Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: Shadows & Tall Trees 2014

Shadows & Tall Trees is the premiere journal for weird fiction. Editor Michael Kelly never fails to combine a stellar lineup of stories exploring the liminal and strange. The most recent volume, Issue 6, is special in more ways than one. It is the first Shadows & Tall Trees to be released since Undertow became an imprint of ChiZine Publications. It also marks the series growing from a smaller journal format to a full blown anthology, containing seventeen stories. This volume is also dedicated to Joel Lane, one of the finest practitioners in the genre, who tragically left us last year.

Kelly has far exceeded expectations, putting together an exceptional volume at a much larger length, alleviating the reader's fear that the larger length would lessen the overall quality by including filler stories.

Some highlights include:

Michael Wehunt's Onanon is a really creepy story about a man, his sickly old mother, and a mysterious girl. The man's search for identity and who is mother truly was are intertwined with the girl he begins a sort of affair with. The story builds to quite a disturbing conclusion.

Hidden in the Alphabet by Charles Wilkinson has an old, once-controversial filmmaker attempting to meet his long estranged and thought dead son, a meeting set up by his niece, who was once an actress in his films. There is a sense of great wrongdoing in the director's past, as he used his son and niece in ways that were utterly wrong, and a current sense of justice being enacted on the director.

Kaaron Warren's Death Door Cafe is about dying people given a second chance, and what they are willing to sacrifice of themselves for that chance. The setting is a secretive cafe, which is only known from word of mouth, where the dying go to see if they are worthy. The story is melancholic and beautiful, another great story from an excellent writer.

Road Dead is a really short story about four young guys going for a drive in order to find cellphone reception, when one of them decides to take a detour. F. Brett Cox manages to pull off a creepy little story that reads like some rattling off a story about a dream they had.

V.H. Leslie's The Quiet Room is a tale of grief and family. A father gains full custody of his daughter after her mother dies, and they move into a big old house. As the man is trying to adjust to being a full time father of a teenager, his daughter takes a turn for the strange, becoming quiet and withdrawn, seemingly obsessed with a dusty, old piano, on which she keeps the urn of her mother's ashes. Leslie paints a convincing portrait of the father and his daughter, and there is a sense of dread permeating throughout the piece.

R.B. Russell is mainly known for running Tartarus Press, an excellent British publisher of weird fiction, but he is quite an author as well. Night Porter takes a premise that seems like it's straight out of a mainstream horror flick: a young girl takes a job as a hotel's night porter, and her job soon takes a turn for the horrific. Russell takes this premise and veers it straight into weird territory, creating an excellent horror story that I enjoyed very much.

Shaddertown by Conrad Williams reminds me of much of Ramsey Campbell's modern fiction. In Holes for Faces many of Ramsey Campbell's stories featured either elderly characters, or children, and sometimes both, playing on their similarities and differences. These stories are often fraught with anxiety so powerfully written that the readers begins to feel it themselves. This is very much what Williams has done with this story, which follows a grandmother with breathing problems (cigarettes get you every time) who decides to take her grandson out on a tour of some underground tunnels. The anxiety the old woman feels is palpable, and Williams executes this like a master.

Christopher Harman's Apple Pie and Sulphur was an great story that was bursting with dread. A trio of old hiking buddies get together for a last hike before two of them move away, and due to a full train take a walking detour through a mysterious wood. They stumble on some creepy abandoned places before finding a small inn/restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere. At this point Harman takes the gloves off and the story quickly veers into nightmare territory. Harman excelled at creating a surreal atmosphere, as the remaining protagonist seemed trapped in an almost limbo-like version of town, not knowing what was real and what was hallucination. The dread builds and builds, although the ending doesn't quite live up to it. Overall a very impressive story.

Summerside by Alison Moore explores the liminal strangeness of a certain house when a new girl moves in.

The Space Between is co-authored by Ray Cluley and Ralph Robert Moore, and is one of my favorite stories in the anthology. The authors do an excellent job displaying the hopelessness and despair of their main character. A man loses his swanky job, forcing him and his wife to move into a cheap apartment in an old boarding house until they can get back on their feet. A small door leads to a storage area and into crawlspaces around the house, and this soon becomes the man's escape outlet. Things get murkier and murkier the more obsessed with the crawlspaces and neighbors the man becomes, as he gets bolder and bolder in his travels through the walls. It's a chilling look into voyeurism, and how low someone can fall.

C.M. Muller's Vrangr is a short, eerie tale of a man inheriting an old property from a relative he doesn't even know. He has strange dreams and an affinity for the past, but decides to head to the old house and see what his inheritance is all about. I am familiar with Muller as a blogger and reviewer, and this was the first piece of his fiction that I have read, and it left me rather impressed. From reading the story it is clear that Muller knows his weird fiction, and has the skills to craft a rather numinous tale. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

The anthology closes with the wonderful Writings Found in a Red Notebook. I have long been a sucker for the "found notebook" style of stories (although I've so far been mixed about found footage films) as is apparent from two of the stories I chose to publish in Children of Old Leech. David Surface knocks it out of the park with this story, and sustains an intense feeling of dread that builds up right until the climax. When a troubled couple take a detour on a long drive through the desert, they awake lost and confused. Obviously, things get worse. It's an intense, terrifying story, and is enough for me to look for more of Surface's fiction.

2014 is a good year for weird fiction. Shadows & Tall Trees grows to anthology length, and knocks it out of the park, and Kelly's Undertow Publications is publishing the first volume of The Year's Best Weird Fiction edited by Laird Barron.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Interview: Simon Strantzas

Simon Strantzas is one of the most impressive voices in the weird fiction genre, proving himself time and again as an author, and last year as an anthology editor. He has four short fiction collections under his belt (Beneath the Surface, Cold to the Touch, Nightingale Songs, Burnt Black Suns) and one edited anthology (Shadows Edge). I recently reviewed his new collection from Hippocampus Press, Burnt Black Suns. Previous reviews of his collections can be found here and here, and a previous interview can be found here.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Simon.

It's my absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me!

This month marks the publication of your fourth short fiction collection, Burnt Black Suns. How does this collection differ from your others? If you were to sum up each of your collections in one sentence each, what would those sentences look like?

BURNT BLACK SUNS was crafted, from the beginning, to be a sort of sequel to my first collection. That book, BENEATH THE SURFACE, found its inspriation primarily in the works of Thomas Ligotti, with threads of Lovecraft, Lieber, and Aickman woven through. I've always been pleased with its focus on a particular mode, but not as enthused with the book's reception from some corners. On occassion, the book was criticized for being too consistent in its bleak tone, so I thought I might try to revisit the idea, only with something more reflective of where I am as writer a decade later. BURNT BLACK SUNS shifted in focus a bit while writing it, but I managed to maintain its exploration of the sort of weird fiction I most enjoy, while finally showing curious readers what my work is like on a bigger canvas.

Summing up the previous collections is difficult, because they each have their own flavour. If BENEATH THE SURFACE was Ligottian bleak, then COLD TO THE TOUCH was Aickmanesque in its subtlety. NIGHTINGALE SONGS was perhaps a hybrid of the two, but one where my individual voice, I think, started to emerge over my influences. BURNT BLACK SUNS, thus, finally feels wholly me at this point in time.

While all of these stories are entirely your own, several of them pay homage to weird fiction maestros of the past, most notably Lovecraft (Thistle's Find), Ligotti (By Invisible Hands) and Chambers (Beyond The Banks of the River Seine). Two of these appeared in tribute anthologies. Do you find it more difficult or restraining to write a story for an anthology of the sort?

Well, considering "Thistle's Find" first appeared in a Lovecraftian book, I argue it, too, is part of a tribute (though Lovecraft's work has become so pervasive we tend to forget this). But your point is taken. I don't find it terrible different to write for anthologies of these sorts because I don't concern myself too much with playing in anybody's wheelhouse. I don't write pastiche or mimicry. Instead, I find something in the writer's work that speaks to me, and I simply explore it. Other than a few trappings, I like to think one might read any of these stories and not immediately make the connection that they were written as tributes. I hope they stand on their own. If anything, I find it less interesting to write toward themed anthologies. Unlike a tribute book, which offers a range of a writer's inspirations to draw from, a themed anthology often has one focus, and writing something that not only entertains but also doesn't have its central mystery ruined by the nature of the book can often be tricky.

What attracts you to writing not just horror, but more specifically weird fiction?

For me, there's always been a dark beauty to the horrific. It's a genre of images, which makes it a perfect vessel for themes and metaphors. Horror is capable of telling story that encompass the full range of the human condition, and often its fantasy element allows it to do so in a more direct way than non-genre fiction can manage. The weird—insofar as I define it—deals with the sort of philosphical underpinnings that appeal to me most. The twin ideas of the malignant outer and the unknowable other. Weird fiction simply interests me more than much of general horror fiction, and other than its sister sub-genre, the Strange, it's where I want expend the bulk of my energies exploring.

What are your thoughts on the current state of weird fiction? Some say we are in a golden age. Do you agree or disagree with that sentiment?

I think it's far too early to be making sweeping statements. What I can agree is that, for the moment, weird fiction is gaining attention in the North American market. We're seeing it with the canonization of Lovecraft, with television shows like True Detective, and the rise in authors working in this section of the genre. But it's not a universal thing. Travel to Britain and Europe, and I think you'll notice the Strange is leading the way in revitalizing the genre. I imagine this only makes sense, based on the general temperament of the Americas versus Europe. We tend to like our grostesqueries on display, not hidden behind a curtain. I feel blessed to be working alongside so many writers who are writing in this so-called "weird wave", and even more so that many of them are my friends. It's a fabulous time to be writing.

Do you have any plans to write any novel length fiction or do you foresee yourself staying with the shorter form for awhile?

As I write longer pieces, I begin to see how a novel might be forged, but I'm not convinced I'm the one to do it. That said, I will admit that though I haven't yet conquered the short story to my satisfaction, after more than a decade working in the form I've begun to get curious about what else is out there for me to do. It also doesn't escape me that despite the higher notice short fiction has been recieving as of late, the novel still rules the publishing world, and if I want to move beyond where I am now, it's likely I'll need to have a few novels under my belt. Unlike earlier in my career, the idea of this does not fill me with dread, though who knows what time will bring. I suspect before I retire, I'll have written at least one. But it won't be soon.

There are many recurring themes in your work. Liminal places, characters suffering from grief or loss. What about these themes, and others that you revisit, are important to you?

I don't think I truly know, or would want to. There is something in my mindset, regardless of how practical it can be day to day, that hungers for the unknown, that wants to imagine another place where the worst of our world comes from. Perhaps it's simply my way of trying to understand a random universe—ascribe meaning through otherworldly sources, attribute the hand of fate to ill-meaning gods. But along with this, I'm fascinated with the minutae of personal existenace, and how those outer forces affect it. Author T. E. Grau once refered to what I wrote not as cosmic fiction, but as micro-cosmic. That strikes me as good a description as any for what I do.

Besides being one of the genres finest authors, you've also proven yourself as a fine editor with the wonderful Shadows Edge. Do you plan to edit any more anthologies?

Thank you, but I hardly did much with SHADOWS EDGE. The truth is that if you get a good enough group of writers involved, your own work is fairly minimal. Luckily, I was able to coerce a few ringers to write me the sort of fiction I like to read. That others may have liked it, too, is lucky. Satisfying, but lucky. As for editing another book... well, I have hopes to do another next year, but that will be my last. I really don't enjoy the editing process all that much, and would rather focus my energies on writing my own work than editing another's.

Thanks for your time Simon, it was a pleasure.

The feeling is more than mutual.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: Burnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas

Burnt Black Suns is the fourth collection from modern weird fiction maestro Simon Strantzas, and will definitely be a strong contender for horror collection of the year. Strantzas is one of the finest, and I've yet to see him publish a weak collection of fiction. Instead, with each collection his skills continue to grow and flourish.

With Burnt Black Suns we see Simon at the top of his game, weaving memorable weird tales which are sure to unnerve and horrify readers. Simon's characters come from all sorts of backgrounds, many dealing with loss or their own insecurities as their worlds slowly transform around them. He works well with emotions, and his characters' anxiety can acutely be felt by the reader. The dread in these stories is palpable, and the buildup and pacing is excellent.

The collection opens with On Ice, a story which uses its arctic setting to great effect. The story is full of suspense as a group already fraught with tension braves the elements on a scientific expedition. Once it becomes clear that they are not alone things take an even darker turn.

Personal loss takes the forefront of Dwelling On The Past. A man's grief and guilt over his daughter's death haunts him as he infiltrates a native protest and finds himself face to face with a different  kind of horror.

Strong as a Rock is a tale of two very different brothers still dealing with the death of their mother. Their opposite personalities create a sense of friction, although a brotherly love also shows itself. This story is an excellent example of the author's fascination with thin places, and as the story goes on reality becomes less and less concrete.

Simon is a longtime admirer of Thomas Ligotti, and pays homage to him with By Invisible Hands, which first appeared in Joe Pulver's The Grimscribe's Puppets. This was one of my favorites from that anthology, and Simon deftly crafts a story of an old, anxious, confused puppet maker who receives a summons from a mysterious Dr. Toth. The entire story has a dreamlike quality to it, and the puppet maker seems to be far removed from the world, almost living in a separate reality.

One Last Bloom is another story of scientific discovery gone wrong, giving it some common ground with On Ice and Thistle's Find. The main character is an egotistical, bitter young man, full of jealousy for his better looking, well-liked co-worker. This is another story while the dread is ratcheted at an excellent pace, and watching the unlikable main character squirm is rather enjoyable.

First appearing in Joshi's Black Wings series, Thistle's Find is a story of Lovecraftian mad science. The down on his luck narrator attempts to find help in an eccentric old neighbor from his youth, but Dr. Thistle is no Doc Brown, and it isn't long at all before our narrator realizes that the doctor and his experiments may not be as harmless as he once thought.

Beyond the Banks of the River Seine is a story written for a King in Yellow tribute anthology, and masterfully uses some of the tropes without crossing into pastiche territory. The narrator isn't the most reliable, or likable, but is an excellent voice to tell the story.

One of my favorite stories in the collection, Emotional Dues, follows a painter who approaches a rich buyer directly, cutting out his art dealer. The painter is full of pent-up emotions due to an abusive father that he channels into raw, abstract paintings. This is another story full of tension from start to finish, and full of creepy characters, such as the wealthy and mysterious Rasp, and the skulking Nadir.

The collection ends with the excellent novella Burnt Black Suns, easily the highlight of a very strong collection. The story deals with loss of such a profound nature, and is about a man and his pregnant girlfriend arriving in Mexico to hunt down his son, who was taken by his ex-wife two years prior. Simon does an amazing job of painting an impatient, grieving father, torn between his missing son and his girlfriend and unborn child. The setting is top notch, with the oppressive atmosphere further upping the tension, all leading to an earth-shattering climax.

Burnt Black Suns is an excellent collection of fiction, from an author who is constantly upping his game. I have no doubt that this will be one of the strongest contenders come award season, and shouldn't be missed by any fan of literary weird horror.