T.E. Grau’s debut collection The Nameless Dark is a powder keg of imagination and potential. While the rag-tag gathering of stories sometimes slides too frequently into the unhallowed and by now well-trod annals of contemporary Lovecraftiana – a testament to it being made up of various magazine and anthology contributions over the years – the writer’s voice has a rich, fresh appeal.
Mining a vein opened by the likes of Clive Barker and more recently stretched further by the pained and earthy tales of Nathan Ballingrud – who introduces Grau’s collection, confirming that he’s a writer with a baton to pass – Grau regales readers with stories that have clear horror hooks but that don’t skimp on atmosphere or psychological exposition.
And as with the abovementioned precursors and influences, a keen handling of dread is another key wrinkle in the work, making for an unsettling but immersive experience.
One of my own favourite stories from the collection would have to be ‘Return of the Prodigy’, which I had originally encountered in the Cthulhu Ftaghn! anthology from Word Horde.
Detailing a late honeymoon in a Pacific island gone wrong, the story makes full use of its exotic setting to both seduce and unsettle the reader, while also letting in yet another trademark of the author’s work: a satirical streak; the targets in this case being the dull and bigoted American middle class. The undeniable pleasure of schadenfreude looms over the story – you know these unpleasant protagonists are in for an unpleasant time, which adds a giddy excitement to the terror.
Neither is our protagonist in ‘The Screamer’ all that sympathetic and relateable – a corporate cog with very little love for his fellow man and woman beyond what he can get from them, Boyd gains a strange kind of dignity in his doomed trajectory as he follows the titular ‘scream’ that appears to infect his workplace with a siren-like call.
The regression into a submerged world of horror bubbling right under the urban sprawl is a common theme for Grau and his fellow peddlers of modern horror, and an atavistic charge – an escape from the mundane into a world of destructive bliss – is taken to its logical conclusion here.
More traditional thrills are to be found in ‘Beer and Worms’ – a brief but hard-hitting chiller consisting of nothing more except for a conversation between two friends out fishing, which by the end takes a truly sinister turn without our characters having to lift a finger to influence this very sudden and very real shift in the mood.
It’s a testament to Grau’s ability to wring horror out of any situation, which is made all the more seductive and poignant by his command of the language.
In fact, Grau’s emphatically non-minimalist style holds him in good stead throughout, and on this point he’s very much in line with Ballingrud’s approach to the genre. It’s not so much about ‘sweetening the pill’ of the horror with beautiful language. If anything, it’s rather the opposite: the language immerses you into the tale, and Grau is also careful to add texture and nuance to his characters – making the hammer fall all the harder when it does.
But the writing is also, quite simply, a pleasure to savour, and notable passages can be picked more or less at random throughout the collection. Here’s one example from ‘White Feather’ – sins of the father horror on the high seas that takes its sweet time to establish a rich historical narrative before kicking into pulpy gear:
‘Chilton held the glass to his nose, working through the alcohol and molasses down to the subtle perfume of Newtown Pippins before they were picked, smashed, and ordered to rot. Back when they first emerged as springtime buds from a lifeless branch, so full of promise. This was the aroma of his home, of a particular wind and soil that knew him from birth and yet held no judgement. He wished he were a boy again, before his father lost his leg and his mother her will, before the responsibilities of adult life solidified a legacy that was as permanent as history written by the bloody victorious. Before his last raid on Nova Scotia’.
Sometimes it does dip dangerously into style-over-substance territory, as happens with the undeniably fun but largely cosmetic ‘The Truffle Pig’ – another story written for a Word Horde anthology, this time from Tales of Jack the Ripper – which envisages the world’s first serial killer as a member of a long-standing cadre of murderers who work in what they believe to be a noble tradition.
While the language and mood is certainly on point as ever, there’s not much to the story beyond this high-concept twist. A similar problem plagues ‘Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox’, in which Grau very convincingly transports us back to the golden years of the Beat Generation milieu, only to end his psychedelic journey with a Lovecraftian add-on that fans of the weird fiction genre (and the looming behemoth that is Lovecraft) will have experienced all too frequently.
But that’s not to say that riffing on Lovecraft automatically means reverting to formula, nor that Grau isn’t capable of adding something fresh to the mix.
Clear evidence of this can be found in the strongest entry in the collection, ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’. A tour de force in every sense of the word, the story does appear to have a coveted octopus at its centre, though the resemblance to Cthulhu is kept to a minimum, and Grau waits until the end to deploy it to full effect.
Instead, the bulk of the narrative concentrates on the journey of a young boy burdened with a stereotypically shitty home life, who nonetheless remains hopeful that his pursuit of the octopus in question will bring happiness… if not transcendence. The glorious kicker of Grau’s tale is that it’s largely told with a corresponding sense of wide-eyed wonder shared by Alden, our protagonist.
It’s a modern picaresque story with a Dickensian dynamic at its core, and as the beleaguered but resilient young man winds his way through vibrant, filthy streets and suspect alleyways – climaxing in a visit to an abandoned zoo – Grau paints a vivid, memorable tapestry.