The Harrow, 2005
Reviewed by Dru Pagliassotti
The Agony Column, March 2005
Reviewed by Mario Guslandi
All Hallows #38, February 2005
Reviewed by Jim Rockhill
AWE, PITY, AMUSEMENT, satisfaction over the reassertion of morality, a pleasurable chill, a feeling of superiority over those whose imperfect understanding placed them in mortal peril, and other emotions may all compete for the reader's attention during the enjoyment of supernatural fiction. The most enduring specimens are those which elicit the most complex response, partaking of several such emotions either simultaneously or in succession. For example, "Squire Toby's Will" is frightening, revolting, ridiculous, pitiful, disorienting, and awe-inspiring by turns, and if we feel there is some form of justice meted out at the end, it is justice of a harsh and arbitrary sort few would wish to experience first hand. Smugness may be acceptable in supernatural fiction during the era in which it was written and while the majority of the readership accepts the current status quo as the summit of civilization and the culmination of history, but it stands in the way of catharsis for those in differing times and circumstances. The subversive nature of this art frequently forces the reader to question the implications of what has occurred instead of accepting them on the basis of any creed or anti-creed. If a reader of a later generation cannot relate the religiosity, classism, nationalism, misogyny, racism, and other forms of bigotry affecting art throughout human history or the delight in puzzles as puzzles in our current age with anything from his or her own experience, that reader will reject the work as false or dated. The supernatural masters of the last century recognized the eternal mysteries resident in the individual's understanding of itself, its relationships with others, its place in the cosmos and position relative to all other life on earth, and the shifting plane on which the physical and metaphysical meet, then diverge. It is their most acute explorations of these mysteries, which invite new audiences to overlook Algernon Blackwood's tendency to allow his mystical expression of natural philosophy to spiral into unintelligibility, H. P. Lovecraft's lapses into an often painfully particularized xenophobia, Henry James's prevailing snobbery, Arthur Machen's obsession with sin and sacrament, Herbert Russell Wakefield's misogyny and anti-Semitism, Russell Kirk's occasionally rampant Puritanism, and the like. The great unknown within mankind and without calls to each generation, and it is the unenviable task of the writer attempting to set a lasting mark on the field to find his own answers to these mysteries and to do so in a way that opens the perceptions of the reader instead of closing them.
The authors of most of the tales in this third anthology from Ash-Tree Press are readily accept that challenge. Here is the world we all recognize in the half-wakeful hours of the night following our worst days, a mysterious and complex place in which each answer poses another set of questions, where the white and the black are overborne by the gray, and safety is not to be taken for granted.
Mark P. Henderson's Möbius strip of a tale, "Rope Trick", is a perfect curtain-raiser for the anthology, leading as it does from this world into another where things come and go through no logic apparent to those who have chanced into it. This region may well impinge upon the points of a triangle composed of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, the valley in Robert Aickman's "The Trains", and Walter de la Mare's "The Riddle". Henderson's ample use of sensory detail, such as the chair warmed by someone recently departed and not to be found, makes what could have been a vaguely creepy story into a profoundly unsettling one.
Simon Bestwick, Ramsey Campbell, Paul Finch, Rick Kennett, Chico Kidd, Steve Rasnic Tem, and John Whitbourn turn in the kind of finely-crafted, carefully nuanced fiction we have come to take for granted from them, each tale building to a satisfyingly chilling climax. A forgotten graveyard, a row of snowmen, a new housing development, a burst of static over the phone, an abandoned ship, a case of mental regression, and a shadowy garden have rarely seemed so disturbing.
The book contains several other tales that attain this same assured level. In "The Old Taylor and the Gaunt Man" expatriate American writer Brian J. Showers currently resident in Ireland creates a charming, folkloric ghost story in a gently facetious and antique tone reminiscent of Charles Dickens. Japanese in setting and sharing a sensibility similar to that seen in recent Asian supernatural cinema, Edward P. Crandall's "Survivors" reflects upon the nature of haunting in a Nagasaki imprinted with the spirits of thousands killed in an instant when time and the nature of reality seems to have slipped along different paths. Leading from a cache of unbelievably well-preserved archival recordings found in an old house about to be abandoned by the radio station it once housed to a series of deepening mysteries concerning the significance of those broadcasts and the nature of their all-but-forgotten host, the protagonist in Adam Golaski's "Weird Furka" finds his hometown much less mundane than he had once believed it to be. John Pelan's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" reimagines the central premise of Robert Hichens's "How Love Came to Professor Guildea" as a contemporary riff on Fritz Leiber's Chicago Gothics, while adding a disquieting twist of his own.
Two more stories dig even more deeply into the strange realms of identify and interpersonal relationships. Melanie Tem's "Visits" examines love and betrayal among two couples. In the beginning its events bear some resemblance to the haunting which occurs as a result of domestic tragedy in Jessica Amanda Salmonson's poignant yet horrifying "Jeremiah". Tem provides another turn or two of the screw, however, by providing an unreliable secondary narrator who keeps changing his account of events, thereby altering the nature of his betrayal. By the end, our faith in the reliability of the primary narrator has also begun to wane. Relationships are even more tenuous in All Hallows regular Steve Duffy's "Someone Across the Way", which offers one of the most elaborate and disquieting explorations of the doppelgänger theme I have ever read. If early events and some aspects of the setting seem reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell's classic short story, "The Scar", be assured that Mr. Duffy develops this along independent lines and that the mechanism he posits for this phenomenon is both novel and unsettling.
My favorite lines in the book both appear in a tale which bears an even greater debt to Campbell's work, Gary McMahon's "Out on a Limb". The structure of the tale, the blurring of the line between objective and subjective horror, and even the manner in which McMahon shapes the superb terminal climax are very similar to the tales Campbell wrote for Demons by Daylight and later collections, but there are flashes of deep insight within the tale that belie the impression of derivativeness, just as the tale's development separates it from another recent work set in a derelict madhouse, the film Session 9. This line from early in the story-"(T)here was nothing to be afraid of but the past and the depths of his own emptiness."-is one of the clearest expressions of the ontological dimension of supernatural fiction I have encountered. Imagine how perfectly this line could be applied to "The Jolly Corner", "The Beckoning Fair One", The Haunting of Hill House, and many other defining works in the genre.
Demonstrating that, just as it is possible to write Lovecraftian fiction without resorting to pastiche, so is it possible to learn from M. R. James, Wakefield and others without retreading their plots or copying their mannerisms, Edward Pearse manages to invest "Jenny Gray's House" with a vivid sense of place and a consciousness of the past impinging upon the present, while creating startling apparitional scenes that reveal knowledge of James's methods without resorting to pastiche.
Peter Bell takes this exercise in emulation even further by writing in "Only Sleeping" what amounts to a fantasia on motifs from classic supernatural fiction, which succeeds not only as an homage to the writers he so evidently admires, but as a powerful story in its own right. In this tale of a boy who takes an anthology of ghost stories along with him on the family's vacation to the Isle of Man, references to the boy's reading and the description of the odd events taking place in and about their dwelling heightens the tension and lends the tale a slippery unease, as the reader continually questions how much of what the boy describes has been affected by his reading and how much is objective fact. T.E.D. Klein used a similar technique more explicitly in his novella "The Events at Poroth Farm" and there is a famous comic example in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but Bell's story is a grim delight.
Barbara Roden achieves an even more ambitious homage in her novella "Northwest Passage" by attempting to meet the challenge presented by Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows", Margaret Atwood's "Death by Landscape", and the opening portions of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness", to create a successful story dominated not by explicit supernatural events, but by the loneliness, mystery, and ineffable malice found in places not yet under the control of man. Roden begins in a seemingly leisurely fashion, slowly filling in the details, which reveal the majesty of the wilderness and the insignificance of the few human beings in its midst. The entire concept of carving out a living in the wilderness or opening up the secrets of the interior, discussed earlier in the tale as a Romantic dream, soon takes on a desperate air as it becomes increasingly clear that the landscape is controlled by a power these human interlopers cannot comprehend. Small details such as subtly-skewed sense impressions begin to accumulate then coalesce into a sense of profound alienation as the genius loci gathers its power in a mighty crescendo. At the end, the author deftly grants just enough of a glimpse of the power manifesting itself to terrify those of us who have ever found ourselves suddenly alone in the wild with nothing but the wind for companion.
Another tale set in a forbidding landscape, Don Tumasonis's "A Pace of Change" offers another exalted point among so many fine tales. Horror stories set in the mountains are not uncommon, but the tale that succeeds in establishing a menace equal in power to the dread the author has built in describing the manifold perils associated with the ascent of the mountain is relatively rare. In most such tales, the mountain remains a significantly greater threat and a much more powerful image in the reader's memory than whatever creature or apparition swoops down upon the hapless protagonist at the tale's climax. In a tale more straightforward in narration than such recent tales by the author as "The Houses", "The Prospect Cards" or "Eye of the Storm", Tumasonis creates a brooding atmosphere underlined by motifs partaking equally of Lovecraftian horror and antiquarian terror. At its climax, physical peril, revulsion, and spiritual dread combine with shattering impact.
If Tumasonis achieves a tour de force in his contribution, I fear Reggie Oliver's sly contribution, "The Devil's Number", will suffer for its understatement. The tale's central mystery does not appear to be the identity of M. Caulard, but the unnatural manner in which he appears and the trouble he leaves in his wake. Like the magic formula from which this tale takes its title and by which one wins prodigious amounts at Faro only to suffer prolonged misfortune thereafter, the serendipitous discovery of a hitherto unknown chapter from Casanova's memoirs has a similarly calamitous effect on everyone who reads it.
In an exceptional anthology like this one, we should not be surprised to see at least one story break all of the rules and still succeed, due to the power of the writer's vision and the quality of his prose. Joel Lane's "Beyond the River" has an explicit message, but handles the slippage between consensus reality and an artist's conception of her own world with such finesse that the dissonance he creates between the physical and the overtly metaphorical at the tale's climax elicits a queasy horror rather than ridicule.
Of course, what one reader finds sublime another may find ridiculous and vice versa. Chacun ā son goût. Glen Hirshberg's "Safety Clowns", detailing what happens to a company employing ice cream trucks to deliver cocaine throughout San Diego, and the ethical dilemma this raises in a naīve teenager who has taken a ride with one of its drivers is as compelling as anything this exceptional author has written, but I found the exploration of character, interpersonal relationships, motive, and guilt more convincing than the supernatural denouement.
Paradoxically, another tale by Hirshberg stood in the way of my enjoying Stephen Volk's "Three Fingers, One Thumb". The richness and pathos with which Hirshberg dealt with the death of one child and fear for the loss of another in "The Two Sams" makes Volk's capable yarn seem one-dimensional.
The remaining tales in the book were all entertaining, but for one reason or another were not as satisfying as most of those already described. My admiration for Jessica Amanda Salmonson's novels, stories, vignettes, and verse is second to none, but the last paragraph to her short, but otherwise interesting treatment of the phenomenon of the house permeated by past misdeeds, "The Weeping Manse", is such an extreme exercise in understatement as to almost render the impact of the insight which precedes it nil. Christopher Harman's "The Listener", on the other hand, reminded me of moments in Robert Aickman's "The Cicerones" and Nugent Barker's "The Curious Adventures of Mr. Bond", but left me more bewildered than either of those stories, because the prose felt as labyrinthine to me as the pub it described.
Everything about Joseph A. Ezzo's "Vado Mori" is interesting from its characters to its setting, and the conceit that the figures in various representations of the Memento mori walk the earth causing death exactly as they are depicted on the walls of sacred establishments throughout Europe. Unfortunately, Ezzo reveals the uncanny relationship between what is happening to the characters and the history of the Memento mori through the awkward placement of expository lumps masquerading as heated statements made by one character near the beginning of the tale and by another at the point of death near the end. I may be alone in this, but to me these lumps of expository prose resembled not natural speech between one person and another but portions of a lecture dropped into position as an aid to the narrative.
Many of the tales published by Unknown/Unknown Worlds begin with the whimsical treatment of a familiar supernatural theme and darken as the full implications of the subject became clear. Henry Kuttner, Jane Rice, Anthony Boucher, Theodore Sturgeon, and others were masters at this, as was Bob Leman in some of his tales for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The full piquancy of this rather specialized approach to the supernatural required an extra sting in the tail guaranteed to replace the raspberries of the tale's opening with the taste of bitter gall. My only reservation with Cathy Sahu's humorous treatment of the poltergeist in "You Should Have to Live with Yourself" is that her final revelation is not sufficiently surprising to have gone without the benefit of an additional nasty twist.
No single person is going to respond with equal favor to every story in an anthology as varied and ambitious as this one. Most of the tales in the anthology deal in their individual ways with the same essential mysteries explored by the greatest masters of supernatural fiction since the shrieks of ghosts echoed from the stage in Shakespeare's time. The settings have changed as has the character of the times, but most of the tales in this book prove their writers know, just as the great masters had in their own time, how to reach deep inside to stimulate both the nerve that chills and the spirit that thrills each one of us. Jason van Hollander's ghoulishly attractive jacket art, the scarcity of orthographical errors, the unfussy design, readable typeface, and durable binding complete the package. What are you waiting for?
Review re-printed with permission from the author.
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