Ghouljaw and Other Stories (Hippocampus Press, 2014)

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Over the past several years, Clint Smith has established himself as a powerfully imaginative writer of weird fiction. In this first collection of short stories, Smith demonstrates the multifaceted talents that will establish him as one of the notable weird writers of his generation.

What distinguishes Smith’s work is both the originality of its weird conceptions and its careful delineation of human character. One of his earliest tales, “Benthos,” features both these qualities, telling a grim tale of alienated youth and drug-taking that veers into the grotesquely supernatural. In “The Tell-Tale Offal,” Smith cleverly updates Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in a grisly story of physical horror. In “What Happens in Hell Stays in Hell,” Smith uses the war in Afghanistan as a chilling backdrop to unthinkable horrors unleashed in the parched sands of the Middle East.

“I have no doubt that Clint Smith will be heard from in the future as a leading practitioner of the modern weird tale. The stories in this collection testify not only to his literary potential but to his already significant accomplishments.”-From S. T. Joshi’s foreword


“These smart, unsettling stories give us, with vivid detail, both the squalidly ordinary and the terrifyingly extraordinary-and make clear how closely the two are linked.”-Ben H. Winters, Edgar-Award-Winning author of The Last Policeman


“Clint Smith’s Ghouljaw stories use vivid imagery to build intense close-ups that connect reader with character, then adds psychologies corrupted by sex, loss, betrayal, guilt, cowardice, denial, and that fatal flaw pomposity. With sprightly literate language he twists old motifs into new shapes of the rural gothic, often embodied in some of the spookiest “monsters from the id” yet imagined-creatures gory, squishy, bloody, witchy, wild. Not to forget a demonic “dog” that scared the bejesus out of me! The monsters of humanity, too, find new life here, as blood cults, avenging mystics, violent poachers, PTSD, and repressed memories incarnate. Clint Smith’s Ghouljaw releases into the reader’s world a darkness that teaches, shakes, and warns. Read and after a night of tossing sleep you’ll awaken changed. For the better? Well, as it is with Smith’s characters, that matter’s up to you.”-Jim Powell, MFA, Senior Lecturer, IUPUI


Reviews:

Publishers Weekly “The 14 stories in Smith’s first collection of short horror fiction range from the poignant and unsettling to the viscerally horrific. “The Hatchet” tells of trick-or-treating brothers who confront a horror at an abandoned house that haunts them for the rest of their lives. In “Dirt on Vicky,” another haunted house story, a father and son share a ghostly encounter that unites them with the boy’s dead mother, who may have experienced it herself back when she dated his father. “Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite” is a speculation on the strange life form that might evolve from the detritus sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, and “Like Father, Like…” is a ghoulish meditation on the significance of blood ties between parents and children. Virtually all of the horrors that Smith conjures take their shape and substance from the emotional responses of characters to the estrangement, loss, or death of spouses and family members. Although narrated in a straightforward fashion, these stories have refreshingly unpredictable plots that spring their horrors unexpectedly.”

C.M. Muller, editor of Nightscript:  “Ghouljaw & Other Stories” is one of the finest debut collections I’ve had the pleasure to read this year, every bit as impressive as Jason A. Wyckoff’s “Black Horse” (2012) and Nathan Ballingrud’s “North American Lake Monsters” (2013), sharing with these works a breadth of originality that makes it required reading for both readers and writers of Weird Fiction.

As the back cover blurb accurately declares, these are tales of “the squalidly ordinary and the terrifyingly extraordinary.” Most feature characters whose personal traumas quite literally begin to take on a life of their own. This metaphoric style of storytelling is evident from the very first offering, “Benthos”, in which a graduate student, lured to a party and soon thereafter into cheating on his girlfriend, becomes the very benthic horror of his guilt-ridden psyche. In “Dirt on Vicky” we encounter a single father recalling and then visiting (at the prodding of his curious young son) an abandoned farmhouse appropriately named “the Aikman place”, where memories of his dead wife take shape. This is a tale that the late Robert Aickman might very well have included in his “Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories” series.

In the introduction to this collection, S.T. Joshi points to Smith’s originality in regard to “the weird conception.” This is perfectly exemplified in “Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite” (the simplicity of the title should not fool you; this is a brilliant and complex tale), which focuses on the seemingly disparate elements of dust, bugs, a deceased companion, and a vacuum cleaner, and renders each into an entity you will not soon forget. While all the tales are chilling to a degree, one of the most terrifying was “Like Father, Like…”, which begins ordinarily enough, with the main character returning to his hometown to attend his father’s funeral; but, as a series of unusual events begin to occur, he realizes that there is a very different purpose for his being there. The denouement quite literally clamps both reader and protagonist into an inescapable nightmare. And this is just one of the many things Smith does so well: ending his tales in unexpected and satisfying ways.

While most of the offerings are cast in varying shades of bleakness, one notably exception was “Corbin’s Gore”, in which something as simple as an unwanted sweatshirt becomes a world into which the protagonist can experience an aspect of his life previously aborted. Perception and memory figure into many of the tales as well. In “The Hatchet”, two brothers are forever changed when they unwisely disturb the occupant of a darkened house on Halloween. At one point the protagonist (who is now middle-aged) has this to say about the house: “It was as if the entire property resided in a faulty pocket of perception.” Such a conceit might very well stand as the modus operandi of the entire collection.

There is a deep literary and genre feel to “Ghouljaw & Other Stories”, and Smith has more than succeeded in crossing the streams, as it were, to fashion something profoundly unique. These are tales that are a pleasure to read, both for their literary acumen and for the way they bore deeply into the brainpan. Amid all the fine offerings being released this year, this collection is a standout, and a certain contender for best collection of the year.

Albedo:  Ghouljaw and Other Stories, by Clint Smith is a short story collection about tiny awful things that take place in cramped places, both within and without our heads.

The short story collection features a number of horror stories that deal with alien invasions, irregular births and supernaturally-induced tiny tragedies in the daily lives of the characters. The author’s style is sufficiently gloomy and his writing style matches his pacing perfectly, building up suspense while avoiding the unnecessary filler that has become a staple of the genre. Jared Boggess’ cover art helps cement that idea in the mind of the reader, with a very apt minimalist design.

Ghouljaw and Other Stories’ main failing, in my opinion, was that despite their great presentation, the themes in the stories were repeated perhaps, a bit too often. While these are horror stories that deal with small tragedies, their protagonists appear to be roughly the same people: lost men and women, trudging through life before they are struck down by something particularly awful. This, coupled with the cryptic, abrupt endings to some of the stories, gave me a case of narrative whiplash in the middle of what I would otherwise call a very well-made horror anthology.”