Pet Sematary (Film Review)

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Stephen King adaptations have been coming thick and fast over the last few years, and show no sign of slowing down in the near future, with at least several films due for release in 2019 alone, including Mike Flanagan’s Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, It: Chapter Two, and Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass (based on a novella co-written by King and his son, Joe Hill). Even better is that most of the recent films and TV series have actually been very good, compared to the much higher ratio of bad King adaptations we were gifted in the 80s and 90s.

Often, the quality of these works is dependent on the quality of the filmmakers adapting King’s writing. Mike Flanagan made a wonderfully visceral and nasty film from one of the author’s more visceral and nasty books with Gerald’s Game; Andy Muschietti’s It was a great surprise, especially considering its troubled production (although I’d still kill to see Cary Fukunaga’s original vision for his intended epic two-parter, but that’s a whole other rant); and Aussie Zak Hilditch worked wonders with the more stripped-down thriller 1922, featuring an amazing, literally scene-chewing turn from Thomas Jane.

So when I learnt that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer were attached to direct a remake/adaptation of King’s bleakest of books, Pet Sematary, I rushed to heap a hefty weight of expectation onto the film. The duo’s previous horror, Starry Eyes, is a nightmare in the best possible way, a slow-burn about a woman’s transformative quest for fame in a twisted, occult Hollywood. Some of the violence in Starry Eyes is truly toe-curling, and the whole thing is steeped in a nauseating sense of unease; it’s a film whose imagery still creeps back into my head from time to time, even after only one viewing.

Like Jordan Peele’s Us, released only the week before this, Pet Sematary’s focus is on family. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), move down from Boston to a quiet rural town in Maine. Their new property encompasses a vast stretch of woods, within which is the town’s cutely misspelled “Pet Sematary”, the further reaches of wilderness beyond it blocked in by a towering deadfall of felled trees and branches. The road just in front of their house is also busy with speeding trucks. Both of these elements will come to tear the family apart, and also point to the fact that they must have had the worst real estate agent in the world.

When Church, the family’s cat, is killed by one of the aforementioned speeding trucks, crusty but kindly old neighbour Jud (a reliably superb John Lithgow) tells Louis about the resurrective properties of the “sour” land that lies beyond the pet cemetery’s deadfall. After burying the cat in this bleak and ancient place, Church comes back, but he’s not the same cat Ellie loved; he’s mangy and feral in both looks and temperament, scratching anyone who gets too close and ruining Louis and Rachel’s sex life with bloodied, half-dead birds.

Most of us know how this story escalates from pets to people, either from the book, the original 1989 film, or literally any trailer for this 2019 version. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that the land beyond the pet cemetery is inadvisably utilised after a tragic (human) death, which precipitates further violence and mayhem.

It’s a well-made and well-acted film, efficient in its evocation of the Creeds’ spiralling predicament. But Jeff Buhler’s screenplay is a little too efficient, and the film is frantically paced, excising character development in favour of the mounting scares which, despite looking fine, fail to actually induce terror. Where King’s book felt unrelentingly bleak (the author himself cites it as his darkest work), for all its supposedly grim subject matter, the film largely failed to rend my soul or raise my heartbeat. Scenes that should feel grand or awe-inspiring are brief, small and forgettable, and anything that does succeed just comes across as very bread-and-butter horror; good, but not much more.

I’m by no means a book-to-film hardliner, raging at changes made in the adaptation to the screen, and the different tact the directors have taken here in several key elements actually works to the film’s advantage in some ways, but one of the joys of King’s book, and arguably its thematic spine, is the surrogate father/son relationship between Jud and Louis, a bond we see barely fleshed out in the film – again, because it feels like it’s in too much of a rush to get to the nasty bits. But without significant investment in the characters, that horror’s bound to fall flat. I watched these people suffer trauma and heartache and eventually terrible fates, but I wasn’t scared and I wasn’t all that troubled, except by my glaring lack of reaction.

Other aspects seem shoehorned in just to give the audience a creepy vibe rather than because they actually fit into the story. There’s a cool Wicker Man vibe at the beginning, with a procession of kids heading down to the pet cemetery in creepy animal masks, but this local ritual is never further explored, and the sense of something larger going on – which is a staple of the novel, for me – fails to ignite. This is a shame, because given the quality of the directors’ previous Starry Eyes, Pet Sematary represents a step down for Kölsch and Widmyer.

Given the close release dates, I can’t help but compare Pet Sematary to Jordan Peele’s Us, which for me was a far superior horror film with not only a lot more to say, but, crucially, characters I cared a more about than I did the Creed family. Where Peele’s film was a fully realised work with many layers to unpack and an astonishing attention to detail, there’s so much in Pet Sematary that falls short, despite the great source material and the opportunities for some genuinely terrifying moments.

Where the family in Us had distinct personalities and interior lives, depicted through dialogue and body language, Pet Sematary’s characters seem flat and underdeveloped, coming across as cut-outs designed simply to put them through the wringer of this horror film’s trope-filled obstacle course. This is no fault of the performances, though. Jason Clarke does the best he can with the relatively bland Louis. Amy Seimetz is terrific as Rachel, whose traumatic childhood is touched on with some effective body horror, accentuated by her layered performance. John Lithgow is also great as Jud, even if his character is relegated to the role of Wise Old Exposition Man. Jeté Laurence does a lot of heavy lifting as Ellie, tackling one of the film’s more realised characters with her complex performance.

Like the characters, the world they inhabit feels a little off, and not necessarily in the right way. Months pass in the blink of an eye, but there’s no sense of a lived-in environment, which is partly the fault of the rushed story and the failure of the film to take its time with the characters. The barren landscape beyond the cemetery’s deadfall is also just too alien for somewhere on the other side of a big bundle of sticks, with its skeletal trees, swampy ground and a horizon constantly flickering with lightning. It all spells out its evil a little too loudly, and just doesn’t gel with the real-world setting of the rest of the film.

I haven’t seen the 1989 original so I can’t compare this version to that. My memory of the book is hazy at best, but certain scenes and emotions have stuck with me, distilled over the years into an impression that not only feels much more emotionally harrowing, but, through its dark and intimate character work, gives us a glimpse into a universe much more vast and alien and hostile than we can imagine. When King’s at his best this works beautifully, and Pet Sematary – the book – is a fantastic example of this. But this claustrophobic, character-centric horror that briefly flares into something more complex and incomprehensible isn’t remotely captured in Kölsch and Widmyer’s film, which is a huge shame and a missed opportunity. Pet Sematary isn’t a bad film by any means, and though it does try to impress with some interesting changes to the source material, its lack of guts is glaring, especially relative to other King adaptations and other recent horror films in general. As Jud tells Louis at one point in the film, sometimes dead is better.

Us (Film Review)

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Jordan Peele was always going to face a steep climb if he wanted to top his incredible out-of-left-field directorial debut. Get Out’s teeth-clenching intensity and biting social commentary made it one of 2017’s most delicious horror films, even snagging several Oscar nominations and a Best Original Screenplay win.

No pressure for his next film, then.

In many ways, Us is the perfect follow-up, another magnificent horror film with another whopper of a premise and more deftly handled social commentary. Refreshingly, it’s also a showcase of Peele’s desire to do something different, to take more risks, and while certain aspects of the narrative have alienated some critics, I adored it. It’s such a pleasure to see a film not only so competently, passionately made, but one in which you can see the director flexing his muscles, reaching for something more. It’s an ambitious film, but for my money it works.

It also continues Peele’s penchant for casting predominantly black actors in major roles, and Peele himself has said that he doesn’t see himself ever casting a white lead, much to the displeasure of cry-babies everywhere, and my own unrestrained joy.

The less you know about Us going in, the better, but the basic plot follows the Wilson family: parents Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Abe (Winston Duke), and their two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). While holidaying in Santa Cruz, the Wilsons encounter a murderous, scissor-wielding doppelganger family – referred to as the Tethered – who seem intent on wiping out their better, saner halves. What begins as a home invasion movie soon spirals into something much more complex and layered, and Peele is a master at juggling each element without any one of them hogging the limelight.

As with Get Out, Us maintains a razor’s edge balance between horror and humour, often the most intense or violent scenes perfectly punctuated with a moment of levity that arises organically out of the situation. The horror precipitates the humour rather than the humour being something shoehorned in – it feels natural rather than written, the characters well aware of the absurdity of their situation.

The film also looks and sounds wonderful, with a luscious colour scheme, beautiful use of light and shadow, and a score by Get Out’s Michael Abels that crystallises the terror with its eerie vocals and pounding strings. Us is only Abels’ second film score, but this guy is a genius.

My investment in a horror film is predominantly dependent on my investment in its characters, and Us has some of the best. Some of the early scenes establish family dynamics in a way that, again, doesn’t feel written or performed, four characters bouncing off each other at the same time, critical aspects of their personalities conveyed as much through dialogue as action and body language. In fact, the performances here are all so good that you almost forget you’re watching a fictional construction. Obviously we know that Nyong’o and Duke have no need to prove their acting chops, but Shadidi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex (who I’ve not seen in a film before) are both amazing as the two kids, their performances dimensional and nuanced, the way they adapt to their horrific circumstances particularly endearing. It’s also just great to see a black family kicking arse like this. The supporting cast is excellent too, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as Adelaide and Abe’s rich white friends. Moss in particular seems to be having a lot of fun with a role that’s much more snarky and vacuous than her usual (excellent) work.

But the focus here is on the Wilson family, and particularly Nyong’o’s Adelaide. What’s more impressive is that the cast play both roles, each murderous double not just a copy of the other character but imbued with their own terrifying personality. The physicality of each of the Tethered here is impressive, exacerbating their monstrousness and giving us some truly unique horror icons. If Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t win a flurry of awards for her role(s) here, I’ll burn down a building.

There’s a depth to the film’s construction that begs multiple viewings. Images and symbols recur with a deliberate rhythm throughout, and the sense of duality is far from limited to the central characters. Peele lays down a visual groundwork that hints at what we’ll bear witness to later in the story, whether we pick up those details or not. Little tics and twitches throughout the film telegraph story beats, character choices and thematic arcs in ways that delighted me. These don’t make the plot predictable or the scares generic, though. Instead they elevate the material because they’re deliberately placed breadcrumbs that highlight Us’s themes, while leading up to a final “twist” that doesn’t feel it’s trying to surprise us so much as confirming what we long-suspected, and serves as a rich patch of metaphorical soil audiences will be digging down into for years to come.

I’ve seen many reviewers complain that the film’s final act explains too much, but then the same was said of Ari Aster’s Hereditary: I didn’t agree then and I don’t agree now. The explanation here isn’t ham-fisted at all, and hardly goes into the kind of detail that would render the horrors toothless – it has the opposite effect, if anything. Besides, as with nearly every other aspect of the film, the nature of the Tethered is foreshadowed in earlier scenes. Revealing some of the why of these murderous doubles’ motives isn’t a slip-up but a deep and deliberate part of the story. I’d argue that it makes Us more effective, and much scarier. Without spoiling anything, it takes the film into unexpected territory, tapping into the darker aspects of modern – and particularly American – society.

If this all sounds like I’m heading towards puerile notions like “elevated horror” to Us, please wash your ears out. The last few years of excellent horror films enjoyed by a wider audience than just genre fans have led the more snooty, snotty critics to scrabble for justification as to how a lowly horror film can also be a good one. And so we get terms like “elevated”, because genre films, as we all know, don’t actually have anything to say; they need to be more than just a good example of the genre, they need to transcend the common muck in order to be worthy of critical acclaim and serious discourse. The idea that recent knockouts like Us, Hereditary and The Witch are somehow the exception rather than the rule does a disservice to the potential of a damn good genre film, and particularly horror in this case. These films are the embodiment of horror, good horror, sure, but horror doing exactly what it does best: scaring the shit out of you and saying something interesting in the process.

Us does all of these things, and it does them beautifully. It’s also subversive and original, and it’s setting a great example for the longevity of the genre, and not just in terms of quality. Financially, it had the highest grossing opening ever for an original horror film, at US$71 million. For studios whose only language is money, this is great news for the genre. On top of which it’s simply a joy to see such a brilliant film get the attention it absolutely deserves. Excuse me while I go watch it several more times.

Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley (Review)

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I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of Andrew Michael Hurley’s second novel, Devil’s Day, his follow up to the beautiful and quietly menacing debut that was The Loney. Like that first book, Devil’s Day is ensconced in the English countryside, in this case an isolated farming community in Lancashire that clings to ritual and tradition.

Narrator John Pentecost is returning to his family farm in the Briardale Valley, pregnant wife Kat in tow. His return is precipitated by both the death of his grandfather, the Gaffer, and the yearly titular ritual of Devil’s Day, where the villagers sing songs and tell stories about the time the Devil came down to the valley to make mischief.

This is a book that, like The Loney, is in no hurry, and has little concern for the machinations of a flashy or action-packed plot. That kind of story can be hard to pull off, but Hurley is adept at keeping the reader’s attention. I was rapt with Devil’s Day from the opening line to the last. I enjoyed The Loney, but this felt like a much more accomplished novel, and the folk horror element is what really did it for me. Hurley’s restraint and subtlety is still as applaudable as ever, but the feel in Devil’s Day, of stories and folktales creeping across the landscape into reality – or rather, as in a lot of cases, already an ingrained part of that landscape – is palpable and sets a shiver crawling across your skin.

Although a slow-burn, this is a very precise and well-crafted book. There isn’t an ounce of spare flesh to be found. The prose is neither indulgent nor workmanlike. It has that evocative, tactile tone of a masterful storyteller, to the point that you forget you’re reading a book. Take this passage, where a young John is out amongst nature; Hurley gives us all these wonderful bright details, lending his own style of imagery to the scene:

“Things fled as I slithered down through the dry mud. Birds dissolved into the undergrowth and the eel that lay curled up like a question mark just under the surface of the water shivered aware in a ring of ripples. Nothing wanted to stay, not the damselflies or the dippers, or the kingfisher that unearthed itself from the dark, rooty banks on the other side and skimmed away with the current, burning a blue stripe in the air.”

I could read that over and over, and still find something new to smile about every time.

It’s almost a cliché at this point, but the setting here is as much a character as the people inhabiting it. The terrain and the weather shape the characters’ lives in ways both mundane and profound.

Just as the landscape shapes the characters, so does the past. It’s always needling into the present, informing and shaping it, pricking it with unease. The Gaffer’s aphorisms or lessons punctuate the story so that even in death we’re not without him. His presence underpins John’s narration, as well as his thoughts and feelings about the farm and his obligations to it.

The characters – even the fleeting, incidental ones – are never anything less than startlingly real; crafted with a crispness that puts Hurley’s skills as a writer on full display. The characters here are very traditional, which can really grate sometimes with their staunch religious beliefs, and their “he’s a pouf” and “don’t be a sissy” attitudes. They’re hardscrabble people with proudly calloused hands and a get-shit-done attitude. On the farm, work trumps everything, overcomes everything. Loss, disaster, even the Devil comes second to the necessities of farm life. Everything carries on, through death, weather, hardship, and the Devil’s sneaking tricks.

As we meander through this glacial story of rural family history and ritual set against the rugged English countryside, something a little insidious starts to creep into John’s tone. In his head, this is not just a visit but the start of something more permanent. Despite Kat’s objections, it’s his firm belief that they’ll soon settle down on the farm, that they’ll abandon their urban lives and jobs for this far simpler and harsher one maintaining the family farm.

John’s quiet but unwavering insistence that this is less a choice than a familial obligation is unsettling, but given the retrospective nature of the narrative, also sadly inevitable. This obsession with the legacy of obligation Kat inherits by dint of starting a family with John really alienates him from the reader – or this reader, anyway. As Kat becomes increasingly unsettled – and, to be honest, me with her – John’s lack of sympathy is stark in its absence. Everything’s a “useful lesson” for Kat or something that she’ll become accustomed to and appreciate, no matter how uncomfortable or out of place she feels. That we know she does come around and that they raise their first child on the farm doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable and somewhat heartbreaking, this woman caught in the web of a family’s hardscrabble (although not unhappy) way of life.

Kat’s the outsider here, and the reader’s way in to the story. She’s uncomfortable as I was with some of the family’s odd traditions and practices, as well as their occasional bluntness towards her. And when the horror element does edge its fingers around the doorframe, it’s Kat who reacts the most to it, her burgeoning sense of dislocation one that I vehemently shared.

As with The Loney, I did find myself wishing for a little more of the horror, or some culmination of the supernatural, but Hurley doesn’t work that way whether I like it or not. Devil’s Day is more about the people and the place, their past and present and inevitable future, than it is the overtly supernatural. It’s ultimately about the lengths people will go to protect not just their traditions but their family livelihood, their way of life.

Nothing here, from the characters to the harsh terrain to the ambiguity of certain events, is meant to be any shade of comfortable; this is a challenging book, but a riveting, beautifully crafted one. It reinforces what The Loney first showed us: that Andrew Michael Hurley is a unique and gifted writer, whose work I will continue to eagerly devour.

 

The Void (Film Review)

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When I first saw the incredible trailer and luscious promotional artwork for Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s 80’s horror throwback The Void, my expectations were set dangerously high. And why shouldn’t they have been? Not only did it look fantastic, but the past few years have been inundated with some astonishing and original horror films – The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, Get Out, Bone Tomahawk – and this trend doesn’t look like it’s going to dry up anytime soon. Sure, there are some stinkers out there too, but there was no reason to believe that The Void might fall in with that crowd.

I won’t go into any detail about the plot, since there really isn’t that much of one anyway, beyond the basic scenario of a group of characters trapped in a hospital, assailed from outside by white-robed cultists and from inside by gelatinous horrors and a madman with a propensity for self-mutilation.

The Void isn’t exactly a bad film, but for me the disappointment started to soak through as its 90-minute run time dragged on. Its most glaring problem is that it just isn’t very original. With its aesthetic and its – admittedly quite good – practical creature effects, it wears its influences on its sleeve. The problem with this is that I was regularly reminded of all the far superior horror films it’s clearly been inspired by: John Carpenter’s The Thing and Prince of Darkness, Event Horizon, The Beyond.

The thing with homage-style films is that they can be great fun even if they don’t end up subverting the thing they’re emulating. Take Adam Wingard’s 2014 film The Guest, a brilliant 80’s style retro action thriller/slasher. It works so well not simply because it has a great script and is well made, but because it’s fun. Unfortunately, fun isn’t a word I’d use to describe The Void.

It has all the components of a potentially mind-blowing horror film – murderous cults, gelatinous creatures, body horror, monstrous pregnancies, alternate dimensions – but it never really does anything interesting with them, and it never seems to work on its own merits. Everything here feels too subdued, like it’s too afraid to be its own film. It’s not as weird as it could be, not as violent, not as moving or atmospheric or even cosmic. Again, the practical effects are admirable, but the creature design is dull, the scene set-up pedestrian, and the constantly flickering lights infuriating. None of the elements seemed to come together for me, or not enough to make a coherent, flowing story. The script is severely lacking in both direction and three-dimensional characters, and the acting is wooden at best. The human villain is a one-note nutjob with a flimsy, bordering-on-ludicrous motivation that only gels with his actions on the most superficial “let’s-try-this-because-it’s-gross” level. Even the score is barely noticeable, and that was the one area they at least could have let rip with the Carpenter worship.

I think the problem here is that the directors seem like they’re trying to build a mythology for their film, with the triangle motifs and the multidimensional elements – the hallucinatory shots of desolate landscapes, galaxies and pulsing flesh are beautiful, and by far the best part of The Void – but they end up cramming in a whole bunch of things that don’t necessarily work in and of themselves. Internal logic is nowhere to be found. There’s no rhythm or harmony to the story or its characters, which are forced to co-exist in a world that has a lot of potential, but ultimately isn’t very believable or engaging.

It’s possible I’m being too harsh on this because I was so excited to see it, and by the look of a lot of reviews it’s been receiving, I expect most people to disagree with me, but with the horror genre experiencing a renaissance of gripping, original work that isn’t just limited to film, this kind of messy pastiche of beloved influences just isn’t good enough.

By the end of The Void, it became disappointingly apparent that this is one of those cases where the promotional material ends up being far better than the film itself.

Bait Hides the Hook: Laird Barron’s Swift to Chase (Review)

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Part of me wondered whether I should post anything about the latest Laird Barron because for a moment I thought, what else is there really left to say about the guy that hasn’t already been said, that I haven’t already said, that we don’t already know? He’s a visceral, commanding, awe-inspiring writer who just keeps pushing the boundaries of genre writing. So far, so Barron. Anyone familiar with his name or work knows this already.

But I wrote this review anyway, and I’m posting it, and, sure, it might fall into that pattern I seem to have established where I read a book I love and then extol its virtues in a thousand-odd-word post – which, in my more self-loathing moments, feels like it probably comes across as just an exercise in how many adoring adjectives I can fit into a sentence. But it’s not that at all. Those adoring adjectives aren’t an exercise in anything except how I honestly feel about the noun I’m attaching them to.

Also, fuck all that doubt. If you like something, if you love something, if it fills you with joy or wonder or awe or terror or adrenaline, and if it makes you feel like there are still new things to be discovered in the world and new ways and angles to look at it, then you need to shout about that and share it with as many people who will listen. Plus, if this review compels just one person to pick up Barron’s – and any of his vast number of brilliant contemporaries’ – work for the first time, then all that seemingly redundant gushing is worth it.

But enough about that. Adoring adjectives await…

If you thought you knew what to expect from Laird Barron, his latest (fourth) collection – and sixth major publication – Swift to Chase, tears down all those preconceptions. He breaks a lot of new ground here, especially in terms of technique, structure and style. His Old Leech Mythos – which makes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos look like the Teletubbies – is present and accounted for, but Barron attacks it from some unexpected angles. He seems to be going out on an experimental limb both with the individual stories as well as the larger picture that’s pieced together as you move through the collection.

The opening story, “Screaming Elk, MT”, introduces recurring badass Jessica Mace, and there’s nary a mention of Old Leech and Co., though it’s not exactly devoid of mortal harm, scheming sleazebags and otherworldly terror. It’s a great, compact piece of writing that cuts to the bone, and to the chase.

If I have a complaint about this story, it’s that this is (spoiler alert) one of the few Barron tales where the protagonist escapes largely unharmed, and the monster seems to be vanquished a little too easily, let alone at all. More often than not, Barron’s antagonists are as insurmountable and eternal as the universe from which they spring, and there isn’t a sliver of hope to be glimpsed for the human characters, alive or not. Jessica Mace, on the other hand, seems to unpick that weave, and although she’s not without her share of suffering and madness, there’s still something of her left to keep going.

In a lot of ways, Screaming Elk sets the tone for the rest of the collection inasmuch as it’s a character-driven piece with great pacing and a fast, canny narration. Regarding the latter, Barron doesn’t waste his words, but his prose is far from frugal. It’s lean, dangerous, whip-smart and prison-hard.

Barron’s use of language has always been one of his best assets, but here there’s a sense of . . . snazziness and wit, which I won’t say was absent from his previous work, but has certainly evolved into something more complex in Swift to Chase. His antagonists, particularly the prolific Children of Old Leech, have always possessed a certain black wit, a predatory playfulness that seems inherent to their immortal, hedonistic race. His human characters aren’t exactly dead-eyed chumps either, but the black humour is on much more prominent display in this collection than I’ve noticed in Barron’s work before.

I laughed out loud more than once at the acerbic one-liners scattered throughout these stories, their deadpan delivery an organic part of the narration rather than an overt joke or attempt at humour. Which I guess is another of Barron’s strengths; marbling his stories with so many elements that work with a beautiful synchronicity but never overpower the narrative’s momentum.

For me, the part of any Laird Barron story that sticks in the mind is usually the scare, the moment of alien horror, the big monster scene and the skin-crawl that leads to it. But what stayed with me here was the people and their electric interactions. The horror elements are as chilling as always, but the most memorable parts of Swift to Chase are its moments of human nuance, of bonding or treachery or tension. Dialogue and body language fizz off each other with an amazing energy few writers can equal.

This definitely isn’t to say that there are no moments of sheer awesome weirdness on display here, though. There’s a glorious B-movie ambience to “the worms crawl in,”, a story whose several twists and turns aren’t even the coolest things about it. A reimagining of the mythic Wild Hunt that knocks that last Witcher game’s version on its arse, “Frontier Death Song” is just begging (in my head, anyway) for a blood-soaked film adaptation. “Ardor” goes more traditional Barron, with a noir-flavoured story about the hunt for an obscure old movie star and a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, although its nonlinear structure throws both protagonist and reader around a timeline that never does any favours for the former. “Ears Prick Up” is perhaps the wildest of all, a straight-up pulp sci-fi adventure eloquently narrated by, as the blurb has it, “an atomic-powered cyborg war dog” cutting down enemies with his master in a dark, Warhammer 40,000-esque future.

But what really sets Swift to Chase apart from Barron’s previous work is its structure, the way he experiments with form and style and interconnected narratives on a level we haven’t seen from him before. A shared universe and intersecting characters have certainly been present in Barron’s previous three collections and two novels (and that lightbulb moment when you discover some reference or connective tissue is magical), but aside from the overarching mythos, these have been smaller nods or clues for the more canny reader to pick up on. In Swift to Chase, the connections are impossible to miss – in fact, some stories seem to rely quite heavily on the context built up by earlier works in the collection. Dead characters reappear, minor players take on larger roles, and genealogies are filled in as the book progresses. It’s a masterful structure, and must have required one hell of a flowchart to keep track of. I wonder if Barron plans out this web of complexity or if it just comes together as he writes. Either way, wow.

For a collection that fits together so well, there’s a nice variety of stories on offer here; even those that revolve around certain incidents and characters play around with structure and point of view enough to have a unique flavour.

Every story here, bar the last, was originally published elsewhere, in anthologies or literary magazines. Given that so many of the stories here go hand in hand, mostly revolving in some way around a handful of bloody events and characters, it seems to me much more beneficial to have them all together in the one collection, providing that larger context and filling in the dark puzzle of their circumstances in a way that individual publication just couldn’t achieve. So tightly knit are they that some of this book comes pretty close to looking like a mosaic novel.

Sure, a lot of pieces work well on their lonesome, but these – especially stories like “Ears Prick Up”, “Frontier Death Song”, “Ardor”, “the worms crawl in,”, and “Black Dog” – are either vaguely linked to the collection’s major arc, or are present by way of their Alaskan heritage, a setting which is one of the uniting factors for the collection as a whole.

Personally, nothing’s ever going to beat the sheer terror and awe of my favourite of Barron’s previous collections, Occultation, and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, but that’s not a slight against Swift to Chase by any means. This is a bold and exciting family of work that subverted all my expectations and surprised me at every turn. Barron’s narrative choices are always interesting, and the tricks he pulls off here are clever enough to be innovative, but never feel like empty illusions engineered for nothing but their shock value. Honestly, I’m such a fan of this guy’s work that when he releases a new book, everything else on my to-read list has to wait it out as I devour his scrumptious prose, and then find myself hungry and pining for more once it’s over. That said, my love for all things Barron isn’t a blind love, but one built on the talent and hard work that shines through in his writing, and, at risk of sounding like a cheap salesman on a late night TV commercial, it’s a love you too can nurture and enjoy for five easy monthly payments of sanity, and maybe your soul, and—

Okay, I’ll stop. Just go read Swift to Chase. Or anything else by Barron. Please. Do it. I’ll love you if you do, but I’ll know if you don’t.

They Don’t Come Home Anymore – T.E. Grau (Review)

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T.E. Grau has already carved himself a dark little niche in the busy hive of contemporary horror and weird fiction with only a debut collection to his name. I reviewed that collection about a month ago (you can read it here), and it’s a knockout, with a wonderful blend of Lovecraftian homage, as well some really original and harrowing tales.

So it’s cause for much excited wailing and gnashing of teeth when a new piece of Grau-crafted fiction is headed our way. This is Horror, an excellent publisher of short works in the genre – as well as being home to an awesome podcast, interviews and reviews – has produced Grau’s latest novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore. The quality on show here is apparent from that eye-catching cover, designed by the author’s wife, Ives Hovanessian, and with artwork by the ridiculously talented Candice Tripp.

The story itself focuses on Hettie, a quiet, odd adolescent girl stranded on the social outskirts, and the ramifications of her friendship with the most popular girl at school, Avery Valancourt.

Other than that, I won’t get too much into plot details because I think it’s best to experience the story without much of an idea of where it’s headed, but this is a wonderful novella about death and obsession and the more frightening and fallible crannies of the human condition. It delves into some really interesting psychological areas, but the story also feels like a study in the decay of the flesh, of all things material, all things human. Grau states at one point that “Death always makes the best stories”, and it’s certainly true in this case.

Grau holds back on key details, teasing out the mystery like the deftest of storytellers. This really feels like a story, too. A story being told, that is, like you’re in the room with the teller even as you lean forward into their tale and forget the real world for a moment. It’s the ease of Grau’s prose that largely accounts for this, making you look past, as the best stories do, its construction. Although there is a moment about halfway through when an apparent coincidence seems like a bit of a leap, it’s soon corralled into a more logical narrative device that re-submerges itself into the story’s flow.

Grau’s story-by-the-fire tone seems to give the novella the texture of a Stephen King, as well as an almost Gaiman-esque charm and whimsy underscored with darkness; a darkness that spreads as the narrative progresses, shedding the dreamlike tone for something more immediate and raw, but no less surreal. Ultimately though, these are just small nods in what is largely Grau’s creature; since his debut collection he has established a voice distinctly his own.

Part of this voice involves a strength for complex, original characters as well as the carefully crafted interplay between them. Grau highlights the little tragedies of human existence, the rough bits and the imperfections. He brings to light the idea that what we want is often what we never get, and everything else that happens falls somewhere on the spectrum between indifference and mortal danger. The character interactions also consistently engage the reader. Sometimes such scenes are silent and one-sided, heavy with unfulfilled expectation and the subsequent emotional blowback, as with Hettie and her “progressive” parents. Sometimes it’s more of a two-way street, the dialogue loaded with confession and braided together with sharp moments of body language.

In Hettie we have a protagonist full of doubts and quirks but also a ferocity, a drive that the author depicts without drama or preamble. It’s just another part of her, and she just… is. She’s very likable, but there’s also that understated darkness to her – which is maybe why we like her so much.

The young loner is a well-worn trope, and in lesser hands would have become an unwelcome one, but Grau brings Hettie to vibrant, fallible life. There’s a lot in this story, in fact, that could have turned out poorly if it had relied more on the traditional foundations of its characters and supernatural elements, but Grau takes every trope and twists it from tired cliché into something magical and new. Or not new, necessarily, but recalibrated. Honest and without frills. He strips everything down to the basics, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness as the words unfold on the page.

And what delightful words they are. His prose is, in a technical sense, as un-accessorised as his narrative, but he manages to give his writing an icebergian sense of depth. Grau peppers his scenes with bright little observations, teasing out the most interesting details of the mundane. Like so many lines in They Don’t Come Home Anymore, this description of a large, manicured lawn evokes both some excellent imagery, and pulls everything back to the often unpleasant intent of human beings: “A green so vibrant it hurt the eyes. No trees to dampen the sun or cast shadows. No flowers. This was a statement to space, and the ownership of it.”

I’m always fascinated with the way people speak in fiction, or more precisely the way writers construct dialogue, and I’m especially a stickler for contractions. Grau explores this in a nice little self-aware way, with characters occasionally commenting on it throughout the story. It’s just one more delightful detail, but also adds to the thread of gleeful, dark humour that runs through some scenes.

Teased with the kind of agonising restraint Grau exhibits in most of his work, the supernatural element, when it finally reveals itself, is a refreshing play on – again – a familiar trope. Grau embeds in it a sense of the cosmic that seems to situate the story within the larger thematic arc of his writing.

At its core, They Don’t Come Home Anymore comes across as the most twisted and startling and tender of love stories. It portrays the loneliness, the bitchiness and the tenderness of high school, and the more general complacency or malignance of human beings. It’s other-than-human elements, reimagined from familiar monsters you wouldn’t think had any blood left in them, are fleeting and sharply drawn. There are so many layers to Grau’s excellent novella, but even on a surface level it’s brilliant and, perhaps most importantly, immense fun.

 

 

 

 

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.

Saw the Sublime: John Langan’s The Fisherman (Review)

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John Langan is a major player in the weird fiction renaissance that bloomed over a decade ago and is only getting stronger. He’s previously released two collections and one novel. Of this work, I’ve only yet read – I want to use another word here that really encapsulates the experience, like injected or devoured or rubbed all over my naked body like goose fat, but you might get the wrong idea – the most recent collection, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. On top of that excellent riff on the “and other stories” addendum, it’s a quietly mind-blowing collection that treads startling new ground with some familiar monsters, and brings us some entirely new ones as well.

So on the strength of this already impressive body of work, news of Langan releasing a new, novel-length piece of cosmic horror through the always reliable Word Horde Press, was met by me with an eager pre-order. That book is The Fisherman, and the short version of this review is: it’s amazing, go buy it immediately, here’s a link.

And the long version? I’ll try not to give too much away here plot-wise, because the fewer details you know going into this, the better the experience. Just some broad, impressionistic strokes.

Langan is a marvellous storyteller in the most literal sense; The Fisherman is structured like a beautiful set of Russian nesting dolls, stories within stories within stories. The framing device, set in the present and narrated by widower and latent fisherman Abe, bookends the meaty “Der Fischer: A Tale of Terror,” which takes us back before the First World War. Abe’s sections are much more than bookends, though. Every element here is so carefully constructed and feels like a tangible part of the world.

There’s this great interplay in the novel between the sting of the beautifully executed horror, the vibrant setting, and the honest, at times heartbreaking human element, all of which are caught in the story’s current.

The Fisherman is set in upstate New York – a place whose name alone, for me anyway, conjures images of autumnal wilderness and sleepy towns (sleepy hollows, even, eh?). I’ve never been to upstate New York but in my head there’s this clear juxtaposition between vibrancy and decay; a place where humanity is a hopeful footnote or semicolon and the rest is just nature, along with perhaps a sliver or more of… something else.

The characters that inhabit this place are just as tangible. There’s a sense of familiarity about them, even the minor players. Langan digs his fingers into the grime of humanity, crafting their guilt and grief and fallibility with the care of a master.

Langan’s prose has a soothing quality to it, a cosy story-time warmth like a crackling open fire on a cold day. He writes in long, languid paragraphs that aren’t in any hurry, but there’s never a sense that he’s padding anything out or taking too long to get to the point. Every sentence belongs where he places it. The pacing is precise, and an absolute pleasure to keep up with.

So the prose is comforting, sure, but that doesn’t make it soft. When the horror swivels its gaze toward us, what do we do? We freeze, but we can’t look away.

I felt, for most of the book, that I was blind to the next step, unaware of what might come next and eager as anything to find out. This was especially true of the story’s final third, which, without spoiling things, bit me with many teeth. Some cosmic horror novels can be a slow burn followed by a brief glimpse of whatever awful truth the author is peddling, which, to be clear, I thoroughly enjoy. The understated approach can be extremely effective. The Fisherman, however, does not fall into this category. Both stories here throw the curtains wide in their respective climaxes, and the view is not only beautiful, violent and exhilarating, but bright. I had a real sense of the scenery while reading this. The only way I can think to describe it is that everything feels so well-lit. There’s a grand scale at work here, an almost operatic feel to proceedings. Langan has created a blend of fairy tale and cosmic horror that feels truly sublime; a unique portrayal of the magical vastness of things and our flickering place on the edge of it all.

We’re not bogged down in needless exposition, though; there’s still a nice level of ambiguity and the unknown here. We see a lot of this incredible universe Langan has crafted (and which makes references to his previous short story, “Mother of Stone”), but said universe is a huge one and the spectacle on offer here amounts to a tantalising glimpse.

I couldn’t find a thing wrong with The Fisherman. It’s the kind of book you want to get right back into the moment you finish the last line (which, as much as I love something, is not a sentiment I often have). There’s so much detail here, so much careful world- and character-building in Langan’s work that you could find something new in it every time you revisited it. I’d go as far as to call it a masterpiece, and definitely one of the best works of cosmic horror, or any horror, or, hell, any fiction, I’ve read in the past however many years I’ve been alive. That probably sounds gratuitous, but you only think that because you haven’t read it.

At one point, Abe ponders the question, “Can a story haunt you? Possess you?” This one did. It’s been a week or so since I finished it, but I can still feel its barbs under my skin, the sharp grain of its legacy rubbing between eyelid and eyeball, lingering obstinately in my peripherals.

Swords v. Cthulhu (Review)

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I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a salivating fan of Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer, two writers whose work consistently sets high standards for weird fiction. Both incorporate humour, action, terror and suspense into their work in the most wonderful and original ways. Their characters are so real and honest, burdened with fallibility, and the worlds they build thrive inside you long after you’ve scraped every last delicious word from whatever work of theirs you’ve consumed.

A kind of pleasant indigestion, maybe?

But I digress.

The short version of my praise-singing is this: the fact that I’d enjoy a Lovecraft-themed anthology edited by both of these genius writers is an absolute no-brainer. That anthology is Swords v Cthulhu, which the cover’s tagline describes as “swift bladed action in the horrific world of H.P. Lovecraft.” The parameters this criteria sets are quite broad, and have bred an incredible variety of work, from more sombre, gritty historical pieces to the soaring pulp that leans towards the sword and sorcery subgenre.

I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy of the book, which comes out today from Stone Skin Press, and which you can and should and will buy it from this link right here.

This is the kind of collection that makes you lie to yourself as you promise to read just one more story, just one more before you surrender to a nightmare-riddled sleep, but you’re not to be trusted and so the promises keep falling and breaking until dawn bullies the night away and reveals you, eyes dry and heart stammering and this beautiful big volume of short story-shaped terrors clutched in your trembling hands.

But gratuitous metaphors aside, this is a superb anthology that mates pulp madness with a seriously sharp sense of character and world-building and blind, sweat-soaked terror, giving us a unique creature far removed from the herd of pallid pastiche that can be a danger for any anthology with Cthulhu (or other related Mythos terms) in its title.

So, the stories themselves. It’s a hefty body of work, and I won’t talk about all twenty-two of the entries collected here, or you’ll be reading forever. They’re all great, really, and I didn’t find a single note out of tune among them. Here, then, are those stories that really stood out for me, that left a bloody, slimy impact and burrowed into my head to lay their vile eggs.

John Langan never disappoints, and his “The Savage Angela in: The Beast in the Tunnels” cuts this anthology’s ribbon with originality and flare. His mature, butter-smooth prose works well with the more swashbuckling theme here, and is juxtaposed beautifully with the characters’ crisp dialogue. Langan’s story is veined with melancholy, something he excels at in all his work, and which adds a delightful flavour to the narrative’s already complex palate. His monsters, too, are always a surprise and a pleasure, and Angela’s primary foe is no exception; a decidedly un-Lovecraftian beast that nicely offsets the story’s other more cosmic elements.

Michael Cisco’s entry, “Non Omnis Moriar (Not All of Me Will Die),” is actually a sequel to Lovecraft’s own short work, “The Very Old Folk.” The latter takes the rather clunky form of a letter recounting a dream of a Roman legion encountering the usual malignant Lovecraftian force and coming out on the losing side. The meat of the story is rather good though, giving the reader a setting and time period that’s a nice departure from H.P.’s usual fair.

Cisco abandons Lovecraft’s modern-day framing device and instead throws us right into the ancient Roman world. This is an excellent choice, and gives the narrative a sense of gritty immediacy that Lovecraft’s original lacked. We follow a small group of men sent into the mountains to discover what they can about the previous expedition’s killers, “those nameless, monstrous gods of the mountain people.” The character interactions here are superb and tightly drawn, as is every moment of the narrative. It reminded me a little of Neil Marshall’s chase film Centurion, with extra helpings of horror and weirdness. I really felt my sanity crumbling along with the characters’ as they descend into a wilderness of horrors.

This piece also contains one of its genre’s more unsettling dwarves, trumping Donald Sutherland’s tormentor in Don’t Look Now and closely rivalling Laird Barron’s skin-crawling Rumpelstiltskin from his novel, The Croning. Some of the stories in this anthology are much more colourful and frivolous, erring on the side of adventure, but Cisco’s is one of the most disturbing entries, inflicting a real sense of madness onto the reader with its monsters and shifting reality. There’s a terror here you can really taste. I’m not as familiar with Cisco’s much-lauded work as I should be, but if this is any indication of his output, I’d better get onto it ASAP.

“The Lady of Shallot” by Carrie Vaughn is a short, sharp morsel, cleverly deconstructing fairy tale tropes and throwing in some tentacles for good measure. There’s also a cutting sense of humour underlying the horror and ribaldry that elevates Vaughn’s tale to memorable heights.

A. Scott Glancy’s “Trespassers” is another tale which, like Cisco’s, falls more under the squirming paper-cut sort of horror than it does the gleeful sword-and-sorcery pedigree that makes up the grist of this anthology. Which is not to say that it doesn’t entertain. It does, and enormously so, but more in the way of filling my sleep with nightmares than with dreams of gallivanting sword-fights and faraway lands. A harrowing tale set some time during the nineteenth century about an expedition travelling through an inhospitable mountain range in Asia, “Trespassers” is one of my favourite short stories, period. The prose here is deceptively understated, the language crisp and restrained. The grimy dread is palpable from the start, evoked by the terrain through which the characters travel and the inhuman enemies that stalk them (unpleasant dwarves feature in this story too, this time in much greater and more terrifying numbers). The primal terror Glancy evokes here is genius. The aesthetic is a really vile shamanistic one, which is a nice alternative to the Westernised fair more common to Lovecraftian fiction. Like Cisco’s story, “Trespassers” depicts another descent into certain death and/or worse, a toe-curling uphill slog that culminates in a relentless, breathless swell of carnage and horror.

“The Dan no Uchi Horror,’ by Remy Nakamura is a brutal, bloody tale of familial horror set in feudal Japan, which makes for a rich and brilliantly realised setting. Nakamura pits a strong female samurai against a variety of tentacled monstrosities, all backlit with bright hot language that burns as much as it beguiles.

“St Baboloki’s Hymn for Lost Girls” by L. Lark has a fleeing poetry to it, a mixture of myth and fable evocative of a tale told by firelight, beneath a crowd of bright, listening stars. It’s a story kind of like steam, curling and intangible, but capable of blistering you the longer you hold your hand over it. The imagery here is magical, from a saint made of flies to a towering but surprisingly polite monster. A sense of tragedy pervades Lark’s story, too, and it reminded me a little of that wonderful video game, Shadow of the Colossus.

John Hornor Jacobs’ “The Children of Yig” features another snarling, awesome female protagonist, this one holding her own as the newest member of a Viking raiding party that of course runs into some unexpectedly eldritch forces, which are drawn from a combination of Norse mythology and Lovecraft’s mythos. Jacobs’ language and dialogue is muscular and well-paced; there’s a sense of physicality to this world and its occupants that makes you recoil with every arrow wound and sword-thrust.

In “A Circle That Ever Returneth In,” Orrin Grey crafts an enormously entertaining work that skilfully mates the goofy fun of a choose-your-own-adventure story with monsters and dark magic, and the ultimate bleakness of the Lovecraftian philosophy. As its title suggests, there’s a circularity to the story here too, a sense of the inevitable that seems to tickle at the armpit of metafiction and self-awareness. Grey’s work is always a fresh and original pleasure to indulge in, and this story only adds to his already daunting résumé.

“Red Sails, Dark Moon” by Andrew S. Fuller is a vibrant, outrageous story set in the Dreamlands that bludgeons you with the kitchen sink – in the nicest possible way. It starts out big and bright and weird, and continues that way for most of the word count. The author dances across the years of the protagonist’s life with evocative and well-paced scenes. I know I probably should have, but I wasn’t expecting the climax; it was an emotional sucker-punch and a fantastic payoff. I think the last few lines might have been chopped, but it still works well as it is.

“Without Within” by Jonathan L. Howard is an excellent study in claustrophobia and paranoia, and ends with a nice little “WTF” twist that kept me thinking about it long after it was over.

Jason Heller’s “Daughter of the Drifting” opens with powerful, gag-inducing prose that never lets up, splattering the reader with a story of post-apocalyptic insanity and utter cosmic weirdness. Swords play a much larger role in Heller’s narrative than expected, and there’s a fantastic line where the narrator extrapolates on this: “Like lovers, blades were neutral, utilitarian, to be wielded however one’s will might bend them. They could be friends or foes, stolen or won, relations or strangers.” There’s a kind of utilitarian quality to the protagonist, too. Definitely one of the most original – and wonderfully textural – stories I’ve read, in this anthology or anywhere else.

“Of All Possible Worlds” by Eneasz Brodski is a tale of visceral gladiatorial combat in the Roman arena that quickly turns to hallucinatory madness and confusion. Just as the protagonist walks through the world as if in a dream, so the story feels like a waking haze. Dreams ooze into reality and back again with sickening ease. At one point the narrator proclaims that “every nerve had been frayed down to its raw, bleeding quick,” and I certainly felt that way, vicariously experiencing the horror myself. There’s a pleasing kind of bloody circularity to the story that gives it that little bit of extra weight, too. Also, add another point in the “malignant dwarves” column.

We finish off with Caleb Wilson’s hilarious and horrific “Bow Down Before the Snail King!”, and what a fantastic end to a fantastic anthology, in all senses of the word. Wilson fully embraces the sword and sorcery style of fantasy with his story of a treasure hunt that turns, as we expect from the start, to treachery and, for some, death. The heroes encounter a monster that would “crush the world just to satisfy the itch of curiosity.” It’s a vibrant story full of dark humour, madness and monsters, and an exploration of the monstrous in all it’s forms.

It’s also one that I found myself quoting every few lines, relishing Wilson’s clever and delicious prose, the poetry of his word play. The heroes’ realisation, for example, that “there was never any treasure to be found in the hall. No kind of treasure, except that coveted by a glacial alien mind. Fear, flesh, souls; all three, churned into a piquant slurry.” Or when the protagonist feels like “she was tracking something in a bad dream it would have been wiser to wake from.”

Alas, I had to wake from this particular dream, bristling with blades and unspeakable appendages, but what a varied and unique dream it was. There’s as much diversity of race, gender and sexuality here as there is of setting, time period and tone. Every entry in this anthology is as varied as the next, but what they all have in common is a kind of magical quality, a depth and a colour that makes every single piece of work here a necessity. Not just for the collection, but for the reader to consume.

The truth is, there are a lot of Lovecraft-inspired anthologies oozing out of the woodwork every year, and it’s just a matter of statistics that not all of them are going to be as original or scary or fun as they could be. Some of them, though, exceed all expectations, and Swords v Cthulhu is one of them. Bullington and Tanzer have done a wonderful job compiling these stories, and I cannot recommend it enough. Buy this book for the credibility of its editors, and love it for the exquisite writers and works they’ve so lovingly filled it with.