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.