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.
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Horror being, among other things, the genre of subversion, it stands to reason that the authors working in this mode should frequently take the landscapes that make up their homes and their travels and introduce elements of the fantastic to both accentuate and complement the darker qualities inherent in those landscapes. Mer Whinery has managed to do this with his first collection, staging his sordid dramas in the lonely country heart of the eponymous Little Dixie, the greasy twilight zone of Oklahoma.
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We live in a time of plenty.
In the last decade and change, the rise of small publishing houses and e-reader devices has opened up a doorway through which a veritable smorgasbord of dark fiction has poured forth into the hands of fans who might not have otherwise encountered them. But not even the accessibility or mass proliferation of grim literature can be held entirely accountable for the embarrassment of riches we have today. A similar wave passed during the Great Horror Boom of the 70s and 80s, but the current renaissance we live in now has granted us the gift of quality in addition to quantity.
This commitment to higher literary standards, along with a special devotion to the short story, has led to the releases of dozens of books in the last few years that all bear the craftsman’s seal of approval, a time when even debut collections hum with a vitality and talent that wouldn’t have been dreamt of in those bygone days of spinner rack terrors. With the unleashing of The Nameless Dark, T. E. Grau has cemented himself as an author whose byline should spark in readers a joyful expectancy for what surprises there are to follow.
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It’s no secret that the shadow of cinema has loomed large over American horror fiction ever since the premiere of the country’s first devoutly supernatural chiller on Valentine’s Day, 1931. (That would be Tod Browning’s DRACULA for the philistines out there.) Since then novels and short stories alike have drawn inspiration from the silver screen and recycled its motifs—the reverse has held true less of the time—even, on some occasions, directly reacting to it and incorporating its characters and mythologies into its own form as well. This latter trend is, for the most part, a recent phenomenon, with genre luminaries such as Joe Lansdale, Norm Partridge, and David J. Schow being a handful of contemporary authors who proudly honor the celluloid gods and monsters of their youth by paying tribute to them in their stories. Orrin Grey may count himself a practitioner of this fine tradition.
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“The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
Though he likely wasn’t aware of the fact, William Faulkner summarized a good majority of horror fiction with this eloquent little truth. The artifacts of the past constantly surround us. They are buried in the soil of our land, the stone of our homes, the flesh of our minds, stubbornly refusing to relinquish their hold on us, grafting themselves to us with strings of impenetrable scarlet thread.
A more recent narrative trope popularized by film is of the victim running away from the inescapable horror giving chase to them, the hulking hockey goalie and gigantic prehistoric reptile equally representing our timeless fears in spite of their diverse guises. These two themes form the emotional bedrock of V. H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone, a collection of stories greatly preoccupied with the notion of fleeing the darkness of the past in the hopes of reaching some golden tomorrow. The past in Leslie’s stories is something to be avoided, swept over, tucked away and forgotten. Her characters do not view their lives as obstacle-laden journeys from which they will grow and learn from but as the meandering, cancerous roots of a traumatic seed, roots that bind them to the ground and keep them from flying towards freedom like the copious birds that surface in almost every story, crushing wings and hopes without discretion.
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Truly, for authors who are considering their first foray into the realm of self-publishing, Matthew M. Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination should be used as one of the prime texts in terms of both professional refinement and freedom of creative expression. There have been books issued by third-party publishers that have had more instances of typographical errors in a matter of pages than Bartlett’s work does in the whole of its volume, to say nothing of their lack of imagination. This might sound like damning with faint praise, but let me assure you it is not. Bartlett’s collection resonates with the care and enthusiasm that went into its preparation. This author respects his audience. Like a master chef, he knows that the presentation is just as important as the taste of the dish.
But, to belabor a metaphor with an idiom, the proof is in the pudding, and Bartlett demonstrates abundantly throughout his book that he is a voice worth listening to. The connective tissue of the collection is Massachusetts-based radio station 89.7 WXXT, a channel run by a witch cult of decrepit ancients who broadcast all manner of upsetting, mesmerizing, and ominous songs and monologues that enrapture and entice the listeners who happen upon it by accident or design.
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