Book Review: To Drown in Dark Water by Steve Toase

“There are enough ideas in each story to fill dozens of novels, but the most impressive aspect is each one feels complete and whole, rather than a snippet or fragment.”

 

To Drown in Dark Water by Steve Toase - cover Here at This is Horror, we’re always excited when Undertow Publications release a new book. Always beautifully put together, from cover to contents, the quality is consistently high. And this time, it’s the turn of Steve Toase. In his debut collection, To Drown in Dark Water, he creates tales steeped in folk horror and invented mythology. Whilst no bigger than other Undertow releases, there are, however, many more stories here, so let’s get right to it.

We open with something distinctly British, a tale set on an English farm. ‘Call Out’ follows a country veterinarian attending to a strange birth. Once there, the farmer locks him in with the unnatural creature, knowing exactly what it is. Dark, grimy, and a wonderful smashing together of the fantastic with grounded reality. ‘Streuobstwiese’ goes further into rural horror and is the first story to showcase Toase’s capacity for original invention. Obsession, art, a possible end of the world scenario in the making, it’s opaque, lyrical, and grotesquely beautiful. Mixing the occult, the space race, and Soviet-era Russia, ‘The Kromlau Gambit’ is a fun little bit of sardonic darkness. It’s followed by the first of many flash pieces, ‘Dry Land’, a poetic slice of horror. Then it’s ‘Winter Home’, in which the ritual of a small village is laid bare for the lie it is. A lovely metaphor about manipulation of a community in order to hold onto power. Literary and contemporary. ‘Green Grows the Grief’ is a melancholic mediation on memory and grief (of course). It’s beautiful, haunting, and deeply evocative in the depiction of its setting. A strange, slipstream, almost-science fiction concept comes in ‘Not All the Coal That is Dug Warms the World’. The body used as incubator for a strange mineral. An uncaring company preying on desperation. A metaphor for the corners we get painted into, the crippling debts and burdens of existence. Dark, but also deeply humane, empathetic.

Another original mythology in ‘Children of the Rotting Straw’. This one postulates a post-apocalyptic world where the sky is criss-crossed with yarn that burns and corrodes to the touch. Strange, predatory scarecrows wander the land, attacking the unwary, the less than vigilant. It’s utterly in the realms of the weird, yet is written with such confidence and strength, it’s completely believable. ‘Ruby Read and Snowflake Cold’ is another beautiful flash piece, a dark and poetic fairy tale. Dark fantasy and a flooding city combine in ‘The Taste of Rot’. There is a sense of the apocalyptic, the ending of all things as rivers rise and one man is pushed into an awful destiny. Then we come to ‘Flow to the Sea’. A mix of horror and dystopian cyberpunk, with shades of the occult, this one is wholly original in a collection briming with uniqueness. Beautiful, compelling, tragic, it holds the depth of a whole world within just a few pages. More flash with ‘Mask’, and more wonderfully macabre folk horror imagery. A very slight riff on The Wicker Man or even Hot Fuzz, ‘Split Chain Stitch’ follows an undercover policewoman investigating a knitting circle. Spliced with knitting instructions, we wait to see if she will be successful or become the latest victim of the group. Grimly satisfying in a morbid, acerbic way.

‘Skin Like Carapace’ is another dark fantasy, in a world where all are sightless, and communication is through scent, voice, and touch. In this world, value is placed on scars and wrinkles, signs of a lived life. Stunningly original and fully realised. In ‘Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves’, a man tries to bond with his son by taking him on excursions into the woods. They find a partially built hut and decide to help the unknown creator. A melancholic work, it inexorably builds to an almost inevitable tragic ending. The next flash piece, ‘Why the Sea Tastes of Salt and Why the Moon Always Looks Towards Us’ is an original creation myth. It reads as though it has always been, authentic and embedded in our history. Lost surveyors, a ghost estate, and a primal past collide in ‘Dirt Upon my Skin’. Dark and foreboding, it shows how thin the walls between modern civility and our violent, savage past is. ‘No Sun to Guide the Way’ follows a woman opening a shop in a cheap unit strangely resistant to change. Beset by dreams about the sea and sharks, increasingly irritated by her snarky partner, she obsesses more and more about the previous premises. An almost throwback to the gothic tradition is present in ‘Atelier’. A young English art student encounters a hypnotic woman in Germany. Striking up a rapport, she encourages the woman to tell of her experiences at the place she herself is studying. What she gets is a mysterious story of a singularly odd client and a portrait sitting. Atmospheric and tense, it drives towards a grim conclusion. And in ‘Discarded Skins’, Toase takes the myth of the Selkie, and fashion his own spin on it. Longing and pain infuse this short but affecting piece.

‘Verwelktag’ is another story which recalls the folk horror of The Wicker Man but is very much its own thing. An unwitting intrusion into a local ritual leads to tragic consequences. And then more inventive dark fantasy with ‘Under the Banner of the Black Stamen’. Trained individuals with unique talents guide the dead—who are no longer quite dead—on boats to isolated islands. One fateful journey, a strange infection spreads, plunging this world into chaos. Another stunning, atmospheric piece. And ‘Our Lady of the Tarpaulin’ could be almost a spiritual, tonal companion piece to the previous story, as a shrouded Goddess arrives on a boat to waiting crowds. Private, intimate worship versus very public greed and rampant selfishness. ‘Dancing Sober in the Dark’ follows a man searching for suits built for unique dances. Suits that cause the wearer pain. The hunt for a final, rumoured suit is hampered by an interfering custodian. The obsessed, dark narrative is interspersed with descriptions of each suit. Wonderfully grim and inventive. The Cold War looms in ‘Grenzen’ as a man travels through East Germany with his family and an illicit package hidden in their car. But the Stasi and East German soldiers are the least of their worries when their daughter goes missing in the woods. A tale full of dread, paranoia, and increasing primal, pagan horror. Finally, we have ‘The Jaws of Ouroboros’, another wildly inventive work. In the future, standing stones turn out to be teeth in vast mouths and begin chewing the earth. Collectors risk their lives to gather residue from these teeth. It’s an astonishingly well-realised concept, the depth of world-building the equal of any novel series.

What is most apparent from reading this collection—aside from the strong prose, the clarity of writing—is the sheer originality. Toase possesses an imagination and inventiveness bordering on Clive Barker levels. His ability to immerse the reader in even the most outlandish of concepts with just a few words is nothing short of astounding. There are enough ideas in each story to fill dozens of novels, but the most impressive aspect is each one feels complete and whole, rather than a snippet or fragment. And if Toase can create such immersion, such expansive worlds in a short space, one can only wonder what he might do with longer works. It’s a question the answer to which we at This is Horror anticipate with much interest and excitement. In the meantime, this impressive collection is a must have.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Undertow Publications
Paperback: 272 (ps.)
Release Date: 27 April 2021

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