Friday, December 19, 2014

Review: Written in Darkness by Mark Samuels

I've been a fan of Mark Samuels ever since I read The White Hands in early 2013. Afterwards, I went on to buy every book he's written, even hunting down a copy of his long out of print first collection Black Altars. Written in Darkness sees Samuels teaming up with Egaeus Press, a publisher who is putting out some of the finest books weird fiction has to offer.

The nine stories within are sure to please any Samuels fan. As usual with his works, the prose has a certain formality, bringing to mind some old school weird fiction. They are narrated in an erudite manner, which seems to fit the image of the lonely academic, which lends itself to the themes of much of his fiction. In the introduction, author Reggie Oliver used a phrase from Samuels' The White Hands, which sums this up well: “I believe that mental isolation is the essence of weird fiction.” The characters in his stories are isolated, they tend to be loners who don't fit into modern society. They struggle with many concepts and themes: decay, change, technology. 

My favorite stories:

The Other Tenant follows a man with no friends or family, on early retirement due to an illness. He is not a likable man, and is rather honest about only caring for himself. At night he is bothered what seems to be a television program or recording of a very dubious nature that is playing in the neighboring apartment.

Technology, and more specifically the dehumanization due to technology, comes into play in An Hourglass of the Soul and Outside Interference, which are my two favorite stories in the book. In the first story a man is sought out and hired by a new company, and within days is sent on a business trip to a remote area in Mongolia. The pace is fast, and readers are just as flustered as the protagonist as he is quickly whisked away on his trip, arriving only to be taken straight to the job site where he finds something he isn't expecting. Outside Interference stands out for not following a lone person, but focusing on an entire group. It takes place in a recently abandoned office building in an abandoned business park, which makes for an excellently creepy venue. A few slacker types are left behind in a company's move in order to transfer their paper records onto the computer. Things seem bad enough when a blizzard begins and they fear being snowed in, but when the elevator door opens and unleashes what was once their minibus driver it is apparent that the blizzard is the least of their worries. Both stories show a fear of technology and what it can do to people, and the "static zombies" of Outside Interference are rather symbolic of today's smartphone culture.

While the previous two stories both included some corporate, Ligotti-esque horror, it is The Ruins of Reality which, to me, is the most Ligottian story of the bunch. A decayed, urban setting is filled with the desperate dregs of society and when recruitment posters for the mysterious "N Factory" show up around town, they are overtaken by a wary sense of hope. The story is dreamlike and surreal, and what seems like a possible answer to the problems of the people seems to instead be a fate much worse.

In My World Has No Memories a man wakes on a boat in the middle of an ocean. He doesn't remember anything, and can't seem to get his bearings due to malfunctioning of compasses and stars that don't match his star charts. His predicament is frightening enough in itself, but once he discovers a glass jar filled with some of migraine and vision inducing growth, he learns what frightening really is.

My Heretical Existence first appeared in an anthology in tribute to Bruno Schulz, and is a story of a man seeking something more, when he stumbled onto a mysterious, hidden area of the city, and a tavern full of very different people. He then begins his own transformation.

The collection finishes with In Eternity Two Lines Intersect, a story in tribute to Arthur Machen. A man is released from some sort of institution and takes up residence in an apartment of a missing man. He tells the building's owner that he doesn't have to throw away the missing man's effects, that he will take care of them  himself. As he settles into his new home he becomes fixated on these belongings, a church across the street, and an area of woodland on a nearby hill. As the days wear on he finds his thought patterns changing, and begins to wear the missing man's clothes, which fit perfectly. He reads his books. He begins to have dreams and visions, sometimes waking up from dreams clutching an object he was not in possession of before. Reality and dream become blurred as the man has a spiritual awakening, leading others into the woods for a celebration of transcendence.

Overall this is a very enjoyable, if short, collection, and in line with other offerings from Egaeus Press the book is very aesthetically pleasing. Titles are done in calligraphy by Geoff Cox and the book features haunting endpapers. As of today there should still be some copies left, so order direct from the publisher to secure one before you miss out.

Other books by Mark Samuels reviewed by The Arkham Digest: Black Altars, The White Hands, Glyphotech.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review: Gifts For The One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall is an author I have heard of the last few years, but I had yet to read anything by her until this summer, when I sat down with Ellen Datlow's Fearful Symmetries. Marshall's story, In The Year of Omens was one of the highlights of the anthology for me, and therefore had me quite excited to check out her forthcoming collection.

Published by the ever wonderful ChiZine Publications, Gifts for the One Who Comes After contains seventeen stories without a mediocre one in the bunch.

Marshall is a masterful storyteller, penning stories that manage to be creepy and beautiful at the same time. Her fiction hits hard emotionally, bringing to mind the debut collections from Nathan Ballingrud and Livia Llewellyn. The stories explore many themes, among them family, dysfunction, inherited guilt, growing up, and regrets. Her writing comes across as honest, and fearless, qualities which elevate her writing into the topmost tier of weird fiction being written today.

 A few of my favorite stories:

In The Hanging Game a woman revisits her childhood and a dangerous game her and others would play. The game was a sort of sacred rite of passage, and more of a ritual than a game. Inherited guilt also comes into play and the story explores the idea of children paying for the sins of their parents.

Secondhand Magic opens with what seems to be a classic, mid-century, suburban neighborhood, but things take a darker turn when a kid magician gets on the bad side of a spiteful woman who knows how to use real magic. It's a heartbreaking story.

Lessons in The Raising of Household Objects is another story where family is front and center. A young girl narrates a story in which her mother is pregnant with twins and the girl is terrified of the twins and of their imminent birth. The story plays out like a nightmare, an anxiety dream the girl is having, as the story goes further and further into the surreal.

Family is at the forefront again in All My Love, a Fishhook. A man tries to come to terms with the troubled relationship he has with his father and his own son.

The title story is one of the best weird fiction stories of 2014. A town is plagued by "omens," Everyone has their own individual one, which ends in their death. The main character is a young teenager, and is struggling as she wants her own omen and feels left behind as hers refuses to manifest. Another beautiful, dark, sad story.

The Santa Claus Parade has forever changed the way I will view street corner and department store Santas.

The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass is another sad story about a boy struggling to cope with his parent's divorce.

In Crossroads and Gateways Marshall makes use of African myth to tell a fable of love.

Readers take a trip to a creepy South African house in Ship House, another story in which family and inherited guilt take the forefront. This one is also run through with the creepy Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale.

Supply Limited, Act Now is a melancholic story of growing up, and follows a group of young boys as they get their hands on a real shrink ray.

More family tension exists in In The Moonlight, the Skin of You, which follows a girl who stays with her father after her mother abandons them. They live in a rugged, logging community, and things change when a mysterious girl arrives.

The Gallery of the Eliminated is about a boy whose father brings him to a mysterious, magical place in the wake of a family tragedy.

Helen Marshall's writing evokes feeling of love, beauty, guilt, yearning, regret, and sadness. She understands the complex family relationships that exists and explores them fearlessly. This is a must have collection for fans of weird literature, and is easily one of 2014's best books.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Giveaway Winner

And the winner is Claire Gilligan!

Thanks to all who entered!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Giveaway: 2014 Year's End Mega-Giveaway

Year's End Giveaway

Collections: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay
                     The Lord Came At Twilight by Daniel Mills (ARC with variant cover)
                     Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett

Novels/Novellas: Far From Streets by Mike Griffin (very limited printing novella)
                             Children of Light by Daniel Mills (very limited printing novella)
                             The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore

Anthologies: Mighty In Sorrow edited by Jordan Krall
                       The New Gothic edited by Beth K. Lewis
                       Schemers edited by Robin D. Laws

Poetry: He Walks on All Fours by Matt Bialer

Nonfiction: When The Stars Are Right by Scott R. Jones (shipped separately) 

To enter send an e-mail to with '2014' in the subject line. Include your snail mail address. Contest lasts for three days, and I will randomly draw the winner Wednesday evening. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review: The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore

Scott Kenemore is an author that up until now I wasn't familiar with. He penned a few zombie novels, as well as a humorous nonfiction series, The Zen of Zombies, but it's with The Grand Hotel that Mr. Kenemore leaves the zombie genre to try a different kind of novel.

The Grand Hotel is a dark fantasy novel with elements of horror and humor sewn throughout. The frame story is narrated by the night clerk of a mysterious, labyrinthian hotel. The man, much like The Grand Hotel, is much more than he appears to be, and it's this mystery that forms the skeleton of the novel, although it's the meat on the bones which is truly interesting.

When a tour group arrives, the clerk takes them on a tour of the hotel, meeting several hotel inhabitants along the way. The bulk of the book is comprised of these episodes, in which different hotel guests, each eccentric and special in their own way, narrate their personal stories. These stories vary in content, but almost all involve the supernatural in some way. The stories are akin to fables, and the clerk makes a game out of the tour with a young girl in the tour group, asking her after each story what the true point of the story is.

Some of the stories are stronger than others, but overall will fail to pierce the armor of the hardened horror reader. Some are weird enough to be memorable, but others are rather forgettable, and the hotel's guests are the same way, although they are often more interesting than their stories. One old lady spends her time alone in a ballroom with a variety of tuxedo'd mannequins on wheels in which she dances with, although her story doesn't live up to this interesting set piece, and is instead a forgettable yarn about a young nobleman and a mysterious gypsy girl she was friends with. A former television chef tells a story about a haunted Scottish castle where his ghost-hunting cooking show had it's last show. The narrative voices used for the stories seem a bit forced as well. While Mr. Kenemore may have been going for a more natural feel with how the speakers tell their tales, I couldn't help but find myself straining to immerse myself in the individual stories.

Kenemore's novel mixed dark fantasy elements with some whimsy, and while it can be an entertaining read it doesn't hit it's potential. Many of the twists in the frame story are spotted early on, leading to a lackluster conclusion. Kenemore did make interesting use of the Indian collection of stories Vetala Panchavimshati (or Baital Pachisi) which gives an interesting bent to the novel, but not enough to make the book a standout. I'm not saying the novel is bad, because I don't believe that's the case, and I see a lot of potential in Mr. Kenemore. The novel is worth a read, but there's nothing there that warrants a revisit either. Regardless, I will be paying close attention to Scott Kenemore's future books.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill has fast become one of the big names of horror fiction. His first novel was published in 2004, and since his second novel in 2010 he has delivered one horror novel per year, with short stories appearing sporadically. Last year I reviewed House of Small Shadows (my favorite of his six novels) and then conducted an interview with Mr. Nevill this past august after the book was released in the US.

No One Gets Out Alive is his latest, and longest, novel. It wastes no time getting to the action, and the terrors of 82 Edgehill Road begin in the very first chapter. The book tells the story of Stephanie, a young woman who has been hit hard by the recession. Her mother died young, and she was raised by a father and a mentally ill stepmother, and after her father dies she tries to stay on with stepmother but the arrangement doesn't work. She has left her last boyfriend, and finds herself truly on her own. Jobs are scarce to the point of nonexistence, and a temping agency barely manages to get her any gigs, so the girl is forced to confront poverty head on and take a ridiculously cheap room in a shady, rundown house. This is where the book starts. Stephanie wakes up to all sorts of noises: plastic crinkling under her bed, sobbing girls in adjacent rooms, a muttering female voice from the fireplace, and the presence of someone in her room walking over to her bed. One night in the house would be enough, but due to financial circumstances she has nowhere else to go. Things go from bad to worse, and only keep going downhill.

Structurally, the book reminds me of Nevill's third novel, The Ritual. There was a turning point in The Ritual where the book seems like it could end, only to do a 180 and become almost a completely different horror novel. The book was highly praised, and some fans loved the subverting of expectations while some were put off by the drastic turning point. I was in the former camp. This novel has a similar structure, and when the horrors reach a crescendo and the novel seems to be over it continues for another 200 pages. While there were moments I felt like the latter portion could have been a bit shorter, I thought that overall it worked well and took the story to new heights.

Also like The Ritual, No One Gets Out Alive deftly blends realistic horrors with the supernatural. The hauntings of 82 Edgehill Road are scary enough in their own right, but the true horrors of the house come from Nevill's darkest characters yet: landlord Knacker McGuire and his cousin Fergal. The proprietors are the scum of the low class: uneducated, shady, predatory, angry, selfish, violent. They're criminals, who hide behind flashy clothes, manipulating and taking advantage, and ultimately resorting to extortion and violence when things don't go their way. The author did an excellent job depicting these characters realistically, and the books most intense, terrifying moments involve them.

The horrors of poverty are center stage, as well as the horror of being alone, with no one to turn to and nowhere to go. The book is also a look at female victims and survivors in horror. Nevill has some poignant things to say about modern society and their reaction to female victims as well, which is in itself another powerful avenue of horror.

The supernatural doesn't take a backseat to the realistic horror either, but instead works in tandem with it. No one believes that she saw ghosts and worse, leaving her with few friends, and even the ones she has don't believe her, thinking her mentally and emotionally broken. This leaves her mostly on her own, facing a horror that's become a part of her.

Adam Nevill has come a long way since publishing his first novel, and his growth as a writer has been apparent over the course of his novels. No One Gets Out Alive is one of his best yet, and truly reaches for new heights of terror. That Nevill managed to sustain dread throughout a novel of this size is a true accomplishment, as this book throws horror at the readers from the very first paragraph and doesn't let up until the end. If you're a fan of horror and Adam Nevill isn't on your radar, you're doing something wrong. The novel is set to hit shelves in the UK on October 23rd and will be released in the US April of 2015.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Review: The Mission by Ted E. Grau

I’ve always been partial to the Weird Western. My love of the weird, horror and fantasy has always been strong, but I didn’t truly appreciate the Western until I came across the gritty Spaghetti Western films directed by Sergio Leone. These films hit the sweet spot. There was the frontier setting, wild and lacking any controlling institution, bandits and vigilantes running rampant. Every man carried a six-shooter at the very least, forging his very own path through the dust and grime. These were tough sons-of-bitches, dealing with tough situations. Danger is a constant. The violent setting of the American West is horrific, so throwing supernatural horror into the mix just serves to up the ante. Lovecraftian and cosmic horror in particular has always seemed to be well-suited to the Western environment, giving an author a desolate, wide-open setting to place his horrors, making man feel quite alone before the horror even takes the stage.

T.E. Grau’s The Mission serves as prime example of what can be done when these two genres collide. The novella starts off with a typical Western plot; a group of Army men are on the hunt for a couple of Native Americans. Grau shows what can be accomplished when combining the West with the horrors of Lovecraft, as the men make some strange discoveries.

The tension of the group is already thick when the novel begins, with some members clashing over racial differences and just skimming the boiling point. Once the stage is set, the already palpable tension ratchets into overdrive for the remainder of the novella. As the group is beset by strange occurrences, such as finding an out of place town where a town shouldn’t be, the Captain does his best to stay cool and keep his group from tearing each other apart.

Some of The Mission brought to mind The Men From Porlock or Blackwood’s Baby by Laird Barron. All three stories are period pieces featuring groups of tough guys coming face to face with horrors beyond their comprehension. Grau nails the rough tone required to portray these types of characters, making for a story that has already moved high up on my list of favorite Weird Westerns.

The Mission was published by Jordan Krall’s Dunhams Manor Press, an imprint of Dynatox Ministries, as a very limited chapbook. orders.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Interview: Mike Allen

Author/Poet/Editor Mike Allen recently blew me away with his debut short fiction collection, Unseaming, and was kind enough to grant me an interview.

First off I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

You’re welcome, Justin! Thank you for inviting me to gab.

I have to admit, I was a bit blindsided by your collection Unseaming. Until now I've known you as a poet, and an editor (Mythic Delirium, Clockwork Phoenix). Unseaming collects short stories from a span of sixteen years, and quite frankly is one of the best short story collections of the year. Do you see yourself writing more short fiction in the future?

Thank you so much for the kind words! It sounds like, in your case, Unseaming had exactly the effect I’ve hoped it would. May the effect continue to spread!

Laird Barron’s introduction puts things quite succinctly: I’ve been writing fiction all along, with a story published here, a story published there, rarely appearing in venues that reach a large audience. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why; I’m definitely not one for comforting or crowd-pleasing. If I were, I would never have written so much poetry, heh.

On the other hand, it’s true that even though I’m a Nebula Award finalist – a published novelist even! – I’ve had numerous encounters with folks who know me as an editor or a poet but express surprise on learning I write stories; and I can find that frustrating. But on the third hand of this mutant, with this collection, I’m making a statement about who I am as a storyteller that I haven’t made before. And I’m stunned, in a good way, at the attention it’s been getting.

As for whether I’ll write more: of course. I have a new story in progress in my far future “Hierophant’s world” series (the latest of those, “Still Life With Skull,” appeared last year in Ian Whates’ Solaris Rising 2), and other tales flying to various places, hoping to land. The next short story bound to appear in print is my horror tale “Tardigrade” in Jason V. Brock’s mammoth (I mean MAMMOTH) 700+ page anthology A Darke Phantastique.

Your fiction revels in the dark and the weird. What attracts you to dark/weird fiction? Is your poetry also slanted this way?

Morbid curiosity certainly plays a role. My first exposure to Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" in third grade left me wracked with night terrors for months, and yet I was drawn back to that book again and again. (I now own a copy of that exact edition of Poe's stories, complete with the illustrations that disturbed me so.) Lovecraft had a similar effect, King, Straub and others. I eventually conquered these night terrors when I was a teen by saturating myself so thoroughly with horror stories and horror films that I achieved a sort of vicarious ownership of the things I found scary. Clive Barker's Books of Blood were the turning point, when I started to feel as if I was sharing in the author's wicked acts of creation rather than a victim of them. Perhaps my writing, when I bend it toward horror, becomes the ultimate expression of that ownership? I definitely enjoy crafting stories that others find unnerving.

The thing of it is, though: in hindsight I see evidence that I was always bound to become the person I am now, Poe or no Poe. The narrator of my story "Humpty" describes being attacked by a stuffed doll in his crib -- I had that exact nightmare as a tot. Or at least I assume it was a dream, I remember it as if it actually happened.

As for whether my poetry shares in this, I give you the words of my good friend Amal El-Mohtar, who wrote the introduction to my newest poetry collection, Hungry Constellations: "This is a man who delights in breaking bodies: butchering, splitting, flaying, dismembering, then seeding landscapes with viscera until they too become bodies—bodies invaded, bodies stuffed, bodies contaminated … this is a book of monsters."

When did you know you wanted to become a writer? What were early dark/weird fiction/poetry works that influenced you?

Honestly, I'm a late bloomer. I didn't get serious about submitting stories until my senior year at Virginia Tech. I made my first small press sale, to a pay-in-copy zine, right after I graduated, which let me trick myself into thinking my first professional sale had to be just around the corner, heh, heh. Nowadays I'd consider that first story (and others from those early days) unpublishable, but it's perhaps a good thing I didn't know that at the time.

On a side note, since you're asking about influences, it might be worth mentioning that the first story I sold was inspired by the music of Slayer, as was the much better story "Let There Be Darkness" that's included in Unseaming.

In terms of poetry, T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" stands tall in my youth, with its tarot cards and cities of the dead. As for stories, I've mentioned Poe, Lovecraft and King. I read Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" when I was pretty young, and it rather traumatized me in a way that kept drawing me back to it, much like good old Poe. I had a comparible reaction to Thomas M. Disch's nihilistic "Descending."

It's funny, I was a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, and in the tiny Appalachian town where I lived, there was no "fandom," absolutely no one who I could talk with about this genre stuff in a knowledgable way, so I explored in a vacuum. A well-meaning family friend provided a book called A Treasury of Modern Fantasy that I started wolfing down thinking it was more Tolkien/Lewis type stuff, but nooooooo, it was basically an epic collection of dark fantasy and horror, ranging from Clark Ashton Smith to Philip Jose Farmer, and lo! my fate was sealed.

The favorites I've discovered as an adult -- Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron -- have entailed dark joy rather than night terror trauma, heh.

Unseaming has an original novella called The Quiltmaker, which is a sequel to the opening story of the collection, The Button Bin. Why did you decide to revisit this story?

After "The Button Bin" lost the Nebula Award, I had the opportunity to share it with a film producer, who was intrigued (or so it seemed to me) but didn't think there was enough material there for a full-length movie. I had not at all planned to continue this story, did not believe it could be continued, but faced with this possibility (which, by the way, went nowhere) the creative part of my brain started worrying away at the problem.

Sometimes my stories start with an image. The inspiration for "The Button Bin" came as I was idly running my arm through a huge tub full of buttons at a local store and imagined the buttons adhering to my skin as I pulled my arm out. A new image came to me, of a woman trapped in a room with our, um, hero from the first story, trying to escape as he starts to violently unravel. More scenes followed, demanded to be written.

"The Quiltmaker" contains seeds for a third story, though I don't yet have a pivotal scene in my mind to serve as a springboard. We shall see how things go.

What stories/authors/books/poetry collections are on "Mike Allen's List of Essential Reading?"

My list of favorites has evolved over the decades. I just finished and was immensely impressed by Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance.) Those books reminded me of so many cool and disparate things: Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, Ligotti's best "horror in the workplace" stories, Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. But what he's done is something fresh, haunting, bizarre, gorgeous and full of compelling mysteries.

Laird Barron's existing collections of stories, The Imago Sequence, Occultation, The BeautifulThing That Awaits Us All, form a trilogy of their own, and I recommend them without reservation. (And I will never stop bragging about having published the title story of Occultation in the first volume of Clockwork Phoenix.)

Earlier this year I finally read Livia Llewellyn's Engines of Desire and was just blown away. I can't shut up about it. By all means, if you're a fan of horror, seek out that book.

Boy, I could go on. But since we're talking about horror, let me just say that David Hartwell's massive anthologies The Dark Descent and Foundations of Fear opened door after door after door for me. I made so many amazing discoveries wandering through those books.

What can readers expect from you in the future? Also, for unfamiliar readers could you discuss your other projects (Mythic Delirium, Clockwork Phoenix)?

My first novel, a dark, dark fantasy called The Black Fire Concerto, was published in 2013 by Haunted Stars, an imprint of Black Gate. I've written an even grislier sequel, The Ghoulmaker's Aria, that still needs a lot of work before it can go to press, but I hope to have it out next year. Sitting on the back burner, homeless but hopeful, is a 110,000-word novel that expands on one of the short stories in Unseaming, "The Hiker's Tale." And I've begun yet another novel, working title These Bloody Filaments, that shares a lot of traits and themes with the stories in Unseaming -- imagine black magic infesting the milieu of  Breaking Bad. Some characters from the Unseaming tales will turn up.

Man, Mythic Delirium and Clockwork Phoenix could warrant a whole 'nother interview. Mythic Delirium was once a poetry journal I printed and published twice a year; now it's a webzine devoted about evenly to both poetry and offbeat fiction. My wife Anita and I are about to re-release the first four issues of the webzine, repackaged as a print anthology, called, of course, Mythic Delirium -- and this anthology incarnation just received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which has us tickled to no end. (By the way, we're currently open to submissions. Guidelines are here:

Clockwork Phoenix is a series of anthologies that I initially subtitled "Tales of Beauty and Strangeness." For a summary I'm going to steal from one of Rich Horton's reviews in Locus, who wrote that each of the four books holds "a set of well-written stories occupying multiple subgenres, usually in the same story, often ambiguously." And those stories have racked up an astonishingly high number of award nominations and "best of the year" reprints for a series published by a micropress, so I like to think that though it's hard to explain exactly what Clockwork Phoenix is, it's something we do well. The cat's out of the bag, so I might as well repeat it here: Anita and I are planning to hold a Kickstarter for a fifth volume in 2015.

Thanks for your time.

You're welcome. Thank you for the questions!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: Unseaming by Mike Allen

Mike Allen's collection Unseaming came to me as a complete surprise. Author Joe Pulver recommended it, and then I received an ARC. Mike Allen is mostly known as a poet, and an editor for Mythic Delirium and Clockwork Phoenix, and up until now I hadn't read any fiction from him, which is unfortunate because these stories could very well snag him an award for best collection.

Unseaming collects fourteen stories, eleven of which have been published elsewhere over the last sixteen years, and three of which are original to this collection. The stories range from dark fantasy to outright horror, and are preceded by an introduction written by Laird Barron.

Allen's skill as a poet can be seen in his fiction, in which he exhibits a strong, confident prose style. His deft use of language and description further flesh out his fiction. Many themes are explored within the stories: dark desires, secrets, childhood trauma, love, loss, and transformation.

The book opens with The Button Bin, a Nebula-nominated emotional rollercoaster. As disturbing truths are revealed the lines between hero and villain are shattered. The penultimate story, The Quiltmaker, is an original novella which serves as sequel to The Button Bin. The interconnected themes of secrets and dark desires are amplified within, as a troubled neighborhood is laid bare for the reader to see. The sequel adds even more dimensions to the origin story, and is the true climax of the collection.

Self-deceit and self destruction come into play in a few of the stories. In Her Acres of Pastoral Playground, a man is living a lie in order to protect some semblance of family and his sanity. Humpty is one man's fever dream and coming to terms with childhood abuse. Reality blurs, and the protagonist doesn't know what to believe himself until he faces the truth. Gutter sees a young reporter who becomes obsessed with an area which sees an abundance of death and disappearances and goes on a crusade for the truth. Despite constant warnings by his superiors, his obsession leads him to drugs and alcohol and costs him his family, his health, and much, much more.

Apocalypses are begun or played out in The Blessed Days, Let There Be Darkness, and Her Acres of Pastoral Playground. Allen gives glimpses of terrible futures. In The Blessed Days people all across the world awake everyday covered in blood that has seeped through their pores, which is just a precursor for something much worse. Her Acres of Pastoral Playground gives a glimpse of a world in which Lovecraftian beings have risen and reclaimed the Earth as their own. Let There Be Darkness offers a truly terrifying look at what God could really be like, and what would happen if the Second Coming isn't accepted.

Dark fairy tales and Euro folklore are at play in The Music of Bremen Farm and Stone Flowers. The first being a tale of revenge, and the second a tale of love and the cruel bargains that must sometimes be made.

Weird places are used effectively in The Hiker's Tale and The Lead Between the Panes, two of my favorite tales from the collection.

Unseaming is one of my highlights of 2014, which has been a year of strong fiction collections (especially debuts). It is my belief that Mike Allen is about to grab a lot of attention with this book. The sporadic publishing of his fiction over nearly two decades has helped him fly under the fiction radar. This changes with his collection. This is where he crashes the party, strutting in like a rockstar, with the skills to back it up. I expect to hear his name a lot in the coming years.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Interview: Matthew M. Bartlett

I recently reviewed Gateways to Abomination, the debut "fiction collection" from author Matthew M. Bartlett. It is a book I quite highly recommend, and I now follow up with an interview with the author.


AD: First I'd like to thank you for taking the time for this interview.
It’s my pleasure.
Gateways to Abomination is a culmination of a few years worth of stories. How did the project come about? How long has this collection been in the making?
A friend of mine had begun a humorous fictional Livejournal page about deranged politicians and odd local characters in a fictional town, and, inspired by that, but also being a fan of horror, I decided to start my own page, but with a real setting and a macabre bent. I thought the blog format would be a good venue for the ongoing story of a malevolent cabal – an occult group of revenants with a devilish leader – targeting the wounded souls of an art community through radio broadcasts.. I posted the first installment in March of 2005. I scoured the Internet and local antique stores for old, unsettling daguerreotypes and tintypes, and I took pictures of desolate locations around town, and I posted them, constructing little stories or vignettes around the pictures. I thought the stories unpublishable at the time, as I felt that they were inextricably tied to the pictures. As I went on, the stories got longer and more involved, the pictures fewer and farther between. Suddenly it occurred to me that I’d amassed enough to put together a collection. I started ordering and compiling and rewriting in early 2014.
What attracts you to weird fiction? What authors and works have impacted you over the years?
I’ve always been a fairly cheerful person but a person with an undercurrent of terror of mortality, a morbid bent. I don’t believe in any measure of consciousness after death, and nonexistence is a thought that utterly terrifies me. I’m not comforted either by the fact that I did not exist for an eternity before my birth: somehow that’s even worse to try to comprehend. I’m kind of a day-to-day optimist and a big-picture pessimist. As I've aged, I've become more and more dismayed by the thought that we are all walking horrorshows. We’re skeletons, filled with and encased in fat and gore, the whole mess barely held in by a few layers of dermis. We're so easily cut and sprung and burst - we're always a millisecond from encountering or becoming an unthinkable horror. And that doesn’t even cover the cancer and ills that can grow invisibly within us.
So I think weird fiction was a natural fit for me. My parents tell me that when I was four or five years old, and Sesame Street was on TV, whenever The Count appeared, I would stare at him and slowly, carefully back out of the room, my eyes never leaving him. At a Halloween cub scout meeting I was the only kid in costume – picture 12 cub scouts in uniform and one Dracula, complete with a cape and a widow’s peak drawn in with eyebrow pencil. I was obsessed with the Universal Studios monsters as a child, and was introduced to Stephen King’s work at the age of 13 or so.
It took me a long time to give Lovecraft a try; I’d somehow gathered that he was more a Science Fiction writer than anything, and that genre held no interest for me at the time. But when I’d learned a little more, in the process discovering that he made use of familiar New England settings, I picked up a book at random and was immediately captivated. Strangely, maybe, I found Thomas Ligotti separately, browsing in a Connecticut Borders store. They had a copy of “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” the one with a scarecrow on the cover. I opened the book to “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and I felt a rush of endorphins as I read the opening paragraphs. From there it was a quick jump to Robert Aickman. I fell in love with Aickman – his facility with the language is something I strive for every day…not to mention his uncanny ability to provoke unease. Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D. Klein, Robert Bloch, all great. I’ve also developed an obsession with Shirley Jackson.
I’ve only recently begun to dig into the works of the people currently working in Weird Fiction, and it’s like I’ve walked into a room of treasures: John Langan, Simon Strantzas, Laird Barron…I enjoy their work so much and I feel like I am learning a lot from them.
The stories in Gateways to Abomination are all connected, with one of the common threads being radio station WXXT 81.5 FM. Why precipitated the idea of the ominous radio station?
Radio can be such an intimate experience. When I started writing Weird Fiction, I was listening to shows by a radio monologist named Joe Frank. His work was by turns dark, surreal, deeply personal, blackly humorous, searching. His voice, heavily compressed, was usually recorded over a drone or repetitive electronic music. What if, I thought, the thing behind that voice was some sort of unhinged entity? What if this disconnected voice introduced the listener to terrifying sounds, weird mutterings, bizarre tales, tortured screams set to music? I could imagine driving, at night, under a spell, unable to spin the dial away. Radio, or experimental and local radio is, of course, quite possibly in its death throes. The metaphor of ghosts worked quite well in that context.
The stories you write take place in and around the area in which you reside. Do you find that the area lends itself well to weird fiction, or did you just take the place you knew and warp it to get the results you wanted?
Northampton, Massachusetts is seen largely as a college town, a touristy town, an art town. But under all the trappings, under the boutique signs and awnings, the main drag looks exactly as it did in the 1800s. History is still very much present, very visible if you have the eyes to see it. And the history of the town - of Western and Central Massachusetts as a whole - is very, very rich. Jonathan Edwards delivered his fiery speeches in Northampton. In the 1850s a dam burst and the Mill River flooded, devastating many area towns. Not far away, in the fifties, four towns were disincorporated and drowned to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir. In the '80s, Reagan was essentially responsible for shutting down mental asylums, including the Northampton State Hospital, whose inhabitants were essentially released into the streets. Western and Central Massachusetts have always attracted spiritual seekers and strange cults - the Brotherhood of the Spirit, later known as the Renaissance Community, about which there is a fascinating documentary out there...the Church of End Times in Uxbridge, more recently. It’s a beautiful area, and Northampton is a lovely town, to be sure, especially in Autumn...but it has dark undercurrents. I don't think I'd live here if it didn't.
I was born and raised in East Hartford, Connecticut; actually, and there are references to East Hartford locations and people throughout the book, though maybe only my family would pick up on them. In any event, in the midst of my putting stories together for the book, I received an email from a relative working on a family history. As it happens, ancestors of mine were among the first settlers in Northampton in the early 1600s. A more fanciful person might conclude that was what drew me here, that ancestral pull, rather than the fact that I just liked the place.
As I said in my review, I feel that Gateways to Abomination works more like an experimental novel or meta-narrative, instead of a collection of short fiction. The short stories and vignettes are all so intertwined that it reads to me like many parts of a singular, nightmarish whole, even if the book doesn't give readers the entire picture. Do you plan to revisit these areas in further fiction?
I do, very much so. I still have pieces from the last nine years that I left out of Gateways to Abomination and I’ve also written conclusions to some of the stories in the book that seem to end abruptly or to hint at a continuation. I’m writing new fiction as well. Some of my finished stories and my in-progress stories are of that world, while a few really couldn’t fit into the larger narrative. But I have an idea for a new framing narrative that could easily lead to a second volume, or to an expansion of the first. I’m excited about the work I’m doing now.
AD: Once again I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
It was a lot of fun. Thank you.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review Roundup: August

I'm finishing up the summer by posting another roundup of reviews. This time I review a collection, an anthology, and a book of non-fiction.


Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett

I tend to avoid most self-published works, as the vast majority I have encountered tend to be self-published because no publisher in their right mind would even touch them. This book is one of the exceptions, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it re-released under a publisher's banner. Billing it as "collected short fiction" kind of sells the book short. This book is MUCH more than that. It reads like a post-modern novel. Very short stories and vignettes combine in an effective way to offer glimpses into an area infected by a sort of weird evil, using a phantom radio station to twist reality. Bartlett's book gets under the skin and digs deep. There is a mad genius at work here, the stories offering enough of a glimpse that a full picture nearly forms, yet not giving away the full game. This collection of nightmares, and disturbing radio broadcasts blends together so well that the book transcends the concept of a simple short fiction collection and becomes so much more. Sure, the book could use a tad bit of polish, no different from many small press books, but the quality of writing here hints at a promising future. I fully anticipate this book to be considered by many to be a modern cult classic, and I very much look forward to more from Mr. Bartlett. Highly recommended, there is something special at work here.

Fearful Symmetries edited by Ellen Datlow

Ellen Datlow is the modern queen of dark fiction. It simply cannot be disputed. Published by Canadian publisher ChiZine Publications (who already put out one stellar horror anthology earlier this year with Shadows & Tall Trees 2014 edited by Michael Kelly) Fearful Symmetries is a non-themed horror anthology consisting of twenty short stories by many of the genre's best. As with most Datlow anthologies, these stories run the gamut from pure horror to dark fantasy, and as such there is a bit of something here for all sorts of readers. In reading this anthology I found that most of my favorite stories came not from my usual favorite authors, but from authors of whom I was less familiar with: Helen Marshall, Robert Shearman, Siobhan Carroll, Carole Johnston, Catherine Macleod, Bruce McAllister and Pat Cadigan. Definitely one of the better anthologies of the year.

When the Stars Are Right by Scott R. Jones

Scott R. Jones has done something really special with this book. What sounds like a ridiculous premise, namely taking Lovecraft's fiction and using it as the basis of a spiritual path, actually comes together to create a fun reading experience. Taking a unique look at Lovecraft's deities (the reader of this may never view them quite the same again) and using his own personal experiences, Mr. Jones makes a case for living a life dedicated towards achieving the 'Black Gnosis,' a sort of tentacled Nirvana. The "R'lyehian" therefore lives a life constantly seeking knowledge and experience, in both dreams and waking life. It's clear that the author knows his Lovecraft in a way that perhaps no one else does. At times hilarious, at others deeply personal, this book is as much a love letter to the Gentleman of Providence as it is anything else, a cosmic thank-you note if you will. Some readers might not think this book sounds like their cup of tea, but anyone with an interest in Lovecraft should put this on their to-read list immediately. It's highly entertaining, and there's enough interesting concepts inside that all Lovecraft fans will find something to take away from it. Highly recommended.