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Book Review: Burnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas

“One of the best single author collections of recent years!”

bbsBurnt Black Suns is the latest collection of short fiction from Canadian author Simon Strantzas. Strantzas is well known to British readers through the Shadows Edge anthology he edited for Gray Friar Press and his inclusion in numerous volumes of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror.

Burnt Black Suns is a wide ranging collection of both stories and influences. At its best, Burnt Black Suns is a collection that showcases the diversity and strength of dark fiction, encompassing emotional themes and playing on the humanity of the characters involved. There are a number of highlights throughout the book, examples of both clever plotting and insidious, if most often than not, unlovable characters.

The collection opens with ‘On Ice’, an example of Arctic horror that is paced fantastically. The reader is immediately introduced to the characters and within the opening paragraphs, has the measure of them. Strantzas skilfully builds tension amongst the members of the team as the expedition begins to unravel around them. The ending to the story has a reluctant inevitability about it; in lesser skilled hands it could have descended into predictability, yet this is where Strantzas’ skill really shines through as he deftly describes the monstrous fate that awaits the unfortunate scientists.

Continuing the theme of well-crafted scenes, ‘Strong as a Rock’ starts out as a simple tale of two brothers embarking on a climbing trip in a local national park, yet it descends into the nightmarish when the more experienced of the brothers is injured and taken to a local hospital. Again, Strantzas elevates his tale beyond the expected scenario and delivers a detailed and utterly disturbing account of the brother’s hospital experience with the damned.

‘One Last Bloom’ is one of the longest stories within the book and also one of the best. It features a self-centred scientist at its heart and manages to keep the character compelling without ever making him appealing to the reader. Strantzas builds intrigue about an ill-fated expedition and its findings through the use of a journal entry. This epistolary writing manages to keep the central character likeable by breaking up his narrative block. The ending of this story is truly chilling, containing the most disturbing scene in the entire book, and leaves a lingering impression on the reader.

Compared to the downbeat, effective ending of ‘One Last Bloom’, the next story ‘Thistle’s Find’ provides almost comic relief. It is a shorter, pulpier story regarding a scientist that discovers a gateway to another world. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the overall plot, the scenes where the scientist talks about his sexual exploitation of one of the beings from this world felt lurid and out of place. Compared to the succinct and intricate writing in other stories, this was one of the rare missteps in the collection.

It is also important to mention the other stories in this collection, ‘Dwelling on the Past’ and ‘By Invisible Hands’. Whilst both are competent, entertaining stories, they are not quite as accomplished as some of the stronger works in this book. In another collection, they may have been noteworthy in their own right but in comparison to the superb stories they share the pages with, they seem to be overshadowed somewhat by the stand out stories here.

However, ‘Beyond the Banks of the River Seine’ then delivers another clear highlight of the collection. It was written for a Robert W. Chambers inspired anthology A Season in Carcosa and references the now iconic King in Yellow play. However, there is much to this story than pastiche and tribute. The story features a talented yet narcissistic composer who becomes jealous of an acquaintance at his conservatoire in Paris. The story has a Jamesian feel to it, twisting the atmosphere of an old fashioned ghost story into something tense and unforgettable.

‘Emotional Dues’ is the story of a painter who is enlisted by a wealthy art fan to produce his best work. As with the previous story, the insight that Strantzas gives into the artistic mind-set is accurate and authentic without ever being too overbearing with references to art. This story again demonstrates Strantzas’ strength in describing the monstrous. Where other writers would shy away, Strantzas delivers detail and delicacy with aplomb, painting bizarre and awful visages for the reader.

The final piece of the collection is the eponymous novella ‘Burnt Black Suns’ and is the story of Noah and his pregnant girlfriend Rachel who visit Mexico to find Noah’s missing son from a previous relationship. The story takes the couple into the heart of the Mexican heat to find a missing child who may not even want to be found. Strantzas builds a confounding and hypnotic story through intricate description and believable, if often frustrating, character choices. The emotional core of the story, the relationship – be it real or imaginary – between father and son is skilfully written and helps pull the story through to a devastating climax that finishes the book in style.

Throughout Burnt Black Suns Simon Strantzas constructs horrendously dark tales, punctuated by lyrical and imaginative prose. His characters are selfish, capricious and almost completely unlikeable, yet manage to contain enough humanity and intrigue to hold the stories together. Burnt Black Suns is one of the best single author collections of recent years. Its stories are compelling, superbly drawn and in some cases genuinely terrifying. Burnt Black Suns is very nearly a complete collection and one that should put Simon Strantzas firmly at the forefront of dark fiction on both sides of the pond.

DAN HOWARTH

Publisher: Hippocampus Press
Paperback (256pp)
Release date: 28 July 2014

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