Cold to the Touch
By Simon Strantzas
Tartarus Press, July 2009
In the Afterword to this fine collection of stories the author identifies the key characteristic of horror fiction as the elicitation of fear, albeit of the subtle or vicarious kind. He also speaks of writing – and of reading too – as a guided dream or a ‘lucid daydream’, a term apparently taken from Stephen King. The words on the page make the author’s imaginings the reader’s own. And certainly there is often a compulsion to writing, and to reading, though both are acts carried out in private by consenting adults. There is complicity at work as well, especially acute perhaps when the imaginings in question are unsettling, transgressive and fraught with peril, as is the case here.
Many of these stories are about people who are driven to the margins because of a fear, an anxiety, that they cannot otherwise contain. For the main someone in ‘Here’s to the Good Life’ horror is to be found in an everyday place (a rather sinister Irish pub) and in what one might call a customary social practice (getting pissed at the end of a working day). But alongside the urge toward flight there is as well the need for human contact and connection; and ‘A Chorus of Yesterdays’ is a considered weighing up of these competing drives; it is also a formidably atmospheric tale. And there’s an amusing or maybe a cruel paradox at play in this story, which is that in trying too hard to connect we can drive another away.
Another common thread: a lot of the stories here are about loved ones or friends who suddenly leave or are taken away. There’s sometimes as well the possibility that they were never actually present in the first place, just imagined. ‘Fading Light’ is one of these stories: it is melancholic and a little mysterious. Another one, ‘Poor Stephanie’, is more unsettling because of its ambience of coercion and implicit sexual/physical abuse. ‘The Other Village’ deals with unconscious intention and the startling realisation of one’s own capacity for evil and violence. It has a fine engine this one, being superbly paced and as unpleasant as any Patricia Highsmith yarn.
Among the other riches herein are the title story, which for me evoked that terrific Howard Hawks film, The Thing from Another World (and yes I know Hawks doesn’t actually have the director credit for it) as well as Lovecraft and the Quatermass series. In a way, it is about a failure to connect with the natural world, an unwillingness to succumb to enchantment and awe. A story with a related theme, ‘Pinholes in Black Muslin’, concerns itself with the stars and life on earth, with environmental collapse and the very slim possibility of human survival.
Death, or more precisely dying, is the specific subject of two stories, both beautiful and curiously exhilarating. In ‘Like Falling Snow’ a woman enters a hospice; this one’s about the strangeness of dying and is sort of Rilkean in tone. ‘The Sweetest Song’ sees death as metamorphosis, transmigration, a step beyond: it is a ‘don’t fear the reaper’ story, if you like. In between reading this story and writing the review I’ve seen Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee film (the feature; I’ve not yet found the short) and that has a similar vibe.
One story, ‘Writing on the Wall’, suggests that complicity, like responsibility, is infinite. This could conceivably be construed as an urgent and energising message. Another, ‘A Seed on Barren Ground’, hints that there’s only so much vitality, good will and kindness to go around. Giving exhausts the giver. Finally or almost finally, ‘The Uninvited Guest’ reads like a riff on Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, which is no bad thing.
Rewinding somewhat, the first story in the book, ‘Under the Overpass’, strikes me now (and suddenly) as the most personal and a coda to what follows. There is an atrocity, a shared childhood secret. There is guilt like a stain that cannot be removed There’s absolutely no possibility of redemption. All that good, non-cheery, serious stuff.
I could go on, but it would be better by far if you just got the book and read the stories. They’re terrific.