Book Review: The Human Alchemy by Michael Griffin

The Human Alchemy is a thing of beauty, a showcase for a writer who is in possession of a startling array of skills.”

 

In the US and Canada, there currently seems to be a loose movement of writers who are redefining horror and weird fiction. Some are already known and established—Simon Strantzas, S.P. Miskowski, Brian Hodge, Lisa Tuttle, Jeff Vandermeer, to name just a few. Others seem to have only just emerged yet are already garnering accolades and raise from their peers and beyond—writers such as Priya Sharma, Michael Wehunt, Damien Angelica Walters, Richard Gavin. And one name that seems to be getting mentioned more and more is that of Michael Griffin. He has already released one short story collection (The Lure of Devouring Light) and one novel (Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone). He has received praise from Brian Evenson, Gemma Files, and Gabino Iglesias, amongst many others, and now his second collection, The Human Alchemy, is here.

Opening with the novelette, ‘Firedancing’ (in fact, all stories here hover around the 20-page mark, give or take), Griffin showcases his immense talents immediately. A broken, cuckolded man, newly separated and bereft finds himself in a place that seems—to this reader—reminiscent of the kind of falsely idyllic lifestyle proposed by 60s and 70s hippies. In this environment is the near-mythical figure of Old Mallard, a persona so fully-realised (as are all the characters), it combined in this reviewer’s mind the actors Scott Glen and Peter Fonda. Griffin’s writing is astonishing. At once clean and lean, yet also poetic and expansive without being overwritten. He wastes very little space describing characters and environments, yet these still appear fully formed in the reader’s head. Atmospheric, brimming with half-glimpsed wonders, hints of a wider mythology. Compelling, affecting, and full of suggested marvels without deviating from the main thread. With an ending that is delightfully maddening in its ambiguity, ‘Firedancing’ is at once a fantastic opener and a tease, making the reader beg for more. Brimming with memory, loss, the transience and fragility of life, is ‘The Smoke Lodge’. A group of writers gather after a convention to celebrate and commiserate lost friends. And embark on a journey that mixes cosmic horror with an ancient sense of the pagan, all infused with a subtle impression of Ray Bradbury. It is gorgeous, melancholic, but also containing a thread of optimism, a sense of positivity in the face of our oblivion. Wonderful. Yet more cults, esoteric texts and objects, and cosmic horror abound in ‘Everyone Gathers at Haystack Rock’. Competing ‘houses’ mixing publishing with more arcane pursuits gather to witness a secret and much-obscured event on a remote beach. Breaking—so he thinks—his ‘family’s’ confidences, Daniel embarks on an illicit, to him, liaison with the patriarch of a supposedly rival group, Lin. Yet there is more than simply cosmic/magick secrets, here. Some stunning world-building, hints and glimpses of a wider world, and an absolutely beautiful, contemplative, and profound narrative make for an engrossing read. And the connecting tendrils to the previous two stories—both thematically and literally, a strange, mystical triptych—only serve to enhance and deepen the experience.

‘The Slipping of Stones’ is a departure from the previous tales, the first to be written in first person, and emulating—at least superficially—an older, more traditional style of voice. A man walking on a beach hears what he believes is the scream of a child. Risking his safety, he heads out to a strange old house on a small island yards from the shore. Once inside the crumbling, ramshackle edifice, he is confronted by an odd figure who seems like a young boy but speaks like a man wise beyond his years. Memory, loss, grief, dark eroticism, ancient artefacts, and creativity collide in a surreal, darkly psychological piece. Obsession, desire, and lost memory propel ‘The Tidal Pull of Salt and Sand’. A young man awakens on a beach naked, with no memory of how he got there. All he recalls is he was with his new girlfriend and she has now seemingly vanished. Tantalising snippets of memory and dream lead him in an increasingly obsessive search; first for her, then for the cove he is convinced they visited. Another story which teases rather than explicitly reveals, and does so with beautiful, expressive writing. In ‘Delirium Sings at the Maelstrom Window’ a man is reunited with a girl the authorities tell him is his daughter, though he hasn’t seen her in eight years or so. Though he doesn’t recognise the cool, grown up woman, he does recognise his ex-wife’s looks and mannerisms in her. Taking her back to the family home, she slowly teases the story of where she and her mother have been, the strange rituals and incantations they’ve witnessed and used. The story fuses music and imagery with a cosmic sense of wonder and dangerous awe. It is as much the hidden undercurrents that propel the narrative as the unfolding action. Loss, lust (of the flesh and the mind), longing; hidden just beneath the surface and revealed in signs of their passage, rather than explicitly described.

The longest piece here, ‘An Ideal Retreat’ is a novella about many things; uncertain memories, marital discord, spousal neglect, family secrets, desires for autonomy and agency. All wrapped up in a visit to a strange house that seems to reflect its occupants’ desires, and perhaps their fears as well. It has, perhaps, the most potential to divide readers as it embodies the literary more than any other piece. Long passages follow the main character as she wanders through a dream-like house, while we are also given insight into her internal processes. On the surface, it has the potential to stretch the patience of casual readers, of those who perhaps need their stories more ‘action-oriented’. Yet there are many rewards here for those with the will. More than any other tale, ‘An Ideal Retreat’ embodies that sense of unreality melding with the mundane, with the everyday, with the human. It flirts with our perceptions of what is real and what is imagined; of what is dream/nightmare. It subverts expectation, and builds—softly, subtly—a quiet sense of dread and confusion. It is an examination of a fracturing mind refracted through the lens of the weird, and refuses to delineate where one ends and the other begins. Compelling.

‘Endure Within a Dying Frame’ could be a spiritual sibling of ‘Delirium Sings at the Maelstrom Window’, though here it is mathematics rather than music that opens the door to the numinous. And where the sinister permeates much of the latter story ending on a faint note of optimism, here it is the opposite. Loss and longing infuse the story in benign ways, but the ending suggests a hint of darkness. It’s a lovely melancholic piece. Obsession drives the protagonist of ‘The Only Way out is Down’, as he is informed of a puddle existing beneath the house he and his wife are ready (desperate) to sell. There’s a hint of Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury in this one, mainly in the dialogue, and that’s no bad thing at all. But Griffin’s own voice shines through as the narrative tightens towards its ambiguous and dark conclusion. More slippery reality in ‘The Insomniac Who Slept Forever’. A man who cannot sleep, a strange experimental facility, a doctor who hides as much as he reveals. It’s a story absolutely concerned—and rich—with nightmare imagery, fractured memories, and a slipstream narrative. Ambiguous, unsettling, and wonderful.

Finally, we have the title story, ‘The Human Alchemy’. In this novelette, we are presented with only three characters and aside from mostly incidental actions—opening wine bottles, moving through a grand house—the meat of the tale is delivered through conversation. In lesser hands, very little of consequence would happen, but through Griffin’s masterful delivery, we experience a variety of subtle, affecting emotions. There is trepidation, melancholia, nervous excitement, and a kind of fluttering optimism. Griffin plays his three characters like the instruments in Arvo Pärt’s gorgeous Tabula Rasa, referenced in the narrative. The physical aspects of the story—outlandish in a Clive Barker kind of way, but also very plausible—almost take second place to the dialogue, to the emotions and philosophies conveyed by the three players. It’s a lovely piece to finish on, a complement to the other inclusions and a component part of the book, yet also subtly different from them.

The Human Alchemy is a thing of beauty, a showcase for a writer who is in possession of a startling array of skills. Clean yet lyrical prose, a drive to explore what story can do and become, and a real sense of an artist following his muse. Though each piece is distinctive and original, there are obvious links and thematic resonances across the varied narratives; realities that crumble, dreams intruding on waking life, unreliable narrators and memories, cults, esoteric books and artefacts, the search for the numinous, for something beyond cold, solid reality. That he manages all this while still presenting the reader with examinations of characters and lives that are recognisable and realistic, ordinary and—at least initially—grounded, is a testament to his talents.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Word Horde.
Paperback: 332 (pps)
Release Date: 30 June 2018.

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