Tag Archives: surreal

Quick Takes: Norman Prentiss’ The Fleshless Man and Michael McBride’s F9

Today we’re taking a peek at two novellas from the Delirium/DarkFuse collective. First up is Norman Prentiss’ The Fleshless Man (which, serendipitously enough, is actually dedicated to our other author, Michael McBride).  Prentiss has previously published two well-received novellas through Cemetery Dance Publications, and seems comfortable working at this length.

fleshless_manThis particular novella concerns two adult sons: Glen, who’s stayed home and spent his life caring for his mother, and Curtis who long ago moved far away to California, and rarely visited since… but has now returned to the nest to visit his dying mother. The brothers’ reunion is somewhat awkward, with old wounds easily reopened. In particular, Curtis’ penchant for making fun of Glen’s obesity during their teen years is still a sore point, even though Glen has dropped the weight and seems to have replaced his fixation on food with an obsession on exercise. Curtis’ history of strained relationships doesn’t end with his brother, although his long-uneasy association with his mother seems surprisingly improved, even if he doesn’t trust it will last.  In the following passage he muses on past conversations with dear old mom, centering on his wife, Lauren:

She needed prompting. You deserve better, he could say for her. Someone prettier, more intelligent. How easy it would be for his mother to slip back into these earlier pronouncements—ones that pretended to flatter her son, puff him up with importance, when they really served only to wound Lauren. The frail, sweet version of his mother couldn’t last. If he stayed here and kept talking with her, the illusion would inevitably crumble. It would be best to end things now.

Against this backdrop (with an eccentric nurse-caregiver thrown in for good measure), Prentiss creates an at-times surreal tale of a house that’s haunted by memories, guilt, and perhaps more.

The eponymous character is a strange creature of gristle and bone who may be an embodiment of all the bad feelings present in the house or may just be a figment of imagination:

Behind her, the Fleshless Man stands tall and more horrible than Curtis could have imagined. The creature is a skeleton coated in dried muscle. Polyps hang all over him like gray drippings off a cheap hamburger patty. His yellowed fingernails curl in long impossible spirals, scraping against the walls as he tries to maintain balance. The creature’s legs skitter awkwardly, like legs pulled off a spider, each movement near death yet twitching with the full energy of life.

The Fleshless Man is somewhat leisurely paced but effectively atmospheric and likely to linger in your mind well after you’ve read the last word.

* * *

F9Moving on to F9… McBride’s latest revolves around a brain function test being conducted by neurologist Ellis Harding on convicted mass murderer Niall Davenport, aka Patient F0, who in 1968 killed nine people in a senseless outburst of violence. Harding has received hard-won permission to perform his tests — using medical imaging to track blood flow and electrical impulses in conjunction with conscious and unconscious thought — on the now-comatose Davenport in order to try and prove a theory of his.

Coined “Mile High Syndrome,” the theory seeks to explain the increased incidence of mass murder in Colorado, which is three times higher than any other state since that 1968 killing kicked off the trend, with all of those Colorado murders occurring in a relatively small area along the slope of the Rockies, known as the Front Range.

Harding’s interest in the topic stems from his own personal experience as a survivor of one of those mass murders — committed in Boulder in 1994 — and the stories of “patients” F1 through F8  are interspersed with updates on Harding’s experiment.

The following passage describes the attack Harding survived in 1994:

She slid up against the splintered railing. Her blood expanded around her, reflecting the overhead lights. She reached for one of the railings, as though to pull herself up or simply to drag herself over. I don’t know what thoughts went through her head before the second shot did.

Besides being a nice turn of phrase, there’s a blast of raw emotion in that final sentence, and that’s something that F9 could use some more of.  Too much of the story is narrated in a manner that feels cold, clinical, and detached.  I suspect that’s actually purposeful on McBride’s part, because it does fit the personality of Harding, but I’m not sure it was a wise decision overall. A little more emotion and a little less intellect would have benefitted the story and lent it more impact. It’s also worth noting that I saw the ending coming before it arrived, but hopefully it will catch you off-guard.  🙂

As is the case with The Fleshless Man, F9 is not the best work I’ve seen from the book’s author, but it’s nonetheless worthy of your time and money.

 

On Terror Firma with James Cooper’s Terra Damnata

When I reviewed James Cooper’s The Beautiful Red several months ago, I briefly lamented the fact that the stories contained in that collection were for the most part surreal in nature, while I preferred Cooper’s work that features more of a realistic bent.  I’m happy to say that Cooper’s recent novella Terra Damnata, from PS Publishing, is gritty and lucid, and it’s thus perhaps no surprise that I found it to be a gripping read.

At its heart, Terra Damnata is a tale of anguish, loss, and regret, as personified by two very different couples who’ve both endured the tragic deaths of adult children.  It’s been less than a week since Arthur and Beth Woodbury lost their daughter Cherise to a drunk driver, but before they’ve even begun to come to terms with that event, they’re forced to deal with a bizarre intrusion upon their grief by millionaire Rupert Appleton, whose son Daniel was likewise killed by a drunken driver, several months previously. Since Daniel’s death, Rupert’s wife Hester has become obsessed with the idea that the unmarried Daniel will be spending eternity alone.

“She’d stumbled upon an old Chinese tradition where relatives of the dead would shower the grave with archaic objects to supposedly make the deceased’s afterlife more pleasant. When she started to leave some of Daniel’s childhood toys inside the vault, Appleton had sat in his darkened conservatory and cried.

Hester had also unearthed another ancient tradition, this one slightly more bizarre. Apparently some Chinese families of dead bachelors would buy corpses of unmarried women and bury them with their sons in posthumous wedding ceremonies, thus ensuring both spirits a smooth passage into whatever awaited them on the other side. Hester had become so enchanted by this idea that it seemed to Appleton a more effective outlet for the woman’s grief than five years of therapy. He’d agreed to buy Daniel a bride, someone his son might have connected with had both parties still been alive, if for no other reason than to satisfy his wife’s flailing spiritual belief. Yes, it was desperate; yes, it was obscene, but he was doing it, Appleton said, simply because he could.”

Arthur and Beth are, of course, initially inclined to rebuff Rupert’s overtures, but there are complicating factors that force them to reconsider. Arthur has a gambling addiction that has not only burned through the family’s savings but also led him to build up a substantial debt to casino owner Norman Foley who, not surprisingly, is an evil man who’s prepared to bring real harm to Arthur and his wife if the debt is not repaid. Faced with the loss of everything they have, and the real threat of physical violence, the Woodburys are forced to accept Rupert’s offer.

In possession of a check that will pay off his debt and leave him with plenty left over, Arthur’s first move is to return to the casino tables, a reaction sure to make most readers cringe in anticipation of a character intent on self-destruction. But Arthur is not a simple character, and all is not as it seems. Throughout, Cooper’s prose is rich yet precise, creating lasting images such as the one conjured by this description of Arthur’s return to Foley’s casino:

“There was a rich, hedonistic cloud of cigar smoke circling the room and six roulette tables spaced evenly along the posterior wall. Behind each table was a meticulously-dressed croupier, each one bearing the solemn demeanour of a pall bearer, understanding implicitly that each client was engaged in a personal duel, not against the House, but against chance itself and whatever demons their desire had conjured up.”

After Arthur’s re-entry into the world of gambling, he finds that he’s not finished with experiencing tragedy, either. To say much more would be to risk a spoiler, but suffice to say that Norman Foley has a central role in the proceedings. Terra Damnata is seemingly the perfect length, and the perfect style, for Cooper to show his stuff, and he certainly delivers the goods.

Going down the rabbit hole with Tim Waggoner’s The Men Upstairs

Tim Waggoner has always created his own special brand of reality-bending horror fiction, and I’ve been a fan ever since reading his first collection, the appropriately-titled All Too Surreal, in 2002. I’ve kept up with most of his output since then, with the exception of his fantasy titles, which aren’t really my cup of tea. Waggoner’s latest symphony of the surreal is the novella The Men Upstairs, from Delirium Books, and on the author’s personal scale of the bizarre, this one definitely leans hard to the outre side.

The story opens with a pitch-perfect two-page scene in which the protagonist, Richard, encounters a girl while on his way out of a movie theater:

She’s sitting on the floor, her back against the wall, tears running down her face, legs drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around them.

Her gaze softens then, and she returns my smile.
That’s how it begins.

Richard is recently divorced and relatively hapless when it comes to the opposite sex, but he somehow manages to convince the girl, Liana: 1) that he’s harmless; 2) to come back to his apartment; and 3) to stay with him (although he sleeps on the couch).

As Richard and Liana carefully and gradually dance their way towards a relationship of some sort, the scenes involving them are sublimely rendered, capturing the awkward tenderness between the pair. But rest assured that when they, er, culminate their relationship, the sex is…disturbing, to say the least. And when three strange men, who seem to know Liana, move into the apartment upstairs, things get really weird.

Via some masterful descriptions of a variety of unpleasant smells, Waggoner crafts a story that is almost sensurround in detail. The following descriptions makes one thankful that The Men Upstairs does not come in a scratch-and-sniff limited edition:

“She exudes a faint scent that reminds me of the Bradford Pear, a pretty-to-look-at tree whose white flowers smell like a mix of dried semen, unclean vagina, and rotting shrimp.”

“I catch a whiff of something that smells like sulfur laced with dirty diapers.”

“It’s a musty, metallic smell, one I can’t immediately place, but then it hits me. It’s like the stink of a zoo’s reptile house.”

“An unpleasant odor lingers in the air after him, an acrid tang of hot metal, like overheating electronics.”

Nasal nightmares aside, the real question here is whether Waggoner can sustain the initial strong sense of mystery and surreality over the course of the story. Thankfully, the answer is yes.

On one level, Waggoner’s tale is a great riff on a situation that most of us have had to endure — rude, inconsiderate neighbors. On another level, it seems to be about the co-dependency that lives at the heart of far too many relationships. Regardless, The Men Upstairsqualifies as classic Waggoner.