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Written in Darkness by Mark Samuels

Written in Darkness

by Mark Samuels

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Good weird fiction doesn't lend itself to long reviews. The powers of the story are weakened when surprises are prematurely revealed. The effects of carefully paced narration are distorted or not conveyed. Latinate words like "alienation", "identity", "penance", and "transformation" are cold and insufficient words of thematic taxonomy.

And Samuels' collection is good weird fiction of a bleak yet, as Reggie Oliver notes in his introduction, exultant sort. The tone and effect may remind one of Thomas Ligotti, an author Samuels has called the greatest living writer of weird fiction. Yet Samuels rejects that writer's materialistic nihilism.

The most memorable, the most disturbing and, seemingly, least weird story is the opening one, "A Call to Greatness". Its setting is mostly historical; its concerns are very contemporary. Egremont, a wealthy, young, but world-weary functionary of a European Union he regards as sick and dead with apathy, sits in a cafe waiting to meet a stranger who has sent him some material to read. The stranger shows up, and we see what's in those documents: a 1921 account of the White Cassock Baron Maximilian. The Baron was a real person, Baron Robert Nicolaus Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, and it's his picture on the cover of the book.

The story opens with a quote from the chilling Order 15 to the Baron's troops: ''Truth and mercy' are no longer permissible. Henceforth, there can only be 'Truth and merciless hardness'. The evil which has fallen upon the land, with the object of destroying the divine principle in the human soul, must be extirpated root and branch. Fury against the heads of the revolution, and its devoted followers, must know no boundaries."

Workplace horror in the manner of Thomas Ligotti's My Work Is Not Yet Done or "The Town Manager" show up in two other memorable tales.

"The Ruins of Reality" takes place in a really bleak future, so chaotic and depressed that mass unemployment and suicide are common and there's no longer resources for the usual pacifiers and distractors: tv, video games, the internet, drugs and alcohol, and sports. But salvation seem at hand as the N Factory comes to the narrator's town with its gruesome posters of modern ills it promises to correct.

"Outside Interference" mixes the ambiance of dead teenager and zombie movies with quotidian workplace drudgery. The narrator and his co-workers, the slacker contingent of their company, get sent to a remote and dilapidated building to transcribe that office's paper records to electronic forms before the location is closed. But, when one emerges from an elevator ride to the unknown subterranean levels of the complex with charred fleshed and unburned clothes and strange white eyes, the horror begins.

Workplace horror also features in "The Hourglass of the Soul" with its IT protagonist sent on a trip to his employer's secret subterranean complex in the Gobi Desert. But I found this story underdeveloped and too short after the revelation as to what that complex holds.

An retired tv journalist, not even liked by his fellow traveler Marxists in the profession, stars in "The Other Tenant". At home, he hears weird shrieks and babblings from the too-loud tv of the next door apartment. Complaints to management go unanswered, so he decides to investigate.

"Alistair" is the most traditional story of the collection with its tale of a man a bit puzzled as to why his wife wants to move back to her childhood home. He's also puzzled at his general lack of affection for his son, and jealous of the close bond between his wife and the boy. All is explained on the revelation of a secret. This one is set in London around Highgate Cemetery.

"My World Has No Memories" has bits of Baudelaire and H. P. Lovecraft (not in the Cthulhu Mythos sense) and, in its nautical setting, William Hope Hodgson. A man awakes at sea. Not only is he missing memories to locate his sense of self. He can't locate the ship's position in the world. The GPS and radio are out, and the stars seem different. And there's a repulsive something in a jar on board and human bodies bobbing outside. It was another of my favorites in the collection.

"My Heretical Existence" appeared in a tribute anthology to Bruno Schulz, a figure I'm totally unfamiliar with. Perhaps I would have liked the story better if I did. Unlike "The Hourglass of the Soul", it wasn't obscure. It just didn't move me. The narrator, who lives in a city of exiles, wanders into a secret street and has a disturbing encounter with the patrons of the Under the Sign of the Hourglass Stilled Pub.

"In Eternity -- Two Lines Intersect" was written for an Arthur Machen tribute anthology, and it shows some of that writer's themes: reverence for nature, the occult secrets of the city, and Christian mysticism. Its narrator, after being released from the hospital for some unknown malady, requires social isolation. Not having much money, he rents a vacated apartment filled with its previous tenant's possessions. There are odd annotations in the books, strange sounds from the radio, and the narrator begins to view the wooded hill outside his window differently. ( )
2 vote RandyStafford | May 25, 2017 |
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