Book Review: Underworld Dreams by Daniel Braum

“Reading these stories, it’s readily apparent that Braum is a writer of singular talent.”

 

Underworld Dreams by Daniel Braum - coverIn these wildly uncertain times, the creative arts can be a great comfort. And, despite surface appearances, horror and the weird can often be the greatest comfort of all. Dark fiction allows us to explore, from positions of comfort, uncomfortable scenarios and confront terrors that would otherwise break us. And sometimes, these stories give us the gift of self-examination and reflection, leading to possible internal growth. Stories that do this are to be celebrated and treasured, though they aren’t always the easiest nuts to crack. One such practitioner of this form of storytelling is Daniel Braum. He makes what he does appear so effortless and natural, that it’s easy to overlook the great skill and effort it must take to walk a line between ambiguous and incomprehensible. But reading these stories, it’s readily apparent that Braum is a writer of singular talent.

Opening tale ‘How to Stay Afloat When Drowning’ appeared in the anthology Pareidolia, which was reviewed on this site around about last year. As was said then, it’s absolutely beautiful, a heart-breaking tale of loss, grief, and a young man’s uncertainty of his place. A pitch-perfect mix of the literary and unique mythological horror, it establishes Braum’s intent from the off. It also introduces recurring themes and settings; the ocean, uncertain and lost protagonists, random encounters that question the certainties of the players. Next up is ‘Goodnight Kookaburra’. A man haunted by memories is in Australia for work. A young woman he works with brings him to the house of a family friend. Whilst there, his past comes to the fore and he has an encounter that may or may not be supernatural. It’s a haunting story full of loss and melancholy, with a strange, dreamlike atmosphere. Yet there’s also a solidity, and this is what marks Braum out as unique. He writes stories that are both rooted in the real and are also enigmatic and cryptic. ‘The Monkey Coat’ takes a concept that might have occurred to Ray Bradbury and weaves in elements of emotional and sexual exploration as a reaction to past hurt. The titular coat may even be allowing its wearer to enact more primal aspects of her psyche. Again, there is that slippery sense that things are not as they seem and it’s up to the reader to decipher or interpret.

Despite this adherence to the esoteric, it also feels as though Braum fully knows what his stories are about. There is no sense of uncertainty in their telling, simply that he allows enough room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the spaces, to meet the work partway.

‘Tommy’s Shadow’ is, unusual to this collection, an almost typical “morality” horror story of teenage jealousy and anger; spiteful revenge given form and the dire consequences of acting on that. But it is also infused with Braum’s voice, his love of the enigmatic. For the first and only time, however, this story might be a slight misstep. From a subjective point of view, it is perhaps both too opaque and overly reliant on its genre pedigree. Still, like the rest of the collection, it has very well-drawn characters and strong prose. It’s followed by ‘Rebbe Yetse’s Shadow’, a story of a young man who has lost faith, love, and purpose. He meets an enigmatic woman who open his eyes to, perhaps, the literal supernatural. In doing so, he is offered a course of action that could damn him or be his salvation. A rare example, here, that presents the speculative as “real”, and also offers a note of hopeful redemption. ‘Cloudbound Earthbound’ grounds itself in a real place—Brisbane, Australia—with real people at a specific time; 1982. But it also gives us a fantastically magical narrative. One in which buildings can be erected and erased through willpower, and there are protectors—and opponents—who do what they can for the city. This one is full of melancholy and heartbreak, but also a sense of wonder. It also suggests a wider mythology, something many of the tales here do. There is a hint of the dark fantasy of Clive Barker, a similar sense of yearning and sidling up to the mysterious, the ethereal, the unknowable.

‘Between our Earth and Their Moon’ presents as hardboiled noir, but with paranormal and other genre flavours. Set in a strange, fictional city that feels both futuristic and from some industrial past, Braum freely mixes genres and it all feels eminently natural. Noir, horror, and science fiction are surprisingly easy bedfellows here, yet whilst the conventions of each are observed, they are also bones on which to hang a tale that questions paths not taken, regrets, and loss. Another that gives flashes of a much bigger world, and one fervently hopes Braum will return to this character and his endeavours. Returning us to another watery tale is ‘Palankar’. A man running from his past, his brother trying to bring him back, both trying to recapture something from their youth. In this, we are back on uncertain ground, unsure what’s real and what’s imagined. And though it seems that the brother becomes lost to some unfathomable entity, it may also be his salvation, the path he needs to follow. Gorgeous and haunting, the brush with the ineffable is keenly felt.

The penultimate story is the longest, the source of the collection’s title, and the absolute jewel in the crown. ‘Sogni Del Mundo Sotteraneo (Underworld Dreams)’ is a novella-sized meditation on love, loss, meaning, and the contemplation of alternate paths. Set sometime after the US invasion of Panama and the deposing of Noriega, it follows a group of twentysomething graduates as they go on an ostensibly educational trip round the country with one of their professors. Whilst there, they engage in frivolity, hedonism, and the frequent musing as to what meaning life has. It is this latter that forms the meat of the story. Told with a somewhat fractured timeline, the characters—especially the main—are preoccupied with whether their choices have any significance or purpose. It is, perhaps, the most introspective of stories here, literary and contemplative, yet also flavoured with the uncanny. From the off, a sense of quiet awe, of touching infinity, permeates the narrative. Absolutely beautiful, stunning, and transformative. We finish off with ‘Rum Punch is Going Down’, the most grounded—at first—tale in this collection. Yet as it progresses, the unearthly quietly, subtly, makes its appearance. In the main, this is one incident observed by the narrator, but elsewhere it’s in the spaces between the words, in the imagery presented.

This last sentence could be attributed to the book as a whole. It’s clear that Braum is a writer who deals in multiplicity. From character to setting to the story itself, very little is plainly evident or objectively straightforward. Yet nothing reads as wishy-washy or lacking. His stories are fully fleshed and rounded. It’s a rare talent that can pull this off, yet he does. Not a word is wasted. Braum gives enough to colour his worlds but leaves room for the reader to bring their own meaning. And though he is clearly concerned with the human condition—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—the otherworldly is no mere device. It’s almost as though he is creating his own kind of cosmic horror. One that is not cold and indifferent, but is deeply rooted in the human psyche; our perceptions, our subjective realities. He also imbues his work with a sense of awe, that difficult to define feeling of that which is familiar but also unknown and unknowable.

In the Faith No More song, ‘The Real Thing’, there are the lines, “Like the sacred song that someone sings through you, Like the flesh so warm that the thorn sticks into, Like the dream you know one day will come to life … ”. Braum catches a similar sensibility in his stories. He connects; with the reader, with humanity, with the cosmos. If you consider yourself a serious afficionado of this kind of writing, you simply should not be missing out on his work.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Lethe Press
Paperback: 276 (pps.)
Release Date: 5 September 2020

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