An Exponent of Quiet Horror

by S. T. Joshi
(From Dead Reckonings #23)

JAMES ULMER. The Fire Doll: Stories. Huntsville, TX: Texas Review Press, 2017. 147 pp. ISBN 9781680031270. $18.95 tpb.

James Ulmer appears to be one of the best-kept secrets in contemporary weird fiction. In spite of the fact that, prior to this current volume, he issued a collection of ghost stories, The Secret Life (Halcyon Press, 2012), Ulmer seems almost entirely unknown to devotees of supernatural fiction. There is no entry on him in, and I myself had never heard of him until he wrote to me directly, asking if I wished to read The Fire Doll. I am very glad I took up Mr. Ulmer’s offer, for this book shows what a writer who—at least in a social sense—works outside our somewhat incestuous community can do with the age-old tropes and motifs of weird fiction.

Ulmer, currently a professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University, has in almost every one of the eleven stories in The Fire Doll chosen to work in the vein of what is somewhat misleadingly called “quiet horror.” His smooth-flowing, lapidary prose, the honesty of his character portrayals, and his intuitive understanding that supernaturalism in a tale should be a symbol for the conveyance of reflections on the human condition all work to lend his stories a depth and meaning far beyond their surface events. And yet, apprehension and outright terror are not lacking, and Ulmer’s expert management of narrative pacing brings nearly all his tales to a satisfyingly grim conclusion.

A fair number of Ulmer’s tales focus on the complexities of interpersonal relationships, as a succession of men (a majority of his protagonists are male) find themselves caught in troubled or wrecked marriages, with the weird phenomena emerging precisely because of that circumstance. Prototypical is “Rendezvous Bay,” where a man named Reed sees the ghost of his wife, Angela, while he is in the company of his new lover, Janet. Angela’s very presence forces Reed to confess to Janet that he is not in love with her. The whole scenario is a compact metaphor for Reed’s inability to free himself of his deep feelings for his departed wife. “The Luna Moth” tells how Jack Conroy sees, through a knothole in a fence, a beautiful woman disrobing in front of a man whose legs alone can be seen. Inevitably, the erotic image affects Jack’s relations with his own girlfriend, to the extent that he has fantasies of beating and raping her. The conclusion of this tale is too clever to reveal here.

One of the lengthiest stories in The Fire Doll is “Safety Cove,” about a man named Nick Wilmarth (no Lovecraftian allusion intended!) who moves to Tampa, Florida, to be near his sister, Anne, and also to the grave of his dead mother. When he is attacked by one of three cats he sees in the cemetery where his mother is buried, the adventure begins. It ultimately becomes clear that we are dealing with shape-shifting vampires—for what else can the alluring woman, Katrina, whom Nick meets in a bar be? And why was Anne later found dead, drained of blood? Although the latter stages of the tale become a kind of action-adventure narrative where Nick realizes he must put a body of water between himself and the female vampires who are pursuing him, the story is actually one of the fundamental loneliness of a man who has lost his last living relative and perhaps senses that much of the meaning in his life has similarly been drained.

A different kind of relationship is depicted in the other long story in the book, “The Fire Doll.” Here, the police officers Richard Katrovas and Allison Reese have been lent to the FBI to investigate several murders of women in Texas and Louisiana. Allison is kidnapped by four or five men. Ten days later her captors are either killed or captured, and she is found naked and chained in the basement of a house. She commits suicide eight months later. Richard—who had made love to Allison at least once—must now face the trauma of carrying on both his personal and professional life in the wake of her death; and matters take a turn for the worse when the chief culprit in the case, the utterly ruthless Luther Mooney, escapes from prison. Richard pursues him and ultimately kills him—or does he? He himself tells his superiors the incredible tale that, while communicating with Luther via radio, he heard Allison’s voice say, “Hello, Luther.” At a press conference announcing Luther’s demise, Richard thinks he sees Allison in the audience. When he approaches, she merely says, “Let me go”—in other words, Richard must forget about her so that she can find peace, and so that Richard himself can move on with his life. This richly textured tale, with every character vibrantly rendered, is compelling on a multitude of levels.

Other tales in the book are perhaps slighter, but no much less powerful. “Pine Straw” tells the story of how Clayton Talley moved to Loblolly, Arkansas, into the house of a woman who was found dead there years ago. He finds himself blanketed by pine needles; as Ulmer evocatively writes at one point, “He lived in a cave in a rain of pine needles.” What else can this be but a symbol for his burying himself away from the turmoil of life? “Sad Annie” is a somewhat more orthodox ghost story in which a sad-faced girl leads a boy to a ravine where the bones of as many as twelve women have been dumped. The ghost of the girl appears later—smiling this time, for she has accomplished her purpose. In “Camden on the River,” a married couple, Kate and Josh, visit a Confederate cemetery and see the ghost of Kate’s father gesturing to them. The apparition appears to them several more times:

… a figure detached itself from the shadow of the nearest pine and stood before us, as real as the crosshatch of branches or the mailbox tipped at the curb in apparent alarm. A dark suit, white shirt open at the neck, feet bare in the cold—the face livid, horrible, the eyes staring like glass. Shadows threw a pattern of diamonds over the pallid face and shirt front of the dead harlequin.

He had been a horrible, corrupt man in life, so it is perhaps no surprise that another ghost—that of Kate’s sister—emerges later, pointing accusingly at him.

“Shadow in a Green Field” is a clever monster tale about a man found dead in the woods, his arm and leg ripped away. This does not seem to be the work of an animal, but no human being is strong enough to have done this kind of damage. The dead man was a photographer, and when the film from his camera is developed, a dark shape is seen in some of the photographs: “The picture showed half the features: one eye, completely black, and half a mouth full of long, thin teeth, the jaw unhinged like a piranha’s, the lips gray.” How is it possible that the photographer did not sense this creature approaching him with obviously sinister intent? Once again, the conclusion of this tale is too pungently effective to reveal here.

And one cannot pass over the book’s final tale, “The Summer on Breckenridge Street,” where David Lessing, feeling rootless and “dead inside,” goes to Gettysburg, where he had gone to college, and senses the presence of the soldiers who had fought in that epochal battle a century and a half before. This is nothing more (or less) than an extended prose-poem, exquisitely evocative and poignant.

It should be evident that James Ulmer, beyond his other talents, has a deep and abiding love for the regions—mostly in the South—where he has lived and worked, ranging from Texas (he was formerly a Writer-in-Residence at Houston Baptist University) to Louisiana to Arkansas. The distinctive topography and culture of the South are evident on nearly every page of this book, contributing to the atmosphere of pensive weirdness that the author effortlessly creates. Eschewing the flamboyance of over-the-top bloodletting, James Ulmer has written a volume of weird tales whose meticulous craftsmanship and sureness of technique will prove far more enduring than the cruder, noisier contributions to our field.