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Book Review: Looming Low, edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

 

“Boasting a who’s who of weird fiction authors, one look at the roster is enough to have any fan thoroughly excited.”

 

Looming Low, edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan - coverLooming Low is a huge collection of twenty-six new stories of weird fiction from Dim Shores publishing. Boasting a who’s who of weird fiction authors, one look at the roster is enough to have any fan thoroughly excited. And weighing in at more than three-hundred pages, it’s sure to keep even the most avid reader busy for a while.

While there is no thematic link between the stories, there is a palpable sense of unsettling dread woven throughout the collection as a whole. Each story may approach weird from an entirely different angle, from the mundanity of everyday life with a warped spin on it, to an apocalyptic science fiction piece imbued with layers of strange wonder. This anthology boasts almost every type of weird one can imagine. One theme which does crop up in a number of stories is that of mental illness of various types. When this does occur it is handled skilfully, reflecting empathy for the sufferers of such conditions, while also confronting the true-to-life horror of conditions like Alzheimer’s.

‘Alligator Point’ by S. P. Miskowski is a tale of a mother and her children running from something and finding themselves in a remote, swampy holiday camp en route. Things only get stranger from there. ‘Banishments’ by Richard Gavin, begins with a fairly straightforward story of brothers reunited by the collapse of one of their marriages. The tale develops, via a storm, to them finding a miniature coffin in a river, containing a gory plastic effigy of a tortured baby and somehow gets far weirder from there.

Anya Martin’s ‘Boisea Trvittata’ is a masterclass in the slow-building tale of isolation, using both a mysterious external drama and a gradually worsening plague of insects within the protagonist’s home to ensure that the reader feels twitchy and unsettled. ‘Distant Dark Places’ by Gemma Files is a bittersweet love story intertwined with secret service espionage and apocalyptic, near-future sci-fi. Somehow all of these elements are married into a compelling, break-neck narrative that glues the reader to their seat throughout.

Simon Strantzs’ ‘Doused by Night’ begins with a man who is late home and worried about the reaction of his nagging wife. Ultimately he ends up braving the rain to enter a bar at the wrong end of town and waking up with a mark on his body that may be the end of him and no recollection of what happened. Betty Rocksteady’s ‘Dusk Urchin’ is a story of a childless woman visited by an elderly neighbour and a bizarrely, hauntingly beautiful child stained with the properties of death and corruption who simply will not go away.

‘Heirloom’ by Brooke Warra perhaps wins the award for creepiest entry in the collection, dealing with the concept of twins and the effect they continue to exert on one another, even when they are separated permanently by death. Michael Wehunt offers ‘In Canada’ to the anthology, a bizarre tale of an introvert who lives out his only outside life in a thrift store, where he imagines dialogues between figurines and plushes. Once he strikes up a sort of friendship with a fellow visitor to the store, things take a decidedly strange turn.

Nadia Bulkin’s ‘Live Through This’ is a haunting tale of a young woman, violated and killed at a high school sports party that gets out of hand. Her body is then rotated as a memorial and punishment among all the resident families of the small town where the tragedy took place and certain individuals begin to wonder if she is fact seeking revenge from beyond. ‘Mirror Bias’ by Craig Laurence Gidney envisions a young florist who downloads a dating app, only to be immediately bombarded with attention by a man who knows more about him than seems possible. The contacts become more and more concrete, until they take a strange, physical turn.

‘Outside, A Drifter,’ by Lisa L. Hannett, is the story of a discreet masseuse who encounters a foundry worker who she simply cannot help. She makes it her mission to provide relief for his aches and a complex dance stretches out across the tale. Michael Cisco’s ‘Rock’n’Roll Death Squad’ features the lone survivor of an armed forces squadron, reminiscing over the demise of his group and wrestling with the question of why he was left to survive.

‘SPARAGMOS’, by Christopher Slatsky is a haunting story of an old man’s descent into dementia. Featuring hints of the role of his children and enough ambiguity to keep the reader guessing as to their motives, the story is wonderfully told and really brings home the suffering that old-aged mental degradation can present. Jeffrey Thomas’ ‘Stranger in the House’ also addresses the issues of mental illness, this time from the perspective of a man who is losing his ability for recognition. The story plays out both in memory, looking at his late wife’s later life and his own experiences in the work place.

‘That Which Does Not Kill You,’ by Lucy A. Snyder is a tale of betrayal and of damaging relationships, with an injection of weird in the form of the protagonist’s heart having been ripped out in the truest of senses. Daniel Mills’ ‘The Christiansen Deaths’ unfolds as a series of investigative reports into a murder case. Told through evidence provided by witnesses, the reader gradually comes to see the horror of the truth.

Kurt Fawwer’s ‘The Convexity of Our Youth’ features one of the most bizarre premises readers will likely encounter, whereby an infection has afflicted the children of a small town, through contact with a bouncing orange ball. The symptoms are still more bizarre and yet, somehow, the narrative is believable and the results harrowing. ‘The Gin House, 1935,’ by Livia Llewellyn, is the tale of a woman who convinces herself, gradually, that the world beyond her prairie home, has ceased to exist. In a delightfully ambiguous story, the reader watches as the protagonist is haunted within her home, all the while unsure of whether what she experiences is real or a figment of her rapidly degrading mind’s eye.

‘The Second Door,’ by Brian Evenson, is the story of a young boy, living alone with his sister after the death or disappearance of their parents. After some time, his sister becomes unable to communicate in any natural sounds or language. Their relationship breaks down and things become worse for the protagonist when he begins to obsess over the second door in the strange home they inhabit. Kristi DeMeester’s ‘The Small Deaths of Skin and Plastic’ is a traumatic story, told from the perspective of a woman who is variously impregnated and robbed of her children in a laboratory setting. It is a deeply unsettling piece, primarily owing to the directness of the anguish she experiences.

Michael Griffin’s ‘The Sound off Black Dissects the Sun’ begins with an unremarkable scene, in which the owner of a minor minimalist music label receives a demo CD to listen to. As soon as he presses play though, it becomes apparent that there is more at play than mere tunes. Beautifully crafted prose bears witness to a realisation on the part of the protagonist that the magic in the music presents a very real danger, perhaps to existence itself. ‘The stories We Tell About Ghosts,’ by A. C. Wise features a group of children who play at telling ghost stories before encountering a real supernatural entity. The story is told in a way that harnesses the innate curiosity of youth, but things naturally take a dark turn.

‘This Unquiet Space,’ by Damien Angelica Walters is the story of a married couple, he a recovering alcoholic who find a dark spot on the wall in their hallway. After numerous attempts to remove it, the wife becomes increasingly concerned. This only increases when it starts to have other effects on the two of them. Kaaron Walter’s ‘We Are All Bone Inside’ is a tale set in an imagined world of a tribe of people called Naskins and of one young woman in particular, who sets out to explore an underground cave system to track down her long missing aunt, to provide peace for her uncle before he dies.

‘We Grope Together and Avoid Speech,’ by Sunny Moraine is as much a warning as it is a story. A vivid, unsettling description of the deadline, sentient, famished walks around the reader have and of how they long to use them on anyone who dares to step too close. Scott Nicolay rounds off the collection with ‘When the Blue Sky Breaks,’ a story of a young girl who is experiencing a world starting to burst open at the seams, at the same time as she is. Once again, there is powerful use of ambiguity here, as the reader is kept guessing about whether her senses are accurate or whether the mental scars of her life experience is twisting her perception.

If there is any downside at all to the collection it is perhaps in just two or three of the pieces where narrative feels somewhat secondary to the creation of a weird atmosphere. This may well still appeal to those firmly rooted within the genre, but perhaps one of the great strengths of the collection as a whole is that the majority of the tales are wholly weird but at the same time wonderfully told, compelling stories, and will likely appeal just as much to those new to weird fiction.

KEV HARRISON

Publisher: Dim Shores Publishing
Paperback (344 pp)
Release Date: 17 August 2017

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