Though we’ve seen a deluge of new Weird Fiction in recent years, even the savviest reader might be at a loss to identify what exactly the “high strange horror” of Muzzleland Press’s anthology is. A quick glance at the cover with its Gray Man motel tenant and merit badges of mystery will give one a good notion. The book’s subtitle—“Weird Tales of Paranoia and the Damned”—is elaborated further in the introduction provided by editor Jonathan Raab. We soon find out that this is to be something different from the normal Weird genre fans are used to, something more in line with ominous television programs like In Search Of…, Unsolved Mysteries and Beyond Belief that documented purportedly true events of the paranormal, what Raab here defines using author and researcher Charles Fort’s term as instances of “the damned.”
Raab’s introduction makes us anticipate tales dealing with marginalized fields of estoterica, stories of vanishing cryptids and latent psychic powers and the shadowy government cover-ups that naturally follow the sightings of unidentified spacecraft. While many of the stories in High Strange Horror do reference “the damned” in one form or another, there are some that lack any qualities that distinguish them as “high strange” from just “horror.”
Chief among these is “The Dead Wait,” a Christmas Carol-variant about a remorseless jerk wasting away from cancer who tries to turn his life around after chatting with a few dead friends phoning him from Hell. Some stories that do deal directly with the anthology’s subject matter of extraterrestrials (“The Keepers”) and arcane cults (“Black-Eyed Children, Blue-Eyed Child”) are hampered by timeworn twist endings and unpolished writing that reads more like the transcript of a television episode. Not all entries that opt for a more “cinematic” vibe are unsuccessful, as C. R. J. Smith’s engaging take on figures of Irish mythology “Púca” amply demonstrates, but it seems to be a recurrent theme that the contents of the book feel more like the respective authors’ conceptualizations of how their stories would be processed in a visual medium as opposed to fully-fleshed out narratives standing on their own literary merits.
Still, the anthology does count among its entries several effective yarns of considerable craft along with two genuinely great stories. The first of these greats is Matthew M. Bartlett’s “Night Dog.” For those not already introduced to Bartlett’s particular brand of strangeness from the chaotic visions of his breakout collection, “Night Dog” serves as a wonderful doorway into the author’s fiction. Another aimless, faceless resident of haunted Massachusetts finds himself caught in the ebony web of occult conspiracies and secret brotherhoods as he goes about the oblique functions of his evening office job, the ghosts of his past and spectral hounds snapping at his heels at every turn. While “Night Dog” is rewarding in its own right, reading the story after taking in Gateways to Abomination shows a writer getting even better at his craft, reaching and attaining levels of complexity and emotion that build and expand upon his earlier work. This is a story that can go from the frills of a flame-headed villain delivering a monologue worthy of Dr. Mabuse to the touching struggle of the protagonist trying to recollect memories of his family with an effortlessness that leaves one in wonder.
Mer Whinery’s “The Projectionist” is the anthology’s other crown jewel. It’s a savage ride that achieves a sweet balance of slowly increasing its temperature of menace while providing flashes of incandescent, sickening violence as brilliant and efficient as a murderer’s blade. The emotionless operatives and all-knowing figureheads featured in other stories pale in comparison to Whinery’s grotty cult of snuff-worshippers; the author strikes a note of genuine fear by relegating the monstrous cineastes to the shadows while allowing the gruesome leavings of their midnight film viewings to rot and seep in the full glare of our imaginations. A showstopper best served with cold popcorn.
There are other nuggets of quality here as well. Matthew D. Jordan pushes the concept of the Weird (and the envelope) into new terrain in his wild and woolly “Delve”, a brazenly uncouth tale that reaches bizarro-level heights as a slacker tries to come to grips with the fact that he now has the ability to dip in and out of alternate realities, one of which depicts him as a “Cosby sweater”-wearing psychopath torturing a helpless victim throughout his home. The unvarnished quality of some of the book’s contents actually works in the favor of “Delve”, giving it a rough-around-the-edges feel that bestows the story with a nitroglycerin unpredictability that delivers on the promise of its sharp hook: The first time I attempted suicide was after appearing out of thin air in the 1970s, when I was banging the unending hell out of some poor sorority chick. The second was when I hung myself in middle school.
Christopher Fraser and J. Howard Shannon deliver complimentary companion pieces with “The Lights Are Off” and “Brought Low.” While the prominent threat and action are more clearly defined in Shannon’s, both stories refuse to rest on the laurels of standard genre tropes and keep the reader guessing as to what is actually occurring within their narratives. Shannon gives us the delicious image of a mad subterranean Scotsman dwelling in an Arabian cave of skulls, but it retains the same strangeness as the invisible conspiracy working against Fraser’s protagonist in the claustrophobic underground bunker of some indeterminate apocalypse.
Voice is used to good effect in Amberle L. Husbands’ “The Vampire Sea” and Jake Skillings’ “Cats.” Both authors channel their characters with a confidence that makes their protagonists feel genuine, their worlds lived-in and familiar to them, if not necessarily to us. Husbands’ story is more melancholic in tone than the others, the spectacled Churchmen dogging the writer hero with a hushed assurance befitting Husbands’ opening thesis that the sea is indeed a vampire, an implacable enemy slowly eating away at us. There is paranoia here, but paranoia of the type that, like the writer hero, we understand will only end in the victory of Them over Us. Skillings inhabits the mind of his child narrator with equal skill even if the story does seem to stumble as it tries to obscure certain facts while explaining enough of them for the reader to get a grasp of what’s going on. The evocatively-detailed farmland dreamscape serves as a fertile stage for this drama of familial expectations to be enacted upon, with enough WTF developments covering ground from cannibalism to metamorphosis to keep one turning the page.
High Strange Horror shows that Muzzleland Press has high ambitions. A number of the stories provided here prove that they have the means of realizing them. Even if a few selections don’t quite stick the landing as successfully as their fellows and the anthology shows some general room for production improvement, the diverse range of voices and the subject matter that refuses to be easily pigeon-holed ensures that this is a publisher to be on the lookout for future releases.
Just keep watching the skies for them.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.