Even after all we’ve learned of mankind’s potential for harm, we still feel a small sense of shock whenever we engage with genre fiction and discover that the writer’s most horrendous creations look uncomfortably familiar to ourselves. British author Ray Cluley’s first collection Probably Monsters seems to promise one thing while delivering something else; the curlicue tentacle weaving from the forbidden drawer on the book’s cover puts one in mind of the eldritch terrors of H. P. Lovecraft, but Cluley is one of the rare writers of dark fiction who seems to operate outside the long shadow of that infamous scribe from Providence and who writes of terrors unsettlingly closer to home.
With very few exceptions, Cluley’s monsters are described in simple terms with a minimum of the florid detail that seems irresistible to horror authors. And, as in the case of many of the book’s contents, sometimes the monsters we came expecting are nowhere to be found at all. In their place are characters whose tenuous grasp on humanity places them in a twilit world where they appear from one angle as our mother or our best friend but with a subtle shifting look more like… something else.
There are usual suspects here to be sure. The collection’s lead-in, “All Change,” is a Valentine’s to the literature that informs Cluley’s aesthetic bent, referencing everything from Bradbury’s eternal October Country to the denizens of Moreau’s island as we join a voracious reader taking his passion to new heights with a mission to eliminate all of the “real” hideous monsters hiding in plain sight. The story reaches a note of quiet poetry in its final passages that will recur again throughout the collection.
Over the course of the next two tales, “I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing” and “The Festering”, the focus shifts from the threat of supernatural takeover to the hardships of living within social and familial constructs built upon foundations of abuse. The reporter observing the poverty and desperation of the Nicaraguan fishing community may be a removed witness to the greater trauma occurring in “I Have Heard…” but he is just as moved by his questionable encounter with the luminous as Ruby is, the teeange girl from “The Festering” who seeks an outlet from dealing with her alcoholic mother by having sex with an older male neighbor and confessing her deepest secrets to the growing mass of protoplasm living in her bedroom drawer.
It’s here that we see Cluley at some of his most refined, elegiac, and moving; even if Ruby’s blobby companion has more screen-time than the briefly-glimpsed mermaids of the earlier story, both creatures act as fitting symbols for the hardened worlds Cluley’s characters populate, especially in the case of “The Festering,” where Ruby’s ordeal of trying to forge her own personality while also dealing with an irresponsible parent will undoubtedly resonate with those who grew up in similar circumstances. As these tales will illustrate along with others—such as with the tragic Charon-as-lover character towing the bloated corpses of suicides from the San Francisco Bay in “Night Fishing”—one must eventually learn to leave the dead behind and give vent to our darkest thoughts lest both of them devour us like the cancer they can become.
Children and young adults serve as the focal point for a number of Cluley’s fiction. “Knock-Knock” is an affecting tale of a sensitive boy literally living in the shadow of his father’s cruelty, here literalized as a menacing shade that haunts the boy’s nights by asking for admittance into his son’s one safe space. As in “The Festering”, Cluley shows adeptness at assuming a convincing adolescent tone as J-J attempts to make sense of the world around him, most poignantly in describing the one-sided struggle of his mother to provide him with as normal and loving an environment as possible. A ghost story without a ghost, as Cluley says in the book’s end notes, and one most effectively told.
The eponymous creature of “Bloodcloth” proves a more tangible and immediate threat to maturing preteen Tanya, as it does for the inhabitants of her village who work to appease the plasma-sucking fleshbeast under penalty of mutilation and death. At its best the story resembles a gloomy fantasy version of a Dust Bowl drama dealing with characters barely scraping by under conditions they don’t understand and won’t rebel against, likely for the rest of their lives.
The author introduces us to two enigmatic adult personas in “The Death Drive of Rita, nee Carina” and “The Man Who Was.” The former is a disturbing glimpse into the renewed life of an auto accident survivor, a widow and childless mother who now copes with her trauma by constructing an altar to a mechanized god who smiles upon the good works she commits by staging collisions on the interstate. Even when the plot appears to be operating under convenience, “Death Drive” generates a cold shiver of dread in applying a tragic, human face to the seemingly random crashes that appear to occur on the roads with clockwork regularity. The latter tale’s subject is more ambiguous, and rightfully so, as an event planner becomes romantically involved with the dazzlingly handsome and charismatic General. The title becomes the source of great teasing at first, as our curious hero tries to find out just what kind of man the General was and is, and after being repeatedly stymied in his mission he finds out more than he bargained for about how deep the General’s wartime scars truly run. And yet, can he say he knows “the man who was” any better than he did when he started out? Cluley should consider employing the slightly-antiquated voice used here in future stories; in his capable hands it goes down like a fine sorbet.
Even when utilizing mythic beasts of a more traditional strain as in “At Night, When the Demons Come” and “Shark! Shark!”, Cluley refuses to rest on his laurels and instead provokes his readers with uncompromising and immersive narratives that demand attention. The survivalist nature of the narrator’s attitude in “At Night” proves surprising and damning, a harsh antidote to the typical teamwork and bruised bonding that we see in other post-apocalyptic stories. Though the tale’s theme of female subjugation gets played a bit on the nose towards the end, it remains memorable for the hardened resolution of its climax. What amuses one most about “Shark! Shark!” is that it’s perhaps the most traditional story of the collection and yet is told in a devoutly non-traditional manner. You can sense Cluley’s glee at forgoing fourth-wall pretensions as he relates the bloody yarn of the husband-and-wife directing team of a new killer shark epic contending with a real man-eater on the set directly to the audience and dropping all manner of in-jokes and references along the way for our constant amusement. It comforts us in its reaffirming of beloved stories we’ve heard before while hooking us with a fresh approach that reels us along to its chummily droll conclusion. Quite deserving of its British Fantasy Award win.
As successful as a good amount of the stories are, Probably Monsters shows the slight risk authors run by including too many of their stories in one collection. One or two weak-by-comparison stories in a compendium of a dozen will do little to hamper the overall strength of the volume, while collections ranging around twenty stories, as Cluley’s does, have a higher potential for less-polished work getting through the gate. A tighter editorial hand might have ensured that curious trifles like “No More West” and “A Mother’s Blood” had been reconsidered or revised before inclusion. Though well-written and convincingly characterized, the standard issue “Indian Giver” still can’t generate a sterling recommendation for its well-trod plot of the Wronged Native American getting spiritual vengeance on the Nasty White Man. At other times, Cluley is conversely too obscure in his description of action (the inadvertent-murderer’s comeuppance in the Lansdalean Southern noir “Gator Moon”) and overly direct at other times (the bordering-on-absurd sexual assault from “Pins and Needles”).
The collection comes out strong thanks to a trio of tales that show Cluley at the top of his game. The most fantasy-oriented of the group, “The Travellers Stay,” is another case of the author’s sleight of hand: it starts out as the thing you expect—a painful family “vacation” receives an intermission at a rundown, out-of-the-way motel—but then becomes the thing you didn’t see coming, a meditation on what we expect from our lives and from ourselves, the ultimate emptiness of dreams, and the transition from human being to cockroach. The other two stories just barely straddle the line of unreality. “Where the Salmon Run” is arguably a straight drama, no questions needed, but there’s a certain alien coldness to the atmosphere that makes it feel as if the Russian environmentalist coming back to her homeland is at the mercy of wild forces demanding of her a sacrifice upon her prodigal return. If there’s anything in Probably Monsters that serves as testament to the point that Cluley is a damn fine writer regardless of genre labels, it’s this one.
So leave it to him to bring everything to a close with “Beachcombing”, a brief, silent encounter on the seashore between a boy who can see the history of an object by touching it and a man contemplating the endless ebb and flow of life. In many ways it is the ideal short story, bound to its solitary setting and allowing everything outside of it to fade away. There is only the boy and the man, treasures that are found, hope that is lost, artifacts left behind, questions left unanswered, and wishes made. It is the last trick in the book, the final moment when we come in expecting to see monsters only to discover there are none. There is only us.
Whether there is any comfort to be found in that or not is entirely up to you.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.