A Celebration of the Unsettling: Gordon B. White’s Debut Collection: AS SUMMER’S MASK SLIPS AND OTHER DISRUPTIONS

 

I have it on dependable authority that Gordon B. White maintains a daily regimen of long-hand writing exercises (you might glimpse a mention of this practice by way of some of his social-media posts). It’s a presumption, but I can’t help but consider that this pen-to-paper practice (diurnal journaling not being a unique task for many writers, though possibly an exhaustive disciplinary tactic to civilian sensibilities) has been a galvanizing ingredient in the syllable-by-syllable precision of White’s fiction.
“Writing exercises are maps, not the destination,” writes novelist Bret Anthony Johnston. “They are the keys to the castle, not the castle itself.” As such, Gordon B. White reveals himself as both cartographer and locksmith in his debut collection, As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions.
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A coiling of quality and control, White’s collection houses a reverence for language and style, and showcases a devotion to the expansive spectrum of influence — a fictive continuum ranging from an intellectual, arthouse aesthetic to Creepshow escapism. White flexes enough of a scribbler’s muscle to make the collection, in its aggregate, subtlety instructive — pay attention to not only how he’s crafted the tales, but how (and perhaps his editorial collaborators) have elected to structure the collection.

The first half of the collection is threaded with themes of psychological precariousness and the necrotic logic of religious delusions; we abrade here too glimpses of deteriorative mental states and the gloomy aspects of domestic relationships.

The collection’s opener, “Hair Shirt Drag,” is a brief examination of social-sexual norms and a meditation on ritualized expectation — certainly, for our protagonist, but also for us as participants. A tale riddled with telegraphic pinpricks which act as an accretion for a final incantation: the story’s hue also functions as a reflection for White’s collection itself. “Words don’t mean nothing,” says the tale’s narrator. “It’s only intention that makes things happen.” White, however, is all too aware of the potency of words.

White’s initial acts also bear a sequence of shorter, flash-fiction pieces which successfully play like tonal interludes between stories (“But you were right. The Beast is coming”); likewise, further on readers will find “The Hollow,” a brief piece which works more like a well-defined sketch — a fermenting barm with all the characteristics of a fully-formed story eagerly waiting to be fed.

But by the second half, White quietly gives readers over to a series of more sober stories with an analysis of duality and the significance of altruistic paternality (which I’ll get back to in a few seconds).

Of note is “Open Fight Night at the Dirtbag Casino,” a poignant contemplation on the oxidizing qualities of revenge in the face of forfeited salvation. As short story collections are a useful tool for showcasing an array of creative capabilities, White demonstrates a variety of devices — on display here, a penchant for voice (“believe me, babies”) is shrewdly executed.

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I can’t help but subjectively project the possibility that this tale was borne out of White’s laborious ethos when it comes to his craft. “I don’t have a way to keep track of how many times we’ve done this,” admits the narrator, and it’s interesting, in a macro sense, to wonder at White’s back-to-the-drawing-board awareness — which all writers resignedly confront — as he repeatedly slips on the skin of would-be short-story protagonists. “You’re never the same train hitting the same wall, the same straw on the camel’s back … [y]ou just gotta keep spinning, again and again, to see where it lands.” White’s violent piece concludes with a tenebrous and potent punch.

Opening, on the other hand, with a flurry of fistacuffs, is “Eight Affirmations For the Revolting Body, Confiscated From the Prisoners of Bunk 17.” Bound to a prison camp during an Us-versus-Them global war, the story hits satisfying dystopian notes while narratively balancing on razor-wire between horror and science-fiction. It’s scary and bleak, but closes on a bittersweet “note.”
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But it’s “The Buchanan Boys Ride Again” that breaks the thematic fever of the first half of the book. A sort of salute to 80s horror and stitched with action-comedy quips, my main nit is a lack of clarity in the “creature” component’s explanation, the story, in commendable capacity, suffers from the same symptom as “The Hollow”: the skeletal system clearly urges expansion.
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“The Buchanan Boys” is infused with enjoyable humor, but the underpinning preoccupation is clear and quite touching: the (ostensibly mundane) magnitude of fathers.

And while readers will glean as much in the closing sequences of stories, the collection’s dedication page is succinctly poignant. “For my father James — a teller of tales and gone too soon.” Gone, yes, but White has ensured that the man’s presence, and influential legacy, reverently resonates on our page.
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Aided by a sluicing first-person execution, and imbued with themes of duality, loss, responsibility, the reflective “Birds of Passage” stands as the collection’s closer.  “As I myself grow older, I often think back to that night on the river. About how there’s a world around us, but beyond us, too. A world that takes things, changes them, but sometimes gives them back. All of it — all of it is ripples.”

The catchy cadences of Gordon B. White’s prose serve as stepping stones for readers crossing the pleasantly deceptive arteries of his disquieting narratives. As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions is an impressive exercise in precision, and a celebration of the unsettling.

PLUTO IN FURS Anthology: “Behemoth” Claws Its Way Onto the TOC

I was recently notified that my “rough beast” of a short story, “Behemoth,” has been accepted to Scott Dwyer’s upcoming anthology, Pluto In Furs.  The spectrum of the tale pendulums between 1969 and 1987, as my protag, Dox Ingram, a mechanic, is inadvertently compelled to confront a protean horror inextricably braided to a disturbing encounter during his younger years as a soldier in Vietnam.

some bears, rolf armstrong

“Some Bears,” Rolf Armstrong (PUCK, March 27, 1915)

 

“The title, Pluto In Furs, is obviously a play on Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs,” writes Dwyer. “But whereas his book postulates that the female and the cruel are his objects of a masochistic worship, Pluto In Furs will explore what it means if darkness and the nonhuman are also worthy of masochistic worship.” That said, the anthology will also include some loosely-themed horror tales compassing the surreal, erotica, weird, as well as “quiet” ghost stories. Some authors have announced, while others are keeping their cards close to their chests; but I’ve had a glimpse at some of the imposing contributors, and readers are in for a sinister treat.

UPDATE:  February 5, 2019:  Official Pluto In Furs table of contents announced at The Plutonian:

“An Abysmal Masochism” (An Introduction) by Scott Dwyer
“The Tangible Universe” by Jeffrey Thomas
“The Wolf at the Door or The Music of Antonio Soler” by Devora Gray
“Other Yseut and Romance Tristan” by Adam Golaski
“Dermatology, Eschatology” by Kurt Fawver
“Headsman’s Trust: A Murder Ballad” by Richard Gavin
“It’s Hard to be Me” by John Claude Smith
“The Gutter at the Bottom of the World” by David Peak
“Tender is the Tether” by Rhys Hughes
“With Shining Gifts That Took All Eyes” by Mike Allen
“Stygian Chambers” by Orrin Grey
“Behemoth” by Clint Smith
“Worm Moon” by Gemma Files
“The Silvering” by Thana Niveau
“Walking in Ash” by Brendan Vidito

Dwyer’s aiming for an August, 2019 publication date.  More in due time…

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


hidden-folk-cover

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…”

An Eloquent Undulation: C.M. Muller’s NIGHTSCRIPT, Vol. 4

N.4

Now in its fourth permutation, C.M. Muller’s Nightscript anthology continues to house — within its slate-scrubbed clapboard, concealed behind murky panes — a series of stories which, due to their strangeness and peculiarity, may have never otherwise discovered a proper home.
A shrewd student of a number of creative mediums, Muller is neither clumsy nor casual in his execution of these annual projects; and it really is a demonstrative exercise in voice and vision — his conjuring, capturing, and making incarnate (from font, to paper, in artwork, in tonality) a singular aesthetic.

Nightscript, IV expectedly contains a number of top-notch stories penned by (as Muller is wont to do) many “unknown” scribblers — this is one of the fantastic aspects of the series, as Muller places emerging names in close proximity with established writers, as is the case in N.IV with appearances by V.H. Leslie (“Sugar Daddy”) and Steve Rasnic Tem (“By the Sea”). I was personally taken with L.S. Johnson’s “A Harvest Fit For Monsters” (a grim and ambiguous tale of war-torn grief); Farah Rose Smith’s “Of Marble and Mud” (a crisply written narrative focusing on the frightening and fragile bond between two sisters); and Mike Weitz’s “Rainheads” (bearing bleak shades of apocalyptic horror).  Joanna Parypinski’s “The Thing In the Trees” is a personal highlight for me—one of the most haunting and deftly-handled tales I’ve encountered for quite some time.

Nightscript alumnus Charles Wilkison (“The Dandelion Disorder”) makes a welcome appearance, as well as Christi Nogle (“Cinnamon to Taste”) and Daniel Braum (“The Monkey Coat”). Resonating, still, for me are the stories “There Has Never Been Anyone Here” by J.T. Glover; “By The Sea” by the aforementioned Mr. Rasnic Tem; and Kirsty Logan’s “My House Is Out Where the Lights End,” which serves as the publication’s breathtaking, closing punctuation.

Another part of Muller’s magic is his sapient strategy in weaving an ambiguous melody in the sequencing of the tales, yielding a unique resonance and eloquent undulation to each installment.
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Nightscript is, of course, an annual celebration of the pleasant melancholies of autumn; but its contents are suitable for any timeframe in which a reader can carve out some solitudinal space, as the well-crafted tales call for your attention and close-reading consideration. More than this, Nightscript is — in Muller’s mental landscape — a vital venue for voices often lost beneath the wind-swept blanket of brittle, burnt-orange leaves — an otherwise unnoticed sibilance existing in the shadowed, foreboding fringes of a rickety-limbed forest.

Recently, Muller announced the forthcoming release of his first collection of tales, Hidden Folk. And if you’d like to get to know a bit more about this writer, editor, and self-described scrivener, check out an interview with Muller conducted by Scott Dwyer over the The Plutonian.

“This Godless Apprenticeship”: Weirdbook Magazine, #40

Just noticed that editor, Douglas Draa, has announced the release of Weirdbook #40, which includes my story, “This Godless Apprenticeship.”

Weirdbook no. 40, J. Florencio

Weirdbook #40, Cover Art by J. Florêncio

Though obviously dictated by a narrative’s shape of and the dynamic demands of the characters therein, my accustomed, rhythmic (first-draft) product clocks in around eight- to ten-thousand words; and while I can certainly contort the constraints of these pieces, I often have trouble finding suitable word-count venues.

I was sketching several stories at the time (each having subsequently gained both their intended dimension and fulfillment in publication), but—due to the period-period backdrop of the seventeenth century—took a digressive detour with this one. “This Godless Apprenticeship” is a pirate story (a first for me), and while it’s a shorter tale than I’m used to (just short of 5K words), it was a self-imposed challenge to infuse as much historic research as I could into its saltwater-eaten frame.

Captain Kidd, Pyle

Captain Kidd, by Howard Pyle

The story begins with my quartermaster, Thomas Ware, conducting nightwork for his trade-calloused superior, Captain John Lacewage, aboard the aptly named brigantine, The Gaggler Coach. It was a fun one to write, and like most tales of this variety, I learned quite a bit (more, certainly, than the brief yarn reflects).

The “set list” for Weirdbook #40 follows:

Features:

From the Editor’s Tower, by Doug Draa

Stories:

“Iconoclasm,” by Adrian Cole

“Have a Crappy Halloween,” by Franklyn Searight

“Early Snow,” by Samson Stormcrow Hayes

“The Dollhouse,” by Glynn Owen Barrass

“Elle a Vu un Loup,” by Loren Rhoads

“Bringing the Bodies Home,” by Christian Riley

“Restored,” by Marlane Quade Cook

“Nameless and Named,” by David M. Hoenig

“Playing A Starring Role,” by Paul Lubaczewski

“And the Living is Easy,” by Mike Chinn

“The Prague Relic,” by Paul StJohn Mackintosh

“The Circle,” by Matt Sullivan

“Sanctuary,” by John Linwood Grant

“The Giving of Gifts,” by Matt Neil Hill

“The Santa Anna,” by Jack Lothian

“The Dread Fishermen,” by Kevin Henry

“Blind Vision,” by Andrew Darlington

“The Thirteenth Step,” by William Tea

“This Godless Apprenticeship,” by Clint Smith

“Waiting,” by John W. Dennehy

“Pouring Whiskey In My Soul,” by Paul R. McNamee

“True Blue,” by Darrell Schweitzer

“The Treadmill,” by Rohit Sawant

“The Veiled Isle,” by W. D. Clifton

Poetry:

“Gila King,” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

“Necro-Meretrix,” by Frederick J. Mayer

“Grinning Moon,” by Frederick J. Mayer

“The Burning Man,” by Russ Parkhurst

“Silent Hours,” by Russ Parkhurst

“The Old White Crone,” by Maxwell Gold

Douglas Draa and his partners at Wildside Press create a top-notch product (back in September, 2018, Draa’s What October Brings: A Lovecraftian Celebration of Halloween, which he edited, secured a standing at #15 among Amazon’s best sellers in the Horror Anthology category), and you can be confident the stories contained in this volume have been handled with equally trenchant attention.

Snag a copy here: Weirdbook Magazine, Issue #40.

pyle, plank

“Walking the Plank,” Howard Pyle

A Process, Well-Nigh Ossified

Skel Mel, paint, ready for edits (for upload).pngI’ve had several pleasant exchanges with representatives from Hippocampus Press over the past month or so, culminating in (among other processes) the completion of the galley proofs for my second collection, The Skeleton Melodies (due out mid 2019).  This volume includes twelve short stories and one, previously unpublished novella.  The table of contents follows:

  • “Lisa’s Pieces”
  • “The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein”
  • “Animalhouse”
  • “Fingers Laced, as Though in Prayer”
  • “By Goats Be Guided”
  • “The Pecking Order”
  • “Her Laugh”
  • “Knot the Noose”
  • “The Rive”
  • “The Fall of Tomlinson Hall; or, The Ballad of the Butcher’s Cart”
  • “Fiending Apophenia”
  • “Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow”
  • Haunt Me Still

Pleasingly Bleak: the Figments of J.R. Hamantaschen

A Deep Horror....jpg

Cover Art by Laura Givens

Next to discussing this author’s quality of work, that J.R. Hamantaschen continues to steadily produce pleasingly bleak fictions amid (or perhaps due to) the backdrop of social-media neediness is to be commended.  In his collection, A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe, Hamantaschen, with an almost prosecutorial execution, submits fictions containing themes familiar to his fans; but this most-recently revealed cache of stories (eleven in all) is a bit more resilient in their aesthetic and tangible in their approachability.

Along a literary landscape which, in some ways, has become distorted by the online channels of gnathonic, echo-chamber transmissions, Hamantaschen’s tales—devoid of a simpering sentimentality so prevalent in those interweb mediums—remain untinged by the typically mundane anchor of social-media activity, and reflect an admirable variety of isolation.

That said, Hamantaschen invests energy to, and capitalizes on, focusing on (what would otherwise be considered) the mundane—those day-to-day interactions which most dismiss despite possessing a prism for our multiform realities (case in point:  the story “No One Cares But I Tried”); and though I wager he’s knee-deep in the daily fray, A Deep Horror… budges very little when it comes to giving in.  “He usually didn’t like people looking at him dead on,” writes Hamantaschen in one of the pieces; but that’s precisely how the writer scrutinizes his subjects.

A few of these fictions are lengthy and contemplative (this volume contains a sturdy, novella-length study, Faithfully and Lovingly), and several pleasantly strain convention.  “7099 Brecksville Road, Independence, Ohio” is a meta-exercise in set-up which has a pay-off punctuated by a “back-to-the-drawing board” relent in this drudgery of thankless creation.

One of the more scalpel-sharp stories is the opener, “Rococo Veins and Lurid Stains,” which casts several regret-dwelling characters who—throughout several colorful exchanges—are plotting some sort of, well…exchange.  Cautious of exposing too much of the tale, there exists in this piece a sort of literary loop, a “chain”:  “You don’t come back as who you were before,” a central character suggests.  “You probably come back as something else and it’s doubtful you’d have any real memory of who you were before.”

My nits include several layout-formatting, general editing throughout the volume, and a number of distracting POV jumps (particularly in “That’s Just the Way Things Are These Days”).  But audience members aren’t reading Hamantaschen for these reasons.  Rather, it’s something more innately unique.

Aside from a bleakly acerbic sense of humor, the most compelling characteristic to Hamantaschen’s work is his voice.  Not unlike certain moments in life which bear the potential of developing into indelible vignettes, Hamantaschen’s resonant voice emerges in unlikely moments:  a stylistic mechanism within his narratives which seamlessly serves to insulate an unnerving scenario—the scenario, in many cases with J.R. Hamantaschen, is simply existence.