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.