A review of The Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis

Published by Perfect Edge
Available Here
Review by Tom Breen

In his introduction to the recent New York Review of Books edition of two horror novels by William Sloane, Stephen King writes that the books are “actual works of literature,” in that slightly embarrassed way fans of genre fiction have of explaining themselves to others.

“Actual literature” is code for things like “well-developed characters” and “non-formulaic plots,” and as much as genre fans may bridle at such distinctions, few of them have not experienced the rush of joy that accompanies the discovery of a book that can be safely recommended to one’s non-genre-reading friends. Look – characters! Accomplished prose! Literature!

This is approximately the sensation one feels when reading The Wanderer, Timothy J. Jarvis’ debut novel. A tricky, postmodern work that can function as a collection of short stories as easily as a science fiction novel, and is best received as both at the same time, it’s the sort of weird fiction that you’d give to someone to convert them to weird fiction.

Bracketed by a formidable critical apparatus including foreword, note on the text, afterword, end notes, and two appendices, the bulk of The Wanderer is purportedly a manuscript left behind by the mysteriously vanished British horror writer Simon Peterkin, which may be a final work of fiction or may be something much more terrifying than that.

The Wanderer

The framing device within this framing device is the memoir of an immortal man in the far distant future, but the narrative takes long detours that practically function as standalone tales. The overall effect is something like a modern, weird fiction version of The Decameron or, perhaps more appropriately given the book’s British setting, a horribly inverted Canterbury Tales, with the pilgrims relating experiences that have severed them irrevocably from the possibility of normal life.

One of the distinguishing features of “actual literature” is that it doesn’t rely on its readers to fill in narrative gaps with previously acquired knowledge about genre conventions, and in The Wanderer, Jarvis eschews the familiar tropes of supernatural fiction to craft a series of increasingly bizarre and memorable encounters with the inexplicable.

A (literally) underground society of elderly aficionados of graphic Punch & Judy shows; ordinary Londoners, somehow in the company of medieval knights, chasing dragons on Hampstead Heath; a pedestrian tunnel that leads to a tower containing a gruesome parody of family life; and the terrible secrets of Glasgow’s (quite real) Necropolis are just some of the elements Jarvis deploys in the course of his tale.

Throughout, the book conjures an atmosphere of estrangement: characters in contemporary London have experiences they can’t explain, but which are enough to sever them from the possibility of the kind of normal lives they once lived; the narrator, living far in the future, is isolated not only by his immunity to death, but by a longevity so extreme no one on earth has spoken his native English for millennia. This alienation is at the heart of great weird fiction, from the cosmic horror of Lovecraft to the Freudian torments of Aickman, a revelation that obliterates understanding rather than increasing it. The tree of knowledge is not that of life, as the poet observed, and this is more or less what Jarvis’ characters come to learn. If the purpose of genre fiction is to entertain, this is not genre fiction; it is, as Kafka said stories should be, “an axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Not that The Wanderer is dull. Jarvis can write a fight scene as well as anyone, and his scares are genuinely scary. Even better, a wry humor glints in many places (Peterkin’s career as a mostly obscure horror writer is deftly handled, with story titles like “The Glass Eye of the Stuffed and Mounted Bream that Hangs Over the Mantelpiece in the Old Stainer Place” tossed off casually), and Jarvis has a way with genuinely lovely, beautiful prose, as when one character rides a bus across London Bridge at night, “the lights of waterfront buildings reflected in the river below, gemstones strewn on a jeweller’s blackcloth.”

This is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel, and readers of weird fiction have much cause for celebration at the prospect of a second. In a corner of the literary world where “actual literature” is all too rare, Timothy Jarvis’ The Wanderer is the real thing.

Advertisements

Book Review: In Search Of and Others by Will Ludwigsen

Published by Lethe Press

Available Here

In Search of and Others by Will Ludwigsen is a collection of weird fiction that flirts with the fantastic, using absurdism, gothic settings, ghosts, and meta-narratives to communicate complex themes of family, past, emotional damage, and so much more. What is special about this collection is that it rarely—if ever—dips into maudlin sentimentality. The stories collected here are romantic, yes. But they feel authentic.

Ludwigsen’s voice—whether expressed through the third person, or through the perspective of one of his many compelling narrators—never comes across as saccarine or phony. In the hands of a lesser writer, the plots and conceits of many of these stories would come across as emotionally cheap. Instead, Ludwidsen wields his words to strike at the heart of melancholy, of regret, of wisdom borne from pain—and yes, even of hope.

This is not a horror collection per se. I would categorize it more as weird or fantasy fiction. Elements of the supernatural (or the bizarre) are present in most of his stories, whether implied or explicit. Whether the protagonist is a sentient house, a possibly-deceased (or possibly not-) mental institution doctor, a young boy on a camping trip with Charles Fort, a girl studying dream time, a person stuck in a well forced to witness a bizarre puppet show over and over again, or even you—yes, you—the stories ring with haunting, emotional truth.

In Search of

This is a collection that flirts with romantic ideas, but isn’t afraid to show us the harsh underpinnings of human existence and moral frailty. Some stories are easier to interpret than others, sure, as a few are puzzlingly obtuse and scant on explanation and exposition alike. But reading all of these stories through a literal lens would be a mistake. It’s better to coast on the prose’s dream-like river, with its ebbs and flows of mood, theme, and bizarre (if ultimately relateable) pathos.

Each story should be read in a single sitting—and then left to percolate in the reader’s mind. Drink them in like cups of robust tea, and let the ideas and characters and images seep. If this all sounds a little abstract and a little flightly, well—Ludwidsen’s style is a bit infectious, but rarely pretentious.

In Search of and Others is deep, compelling, and fantastic—in both senses of the word.

Now Seeking Short Story Submissions: Quiet Desert, Lonely War – Short Stories of the Afghanistan Conflict

The always insightful Brian Castner has illustrated an issue with American war literature: a general lack of fiction pertaining to the Afghanistan War.

As an Afghanistan war veteran myself (and a published fiction writer in that regard), I consider this a call to arms. Muzzleland Press does not have the reach or influence of an established big press. But if the big companies won’t take on this mission, then we’ll step up to the plate.

While we tend to focus on genre fiction, we’re going to do something a little different for the anthology after High Strange Horror (releasing in April of 2015). My goal is to produce and publish a veteran-driven and edited short fiction collection about the Afghanistan conflict. Anyone with a connection to the war is welcome to submit, veteran or otherwise. See the requirements and description below, and pass the word.

Quiet Desert, Lonely WarShort Stories of the Afghanistan Conflict

Seeking:

Veterans, translators, civilian contractors, military family members and friends – they all have a story to tell. If the first casualty in war is the truth, the truest way to tell a war story is through fiction. Stories of combat, homecoming, goodbyes, tragedy, comedy—anything related to the U.S.-Afghanistan conflict is welcome in this anthology.

All stories must have a setting, theme, or characters that relate to the Afghanistan War. Authors should have some relationship and connection to the war. Military veterans are especially encouraged to submit.

Stories should be between 1,000 and 6,000 words in length, and can be in any genre (including literary fiction, horror, fantasy, or science fiction).

Deadline: until filled.

Payment: $15 or five contributor’s copies; author’s preference.

Tentative Release: Late 2015

Send an email to: editor@muzzlelandpress.com with the subject line “Submission: Quiet Desert, Lonely War”. Please follow our standard submission guidelines.

Book Review: Black Wings of Cthulhu, volumes I-III, edited by S.T. Joshi

Review by Michael Bryant

S.T. Joshi is the foremost literary scholar on the life and labor of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who is considered by many to be the father of modern horror. In his Black Wings of Cthulhu series, Joshi brings us  stories from many authors, all of which pay tribute to and emulate the thematic achievements of one of the genre’s most significant patriarchs.

If you’re reading this review, you are almost undoubtedly familiar with the early twentieth century writer H.P. Lovecraft and his work, if not directly then at least indirectly (oh yeah, that book from the Bruce Campbell movies!).  For those of you who don’t know his story, allow me to indulge my biographer’s streak.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Boston in 1890 and spent most of his life as a son and resident of Providence, Rhode Island. He demonstrated a voracious literary appetite from an early age, and began publishing his own amateur newsletters as a child. His tastes settled on weird fiction.

Lovecraft’s first professed love affair with literature was with The Arabian Nights which would influence the development of his alter ego, Abdul Al-Hazred.  His biggest overall influence was inarguably Edgar A. Poe, but he also became obsessive over the Sherlock Holmes tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He cites Machen as one of his greatest thematic influences and calls Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” the greatest work of weird fiction of all time. The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers is another clearly influential work, published when Lovecraft was about five years old. However, it is not clear at what point in his life that he read it.

As Lovecraft matured, he devoted himself exclusively to the weird or horror genre. Lovecraft would go on to create such modern horror icons as the nefarious book of the dead known as the Necronomicon, as well as the tentacled god from the stars who lurks beneath the sea–not dead, but dreaming–Cthulhu.

Lovecraft’s stories fused the atmosphere and gothic sensibilities of Poe with the cosmic themes of Blackwood, Chambers, and Machen. He structured his own Mythos in the pantheonic tradition of Lord Dunsany, while pushing horror out of the traditional gothic trappings. His work—and his extensive correspondence with his fans–galvanized a generation of fanboy writers such as Robert Bloch, R. H. Barlow, and Robert E. Howard, who would go on to write some of the most popular weird and horror fiction of the twentieth century. His influence only continues to increase in the modern age, reaching to film (Guillermo Del Toro, John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon),  music (Gwar, Metallica), board and video games (Call of Cthulhu, Arkham Horror), plush toys, and of course, contemporary horror literature.

Joshi’s editorial series Black Wings of Cthulhu showcases some of the best literary short works in the Lovecraft spirit. I say “in spirit” because these stories do not adhere exclusively to the Lovecraft Mythos—that is, they do not all take place within the same world as Lovecraft’s famous gods, monsters, and doomed cosmos.  Although many of the stories do incorporate monsters and characters taken directly from Lovecraft’s stories, others exclude the Mythos entirely and take an original approach to the cosmic horror theme.

Still others put Lovecraft in the story as a central character, subject to the horrors of his own demented fantasies. The series is home to stories by noted horror authors such as Caitlin R. Kiernan, W. H. Pugmire, Laird Barron, and Ramsey Campbell.

Volume I is one of the strongest anthologies I have ever read. I would encourage any horror fan looking to discover new writers to read it for its broad sampling of contributors. Each of the included stories is engaging and imaginative, and I would not consider any of them to be “filler”.

“Pickman’s Other Model” by Caitlin R. Kiernan opens for the collection, giving us a familiar footing in the ghoul-metamorphosis arena. Kiernan writes in a poetic and engaging style, and loves to make the reader squirm at times, although not with blatant gore/sex shock tactics, but through awkward nuance. Kiernan centers in on an element that is present in Lovecraft’s original work in mere suggestion only–sexuality. Kiernan does not, however, adopt such lazy, insulting critical theory as “Cthulhu equals vaginal horror”, but instead integrates the erotic with the cosmic in a sensually alluring yet grotesquely repugnant atmosphere.

“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas features an appearance by Lovecraft’s ghost, or what the narrator perceives as the writer’s ghost, only to find it a luring semblance for a predator with a three-lobed burning eye. “Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge explores the human coping mechanisms for dealing with the unnamable in an apocalyptic setting, providing a fresh take on a supernatural-influenced collapse of civilization in a genre oversaturated with zombies. “Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford plunges the reader into horrible melancholy as we experience the hallucinations of the narrator’s diseased and dying mind, and come to the brutal truth at the center of cosmic horror: life is pointless and the universe is an uncaring void which we are destined to return to as ignorant dust.

I would suggest reading some of Lovecraft’s more popular works, especially the stories that referenced by the authors in this anthology, but one can still enjoy this collection without having read much, if any, of his work.

Black Wings of Cthulhu Volume I – 5/5 Nameless Horrors

Volume II of Black Wings continues with the thematic and literary standards set down in Volume I, although this is definitely the “B” version. Many of the authors from the first volume return alongside some fresh faces. While every story in Volume I left an impression on me, upon revisiting Volume II I had to jog my memory on many of the tales. A couple are below par. That said, there are still some fantastic stories in this volume.

My favorite is “The Skinless Face” by Donald Tyson. An archeological expedition in the Gobi Desert unearths a desecrated idol from a lost civilization. Using computer graphing, the team reconstructs a digital image of the smashed idol’s face. Beholding the face of this forgotten god spells doom for the expedition, and possibly the world. “The Skinless Face” is a fresh, original concept in the tradition of cosmic horror and, as a character-driven story, is the stand out of the collection.

“Bloom” by John Langan is a biological horror piece in which a couple happen upon a genetic abomination that brings about mutations in the doomed protagonists. “The King of Cat Swamp” by Jonathan Thomas features a sorcerer of the Cthulhu Cult who brings about his own distinct form of vengeance on the new inhabitants of his old haunt.  “Appointed” by Chet Williamson features a demon in the semblance of “The King in Yellow” who bargains renewed life and vitality to aging, washed-up inhabitants of celebrity zoos at horror conventions.

Black Wings Volume II – 4.5/5 Insanity-Inducing Stone Idols

In Volume III, we start to see some more “filler” stories. “Hotel Del Lago” by Mollie L. Burleson reads more as a template example of how to write a horror tale in the Lovecraftian style, rather than a real story. It has the classic traveler meets ghosts in a ghost town approach, with the addition of a ghost lake behind the ghost hotel where robed cultists summon a large and mysterious creature from the depths. The protagonist flees the scene in the night and makes it to the next town, where he is told that there is no such place that he describes. He returns the next day, and lo and behold, it’s a vacated ruin with a dried-up lake bed. Nothing original or new, just a classic format with a couple of cultists and tentacles sprinkled in for flavor.

I bought the Kindle Version of these books, and Volume III is put together with far less care than its predecessors, with numerous typographical errors throughout the anthology. It’s also rather sloppy in the layout. I’m not sure if these format problems extend to the print edition or to other e-formats.

In spite of these problems, Volume III is still a must-read in my opinion. “Spiderwebs In the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer follows two companions flying through space and time on the cosmic strands of ethereal webs—or perhaps they’re both suffering from delusional insanity.  “Waller” by Donald Tyson explores parallel realities as our protagonist falls through the planes of existence and meets the Gods who demand our cancerous fruit. “The Megalith Plague” by Don Webb goes for a bit of the “high strange” treatment with a nod to Lovecraft, and “China Holiday” by Peter Cannon exposes the forces behind China’s recent economic explosion and secretive police state.

Black Wings Volume III – 4.5/5 Cancerous Life Seeds

There isn’t much more I can say about these anthologies without spoiling the fun. So treat yourself and pick up the Black Wings of Cthulhu series, grab a stiff drink, turn down the lights, and settle in for some not-so-comforting tales of cosmic horror.

The collections are available through all major online retailers.

Book Review: Turn the Radio Off

Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett

$3.99 e-book; $7.99 paperback from Amazon

Leeds, Massachusetts isn’t a place you want to visit.

You see, things have gone bad. Real bad. A mysterious radio station—WXXT—transmits polka music, distorted church broadcasts, snippets of history, and accounts of unspeakable terror. Just listening to the station—even once or twice, to something as harmless as atonal distortion or a folksy, repetitive sing-along—can have terrible effects on mind, body, and environment.

File0012

Gateways to Abomination takes a lot of risks. While there are subtle narrative threads laced throughout the many stories, transmissions, transcripts, newspaper articles, and poetry-like accounts, the book is neither conventional nor linear. Each piece can be read on its own, but works best in full context. That said, stomaching more than a couple of stories at a time can be difficult. Not because they’re not well-written—because they are—but because of their nightmare-like prose and disturbing content. It’s a lot to absorb.

I’ve been consuming horror movies and literature for most of my life, and this book managed to punch through the walls of my jaded expectations. There is some truly horrific content here: gore, violence against children, body horror, and much more. What’s most disturbing is that these elements are used to facilitate a despairing sense of unavoidable damnation and suffering. This isn’t a horror work where you scream at the characters to make better decisions; if you’re in Leeds, and you’ve heard WXXT, you’re doomed, no matter what you do.

Each glimpse of the unspeakable—men covered in soul-sucking leeches, people turned into goats and vice versa, mysterious men in black hats, secret ceremonies in the woods—builds to something greater. An apocalypse of sorts is underway in New England, and we’ve got a worm’s eye view of the terror to come.

Don’t approach the book thinking of it as a short story collection. Consider it more a panoramic view of terror, of the approaching darkness, of evil in a small community that gradually infects and corrupts everything it touches.

Bartlett’s voice is strong, his scenes unnerving, his characters damnable and relatable. Gateways to Abomination is a happy discovery in the side alleys of independent horror. Readers interested in something that will push their buttons, something that will inspire a contagious sort of fear beyond the reading experience, would do well to pick up a copy of this book and support a truly unique and disturbing take on Satanic horror and weird fiction.

5/5 Dark Rituals