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.

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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That Serpent’s Not Just Dreaming: New Alan Ryker

Alan Ryker is one of my favorite recent discoveries in horror and I was delighted to (somewhat belatedly) read his novel Dream of the Serpent. Like all Ryker, it has an immediate grasp of the little details that make a story pop out, whether it’s the procedure of closing a midlist Italian restaurant or the medicinal smell of a burn unit, but that solidity is even more remarkable given the metaphysical issues at play. Too often, it’s easy for writers to buy profundity by selling the reality of their story too cheaply–as we learned from Yellow Submarine, “it’s all in the mind.” But Ryker does better, and excels at the clash between the intense physicality of a recovering burn victim and the hallucinogenic philosophical exploring he’s starting to do when his eyes are closed. It’s only by providing the first that he can persuade us of the need for the second. If you were Cody, you’d find your musings about the place where the rubber band of the world might snap very compelling, too.

At the beginning of the novel, Cody is bright, affable, handsome, and definitely going places–he’s engaged to the girl of his dreams who happens (actually and genuinely by coincidence) to also be providing him with the father-in-law of his dreams, a man who can offer him (you guessed it!) the job of his dreams. He’s working as a waiter to fill in he gaps in his income as he transitions from lower-middle class to upper-, and he’s eager to close up and get to a party with Madison, his girlfriend. She calls. He’s distracted. And so, as he’s scraping the fryer, a spark ignites the oil and sets Cody and the restaurant ablaze.

He’s severely burned and disfigured, and the novel spends about forty percent of its length exploring, in painful detail, his physical recovery and his lack of emotional recovery. He knows too well that he’s lost his life. Because Madison blames herself for distracting him, he’s lost her, too–a loss he’s complicit in by refusing, for opaque but understandable reasons, to relieve her of her guilt and assure her of his love. Cody has dreams of another life, a life that would have happened if he’d remembered to turn the fryer off, but each time, he wakes up confined to a slumped, scar-tissue-tightened body with a face so terrifying to him that he covers it with a silicon mask.

Meanwhile, Madison is falling down the rabbit hole. She tells him a word: Ouroboros.

I don’t want to give away the entirety of the novel–instead, I want to focus on that crucial first forty percent. So many horror stories give way immediately to non-stop action-adventure, with their writers forgetting that all action is action, and all action is the key to character. The scenes of Cody’s treatment are pivotal because they establish Madison’s motivation for her action–we know that she would do anything to take away her guilt for Cody’s fate–and Cody’s intense and intensely warranted fear of that turning point in his life, and of fire. These scenes also remind us that horror can be found in places beyond the obvious. Pockets of infection, skin turned into a chrysalis, an eye removed and covered with a flap–medicine is brutal. Ryker has the eye–and the time–to convince us that for Cody, the horror of the novel is present long before Madison tells him of the worm that eats its own tail.

In “Best New Horror,” by Joe Hill, a horror editor talks about how horror too often ignores the “bread of everyday life” to focus on the “rare bleeding meat.” Ryker avoids that stumbling block neatly. It isn’t enough just to have more than blood in your horror—you have to have bread.

Dream of the Serpent is about bread the slowly becomes suffused with strangeness. It isn’t about blood at all. It’s about pain, guilt, responsibility, fear, and sacrifice, about deaths that can be undone and deaths that can’t. And if it weren’t so grounded in what it’s like to see your childhood height chart and realize scarring has bent you two inches shorter than you were at eighteen, and how yelling could split open your barely-healed cheek, it wouldn’t be about anything at all. Instead, it’s almost everything. Which means you should read it.

The Ax, by Donald Westlake

Of all the books I’ve ever read, Donald Westlake’s The Ax is the one that begs most for a movie adaptation, and it’s the one most inexplicably lacking one.  The story is that of Burke Devore, a laid-off paper plant middle-manager who finds himself looking for work in a dwindling industry stocked with overqualified applicants.  Devore is a problem-solver, and after a few months, his unemployment is a serious problem.  His solution is as ingenious as it is terrifying.  After finding his dream position already occupied by a long-term employee, Devore invents a fake company, posts an ad designed to lure out his competition, and endeavors to kill all the applicants more qualified then he is.  Then, he thinks, he’ll kill the employee who has the job he wants, interview for the newly vacant position, and restart his life on his terms.

The black comedy is obvious, especially in a down-economy.  Burke Devore’s endless self-justification–that it isn’t his fault but the fault of the higher-ups who create the situation, that he’s only trying to provide for his family–actually rings true, even if readers (hopefully) wouldn’t go to the same lengths.  And Westlake has an eye for pricking every little bit of ridiculousness involved in the job search: I especially liked the criticism Burke offers of his victims’ résumés.  But while Westlake is indisputably good at following this dark, satirical thread throughout the story, as events progress, he also isn’t content to let the situation be merely funny.  And, in a particularly wonderful move, and one that I feel justifies the novel as a type of bleakly comedic horror as well as crime, he begins to reveal a side of Burke Devore that is actually more discomfiting than his decision to commit repeated murders.

Spoilers beneath the cut.

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