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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC ISSUE 71 OUT NOW!

The Late Review: The Hidden Back Room

19th Aug, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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Having reviewed books by Rosalie Parker and R. B. Russell last week, this week it seems only right that I should turn my attention to the handful of Tartarus Press titles lurking in my TBR pile.

Jason A. Wyckoff is one of those writers I haven't seen published by anyone other than Tartarus, at least in book form. I reviewed his debut collection Black Horse and Other Strange Stories in Black Static #30 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Similar feelings apply in the case of his second collection, THE HIDDEN BACK ROOM (Tartarus Press hc, 306pp, £35), which is produced in a limited edition of 300 copies and contains fourteen stories, four of which have been previously published.

The collection opens with title story 'The Hidden Back Room', whose protagonist stumbles into a rundown restaurant and finds the terrible secret of the eponymous room. It's a story that brings to mind the work of Ligotti, a ghost story with nothing in the way of a traditional spectre, but rather the sense of having stumbled into an aspect of reality somehow more real and horrific than anything in our actual world. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative, the feel that this room exists at right angles to our own reality and that those who enter it are doomed by the experience, even if they cannot say how. It's a powerful start to the collection, Wyckoff setting out his stall as a master of the weird.

In 'Tanoroar' a couple find themselves stranded in the countryside and the farmer and his family who come to their aid have an agenda of their own. It's a story that starts with a hillbilly horror feel and maintains that throughout, only grafting on to the main body of the story something that is truly fantastic and allowing several plot surprises in the direction that the narrative takes to its ultimate goal, with a delicious and haunting final line. A son is summoned back to the small town he'd thought left far behind in 'Gut Punch' when his addict mother takes a turn for the worse, but is haunted by what he confronts in the family house, with secrets of the past and their emotional toll given a bodily form. The story builds assuredly, drawing the reader in and immersing us in the life history of these characters, before delivering its shocks in the final pages like the titular gut punch.

'On Balance' is, to my mind, one of the weaker stories in the collection, though still beautifully written and evocative; it feels more like a mood piece than the narrative it actually is. A man is haunted by an object he finds on a beach, a silver baby cup that keeps reappearing in his life. In some ways the story reminded me of MRJ's 'Oh Whistle!', though it seemed somewhat less focused, with emphasis on feelings rather than any overtly supernatural menace. There's a Twilight Zone vibe going on in 'The Rain-Dirty Valley' with a musician filled with life regrets getting lost in the fog and finding a village where the inhabitants can project their desires, though what they produce seems so lacking in scope or originality. The experience proves redemptive for Nathan, who comes to realise the horror of clinging on to unrequited love and ambitions. It is, in essence, a story with a message, but delivered with such subtlety and supernatural grace notes that one cannot help feeling elated at the story's resolution.

'The Homunculus in the Curio' originally appeared in Strange Tales Volume IV edited by Rosalie Parker, which I reviewed in Black Static #40 and had this to say about the story - "Jason A. Wyckoff delivers one of the best stories in the anthology with 'The Homunculus in the Curio', the dialogue between a magical creature and the dying man who has "befriended" him a pure pleasure to read, but at the end there is a coda that is much darker, noting how magic has all but disappeared from our world, the fairies and their kin all banished in the face of human disbelief, so that the story is rich in both charm and existential despair." There are echoes of Harlan Ellison's car god in 'A Blood Without Blood', with a reporter visiting a junkyard where a strange edifice is growing, composed of cars wrecked in crashes that took human life. It's a fascinating piece, building well and with conviction, while the open ending, with the sense that things could go either way, the new god demanding sacrifices or sparing lives, was the ideal touch on which to close the story.

'The Dreams of Pale Night' is the longest story in the book, and perhaps the one that seems most out of place, set in a fantasy world rather than the real one of the other stories (or is it?). Hosea lives in an isolated settlement in Alaska and dreams of escaping, but there are stories of giants outside and every night a canopy is drawn over the town to protect its people from beams of sunlight and the dreams they bring. The key to Hosea's liberation may lie in his own suspect parentage. I was intrigued by the way in which the story rubs up against the real world; like The Village given a fantastic twist and with familiar values reversed (e.g. night brings sunlight). Engrossing as the story was however, it felt drawn out and didn't offer enough in the way of reward for the reader who stuck with it, the resolution rather sudden and not especially satisfying.

I reviewed the 2013 anthology Dark World: Ghost Stories edited by Timothy Parker Russell in Black Static #35 and had this to say about Wyckoff's next story - "Possibly my favourite story in the anthology, 'The House on North Congress Street' by Jason A. Wyckoff is an absorbing and realistically pitched account of what may or may not have been a spectral encounter, made all the more effective by the matter of fact style and the ambiguity, detail piling on detail, with several touches of black humour to enrich the mix." Six years later I'd like to add that with its dry tone, this is the kind of thing Ambrose Bierce might have produced in his more laconic days. An insurance claims investigator begins to notice 'Details' which he eventually concludes are premonitions. Wyckoff couches it all in scientific terminology, but adds in hints of a deal with the Devil and caps everything with a killer final paragraph. Perhaps appropriately, the story is one of details that coalesce to present us, and the character, with a greater whole, a gestalt reality. It is a familiar plot, but here done with real verve and enviable panache.

'Comfortidor' is another story in which the real rubs shoulders with the fantastic, as an office manager discovers something trapped in the sub-basement of the building in which he works after looking into the building's heating problems. Wyckoff is superb at bringing to life the personality of his petty bureaucrat protagonist, while the nature of the prisoner is such that it intrigues by its strangeness, by what is not revealed in the narrative, rather than by any quality of the monstrous. Again there is a delicious tongue in cheek feel to the story's end notes. An academic and amateur occultist is called in when a hidden and sealed room is found in an ancient house, but what lurks 'In the Library' is completely unexpected. Wyckoff builds his story with sure strokes, adding details of past history so that the final revelations, when they come, are all the more credible, but what stands out about this story is the dazzling invention that populates its pages, with such things as a demonic creature that "exists in isolated parts". I loved it.

In 'Les Ombres Chinoises' a once celebrated actress becomes unstuck in time, gaining access to immortality of a kind and altering her own past, while providing succour to those loved ones she left behind. It's an inventive and effective mood piece, a series of lively snapshots from a life. A strange encounter in the woods causes a suicidal man to revise his plans in 'Stronger Than All Storms'. The final story in the collection, it's a fitting note with which to bring down the curtain, giving us some eerie and inexplicable imagery and an ending that is both triumphant and downbeat at the same time.

Wyckoff is an original talent, but also one who seems very much plugged into the weird/horror genre, so that you can see how his work intersects with so much of what has gone before.

And, as far as high quality limited editions go, Tartarus Press are, as ever, the basilisk's bollocks.

 

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