Darkly Didactic: The Lingering Lessons from C.M. Muller’s HIDDEN FOLK


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The ostensible simplicity of a line like, “Look, Dad, a door!” belies a complicated subtext in the story “Absconsa Laterna,” and acts as an unassuming invocation of irretrievable consequence.

Far from his first publication project, but his first fiction collection, many of the “strange stories” in C.M. Muller’s Hidden Folk possess such unpretentious portents, and those who follow Muller through these thresholds will certainly remain haunted and, likely in some way, fundamentally altered.

Muller’s aesthetic is one of calm, sharply-defined surfaces; and though the illustration of a quiet, dawn-dim pond—the scene of an early-morning fishing episode, say—may be a mundane metaphor, it’s serviceable for this assessment.  We read Muller, in part, because of his subdued execution:  beneath the superficiality of that peaceful, reflective epidermis is a dark district inhabited by shadowy entities.  Focusing on the surface yet coaxed by curiosity, we narrow our focus, shift the lenses of our eyeline toward a furtive movement below:  the languid sway of infected kelp…the peek-a-boo retreat of something sinuous…the serpentine flash of scales.

A sense of Muller’s aesthetic is gained after reading the collection’s opener, “Vranger,” but it’s with the conclusion of “The Dust Child” that readers begin to better understand not only Muller’s tonal wheelhouse but his artistic intentions.

d79aa5f091228bf7d492b0dfb04fd936--night-gallery-tv-landMuller comes from a line of writers (I count myself among their motley ranks) influenced and affected by a particular era of the late-1980s and early-90s horror and science fiction; and though not directly affected by it, the 80s produced a variety of fiction which reflected predecessors directly “shaped” by the time-bound structures of, sure, radio shows, but more specifically televised serials—especially Serling’s instructive segments on the Twilight Zone and, later, his morose portraits on The Night Gallery.

prayersSome fantastic commercial short fiction was borne out of that 80s-90s span.  It’s a subjective submission, but I’d point to the work of my personal North Star writers of Charles Grant, Norman Partridge, Ed Gorman; and to tighten my scope and intent here, I’d direct one to, notably, Robert McCammon’s wonderful Blue World and Dan Simmons’s indelible Prayers to Broken Stones.  It’s evident there’s quite a bit of DNA from imparted from these periods (I can’t help but think Muller is sharing a sly wink to Simmons’s “Metastasis”—which was, suitably, converted into a teleplay titled “The Offering” for the early-90s anthology series Monsters—in his presentation of the aforementioned “The Dust Child”).  The result, in Hidden Folk, is a collection showcasing a pleasing circularity.

In “Absconsa Laterna,” Muller constructs a scenario which is a suitable creative-process metaphor for, perhaps, the often aimless and meandering routes we take in order to gain genuine momentum, and as Muller submits, “[W]e were able to witness the slow and often painstaking process by which many artists constructed their fantasies.”  Here, Muller relies on a central topic that I, as a writer, often have trouble navigating:  the “loss” of a child.  And I mean it when I say that I’m still haunted by the nonchalant words of a child, “Look, Dad, a door!”

twice-told-3d-cover (1)“Resurfacing” and “Diary of an Illness” are essentially fraternal twins with dissimilar voices; but something realized in the scenarios is a glimpse at the author behind the barrier of glass; although “Resurfacing” is more potent and reflects some of that signature circularity.  Something else that occurs to me with this story is the reprisal of the doppelgänger device.  Muller is adept at portraying the dimensions of “the shadowed self” (“Krogh’s Remains”)—a motif which certainly telegraphs his forthcoming anthology, Twice-Told:  A Collection of Doubles (set to be released, quite appropriately, on February 2, 2019— 02/02, in case I was too subtle).

“The Church in the Field” captures many of the writer’s eruditic strengths and fiction-rhythmic tendencies, and is perhaps his most artistically didactic.  The story contains a line which might very well sum up this unsettling collection, as Muller’s effectively created “brooding sketches of darkness and hunger.”

My central, critical observations come in the form of my need for more interactive dialogue.  There are too few instances of Folks engaging in spoken interplay; and I find that the exhalation of conversation might dispel the murky mist of ambiguity.  But there is a knowing liberality in Muller’s vagueness, as if gifting his audience with a participatory reciprocity.  You have to want to see what he see; and I think he wants some questions to linger.  “There was nothing more pleasurable,” says one of his narrators, “than patience.”

As a writer, yes, but more so as an editor and scrivner, C.M. Muller is a commendable custodian of the horror medium and its continually forking branches.  Of course, writers are aware (in some cases to a debilitating degree) the nuances of dramaturgical interactions in which we all engage; but it’s a writer’s obligation to infuse their products with abundant gravity so as to, ideally, sufficiently drag the readers beneath the exhibited surface.  In Hidden Folk, Muller has succeeded at both.

And so, my encouragement to curious parities is this:  while I’m loath to surrender my own copy, I’d like you to imagine the rectangle of a dark bookcase, its shelves packed shoulder-to-shoulder with varying, somber volumes of traded tales…I would then gesture toward the slatey spine of Hidden Folk.  “Look,” I’d say to you, removing the object wrapped in overcast, “a door…”

“He who has begun is half done…”

And while Mike and Lawrence and Kevin and Harlen and Cordie watched the satellite pass over, their faces raised in wonder at the bright new age now beginning, Dale watched them, thinking of his friend Duane and seeing things through the words that Duane might have used to describe them…

—Dan Simmons, Summer of Night (1991)

As I’m wont to do on Thanksgiving evening, as dusk draws up on a day dedicated to frantic culinary endeavors, a spectrum of logistics, and general familial demands (I’m grateful for the chaos and chores in all their variegated forms), I also nurture a memory, a narrow moment which had a profound consequences.

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That day and date back in November, 2000, represent coordinates of a tectonic shift along what was, at the time, a rather ambitiously listless landscape.  As I, along with many of you, express sentiments of, I also grow preoccupied by a sense of melancholy at closing that crease-covered paperback—a daunting melancholy (The amount of time and attention it must take to be a writer…) which was not wholly unpleasant, as it compelled the dissective questions:  How is it done?…How does this work?…How do you get them to see?

I began studying.  I began dissecting.  I began.  Sapere Aude—Incipe!

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(November, 2017)

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Seventeen years ago this evening, I stole away from an acidic / insipid Thanksgiving-dinner-table conversation, retreating to an isolated, second-story bedroom to read the last eight pages of the Warner Books paperback-version of SUMMER OF NIGHT. I scrutinized / savored the novel’s last lines with the understanding that I’d inadvertently navigated myself toward a craft-creative crossroads…

I’m still trying to figure out what kind of writer I’m supposed to be…