Review: The Crafty Contagion of Frank Duffy’s DISTANT FREQUENCIES

It’s creatively unhealthy to covet the literary traits and fictive tricks of a fellow scribe.  Right?  (I’m, like, asking for a friend.)  It’s my estimation that, as opposed to wholesale envy, there’s nothing wrong with my creative aspirations (I mean my friend’s aspirations) to emulate the stylistic proclivities on full display in Duffy’s latest collection, Distant Frequencies (Demain Publishing, 2020).

Among other crafty endeavors, Duffy is involved (in numerous creative capacities) with filmmaking (some of the lingo in the eerie, “Not Yet Players,” offers a tell-tale signal), and his proximity with the medium is reflected in his fiction.  There’s a cinematic precision in his stories that eclipses the typical tale which strives for a “ready-made” transfer to the screen — narratives which are all veneer and of little substantive distinction.  Instead, Duffy (and the effect possesses an effortless resonance) manufactures a brand of fiction wired-up with value and vividity.

I’ve said it elsewhere but it bears repeating:  Duffy’s third collection of short stories, 2015’s Hungry Celluloid (Dark Minds Press), was an aesthetic inspiration.  Four years later, what continues to fascinate me (and my aforementioned friend) is Duffy’s ability to bring such descriptive electricity to such narratively-tight exercises.  There’s an inky dexterity to the nine stories in Distant Frequencies, demonstrating Duffy’s flexibility in a duality that is both literally “serious” and escapist in its capacity for outright horror.

There’s a deceptive breadth to Duffy’s stories that works to insulate readers as they proceed.  To put that strange sentence another way, it is — from the writer’s purview — about a selfless proficiency in your craft (functional fluency, in other words); and, from the reader’s perspective, a concern of intrinsic trust that the experience will consequentially satisfying.

Less akin to outright repetition, there are piercing pinpoints — the perpetual presence of the Priest, the black vestments, the unsettling-sentient hillside church, the rotting sanctuaries — which puncture and secure the stories with gleaming stingers.

Notwithstanding the extremities of your taste, it’s implausible that you’ll suppress a shudder throughout passages in the more eloquently eerie and acutely gruesome stories:  “A Greater Horror”; “Appearances”; “And When The Lights Came On”; and “Permanent Hunger.”

As I’ve said:  Ostensibly effortlessly, Duffy employs descriptions that are familiar in particular prism, while possessing the effect of lingering — in this, it becomes difficult to not see things his way long after you’ve parted ways from his stories:  His shadow games are now your shadows.  “The villagers stood beneath a tree, the upper boughs displaying a dozen corpses on ropes … black tendrils caught on a breeze.  The corpses blew back and forth, reanimated by the suddenly changing season.”  Yeah — that’s yours now too.  Let’s call it a contagion.  Crafty, for sure — deftly adept, without doubt — but a contagion nonetheless.

Review: The Imposing Approach of WHAT’S COMING FOR YOU

I became acquainted with the ten stories composing Joshua Rex’s debut collection, What’s Coming For You (Rotary Press, 2020) upon its debut in the late summer of 2020; but the more accurate confession is that many of the themes have been slowly unfolding before me for most of my life.  While I’ve gained more explicit clues from his non-fiction writing (Rex penned an outstanding feature in September, 2020, with Ginger Nuts of Horror titled “Early Revelations of Death:  The Book That Made Me”), there are still more subtle hints in not only the style he chooses to employ, but the intentional effect of each tale.

What’s Coming For You by Joshua Rex (Rotary Press, 2020)

Of course I’m not suggesting that, as creators, we relegate ourselves to artistic echo chambers, but it’s difficult to ignore certain thematic and stylistic blips on the cerebral radar.  After all, identification and connectivity are significant components in these reader-writer cycles of galvanization and inspiration; and so I’m not so much commenting on a kindred verve (though it’s pleasant to do so), but rather noting (or even perhaps hearing) how a writer handles the formative effect of macro infatuations.  

In a Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (1984)

But it stands to comment on the certainty that we cut our teeth on similar literary gems (see the beloved I Can Read! campaign) that likely elicit a sense of nostalgia for most writers (of a kindred age-range) who operate in the veins of horror, dark fantasy, and the weird — books like Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark, In a Dark Room, and other Scholastic-Troll-era offerings that appealed to more melancholy tastes of elementary-aged tikes.  In this, the stories are that capture an unwitting precociousness in their characters — “The Whisper Wheel” is an excellent example of young characters who are, perhaps, too smart — or too conscious — for their own good; and the deliciously malignant “Breakout Season” is a reimagined Fear-Street segment for grownups.

In a Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (1984)

Rex possesses a stylistic employment of language that is both disarming and demanding (I mean, consider the seizing implications in the title’s direct, deictic address).  There’s a darkly electric texture to the stories hallmarked in the morose, opening meditations of “The Leap.”  Yet, if there is an insulating thematic structure, I’d offer it to be the usage of houses.  Domiciles of all varieties play a significant role in Rex’s collection.  

The motif — Rex’s “dominion of decay” —  is of sound literary architecture, the metaphor hauntingly introduced in “The Unfinished Room,” chillingly distilled in the second-person narrated, “In Situ,” then conclusively echoed in the final, nearly novella-length story, “The Voice Below”:  “The preternatural ability to sense the residual presence of humans in objects had been … an isolating an often terrifying bane that had made her inclined to attempt to move through the world unseen, silent as the ghosts she sensed in the things that she handled.  In a place like her aunt’s house — itself an antique, full of antiques (many of them ancient) — she had to be especially careful. / However, the older a thing was and, disturbingly, the more violent the history, the more intense the vision.” 

That said, my standout selection in the collection is the poignant, “The Reveal,” a remarkable narrative which continues to accumulate claustrophobia as we tick toward the terminus of the final passage’s tether.

Joshua Rex: “Bloodletting”

Even for readers whose psychometric capabilities are lacking, approximating yourself with these impressive stories will evoke an echo of both intoxicating nostalgia and sober commemoration of dark-tale traditions.  There is a tangible and trustworthy momentum to each story, and though the approach might otherwise, under less capable stewardship, beckon predictability, Joshua Rex ratchets tension so quickly that it’s difficult to anticipate, well, what’s coming for you