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.