Review: Consumed

Consumed
Consumed by David Cronenberg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book so much. I really tried, if only out of service to my admiration for Cronenberg’s incredible back-catalogue of films. I’m a big fan of the guy’s work and so it seemed a given that I’d equally enjoy his debut novel, but it was not to be. It’s not that Consumed is an unmitigated piece of shit – there are some great ideas in there, some nice Cronenbergian body horror, and some hilarious, subversive moments. It’s just that these things, for me, felt buried beneath the endless philosophical ramblings and itemised breakdowns of technology that seemed to make up most of the book. I almost stopped reading this so many times. I know the emotional disconnect of the characters here is probably part of the point, that I’m supposed to feel like I’m observing the narrative on a laptop screen or through a camera lens, but the whole experience left me floating in a void of frustration and indifference. Having finished the novel, I feel like maybe I missed the point, that my reaction to it is wrong somehow, that maybe the story doesn’t really flounder in its own self-aggrandising philosophical wank, but who knows? I guess I’m torn because of the potential the book had for me. For every dull, esoteric moment there are glimmers of intrigue and horror, but being caught in this good/bad see-saw isn’t exactly what I’d call a good time. Even the book’s final scene feels both absurdly abrupt and actually quite clever. In the end, though, I was left dissatisfied and underwhelmed for a book with so many supposedly shocking and weird moments.

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Review: The Tired Sounds, A Wake

The Tired Sounds, A Wake
The Tired Sounds, A Wake by Michael Wehunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quiet, creeping kind of horror that’s soaking in Wehunt’s trademark human melancholy, The Tired Sounds, A Wake is a beautiful, dreamlike novella that left me feeling simultaneously disjointed, broken, and uplifted. Wehunt is a magnificent purveyor of weird fiction, but those elements of his work always ebb and flow around the shape of the human; with his slow and poetic prose, he captures the agonising minutiae of his characters’ thoughts and actions, their motivations, their fallibility on raw, vibrant display. Although personally I preferred the stories in his recent debut collection, Greener Pastures, this is a wonderful, quietly creepy and immensely beautiful novella. Another great publication from the consistently brilliant Dim Shores, and featuring breathtaking cover and interior art from Justine Jones.

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Review: Hunters & Collectors

Hunters & Collectors
Hunters & Collectors by Matt Suddain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This chunky novel is a busy fever dream of black comedy and violent, clever sci-fi that balances its batshit crazy moments with a surprisingly tender, human heart. There is so much going on here; the world Suddain creates feels well established and worn-in, crafted as much from what he does say, as what he doesn’t. He has a way of disguising exposition with clever scenes and devices, and in fact his skills at narrative subterfuge overall are a big part of what makes Hunters and Collectors one of the most intelligent and enormously fun books I’ve read in years.

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Review: ALTAR

ALTAR
ALTAR by Philip Fracassi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What begins as a family trip to the local pool on a warm day quickly turns dark on levels both personal and cosmic, and it’s the juxtaposition of these two elements that Fracassi is so damn good at. The social ecosystem of the public pool and the mundane idiosyncrasies of each characters’ headspace make a fantastic set-piece for the action and horror that unfolds with Fracassi’s elegant rhythm. He manages to fit so much into the space of such a short work, but it never feels overfed. Every scene is precisely measured and delivers the right amount of impact-versus-anticipation before switching to a different character or scenario. The tension builds to breathless, almost painful heights as the story reaches its bleak and fragile peak. This is an absolute sucker-punch of a novella that easily ranks among this year’s best pieces of fiction.

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Review: Grass

Grass
Grass by Anya Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella has everything – including an incredible cover by Jeanne D’Angelo. The story is sharply focused, its brilliant character work underscoring the glorious pulpy erotic horror that forms the bulk of the narrative. This kind of physical horror can often come across a little overcooked, but Martin – who I’ll definitely be reading more of after this – balances every layer perfectly. This is one of those pieces of writing that demands revisiting, with the promise of a new crevice or curve to be appreciated with every encounter. It’s fun and weird, but it’s all so real too, with a dark rhythm that pulses between tragedy and hope, a fever dream’s descent into primordial horror. Or maybe not horror so much as hunger?

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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 Sticky Centre: Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace

furnace_01

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.