“The Black Gondolier & Other Stories” by Fritz Leiber

I have finally introduced myself to the weird fiction of Fritz Leiber via the collection, The Black Gondolier & Other Stories. It has impressed the hell out of me.  The title piece alone has been a revelation. Edited by John Pelan & Steve Saville it was originally released by Midnight House as a limited hardcover. Though this has since gone OOP, the editors reissued it digitally through E-Reads. It’s available from all the usual suspects.

Leiber stirs character, atmosphere, insight and entertainment in to a roiling cauldron of delicious poison. He makes it look easy, the stories are fluid and seamless. Even in the instances where the endings are visible on the horizon they are not a disappointment because they are inevitable. His authenticity, and the natural course of the prose validate the things you encounter along the way.

He stitches his underlying themes together in a way that is never overbearing, and for me was perhaps his most enviable trait. Leiber’s genius is no secret, he was awarded every prestigious honor through his life that was out there. I’m just late to the celebration.

While there were stories I preferred over others here, I enjoyed them all. I wouldn’t hesitate to call The Black Gondolier a masterpiece. Supernatural dread, conspiracy, and awkward friendship drape each other in this tale that remains relevant and powerful. Without going into details, Leiber infuses the world with a logic that other authors might leave open to the unknowable. Whether the logic of the enlightened or the mad, it informs the tale and makes this a potent classic I will re-read over and over both for entertainment and study.

Other highlights: The Dreams Of Albert MorelandLie Still, Snow White, Spider Mansion, The Dead Man, The Secret Songs and others.

More Please.

Cross-posted from The Aberrant Laboratory

“A Choir Of Ill Children” by Tom Piccirilli

It was that title that caught my interest. It’s brilliant, evocative, and I wish I had thought of it. What a perfect Gruntsplatter song title. . . and so it fermented my brain, teasing and prodding my curiosity

I stumbled on a used copy of the Night Shade hardcover edition, in great shape, for $10 a few months ago and snatched it up. I’d draw it from the shelf now and then to admire the title and Caniglia cover art, then put it back for another day.

An opportunity to have a story critiqued by Mr. Piccirilli is what got me to excavate it from the “to be read” pile. I had only read a handful of his short stories, and I wanted to get a better idea of where his vision was coming from before I saw his critique.

It’s an impressive vision. A Choir Of Ill Children takes place deep in the superstitious bayou. It’s a degenerate world of swamp witchery, the ghosts and demons of family, and transcendent loyalty.

It’s Piccirilli’s sense of place and characterization that impressed me. He’s sculpted a rich world steeped in the sense of history that’s so important to the numerous story threads.  His character’s, each of them haunted in their own way, are authentic. The story weaves in a lot of things I have a personal affection for  – bog witches, the resonance of landmarks, the inherent creepiness of small towns, shabby carnivals, and so on – Piccirilli paints them with vivid colors.

The story is dense, some threads that seem crucial at the beginning end up not being as significant as the book evolves. They are introduced as catalysts for something else, and then fade into the background. If I had a gripe, it would be that. There is more that could have been done with some of the threads, or they could have been removed if they weren’t as important as suggested. They do add to the texture of the world and the personality of the large cast though, and that texture and personality is how A Choir Of Ill Children worms into your guts.

Piccirilli’s vision and captivating prose, earns A Choir Of Ill Children a home among other notable Southern Gothics. There are various editions that have been released since it was first published, and I’m not sure what’s in print and what’s not, but you should go find out.

Cross-p0sted from The Aberrant Laboratory

Steve Rasnic Tem

Steve Rasnic Tem writes like a free man. That is the simplest way I can say it. Previously, I had read a handful of short stories and knew I wanted more of Tem’s perspective.

In the last few months I have read two novels and a collaborative novel written with his wife Melanie Tem. You can find their joint website here.

I started with the collaborative novel. The Man On The Ceiling was originally released as a novella that went on to win a World Fantasy Award,  Bram Stoker Award and an International Horror Guild Award in 2000. The version I picked up was the  expanded novel released by Wizards Of The Coast Discoveries. It is part biography, part fiction and as the authors remind us frequently all of it is true. I believe them. The surreal emotional dread is authentic.

The fluidity of imagination and jagged reality is handled so well, it’s perhaps the thing that best represents what kind of writer Tem is. The visceral fear he strips naked is rooted in parental anxiety.  Our inability to protect that which is most important turns to poison with the glide of a shadow on the wall. Imagination, fear, disaster fantasies and unconditional love wrestle on the cliffs of psychosis when one is open to feel all that there is to feel.

Next I went to The Book Of Days, published by Subterranean Press. The tale again deals with the theme of parental anxiety and personal insecurities. The protagonists flees his family to his familial cabin in the woods.  What follows is a tale told in the framework of a short story every day as the main character struggles to fend off madness. This set up allows Tem to rip wide his vivid perspective on the nature of pain. All the horror in the world is just behind your eyes.

Finally, I just wrapped up Excavation released in eBook format by Crossroad Press & Macabre Ink Digital, 0riginally released in 1997. Parental anxiety again plays a role in his tale of a man who returns to the isolated coal mining town where he grew up. The town suffered a flood that killed his family and numerous others after he left, but the sickness and rage that led him to flee that life is right where he left it.

That Tem can write about such personal, crippling fear with such freedom of ideas is perhaps my favorite quality in his inspired work. I don’t get a sense of self consciousness in the writing despite the self consciousness and, arguably, even narcissism of his protagonists. He goes where the trapped and paranoid mind goes.

Tem has countless short stories out there as well. With any luck a big, fat collection is forthcoming from somewhere (I haven’t seen any indication of that though). Centipede Press recently released a collection of all of Steve and Melanie’s collaborative fiction titled In Concert that I hope to get my hands on before too much longer.

He’s a writer with enviable skills. If you enjoy emotional, psychological prose that slithers between boundaries into the overlooked crevasses of our internal reality Steve Rasnic Tem is probably for you.It’s been a true pleasure and inspiration to explore his work.

Cross-Posted from The Aberrant Laboratory

“The World More Full Of Weeping” by R.J. Wiersema

I picked this up based on the title, a reference to a Yeats poem, “The Stolen Child.” The World More Full Of Weeping falls somewhere between a long short story and a novella.

The story follows a young boy from a fractured, loving family as he seeks solace and freedom in the expansive woods behind his house. In the woods, he’s befriended by a young presence who reveals the mysticism of the forest to him. The relationship between the boy and the presence develops like two children slowly becoming best friends. It’s natural and well done.

The mystic parts of the woods are handled simply, focusing on beauty and appreciation rather than throwing back the veil and revealing a wild phantasmagoria. I liked that, that discretion runs through the whole tale.
When the boy fails to return home a search is undertaken and his father  realizes he’d also been befriended by the presence in his youth.

I’m not going to get into the ending, but to say it was multi-layered and satisfying. This is a simple tale of guilt and loss and wonder, made rich by Wiersema’s character development, setting and eloquent prose.

I spent a lot of time in the woods as a kid in a town not terribly unlike the one in this story. It held a certain nostalgia for me that could only be conjured by someone who had the same intimate knowledge of those places and the people that populate them. To that end, this volume also includes an essay exploring how fictional environments become doppelgangers of their real counterparts.

I snagged this for an afternoon read on the Kindle and discovered a writer I will keep an eye on going forward.

Cross-Posted From The Aberrant Laboratory

“Dark Awakenings” by Matt Cardin

I first became aware of Matt Cardin when  looking up information on Michael Ruppert. Ruppert has spent much of his life  trying to draw attention to the clandestine drug money in the “straight” economy and the approach of peak oil. While Ruppert is an interesting guy, his role in this post is merely as an  absurd gateway to Matt Cardin’s work.

It was a search for Ruppert that led me to Cardin’s blog, The Teeming Brain, the first time. As I combed the archives, it became clear that the intellect and reason with which he wrote was far above the other places where Ruppert’s name turns up. It also became clear that his passion for supernatural literature, creative thinking, religion and a host of other intriguing topics would make it a place I’d return often.

I have yet to read Matt’s first book Divinations Of The Deep, released on Ash-Tree Press in 2002, but when Dark Awakenings was released by Mythos Books this year I snatched it up. 2/3rd’s of the book is short fiction, while the final third consists of three essays.

Cardin’s work is often mentioned along side such pillars as Lovecraft and Ligotti. It is said, that he (among a select few others) is the progeny of the dread those authors have sown. It is a fair assessment, however I don’t feel comfortable directly comparing them. Those writers leave you with a distinct feeling, a feeling that is an abundance of their appeal. Cardin does this as well, but it is unique to that of the above mentioned, to anyone I have read really.

This is intellectual, introspective, shamanic horror. The black things crawl through the psychic ditches of our world but in Cardin’s writing they are tethered more concretely to a sense of humanity. This is, in part, due to the scholarly inclusion of religion that he weaves through his tales. Let me be clear, these are not religious stories in any sense that would lead readers of this site to be apprehensive. The stories here incorporate undiscussed elements of religion that illustrate both a connection to something bigger and a reminder of the dark things hidden in the heavy language of gods.

While I quite enjoyed the entire collection, if forced to pick a single stand out it would be “The God Of Foulness” (of which you can read a small excerpt here.) The tale explores a growing cult of those who cherish disease, shun treatment and accept their withering as a form of body sacrifice to their God. I’m not going to pore over the details of this or the other stories now though.

The three essays that close the tome deal with the history of angels and demons, the  curious spiritual resonance of George Romero’s Living Dead films, and the reading of The Book Of Isaiah as a work of horror. Each of these was interesting, academic but not cumbersome, and a welcome inclusion.

Dark Awakenings is a very strong collection of work, and I hope it won’t be another eight years before he makes another collection available. I would also encourage you to check out Demon Muse his other blog focusing on “the nature and role of the unconscious mind as symbolized by the ancient Greeks and Romans in the form of the daimon, muse, and personal genius.” Oh yeah, he does music too.

Cross-Posted from The Aberrant Laboratory

Edward Lucas White “The Tooth”

Bill Lindblad over at Storytellers Unplugged post this article recently. The request, in a nutshell, was this: ” Take a minute or two to gather five or more titles…  stories, novels, collections, movies, what have you… by people who are no longer around… provide that list to some person or people who might be interested.”

In that last year I started keeping a list of short stories that made a real impression on me. Outstanding Short Stories (OSS). The list is not just people who are no longer with us, but Edward Lucas White fits the bill. He died in 1934. I plan to do posts like this one periodically and maybe turn people towards something they didn’t know about.

Edward Lucas White – “The Tooth”
It is not available online, but I did find this which is pretty great… Looks like “The Tooth” is in box 51

I read the story in his the collection Sesta and Other Strange Stories released by Midnight House. It appears to be out of print now. I bought it on a whim (and a sale at The Horror Mall) not knowing anything about the author or his work.

There is something about teeth that fascinates me. I don’t have any particular dental phobias, I just find them to be effective as imagery. As a friend of mine says, “It’s the only place where our skeleton shows.”

“The Tooth” is a tale of mysterious dentistry, curious trinkets, matrimonial bargains and a curse that leads to insanity and death. It was among the most unusual of White’s stories in the collection. There were other stories I really enjoyed, but “The Tooth” achieves a transcendent weird that has stayed with me since my first reading.

Dr. Lefferts, a renown dentist with an aversion to pulling teeth, has set a prohibitive price for tooth extractions. This puts him in the service of the wealthy who demand his fine skills and price is no object.

A wealthy heiress, for whom he has a long-standing infatuation, Miss Ingleton appears one day demanding his services. She insists she has a bad tooth that he can find nothing wrong with. Over a period of weeks he works on her mouth exclusively. Ultimately she demands the tooth be removed and he replaces it with a false tooth, never having found anything wrong with the original.

In the course of their working together she requests to see his personal collection of miniatures, curios and ivories for which he has some standing as a collector. She comes across as unimpressed and once her dentistry concerns are resolved he doesn’t see much of her. Enter Chow Ma, who carries in his mouth an artificial tooth that is giving him problems.

He demands it be pulled but the extraction must leave the tooth undamaged. Upon removing the tooth Dr. Lefferts discovers that it bears an intricate carving. Ma concedes that it is no ordinary tooth, it has been handed down through generations of his family with several of them having used it. Lefferts covets the piece for his collection.

This leads to a meeting in a ramshackle Armenian ghetto that reveals a rival bidder for the piece to be. . . the heiress, who has a collection of her own. It is not sold and sometime later Chow Ma returns to the good dentist with a proposal that he can have the artifact cheaply on the condition he marry anyone but Miss Ingleton.

Lefferts doesn’t believe he has a chance with the heiress, but is outraged that some mug would tell him to get married. Later the trio meet by coincidence at the shore, a disagreement occurs that leads to the offended Chow Ma to cast the tooth into the sea so that neither of them may ever possess it as a he utters a cryptic curse.

Suffice to say, that is not that last of the tooth. . .

I debated giving away the end since it’s out of print, but I’m not going to do that. The ending is, perhaps, predictable in some regards, but it’s done with a level of dread, paranoia and body horror that put’s “The Tooth” on my list of memorable, and outstanding short stories.

Cross-posted from The Aberrant Laboratory

Richard Gavin

I recently finished Omens (published by  Mythos Books )  by Richard Gavin, and wanted to sound the horn for him.  The 12 stories here showcase a diverse and peculiar dread. Gavin has some great ideas  and his command of language and tone made this a quite enjoyable.

His work has been compared to such shambling giants of the macabre as H.P. Lovecraft,  and Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Ligotti and Omens deserves such comparisons. It’s not as nihilistic as Ligotti, or as cosmic as Lovecraft. Of the three, I’d place it closest to Poe. The pervasive creep factor that each of those writers possess is present in Richard Gavin.  His imagination is impressive and unique, and he does a really nice job of overlaying that strange darkness into a modern setting.

I’m always looking for more writers that capture this side of horror. The current crop of writers that are making waves seem more straight forward. That is not to say they are unskilled or not to be enjoyed.  I have just always favored more obscure tales of secrets, nightmares, and oddities and Gavin impressed me.

He has a brand new collection entitled The Darkly Splendid Realm (published by Dark Regions) that I’m anxious to get my hands on. The introduction was written by Laird Barron (who I swear I will do a post on one of these days). It was Barron’s involvement that brought Richard Gavin’s name to my attention and I’m grateful for it.

http://www.richardgavin.net/

Cross-posted from The Aberrant Laboratory