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.