Review: Burnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas (Hippocampus Press; 2014)

15 Oct


I read a short story by Strantzas in Nightmare Magazine called “Out of Touch” that genuinely affected me. It’s a simple ghost/haunted house story yet it resonated because of some other human touches (a lonely teen amidst a difficult divorce and a house-bound, sick friend). I had an immediate urge to read Burnt Black Suns afterwards.

Critics of the weird fiction genre are often quick to put everything under the burnt-black sun beneath the umbrella of: influenced-by-H.P.-Lovecraft. The first story in this book (“On Ice”)–while sharing some themes and symbols (eerie, otherworldly god-like monstrosities)–has a more straightforward style, pace, and natural feel than Lovecraft. It certainly is a taut tale that places you right in the desperate arctic circumstances no matter how strangely the plot unfurls. I especially enjoyed the vivid and terrifyingly original description of the monster in this one.

The second tale, “Dwelling on The Past,” is–predictably because of the title-a guilt-infused narrative. There is a particularly fine moment in its second to last scene which manages to blend and balance two separate timelines of hallucinations from the past. It sort of has a Poltergeist flavor to it and is again zippy, direct, and enjoyable–although not as strong/memorable as the first tale.

The third tale, “Strong As A Rock” causes me to revise my view of reviewers flippantly comparing Strantzas’ work to Lovecraft, for this tale shares its atmosphere with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” to a degree–that sense of an abandoned town(in this case a hospital) being overtaken by malevolent/ancient/supernatural forces. It shares the sense of guilt and lost-loved-one theme of the previous tale, but this one ends too abruptly…and just as strange possibilities were opening up!

“By Invisible Hands” was written for a Ligotti tribute anthology, so that explains the heavy Ligotti influence of this tale. It is a bit reminiscent of two of my favorite stories from Songs of a Dead Dreamer (“Dreams of a Mannikan” and “Alice’s Last Adventure”) in that there are multiple levels of reality conflicting with each other, presaging madness. The puppet the creator constructs mingling with the driver’s multiple arm and mouthed body returning over and over as if in a living nightmare back to the mysterious Dr. Toth’s house was an unforgettably strange and disturbing image.

“One Last Bloom”–the body horror tale most referred to in their reviews–was excellent (and also the longest piece so far); it feels closer to Stuart Gordon Lovecraft than to the man from Providence himself. It also shares a bit with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (a work Lovecraft himself was hugely indebted to). Strantzas wisely frames this grisly From Beyond(1986)-flavored tale within an unrequited love triangle, notes, and journal entries. It reads a bit like a romantic comedy mixed with body horror–sort of reminiscent in tone to The Loved Ones(2009) (one of the best horror films of the last 30 years).

“Thistle’s Find” is an absolutely wonderful piece of the macabre. This has that pulpy/Reanimator Lovecraft vibe but with a more bad-taste of late 80’s/early 90’s horror movie element. I actually wish more pieces were as daring and funny as this one. Still, Strantzas has continually kept me surprised so far. [Note: on thinking back/revising my notes, this one remains my favorite story in the collection. It has kind of a 80’s goofy/Back-To-The-Future or Weird-Science vibe, but then becomes much darker.]

“Beyond the Banks of the River Seine” ends rather abruptly, and the supernatural element ends up being more of a tease than in previous tales where it was the showcase and focus. The voice is quite strong and it is a nice mix to throw in a new locale(France). I guess I just wanted to know what happened to Elyse, and to have a further doorway opened.

“Emotional Dues” is an incredibly visceral piece, shining a cruel light on the darkness and pain within every true artist’s heart; this really is an astounding collection of weird tales, and I might say here lies the true heir to Ligotti. Yet there is an accessibility to Strantzas’ style without compromising his strange and warped ideas–ideas like drifting clouds with the capacity to scramble and twist one’s preconceptions of the horror tale without, paradoxically, drifting too far astray. The imagery in this tale is particularly gruesome, strange, unexpected, and haunting.

“Burnt Black Suns” concludes this excellent collection. On his website, Stranzstas states that ” I know a few writers who work with oblique narratives, and a few more with cosmic horror, but I don’t know many that flip between both to the degree I do, especially within the confines of the same story.” Indeed, this masterful tale embodies both a sense of “cosmic horror” and “oblique narratives”; I especially enjoyed the scene where the narrator turns on his pregnant girlfriend to pursue his phantasmal lost child. This subtle state of madness is portrayed with sensitivity and with an underlying/terrifying current of cosmic dread.

I hope to read many more excellent stories by Simon Strantzas. I also love that his work helped inspire True Detective, my favorite television show (and I hate most television) since Twin Peaks.

Check out Burnt Black Suns here.

Website of Simon Strantzas

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