A Cool Burn: M. R. Cosby’s Dying Embers

Dying Embers is that rarity: a supremely unsettling horror collection where the horror is varied, elusive, and constantly shifting, leaving the reader with no solid ground, no point at which they can say with confidence that they’re sure they’re safe, because he would never, or he always. The dangers in these stories are unpredictable, nuanced, and often inescapable. More than that, they’re haunting: you can close the book and still find them running through your mind.

Cosby has themes he returns to throughout–a sense of survivor’s guilt, the experience of bearing witness to something incomprehensible, the pull of the past, failing families–but they’re touched upon lightly, leaving you with a cohesive collection with a bleak, resonant sense of concerns but without, like I said, that sense of predictability. Cosby’s execution often recalls Aickman, but his concepts are often stunningly original (“Building Bridges” is an absolute knockout in that way), his themes are distinctive (it’s the familial ties, not the monster, that is the most awful twist to “La Tarasque”), and his pacing is distinctive. Pacing sounds like a strange thing to be touched by, but it affects how fresh these stories feel even as they allude to the old masters: it struck me particularly in “The Next Terrace,” which carries us smoothly from the past to the present, and instills that lingering, haunting sense I mentioned before.

The title is appropriate. Dying Embers is less about the flash of fire and more about the unsettling reminder that there was a fire–that what you’re encountering is either a persistent echo or evidence of something you cannot quite understand. The stories have that glow to them–the low-heat, deliberately controlled prose. And, of course, if you’re not careful, they’ll burn you.

Transcribed Nightmare, More or Less

Occasionally I have dreams with quite a bit of narrative, and this one was especially memorable: I woke up, got unnerved by the darkness in my living room, and wrote it down.

—-

Clay was driving.

The Midwestern landscape was flat, yellow, and uninteresting. He drove on roads with few other cars and looked at stubbled, post-harvest fields. The barns were weathered the color of old shoes. The winter sky was low and slate gray. It put a taste in his mouth like freezer-burnt food.

He had been driving for three hours. He was looking for a house.

He found the right one outside a little Ohio town called Winston. It had green shutters and a car in the driveway. Rust spots on its fender. Clay pulled in snugly behind it and parked. He sat still for a minute after unfastening his seatbelt and tried to shake the wrinkles out of his jacket. He wanted to look presentable. He looked into the rearview mirror and licked his teeth to trick the stale taste out of his mouth.

Then he got out of the car.

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“You’re a Mephisto man now”: Thoughts on Jesse Kellerman’s The Executor

Jesse Kellerman’s The Executor manages a couple of difficult tricks. It evokes the mind-set of a long-time philosopher without seeming too dense or too larded with buzzwords. It has a slow, uneasy build. It captures perfectly how easily and intensely we come to need our luxuries. And it risks an unusual and meaningful ending, which I won’t discuss here. But one of my favorite things about this novel, with all its slow escalation of instability and greed, is its allusiveness and the texts it chooses to touch upon, which frequently position it in that fertile cross-section between suspense and horror.

Make no mistake, by my own definition, at least, The Executor isn’t horror and isn’t even really “out-of-genre” horror like Blood Meridian, which I really must write about someday. It has no intrusion of the supernatural and no escalation of its crime into, say, Hannibal Lecter-like proportions. Nevertheless, it’s a novel so concerned with guilt, insanity, and the wages of sin that it frequently has the emotional effect of horror. And it’s in conversation with other texts that are explicitly so.

There’s a bloodstained rug, for example, that lurks around the last section of the book with echoes of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a connection only strengthened by the confessional form of the novel itself–all first person, written retrospectively, with occasional dips into a kind of madness as the tension intensifies beyond Geist’s (the narrator’s) breaking point. (A lengthy, pivotal scene, of intense deliberation in the aftermath of a crime, is told entirely in second-person as the narrator disassociates himself from it altogether.)

But most of all, there’s the shoes Geist buys once a death and his own quick willingness to hurtle into good fortune means he can afford them: Mephistos. These are real shoes, by the way, and presumably buying them doesn’t particularly involve a pact with the devil, but Kellerman cleverly positions the purchase of the shoes and the salesman’s declaration (“You’re a Mephisto man now”) at the end of a chapter, as a punchline. Then there’s the colors of the shoes: black and oxblood. Again, perfectly normal shoe colors, but here redolent with other implications of corruption and sacrifice. It’s a perfect, clever little capstone to Geist’s long waffling about whether or not he should let something so small as love and loyalty stand in the way of his appreciation of his newfound wealth. As soon as he accepts it, he’s made a bargain to keep it, no matter what. He has the shoes to prove it.

Geist isn’t Faust, of course. But his story is one of the latest iterations of the old question of how we bargain away our souls, what we sell them for, and whether or not we can get them back. Questions with such large implications can’t help but evoke a shiver or two, which is why I feel The Executor keeps very good company with Poe, Goethe, and The Monk. And why it will disorient and, at times, chill you.

This Post Contains Multiple Links, as Apparently Does My Life

The stories we read colonize us.

I spent the weekend in New Hampshire, at Squam Lake, one of the most purely beautiful places I’ve ever seen. (Cold, though: I was sleeping in a fleece pullover and under at least four blankets at one point.) But it amused me how frequently little bits of reality would pull me back into fiction and how, despite all the times I was reminded of horror, I wasn’t disconcerted but pleased: sometimes it doesn’t matter what kind of significance your mind brings to the forefront, it’s just nice to have the landscape highlighted in bits and pieces. It deepened everything, and made me feel I would carry the vacation home with me, pressed between the pages of various books or in the stills of various movies, and keep rediscovering it later.

We were sharing the camp with a group of artists on retreat, and we kept stumbling across evidence of them through the little pieces of designed wilderness they’d left behind: a spiral of flowers that instantly brought to mind the eldritch Japanese horror comic Uzumaki and a construction of twigs straight out of The Blair Witch Project or True Detective.

The weather, the forest, and the thickets of trees kept reminding me I was in New England, and as I’d never been before, I just kept thinking how fertile the horror imagination had always been in this neck of the woods: King, Lovecraft, and so on.

There was an island in the middle of the lake with a church on it that I was told we could paddle to if the wind ever calmed down, and I immediately thought of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s powerful “The Church on the Island.”

In the airport, I thought how the crowded terminals would be a perfect place for the ghosts of Stephen Graham Jones’s The Elvis Room to lurk about in your peripheral vision.

Even the fireplace had a childlike charm for me, as I kept watching the flames with fascination, and recalled the episode of the much-loved Are You Afraid of the Dark? in which I was taught, at around eight or nine, that staring at the heart of a flame would call forth something terrible.

Now, granted, all fiction has this effect on me to some extent–another part of the weekend was spent in extensive reminiscing about the Little House on the Prairie books, for example, and certainly all the cabin doors, with their latches, reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder–but I do think horror and fantasy have a particular skill at attaching themselves to everyday objects. If they’re grounded in the world of “real things,” if they establish the familiar only to inundate it with emotion and significance, then they have automatic replay value later in life.

Without horror, the woods would just be the woods. I think I owe something to my reader for helping me walk through them not just with a sense of their hushed beauty, but with the exquisite delight of the prickles on the back of my neck, and with a lifetime’s worth of memories and narrative.

(I also, for what it’s worth, had my shoe fall off into the lake; star-gazed on a remarkably clear night and felt a wholly different and admittedly superior, if rarer, sense of meaning and profundity; overate to a massive degree; discovered that S.’s dad’s cousin had a subscription to Ellery Queen and so had already read my story; and borrowed someone else’s pullover for the whole weekend because I’d forgotten to pack anything warm, which is the kind of slipshod planning that indicates writing talent. Or so I’m telling myself.)

Some time ago, I apologized for infrequent blog posts, and now I’m back to apologize for a complete lack of blog posts and a complete lack of Goodreads entries of late–suffice to say, I’ve been going through a decided slump lately and decidedly living up to my introversion. But I do have news, of sorts, which is that I’ve broadened my writing to include crime/mystery, and the story I sold to Ellery Queen (as Zoë Z. Dean, since you may have noticed that my name doesn’t Google very well–then again, we can’t all be “Laird Barron”) is now available in this month’s issue.

While I think posts will be erratic in the future, it’s my hope that they will no longer completely drop off the radar, as I should hopefully have more time now to devote myself to writing (and reading).

In the meantime, I just have to shake my head sadly and admit my apparent unreliability as an e-correspondent.

The Nagging Question of “Is it Real or Not?”

When I read Marisha Pessl’s Night Film (superb and chilling, if frequently over-italicized), whatever attention of mine wasn’t absorbed in this long, complex tale of filmmakers, dark inspiration, and mystery was reserved for one question and one question only.  Not what happened to Ashley Cordova–that’s a reader’s question, and part of the above experience.  But the writer’s question, when reading Night Film and books like it, can only be: is it magic or mundane?  This is a somewhat overly reductive and certainly overly alliterative question, but the teetering point, sometimes obscure, between horror and crime often comes down to that dilemma.  Is this the world as we know it, or is there something extra (or, hauntingly, less)?  Sometimes what pushes the work into the metaphorical–because however supernatural, artificial, or constructed, these alterations of the reality of the work often come down to whether or not our literal story takes on the weight of our other fears–is merely a certain grotesquerie, a height of the Gothic: it’s why Hannibal Lecter sits as comfortably in horror as in crime.  But more often, what separates mimetic fiction from the surreal or fantastic is the actual fantastic.  Take a straightforward crime story but give the murderer a shadow that stretches the wrong way and you are, abruptly, tantalizingly, in the realm of metaphor, and therefore horror.
 
The unsettling concern that the real might give way at any point to something beyond comprehension is a powerful tension that many authors have rightly explored–and exploited–over the years.  Some–like Pessl–do so with intelligence and an appreciation for fear.  Others do so with contempt, constructing a seemingly supernatural house of cards only to blow it all down at the end with a trite explanation of the rationality of it all.  When this is done well, it’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Done badly, it’s Scooby Doo.  I read a novel by a writer whose crime short stories I had admired and loved; in his novel, he pitted grieving parents against the story of their child’s ghost, supplied them with ample evidence, and then, eventually, unraveled it all.  There’s nothing wrong with telling this story–con artists have, unfortunately, targeted the bereaved over the years, and this narrative in the right hands would come with its own emotional heft (Sarah Waters has done it)–but without careful handling, it falls into condescension.  How dare you have believed, even briefly, that something else might be stirring beneath the pages.  Don’t you know what the real world is?
 
Well, of course, we do, with considerable latitude for what people may believe about the qualities of the real world–and I’ll be generous there even if that author wouldn’t be–but all of us, however skeptical or credulous in our daily lives, know when we’re reading fiction, and we know that fictional narrative has never been constrained by mere possibility.  There’s no sense, artistic or otherwise, in lecturing your readers for being aware of the lovely flexibility of literature.
 
 

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Little Visible Delight, ed. by S. P. Miskowski and Kate Jonez

Little Visible Delight offers its writers the chance to talk about—and write about—their obsessions, which is a chance no writer can afford to turn down.  After all, they’re doing it anyway.  Nearly every writer has a set of obsessions.  They may cultivate them, growing a garden of lush (and sometimes poisonous) stories, or they may ignore them, allowing these fixations to scatter through their body of work like weeds.  But either way, these things take root, and take over.  Little Visible Delight brings them all out into the open and as such, while the collection offers plenty of dark pleasure for the lay reader, it’s particularly interesting for writers or those with a fascination for the craft: here are some excellent horror authors talking about what they can’t stop talking about.  It begs the question: what drives you?  What permeates through you but gives you “little visible delight?”

If your obsession is quality horror anthologies, you’re in luck.

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