The thing that I’ll probably repeat ad infinitum about horror and weird fiction at the moment is the breadth, depth and quality of work that is being published at the moment. I truly believe that horror is going through a bit of a renaissance period with a whole slew of small print publishers and authors producing truly world class fiction. Another prime example of this trend is T.E. Grau’s “The Nameless Dark”, a collection of fourteen new and republished pieces of fiction that ably demonstrate his writing skills and ability across a range of different settings, time periods and styles. Of the fourteen stories, nine are heavily influenced by the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft and the ideas of cosmic horror but is a testament to Grau’s skills as a writer that they feel fresh and inventive and breathe new life into the idiom of “when the stars are right”. The remaining five stories continue to play with convention and breathe new life into familiar horror tropes like serial killers and werewolves. The end result is an eclectic and diverse range of stories bound together by an assured and confident style of writing.
Things kick of with “Tubby’s Big Swim” about a bullied kid and his rather peculiar friend. It isn’t a story where anything overtly horrific happens but then this is more a story about the horrors of growing up in a fragmented family atmosphere and childhood isolation. The thing that immediately springs to the fore is Grau’s description of the streets of Los Angeles. There’s a tense and bruised atmosphere of decay to the narrative and at times it feels almost like Grau is channeling the spirit of Thomas Ligotti.
That feeling grows with the next story, “The Screamer” and its’ description of a worn down and pessimistic corporate lackey who starts to hear a wailing type scream invade his reality. As the screams increase in intensity and frequency his and many others’ lives start to disintegrate into chaos and madness culminating in a collision between two very different realities. It doesn’t use traditional Lovecraftian styling but it has a very jarring sense of otherness and discordance in how it paints the City of Angels and the titular character as the herald of the Apocalypse. It is a really damn good story!
The key thing that grabs me about his writing is how much Grau is able to manipulate your expectations and perception of the story. Take for example “Clean” his tale of sibling predators and the seedy underbelly of LA sex traffic. Well, that’s what I initially thought it was about and prepared and then Grau completely undermines your expectations of what is happening and I ended up being somewhere else with a shiver going down my spine. The way he writes is almost like one of those street magicians who messes with your senses through distraction and sleigh of hand.
The Lovecraftian influence is prevalent throughout the next few stories. “Return of the Prodigy” ably demonstrates that idea that if you are going to go on holiday it is a really, really good idea to do some forward planning and opt for something a little bit more expensive and known. Especially if your destination is a remote island with black sands, deep water and where the seafood special will give you something more than a quick dose of food poisoning. “White Feather” set during the American Revolution is about cowardice and redemption but also reinforces notions about being an outcast on the fringes of society. This theme is continued in the excellent “Transmission” about a self-imposed exile from society who encounters a mysterious radio signal out in the desert and finds his true calling. Grau creates a desolate and eerie atmosphere out in the wilds of mid west America with a strong sense of how insidious the words of the Mythos are in worming their way into your consciousness.
“The Truffle Pig” I think was where I truly started beaming from ear to ear. Just that moment where you are completely synced with the story and just intrinsically know that what you are reading is head and shoulders above the crowd. It is probably one of the best takes on the story of Jack the Ripper that I have EVER read and like the rest of the stories in here is unexpected, mesmerizing and oozes quality. Much the same can be said of “Beer and Worms” which reminds me somewhat of those Tales from The Crypt comics with the lurid covers and a great twist in the tail. Following this, Grau once again plays around with your perception in “Expat” where one American tourist discovers that Absinthe, European Cities and a brazen attitude are definitely not a good mix. Like Clean it starts off in one direction and Hey Presto! You end up going off at a completely different tangent.
Folklore and fairy tales are given his deft touch in the highly entertaining and slightly demented take on werewolves that is “Mr. Lupus”. This is one of the longer tales in this collection but is nonetheless another startlingly fresh perspective on a well worn theme. “Free Fireworks” is another excellent derivation of what happens “if the stars are right” on a transformed Earth. “Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox” is taken from the excellent Laird Barron tribute collection “The Children of Old Leech” and is set during the Flower Power generation’s quest to find something different that will change the world. What you want and what you get isn’t always a good thing as it echoes the flower power generation’s history as lost and damaged souls becoming beacons for hungry and powerful personalities to exploit. This is a taut, and atmospheric tribute to Barron’s idea of a carnivorous cosmos and Old Leech and its’ theme of innocence lost is nicely juxtaposed with the following story “Twinkle, Twinkle.”
“Twinkle, Twinkle” is yet another story infused with the idea that humanity is really quite insignificant in comparison to what awaits us in the cold and uncaring depths of space. The story manages to nicely balance the innocence of youth against the harsh realities of adulthood, loss and what awaits us in the dark to creating a moving and poignant tale. The final story in the collection, “The Mission” can best be described as a weird western where the Wild West meets something far older and far wilder.
All in all this really is quite a startling collection from T.E. Grau and The Nameless Dark is yet again another example of why people should be excited about horror and weird fiction in general. If you like stories with style, panache, solid characterization and damn it, just great storytelling, this is as good a place to start as any. Hell, when you have Nathan Ballingrud writing your intro you know that you must be doing something right!