Aickman’s Heir – Simon Strantzas’ Nightingale Songs

In his engaging Introduction to Simon StrantzasNightingale Songs, John Langan strategically invokes the names of both Ramsey Campbell and Robert Aickman, the former anecdotally because both Langan and Strantzas are big fans of Campbell, and the latter for comparison to Strantzas. If you’ve read and admired the work of either of those two authors, you’re liable to find quite a bit to your liking in this 12-story collection (four original) published by Dark Regions Press.

The opening story, “Out of Touch,” is a perfect example of what’s on offer here, as a man recollects a summer from his youth, when he and his ailing, infirm friend Mitch investigate a seemingly long-abandoned house that is strangely an  object of obsession for Mitch.  When the two boys visit the house,  there are dire consequences , but it’s unlikely that the specific nature of those consequences are what you expect. Looking back from his adult vantagepoint, the protagonist muses:

“Maybe the answer to everyone’s problems was staring us right in the face, and though we were all too blind to see it, I was the only one foolish enough to ruin it. Or, perhaps there are some things that will come for you no matter what you do, no matter where you hide. Some things are inevitable, and you can only hide from them for so long. Eventually they’ll find you.”

In “The Deafening Sound of Slumber,” the employees of a sleep-disorder clinic are kept in the dark about the true nature of the experiments being conducted by the clinic’s reclusive Director, and as a result allow two particular patients to come in contact with one another, with disastrous results, as alluded to here: “Fisher screamed, afraid to turn and face what was coming for him. It sounded of storms and mistakes and regrets.”

“Tend Your Own Garden” is rich in symbolism, focusing on a divorced man who returns to his former house, where his ex-wife lives with her new mate, in search of some items left behind in the basement, only to find that the layout of his former abode, in fact its very foundations, have shifted on him. “When Sorrows Come” involves a couple that’s still together, but in a clearly doomed relationship, on a vacation that’s not going well, when one of the pair chooses to take the path less traveled through the woods. The enigmatic “Mr. Kneale,” meanwhile, effectively utilizes the backdrop of horror conventions and fandom in relating the story of an author who abandons his literary approach and sells out, but at a rather stiff price.

Aickman preferred the term “strange stories” to describe his tales, and that’s an apt descriptor for Strantzas’ work as well, even if sometimes the point is somewhat elusive. A prime example is the impenetrable “Her Father’s Daughter,” in which a student on her way home from school to visit her father experiences car problems and calls upon the nearby home of two eccentric old sisters. Ambiguity follows, and I’m at a loss to say what else.

More often than not, though, even Strantzas’ overly-opaque efforts, like the somewhat meandering “An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky,” can offer up resonant passage of mystery and beauty such as this:

“I carry that image of her in my head still, and sometimes it amazes me it’s there at all when so many other things I wish I could recall have been forgotten. Memories are strange and elusive, yet they can return at a moment’s notice and from out of nowhere, appearing so vividly it feels as though time has not passed. But time has passed, and those memories that return most often have crashed just off the shore of my life, and the dark sweep of destruction continues to move toward me over the churning water’s surface.”

Best absorbed in small, potent doses, Nightingale Songs is a strong collection that shows Strantzas growing into the role of prime purveyor of strange stories for his generation.

Nobody bats .1000 — Michael McBride’s Blindspot and Tim Curran’s The Underdwelling

In previous reviews, I’ve frequently sung the praises of both Michael McBride and Tim Curran, two prolific authors who’ve carved out deservedly strong reputations in the horror specialty press world — witness my reviews of McBride’s Quiet, Keeps to Himself, and Curran’s The Spawning and Bone Marrow Stew.

But a potential danger of being so prolific is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the increased likelihood that quality may suffer due to to quantity… and I’m afraid I have to say that may be the case, at least to some degree, with both of their new novellas: McBride’s Blindspot and Curran’s The Underdwelling.

Published by Dark Regions Press, Blindspot is the tale of biomedical research scientist Dr. Parker Ramsey, who under the sponsorship of the U.S. Army has been developing a device to capture from the optic nerves of the recently-deceased the last image they saw before dying. Shortly after the story opens, Ramsey is spirited away to a remote area of North Korea, the apparent site of a recent nuclear accident. Escorted by a small group of elite special forces soldiers, Ramsey is there to field-test his prototype, which has to date been successfully tested only on laboratory mice.

Ramsey is kept in the dark about much of the mission, and spends a lot of time during the lengthy trek to the site wondering just why the hell he’s been clandestinely transported halfway around the globe. When the group finally arrives at its destination, there are no shortage of bodies from which to potentially harvest final “images of death,” but the condition of the corpses gives Ramsey pause because… well, suffice to say that the cause of death does not appear to have been from the effects of a nuclear explosion or subsequent radiation exposure.

Things only get stranger once Ramsey is able to test his device on the corpses. He’s thrilled to find that the device works just as expected, but the results unfortunately don’t shed any light on exactly what happened to the dead, due to a particular optical effect, cited in the book’s title:

“‘It’s the blindspot,’ Ramsey said… ‘Every eye has one. There are no photoreceptor cells at the point where the optic nerve enters the retina. No rods. No cones. No nothing.’”

On all the victims Ramsey surveys, their blindspot unfortunately blocks a portion of their final image in such a way as to block the view of their cause of death. I’ll refrain from offering any further details so as to avoid spoilers.

Blindspot features McBride’s usual great plotting and pacing, but his characters unfortunately border on stereotype. At least that’s my takeaway when you’ve got a gruff, cigar-chomping General, a group of stoic, macho soldiers, and a brilliant but insecure and somewhat socially awkward scientist. Of course, stereotypes often exist for a reason, and there’s probably more than a grain of truth in some of McBride’s characterizations…but the bottom line is that several of his characters here *do* seem superficial in terms of their traits, and that serves to detract from what is otherwise a captivating tale.

It’s worth noting that when one of the aforementioned characters — the lead soldier, Rockwell — steps out of his stereotype, it’s a jarring departure, as he suddenly launches into a detailed explanation of backstory, using some very unexpected language, such as:

“‘We were, however, able to able to conclusively determine from samples of the nearby soil, air, and water that there were no traces of nuclear byproducts. What we did find were a multitude of toxins, alkalyzing agents, and various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.’”

A more gradual and nuanced reveal of Rockwell’s character would likely have been beneficial.

As a big McBride fan, it’s a little concerning that this is the second consecutive book of his I’ve read (Predatory Instinct, which I read but didn’t review, was the first) where the stories have seemed very “cinematic” — meaning that they’re action-packed, well-paced, and would likely translate well to the big screen, but feature somewhat cliched characters and at times seem formulaic.

Even when operating on less than all cylinders, though,  McBride is still better than an awful lot of other writers out there. This is an entertaining novella, and many readers will likely be very enamored of it, but I think the author has done significantly better.

*  *  *

Turning to Curran, his novella The Underdwelling, published by Delirium Books, features an underground setting, which I’m usually a sucker for, generally strong character development, a taut storyline, and has no really significant flaws, but… I can’t escape the feeling that there’s a large amount of unrealized potential here, as there’s unfortunately little true frisson generated from what should be a chilling scenario.

The story is related from the perspective of Boyd, a recent hire at a the Hobart iron ore mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He’s about to go underground for the first time after a couple months of working up top, but is beset by vague premonitions of something *bad* about to happen. Despite his ill forebodings, Boyd figures he’s a miner at heart, just like his father, and he desperately needs the money, and so he rides the trolley down, into mine that stretches 2500 feet beneath the surface, with a mix of stubbornness and trepidation.

The characters he interacts with are an interesting mix, including Breed, a big man whose partial-American-Indian heritage is apparently reflected in his nickname; Maki, the requisite know-it-all jerk; the seasoned and confident shift boss Corey; and brainy but respectful mining engineer Jurgens. There’s some sharp-edged and realistic repartee between the parties, often involving the acerbic Breed.

Boyd is a quicker study than most of the others, and as a result Jurgens takes the time to explain to him the strangeness of the rock formations they’re seeing.

“See, Boyd, the ore is here, we just have to get through this goddamn limestone first.” He led Boyd over to the wall and knocked on the striated rock there. “This is all limestone laid down during the Permian.”
“Sure,” Boyd said. “Sedimentary rock. Layers of mud and sediment.”

Jurgens nodded. “That’s right. Thing is, it just doesn’t belong here. I mean, from a geologic standpoint, this is the first Permian rock ever found in Michigan. So that’s something, but there’s no goddamn ore in it. See, this part of Michigan is all old, very old Precambrian rock. Anywhere from 500 million to three or four billion years old. And this Permian strata is fairly new, roughly 250 million years old. It just doesn’t belong here.”

Given that this is a horror novella we’re talking about, it’s probably no surprise that the interlopers find that it’s not just the limestone that doesn’t belong there. They stumble upon, and almost into, a 400-foot deep hole that, according to Jurgens, was formed by glacial meltwater, but looks strangely artificial. Exploring the abyss is a must, to determine if it’s a threat to the mine’s overall stability, but Boyd is none too thrilled to be venturing even further into the abyss.

Upon plumbing the depths of the hole, they discover that there’s something alive down there, something that’s been trapped there for a very long time, and is very lonely…and very hungry. There *are* a few tense moments,and the well-drawn characters help to hold the reader’s interest, but as mentioned, the story never becomes truly frightening, and there are a lot of questions left unanswered. As a result I found The Underdwellinga bit underwhelming although, as always, your mileage may vary.

Give me That Old-Time Feeling — Michael Reynier’s Five Degrees of Latitude and Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel

Five Degrees of Latitude, the debut collection from Michael Reynier is, in many ways, a thing of beauty — from the simple but elegantly designed physical book produced by Tartarus Press to the five intricate and highy-polished tales contained within, there is much to admire here.

All of the stories have a European (or British) antiquarian slant and display a predisposition for nested stories and male narrators with male companions, starting with “Le Loup-Garou,” wherein a string of disappearances in a secluded French village are investigated by the esteemed Professor Hortholary, whose deductive powers unravel  the mystery, leading to a dark denouement.  “Sika Tarn” likewise features a remote locale, as two hikers make their way through an overgrown forest to reach a deserted lake, where they find some unexpected abandoned machinery and hear some inexplicable sounds. The tale, which reminded me of Sarban’s work in some indefinable way, features an unexpected and unique supernatural entity.

The British countryside is the setting for “No. 3 Hobbes Lane,” wherein an occasional passenger on a train is intrigued by the sight of one house on a bluff that is seemingly facing the wrong direction, with no windows on the side of the house with the wonderful views. As with most of the stories, there is a strong sense of mystery here, and an (ultimately successful) investigation of the mystery — involving, in this case, tracking down the story of the architect who built the house and the supernatural causation for the way the house is situated.

“The Rumour Mill” is to my mind the weakest story here, although an ingenious idea lies at its heart, concerning some rather unusual experiments on the nature of rumors, the documentation of which is discovered by a Victorian academic rummaging through the papers of his vanished predecessor.

Much stronger is the final story, “The Visions of Lazaro,” which is particularly interesting for the way in which its true setting is effectively masked, with the initial appearance being that of sixteenth century Spain, while later events reveal a second narrative in a very different place — and time.

Nestled in “The Visions of Lazaro” and other stories are countless examples of simple yet elegant writing, replete with keen observations, such as the following:

“Vider sat down and placed his bag carefully on the table between us. He had lost the top joint of his finger in a mining accident; we had all lost something, I suppose.”

In spite of all the preceding praise, I have to offer a caveat — in my reviews, I’m known to frequently offer the qualifier that a particular book “is not for everyone,” and that observation is particularly true here.  The same thing that distinguishes the stories — the leisurely yet effective and stylistic recreation of other places and times — is the same thing that may limits appeal somewhat, as readers more enamored of contemporary milieus and styles may well find this collection to not be their cup of tea.

*  *  *

“A curtain of gnarled skeleton oak and pine hides it from the rest of the world. The hotel is not well-lit, there is no sign, and night comes early here. The main highway bypassed its access road nearly half a century ago. From the air…the hotel appears to follow the jumbled lines of a train wreck, cars thrown out at all angles and yet still attached in sequence.”

Excerpted from the opening paragraph of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel, the preceding is an apt and vivid description of the establishment that lies at the heart, literally and figuratively, of this fine novel from Centipede Press.

The novel’s jacket copy bills the book as “reminiscent of Ray Bradbury  and combining the atmosphere of Edward Gorey with the phantasmagoric richness of setting found in Mervyn Peake.” Personally, I see much more Gorey and Peake than I do Bradbury, with a strong helping of Charlie Grant, to whom Tem dedicates the book. But you can make up your own mind, since I will be quoting Tem extensively in this review.

Deadfall Hotel is ostensibly the story of Richard Carter and his daughter Serena, who are still trying to regain their equilibrium following the relatively recent death of wife and mother Abby, whose ghost has accompanied them to the Hotel.  But the real star here is the Hotel itself, which via Tem’s lush descriptions comes to halting, shambling life:

“Richard wasn’t listening to him. There were other sounds to hear. There was the soft inner breath that drifted through the Deadfall, higher pitched in the halls, dropping lower in the stairs and secret passages. There was the light tapping of guests who never left their rooms, their frenetic thoughts in tune with that breath. There was the distant crying of a white wolf with dying eyes. And there was the nearly inaudible laughter of his wife, his beautiful wife Abby, growing madder with every passing day of her death.”

Richard and Serena’s tale is interspersed with pithy observations from the journal of Jacob Ascher, the prior manager of the Deadfall, who recruited and hired Richard as his replacement, and has stayed on to provide prolonged training for Richard. An example from Jacob’s journal:

“We cannot escape our fears. Ultimately we must deal with them. We are but momentary blips of consciousness on the sea of time — we have but a limited time to do those things we are willing to do, to say those things we are willing to say. Our greatest challenge may be to face the sadness that knowledge entails. I’m afraid it is a test most of us will fail.”

And:

“I never imagined that training a replacement would prove to be so difficult.  I find I have increased respect for what my own predecessors must have gone through.  It is a delicate balance managing a new member of our family — we want him to be able to act independently, and yet we also want him to do what we want.  Prospective managers are selected from a pool of the traumatized, the wounded and damaged. And yet we expect them to be brave…

“When I look at Richard Carter, I see a frozen man, stilled by grief and impossible dilemma.  How can he protect his daughter?  How can he leave his wife behind a second time?  …. Perhaps we expect too much.”

If there’s a complaint to be had with Deadfall Hotel, it’s that, at the end of the day, precious little actually happens.  The book is more a character study — of Richard, Serena, Jacob and, of course, the Hotel — than anything else, and while the events that do occur help to shape the trajectory of Richard and Serena’s lives post-Abby, those events are somewhat few and far between.  The major plot points involve Serena’s adoption of a stray kitten, which turns out to be far more than just a cat; the arrival of a shape-shifting guest who, in the twilight days of his life has lost the fine-grained control he formerly held over his nature; and the annual foray by a large religious-revival group, the head of whom has some rather dire personal problems that he refuses to face.  Each of these makes for an interesting sub-plot, although at least one seems drawn out beyond comfortably-sustainable levels.

The book is rounded out by the novelette “Blood Wolf,” the original, stand-alone version of one section of the novel, and the short story “Skullbees,” also set in the Deadfall universe. All in all, I can heartily recommend an extended stay in the dark and distinctive confines of the Deadfall Hotel.