A Mixed Bag

by S. T. Joshi

JUSTIN STEELE and SAM COWAN, ed. Looming Low, Volume 1. Carmichael, CA: Dim Shores, 2017. 338 pp. $50.00 (deluxe hc); $18.00 (tpb).

This bulky volume comes with a great many advance plaudits, mostly from the authors included in it; but there is reason to doubt whether it is the be-all and end-all of contemporary weird anthologies.

There is, at the very outset, a lack of clarity as to what this book is actually meant to achieve. The chief editor, the young Justin Steele, writes: “The twenty-six stories in this anthology were selected by Sam and I [sic] to give readers a look at some of the brightest voices in weird fiction today.” Well, that’s a pretty broad purview. I am far from being an advocate of “theme” anthologies, for in a distressing number of cases the volume’s “theme” is so narrow and artificial that it causes its lugubrious authors to turn all manner of somersaults in accommodating their ideas to it. But if Looming Low, Volume 1 presents itself as widely representative of contemporary weird fiction, then questions immediately arise as to the choice of authors—who was selected and who was not selected.

I suppose it is unreasonable to expect a relatively new press to have sufficient prestige (and a sufficient budget) to attract such veterans as Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, Thomas Ligotti, or Steve Rasnic Tem; but why are other, younger writers of prominence not included? Where is Caitlín R. Kiernan, undeniably the leading weird writer of her generation? Where are Nancy Kilpatrick, Elizabeth Hand, Jonathan Thomas, John Langan, Kelly Link, Reggie Oliver, Jason V Brock, and others one could mention? (I am somewhat surprised that Steele—whose sole previous editorial credit is a volume of stories in tribute to Laird Barron—was not able to get Barron to write something.)

As it is, Looming Low includes, among its twenty-six authors, only five who have genuine prominence in the field: Michael Cisco, Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Simon Strantzas, and Jeffrey Thomas. This is not to say that lesser-known writers cannot do good work; indeed, it will become apparent that such writers have written several of the better stories in the book. But one begins to wonder whether the editors simply contacted their limited cadre of friends and said, “Write me something weird,” without making any comprehensive effort to canvass the entire range of contemporary weird writing.

A book, of course, must be judged on what it has, not on what it does not have. But even by this standard, Looming Low comes up a bit short. I am sorry to report that the number of poor or mediocre stories substantially outweighs the number of meritorious ones. Some stories are poorly written; others are poorly executed; some are too short (i.e., do not adequately convey their core ideas); some are too long. The editors should have sent a good number of stories back to their authors for revision, and should simply have rejected others.

In particular, the key element of weird writing—the symbolic function of the supernatural—is bungled in story after story. In non-mimetic stories, the supernatural serves as a metaphor for central human concerns in a manner that can be more vivid and memorable than in mimetic fiction; but it all depends on the exact role and function of the supernatural in the story in question.

Consider the opening story in the book, Kurt Fawver’s “The Convexity of Our Youth.” This long-winded account of an orange ball that causes strange illnesses in children, who become balls themselves, is confused in its very essence because the symbolism of children becoming balls is never clarified. Why orange balls (which apparently resemble basketballs) and not something else? Fawver is apparently intending some kind of satire on middle-class life, but the story collapses of its own incoherence.

This same problem besets Damien Angelica Walters’s “The Unquiet Space.” Here the supernatural element is an anomalous spot that appears on the wall of a house and resists being painted over. A woman named Bailey is concerned that the spot is somehow dangerous, but her husband, Cal (who is fighting alcoholism), discounts the idea. Nevertheless, when he punches a hole in the wall where the spot is, there is revealed something that looks like a “vertical pool of watered milk.” What is this—and the stain itself—meant to signify? The reader never knows; and the story is also narrated in a flat, affectless manner that fails to engender the reader’s interest.

In Kristi DeMeester’s “The Small Deaths of Skin and Plastic,” a woman is constantly giving birth to strange babies, apparently made of hard plastic. They are all taken away by the doctors who tend to her, and who apparently keep her confined to her hospital bed. But the story raises many questions that remain unanswered: How did the woman get this way? what is the exact purport of plastic babies? why do the doctors, at one point, attach their mouths to the babies? What, in general, is the point of this story?

In contrast, Lucy A. Snyder’s “That Which Does Not Kill You” does use the supernatural effectively as a symbol. Here a woman, Emily, wakes up with a horrible pain in her chest: she finds that her heart is missing. She sees her longtime lover, Ashley, packing up her things: she is moving in with a new lover, a man named Kurt. Here the symbolism of the missing heart (as representing the collapse of a relationship) is perhaps excessively obvious, but is nonetheless powerfully handled.

Other stories are spoiled by a failure to develop their ideas adequately. Daniel Mills’s “The Christiansen Deaths” is the story of the life and death of a married couple, Lars and Sigrid Christiansen, as told by various people who knew them. In the course of the tale we are evidently to infer that Sigrid gave birth to some hideous monster, and that Lars may have somehow taken this creature into himself. The premise is of some interest, but it is not worked out well. Anya Martin’s “Boisea trivittata” tells of a woman who finds her house besieged by insects called boxelder bugs. Since they are generally harmless, the woman does not wish to kill them; instead, she attempts to capture them and put them outside. But the bugs keep on coming in greater and greater numbers. Martin is apparently seeking to create a sense of cumulative horror, but the uniformly bland narrative tone she adopts militates against any genuine engagement on the reader’s part.

Then there is S. P. Miskowski’s “Alligator Point,” a lackluster tale of a woman taking her twin daughters camping, in the course of which we are given not so subtle hints that the woman has murdered her husband. Jeffrey Thomas’s “Stranger in the House” is the account of an aging man who reflects sadly on the departure of his wife after many years of marriage and the fact that his mother is descending into dementia, failing to recognize him. Then the man himself finds that his own memory—of his wife, his mother, his co-workers, and even himself—is slipping away. Again an interesting premise, but again not narrated in a sufficiently compelling manner. The very next story in the book, Christopher Slatsky’s “SPARAGMOS,” is similar, dealing at tedious length about a man fearing he is losing his mind.

Michael Griffin’s “The Sound of Black Dissects the Sun” is one of the longest stories in the book—and one of the most disappointing. It tells of one Michael Lamassus, who runs the record label Nocturne Musics. He receives in the mail a CD that contains bizarre music that causes him to hallucinate about floating in a subterranean lake. The CD was made by a man named Mitsuko, who has a strong interest in the occult. Lamassus thinks that the release of the CD would “drop a cultural bomb on the world.” Somehow Lamassus makes his way to Mitsuko’s studio, but finds the musician burnt to a crisp. Once again, there are interesting ideas in this tale—but it is massively, painfully verbose, with long, tiresome accounts of how each track of the CD affects Lamassus, and whines on his part about the decline of the music industry. Griffin is gifted with a fine prose style, but needs to exercise better critical judgment if he is to write an engaging story.

The succession of mediocrities continues. A. C. Wise’s “The Stories We Tell about Ghosts” is about teenagers who play a game using a phone app called Ghost Hunt!. The narrator is a girl whose younger brother, Gen, is becoming increasingly frightened as the kids go from one purportedly haunted house to another. The story is well written (aside from the author’s persistent and unrepentant use of “like” for “as” or “as if” [“his heels [were] hanging over the top step like he was about to do a back flip”]), but the ending is entirely predictable. Brian Evenson’s “The Second Door” is a poorly written tale set in a never-never-land where a brother begins to suspect that his sister, who has begun speaking in a non-human tongue, has been replaced by an alien entity. Michael Cisco’s “Rock n’ [sic] Roll Death Squad” a somewhat opaque series of ruminations by a retired contract killer. This story is luminously transparent in comparison to Lisa L. Hannett’s completely incomprehensible “Outside, a Drifter.”

Michael Wehunt’s “In Canada” is a standard unreliable-narrator story of a possibly autistic young man who takes refuge in putting on masks of animals and thinking he has become the animal in question. This story is no more than adequate. Slightly less so is Nadia Bulkin’s “Live Through This,” about a high school student, Danielle Haas, who killed herself after being raped by two of her classmates, and who resurrects herself and kills random members of the community. Bulkin apparently is seeking to mingle black humor and horror, but neither element comes off very well.

There are a few successes in Looming Low, although none of these is unequivocal. My personal favorite is perhaps Simon Strantzas’s “Doused by Night,” a magnificent tale of existential horror. Here the narrator, Miles (possibly an alcoholic), wakes up in a hospital with a strange mark behind his right ear; a doctor harrowingly notifies him that a dozen people have previously been seen with that mark, and they have all died within twenty-four hours. This sets the narrator and his wife on a hunt for the bar where Miles had apparently been the night before. The tale develops a powerful sense of cumulative terror, but is marred by a disappointingly opaque and inconclusive ending.

Strantzas’s Canadian colleague Richard Gavin contributes “Banishments,” about two brothers who find an iron box floating in a creek. Opening it, they are horrified to find what looks like a baby, not quite human in appearance—but it is made of wax. This tale also gains cumulative strength as it proceeds, even if it is not entirely coherent. Betty Rocksteady’s “Dusk Urchin” is a gripping account of a woman whose neighbor, aged about seventy, states that a little girl (aged about ten) has shown up claiming to be his daughter. The neighbor then says he actually killed the girl, but she came back to life. The “child as villain” motif is an old standby in weird fiction (just think of Ray Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin”), but here it is handled more than ably.

Livia Llewellyn’s “The Gin House, 1935” is a kind of extended prose-poem, as a woman born in the later nineteenth century reflects on her long life of crime and immorality. Llewellyn writes gorgeously evocative prose, but the story is somewhat formless and unfocused. The author also lapses into the error of using “lay” for “lie.” Scott Nicolay’s “When the Blue Sky Breaks” is really more of a sketch or vignette than a story, as it tells of a teenage girl impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend. There are some fine moments of prose-poetry here, but to my mind the story is not genuinely weird—unless one assumes that the author is making faint allusions to Machen’s “The White People.”

Craig Laurence Gidney’s “Mirror Bias” attempts a fusion of sex and weirdness—a dangerous combination that can easily lead to disaster, but one that Gidney manages to pull off creditably. A middle-aged white gay man, Percy, communicates on a dating app called Mirror-Bias [sic] with what appears to be a statuesque and well-endowed black man. Does this man really exist? Apparently he does, as he comes through Percy’s bathroom mirror for an encounter. The story concludes in a manner not fit to be described in a wholesome family journal like this one; but this ending is effective both erotically and horrifically. Gidney, however, has a somewhat precarious relationship with the English language: he writes “lightening” when he means “lightning,” and “san serif” when he means “sans serif”; at one point his protagonist writes of “his parent’s [sic] house,” which would mean he had only one parent.

Sunny Moraine’s “We Grope Together, and Avoid Speech” is an intriguing rumination on the proposition that “There are mouths in the walls.” The story gains cumulative strength in only a few pages. Brooke Warra’s “Heirloom” is about twin (perhaps Siamese) sisters who are inexorably fused psychologically. The author deftly suggests parallels between their fate and that of rose bushes. Kaaron Warren’s “We Are All Bone Inside” is a meandering but nonetheless riveting story about a distinguished family named Naskin, some of whose members are forced to live underground. When an elderly member of the family, Seth, wishes to lay eyes on his sister, Moira, whom he has not seen in sixty years, he enlists the help of his niece, Emily, who ventures underground to find her. I am not entirely sure this story “makes sense” in any orthodox manner, but it is striking and effective.

Looming Low concludes with a lengthy story by Gemma Files, who can always be relied on to deliver. “Distant Dark Places” is a tad long-winded, but tells the mesmerizing story of a woman, Sidonia, who wishes to find her (female) lover, Jong, who has disappeared. Jong is apparently a physicist or astronomer, but she seems to have joined an apocalyptic cult, the Theia Collect, that adheres to a strange hypothesis about how the moon separated from the earth. The tale takes us to a remote part of northern Ontario, where Sidonia and Jong have a dramatic confrontation. While not entirely convincing, the tale’s cosmic conclusion is immensely compelling.

I do not know what it will take for editors and publishers in this field to recognize the value of good copy editing. I have already pointed out infelicities in some of the stories; but the problems are far more widespread than that, ranging from the failure to place a space between the first two names of initialed authors (e.g., S. P. Miskowski, not S.P. Miskowski) to having people speak in numbers (in dialogue a character does not say “10,000” but “ten thousand”). I have already suggested that Steele himself has a shaky understanding of English grammar, so he is clearly not up to the task of rectifying analogous solecisms in his authors’ work; and evidently the publisher did not see fit to hire a capable copyeditor, assuming any was hired at all. The result is a bushel of tiny but annoying imperfections that cumulatively make this anthology significantly poorer than it could have been.

It should be evident from this that Looming Low is quite a mixed bag. I truly wish it was better than it is. The editors’ inexperience—and perhaps their fear of rejecting, or even of asking for revisions in, stories by their friends may have hampered them. Whatever the case, I hope that in Volume 2 the editors make a more exhaustive attempt to solicit contributions from a wider range of writers, so that that book can be more representative of the best in our field than this one is. There are many fine writers in contemporary weird fiction, and they all need venues for the dissemination of their distinctive output.