“… this is an incredibly strong collection of stories and essays.”
“Each story in Darkest Hours reads like a blast of intense sound. Crisp, erudite and intense, these stories speak with uncanny voices that occasionally converse with one another (as we’ll explore in this essay). Thorn builds narrative worlds that inhabit a set of thematic coordinates that I propose we recognize with the term Thornian.’ The Thornian exists in the interplay between addiction, violence, academic pretensions and the supernatural monsters which push these other themes to their limits.”
I tend to value style most highly in works of fiction. Of course, I enjoy the pleasure of sinking into a well-constructed plot as much as anyone, but for me, voice and perspective are most important of all. It is no surprise, then, that I am quite taken with Joanna Koch’s novella The Wingspan of Severed Hands, whose deliberately obstructive narrative strategies are delivered through such stunning, distinctive prose.
The story tracks Adira, a young woman who fights against misogynistic familial and social structures that aim to lay violent claim to her body. Simultaneously, it depicts Bennet, the weapons director of a secret research facility who constructs a sentient, neuro-cognitive device that develops her own disorienting self-awareness. As the novel progresses, these three characters (Adira, Bennet, and the weapon) discover a common, quasi-cosmic enemy.
This is a slippery book, whose hallucinatory sequences leak between different character POVs with stunning abandon. Koch, who has an MA in Contemplative Psychotherapy, applies Cronenberg-esque body horror to transferences of consciousness and selfhood. Much like Cronenberg, Koch intertwines institutional corruption and scientific inquiry with vivid, hyper-visceral depictions of bodily destruction and transformation. Although the novel’s climax swerves into trippy, consciousness-hopping dreamscapes, Koch seems more interested in the intimate interiority of trauma than they are in “cosmic horror” conventions.
The result is an impressive achievement, massive in scope and narrative ambition, but insular in thematic focus. Koch applies elements of experimental speculative fiction to both body and cosmic horror, placing their primary emphasis on the formidable (but ultimately beatable) power of trauma. Although the book goes to nasty places, it does not submit completely to its darkness, and I respect it for that.
Koch is a stunningly original talent, and I enthusiastically recommend this novella.
Kristi DeMeester’s Everything That’s Underneath reads something like a creative thesis on horror fiction’s inherently allegorical potential. The story’s title speaks to the collection’s persisting concerns. Namely, the book faces the menace undergirding polite society, and the unseen specters clawing at the outskirts of consciousness, even of reality itself (consider, for example, the title story, “Birthright,” and “Split Tongues”).
The author navigates lived-in, conflicted protagonists through plots whose threats are often shapeshifting, amorphous, and inscrutable. DeMeester demonstrates a mastery of withholding detail while doling out just enough information to pry her way under the reader’s skin. This is one of the most difficult tasks the horror writer faces: if we show too much, we risk deflating the tension, but if we show too little, we might seem like we’re bluffing or shying away from the dark stuff. DeMeester never misses the mark in this regard, depicting horrific presences that push against the thin membrane separating reality and that which is underneath.
The book displays an extremely impressive knack for character psychology, using heightened sensory experiences and drives as catalysts to confront supernatural forces. Consider the characters’ sexual lust propelling the narratives in “The Fleshtival,” “Daughters of Hecate,” and “Split Tongues,” or the yearning to undo loss in the title story and “To Sleep in the Dust of the Earth.” DeMeester is unflinching in her exploration of her characters’ desires, which lends itself to a convincing sense of realism in their motivations and actions.
Driven by challenging thematic interests and a stunning prose style, this book ranks among the best dark fiction collections of the past ten years. Think S. P. Miskowski, Gwendolyn Kiste, Kathe Koja … yes, DeMeester is that good. This is the work of a major talent, and an absolute must-read for anyone interested in contemporary weird fiction.
Mike Thorn’s new short story “Deprimer” is included in Vastarien: A Literary Journal, volume 3, issue 2. Pre-order here.
Daniel Braum’s new short story collection Underworld Dreams comes equipped with a Story Notes section; within these Notes, the author provides thoughtful reflections on his creative process, narrative intentions, and philosophical interests, among other things. Most prominently, Braum stresses his persisting interest in the ambiguous space between the psychological and the supernatural. Braum’s fiction inhabits this space and engages with the Weird tradition to depict our reality as innately interstitial, slippery, and impervious to “mastery.” By extension, Underworld Dreams repeatedly encourages us to scrutinize the artificial gap between human and nonhuman animals, between subject and world.
This coy, quiet, and unassuming challenge to human exceptionalism resonates throughout. The first story, “How to Stay Afloat When Drowning,” features a disturbing centerpiece in which a group of people brutally torture a shark; later, the story uses its psychological-supernatural ambiguity to blur the distinction between shark and human. “The Monkey Coat” lends attention to the suffering bound up in its titular object (the origin of whose horrors remain unknown).
Braum does not employ this symbolism to bluntly didactic ends; rather, he assesses the artificial divide between human and nonhuman animal to underline broader investigations about the human subject’s relation to the world. For example, the title story sees characters discussing acts of infidelity and dishonesty as reflections of their “monkey in the jungle” selves.
Braum cites Algernon Blackwood’s classic Weird novella The Willows in his Story Notes, and the imprint is visible: Underworld Dreams repeatedly sees its characters encountering eerily numinous spaces and reality-fissures in environments that have evaded global industrialism. Braum finds lots of potential for the ineffable in “natural” spaces, demonstrating a knack for imagery and atmosphere.
There are horrifying moments here (perhaps most notably in the aforementioned “Monkey Coat,” reportedly inspired by advice Braum got from the legendary Jack Ketchum), but this book mostly occupies Weird Fiction’s less macabre terrain. China Melville writes that the “obsession with numinosity under the everyday is at the heart of Weird Fiction,” and this is the obsession that most clearly characterizes Underworld Dreams. For readers seeking fiction with a strong narrative engine and a bold commitment to the unknown, this collection is one to seek out.
“Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
I can’t remember a time before I started writing. For better or worse, it has been a lifelong impulse. I was always drawn to reading, which is probably where my interest in writing originated. As a kid, I was excited by fantasy and horror (J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and R. L. Stine when I was quite young, and then Stephen King when I got a little older).”
Mike Thorn is an author and film critic who currently resides in Calgary, Alberta (mostly inside his apartment, at the moment). Thorn’s Darkest Hours, a collection of short stories, is anything but mundane. Although his writing is full of darkness and supernatural horrors, it is always rooted in something painfully human. A genre film enthusiast, Mike excels at uncovering allegorical meanings behind fantastical works of art, often rooted in depictions of trauma and hidden pasts. He also can name the top ten horror flicks from any decade at the drop of a hat; the man has lists for everything. Mike is unique in his approach to writing, as he is informed not only by his intense love for literature, but also by his extensive knowledge of cinema. He is particularly influenced and inspired by 1930s horror. Currently, Mike works as an instructor at Bow Valley College, while also keeping up with personal writing projects. Keep your eyes peeled in February 2021 for his debut novel, Shelter for the Damned.