Nightside Codex

The Nightside Codex is the latest anthology from editor Justin A. Burnett. This time, the theme is mysterious, invented writings–secret texts, obscure notes, unknowable symbols. The idea of hidden knowledge–whether actual or purely fiction–has a long history in the human imagination. It is the basis of much weird literature, and many conspiracy theories. It is fertile ground, here.

There are a couple of literal texts to be found among the inspirations for these tales (Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Aeneid are put to good use, as is a bit of Lewis Carroll). Otherwise, the authors have created their own imaginary works to serve as guidebooks to the dark side. Some are innocuous. Some are never shown. Some offer more than enough information to get into trouble with.

***

Nightside CodexOpening with a striking poem, “The Book of Black Dreams” by K.A Opperman, The Nightside Codex plunges into seventeen strong stories:

Richard Thomas’s “In His House” presents a strange and dangerous chain letter, of sorts, with a curse the recipient cannot avoid.

Brian Evenson”s “I Cannot Remember” is a discomfiting locked-room mystery, with the future perhaps already written. 

Nadia Bulkin’s “Les Belles Infideles” deciphers the symbols of a lost language against a background of male-dominated academia, cultural fetishization, and the long shadow of colonialism. Dreamy and gripping.

Jessica McHugh’s “Pulpit Fiction” repurposes the ever-popular religious tract as a gateway to weirdness.  

Alistair Rey’s “The Past is a Foreign Country” uses an unholy piece of music as its roadmap to the unknowable. Quiet, and very dark.

Michael Fassbender’s “Schattenlenker’s Hidden Treasure” presents a psychological treatise that can inspire fantastic intellectual achievements–but at what cost?

Scott J. Couturier’s “Monster of the Mind” puts a very different spin on an author’s attempts at world-building. 

Selene dePackh’s “The Red King” features the unspeakable reference books of an experimental clinician.

S.E. Casey’s “The Redneck Library” takes several strange turns before it reveals just how far the characters have gone in their pursuit of knowledge.

Devora Gray’s “Tongue-Tied” dives without hesitation into misogyny, fetishes, online echo chambers, and dismal life circumstances. Stunning, sad, and upsetting.

Philip Fracassi’s “As I Sit to Write This Story” uses a fragmented diary and the unreliable narrator trope to great effect. 

Luciano Marano’s “My Eyes are Closed to Your Light” takes the cult of personality and mixes it with both the warning against meeting your heroes and the obsessiveness of fandom.

Christine Morgan’s “For Bobby” gives the convention scene a classic Twilight Zone treatment.

Sarah Walker’s “Ouroboros” proves to be wonderfully atmospheric and chilling, in a distinctly M.R. James sort of way. 

Rhys Hughes’s “Between the Circles” turns to the classics for a new way to visit doom on its characters. 

Austin James’s “Vanity” uses the message from a fortune cookie to create a grim tale of identity and the need to be loved. 

Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Hero of Flight 247” begins with a deceptively simple concept, and follows it to its devastating non-end. Funny, bleak, and wonderfully overwhelming.

***

The Nightside Codex offers up a satisfying mix of moods, from the darkly playful to the profoundly grim–sometimes in the same story. There are unexpected philosophical questions, traditional weird turns, and several hauntingly untraditional weirder turns. All in all, a fine anthology. I heartily recommend it.

screaming creatures

Screaming Creatures, Sean M. Thompson’s new collection from Nictitating Books, offers up fourteen meaty tales of horror and weirdness. They often tread familiar ground, but there are enough quirks and twists to keep thing interesting.

Thompson experiments with a wide variety of narrative styles, and with horrors beyond the supernatural. His characters are prey to addiction and abuse, in addition to the monsters that wander among them. Their relationships range from the secure to the profoundly dysfunctional. They rarely find redemption, or even solid footing. Injecting real-life traumas into often over-the-top splatter adds a depth to the goings-on that drew me in.

***

“Sunny Village” begins with the reliably unsettling idea of seeing something you can’t explain and shouldn’t witness, and ends with a left turn and a lot of loose ends.

“The Cliffside Tavern” is a good, old-fashioned watery ghost story.

“Centralia” was my favorite of the bunch, with its creepy video gaming superimposed on a famously creepy setting. It had me looking over my shoulder more than once.

“3 A.M. Orphan” is a strange, Twilight Zone take on someone who was never there.

“Cat’s Claw Llc” presents an isolated office building, suave man-eaters, and a woman who accepts a very tasty job offer. Off-kilter and oddly fun.

“Make It A Double” takes on the trope of evil twins, with the addition of ghosts, alcoholism, and hippies.

“Dead Visions Review” is styled as a movie review of a disjointed, bloody film that may or may not be cinéma vérité.

“Kiss Of The Succubus” starts off as a hard-boiled detective story with demons, then veers into introducing a monster-hunting agency. This should be a novella, at least.

“Metronome” is the classic tale of a writer being destroyed by the demons in his own work. 

“The Silent Man: A Documentary” is written as a transcript, and is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and the found-footage genre.

“Rot Gut” is a Western, with a terrible stranger haunting the dreams of a dusty small town.

“The Blind Opera”, told in the second person, follows a dangerous video, secret government experiments, and a wealthy psychopath who has figured out how to find out what it all means.

“Cycle” uses alcoholism as the engine driving the horror along, this time in a family riddled with violence.

“Screaming Creatures” is a long, slightly disjointed musing on the state of madness and the human race, punctuated with plenty of gory violence.

***

Overall, Screaming Creatures is an entertaining ride with a few rough edges that has to potential to be more. Bloody, scary, and eerie, I think it does a fine job of engaging its readers. But while full of ambitious ideas, a few of the stories (“Kiss of the Succubus” and “Rot Gut”, in particular) feel like they end in medias res. I wish they were fully-developed novellas. If Thompson chooses to expand them, I will be more than happy to keep reading.

miscreations

Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors, edited by Doug Murano & Michael Bailey, sets out to ponder the nature of monsters. The cover art and interior illustrations by HagCult set a fine, monstrous mood. And as Alma Klatu expresses it, in her foreword, “If you dwell on it, the logic is obvious. Monsters couldn’t exist without man to will them into existence. Monsters are (nearly always) man’s creation, sprung from man’s mind.”

It’s a terrific way to set the stage. But Miscreations does not quite play out as the foreword suggests.

Uneven in its execution, Miscreations gathers twenty-three stories from a panoply of talented authors into an anthology that never fully coalesces around its theme.The idea is left too broad, I think, especially since several of the selections use Frankenstein as their jumping-off point. This gives the anthology a definite direction that makes the rest of the not-Frankenstein’s-monster stories seem disconnected.

Fortunately, the stories themselves are all solid.

***

miscreationsThe stand-outs, to me, are these:

“Matryoshka” by Joanna Parypinski uses nesting dolls as the link between generations, and misunderstanding their importance produces disturbing familial rifts. A painful mother/daughter relationship, revealed layer by layer.

“Imperfect Clay” by Lisa Morton gives us a woman whose quest to build a better man reveals the slippery slope of defining “perfect”. The characters of the creator and her creation are finely drawn and fully believable.

“Ode to Joad the Toad” by Laird Barron winds through a grim and grimly humourous fantasy of gods, assassins, beasts, and politics. Byzantine, deeply weird, and thoroughly engrossing.

“Paper Doll Hyperplane” by R.B. Payne serves up a heady mix of Lovecraftian concepts, serial murder, and academia’s obsessive publish or perish imperative. Unexpectedly fun, and effective.

“The Making of Asylum Ophelia” by Mercedes M. Yardley is a striking twist on the character’s famous madness. Another fraught mother/daughter relationship, with an open-ended tragedy at its end.

***

Overall, I feel that Miscreations misses the mark on a truly unifying theme, which does the anthology a disservice. It delivers a variety of well-done stories with monsters ranging from the traditional to the distinctly new. But it fails to tie them together in a way that builds something bigger from all the different parts.

Nox Pareidolia

Nox Pareidolia, Nightscape Press’s recent anthology, stands as a quick-reference guide to excellent weird fiction. The thirty-one stories collected here are each disquieting and ambiguous, but never repetitive. They go their own strange ways, distinctly individual yet building like pieces of a puzzle to an inescapable sense of doom. Don Noble’s striking cover art and Luke Spooner’s vivid interior illustrations amplify the unease.

I found the horror in Nox Pareidolia to be generally quiet and introspective, although there is still an abundant selection of monsters and a healthy smattering of bloodshed. The characters throughout are lost souls, whether they know it or not. Their stories are compelling, slow-motion wrecks.

I relished every one of them.

***

Nox PareidoliaThe ones that stick with me are these:

“The Dredger” by Matt Thompson happens in a gritty, industrial wasteland that is itself as bleak and confusing as what happens to the protagonist. I saw a definite undercurrent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner running through the story.

“Hello” by Michael Wehunt is a disorienting found-footage trip through conspiracy theories, the weird fiction community, and one of Lionel Ritchie’s greatest hits. Nonlinear and unforgettable.

“Rum Punch is Going Down” by Daniel Braum reads like Margaritaville by way of Hunter S. Thompson and White Zombie. Set on a tropical island where people go to escape their other lives, the story unfolds as a heady blend of light, dark, and bizarre. 

“The Past You Have, The Future You Deserve” by K.H. Vaughan is a quietly philosophical horror story that explores the weight and repercussions of responsibility, both shirked and assumed, before it comes to an abrupt and satisfying conclusion.

 “Sincerely Eden” by Amelia Gorman follows the disintegration of a woman’s life framed by communications from an old, lost friend. But as the woman explains what happened between them it becomes clear that the devil is in the details.

 “When the Nightingale Devours the Stars” by Gwendolyn Kiste presents a subtle and chilling view of witchcraft coupled with a scathing observation of small-town expectations. Flavored with hints of The Twilight Zone and deeply unsettling.

“In the Vastness of the Sovereign Sky” by S.L. Edwards delves into the disruptions of civil war and how it lets weirdness edge its bloodthirsty way in. The characters’ attempts to unravel past atrocities leave them exposed to the cult of personality behind the original horror. Another fine, nuanced tale from one of my favorite authors.

***

While I have my favorites, every story contained here is a strong one. Nox Pareidolia is a well-put-together anthology that, for me, evokes the unifying yet disconcerting feeling of being lost and helpless before inscrutable forces. 

What more could anyone ask of weird horror?

luminous body

Luminous Body, Brooke Warra’s lovely novella, is a beautiful, rich, and unnervingly honest amalgam of family ties, motherhood, illness, and body horror. It is an engrossing story of a life lived on and beyond the margins, masterfully told.

***

luminous bodyI don’t know quite how to describe Luminous Body. It covers so much ground in so few pages– family dynamics, exploitative relationships, unhealthy friendships, memory, addiction, and lies. Warra’s language and phrasing is wonderful, precise and evocative. Her skill in drawing her characters renders them painfully real, fully developed and as hopeful and damaged as any of us are. It is a slice of life colored with strange magic.

I wish I had written it.

***

Mo, the narrator, comes from a long line of tenacious but marginalized women. Her mother died several years earlier, and she never knew her father. Mo is mentally ill by her own admission. She scrapes by, working as a waitress at her grandmother’s diner. She lives in a cheap apartment, does her nails with magic markers, drinks too much, smokes, and sleeps around. She is damaged, and, like any of us, is just trying to deal with it and get by.

And then one day she discovers she is pregnant. And then she discovers she is not. And then the mystery at the heart of Luminous Body begins.

***

Beautifully realized, Warra’s tale is full of the fine, awkward details that make up a tangled and misspent life. Every mistake, bad decision, manipulation and abandonment feels true. By the time Mo’s narrative slides sideways into the weird, that feels like just one more genuine experience, too.

This is the kind of book you read for the writing as much as for the plot. Gorgeously illustrated by Brooke Warra’s daughter, Zoe Leigh, Luminous Body is currently available as a limited edition, numbered chapbook from Dim Shores. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

shout kill revel repeat

Shout Kill Revel Repeat, Scott R. Jones’s new collection, is a dizzying trip through the void.

Lovecraft’s ideas make frequent appearances, but not as pastiche. Jones’s stories fly in multiple new directions, at turns frenetic and understated, militaristic, mystical, and sinister. 

His meaty, visceral prose and plots that flow in great loops across time and space, peopled with ghouls and Old Ones and shoggoths, imply motives and purposes that cannot even be recognized by frail humans. Jones does a remarkable job of conveying the utterly alien incomprehensibility of the Lovecraftian cosmos. His characters struggle to navigate a universe that doesn’t care if they exist or not. They are irrelevant to everything but themselves, and they know it.

***

shout kill revel repeatShout Kill Revel Repeat gathers seventeen tales of cosmic horror and science fiction that are immersive and jarringly realistic for all their weirdness. The common thread I find running through them is the instability of time, and what that instability costs. Plots and events are slippery things, unanchored and inconstant, while characters fight to keep their balance. It is all quite beautifully done.

My favorites are:

“The Spike”, which uses an ambitious employee in far over his head to introduce us to Eidolon Corporation and the recurring character of Aldo Tusk, a weird and mysterious tech magnate. 

“Last Stand at Cougar Annie’s”, an end of the world scenario after genetically altered men–and militarized women– have become the enemy. 

“Living” brings back Aldo Tusk, isolated in the arctic and facing down a driven, adaptive, and superhuman weapon of his own design. 

“Assemblage” Point” reads like a strange, gorgeously convoluted take on Sunset Boulevard’s story structure. It’s one of those uncommon second-person narratives that wouldn’t work properly from a different point of view.

“Wonder and Glory Forever” connects a lost and motherless man with the devout worshipper of an ancient sea god, in a surfing community in the Pacific Northwest. Vividly told, and compelling in its half-revealed secrets.

***

Jones, the man behind the late Martian Migraine Press, has also just released the novel Stonefish. So if you enjoy the dark worlds of Shout Kill Revel Repeat, there is immediately more to be had. I highly recommend diving in.

Women in Horror

Women in Horror Month rightfully draws attention to the many talented women writing today–Nadia Bulkin, Gwendolyn Kiste, Kathe Koja, Lisa Tuttle, and so many, many more. But it also always brings me back to a pair of sisters who compiled some of the most formative women’s horror I ever read.

***

Women in HorrorA true sister act, Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis were devoted to creating wonderful anthologies of supernatural fiction for young readers. While their output spanned the later 1960s through 1980, it was during the 1970s that they focused on the female, filling volumes with two century’s worth of suspense, fantasy, gothic, and ghostly fiction written by women.

Their anthologies were certainly my first exposure to classics like Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Birds”. And there were so many others, by authors both expected and quite a surprise.

Some of the ones I still remember with a chill follow.

***

Ladies of Horror: Two Centuries of Supernatural Stories by the Gentle Sex (1971)

  • Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit
  • Hand in Glove by Elizabeth Bowen
  • The Last Séance by Agatha Christie

Mistresses of Mystery: Two Centuries of Suspense Stories by the Gentle Sex (1973)

  • The Head by E. Nesbit
  • Good-bye, Miss Lizzie Borden by Lillian de la Torre
  • The Willow Tree by Jane Rice

Ladies of the Gothics (1975) 

  • The Locked Room Upstairs by Celia Fremlin
  • The Housekeeper’s Story (excerpt from Wuthering Heights) by Emily Brontë
  • The Sailor Boy’s Tale by by Isak Dinesen

Ladies of Fantasy: Two Centuries of Sinister Stories by the Gentle Sex (1975)

  • Searching for Summer by Joan Aiken
  • The Unwanted by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
  • The Ensouled Violin by Madame Blavatsky
  • Doorway Into Time by C. L. Moore

Women in HorrorSisters of Sorcery (1976)

  • Through the Needle’s Eye by Andre Norton
  • The Horned Women by Lady Wilde
  • No Witchcraft for Sale by Doris Lessing

Women of the Weird: Eerie Stories by the Gentle Sex (1976)

  • One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts by Shirley Jackson
  • John Charrington’s Wedding by E. Nesbit
  • The Yellow Dwarf by Comtesse d’Aulnoy 

Ghostly Gentlewomen: Two Centuries of Spectral Stories By the Gentle Sex (1977)

  • Mr. Edward by Norah Lofts
  • Mommy by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
  • A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf
***

While Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis are gone and their anthologies out of print, I think in their time they did an excellent job of showing the wide swath women cut through the speculative genres. The field has of course changed, growing more daring and more diverse. And Women in Horror Month has room for all of us, from the literary to the gonzo, from the earliest to the cutting edge.

Keep reading.

Strength of Water

Strength of Water by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is a strange, compelling, and disorienting novella about sweeping changes–good, bad, and transcendent. 

The story is loosely divided into three sections. The first is our inside-the-skull introduction to the two main characters, and the circumstances of their lives. The second is a tear in the fabric of the universe and a peek at the mechanics of the world. The third is a glimpse of liberation.

In the end I was left at the edge of a cliff and wanting to know what happened next–a very good thing.

***

Strength of WaterStrength of Water tells the interwoven stories of Sati and Satyan, two young adults with a haunting, shared desire: to try on another’s form, and to experience the benefits that come from it. 

Their story unfolds at a Bangalorean university in 1999, against a background of liberties and civil rights being stripped away with increasing vigor. The dreamy, stream-of-consciousness narrative moves seamlessly between the two characters as they consider their individual reasons, pains, and growing fears. The society around Sati and Saytan is contracting. The threats are growing closer to home. 

Sati is driven to protect herself and her family, and has embraced mythic and metaphysical options. Satyan is estranged from his own family, discontented and unanchored, and looking for an escape. He is ready when Sati’s drive becomes action, and fulfills their wishes in an extraordinary way.

***

Satyamurthy’s moody, lyrical prose and smoothly blended perspectives turn an odd premise into a thoughtful exploration. Strength of Water reminded me strongly of Geoff Ryman’s The Warrior Who Carried Life, with its transformations and heroic quest. And the unexpected leap of an ending did more than make me want to know more about the characters. It makes me want to go back, and read their story over again. 

 

Compline Harbinger Press

And just like that, the winter holidays are upon us–even though we still have a few weeks until winter itself is upon us. The whole cycle seems to come around sooner each year.

I must say, though, I would be happy without the whole snow for Thanksgiving thing.

But on to publishing updates and other happier news!

***

On November 29, my flash fiction story Compline appeared online at Harbinger Press. Click on through and check it out–in addition to mine, there are a slew of solid flash pieces to be found there.

And later this month, Camden Park Press will be releasing the charity anthology Yearning to Breathe Free to benefit RAICES. Following an introduction by the incredibly talented S.L. Edwards, my reprinted story “Imago” shares a TOC with such fine authors as Brooke Warra, Sam Schreiber, Michael Bruggeman, and many others.

winter is coming

If you can, please order a copy as soon as it becomes available and support an important cause. If you can’t afford to order it, please help spread the word.

***

As soon as I finish plowing through my re-read of the first three Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, I will get back to my to-be-read pile. Look out for reviews of the recent novel Strength of Water by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, and the upcoming collection Shout Kill Revel Repeat by Scott R. Jones.

Until then, enjoy what snow may come and try not to let the holidays eat you alive.

Monster She Wrote

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson provides a slick, quick, entertaining overview of forty notable creators of horror and related genre fiction. The profiled authors range from some of the earliest female authors (Margaret Cavendish, Ann Radcliffe) to the more recent (Angela Carter, Jewelle Gomez), with additional mentions of many new, current authors. Some of the women in these pages are obscure, some are household names–and all are well-qualified contributors to the horror field.

***

Monster She WroteMonster, She Wrote is at times a little too glib, quick with a quip but light on details. Even with living, currently-active authors, Kröger and Anderson rely more on basic wiki facts than the writers’ own words about their work. Each of the capsule biographies offers a glancing look at the author’s life, a brief summary of her most famous novel or story, a few of her major works, and a short list of other authors whose style or subject is similar to the featured creator. 

Kröger and Anderson use snippets of quotations in place of illustrations to provide a taste of each author’s style. The quotes piqued my interest, and I would have liked to see more of them. The two also include helpful information on any recent reprints and reissues, to point readers in the right direction.

The profiles are presented chronologically, and the timeline defined by overviews of the various subgenres–gothic, haunted house, pulp, the occult. These analyses are shallow, but they do provide a comfortable structure to the overall effort.

Kröger and Anderson conclude their survey with a review of the current state of horror, and the women who make it. They recap the various subgenres and give shout-outs to several writers working within each one.

***

Monster, She Wrote is a light, fast read that doesn’t delve too deeply into any particular aspect of women-penned horror. It’s a good resource for someone beginning to get into the subject, and an effective way to find out about some of the major works of some of the major players. It’s also a fine reminder of some truly talented authors who should not be forgotten–no matter when they wrote their monsters.