This is not a review. It’s a disorienting experience to read something as strange as Camilla Grudova’s THE DOLL’S ALPHABET (Coffee House Press, 2017). The stories themselves read, at times, as though they are translations from some other language, from some other country that is unstuck in time. Folkloric, fable-like, mixing bizarre imagery in unexpected ways, these tales are also at times grotesque and repellant. On top of this, they all seem to share a single world—not where character or locations are concerned (at least, as far as I could tell) but instead in terms of items and environments. Reoccurring devices, scents, foods. Many characters’ lives are more than a few steps below poverty, vermin of all sorts reappear time and time again. There is a vein of body horror through her work, as well, though not in the manner one might expect, and even still it’s all filtered through a narrative style that intentionally unsettles. I’m at a loss how to adequately describe this book in a way that gets across how unique it is. Which is perhaps the greatest thing one can hope for from a book by an author one is unfamiliar with. For those of us who prefer our dark short fiction collections to be pieces of art that achieve something more, something greater overall than its single stories might initially indicate, I can’t imagine a better book to recommend.
This is not a review. Dale Bailey’s collection, THE END OF THE END OF EVERYTHING (Arche Press, 2015), tells a series of short science fiction stories where the science fiction is besides the point. It’s there, in the background, providing a canvas for Bailey’s work, and though, yes, these fantastical elements are part of the story and cannot be divorced, they are hardly the point of the work. Instead, like canvas, they provide a substrate upon which Bailey paints his tales of the complexity of interpersonal relationships, of how people interact in groups versus intimately, and just how disruptive it can be when the barriers between those two weaken and blur. You don’t read stories like these for the surprise and inventiveness of their speculative aspects—although to be clear, the speculative in these tales is always surprising and inventive—but instead you read them in order to try and piece together just how it is people can ever understand something as utterly unknowable as other people.
This is not a review. Having finished Brian Evenson’s A COLLAPSE OF HORSES (Coffee House Press, 2016), I find myself thinking about how much or how little footing writers can grant their readers. A great many writers, especially genre writers, aim to provide a good amount of footing for their readers, by which I mean that even in the most bizarre moments of a character’s encounter with the unknown, the reader is comfortable with their knowledge that what the character sees is more-or-less what is before him or her. The character’s experiences are true. Yet, with Evenson’s work, I find that footing not just minimized but often removed completely. This isn’t dream-logic, where the connections between moments are subconscious, but rather a wholesale implied state of disreality, where it’s impossible to understand what is real for the characters at all. Can a story succeed when it’s impossible to know this truth? Apparently so, as Evenson does so here time and time again. Funny enough, one of the most straightforward tales in the book is “A Seaside Resort”, the story I selected for AICKMAN’S HEIRS. The story had to be more concretized to make it hew closer to Aickman. It’s fascinating stuff. I know not everyone reading this sort of liminal fiction is a writer, but speaking as a writer it’s of the utmost value to me to read a work that makes me reconsider my tools and how I might deploy them differently. Fiction that reminds or clarifies just what the written word can do. That sort of fiction you keep close, bury it inside you in hopes one day it will sprout into something wondrous.
This August 17th through 20th I’ll be making my biennial pilgrimage down to Providence, Rhode Island, to participate in the programming for NecronomiCon, the International Festival of Weird Fiction, Art and Academia, as I’ve done every year since its founding.
This year marks an exciting change at the conference. Whereas in previous years the panels and talks have been focused primarily on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his influences and influencers, this year the committee has chosen to open the topics to those more encompassing of the Weird, the Fantastic, the Fabulist. In short, what was once a convention for one subculture now encompasses many, and much like the fiction it celebrates, the conference finds itself filled with artists and topics that fit neither wholly within the World Horror Convention, or the World Fantasy Convention. It sits between them (even temporally, considering the time of year).
All this is to say it promises to be an exciting adventure for all those who attend.
As I mentioned, I’ll be there as part of the programming. The below outlines those events I’m committed to, but I’ll also be lurking the hallways of the various locales and ducking into the multitude of interesting panels throughout the weekend.
Without further ado, my schedule for the upcoming event:
- Friday August 18th – 3:00-4:15pm: Shadows and Tall Trees Launch Party
L’Apogee, Biltmore 17th Floor, with Robert Levy, Steve Rasnic Tem, and Michael Kelly, where I’ll be reading a short excerpt from my story “In the Tall Grass”.
- Saturday, August 19th – 6:00-7:15pm: Looming Low Launch Party
L’Apogee, Biltmore 17th Floor, with Michael Griffen, Livia Llewellyn, Anya Martin, Michael Wehunt, Justin Steele, and Sam Cowan, where I won’t be reading but instead hovering and showing my support as a contributor to the book.
- Sunday, August 20th – 9-10:15am FABULISM IN CONTEMPORARY WEIRD FICTION
Garden Room, Biltmore 2nd Floor, with Craig Gidney, J.T. Glover, Kij Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor, and Peter Straub, where I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on what Fabulism is and how it affects modern weird and strange horror fiction.
- Sunday, August 20th – 3:00-4:15pm THE BLEAK OBLIQUE: Aickman’s Influence on Contemporary Horror
Grand Ballroom, Biltmore 17th Floor, with Michael Cisco, Paul Di Filippo, Jack Haringa, and Steve Rasnic Tem, where I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on the work and life of Robert Aickman, one of the major influences on contemporary strange fiction.
I hope everyone who attends finds these discussions and events illuminating, and enjoys the full range of fantastic programming. I look forward to seeing you all there.
The field of horror (or weird, or dark fantasy, or whatever you’d like to call it) has grown tremendously over the last decade or so. When questioned for my opinion on why, I used to put the blame squarely on the rise of the internet, and while I do believe technology and the way is has changed (and continues to change) every aspect of our lives is a contributor that can’t be overlooked, I also think there’s something more going on. We’re experiencing that cyclical return of readers who find some comfort in the dark, and I think that’s driven as much by the talent in the field as it is by readers searching for that talent. They feed off one another.
Everyone has a different writer they point to when they say “This one. This writer showed me what horror could be.” Sometimes they’re old masters, sometimes they’re new (and maybe-one-day masters) but what really sets them apart is their outlook on the work. It’s different. Different from what others have done, different from what their contemporaries are doing. Sometimes these different voices are recognized immediately by the masses, sometimes by no one at all, but they’re there. They are always there, working. Slowly chipping away at building a body of work that it uniquely their own.
In the last few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to read more fiction than I have since the business of writing consumed me. In that time, I’ve tried to read a cross-section of different work, some from fledgling writers, some from writers who have been at it longer than I’ve been alive. A lot of the work, as good as it is, reads the same. The way the writers see the world, the way they relate it to the reader, is similar, even if the sorts of stories they tell are different. Every era, I think, has a distinct voice, one that you can’t necessarily detect as it happens, but on reflection is so clearly of its time. A lot writers, most writers, working today work in that common voice.
And, then, there’s Richard Gavin.
I don’t like talking about Richard’s work. He and I have been friends for a number of years, and sometimes I fear how it might appear when I mention it. We all know writers who cannot stop pimping their friends, over and over, at every opportunity. I never want to appear to be that kind of writer. However, every once in a while, I feel motivated to break my silence and discuss why Richard and I are friends. It has a lot of do with personality, this is true, but it has even more to do with the sheer respect and awe I have for—and of—Richard’s work. Since before I formally knew him, it has both surprised and inspired me. Richard’s work is not like anyone else’s working today, and SYLVAN DREAD (Three Hands Press, 2016), his latest collection (available in paperback from Amazon right now) is a prime example of why. Every way one could describe the work describes its contents as well—ancient, dark, gnostic, awful, mesmerizing, hallucinogenic, mysterious. These are beautiful tales of shadowed borders, culminating in a novella that is one of those tales that alters you irreparably. This book… this book is so far removed from the every day horrors that line our shelves that it almost seems impossible it could exist. I’m not sure how else to describe it. It’s funny: there’s a photo of the hardback version of the book somewhere on the internet without its dust jacket, and the daylight is reflecting off the gold embossed boards, giving the book and ethereal quality. It’s apt, considering its contents.
It’s a strange time to be a horror writer: there is so much stacked against you, from other forms of communication to a wealth of entertainment options that can distract you from the terrors of just living. But even in their multitudes, few of them will actively work to rewire and awaken you. SYLVAN DREAD makes that attempt. I can’t guarantee it will work for you as it does for me, but I sincerely hope it does. I hope you buy it; I hope you read it; and I hope it makes you a different person than you are now. Things, they always look different when you are finally awake. Let’s hope for the better.