandoned church, things only get more bizarre, as the man encounters things from Jewish mysticism.
Nicole Cushing's The Company Town is a morbid story with a darkly humorous bent. The subject matter is dark, but Cushing handles it well. The story's commentary on Ligottian corporations is pitch perfect.
Cody Goodfellow's Wishing Well was my favorite story in A Season for Carcosa. That being said, I was very much looking forward to his story, The Man Who Escaped This Story. Simply put, it's brilliant. A man is convinced that we are all just characters in an uncaring deity's world. For him, his real life is a joke, as he is just snatched up by this puppeteer god to enact out nightmarish scenarios. The story has the perfect amount of humor thrown in to balance out the bleakness, making it one of the most entertaining stories of the anthology.
Writer/editor Michael Kelly offers up a story about a man with secrets, whose darkness is beginning to physically manifest inside of him. In Pieces of Blackness Kelly does a great job of creating a protagonist that inspires both pity and disgust. His dark secret comes more and more to the forefront as he begins to abhor the creepy child he adopted with his wife.
The Blue Star, by Eddie M. Angerhuber, is the only reprint included in the book. Angerhuber is known for translating Ligotti's works into German, and for writing her own Ligottian stories. Only one collection of her work has been translated into English (and translated by Angerhuber herself) and is titled Nocturnal Products, but it is difficult to find. This story features a man returning to a bleak, canal-filled city for an annual trip to commemorate a horror that occurred in the past.
Jon Padgett's 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism is an excellent exercise in humor. The story reads as a guidebook to ventriloquism, yet as it progresses it heads into darker territory.
Scholar Robert M. Price first published Ligotti's Vastarien in Crypt of Cthulhu #48 in 1987. He then reprinted it in The New Lovecraft Circle in 2004. Therefore, it was entirely appropriate for Price's contribution, The Holiness of Desolation, to be a story in connection with Vastarien. The story follows a man stuck in a dream like city, who obsesses over seeing the world in a desolate state.
Until recently, the only writing by Michael Griffin I was familiar with were the pieces on his blog, and sometimes reviews. Not long ago I read a story of his in The Lovecraft E-Zine, and couldn't wait to read more. Diamond Dust is a great portrait of a man stuck in a disintegrating relationship. As his personal and work life start to blend in troubling ways, it's clear that forces much darker are at play. Griffin is on point with his portrayal of the protagonist's anxieties.
In the last year, Richard Gavin has become one of my favorite weird fiction authors. His fiction never disappoints, and I also look forward to reading his new stories. After the Final is a response to Ligotti's Mr. Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror. This tale features madness, morbid obsession, and a bleak ending, so what's not to like?
Eyes Exchange Bank is a perfect example of why I'm looking forward to Scott Nicolay's debut fiction collection. Nicolay excels at creating the decrepit setting, which is an oppressive part of the narrative. The characters are realistic, and when the protagonist goes to visit his old friend in the run-down Pennsylvania town in order to find succor from his bad breakup, he finds a town that seems to be a black hole that sucks the life out of it's inhabitants.
Simon Strantzas utilizes Ligotti's fascination with puppetry to write a truly horrifying story. By Invisible Hands features an old, washed up puppet-maker, who is approached with a mysterious offer of work. The man is in a bad state of confusion already, and it quickly becomes clear that something much more malignant is happening. There are always some nice nods to Ligotti strewn throughout the piece: Dr. Toth calls to mind Ligotti's Dr. Thoss, and the protagonist's name is never mentioned, only referred to as T._____ L._____.
Where We Will All Be by Paul Tremblay is an excellent apocalyptic vision. A young man awakes on his parent's couch into the strangest day of his life. His being different saves him from the Lemming-esque behavior of everyone else, leaving him to contemplate the end of everything by himself.
Allyson Bird's Gailestis is a fine example of quiet horror. The story is almost reminiscent of a fairy tale or piece of folklore, with horrific implications strewn throughout.
The Prosthesis is about a man working in a factory that creates various prosthetics to help people cope with physical and mental loss. Jeffrey Thomas paints a picture of a disaffected man dealing with the daily nonsense that comes with a 9-5 job, only this time it's in an absurd department of the prosthetic factory. This man also has dealt with loss, and begins his own prosthetic project.
John Langan's Into The Darkness, Fearlessly follows a fiction editor in the aftermath is his author friend's gruesome murder. When an unpublished manuscript by the recently deceased author shows up on his doorstep, the editor fights through a barrage of emotions and starts reading. Things only get crazier from there, as the editor goes down the rabbit hole. An excellent story.
The anthology closes with Oubliette by Gemma Files. The unorthodox narrative calls to mind her earlier co-authored (with Stephen J. Barringer) each thing i show you is a piece of my death, which is an absoultely brilliant piece of horror fiction. This tale is no different, and is told in a succession of blog posts, instant messaging/Skype/E-mail conversations, news articles, and personal notes. The story follows a post-suicide depressive admitted into an apartment at a rehab facility. The program is experimental, and everything is done online so the patient never has to leave. It's not long that dark forces begin to come into play, as this particular apartment has a rather dark past.
Twenty-two stories, and not a single bad one in the bunch. Fans of Ligotti should pick up The Grimscribe's Puppets without question. Readers who are curious about Ligotti could also do well to even start here to get an idea of the sorts of themes they would find in Ligotti's work. I couldn't recommend this anthology any more.