I think I know whose woods these are.
They are the woods of Michael Wehunt, and they are indeed lovely, dark, and deep. Though the title of the author’s first collection posits that we’ll be visiting the rosier side of the neighborly fence and venturing into pastoral lands oft dreamed of, Wehunt’s stories are literally and figuratively crowded with the long shapes of trees, their robust boughs and skeletal branches looming over the diverse cast of characters with the threat of imminent danger and the promise of new beginnings. Wehunt is our guide through this murky wood, the passion and sorrow he brings to each story like the glow of warm lamplight that we faithfully follow through the gnarled heart of his imagination.
The “Greener Pastures” of the collection’s title arrive in the form of one of the more devoutly spooky yarns herein. Panning out like a single-set stage drama where the sense of forces budding around us can be palpably felt, it tells of a chance meeting between a pair of truckers at a desolate diner who begin to ponder on the machinations of the night and all those wide, empty spaces on the map that they pull through on a regular basis. That emptiness works on the minds of characters and readers alike, and gets them to thinking that the darkness is a coiling serpent whose strangling touch they will only feel in the moments just before the blackout. Wehunt states in the story notes appending the book—always a welcome feature—that “Greener Pastures” was his stab at a tale in the vein of The Twilight Zone, and the influence shows up in themes and motifs recalled from episodes like “A Stop at Willoughby,” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, and “I Am the Night—Color Me Black.” (Wehunt’s story would also make a good companion piece with the “Welcome to Homerville” episode from the cult Canadian radio show Nightfall.) The harmonious combination of the phantasmal and the domestic—our trucker Forsyth is a man haunted not by spirits of the dead but of those still living whose expectations he is in constant fear of not being able to live up to—illustrates one of Wehunt’s most powerful gifts as a writer, one that is practiced throughout the collection and seen in especially fine form with this tale.
The other “spook story” on hand is “October Film Haunt: Under the House.” Taking a cue from the cinematic trend of found-footage films and the fog of viral legendry and speculation that they kick up in their wake, “October Film Haunt” reads every bit as disorienting and intangibly unsettling as the fictional (?) short subject of its namesake. A ragtag clan of independent filmmakers and cineastes camps out in the untamed property that was used as the location of a renegade director’s most beguiling work only to discover that the land itself is just as responsible for the film’s infectious despair as the invisible hand of its creator. The story has a weird, disjointed quality that might just leave the reader stumbling in the dark as much as the characters, but ultimately it’s a rewarding experience for this very elusiveness. If I was pressed to describe the story’s events in minute detail, I honestly wouldn’t be able to offer much outside of a dim, troubled impression. Which is entirely appropriate, I think. A rare story that benefits from being read on the brink of sleep.
A certain thread of the strange feminine can be detected weaving throughout a number of the texts. “Besides Me Singing in the Wilderness” transplants the vampire sisters of French auteur Jean Rollin into the earthy Gothicism of northern Georgia. One sister has recently passed on, the other just clinging to this side of life only by the aid of an unholy mountain whose bounty of blood has kissed her with immortality. Rich in metaphor and sanguinary poeticism, the story contains shadowy allusions to the churches and angels that thrive in later tales.
Those angels make an overt entrance in “Deducted from Your Share in Paradise,” but this might depend on one’s definition of angels. If “wingless women who fall from the sky” fits your bill, you’ll find like companions in the micro-community of the Twin Firs trailer park. While a number of the oppressed residents take their new neighbors in as a form of sexual pet, teenaged Fen intuits that the astral maidens have a greater truth to reveal both for himself and the world at large. This gracefully Weird story raises a great deal of questions and leaves interpretation solidly in the hands of the reader. Are the women angels, demons, or sideshow freaks escaped from a circus on a cloud? Is their Babel-esque tower a sign of what is to come or a ladder back to their point of origin? Like the grim, unseen actions that are carried out behind closed doors in the story, we can’t ever know for sure.
“Onanon” rounds out the thematic trifecta with a narrative as worrying and unshakeable as a worm beneath the skin. An author of modest merit encounters a female colleague whose immaculate prose and bewitching mystique leave him wanting in more ways than one. He has the notion that there is some indefinable connection between them, something that goes back to the author’s ailing mother and the secrets waiting to be unlocked by the pages of reality-altering text from his colleague’s latest work. Like the printed story that at turns pulls and repels the protagonist, “Onanon” is another of Wehunt’s narratives whose strange parts coalesce into a wholly bizarre experience that, at some subconscious level, makes an odd kind of sense. “You will be my son,” says the writer’s mother, and in this we here a promise, a chant, a fascination with the very words printed on the page that eddy and swirl into a transfixing mixture of honey, blood, and spit.
But if there is any one theme to which Wehunt is committed to portraying, it is the merciless process of humans working through the aftermath of great tragedy. “Dancers” and “Bookends” find two couples attempting to piece their lives together as vaguely supernatural forces watch unblinking from the sidelines. In the former, a wife marching solemnly through middle age compares her childless existence to the twin, fruitless trees in her backyard that her husband planted for her long ago. Like the trees, husband and wife attempt to hold each other up in the face of meaninglessness. While the bond to realist fiction is more evident here than perhaps any other story, the Weird and horrific elements don’t come together quite as smoothly as before, with the story’s attempt to add a unique spin to the “demonic possession” conceit becoming muddied near the end. But the way that “Dancers” demonstrates Wehunt’s impressive intuition for character, specifically the lives of others outside of his own personal experience, makes the work feel vital and alive.
While the married couple of “Dancers” mourn the children they never had, the widowed husband of “Bookends” finds himself cursing the burden that is his infant—tellingly, the baby is described only by the pronoun “it”—following his wife’s death. Like a chitinous Greek chorus, a swarm of cicadas make their presence known as the stages of their life cycle mirror the husband’s own stages of grief. Like “Dancers,” “Bookends” finds Wehunt flexing his literary muscles with hardly a trace of the darkly liminal to be found. The story’s length, too, feels just right; though there are intermittent flashbacks, the narrative is powerfully anchored by the weighty, real-time decision that acts as the piece’s dramatic pulse: will the embittered father accept the child called “It” back into his heart, or sink into the cold depths of his own despair?
Lost relationships of a different nature are the focus of “A Discreet Music,” Wehunt’s contribution to Aickman’s Heirs, the award-winning tribute anthology from Undertow Publications. The death of his long-time wife reawakens Hiram to the brief, spontaneous romance he started with another man decades before and with it comes the ache of missed opportunities, as well as the ache of transformation that accents Hiram’s gradual evolution into a swan. The conflicting feelings that Hiram grapples with—his legitimate devotion to his marriage careening into his unquenchable desire to have been able to lead an honest life with his lover—once again shows Wehunt for the astute and delicate plucker of heartstrings that he is. The scene of Hiram’s late proposal to Jim, a man who accepted his true nature long ago, is itself achingly honest and quietly brutal. Just how I like ‘em.
“A Thousand Hundred Years” deals with that most haunting and soul-crushing tragedy of all, the disappearance of a child. The story, the second one original to the collection along with “October Film Haunt,” possesses the same dreamy qualities of that latter tale, and this in effect sands down some of the sharper edges of “A Thousand Hundred Years.” The father’s repeated visits to the playground where he last saw his daughter have a touch of sameness to them, and the emotional heart of the piece does not feel as immediately exposed and bleeding on the page as in previous entries. Nevertheless, Wehunt still manages to integrate bizarre and mesmeric images that are indelibly his own, the tale’s wandering-into-the-woods finale a mystery to be prodded and puzzled over like the mental afterbirth of a nightmare.
Nightmarish situations ensnare the protagonists of “The Inconsolable” and “The Devil under the Maison Blue,” two shining jewels in the crown of this collection. In “The Inconsolable,” a man attempts to recuperate from a failed suicide—the ultimate indignity—but feels persistently haunted during the monotonous process of trying to live again, haunted not just by memories of the woman who left him, or by the weight of his own guilt, but by the very figure who might prove to be his One and Only Savior. Shot through with the pangs of readjusting to a world always just out of tune and chilling renditions of the Catholic faith that seem particular to the South, the story perfectly captures the feeling of what it is like to be dogged by despair, to see in the most hopeful epitaph a forbidding promise, and to put our faith in unseen protectors when we have given up all faith in ourselves. Even if it weren’t for the monstrous deliverance at the story’s end, “The Inconsolable” would still be terrifying for the way it forces us to understand the way that depression can swallow the spirit and give self-destruction the appearance of a final solution.
There’s a little more chance of hope and redemption—though it should be said that all of Wehunt’s fiction is never entirely without hope—in “The Devil under the Maison Blue.” Gillian seeks guidance in the comforting voice of her neighbor, Mr. Elling, an old-time jazz man whose residual spirit rests in his favorite attic rocking chair and relates to the girl stories of his past dealing with vicious parents and devils with cat’s-eyes willing to make bargains, stories that will hopefully prove the answer to the problem that is Gillian’s father. Rightfully selected for reissue in not just one but two best-of anthologies, Wehunt’s story crystallizes within its powerful pages many of his best attributes: the unexpected supernaturalism, the potent wine of his language, the quiet roar of emotions. The prose is music in itself, hypnotic in cadence, running golden-warm against the frozen blackness of Gillian’s private hell.
The story reads even better the second time around, which bodes well for the rest of the tales in Greener Pastures. If this first collection is a promise the author will keep of additional treasures to be had in the future, I would say that that bodes well for us too. With any luck, Wehunt will have miles to go before he sleeps.