Only too often do debut collections or novels read as such, and while more than a few display promise they still bear the hallmarks of being the author's first foray into the publishing realm. Rarely, a debut work transcends the trappings, and reads as if penned by a master well into his prime. These are the sorts of debuts that readers should take note of, as they herald the arrival of talents that are titanic in scale, talents that will leave their mark for many generations to come. This year marks the appearance of one such debut: Scott Nicolay's Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer the Other the Damned and the Doomed.
Scott Nicolay came to my attention with his story "Eyes Exchange Bank" from The Grimscribe's Puppets, although he had a couple stories printed before that (one in the ill-fated magazine Phantasmagorium and one in the equally ill-fated Aklonomicon). In my review for The Grimscribe's Puppets I said the following about Scott's story: "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."
"Eyes Exchange Bank" was one of the standout stories in the Ligotti tribute anthology. It managed to capture the theme and spirit of Ligotti's work while using a voice that was fresh and new.
In Ana Kai Tangata readers are served eight stories, every one of which is excellent. Nicolay is obviously very comfortable with the long form, with many of the stories measuring novella length. He takes advantage of the length, taking the time to build upon his characters in layers, resulting in protagonists who bleed off the page. Some are more likable than others, but all are real. The majority of stories focus on men who are struggling with personal issues, with loss and guilt taking the forefront. These broken men are often focusing their energies on certain obsessions. For some it's the loved one they lost, for others it's work related opportunities, and often it's a mixture of the two. These men often struggle with dark desires, and find themselves treading paths in which the light at the end of the tunnel is nonexistent. Almost every story is infused with a noirish inflection, a certain jaded and neurotic look at the world.
The fiction also benefits from authenticity. Caves feature in a few of the stories, and Nicolay's experience as a caver himself serves to anchor the fiction in a believable sense. Nicolay, born and raised in Jersey where some of the stories are set, has an eye for luminous, haunting locales, and many of the settings so perfectly described in the stories are weird, unsettling places that actually exist.
Of the eight stories present, four have been previously published, and four are original. "alligators" serves as an excellent opener, and shows that sometimes confronting one's fears does not have the therapeutic impact it's supposed to. Caves figure a large part in "Ana Kai Tangata" and "Phragmites" although the stories couldn't be more different from one another. "The Bad Outer Space" stands out for it's choice of narrator: a young child. It's not easy to write in the voice of a child, but Nicolay manages and makes the story all the more chilling because of the cold, matter-of-fact voice of the boy. The young Jaycee of "The Soft Frogs" is a perfect example of a Nicolay protagonist: jaded and getting himself in trouble all for the pleasures of the fairer sex. "Geschäfte" may be my favorite story in the book. The guilt ridden protagonist with the dark voyeuristic side paired with the one of the creepiest apartment settings make for a perfect weird tale. The collection ends with the extra long "Tuckahoe." Elements from Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" are present, and what starts out as a police procedural quickly descends into some freaky, backwoods territory.
It's very rare that a short fiction collection contains no weak stories, and it's practically unheard of that a debut collection manages to be all around excellent. Nicolay's debut is proof that it can happen. Eight of the best weird fiction stories that I have ever had the pleasure of reading, all paired perfectly with shudder-inducing art from David Verba, make this a landmark collection. Publisher Fedogan & Bremer have struck gold with Nicolay, and further refined the presentation with the amazing artwork from David Verba, and introduction from Laird Barron, and an afterword from John Pelan. As a bonus, the slipcased deluxe version (coming later this year) also features a new chapbook novella that doesn't come with the trade edition. Although it is only April, I have a feeling that this is not only going to be hailed as the debut of the year, but possibly even the best fiction collection of the year.