PSTD BOOK REVIEW: SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS AND AICKMAN’S HEIRS

Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications, 2015.)

She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles (Innsmouth Free Press, 2015.)

Holy A’Hallows, Happy Hallowe’en, scary-sacred Samhain, and joyous Great Pumpkin Flyby day, dear readers. Since it is Halloween weekend, and since this weekend also sees the convention on Canadian Speculative Fiction, CanCon, coming to Ottawa, this seems an opportune time to share with you a two-pronged pitchfork of eerie book reviews. Both are seasonally creepy, and, while including work from many international writers, both are from Canadian publishers and editors.

While any publisher or literary agent will tell you that, from a careerist perspective, a great short story is a business card to try to sell your novel (or a gateway drug to get readers to try it), the short story remains, in my books, probably the most aesthetically and conceptually important form for the literary exploration of the weird, the horrific, the strange, and the unsettling.

The combination of concentration the form requires, and authorial imaginative power it enables, means a gifted writer can conjure and sustain an affective intensity with a short story that is more difficult, if not impossible, to maintain over the multiple interrupted reading periods required by a novel.

Insofar as horror and the weird are literary modes directly linked to an occurrent emotional response, then, the short story is particularly well suited to their expression. Closely related to this is the maintenance of epistemological uncertainty, the cultivation of the uncanny, the unknown and the unstable, that is so often central to the effects of good horror and weird fiction. A work of short weird fiction can, to mangle some metaphors, fly in below the radar of readerly skepticism more quickly, crossing the blood-brain barrier of the imagination rapidly and delivering its effect before the reader’s rational resistances are fully mustered and the white blood cells of disbelief and disengagement are unleashed.

But this efficient invasion of the reader’s mind is just the beginning. Once it gets in there, a great work of short weird or horrific fiction is just getting started. Really great stories are virulent and insidious, and the initial emotional intensity is just the first symptom of an acute infection that is already becoming chronic.

While the affective state the story conjures, the mood it immerses the reader in, is ephemeral, it leaves behind a lasting impression, a psychic residue. It causes a cognitive or perceptual shift that, however minor, however subtle, however (in some cases) subliminal, continues to haunt the reader long after the story has been read and set aside, the book closed, the device (and perhaps the reader) put to sleep.

As Gemma Files so aptly puts it, great horror and weird fiction should leave a scar.

To wit, two recent short story collections whose contents have lately been scanned, felt, pondered, and put aside by me, only to have my mind return, unbidden, to them:

The first is Aickman’s Heirs.

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As the title suggests, the collection offers a selection of fictions that in some way bear the influence of Robert Aickman, a British writer who specialized in unsettling narratives (what he himself called “strange stories;” Matt Seidel makes some telling remarks about Aickman’s fiction here. )

The volume’s cover image is by Yaroslav Gerzhedovich. With its silent, misty scenery and distant, alienated figures, it is a striking evocation of the spirit of a writer Fritz Leiber described as “a weatherman of the subconscious.” Aickman was famed for his use of precisely controlled language and vivid characterization in creating an unease irreducible to the seemingly supernatural phenomena that occur in some of his tales (many, indeed, bear none of the more conventional stigma of horror or supernatural fiction at all.)

Strantzas’ introduction stresses that the book is not “merely a collection of writers doing their best to reproduce something so uniquely Aickman,” but rather a sampling of how Aickman’s fiction “has become a significant source of inspiration for contemporary writers.” The collection demonstrates the power of Strantzas’ editorial vision. Rather than a clutch of stylistic pastiches, it showcases a number of writers working from diverse approaches, moving through manifold modes, and yet all somehow converging in a vague and anxious shared space that is acutely Aickmanic (I will hereafter resist my temptation to unleash a series of bad puns based on the name, I promise, much as my vulgar palate is tickled by the prospects of Aickmannerist, Aickmantic, etc.)

The line-up of represented writers represents some of the most vital and insistent voices in weird fiction, dark fantasy, and horror today, and many of them will certainly be familiar to PstD readers: Helen Marshall, (our featured poet from PstD 4), David Nickle (read his PstD interview here,)  Michael Cisco (read his PstD interview here,) John Langan (look for his author feature in the coming weeks) are among the contributors.

While heterogeneous in style and approach, the stories are consistently fascinating and effective at generating tension and planting seeds of lingering doubt and dread. Among my favourites is Richard Gavin’s “Neithernor,” which takes a fundamental aesthetic concept from the British artist/occultist Austin Osman Spare as its inspiration, using the disintegrating consciousness of a desperate narrator to suggest to the reader a strange shape, forming ominously beyond the figures drawn by a neurotic artist, beyond the figures of the words on the page. Michael Cisco uses his clinical linguistic precision and suggestive perceptual fragmentation to shattering effect in “Infestations,” a tale of urban identity crisis (and public transportation). In John Langan’s “Underground Economy,” a woman’s troubled recollections suggest the omnipresence of a threat she, and we, can never quite identify. Archaeology and the compulsive power of the past forms the basis for Helen Marshall’s “The Vault of Heaven.” Nina Allan‘s “A Change of Scene” is among the most direct in its response to Aickman’s influence, forming a critical dialogue with one of his better known, and more overtly supernatural (or is it?) stories, “Ringing the Changes,” while conjuring up its own unique cold hand to clamp the reader’s.

Aickman’s Heirs is a fascinating selection, and a must-have not only for admirers of Aickman’s fiction, but also for all lovers of uncanny literature.

Now, for the second anthology whose dim-litten praises I wish to sing: She Walks in Shadows.

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This volume is also (at least in one sense) an author-homage inspired collection. In this case, the author in question is the ubiquitous Mr. Lovecraft, as She Walks showcases Lovecraftian fiction by (and featuring) women. The tenor of this volume’s paean to Lovecraft is rather one of critical provocation than respectful admiration; it is a tenor that proves just as productive for the contributing writers, who use it as a base note in synthesizing a string of discordant, haunting, harrowing, and sometimes also hilarious little symphonies in the key of HPL.

The anthology is in part an acknowledged, and much-needed, response to what the editors aptly call “a paucity of women in Lovecraft’s tales. Kezia, Lavinia and Asenath are his most notable women, even if they never take center stage.” It is also a potent provocation to the masculinist bias that operates in much contemporary weird/horror fiction and in the minds of some contemporary Lovecraft fans. The editors explain that “the first spark was the notion, among some fans of the Lovecraft Mythos, that women do not like to write in this category, that they can’t write in this category.”

That may have been the spark, but the volume itself is an inferno. My reservations before reading She Walks stemmed rather from a personal lack of interest in too-overtly “Mythos” fiction. I tend to be drawn to work that explores the Lovecraftian terrain of the weird and the cosmic without the tired tropisms of tentacled Yog-Sothothery. Or so I keep telling myself, before once again being knocked down by the originality and power one or another recent writer manages to inject into one of Lovecraft’s Mythos-fixtures. She Walks presents a surging slew of cases in point. It is a cornucopia of imaginative force and literary talent, and each of the fictions it contains works, in some way, to simultaneously expand and interrogate the limits of what “Lovecraftian” can mean.

The mingling of the gorgeous with the grotesque that characterizes the cover image by Sarah K. Diesel is a perfect visual prelude for the fictions (and poems, in the case of Anne K. Schwader‘s lyrical opening, and illustrations, as She Walks also compiles many stunning pieces of black and white interior images, which don’t illustrate individual stories so much as play off some of the same Lovecraftian themes and images that the stories do) that follow. Unlike those in Aickman’s Heirs, these stories generally involve aspects of overt pastiche or parody. However, their more explicit allusions to Lovecraft’s fictions (or his biography or family history, as in the case of one of my favourites, Penelope Love’s “Turn Out the Light,”) provide the skeletons over which most of the stories manage to spread strange, startling new flesh. Among the most seductively lyrical and simultaneously repulsive examples is Gemma Files‘ “Hairworks” 

While so many of the stories in She Walks merit admiration and analysis,  I’m going to limit myself now to spilling a few words of praise particularly for the one writer whose fictions are included both here and in Aickman’s Heirs. Nadia Bulkin‘s name was, up until this point, relatively unknown to me, but it is a name I will continue to seek out. Her story from Heirs, “Seven Minutes in Heaven” is a fantastic example of how the most lucid and finical use of language can accumulatively create an Aickmaniacally (so sue me) vague sense of disturbance that persists long after the story’s words fade from conscious memory. “Seven Minutes in Heaven” weaves together a curious children’s game, a small community’s only slightly skewed version of Christian faith, and the recognition that we can never really leave our childhood beliefs behind, creating a startlingly short but complex narrative whose apocalyptic consequences continue to accrue after its conclusion.

Her story from She Walks, “Violet is the Color of Your Energy,” uses as its skeleton a pastiche of Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space,” (including an admirably over-the-top port-manteau’ing of Ammi Pierce with Ambrose Bierce) but shoots off into a critical meditation on genetically modified farming, the cellular and micro-organismal roots of our (or its?) identity and humanity and…. well, other abstruse truths which cannot be named.

So, in closing, readers, you should all rush out and buy these tomes, immediately. Waiting until Monday may prove too late.

After all, if the Great Pumpkin veers from its course,  the cosmic dark will come down for us all, before you’ve read the warnings these stories might provide.

And thanks, Strantzas, Moreno-Garcia and Stiles, and your contributors, for the apocalyptic preoccupations, for the cognitive and perceptual stains you’ve left me with.

I don’t suppose you’d like to pay my post-Hallows psychic laundry bill?

Yours,

Sean

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