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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC ISSUE 71 OUT NOW!

The Late Review: Three from Tartarus

22nd Aug, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

I reviewed Eric Stener Carlson's first novel The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires back in Black Static #17 and was, as far as I can recall, mighty impressed. Seven years later in 2016 and Carlson was back with Tartarus and MULADONA (Tartarus Press hc, 290pp, £35), and a further three years after that I'm happy to report this second novel is even better than its predecessor.

But we get ahead of ourselves.

Muladona takes place in the small Texan town of Incarnation in the year 1918 when the First World War is in its end days and a much greater threat comes from the ravages of the Spanish Flu. Formerly Catholic and wealthy, the town is now ruled over by Pastor Stromberg, a strict Protestant who will have no truck with the legends of the local Indians. While son Sebas manages to escape his father's iron rule, the sickly Verge is forced to stay under the Pastor's roof, almost a prisoner. With his father's departure on a mission, Verge is left to fend for himself, and immediately menaced by the Muladona, a fearsome monster with the body of a hellish mule and the twisted soul of a dead and disgraced woman according to native legend. The creature wants to feed on Verge's soul and drag his body down to hell, but is required to tell him a series of seven stories on separate nights and allow Verge to guess its earthly name to save himself. The narrative that unfolds takes Verge and his friend Caroline back to the early days of Incarnation and forces him to confront the mysteries in his own family history.

There are similarities here to The Saint Perpetuus Club with the book's emphasis on deals with the Devil and someone who wishes to acquire great power simply to pursue petty vendettas, but fine as that work was this feels like a much richer and more detailed story. Central to it all are the very real and earthly horrors of war and pestilence, which Carlson succeeds in bringing to terrifying life on the page, with dead bodies littering the stage on which the narrative takes place, and to add insult to injury another plank on which the story rests is the matter of intolerance, both at a societal level and on a very personal one.

Against all this Carlson gives us positive values, such as the love between Verge and Caroline, the bravery of incidental characters like "the hobo" and Mrs Bellows, the common decency of ordinary people. And then there is the love of literature and yearning for adventure that helps see Verge through all his troubles, feelings many of us can identify with all too easily.

Woven into the main narrative are the tales told by the Muladona, which distort events and the world, forcing both Verge and the reader to look at things in a different way, to see that terrible things can be done for good reasons. There is a metafictional element at play here, the little stories helping to drive the bigger tale on to its conclusion, and kudos to Carlson for bringing this into the forefront of the narrative with the final tale, that of Verge and his last gasp, so that he knows he is both the story and the one being told the story in a clever inversion of literary conventions. Each story is beguiling, such as that of the cemetery handyman who falls in love with a statue with dire consequences, and the penultimate tale in which children's souls are tampered with in a ruthless example of social cleansing.

Dominating the story is the very real figure of the Muladona, a monster that feels unlikely in the abstract but on which Carlson confers a horrific authenticity, with its burning hooves and champing teeth, the way in which it appears from the mirror. And adding yet more vitality to the story is the family mystery which plays out as Verge's fight to survive takes hold, with revelations about what happened in the past and a picture of twisted evil emerging.

In case you haven't guessed, I really liked this book. It took on the tropes of horror and folklore and used them to throw light on very real and human evil.

MIRROR DEAD (Tartarus Press hc, 254pp, £35) is the first novel by Magda McQueen, or at least if she's written others they don't rate mention on the dustjacket flap bio.

Simon is "possessed" by the spirit of his twin brother (dead in the womb) Gray, who guilt trips him into feeding on the sexual/spiritual energy of various women, often manipulating the situation to cause them pain or worse. Simon becomes fascinated with Rose, seeing in her a chance to move on from his girlfriend's death the previous year, but Rose has problems of her own, including a psycho ex with intents on her money and body. More seriously, her own twin sister Miranda, who is currently in the same mental hospital where Simon's mother died, is communicating with an Angel, a being with plans for Gray. The stage is set for a climactic tour de force in which everything and everyone comes unravelled.

There is a lot to enjoy about this book. First and perhaps foremost, it has a rather novel explanation for the existence of ghosts - seen only in mirrors, able to shift from one body to another on certain occasions, each with their own vivid fantasy world, and manifesting through power outages, but that's only the tip of the iceberg McQueen chips loose from the landmass of the afterlife. Secondly it has a wonderfully convoluted plot, one in which nothing turns out to be as it seems. McQueen effortlessly weaves all the diverse strands of her tapestry together, continually wrong-footing both the reader and her characters, making us anticipate each twist and turn with genuine relish at the writer's narrative skills. Thirdly there is the wealth of invention, seen most obviously in the outlandish portrayal of Gray, whose world is camp in extremis, and the surreal depictions of another reality in which Miranda and her Angel interact. Combined these separate elements give the novel an almost hallucinogenic quality, as if we are on a fantasy fuelled drug trip courtesy of the author.

Perhaps the best thing of all though, the icing on the cake, is the style of the writing, with McQueen's tongue always firmly in her cheek and a delightful stream of novel metaphors and cutting one liners to move the action on, the banter between Simon and Gray being a particular pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and didn't want it to end, and there's the hint of more to come in the way things turn out with Gray, Miranda and the Angel, in which case to allow myself a near cliché, I simply can't wait to see them on the next bardo.

And finally a brief word on a book that will be cherished by many for personal reasons, regardless of its considerable literary merit.

One of the projects writer and critic Joel Lane was working on when he tragically passed away in November of 2013 was a book length study of horror fiction. Sadly that work now won't come to fruition, but by way of compensation we have THIS SPECTACULAR DARKNESS (Tartarus Press hc, 350pp, £35) a volume of critical essays that were to form part of the magnum opus.

In the first essay, the eponymously titled 'This Spectacular Darkness', Lane lays out his vision of the horror genre, how and why it came into existence as a distinct literary form against the backdrop of sweeping changes - social, philosophical, economic, and political - in the early years of the twentieth century, and what he considers to be the two main branches of the genre, existential horror and ontological horror. The former "concerns itself with human nature, mortality, identity, justice and responsibility", while the latter takes as its "starting point the conviction that humans cannot use their own nature as a key to the reality that surrounds them". Lane identifies the main exponents of each school and shows how the two strands inform and strengthen each other, finally illustrating their respective virtues by way of television series The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There follow a series of eight essays that originally appeared in the journal Wormwood with Lane applying his theories to the work of writers he regards as key, including Cornell Woolrich and Ray Bradbury, Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman. The next hundred pages of the book are taken up with essays from other publications, tackling such subjects as the work of Ramsey Campbell and the Cthulhu mythos. Finally we have a quartet of essays by friends and admirers that fall under the heading 'Appreciations of the Writings of Joel Lane', considering his critical work, short stories, poetry, and novels respectively. A special shout out to final essay, 'Socialism or Barbarism: Joel Lane's Blue Trilogy and the poetry of the lost' by Nina Allan which brings the book to a suitable conclusion with its dissection of the themes in his novels and demonstration of how similar concerns informed his life and work.

Agree with his viewpoint or not, there is no doubt that Joel Lane's perspective is insightful and intelligent, but never dull or overly academic, never afraid to introduce an element of humour even at his own expense. This Spectacular Darkness is the work of somebody who was passionate about the horror genre and its often untapped potential to throw light on the human condition, to help us make sense of our lives even as they feel ever more meaningless. In the present moment it often seems that rational and compassionate voices like that of Joel Lane are sadly absent from our dialogues at a time when we need them most. In that at least, as I'm sure Joel Lane himself would affirm, the horror genre is definitely holding up a mirror to reality.

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