This first story in this collection has a crisp, clean, traditional style.
It unnerved me first with this passage:
“She was about 5 when she first experienced it. Sleeping on the bottom bunk, her older sister snoring on top. A thin naked woman had settled on her chest, a coiled weight, loose skin slopping over her ribs into the floor. Wild confusion of hair trembling in the air like shock lines around a comic strip character’s head. A stunningly beautiful face. Mask of someone else’s mask. All that hair whipping and hissing with blind aggression.”
Yet it also contains haunted frames of contemporary malaise:
“All of her actions were familiar, like an old videotape recorded over long forgotten shows, fleeting images of the original programming peaking through.”
Although the style is orderly, the ambiguous ending and the desolately lonely madness of the atmosphere recalled Robert Aickman and Karl Edward Wagner.
“An Infestation of Stars”
Wow. This one, by its end, reached undreamed-of, dizzyingly weird heights. Let me leave you with an odd phrase as a hint or clue: “insect morality.” Trust me, it won’t make sense until you conclude this cosmic-horror-meets-Kafka-meets-Eyes-Wide-Shut tale.
A subtle tale with a strong sense of dread and remorse. The mysterious, Kafka and MC Escher-ish nightmare that the narrator encounters is made even eerier by the fact that the specifics of the tragedy are never addressed. Terrible smells accompany a surreal and haunting visual at the tale’s end.
“No One is Sleeping in This World”
Slatsky has an impeccable eye for weird-tale world-building detail as seen here:
“I often dream of alien lands, obelisks wrapped in parasitic vines, foliage leeching minerals from the stone; glass and resin buildings shaped into spirals of filigree; mile-high mounds of compacted soil, crumbling surfaces pocked with networks of tunnels. I’d catch furtive glimpses of unusual folk, presumably masked, peeking from strangely configured clerestory windows or behind columns sculpted from enormous vertebrae.”
We enter a strange and intriguing premise: two filmmaker’s record the insides of a strange architects building of the “Luciferianism”-style. The pair bring an anarchic spirit to their projects, sometimes getting denied visas because of their methods. When they are barred from entering a certain building designed by this cult architect, they must find another way inside.
I won’t spoil what they find but only offer that the idea of a sentient city forms part of the Lovecraftian canvas painted at the tale’s crescendo.
It certainly was terrifying to encounter the “powdery man”:
“The man’s eyes were deeply set in a wrinkly face powdered with stage makeup, like an actor from the silent era. A cigar dangled between his gray lips. He spoke in the high pitched voice of a prepubescent boy. Wanna make snakes?”
A reek of trauma infests this tale as well, the terrifying image found on the abandoned dump referring back to the imagery of “Corporautolysis” slightly.
The idea of the “powdery man”, his abilities, and his only repeated phrase reminded me of that German book Der Struwwelpeter.
An odd interest in the fissures and decay of buildings, of stains, and of the supernatural ingrained in the dejected or overlooked spots of our material reality.
“The Ocean Is Eating Our Graves”
An incredible amount of research must have gone into he writing of this tale about Levi and Mariee, twin Native Americans who grew up on a reservation and discovered a mutant skeleton while they were children.
Levi moves off the reservation and gets a respectable job while Marie stays and also acquires a respectable job. New remains have been discovered, yet some have been tampered with. Then Mariee disappears and Levi investigates several collections, including his sisters garage where he finds a complete mutant skeleton. I’ll end my summary there so as not to give too much away.
These are a few spellbinding passages I couldn’t refrain from quoting:
“His mind couldn’t quite interpret what he was seeing. The vague notion that an albino ribbon worm rose before him into the air so high it might punch through the clouds was all he could process. It’s tubular body glowed with an inner luminescence, radiant against the black rain clouds as it swayed in place. The stench of organic matter long decomposing on the ocean floor wafted across the beach.”
“He arrived home in Salem just as the sun was rising. Exhaustion and grief pulled him down onto the couch. He dreamt he was flying over the ocean, the sky filled with the flapping wings of death owls. He felt sleek, like he’d grown a layer of otter’s skin. But the death owls were not birds. They were plump, albino things flopping in the dark and suddenly Levi wasn’t in the air but deep underwater. He plunged into a crevasse. Into abject blackness.”
“This Fragmented Body”
Like an avant-garde Child’s Play, this story is truly wonderful.
I’m going to read this one again.
After we catch a nightmarish glimpse of a doll petting a boy’s head from the perspective of the doll (“The Doll touches the boy’s hair and marvels at how soft it is. So unlike the cold, smooth surface of its own head.”), we are introduced to Jarrod and Mark.
They met during college at a Black Flag show; they were two of the only Black kids in a predominantly white 80s punk scene–they are also gay. There’s some discussion about Darby Crash having to hide his sexuality–“Germ burns” are also referenced; I presume this refers to tattoos of The Germs symbol (a blue circle).
Why Jarrod becomes “concerned about their neighbors” a few pages in remains mysterious to me [Note: on a third reread, my guess would be the power outage.] It turns out one of their neighbors is a girl missing an arm (Jared is missing a leg). But, unlike him, she does not have a prosthetic limb.
Two other neighbors are also amputees.
I won’t spoil all the twists and turns of this magnificent tale, but will say there are all a multitude of ideas, perspective, and classic horror tropes turned upside down to surprise even the most jaded literary horror fan.
This one reveals itself gradually although never completely. It’s like looking through slits in shutters and catching horrible glimpses of scenes of domestic heartbreak where Lovecraftian shadows may also linger.
Another brilliant one. I’ll have to leave you with the last line; no, it won’t be a spoiler. You’ll have no idea how he got here: “A light as harsh and raw as peeled stars flooded the theater.”
This one unexpectedly crescendoed with an intense emotional insight, despite the lurid content–although, since it is about a cineaste, that content was filtered and separated by the eye, the bulb, the screen, the projector’s glass…or was it?
“A Plague of Naked Movie Stars”
Wow. The stories keep getting better and better. This was definitely a favorite–right up there with “This Fragmented Body” and “Film Maudit.”
This one blends sci-fi, cosmic horror, mystery, and 80s horror cinema expertly.
Slatsky has an ability to draw the reader in with a plain, neutral voice but then offers twists, visions, and threatening implications that are entirely his own, bizarre, and frightening in their alien shapes and daring permutations.
“Scarcely Have They Been Planted”
This one reminded me a bit of Stephen King’s “Trucks” due to the way the fierce and threatening inanimate objects were written about.
This one is quite experimental and wild. I found the burning mechanical horse imagery beautiful and the scenes of the cockfight riveting.
There was also something palpable, vivid, and physical about this tale, despite many confounding but brilliant moments.
Definitely one to reread, allowing it to shed its many meanings like the skin of a snake.
If you have any interest at all in weird fiction, you NEED to read this book.