Painting a beautiful ruin | The Nameless Dark by T.E. Grau | Book Review

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW

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.

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW BOX

T.E. Grau

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.

The Nameless Dark is a rich and varied collection that taps into the best strands of contemporary horror fiction.

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Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #10 | Ben Stewart, Wendy N. Wagner

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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Two Suns over Zululand by Ben Stewart

Ordo Virtutum by Wendy N. Wagner

The terrors of Lovecraft are a flexible bunch. Because Cthulhu and his fellow eldritch pantheon have no affiliation to established religious creeds — and are more or less stand-ins for the cosmic indifference of the universe to human foibles, though that’s not all they are — they can easily be applied as the antagonistic entity of choice to stories set within any country or cultural milieu.

Wagner and Stewart’s stories in particular play on the notion of the Great Old Ones infiltrating a particular social space, and the hook and twist of the stories lies in the way in which their writers manipulate our expectations of how these micro-worlds would deal with the Cthuloid threat.

Stewart’s story plunges us straight into a reconnaissance mission embedded within the Anglo-Zulu War, and on the face of it, Stewart appears to be attempting a piece of full-blooded historical war fiction of the kind we’ve already seen earlier on in the anthology with A. Scott Glancy’s Trespassers. But the real thrust of the story is more straightforward, as our protagonist, Lwazi, is told in no uncertain terms that he must retrieve the idol of ‘H’aaztre’ — an obvious stand-in for Lovecraft’s Hastur diety — from an Englishman who has it in his possession.

If Lwazi fails in his mission — as he is told by the mentor figure Mandlenkosi — they will be powerless to stop a cataclysmic event triggered by these otherworldly dieties.

Stewart wastes no time in laying out the raison d’etre of the story, and even has Mandlenkosi plainly declare what Lwazi must do in direct speech. This evokes a similar ‘gamified’ effect as other stories in the collection, and it matches the enjoyably direct, unpretentious thrust-and-parry of the rest of the tale.

Défense de Rorke's Drift (detail) by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville

Défense de Rorke’s Drift (detail) by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville

And in a strand that once again brings to mind Glancy’s story, the threat posed by ‘H’aaztre’ and everything he’s set to unleash trumps the ‘mundane’ struggles between the Zulus and the British. Though the details of these particular monsters and how they operate are influenced by Lovecraft, it must be said that the ‘common enemy who unites us in the end’ is a familiar trope to the alien invasion genre. And more than gods, Lovecraft’s creatures are alien invaders — albeit ones that tend to inspire cult-like fervour among a select group of maddened devotees.

This fervour is the engine of Wagner’s story, which takes the striking historical personage Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) as its main inspiration: in fact, the title refers to a famous piece of music by this German Benedictine abbess — who apart from being a mystic and polymath was also a composer and writer.

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen

Wagner is clearly infatuated with Bingen, and has no qualms about casting her into what amounts to a badass superheroine role in the story. But what’s more interesting is how Wagner builds the clerical world that Bingen belongs to — suggesting its political and social structure, and Bingen’s role within it, before it is undermined by an eldritch-struck outsider.

Though Lovecraft himself was often lost inside the rabbit hole of his psyche — which was in turn hemmed-in by his oft-discussed prejudices — these writers are adding colour and specificity to the cosmic horror that lies at the core of his work.

Read previous: Caleb Wilson, Nathan Carson & Orrin Grey