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Book Review: Behold the Void by Philip Fracassi

“Every story is as unique in its subject matter as it is identical in its quality and excellence. Philip Fracassi is quickly building a reputation as a superior storyteller of incredible talent.”

 

With the release of two novelettes (‘Altar’ and ‘Mother’) and one novella (Fragile Dreams) in 2016, Philip Fracassi has quickly become synonymous with disturbing and disquieting horror. Building on his screenwriting experience, he has mastered the art of producing creepy and suspenseful horror stories and he shows no sign of slowing down if his publishing schedule for 2017 is anything to go by. With two new novellas and numerous short stories already announced, there are plenty of Fracassi tales to look forward to. But he begins the year with a short story collection, inviting us to Behold the Void.

The opening story, ‘Soft Construction of a Sunset’, opens with some wonderfully vivid sensory description. Tom is suddenly awoken from this dream by an early morning phone call from a very panicked friend, Marcus, who convinces Tom to come straight over at 5am. But he is ill-prepared for the terrifying scene awaiting him in the apartment Tom and his wife, Christine, share. Fracassi does a fantastic job of relaying the madness of the scene, describing it as if Salvador Dali had somehow managed to manipulate reality itself. But Tom soon discovers another artist is to blame. And that the true horror is yet to come.

Many readers will already be intimately familiar with the next story, the afore-mentioned ‘Altar’. Fracassi introduces us to the main character, 12-year-old Gary, as he is in the car with his older sister, Abby, and their mother, Martha, on their way to the local community centre outdoor pool. So far, so ordinary. But that is the power of this story, as we are lured into a seemingly ordinary summer day that could have been plucked from any of our memories. But then, thanks to a sprinkling of weird occurrences and the horror developing at the bottom of the pool, Fracassi turns the terror up to eleven and we quickly realise we are in for a horrific finale.

‘The Horse Thief’ tells the story of ranch worker, Gabino, who moonlights as a thief who uses his contacts in the affluent Florida horse-riding scene to scope out potential targets. But one of his customers requires horses for a very particular kind of clientele. This leads Gabino to kidnap a championship racehorse, Widowmaker, for Ted and his client, “The Chinaman”. But he has a bad feeling about the deal almost from the outset, and especially after a disturbing encounter on the night road. When The Chinaman’s truly horrific intentions are revealed, Gabino faces a real test of character. With this protagonist, Fracassi certainly gives us a very flawed man, a man haunted by his inner darkness but compelled by the human wants and desires we all yearn for on some level. But will he be able to redeem himself before it is too late?

‘Coffin’ finds a young girl, Sylvia, struggling to come to terms with her feelings towards her grandmother while attending her funeral service. Rather than mourn the old woman, Sylvia instead reflects on the awful behaviour exhibited by Nana when she came to stay with her family in the house by the forest. Soon after she moved in, Nana revealed more than a passing interest in the magic of nature. She claimed to have knowledge that would grant her granddaughter power. But at what cost? Fracassi again does a masterful job of populating his story with very human characters, their actions and emotions combining with his cinematic storytelling to draw the reader into the story until the final terrifying scenes. Indeed, the finale will leave many readers with goose flesh and a chill running down their spine.

‘The Baby Farmer’ is set in a small village on the outskirts of Bristol, seemingly in a simpler time and place where the Church played a more prominent role in everyday life. Here we find Catherine, a young woman who enjoys a close relationship with the local priest, Father Ramsey. But there are rumours that their relationship is more than just friendship. And what are Catherine’s real reasons for being so close to the priest? An age-old prophecy of doom, the diary of a child-killer, the secret society that sought to stop both. These are all elements that Fracassi mixes with his unique skill as a storyteller to deliver a compelling and creepy tale that builds towards a disturbing and bleak finale.

In ‘Surfer Girl’, we are introduced to the dysfunctional, yet extremely relatable, family of single mother Agnes and her son Adolf. We quickly see how Agnes came to be the sole parent of the household and how she was eventually able to find love again, this time with insurance salesman Steve. But Adolf, already a troubled and difficult child, doesn’t react favourably to this development. A boy with a macabre interest in death and a history of collecting dead animals from the neighbourhood to satisfy his curiosity, he develops some dark thoughts with relation to Steve and how he can rid himself of this unwanted father figure. But before he can act upon them, Steve whisks them all away for a holiday, perhaps in the hope of instilling some independence in the teenaged Adolf. But his intentions are brought into question following the disturbing events in their hotel room and the final lines of the story. Fracassi paints a picture of a troubled teen and the murky depths of his soul brilliantly. But it isn’t a painting that we want to gaze at too intently, lest the darkness swallows us, too.

Another of Fracassi’s previously published novelettes that many readers will be familiar with, ‘Mother’ begins with the blossoming romance between Howard and Julie and how it soon led to marriage. But, as with most marriages in reality, theirs does not run smoothly. It soon becomes clear to Howard that Julie is unfulfilled. As an aspiring artist, but also a realistic person, she longs to combine the two to find a vocation that both gives her a feeling of artistic accomplishment and an income. But this is easier said than done and, despite some support from Howard, including buying a new property and converting the attic to a studio, the strain begins to take its toll on the marriage. Howard even discovers his wife engaged in some arcane, occult behaviour. Despite all of this, Howard is desperate to make things work and, after confronting Julie about the strange behaviour, they seem to reconcile and decide parenthood will solve their problems. But Fracassi has no intention of letting his characters live happily ever after. With all the guile of an expert storyteller, he builds the tension and unease until delivering a truly spine-chilling and terrifying finale.

‘Fail-Safe’ is a monster story with a twist. It tells the story of a family, a father, mother and son, who are obviously loving and close. But the mother also exhibits the characteristics of a blood-thirsty creature, but only during periods of ‘change’. But rather than losing their wife/mother, the father and son find a way to live with the periods of transformation, such is their reluctance to live without her. So, a room is built in their basement, a room with numerous fail-safes to guarantee the safety of the father and son when the mother feels her transformation beginning. The boy, on the verge of turning thirteen, accepts his circumstances and strives to help his father by learning all of the controls of the fail-safes. But little does he realise how quickly he will be called upon to put his new knowledge to the test. Here Fracassi asks the question of his young protagonist: What are you prepared to do for the ones you love? In doing so he delivers a compelling and thoughtful story which delivers the horror in a more subtle, yet just as powerful, way.

The final story of the collection is another long piece, entitled ‘Mandala’. It tells of the friendship between Summer best friends Joe Denton and Mike Klein, brought together by the geography of their respective summer homes. We learn about their very different family situations; from Joe’s father the state trooper, to Mike’s, an alcoholic failing surgeon. Joe’s loving mother, Mariel, and Mike’s mother, who died from cancer in their summer house three years previously. All of this background information Fracassi deftly delivers through the wonderfully-constructed narrative, drawing the reader into the story with the expert touch of description and dialogue, immersing us in that time and place. So much so that, when disaster strikes and all of the seemingly random events begin to come together to set up the terrifying scenario, we are fully invested in the fate of the characters, and we find ourselves asking ‘what would we do?’ in their shoes. It is also a very emotive story, as we watch Mike’s father Paul struggle with his addiction and his grief for his lost wife, as he tries to lay the ghost of her memory to rest. But in true Fracassi-fashion, even as the story comes to its conclusion, we are still not sure that they will live happily ever after.

Oftentimes, when an author releases a collection, it will be made up of the previously released stories (in this case ‘Altar’, ‘Mother’ and, as readers of Strange Aeons will tell you, ‘Coffin’), some other good original stories, and then “filler” material. But there is no filler here. Every story is as unique in its subject matter as it is identical in its quality and excellence. Philip Fracassi is quickly building a reputation as a superior storyteller of incredible talent. And we are excited to see what fate has in store for an author we must surely now hail as a leading light in the dark field of horror fiction.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: JournalStone
eBook: 351pp
Release Date: 10 March 2017

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