For the last few years, TTA Press has largely focused on publishing their top-notch horror magazine Black Static and their similarly elite science fiction magazine Interzone, but a renewed emphasis on their book line appears to be in the offing. After essentially re-launching the line with Gary McMahon’s The Harm, TTA has now followed up with Mike O’Driscoll’s novella Eyepennies. O’Driscoll, who contributes a regular column for Black Static, writes fiction far too infrequently, with his only prior title being the collection Unbecoming and Other Tales of Horror (Elastic Press, 2006).
As O’Driscoll explains in his Foreword, Eyepennies is a tribute to musician Mark Linkous, who recorded and performed five albums — including a song called “Eyepennies” — under the band name Sparklehorse, before ultimately committing suicide in 2010. Accordingly, the protagonist of O’Driscoll’s story is a musician named Mark, who’s battling depression and, increasingly, glimpses of something dark and deadly.
In the wake of one of those visions, Mark retreats, going on one of his “regular disappearances” that his long-time partner Tess is all-too-accustomed to. His outlook is weary, bleak even, and when he makes the following observation, it’s clear that he’s talking about himself as well:
There are all sorts of truths and lies inside people. Everyone carries their own degree of darkness. It’s just a question of how deep it goes.
Related approximately half in flashback and half in present-day narrative, Eyepennies unfolds gradually, revealing key formative moments from Mark’s past. For example, we soon learn that said history includes a near-death experience, an event that took Mark months to physically recover from. Mentally and emotionally, he is, perhaps not surprisingly, unable to leave the experience behind him, and it has come to dominate his thoughts:
What he does know, what he’s never told anyone, is that when he died, only part of him came back. The greater part is still there, trapped in the darkness. That lost part of himself is all he has left to dread.
Mark has four prior albums to his credit, but when he listens to them now, they sound unfamiliar — alien, even. He hears strange rhythms and unfamiliar voices, all speaking of a past that seems forever out of reach and of regrets that can never be undone. He begins to work in semi-seclusion on his fifth album, convinced that it’s vitally important that he finish, not just for simple economic or commercial reasons, but for far deeper considerations:
“All the things I buried or lost, everything I was ever afraid of, they’re coming back. I have to put them into the songs and make a music stronger than the darkness.”
His quiet desperation is captured in a phone call to Tess, who he continues to avoid, supposedly for reasons of her own safety:
“I’m not the man you fell in love with. He died a long time ago. Only, he didn’t want to be dead and somehow he dreamed himself alive, dreamed that he really had escaped the darkness. But now he’s awake and he’s still dead and if you come to him, the darkness will take you too.”
As should be obvious from the above excerpts, O’Driscoll has expertly captured the voice and tone of his subject, resulting in a tale that’s deeply and darkly immersive. There’s a completely unnecessary scene of animal cruelty that detracts from the novella’s impact, but other than that, Eyepennies is a riveting, albeit gloomy, read.