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“Cold Print” by Ramsey Campbell

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Ramsey Campbell is Britain’s answer to Stephen King. He’s written dozens of novels and short story collections, the vast majority of which fall into the horror genre. Cold Print collects a number of his short stories written from the 1960s through the 1980s. Many of these are Lovecraftian or cosmic horror stories. One of the most interesting parts of reading this collection is watching Campbell’s development as a writer. Many of his earlier tales are direct pastiches of Lovecraft’s work, and while Campbell’s talent is still in evidence, the later stories are more rewarding. He references “my struggles to be myself” in the introduction, and reading through these stories in order shows that struggle playing out.

One of the ways in which Campbell makes Lovecraftian themes and ideas his own is by transplanting them into different settings. While Lovecraft did set some of his stories in cities (“Pickman’s Model” takes place in Boston, for example), most of his well-known stories are set in small towns (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “The Dunwich Horror”), isolated farmsteads (“The Color Out of Space”), or even more remote locations (“At the Mountains of Madness”). Cold Print, by contrast, places a surprising number of its tales in urban locations. The action of “Before the Storm” occurs entirely in a high-rise office building, and the main character of “The Tugging” is more likely to be found on a bus or in an office than sitting on the porch of a rundown farmhouse. But the best example of Campbell’s ability to evoke transcendental horror in a mundane urban setting is the title story, “Cold Print.” Campbell identifies this as the story where his struggles to be himself finally succeeded, and I would have to agree. He paints a vivid picture of a city coated in slushy, grimy snow—and the city’s inhabitants seem just as grimy. They’re perfect servants and/or nourishment for the unearthly entity Y’Golonac, and therein lies the real terror of the story: not in the sheer alienness of the Great Old Ones, but in the idea that deep in our hearts, we might have something in common with them.

Another example of Campbell’s original take on the Mythos is his willingness to use non-human entities as viewpoint characters. In “The Insects from Shaggai,” the human main character is possessed by one of the titular insects. It proceeds to show him the journey of its people from the distant reaches of the universe, and so a large chunk of the story is told from its point of view. “A Madness from the Vaults” goes even further, being set entirely on a distant world called Tond, with all its characters being inhabitants of that world.

There are two stories I want to give special mention to as being particularly unique. “The Plain of Sound” posits an alternate dimension in which physical objects can be formed by sounds made in our dimension. In addition to that intriguing premise, the tale is notable because of its ambiguous ending. Are the inhabitants of the other dimension truly as malevolent as the human characters come to believe, or are the tragic events of the climax due to the humans’ own paranoia and fear of what is different? The last story in the book, “The Voice of the Beach,” is one I had read before in another anthology, and I was happy to find it hasn’t suffered on rereading. The narrator’s growing sense of claustrophobia and isolation makes for a wonderful ratcheting up of dread, and the lyrical descriptions of the “patterns” on the beach enhance the terror rather than lessening it.

Overall, this is a great collection. Readers new to Campbell might appreciate the later stories more because they’re more polished and original, but longtime Campbell fans will enjoy following his growth over what amounts to the length of a single novel.

“Sefira and Other Betrayals” by John Langan

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John Langan’s third short story collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, was finally published in 2019 after a long delay. It’s worth the wait.

Langan tends to anchor his collections with a novella-length piece: “Laocoön, or The Singularity” in Mister Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters and “Mother of Stone” in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. In Sefira, the anchoring novella is not the last piece but the first, and is also the title story. As with several of Langan’s other pieces of short fiction, “Sefira” is a reimagining of a classic monster, in this case, a succubus. A woman whose husband fell prey to the succubus chases the demonic being across the country, but her motives aren’t entirely about revenge: she’s undergoing a mysterious transformation, and the time to halt or reverse it is running out. This supernatural transformation serves as a metaphor for the curdling of the relationship between the woman and her husband and the psychological effects that has on her. Like much of the best horror fiction, the inner demons are just as terrifying and destructive as the external ones.

“The Third Always Beside You” is another story that uses a supernatural lens to examine a marriage strained to the breaking point by infidelity. Here, the paranormal element doesn’t enter until the very end of the tale, though once it’s revealed, the reader can see where its influence made itself felt earlier.

William Faulkner famously said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even really past.” That’s a major theme of the works in Sefira. While the title story and “The Third Always Beside You” apply this to interpersonal relationships, “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos,” portrays the effect of a past evil on the mind or soul of the people who committed it. Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the way in which the pull of the past on individuals is mirrored on a more cosmic scale. Is the being the main characters encounter at the climax bound to them as much as they’re bound to it?

A symbol briefly mentioned in “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos” links that story to both Langan’s own “Mother of Stone” and to Laird Barron’s “Old Leech” stories. Langan’s novel The Fisherman includes a reference to “Mother of Stone,” extending the chain of connected stories. Another piece from Sefira keeps that chain going even further, with Langan having said that “Bor Urus” is meant to take place in the same universe as the others. Here, the gateway to an otherworldly place isn’t fixed in a circular stone chamber or along the banks of a creek. Instead, it appears from time to time at the height of particularly intense thunderstorms. Once again, Langan makes masterful use of juxtaposition, this time between the natural and unnatural. He also gives us a haunting portrayal of the tension between fascination and terror the one would expect might accompany an experience of the supernatural.

While Sefira doesn’t quite reach the heights of Carnivorous Sky—both “Mother of Stone” and “Technicolor” in that collection are truly extraordinary stories—it’s a very strong book. People who are already fans of Langan’s work will find a lot to enjoy here, and hopefully it will introduce new people to a writer whom the L.A. Review of Books was right to call “a Leviathan of modern weird fiction.” (And for those who’ve read The Fisherman, I see what you did there, L.A. Review of Books writer.)

“The End of All Our Exploring” by F. Brett Cox

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The End of All Our Exploring is F. Brett Cox’s first short story collection. It’s a wide-ranging book, with pieces that fall under the umbrellas of historical fiction, magical realism, science fiction, and horror.

While I enjoyed the book overall, it unfortunately gets off to a weak start. The first two entries, “Legacy” and “The Amnesia Helmet”, end with a summary of the main characters’ lives over the next few years. These endings feel limp and perfunctory, even though the stories that came before them were engaging.

Luckily, Cox hits his stride soon afterwards and doesn’t let up. My favorite story in the collection is “What We Did on Our Vacation: My Whole World Lies Waiting.” I’ve always loved the sort of weird fiction or “quiet horror” that strives to be unsettling rather than outright terrifying, and Cox nails that style here. The piece maintains an eerie atmosphere throughout, partly because exactly what’s going on is hinted at but never explicitly explained. It’s also very character-driven, using the supernatural phenomenon encountered by the main characters as a metaphor for how people can grow apart over time, becoming strangers to each other.

Another story I particularly enjoyed was “The Deep End.” Most stories about mysterious phenomena understandably locate them in sparsely-populated areas. Also, when not in the wilderness, they tend to be in old structures. “The Deep End” sets its tale of a supernatural encounter in an artificial, modern, contained location that’s crowded with people at the time. This makes the story feel truly fresh and original. I also appreciated the references to various urban legends about the jets and pumps in pools, as well as one gesture toward Chuck Palahniuk’s infamously disturbing short story “Guts.”

A trait many of the stories in this volume share is their keen sense of time and place. This is only to be expected for the historical fiction pieces, especially since, as described in the notes at the end, a couple of them are based on real incidents in places Cox has lived. But the more fanciful stories share this grounding in realistic landscapes and communities. “It Came Out of the Sky” is a particularly strong example. The story’s details of landscape and community make it feel like something that could really have happened and make the plot feel even more otherworldly by contrast. Throughout the book, Cox’s writing is at its most powerful when sea serpents, zombies, and witches exist alongside battered pickup trucks, women gossiping in beauty salons, and the awe-inspiring beauty of a star-filled summer sky.

“Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files

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I’ve read several short stories by Gemma Files in multi-author anthologies and found them to be consistently excellent, so I was excited to pick up her new collection, Spectral Evidence. The nine stories contained in this collection were engaging, interesting, and sometimes thought-provoking.

Three of the tales follow the same set of characters: the half-demon “holler witch” Allfair Chatwin and the monster-hunter Cornish sisters. The Chatwin stories have a very distinctive voice and do a good job of explaining the magic system to the reader without info-dumps. I enjoyed reading about these characters, so I’m hoping Files will continue their adventures in future collections or a novel.

It’s generally accepted in the horror fandom that the three classic monsters—vampires, werewolves, and zombies—have been done to death (pun intended). Files manages the impressive accomplishment of presenting original takes on two of these. “Imaginary Beauties” shows us what happens when a designer drug has unexpected side effects that mimic some (but not all) traits of the zombie archetype. As with the Chatwin stories, the strong narrative voice is one of the things that makes the piece so compelling. “When I’m Armoring My Belly” focuses on a human man who pursues relationships with vampires in hopes that one of them will eventually turn him. Again, this is something that could easily be cliché, but Files makes it work, in large part because it’s such a character-driven piece.

I’ve always loved stories about the Fair Folk, and “Guising” is an excellent modern-day fairy tale, with a creepy atmosphere and vivid imagery. Probably my favorite story in the book, though, was the title piece, “Spectral Evidence.” At its heart, this is a mystery story where all the clues take the form of various paranormal or psychic phenomena. Files does a remarkable job with the pacing, doling out information that allows the reader to gradually piece together what’s going on.

Overall, this is a great collection, and it makes me want to seek out more of Files’s work.

“The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea” by Ellen Datlow (editor)

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It’s been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the sea. Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea, features fifteen tales of what might lie in those uncharted depths.

By far my favorite story was “He Sings of Salt and Wormwood” by Brian Hodge. It evokes the mysteries of the deep ocean, both ominous and wondrous. I hadn’t read anything by this author before, and “Wormwood” compelled me to seek out more of his work.

I also enjoyed A.C. Wise’s “A Moment before Breaking.” Wise does a great job of drawing parallels between the two main characters—one human and one very much not. Both are alone, strangers in a strange land, struggling to adjust to their involuntary bonding. Despite vast differences in physiology and psychology, the similarities in their circumstances allow them to understand each other, which makes this a compelling story.

Several of the stories draw on folklore and fairy tales for their inspiration. Seanan McGuire’s “Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show to You the Sea” adapts the original version of the Little Mermaid story to a modern setting. Alyssa Wong’s “What My Mother Left Me” explores the unsettling implications of some aspects of the selkie legend.

I’ve been a fan of John Langan’s writing since I read his short story collection The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies years ago. His story in this volume, “The Deep Sea Swell,” is sort of a ghost story, although there are hints of something weirder going on as well.

Most creepy stories about the ocean tend to take place in settings where the ocean is cold, and often isolate their protagonist as well. While many of the stories in this anthology are in that vein, a few break with one or more traditions. Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Saudade” takes place on a cruise ship packed with vacationing senior citizens. “Broken Record,” by Stephen Graham Jones, is set on an almost stereotypical desert island, where heat is a much greater threat to the protagonist than cold. And the ocean in Bradley Denton’s “A Ship of the South Wind” isn’t made of water at all. These stories, interspersed with the others, keep the theme of the collection fresh.

There’s an old saying about three things all wise men fear, one of which is the sea in a storm. In this collection, stormy seas, calm seas, cold seas, warm seas, and even seas of grass are all envisioned in a way that sends a chill down the reader’s spine.

“The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories” by Ken Liu

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Ken Liu made speculative fiction history with his story “The Paper Menagerie,” which became the first (and so far, only) short story to win all three of the major spec-fic awards (the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy). The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories collects fifteen short pieces, including the groundbreaking title story.

While I greatly enjoyed the much-awarded “Paper Menagerie,” the most breathtaking story in the collection is “Good Hunting.” The fusion of folklore and steampunk makes the story feel truly original, and the characters are compelling. The Amazon blurb for the collection doesn’t list this piece as an award winner or finalist, which I found very surprising, as it’s easily deserving of such.

Like “Good Hunting,” “The Regular” brings two genres together to create a fascinating story. On the surface, it’s a murder mystery. But the private investigator hunting the perpetrator has cybernetic enhancements, and such enhancements are also crucial to the motive for the crimes.

Several of the stories, in the grand tradition of science fiction, posit a fictional technology and then examine the social and economic repercussions of that technology. “The Perfect Match” extrapolates from social media and digital assistants to imagine a world in which such technologies are all-encompassing. “Simulacrum” conjures a setting in which holograms are commonplace and shows how they might enhance—or impoverish—human relationships.

Liu’s prolific imagination is on full display in “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” and “An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition.” Both stories purport to be reference works describing alien species. And this is where the “prolific imagination” comes in, because there are no “rubber forehead aliens” here. Many of the beings described are non-humanoid, and in some cases, even non-organic. We get brief glimpses of many fascinating species, and I would love to read stories that focus on them individually.

Some of the most moving stories in the collection deal with the theme of acknowledging the uglier parts of humanity’s past. In “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” and “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,” the main character fights to bring a historical atrocity to light, even when the effort comes at great personal cost. “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” follows a similar theme, although it takes place in an alternate history. Some of the scenes in these stories are pretty harrowing, but they address important questions about how we relate to history and what responsibility we have to the past.

“A Lonely and Curious Country: Tales from the Lands of Lovecraft” by Matthew Carpenter (editor)

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During the Halloween season, we seek out forms of entertainment that have a hint (or more) of the unsettling about them: horror movies, haunted houses, and, for those of us who love to read, scary stories. The Ulthar Press anthology A Lonely and Curious Country: Tales from the Lands of Lovecraft, provides an abundance of such tales.

As the title suggests, many of the stories take place in settings that will be familiar to Lovecraft fans. Pete Rawlik’s “Down through Black Abysses” shows us what happened to the narrator of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” after that story ended. One great aspect of this story is that it takes into account the way sensory details change as the main character’s metamorphosis nears completion: as a being adapted to live in the depths of the sea, he relies on smell, taste, and touch much more than on sight. Jonathan Titchenal’s “Radical Division” takes us to ancient Kingsport and witch-haunted Arkham, while Brian M. Sammons and Jamie D. Jenkins’s “After Birth” show what Innsmouth might look like in the mid-20th century.

But the collection brings us farther afield as well. Steven Prizeman’s “The Dreamer of Nothingness” takes us to 1960s Paris, where participants in a student protest movement find themselves caught up in less earth-bound events. (As a point of interest, there really were widespread protests by students and working-class citizens of Paris in the mid-late 60s; these grew so intense that in May 1968—the month and year where the story takes place—the French economy pretty much stopped and then-President Charles de Gaulle fled the country for a few hours.) Seán Farrell’s “Paudie O’Brien and the Bogman” brings the eldritch to rural Ireland. In “Down by the Highway Side,” Paul R. McNamee reworks the old legend of the southern Blues singer who sells his soul to the Devil. There’s still a southern Blues singer, and he still sells his soul…but not to any being as comprehensible as the Judeo-Christian Satan.

On occasion, authors have inserted the Cthulhu Mythos into other pre-existing fictional worlds, as in Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.” In one of the most interesting stories in this volume, “The Litany of Yith,” Brett Davidson does something similar. He posits an encounter between the main character of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and the Great Race of Yith, and the two settings mesh surprisingly well. The world of 30,000,000AD: truly a lonely and curious country.