Tag Archives: Tartarus Press

A Darkly Promising Debut – Jason Wyckoff’s Black Horse and Others

An author’s path to getting a horror or weird fiction collection published typically involves years of toiling in the small press field and perhaps beyond, building publishing credits, and then compiling a collection of mostly reprints with a few originals sprinkled in. Jason Wyckoff took an entirely different route. His book Black Horse and Others, published by Tartarus Press, is a rare bird indeed — a collection of all never-before-published stories by an author making his first foray into print. Tartarus Press has obviously chosen to take a chance with this new author…and I have to say that it was a well-placed bet.

Black Horse is no one-trick pony, as Wyckoff utilizes a variety of settings and styles throughout the sixteen stories collected here, with most succeeding — although I didn’t particularly care for the handful of tales that were whimsical.  An example of a tale that works well is “Panorama,” wherein agent Vincent goes searching for his missing client, the painter Geoff Schloesser. Arriving at the artist’s country retreat, he finds a stunning panorama painted on the interior of Schloesser’s large circular studio. As Vincent examines the work in increasingly greater detail, he finds that the artist has captured more than just likenesses in his work, and the phrase “getting lost” in a painting takes on an all-too-literal meaning.

“Intermediary” features a refreshingly different setting, as two highly-stressed archeologists, attempting to sneak a prized skeleton out of Ecuador, are surprised and angered when a local intrudes upon their campsite, displaying uncanny knowledge of who they are and what they’re doing, and ultimately setting the two against one other.  An eccentric loner is somewhat mystified to find that he has been willed by his Uncle the eponymous equine in “Black Horse.” He ultimately finds that the horse is a very special one indeed, and that there’s a hidden world out there in the darkness that he’s never realized.

“Raise up the Serpent” focuses on Kentucky social worker, Bradley Thurman, who has been chartered with assisting a teen-aged boy whose family were members of a snake-handling religious sect that was the target of a violent attack by outsiders who opposed their practices.  Thurman himself holds a dim view of the serpent worshippers, but once he meets the boy, his outlook is is enlightened, in a manner of speaking.

An elementary-school teacher gets an unexpected call, informing her of her mother’s death in “A Willow Cat in Meadowlark.” It’s unexpected because her mother is long dead already. The call turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, but the teacher finds herself nonetheless strangely drawn to view the dead woman’s body and dig into her history.  Phantom visions and voices ensue, but the ending here is a happy one.  A recently-deceased corpse is also at the heart of “Hair and Nails,” as a young man engineers the use of his great-grandfather’s body in a occult ritual, the outcome of which is not exactly what the practitioners hoped for.

As its title implies, “Knott’s Letter” is narrated via a letter — specifically a copy of a message found on a laptop, informing two grieving parents of the true story behind their son’s disappearance during a search for evidence of Sasquatch. Effectively utilizing an email as the equivalent of “found footage,” this is a gripping, chilling tale.

Other stories, such as “The Night of His Sister’s Engagement,” “The Mauve Blot,” and “The Bells, Then the Birds” display numerous strong points but are flawed in small but conspicuous ways. And there are a small handful of what I’d call throwaway stories. But overall, Black Horse is a surprising and impossible-to-overlook debut, perhaps even a dark horse contender for best collection of the year.

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.

For what ails you — Frankenstein’s Prescription, by Tim Lees

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a title from Tartarus Press, the UK-based publisher of fine limited editions and winner of three World Fantasy Awards and a Stoker. My reintroduction to the press came in the form of the novel Frankenstein’s Prescription, by Tim Lees.

Set in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, this pitch-perfect period piece chronicles the experiences of Hans Schneider, who when we first meet him is a rather arrogant medical student at Heidelberg University. Forced to abscond after he unintentionally kills another student in a duel, Hans’ forced exile leads him to a post as an assistant at a remote asylum. From the moment he arrives, things seem decidedly strange, and that includes the nature of Hans’ new boss, the enigmatic Dr. Lavenza, who manages to seem both crazed and detached at various times. To further complicate matters, there’s a murderer loose in the woods nearby.

Hans eventually discovers a series of increasingly disturbing facts:

  1. Lavenza is engaged in experiments to reanimate the dead;
  2. Lavenza’s real name is Frankenstein, and he is a descendant of the good Doctor himself, Viktor;
  3. the murderer in the woods is none other than the Frankenstein Monster, both immortal and immoral;
  4. as seen elsewhere, the monster wants a mate, and won’t cease plaguing the Frankenstein family until he gets one.

The tale is enlivened by frequent doses of subtle humor, as here:

“I wondered what I had been a party to; was it surgery or was it torture? In truth, I had often found it hard to tell the two apart.”

But then again, not all the humor used is quite so, er, subtle, as evidenced by the following exchange between Hans and Lavenza, which is joined by their servant Karl, a not-overly-bright former asylum patient.

“‘This is a problem to be solved Hans, not a crime. Not — what did you call it? Not a massacre. More the reverse. Indeed, an anti-massacre.’

‘Like on a chair,’ said Karl.”

Even though there’s a healthy dosage of such humor, comedy is certainly not the prevailing mood — there is plenty of drama and horror to be found in these pages. But what’s unfortunately missing is really any sense of mystery or suspense. Given that most of the info I disclose above is revealed, or otherwise apparent to the reader, early in the story, and given that the monster’s quest for a bride has been explored multiple times before across various media… well, there’s a lot of familiar ground being trod here. For the most part, though, Lees’ evocative writing manages to keep the reader engaged.

It’s worth noting that the author explores at length Lavenza’s role as the creator of the monster — and hence as God in the monster’s eyes — as captured in the monster’s monologue here:

“‘The life was shot into my veins…and then the light inside my skull caught fire, so fiercely I could never shut it out again, and even when I sleep, the colours dance upon my eyes and tease me with a mockery of life; and the sounds I heard still thunder in my ears… I was not born as you are, helpless maggots, squirming through your first few years of life. I was born awake, and I was born full-made. And I remember.’”

Frankenstein’s Prescription is clearly a labor of love by Lees, as it’s hard to see a story such as this appealing to a mass audience in today’s world. His appreciation for the subject shines throughout, making this an appealing read, beautifully packaged by Tartarus Press (as always).