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


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…”

Thank you, Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013)

Sad news, as many have heard by now.  Richard Matheson has died.


Richard Matheson, 1926 – 2013

I’d like to take a moment and record how several of his works influenced my initial and inchoate impulse to create my own stories.

In October, 2000, I was in Evanston, Illinois, browsing in the erstwhile bookshop, Something Wicked.  They had a copy of I Am Legend (1954) which (it shames me to say) I was heretofore unfamiliar.  I continue to cherish vivid memories of staying up late on a pair of nights, absorbing the grim situation in which Robert Neville had been cast.  Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

“[S]ometimes they were in the streets before he could get back”

“And they were all there for the same thing.”

“Something black and of the night had come crawling out of the Middle Ages.”

“Did they think he was going to come out and hand himself over?”

“Robert Neville was sitting at the peephole when they came.”

“Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.”

“Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth.  He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed.”

“Full circle.”

This particular paperback was the Chopping Block edition with the cover art seen below—the story and the artwork indelible to this young writer’s mind:

i am legend

I swiftly moved on to Hell House (1971), a profoundly unsettling ghost story which provided a myriad of disturbing images and scenarios (you’ll never look at a life-size crucifix of Jesus again—guaranteed).

hell house

Four years later, I made my way around to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and quickly observed the thematic influence on Matheson’s tale—I think of what Dr. Montague explained in chapter three of Hill House:

“Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad.  Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years.  What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer.”20k feet, 2

But probably the most wonderful memory I have of Matheson’s work is one in which I was oblivious to his responsibility.  I remember a New Year’s Eve when I was young, staying awake in the small hours beyond midnight to watch the Twilight Zone marathon.

Of course one of the episodes was “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which would later provide some gleeful trauma in the version presented in Twilight Zone the Movie (1983).

And now my own young ones have begun their own introduction to Matheson.  Just recently, we watched the Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), or what our youngest refers to as “the big spider movie.”

Like Bradbury, the vast channels Matheson’s imagination remains one of the critical tributaries to modern fiction.  Like Bradbury, Matheson’s fingerprints are on nearly everything that inspires writers of the fantastic and the weird.

Saul Bellow famously said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation.

Thank you, Richard Matheson, for moving generations to emulation.