I greatly enjoyed this book, was genuinely surprised by it (I’d expected more of Strantzas’s previous quietness and allusions), and – most importantly of all – I was, in at least three significant passages, really rattled by it. Hey, some writers don’t do that even once in a career. Here's some notes on the stories.
- On Ice
A solid opener, with a mounting sense of unease as researchers come a cropper one by one in an icy climate. I find tales, particularly relatively short ones, in which lots of characters are present from the opening sometimes hard to get into, but by focusing closely on one guy, this story just about got around that structural difficulty. There were some nice time-honoured methods used here – footprints outside camps, body-parts found in disturbing isolation from their owners, etc – and the conclusion was satisfying, even if [SPOILERS FROM HERE] the monster was presented (to my tastes) a little too explicitly. I’d have preferred a little blur and confusion during the beast’s description, maybe a snowstorm distorting perception of it – something maybe to render it more elusive. But the Lovecraftian “reveal” is always a hard trick to pull off, and Strantzas does a nice enough job here, so don’t let me be churlish. Good opener.
- Dwelling on the Past
A solidly handled story, with – not the final time Strantzas will use this device in the book – a tragic backstory, from which all the narrated events gain resonance. The guy’s [SPOILER] descent into the pit towards the end was effective, as was the fur thing creeping upon him. I liked this layered story a good deal.
- Strong as a Rock
One of my favourites of the shorter pieces, this tale of two halves – first a climbing trip involving an accident, and then a rush for medical support – simply darkens and darkens, with its protracted, subterranean conclusion building to a great last scene, fully playing on psychologies established earlier. I particularly enjoyed the feel of the old hospital, with all its decay and ineradicable stains. Aickman is all over this piece, but so is Lovecraft, and that’s a fine combination in anyone’s book.
- By Invisible Hands
This was one of the two tales with which I didn’t get on very well. I suspect that’s because I’m not steeped in, nor drawn to, the kind of fictional landscape it seeks to explore – Ligottian, I’m guessing. I’m not the best person to judge, so I’ll remain relatively quiet about this puppet-based story.
- One Last Bloom
As the most overtly Lovecraftian piece in a Mythos-infused book, this story, the first of two novellas, is most remarkable for its characterisation, with the lead guy a particularly unsympathetic (though not uninteresting) person: self-regarding, privately ambitious, romantically fickle. This sour human backdrop forms a suitable framework for a journal-based side-story, involving a second narrator detailing the events of an ocean-based research trip. And what comes back from there is not pleasant at all – in fact, it’s genuinely mysterious, insidious and gruesome. I loved this tale, which includes a genuinely frightening scene (hint: it involves a visit to a flat) – one of those moments of terror that hold us all in the genre, reading story after story until someone does the same business again. Strantzas certainly manages that here. Fantastic tale.
- Thistle’s Find
I really enjoyed this snappy, pungent story of a rather alluring creature plucked from an alternative realm. It had the cosy framework of an old-fashioned crazy-scientist tale, but with a risqué sequence of events. I liked the narrator’s “street” voice, as well as the manic scramble for safety at the end. A solid tale.
- Beyond the Banks of the River Seine
Another tale that didn’t really push my buttons, but I enjoyed it more than the puppet story above, maybe because I’m interested in all that “old music”. An enjoyable, lyrical story.
- Emotional Dues
Along with “Solid as a Rock”, this was my favourite of the shorter pieces, with its slightly surreal events clearly functioning as a metaphor for artistic expression and what this demands and then takes from the artist. The ending is brilliantly orchestrated, and [SPOILER] the image of that thing entering the room still burns in me now, days after completion. As in “One Last Bloom”, Strantzas is excellent at stage-managing visually vivid horrors, to such a degree that frantic characterisation and firm, rhythmic, precise use of language conspire to drive the scenes home powerfully. Great tale.
- Burnt Black Suns
For a book that starts in ice, where else to end but in baking sunshine? This novella, along with “One Last Bloom” is the collection’s most outstanding work, a brilliantly brooding, painful study of familial obsession and divided loyalties. Whereas I sometimes thought “On Ice” might have benefitted from a more laboured depiction of the icy landscape, there are no problems here (possibly because of the extra space available): far-flung Mexico is depicted in all its perspiring, poverty-ridden, semi-neglected, fly-blighted dereliction, with the central character’s childless desperation perfectly represented by such a carefully wrought sense of place. (Strantzas must have visited somewhere similar, surely.) Anyway, the plot is quite straightforward, involving the search for a decamped wife and son, but the horrors it involves, including strange dreams, dark suns, untrustworthy clergy, etc, builds to a brilliantly intense conclusion, one worthy of the rise of a Great Old One. This is latter-day Lovecraftian fiction at its finest, all rendered in a Graham Greene-ish, Sergio Leone-esque manner. The characterisation reminded me of Patricia Highsmith and the prose of Emile Zola. But maybe that’s just me. Whatever the facts are, this was, in my opinion, the best story in the book.