A while back, I reviewed Ian Rogers’ trio of chapbooks from Burning Effigy Press — Temporary Monsters, Ash Angels, and Black-Eyed Kids — all of which feature wisecracking Private Investigator Felix Renn and are set in an alternate reality where portals exist between our world and a supernatural realm called the Black Lands.
As I said in the review:
It should come as no great surprise that I love horror, and I also happen to love comedy. However, I’m usually not a fan of horror/comedy mash-ups. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I do enjoy horror-comedy when it’s done well, but more often than not I find attempts to combine the two genres fall flat. So when I say that I really enjoyed Ian Rogers’ three darkly humorous Felix Renn novelettes, understand that I’m a tough critic when it comes to these types of tales.
Now Burning Effigy has followed up with a Renn-based collection, the awkwardly-but aptly-titled Supernoirtural Tales, which features the three Ren stories from the chapbooks, plus two other Renn reprints and a new 50,000-word novella. Since I’ve already reviewed the novellas from the three chapbooks, I’m not going to say any more about them, but I do want to comment on the other tales gathered here.
Let’s start with by far the most substantial of them, the new novella “The Brick.” As with the three earlier chapbook tales, the higher word count allows Rogers to really stretch his wings and fully develop his fictional world, and it’s the details of this alternate reality, along with the distinctive voice of Renn, that makes these tales something special. “The Brick” starts with the seed of a simple missing-person case — a teen-aged girl, in this case — and grows into something much more substantial.
The missing girl, Aubrey Wood, turns out to be a runaway, and as Felix undertakes a quest to find her, his friend Jerry Baldwin, a realtor specializing in haunted real estate, contacts Felix out of the blue and lends him the eponymous brick. The brick is special because it comes from the ruins of what many believe to be the deadliest house to ever exist — Rosedale Cottage. And Felix soon finds that Aubrey’s grandmother was once an occupant of Rosedale, an experience that marked her forever, as she alludes to in a letter that she wrote for Aubrey:
I remembered something one of my teachers had said. She was quoting someone, but I can’t remember who it was. She said the eyes are the windows of the soul. That phrase came back to me time and time again that summer. I remembered staring up at that alien moon and thinking, If the eyes really are windows, what happens when they’re open? What happens if you let something inside?
Felix comes to understand that something from Rosedale Cottage pursued Aubrey’s grandmother for years, due to certain abilities she had, and with the grandmother now dead, that same creature is now pursuing Aubrey. Felix sums it up nicely in the following passage:
There were two entities at Rosedale Cottage. One dwelled within the building itself, while the other stalked the grounds on which it stood. One tried to save the people who lived there, while the other stalked and murdered them. Only now, the cottage was gone and the Whyver had left to hunt abroad.
“The Brick” alternates between moments of dread and bits of dark humor, and it does so very adroitly.
The other two works, “My Body” and “The History of the Black Lands,” are much more slight, in terms of length and (somewhat) impact. The former is the first Renn story ever written by Rogers, and it’s a somber tale that possesses none of the wit present in later tales. Nonetheless, it’s well-written, relating Felix’s discovery of a little girl standing alone on a roadside, but goes pretty much just where you’d expect. “The History of the Black Lands” is exactly what it says it is, a faux reference work on the Black Lands, providing some interesting background info on the milieu, but nothing more.
Available as both a trade paperback and ebook, Supernoirtural Tales is a highly entertaining collection, showcasing a character and setting that are decidedly worthy of repeat engagements. If you’ve never encountered Renn through the prior chapbooks, this is the perfect opportunity to get a full dose of Felix, in one convenient package.
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Ian Rogers’ other recent title is the collection Every House is Haunted from Chizine Publications, and after my prior experiences with Rogers & Renn, my expectations for this book were very high…too high, perhaps, as I came away a tad bit disappointed.
I think a major reason for that disappointment is that, as alluded to above, Rogers seems much more comfortable when afforded the opportunity to work at greater lengths. As evidence to support that argument, I present “The Dark and the Young” and “The House on Ashley Avenue,” the two longest tales included here and, not accidentally, two of the best. The former involves a linguistics specialist recruited by a shadowy government agency to help translate a very dark and dangerous book, while the latter (which happens to be a nominee for the 2012 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette) centers on two operatives from a clandestine organization, who visit a very dangerous haunted house — the “architectural equivalent of a great white shark” — after two deaths occur there, in order to try and find the source of the evil.
Overall, the collection gathers 22 stories, seven of which appear here for the first time. When confined to shorter lengths (assumedly, many of the 15 stories that are reprinted here originally appeared in markets with word counts that held Rogers far below the length of the Renn novellas), the author sometimes struggles with developing characters and crafting satisfying finales. What I’m trying to impart via the latter comment is that Rogers relies too often on ambiguous or unresolved endings (at least for my tastes, and I generally don’t have issues with ambiguity). Witness “Leaves Brown,” wherein an elderly man, who’s recently reintroduced himself to his daughter’s life after a long absence, seeks to counsel his grandson on their shared ability to see ghosts. It’s a very intriguing premise, but the story just…ends, almost randomly, as if it’s an excerpt from a longer work. Another strong tale lessened by an “open-ended ending” is “The Candle,” a chilling little ditty centering on a man rising from bed to see why it’s taken his wife so long to go check on a candle that may have been left burning, only to find his wife in an altered state, with hints of similar happenings perhaps occurring in nearby houses.
But enough about unsatisfying finales… Let’s switch focus back to the best tales collected here, starting with “The Rifts Between Us,” a fascinating work with science fictional underpinnings, as summarized perfectly by the following excerpt:
“We’re exploring the borderlands. We found a frequency that the brain gives off before it dies. We can ride that signal into the rifts, the veritable waiting room of death, and explore it.”
But the scientific expeditions to the land of the nearly dead are trespasses into a realm where man was not meant to be, as they soon find out.
Quick summaries of other standouts here: Like the aforementioned “The Dark and the Young,” “A Night in the Library with the Gods” revolves around a dangerous book — in the case, a tome that can overwhelm the thoughts of its readers. And like the aforementioned “The House on Ashley Avenue,” “Cabin D” also has an operative from a shadowy government agency seeking to neutralize a dangerous dwelling, although in this case a major sacrifice may be necessary to achieve the goal. “The Nanny” also focuses on interlopers in a haunted house, although in this case it’s a real estate agent and a ghost-hunter conducting the investigation.
In “Relaxed Best,” a private investigator follows a wayward husband into a private club that at first evokes humor — “It looks like a Philip Marlowe novel exploded in here, he thought” — but then takes a dark turn. “The Inheritor” is a story that I originally purchased for Cemetery Dance while I was editing the magazine, and this tale of a son whose inheritance from his father includes an unpleasant task that dear ol’ dad just couldn’t bring himself to do remains just as creepy now as when initially published.
While there are some very good stories gathered here, there’s also more inconsistency than I’d like to see, with the lesser works clumped almost exclusively amongst the shortest stories, as mentioned earlier. Lest I sound too harsh, I should note that, if I’d come to this collection sans expectations, my reaction would likely be pretty darned positive. Even with my high expectations, I have to say that Every House is Haunted is largely a success, even if a few rooms could use remodeling.