Book Review: Beneath a Pale Sky by Philip Fracassi

“Fracassi’s publishing history is jam-packed with quality quicksand fiction that seems serene on the surface, innocently drawing readers in, until we cannot escape its devilish clutches, and this collection is no exception.”

Beneath a Pale Sky by Philip Fracassi - coverHorror fans are by now so familiar with his name that he ought to need no formal introduction but, with so much horror fiction to choose from nowadays, we can forgive those that have not indulged in Philip Fracassi’s work just yet. He ought to be a household name by this stage, with an award-winning short story collection to his name and fans among his peers, including Laird Barron, Zoje Stage and Josh Malerman, the latter penning a beautiful and glowing introduction to this collection. After a couple of years of working hard behind the scenes, he is currently having something of a bumper year for new releases, with a novella, a poetry collection, and a debut novel all set to appear before the end of the year. But he kicks off this important year with his second short story collection, a form in which he continues to excel.

Original to this collection, ‘Harvest’ is the perfect example of a Philip Fracassi story, and a fantastic choice for opening the book. Using multiple points of view to give us a complete picture of unfolding events, the author begins with a small-town wedding in a cathedral in the middle of acres of corn crops. We meet Carrie, the innocent bride-to-be and, in separate scenes, the outwardly charming (yet inwardly belligerent and bullying) groom, Parker, and Eli, Carrie’s misunderstood childhood friend, and her admirer. These are complex characters, as evidenced by the flashbacks to reveal more about Carrie and Eli’s friendship, and Fracassi takes the perfect amount of time and pace to explore the complex relationships, all the while allowing the drama to build. Like a kettle left unattended on the stove, the action builds toward a terrifying conclusion, as Eli’s unusual ability comes to the fore, just as a nightmarish incident unfolds. There are a few separate elements that Fracassi expertly weaves together to create an intricately-paced and gripping tale, equal parts terrifying and emotional.

‘The Wheel’ is another story original to this collection, and it too effectively weaves together separate strands to make for an entertaining whole. While a young couple celebrate the anniversary of their first date with a low-key trip to the funfair, their night is about to take a turn for the worse thanks to a degenerate Ferris wheel operator with a shady past and a recent divorcee with a pilot’s license and a taste for alcohol and destruction. Told from multiple points of view, we watch the drama and horror unfold in slow motion, as we quickly grasp what is most likely about to happen, before the main players. The relationship of the main couple is beautifully explored, just as the vile thoughts of the carnival worker are laid bare for all to see, Fracassi juxtaposing the light with the dark, luring us in before hitting us with the horror.

In ‘Soda Jerk’, sixteen-year-old Ellie is new in town, having just moved to the quaint little town of Sabbath with her parents. Feeling homesick for her old home and her old friends, she is surprised when local boy James, in her year at high school, interrupts her unpacking and offers to show her around. Still unsure of her new surroundings, and practically pushed out of the door by her mother, Ellie takes a while to come out of her funk, even as James drives her around the sights of the town. But no sooner is she beginning to feel better, than she learns a horrible truth about her new home. Fracassi does smalltown horror with the best of the genre, as has been stated by many of his fans and peers before, and this disturbing tale is further proof. He has a tremendous ability to set a story in a charming, close-knit community, before unearthing the hideous horror that lies beneath. It makes for a compelling read.

There are similarities between ‘Symphony’ and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, in that a young girl, tormented by a male guardian, befriends a fantastical beast that is not what they seem, has motives of their own. But, as dark as Pan’s Labyrinth is, Fracassi really drags us down to the darkest depths of the human heart with this story. Esther’s father is consumed with grief after the loss of her mother, but this soon leads him down a terrible and disturbing path of nightly visitations to his only daughter’s bedroom. Esther records her own dreams and grief in a journal, which is where she writes of finding the strange unicorn statuette in the nearby forest, and the terrifying yet comforting beast that visits soon after. But will it lead to her salvation, or damn her to hell? One of the Weirder stories in the collection, this dark fantasy stands out thanks to the vibrant and nightmarish descriptions, as well as the bleak and disturbing circumstances.

Beginning with an archaeological dig in Utah, ‘Ateuchus’ quickly develops into something much, much bigger. The discovery of a meteorite leads to a horror story of cosmic proportions when university professor Alfie takes it home to his basement laboratory and begins his analysis. The secrets the rock holds within are sure to send shockwaves throughout the world when they are revealed, unless Alfie can exert some kind of control. But, metaphorically speaking, once the genie is out of the bottle, it is much more difficult to put it back in. Consumed by this quest, Alfie begins to lose track of time, and soon loses track of himself, so obsessed with the rock he has become. Fracassi mixes the horror of obsession with some truly gruesome body horror, while hinting at a deeper story of first contact which could come at a very steep price. A further example of the range of Fracassi’s storytelling abilities.

Told from the (frank) point of view of the former patient of a psychiatric hospital, ‘ID’ our unnamed protagonist describes their stay in the ward, while hinting at the more barbaric ward next door, before he is finally released and starts a relationship with another former patient. While he seems to be getting his life together, this relationship leads him to relapse into some bad habits while his new partner, Crystal, exhibits increasingly disturbing characteristics. Another one of the stranger stories in the collection, this one is propelled along by a warm and charismatic narrator, who struggles to extricate himself from a stranger-than-usual and awkward social situation. With some horrific added visuals and disturbing behaviour, this further showcases Fracassi’s versatility as a storyteller.

‘Fragile Dreams’ was originally released as a standalone novella (with the following story in this collection, ‘Death, My Old Friend’, as a bonus story) by Journalstone in 2016, and was subsequently reviewed on This Is Horror. But, upon our reread, we are steadfast in our belief that it is a suspenseful and terrifying trip. Matthew arrives for a job interview at a law firm on the fourth floor but, thanks to a particularly devastating disaster, finds himself buried under tons of metal and concrete. We discover much about his character through introspection and hallucinations, what he has come through to be here, and what he stands to lose. But how much is really imagined and how much is some terrifying presence that has found him beneath the rubble? While the penultimate story makes for a tense and nail-biting affair, the final story is a little more light-hearted. ‘Death, My Old Friend’ tells the story of the lifelong friendship between John and his childhood friend, Death. As with most friendships, they face their own share of hardships and awkward disagreements, but they are, of course, complicated by Death’s role as guide for the newly deceased. Although readers may feel confident in predicting the ending, Fracassi still manages to deliver a poignant and emotional journey for the reader, displaying his ability to adopt all manner of tones within his fiction.

It is no secret that we are fans of Philip Fracassi’s fiction here at This Is Horror. Indeed, followers of the website and podcast voted his previous short story collection Behold the Void winner of the This Is Horror Award for Short Story Collection of the Year 2017. While the new collection includes a couple of previously released stories, this is the first time they have been included in a collection and, with the inclusion of the longer original stories to open the book, we see how his fiction has progressed. Not to say his new work is a dramatic departure in style or quality from his previous work; he certainly seems to have a particular style combining incredibly detailed and compelling human relationships with big concept horror, sometimes cosmic, other times earthbound but older than human comprehension. Fracassi’s publishing history is jam-packed with quality quicksand fiction that seems serene on the surface, innocently drawing readers in, until we cannot escape its devilish clutches, and this collection is no exception. Surely a contender for those year-end awards shortlists but, even more so, a winner in the eyes of old and new fans alike.


Publisher: Lethe Press
eBook: 260pp
Release Date: 18 June 2021

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