Review: The Darkest Part of the Woods

The Darkest Part of the Woods
The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure how I feel about this book.

On a technical level it’s something close to a masterpiece, the horror’s slow ooze engulfing the reader with glacial deliberation. The prose is a kind of vernacular poetry unto itself; Campbell plays with sentence structure and character interaction in some really clever and illusive ways. This kept me on edge the whole way through, not necessarily because of the narrative’s momentum, but because the prose has this delicate intricacy to it that punishes even the slightest lapse of attention. The way Campbell draws the woods as the novel’s dynamic nucleus and builds the atmosphere is wonderful, and the hints of hallucinatory weirdness are deft and restrained.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how well this all works within the broader context of the book. The whole thing consists of characters talking in this beautiful rhythm to each other. Their world is so tiny, and I get that this insular, almost claustrophobic feel is kind of the point, but what I didn’t so much enjoy was being stuck with this cast of characters, none of whom I ever really came to like or feel close to. Because they all mostly talk the same way, it felt like I was listening to a group of people sharing a private joke: it’s fascinating and I want to know more, but they won’t let me in. I felt held at arm’s length the whole time.

The ending felt like both a letdown and a promise, a missed opportunity that didn’t build the kind of character-breaking tension or stakes to the extent it could have, or even to the extend that just got my blood racing. Having said that, the last few lines are powerful and playful and just awesome, so it redeems itself there for sure.

There’s no doubt I enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Woods. There’s no doubt it’s a well written and crafted book. This was my first Ramsey Campbell, and I’d definitely go back for more after this, but it felt to me like there was some small thing missing here, something flat that needed a little contouring, a jagged edge.

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The Nameless Dark – T.E. Grau (Review)

I keep reading these excellent debut horror collections, and I keep having my mind blown. The Nameless Dark is no exception. You pick up this book for its awesome cover art, and you stay for the brilliant, beautiful, terrifying stories. In terms of style and subject matter, Grau sits somewhere between Laird Barron and Nathan Ballingrud. His horrors are scalpel-sharp, but his characters and the stark realism of his domestic minutiae will leave you breathless. every story here is an intricate, unique cage designed specifically to trap you. The thing is, you’ll enjoy every second of your incarceration.

“Tubby’s Big Swim” is an exercise in pure restraint. Like a lot of the work in this collection, the unease is layered on slowly over story’s ponderous course. The core here though is the domestic unrest, as seen through the lonely, imaginative eyes of Alden, a kid having to navigate his childhood through bullies, a complacent mother and her abusive boyfriend, and his quest to find the perfect pet. The amount of restraint Grau exhibits here is almost infuriating he does it so well. The effect is mesmeric, juxtaposing the mundane weirdness of a child’s world with something much darker bleeding into the edges.

“The Screamer” seems like Grau’s take on that Ligottian strain of corporate horror, but with a sharper sense of immediacy as the protagonist’s life slowly crumbles around him. The deterioration is precipitated on a larger scale by the jarring, disembodied screaming he begins to hear on a regular, if intermittent, basis. Grau’s strength lies in the minutiae of the mundane. He captures all those small depressing details of human interaction, the silences and hateful asides that are often neglected in even the best fiction. His depiction of humanity is searing, and that’s before the shit starts to hit the fan. The climax is surprising and original, as is the source of the screaming. A really gripping, original story.

“Clean” is scalpel-sharp, a short slice of a story that, although not exactly surprising or difficult to anticipate, does what it does with enough skill to keep everything fresh. There’s a lovely intimacy here too that reminded me of Let the Right One In.

In “Return of the Prodigy” we’re subjected to an incredibly creepy scenario somewhere between Lovecraft and Laird Barron, as frugal man’s man Gary takes his wife of thirty-five years, Gladys, on a belated – and budget-conscious – beach-resort honeymoon. This was one of my favourites of the collection, and one of the more skin-crawling stories I’ve read in a while. The atmosphere is tense and palpable. Every scene Grau paints has a very cinematic quality; I could see everything so clearly in my head. The unease builds with a wonderful quiet rhythm, and the is absolutely eye-popping. It also put me off seafood for a good while.

Like “Clean,” I could see where “Expat” was going from pretty early on, but the reveal is only some of the fun with Grau’s work. It’s a very different story, tonally and thematically, from most of the pieces in the collection

“The Truffle Pig” has got to be one of the most innovative and downright cool Jack the Ripper stories I’ve ever read. Grau fits the horror element into the historical like two matching jigsaw pieces. Everything works so well here I just believed it. Grau’s alternate history works so much better than the truth, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a piece of fiction.

Another of the shorter, sharper pieces, “Beer and Worms” is an excellent exploration of masculinity’s pricklier side. It’s a nice simple story, very understated, lean and matter-of-fact. To say any more would spoil it.

The historical horrors of “White Feather” are drawn with excellent restraint, the story slipping back and forth in different stages of the protagonist’s life. This isn’t a wildly complex story but it does several things extremely well. Grau captures the feel of the period setting with all its grime and decay and ingrained superstition to perfection. His character work here is excellent, and unfolds with a kind of scary-campfire-story feel. And the horrors, when they arrive, provide a nice spin on a familiar monster.

“Transmission” is a road story that builds the unease with an excellent combination of sound and landscape. Although it descends into a bit of a Lovecraft pastiche towards the end, Grau is still on top form here, and makes the story enough of his own for it to work well.

“Mr Lupus” is one of the standouts of the collection, particularly in that it doesn’t take the cosmic horror route so popular in this collection. (That’s not at all a complaint about the other works here, though; I can never get enough of cosmic horror.) The story is a love letter to the fairy tale, and an insanely creepy one at that. The ending is, if not entirely a surprise, a brilliantly absorbing build of emotional tension and pure terror. This is what Grau does best: laying down all the details and making the reader piss their pants.

In “Free Fireworks,” Grau paints an entirely plausible near-future (or alternate present) destabilised by conflict and terrorism on a grand scale. The staple focus on the characters, in this case a father and son enjoying a festival, plays to Grau’s real proclivity for portraying the domestic and teasing out the relationships between his characters. Halfway through, he pulls a twist on us that plays out like an awesome cover of an already great song, and the results are a joy to witness.

“Love Songs From the Hydrogen Jukebox” was originally published in The Children of Old Leech and is set in Laird Barron’s terrifying universe, a mythos which, as far as I’m concerned, beats Lovecraft’s hands down, by an author who is one of the few truly scary prose stylists out there. Grau is a strong rival for this, though. His homage hits all the right notes, in this kind of beatnik/hippie road trip that evolves into a weird mountainside congregation, which itself evolves into a much darker cult gathering, which evolves into a pitch-perfect tribute to Barron’s mythos. Also, what an awesome title that is.

“Twinkle Twinkle” is a really effective story about grief that juxtaposes the smallness of human emotion against the cosmic horrors emerging from far-flung space. I feel like it could have been just a little less revealing at the end, but otherwise an excellent story about that cuts the reader with the vicarious pain of loss.

The collection comes to a blistering end with “The Mission.” This story, which marries old-school pulp with the grit of a violent Old West thriller, is the kind of horror so effective it makes you want a shower afterwards. The language here is muscular and vibrant, and Grau builds up an excellent period vernacular as sincere and raw as the characters who utter it. A tour de force of tension and horror, it reminded me a little, tonally, of Laird Barron’s “The Men From Porlock.” This might be one of the best stories in the collection purely for the skill of its craftsmanship.

So clearly I enjoyed this excellent debut collection. Grau’s prose is strong and poetic, his characters and scenarios drawn with the painful clarity of the real, his monsters and weirdness terrifying regardless of the pantheon from which they squirm. But more than that, you just trust this writer. Wherever he takes you, whatever horrors he sets on you, whatever dark recesses of the human heart he lays bare to you, you trust him. And goddamn do you enjoy it.

The Sticky Centre: Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace

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There are Weird writers who terrify me (Laird Barron, Michael Wehunt), who pierce me with awe (John Langan, Christopher Slatsky), who send me on an acid trip (John Claude Smith), and who break my heart (Nathan Ballingrud), but nobody has the effect that Livia Llewellyn does. Her work is the definition of Weird Fiction as I understand it, smushing fantasy and horror and science fiction (and not a small amount of erotica, in this case) all together into new and wonderful and terrifying hybrid forms. Every story in this outstanding collection goes to brave, raw places, and they’re full of as much fragile beauty as they are the human emotion that compels each small, yet vast, narrative.

I’ve read some of Llewellyn’s work here and there in the past, but Furnace is my first swim in a complete collection (this is her second, after Engines of Desire). It’s a dangerous journey, but a beautiful, rewarding one. Furnace effervesces even from the cover, which is a wet dream of design and imagination. Credit to Scott R. Jones, and the eerie photography of Mike Garlington, and especially to the always excellent Word Horde Press for producing yet another beautiful book. You can salivate over it and get yourself a copy over at Word Horde’s website.

Llewellyn’s prose is one of her strongest qualities; it’s delicious and heady and blood-warm, a gorgeous, raucous dance of biting violence and sensuality. A mist of sweat and blood beads on every word like condensation. It’s more than prose. It’s magic.

Sure, this all sounds like indulgent hyperbole, but tell me how you feel after reading this incredible collection of weirdness and heartache. Tell me if I’m wrong.

This collection seems to have two kinds of stories: the dream-like, stream-of-consciousness style that pulls you through the length of its insides like a biological process; and the more narratively conventional stories, in which expectations and tropes are nonetheless subverted to brilliant effect.

“Panopticon” kicks off the collection with very weird imagery, a treacle of poetic urban blight and heady arousal.

In terms of prose and narrative, “Stabilimentum” is a little more practical, but no less weird. This has to be one of my favourite short stories in the collection, the genre, the history of the written word. Llewellyn’s skill at exacerbating the lived-in horrors of the mundane – and capturing it with the clarity of memory and experience to the extent that it feels like my memory and experience – is on well-lit display here. In this case, the mundane takes the form of the protagonist, Thalia, discovering a spider in the corner of her bathroom, and the escalation that results. I winced as Thalia anticipated “feeling the body crunch and pop beneath the tissue.” I thought I knew the direction in which the story was going, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It takes a surprising and beautiful turn, veering the reader towards a revelation that perhaps the true horror is the mundane. “Stabilimentum” is breathtaking in its evocation of the otherworldly, and the human reaction to it. This is one that will linger in my memory for years to come, demanding far more than a single read.

“Wasp and Snake” is a delicious, tapas-sized bite that throws us into a science fiction universe that feels worn-in from the first sentence. Every word and its place within the ecosystem of sentence and paragraph and story seems so carefully considered here. The real magic here is that Llewellyn pulls off in four-and-a-half pages an idea that anybody else would turn into a novella or a novel or, hell, even a trilogy. In four-and-a-half pages. The control of this, the skill and restraint involved, boggles the mind, and the ending is a dark clever surprise I never saw coming.

“Yours is the Right to Begin” presents a retelling of – or just a shifting perspective on – Dracula, with a bittersweet focus on memory and sensation. Like many of the works collected here, the story has that heightened sensuousness that Llewellyn could craft to perfection in her sleep. The seasons play a major role here, much as they did when the world was younger, and this sense of quiet, bloody antiquity is beautifully evoked. Every paragraph is rich and dark; I found myself reading back over each one as I finished, relishing the syntax and all that it opened in me.

“Lord of the Hunt” and “In the Court of King Cupressaceae, 1982” are two of the more overtly erotic stories in the collection, both straddling the divide between sensual and skin-crawling.

The title story, “Furnace,” has more than an echo of Thomas Ligotti, with its decaying town and smoky, autumnal feel. The prose induces a lingering, unsettling quiet in both story and reader.

“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” has a Lovecraftian flavour to it, a story about rituals and worship told through the diary of a teenage girl whose family vacation turns out to be a whole lot more gelatinous and bloody than she expected. As with “Stabilimentum,” Llewellyn juxtaposes the weird/horrific with the everyday; for the characters here, the two are almost indistinguishable.

The erotic is present again in “The Unattainable,” a small, sad story about loneliness and need that pushes its characters into the foreground. Here Llewellyn’s strength for character building and interaction is at its best, and there is little of the supernatural or surreal at play.

Admittedly, there were occasions where the lush prose style, coupled with the esoteric goings-on, obscured my comprehension of some of the more experimental stories. At times I felt like whatever subtext or revelation a particular work promised was lurking just out of my reach.

Ultimately though, this is one of the strongest and most immersive Weird Fiction collections of the year, which is no easy feat in the current onslaught of impressive work we’re seeing almost every month in the genre.

Llewellyn is a writer who ingrains the weird into her writing, makes it as matter-of-fact as a rose or a house or rainfall. That we eagerly take her hand as she leads us down these dark, pulsing pathways, is a testament to her skill with the written word. We trust her wherever she takes us, however dangerous or unfamiliar that destination might be.