Spontaneous Human Combustion is Richard Thomas’s fourth short story collection, featuring 14 tales ranging from cosmic horror, to science fiction, fantasy, and into realms beyond any simple definition. Richard Thomas has a unique style of writing, a trademark syntax that I can spot a mile away, though at the same time he is also chameleon-esque, changing the style and flavour of his prose in order to suit the aesthetics of his story, or to further highlight a theme he is exploring. This is perhaps why he is such an adept of the short story form in particular (though I do adore his novel Disintegration in particular).
Stephen King describes short stories as “a kiss in the dark” and Richard Thomas exemplifies this transitory (and sometimes transcendental) experience, in which the very brevity of the form becomes the source of its power. We can only connect with the divine momentarily. Yet, to do so can be life-changing. In this way, Richard Thomas’ short stories more closely resemble poems. They do not always operate on the plane of conscious understanding. They are not meant to be comprehended through rational intellect, but to touch something lying beneath that. I found some of the stories in this collection to be moving without really understanding them in full. This collection also took me twice as long as it should have done to read because I was drawn inexorably to re-read virtually every story in the collection (and was rewarded every time with new insight)!
I am fairly sure that this collection will be divisive in multiple ways. Some people will hate the poetic styling. Some will love it. And beyond this, there is unlikely to be any consensus on what the best story in this collection is. The range on offer here prohibits an easy narrowing down. As I mentioned earlier, Richard Thomas touches on virtually every speculative genre known to humankind, and combines them in often unexpected ways. Secondary world fantasies give way to dystopian science fiction. Lovecraftian horror is mixed with hope-punk. One senses a mind behind all these stories striving relentlessly for originality, to forge something new and not rely on tropes or easy wins. In the extensive and enlightening Endnotes at the back of this collection, Richard Thomas often mentions “challenging himself”, and one can feel that these stories are an almost Barker-esque attempt to discover something beyond the mundane, to “[explore] the further reaches of human experience” (Hellraiser). There is an experimental nature to this which is by definition inexact, but can produce startling alchemy.
As I have said before, the experience will be highly personal, and no doubt there will be little agreement on which are the most potent stories in this collection, but I will highlight my own personal top four to give you a flavour of the book:
“Ring of Fire”
I would be criminally remiss not to mention this story, as it is the longest in the collection, practically a novella. It was first published in Seven Deadliest Sins, an anthology of seven novelette / novella-length works that centred on the eponymous Seven Deadly Sins, so I had read the story once before (my review of this collection can be found here:https://storgy.com/2019/05/29/book-review-the-seven-deadliest-edited-by-patrick-beltran-and-d-alexander-ward/). “Ring of Fire” is a little bit like a Lynchian Möbius strip, a circle that doesn’t quite complete, a mystery that forever unfolds but never quite solves; at the same time, it’s a tremendous character-arc. It is a slow burner, in which the seemingly explainable and mundane scenes we’re privy too are steadily re-contextualised until we realise that nothing has been “normal” or “explainable” from the start. It is also carries an indescribable sadness to it, as each repetition, each “circuit” of the Möbius, seems to lead us not towards salvation but deeper into the elliptical loops of the psyche. It’s worth mentioning this is not the only story in the collection that involves repeated scenarios or looping narrative. There are several “Groundhog Days” contained in Spontaneous Human Combustion. Some are literal, some spiritual, and others more subtle, but the idea of being stuck in a loop that either cannot be broken, or can only be broken by our most extraordinary efforts—with great sacrifice—is arguably the defining image of the entire collection, and a metaphor for the human condition.
“The Caged Bird Sings In a Darkness Of Its Own Creation”
This is another story that I’d read once before; it was first published in Storgy’s Shallow Creek anthology, one of the weirdest and most underrated collections of fiction ever put to print. You can also read my review of that collection here: http://themindflayer.com/review-shallow-creek-storgy/. Richard Thomas’s story is the last story in the collection, and for good reason. It is a total mind-f*ck of chthonic proportions. It centres on Krinkles The Klown, who is a kind of Pennywise for Shallow Creek. But rather than going for shock-horror and killer clown antics, Richard Thomas instead tries to peel back the laters of Krinkles and show us why he is so strange (interestingly, there is another story in Spontaneous Human Combustion about a clown taking off their makeup—I sense a theme emerging!). I do not normally enjoy narratives that leave so much in the reader’s hands, but what I loved about “The Caged Bird Sings In a Darkness Of Its Own Creation” is that Richard Thomas give us a series of choices, and we realise that this is exactly what Krinkles has faced: a series of choices, bargains, and decisions that have led him to the edge of the abyss. The story can be seen as bleak, in some ways, but is this how Krinkles sees it? Richard Thomas shows us that perception is everything in this tale. What we choose to see in the mirror is the reality we inhabit. The story has two strange parallels: Twin Peaks, especially Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return (in which the macrocosm of the Lynch-universe is seemingly unveiled); and secondly, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. In terms of the second comparison, not so much the retro late-seventies vibe, more the contact with something entirely other, and the sense of obsession, panic, and euphoria such contact can bring.
This story was a huge surprise. It is almost an outlier of the collection, in that it is written in a more prosaic and down-to-earth style. Richard Thomas himself described it as his most “King-like” story, and I would have to agree. As much as I love Richard Thomas’ impressionistic bent, it was refreshing, indeed electrifying, to see him tackle a story in a more grounded way, and as a consequence the story stands out. The title, Nodus Tollens, is a phrase invented by John Koenig on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows which means “the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore”. Thus, what starts as a simple hand of poker quickly becomes a cosmic game in which sin must be unburdened.
This story was the biggest surprise in the collection. When I first started reading it, I was uncertain whether I would enjoy it. Essentially, and I don’t think this is not giving away too much, the entire 1,500 word story is written in one sentence. Usually, I would regard this as pretentious; however, Richard Thomas pulls it off, for several reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that the frenetic, relentless nature of the single run-on sentence is used to encapsulate the relentless nature of a terrifying, heart-pounding chase. This clever mimesis justifies the technique and elevates the intensity of the narrative. The plot of the story is simple, or seems to be. Two people are running from something unspeakable. What emerges at the end of the tale, however, is a moment of transcendence, of contact with something ineffable and divine. It is weird, grotesque, beautiful, harrowing, and spiritually uplifting. There are shades of China Miéville here. Never in a million years could I have guessed this would be my favourite story in the collection, but it is.
Spontaneous Human Combustion is not easy reading (to be fair, in general I do not find collections easy to read due to the stop-start nature of digesting a series of stories); however, it is a rewarding and powerful experience on so many levels. Richard Thomas pushes the envelope of what is possible in fiction, and strives to show us something truly sublime. Perhaps the collection is best summarised in Richard Thomas’s own words from his story “Undone”: “everything I could never be, nothing we have been before”.
Chasing The Boogeyman is a unique horror novel that transgresses the boundaries between fiction and reality. Set in the humble town of Edgewood, where the author Richard Chizmar grew up, the novel follows the account of the author’s early life as the shadow of a serial killer threatens the peace and prosperity of his once-innocent home. As the killer, known as “The Boogeyman” for how he seems to disappear without a trace, begins to kill young women, Edgewood is plunged into darkness and suspicion. This novel might be described as a meditation on evil and on how that evil changes all who come into contact with it, however obliquely.
I was fascinated by the premise of this novel – with Richard Chizmar as the narrator and central character of the story. I had attempted to write my own meta-fictional account of my battle with suicidal depression in 2017. Whilst I did finish the book, I ultimately do not deem it publishable; the book was more of a therapy than a story, and while there is nothing wrong with that and it was important to write, I ultimately did not want to subject other people to it. I mention this only to explain why I had—shall we say—an almost personal interest in how Richard Chizmar would approach writing about himself, and the potential traumas of his childhood or young adulthood. Suffice to say, there were more than a few surprises in store with this book.
The closest parallel I can give to Chasing The Boogeyman is in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In the Divine Comedy, Dante inserts himself into the epic narrative, and goes on a journey into Hell guided by his mentor Vergil. It’s worth noting that many contemporaries of Dante actually believed he had been to Hell: the vividness of his descriptions, as well as the force of his personality, suggested an authentic mystical experience. Indeed, Dante was inundated with letters from occult readers asking that he teach them the “black magic of Hell” in order to assassinate corrupt officials. Whilst this may seem ludicrous, anyone who has actually read The Inferno or indeed The Divine Comedy as a whole will testify that there is a strangely convincing reality to the whole experience. Dante gives us ageography and psychology of Hell that feels cast-iron; Hell and its circles are very specifically mapped in a way that seems compellingly “real”. There are many NDEers who testify that the Hell they entered on death resembled Dante’s work! This total verisimilitude has endured for 700 years.
Likewise, Chizmar’s narrative in Chasing The Boogeyman seems frighteningly real. We believe every word, every interaction, even though Chizmar warns us at the start of the book that elements are fictionalised. The book takes after true crime narratives and provides photographs of various people and places in Edgewood, and this furthers the sense of absolute reality. Verisimilitude is especially important in horror, hence the existence of epistolary novels (such as classics Frankenstein and Dracula) and found-footage horror movies; we have to believe in order to feel fear. And this is so: the “reality” of Chasing The Boogeyman augments the spine-tingling dread pervading the narrative.
But if we step back from how “real” it all feels and just look at it as a novel, for a second, there is brilliant work here. Chizmar’s first person narrative is compelling. He never allows the narrative to be carried away by cleverness or too much introspection. There are moments where he allows the symbolism of the text to soar. For example, Chizmar describes his father as the wizard from Fantasia in his workshop of mechanical wonders, and the two of them watch a storm roll in over the town of Edgewood with a mixture of dread and awe. This moment evokes mythic archetypes, an almost Arthurian confrontation with oncoming evil. Yet it is not so poetically done that it loses the grounding of the story.
The account is gritty enough but Chizmar also leaves lots to the imagination. This space for the reader’s imagination to go wild is perhaps the greatest strength of the novel; Chizmar shows incredible restraint and control in “holding back” from the desire to give us all the answers or to spell out the whys and hows. Thus, we fill in the blanks with the worst possibilities, and because of this, the Boogeyman becomes genuinely scary. To illustrate: there is a scene in which a young girl tells their parents that a monster was tapping at their window, and their concerns are dismissed as idle fantasy. We don’t think anything of it, until a moment later where we put two and two together and realise it was the boogeyman—he was right there, we literally just missed him—it makes the heart plummet through the bottom of one’s stomach.
The character of the Boogeyman is fascinating. They represent a duality that runs through the whole novel: a night and day cycle that seems to represent the alternation between the conscious and unconscious mind. When darkness falls, the unconscious, in all its horrid splendour, comes forth. So, the killer has a “conscious” identity, someone in the town going about their business, though we don’t know who—and this forms a big reveal at the end—but the Boogeyman himself also has a personality. Sickeningly, we almost—almost—begin to admire his cunning and skill: how does he keep getting away with it? why can’t they find him? Chizmar does not shy away from admitting his own fascination with the macabre began to lead him down this dark rabbit hole, and this is perhaps the truer “descent” of the narrative, as we are drawn inexorably towards an admiration of total evil. Thankfully the ending is redemptive of this.
And speaking of endings, as the killer takes more lives, we sense an awesome and hair-raising confrontation approaching. Whilst we don’t get anything so overtly dramatic as, for example, the ending of Stephen King’s underrated masterpiece Joyland, like Dante, we do get a confrontation with pure evil, a moment where we look the Devil in the eye at the nadir—the inverse apex—of existence. This final “interview” is harrowing reading, brilliantly written, and clearly inspired by the likes of Bundy and Gein. One also senses a Tolkien-esque philosophy behind the narrative: that evil is ultimately a form of nothingness, an absence rather than a presence, where meaning, love, and understanding are void.
Chasing The Boogeyman is described as “meta-fiction” but it is deeply unpretentious. It is a harrowing journey into the circles of a modern Hell, leading to a confrontation with darkness. It is masterfully written, and the plotting is so watertight that not a single droplet of blood spills. Chasing The Boogeyman will leave you questioning what and who is real, and will have you checking your window is locked more than once during the long night.
Horror and eroticism are both challenging to write well, and it is even rarer to encounter a writer who can do both whilst also throwing a bit of humour into the mix. Nikki Noir is one such author, and her novelette, Cucumbers and Comforters (available exclusively from Godless) manages to titillate, horrify, and make you laugh out loud in equal measure.
The story follows Jen, a lonely teenager who is convinced she has seen one of her only friends, Dale Oberman, by the river. Dale is a younger kid with a learning disability who loves listening to stories about Kappas: Japanese water demons with a penchant for cucumbers. The only problem is that Dale Oberman is supposedly missing, and no one will believe that Jen’s seen him.
Things only get worse when people start to get eviscerated. One by one, they’re found arse-up and guts leaking out of their hole. It’s gruesome stuff, and Nikki Noir pulls no punches when it comes to the frightening process by which these victims are turned inside out, although, in very Clive Barker fashion, she often misdirects us with a sexual encounterfirst. Noir writes like an erotic sadist in this regard, toying with our expectations; will we receive gruesome horror or an erotic thrill? We are never quite sure, and it is this duality, alongside the surprisingly layered plot, that keeps us on tenterhooks until the final page.
It’s clear that Cucumbers and Comforters was fun to write and is intended to be taken partly in jest. The image of a humungous cucumber on the front cover, and the blurb that tells us demons “want your ass”, is as tongue-in-cheek as it gets. But as with all great spoofs, there is a serious undercurrent, and I believe that’s the case here. Jen is an empathetic figure. We can all relate to her troubles with acceptance and her savage treatment by peers and adults alike. And Jen is not the only outsider. Dale Oberman is another, due to his learning disability. And Shaggy, Jen’s unlikely weed-smoking ally in the investigation, is a third. Nikki Noir handles these characters with surprising tenderness and we feel for them as they are disbelieved and maligned by the less sympathetic characters of the story. Beneath the ass-plumbing demons is a tale of how unlikely friendships form and become a comforter against social evils.
There is also an exploration of the modern fascination with asses, anal, anilingus, and scatology. Women want it. Men want it. And the “demons” certainly want it. Interestingly, it is only when the line is crossed, that a character actively seeks out this once-taboo sexual gratification, that the Kappa demons seem to arrive on the scene. I doubt Nikki Noir is writing a prudish warning against anal intercourse given the startling eroticism of much of her work, but I think there is certainly an advisement that we should be careful what we wish for.
This leads to the final thing I want to talk about: which is the theme of desire and punishment through Cucumbers and Comforters. Jen desires to be accepted. But there are other characters, and I won’t say who or what for fear of spoilers, who desire less wholesome things, and they are prepared to go to great lengths to pursue these desires. But does pursuing our desires without regard for others have a consequence? At what point do our desires destroy us?
Whilst I eagerly await a return to the balls-to-the-wall occultism of Nikki Noir’s Black Planet series, Cucumbers and Comforters is a brilliant novelette that is deeper than a book about ass-obsessed demons has any right to be.
Father of Lies: The Complete Series is arguably Steve Stred’s magnum opus. This occult, brutally dark window into the lives of those practicing forbidden magic in the shadows is at once harrowing and totally absorbing. Like a bad acid trip, it keeps us enthralled with vision after vision yet desperate to escape its clutches.
Based on Stred’s real life experience of joining a cult of a dark web, this quadrilogy and its accompanying essays, interviews, and insights into how the series developed is as disturbing as anything Stred has ever written, which is really saying something. In each successive instalment, Stred takes us deeper into the lore and world of Father, the leader of a cult attempting to ascend into the Black Heavens and achieve immortality alongside godlike demonic entities. We follow both the poor misguided souls hoodwinked into the cult’s masochistic belief system, and the deceitful leaders trying to engineer their own deification. Though this book draws together many ideas and themes that are recurrent in Stred’s work, including animal-human hybrids, the threat of wild or remote spaces (particularly forests), and the evils of secret organisations, it also goes one step further into the Crowleyian territory of sex magic.
Stred both pulls no punches, graphically describing scenes of sexual molestation and rape without a scintilla of restraint or euphemism, yet also uses coded symbolic language to hint at the magical significance of the terrible acts performed by the cult members. For example, the motif of the “horn and hoof” is a clever symbolic cypher for the penis (horn) and vagina (hooves are cleft, and therefore frequently represent the female principle). Interestingly, the dark god Abaddon, whom the cult frequently calls forth, has male genitalia but cloven feet, thus embodying the esoteric concept of the divine androgyne, an entity that combines male and female principles. It is not my intent to bore you by deciphering every image, but I wanted to demonstrate how deep Stred’s work is; like the eponymous figure of the Father of Lies, Stred deceives us by writing in a direct and simple prose-style that belies the real depths lurking beneath the surface of his work.
Stred treads a knife-edge in more ways than one with this series. He exposes the lies of cult-leaders and how they deceive and hypnotise their followers, yet he also doesn’t deny the possibility that dark magic exists, and convincingly paints scenes of harrowing supernatural agency. Despite the almost relentless savagery of the narrative, there are moments of beauty or warmth breaking through the black night like stars. The friendship between Detective McKay and Professor Bianchi is a surprisingly tender affair that makes it all the harsher when it is wrenched apart.
There are also scenes of wonder, though they are often coloured with horror too. There are women who glow with supernatural fire to those with true sight. There are acts of surprising (if misguided) courage by the downtrodden. And there are dark gods, who demonstrate their horrifying power in opulent and brain-searing ways. Perhaps the most awesome scene of this nature in the whole series is from the third novella, Sacrament. Blood begins to shower from the sky, and a character strips down to the nude, opening their mouth to swallow the rain. We are told, “His eyes widened as the portal opened, and his mind stepped into the stars.” It is moments like these that push this story into the transcendental sphere.
Father of Lies is not an easy read. It is not for the faint of heart. And it is more than just the subject matter, which at points will even the hardiest person’s stomach turn, making me say this. It is also the oppressive mood of the narrative that stays with the reader long after they have finished reading. It is the sensation of being watched, of having read something you are not supposed to. Cliche though this is, one cannot help but feel Father of Lies embodies the Nietzschean idiom: Stare too long into the abyss, and the abyss stares back into you.
Coupled with this, Stred plays with our perceptions of right and wrong, distorting them to egregious heresy. This feat is no better embodied than in the character of Abaddon who, though a demon, is oddly sympathetic, and even remorseful at times. In this way, Stred seems to appropriately echo Christopher Marlowe’s masterpiece Doctor Faustus and the demon Mephistopheles, who, though he tempts Faust to damnation, is yet an empathetic and strangely human character we relate to. Stred gives us sympathy for the Devil, often because the humans are so much worse.
Anyone who knows me or who has been on one of my writing courses will be aware that I normally don’t go for bleak. I prefer eucatastrophe, redemption, and bittersweet. None of those are to be found in Stred’s work. Or if they are, it is in a twisted way. However, Stred does what he does so well, he makes an exception of my rule. There are so many wonderful indie authors in the horror field, many of whom I adore, but Stred has perhaps earned his place quite rightfully as the King of Horror, if only for his sheer courage to venture into the blackest depths where other writers fear to tread.
Scratches by Joshua Marsella is a surprising and haunting novella about the lingering power of evil. A mother and son inherit an old house, but something is terribly wrong. It’s a classic haunted house tale, a la Shirley Jackson and many other greats, but Marsella startlingly manages to bring something new to the table.
I had heard great things about this novella from a variety of people, and it did not disappoint. Marsella writes with great passion about his characters; they are at once archetypal, but also very three-dimensional and grounded. Perhaps one of my favourite lines in the whole novella is when the young boy, Connor, explains to his mother that it’s BECAUSE he’s not easily scared that he likes to read horror comics. This is a character detail that stands out and becomes relevant later on; Connor wants to test his own boundaries. And this is consistent throughout as Connor bravely tries to get to the bottom of the supernatural occurrences happening in the house.
Just when you think one character is going to become a cliché – for example, the drunken single mom – Marsella twists it and offers you a window into their lives that cannot but elicit real sympathy. Furthermore, there are some genuinely surprising – even shocking – revelations in this book that are deeply unsettling. No easy answers are provided here as we learn the dark truth about Connor, his mother, and the spectre haunting their lives.
As well as character work, Marsella is very good at dropping in specific details that elevate what could be a generic horror scene to something genuinely saturated with dread. And speaking of dread, the atmosphere of this novella is perhaps one of its most stand-out elements; there is an awful sense of inevitability that pervades every scene, so that even when we’re outside the house, visiting a comicbook store or riding a bike down the street, we know we’re going to be drawn back to it. If I could compare this to one other book, it would be Stephen King’s Cujo. Both King and Marsella’s books deal with themes of how evil finds a way to endure, and tap into the archetypal childhood fear of the bogeyman in the closet.
Marsella is a potent new voice in horror, and I’ll definitely read his other books!
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As an editor, one of the most common problems I see in prose is anomalous or ill-fitting diction. Before I go onto why diction is so important, particularly in the English language, it’s worth outlining what diction is, as it is often confused with grammar.
Diction has nothing to do with grammar or syntax. Grammar refers to the specific rules of language that make sentences comprehensible. Syntax refers to the organisation of those words within a sentence. There is a great article over at Let’s Get Published that tackles this subject in more depth. The subject of today’s article, however, is diction, which is about specific word choices. For example, is the word “wife” or “spouse” better to use in a given context? Technically, they mean the same thing (although one has an associated gender). Either word could “do the job” in the sentence, but which is better? That is the true question of diction, and while this may seem inconsequential, as we shall see, it is far from it. Whereas the rules of grammar are largely fixed, and syntax is flexible, there are no rules for diction other than “what is good”. This makes it both hugely problematic and hugely important to address in our fiction.
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand why the question of diction is especially important and relevant for those writing in the English language. Don’t get me wrong, diction is important for every writer, no matter what language they’re writing in. However, in English, we have to give it extra consideration and thought. This is because English has more root-languages than any other in the world. English is influenced by: Greek, Latin, Egyptian (yes! the word “hex” is of Egyptian etymology), German, Anglo Saxon (or “Old English”), French, the list goes on and on. In addition, it is the fastest growing language because it can absorb words into its pantheon easily. To illustrate what I mean by this, consider the word “tsunami”. This is a Japanese word, (formed by the hiragana つなみ) yet it has been so thoroughly integrated, few people even realise that this word has been pilfered. By contrast, it is exceptionally difficult for non-Japanese words to be integrated into Japanese. To do so, they have a secondary alphabet (katakana) which allows them to sound out foreign words. However, due to the fact that Japanese does not possess the same range of sounds we do in the Western world (they do not have “L” for example), this leads to awkward approximations. For example, the English word “coffee” is written コーヒー, which reads more like “Kohi” (they do not have the FEE sound).
I should make it clear that I am not suggesting English is superior in any way. Every language has unique properties, strengths, and weaknesses. I adore the Japanese language and find it to be achingly beautiful; what it lacks in flexibility it makes up for in specificity. In Japanese, it is far easier to distinguish between ambiguities because of how pin-point accurate their lexicon is, and I’ve often thought that this is why writers like Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, and Kobo Abe are able to create such razor-sharp, precise prose. However, the purpose of today’s article is to explore diction in English, so I won’t digress!
As a result of these two factors: the multifaceted origins of English, and its ability to adopt new words with striking ease, the English speaker is confronted with an abundance of synonyms (words with the same or similar meaning) – each one deriving from a different root. Unlike many other languages, we are constantly presented with choices as we write. The wrong choice can dampen and weaken our prose. The right one can elevate it.
But how do we know what is “right” and what is “wrong”?
The answer to this, of course, is that it depends on what we’re writing for a start. However, there are some overriding principles that I think can help.
1) Consider what’s more emotive
Most writers (and particularly horror writers) resort to Latinate words all too frequently in their prose. Words of Latin derivation tend (but not always) to have either a scientific or abstract quality about them, or else a more “formal” and rigid one. Anglo Saxon or Germanic-origin words tend to be more emotive. The earlier example of wife (from the Old English wif) versus spouse (from the Latin sponsa) is revealing. If your Romance novel character were to shout “My wife!” (or “My husband!” for that matter), that would be fairly dramatic. But “My spouse!” does not quite have the same effect. This is obvious, once we see it in such bold terms, but sometimes when one is writing it’s easy to miss these subtleties or to rationalise a “fancier” word over a plainer one.
A more subtle example can be found in the difference between an eldritch horror being “incomprehensible” versus “unknowable”.
Both words seem valid, but we shall soon see one is far superior if we’re trying to evoke fear. The word “know” derives from the Old English cnāwan, and as a result it creates a more intimate and therefore – in my mind – scarier effect upon the reader. If something is unknowable, it is mysterious, unknown, frightening; there’s a simple, almost primitive, quality to the word. Whereas the word “incomprehensible” derives from French and Latin sources (comprehender). It sounds like a diagnosis, and it’s similar to the word “illegible” which we use to describe someone with poor hand-writing. In fact, it sounds like we simply cannot understand the creature on a linguistic basis, which creates an almost comic effect of imagining someone making all the hand-signs of a lost tourist. This is opposed to something we cannot “know”. To “know” is beyond mere intellectual processing, it’s in the heart, the gut, maybe even the soul, and so to confront something unknowable is therefore a far deeper state of uncertainty. Now, I’ve taken this example to extremes, and it is not to say that the word “incomprehensible” couldn’t work, but context is all-important.
2) Consider your context
I always think that these complex ideas are easier to tackle with specific examples, so let’s look at the example of one of the most famous – and also problematic – writers of all time: H. P. Lovecraft. For those who don’t know, Lovecraft writes what has become known as “cosmic horror”: confrontations with eldritch beings from beyond our sphere of existence or understanding. Lovecraft uses Latinate words all the time, and he has been criticised for this. However, the brilliance of Lovecraft’s writing and why I believe it works (and the evidence that it works is in his enduring legacy) is twofold. Firstly, Lovecraft’s viewpoint protagonists are often archeologists or scientists – in other words, people more inclined to use Latinate vocabulary – so in that sense we accept their verbose word-choices as being more natural to the character. Secondly, Lovecraft uses the Latinate vocabulary to conceal the naked truth in the same way that an artful bit of filmmaking turns the camera away from the monster, or wreaths it in shadow, which makes the horror even more palpable by virtue of absence.
Latinate words, as I mentioned before, tend to be abstract. For example, “amorous”, “inexorable”, or, a Lovecraft favourite, “gibbous”. Because they are abstract, this can be used to create a kind of impressionistic effect, whereby we get some sense of what the monster is, and this impression works upon us more deeply than a specific or intimate description. Lovecraft’s abstractions and Latinate vocabulary serve him well because it creates the double-blind of his protagonists shying away from fully describing what they are seeing, which fertilises the imagination of the reader. I should make a point here that this is very different from just resorting to the odd Latinate word. This is utilising diction to its fullest to create a mimetic effect.
So, whilst I’ve advocated to avoid too many Latinate words,they can work if deployed in the correct context, and that is perhaps the most important lesson to learn about diction: consider your context.
3) Consider the associations
A really good example of this can be found in a project I’ve been working on recently with a collaborator. We were creating an ice-mage in a fantastical world. I coined the term “Gelumancer”. My collaborator said he’d prefer the term “Cryomancer”. Now, on the surface, this seems pretty arbitrary. Does it really matter? Butwords have associations, and when you use certain words, they carry those associations with them for better or worse. Just consider how the word “twilight” is impossible to say nowadays without thinking of sparkly vampires and muscle-bound werewolves. My gut instincts as a writer told me that Cryomancy was the wrong choice. I wasn’t sure why, at first, but then it hit me; I pointed out to my collaborator that Cryomancy is too sci-fi: cryogenic freezing, cryo-sleep, cryotherapy (an actual thing), cryo-weaponry (see Borderlands). Cryo is a scientific word. This is an epic fantasy. Gelumancy is the one we want. Incidentally, this is another one of those weird incidents where the rule-of-thumb is reversed: Gelu is the Latin word for “ice” or “frost”. Cryo is from the Greek kruos. So, as said before, sometimes the Latin works, and you have to use your instincts and the wider context to fathom it out. Unlike with grammar, there are no hard and fast rules. Every word, whatever its origin, is unique and must be deciphered in relation to its wider string of associations and meanings.
4) Consistency is key
One final point is that diction needs to be consistent. To again revert to the example of Lovecraft, his stories have a very consistent tone which is, in part, created through the use of consistent diction. If you are going for a scientific, Latinate diction because your character is an anthropologist or a bio-weapons engineer, then make sure that this is maintained throughout. If, however, your characters are down-to-earth, and one of them suddenly uses the word “incandescent” in the midst of a heated argument, it will destroy your narrative and the suspension of disbelief. One of the reasons I love the Sick trilogy by Christa Wojciechowski is that whichever character she is writing, she remains faithful to them in terms of her diction; and as we shift between different characters, we feel the shift from one vocabulary to another.
I am in danger of going on too long, but as you can see from even these few examples, diction is vitally important. Often when we read a book and feel like the prose lacks a certain punch, it is because the diction is weak or ill-considered. Inconsistent diction gives the impression the author has no narrative voice. The wrong diction – such as scientific language used unironically in an emotional scene – will jar your readers and ultimately throw them off.
By looking more closely at the etymology and associations of words, and thinking about the context of our scenes and stories, we can make better word choices and increase the power of our writing.
I should emphasise that I am not saying you need to be a linguistics expert to do this! Usually, gut instinct and tapping into your feeling state is the best way to work out what word is working, and one can only improve these instincts through practice! So, get writing my dear friends!
I hope you enjoyed this article on the importance of diction and some tips for improving it. If you can’t get enough of articles like this and want to read more, you can sign up to the Mindflayer’s Patreon (for only £3 p/m) where I release one article like this every month, as well as other exclusive content. Join other cultists and thralls on the journey to discovering the secrets of great writing!
A new extreme horror author has exploded onto the scene, and her name is Nikki Noir. I first encountered Nikki Noir via her non-fiction work. I found her essays over at Redrum Reviews, reflecting on horror and its cultural significance, extremely illuminating. I then went on to read a novella / short novel Noir had collaboratively written with S. C. Mendes. I am a huge fan of S. C. Mendes, as he wrote the conspiracy theorist’s wet dream: The City, a detective novel that involves a secret city, lying just beneath the world we know. Their collaboration, Algorithm Of The Gods, was like The Matrix mixed with a grim-dark universe. It probed human psychological depths through the mechanism of virtual reality (a subject which is very close to my heart). It was a complete slam dunk, faulted only by not being longer! At the back of Algorithm Of The Gods, Noir included an extract from her ongoing series Black Planet. After reading merely a few pages, I knew I had to read the entire thing.
Black Planet is currently a four-part series, although it’s clear that Noir intends to write more. You can get all four existing volumes together in a gorgeous paperback edition here.
Black Planet is not a book for the faint of heart: it features black magic, gruesome sex rites, and cosmic horror. There is a lot going on in these four volumes, but to attempt a rough summary: forces, perhaps from another dimension, arrive within the small American town of Shale, Arizona. These forces begin to worm their way into the population. Whilst the immediate temptation would be to draw comparisons with something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I actually think it has a little bit more of the flavour of The Shining; there are profoundly dark powers at work, and they begin to affect everyone within their reach. Some are more easily influenced than others, and they become the instruments of these powers.
What particularly intrigued me about the book were its Thelemic influences: the magick (with an intentional ‘k’) of Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant, and other such mystics. Noir deftly utilises these influences to create a sense of something awful and beyond understanding, but without falling into the trap many occult writers fall victim to of lacing their work with impenetrable and aloof symbolism. She tells a compelling yarn of human addiction and desire, in which characters feel (arguably rightfully) wronged by the modern world, and have resorted to dark paths to success and freedom from their current state. This is embodied in the opening volume (“Corpse Paint and Rabbit Hole”) in which a disillusioned webcam model, Claire, and her boyfriend slash “manager”, Brian, are sucked into the whirlpool ofnecromantic arts. Noir perfectly encapsulates the feeling of spiritual and physical awakening in a hair-raising sexual encounter in the midst of a violent storm, in which the transcendental experience of an orgasm amidst rains of lightning becomes emblematic of something else.
But despite the fact there is a lot of sex in Black Planet, Noir isn’t writing just to titillate us. More often than not, strikingly erotic scenes are suddenly undercut by intense horror. One teenager’s sexual fantasy suddenly becomes a process of bodily invasion – where the penetrator becomes the penetratee. This is reminiscent of the harrowing descriptions in Jack Parson’s Book of the Antichrist in which he finds punishment for his hubristic pursuit of the magical arts at the hand of demonic entities. Noir is playing a dark and delicious game with us, showing how easily we might be allured by our fantasies – to use a crude phrase: led by the dick – only for her to then turn it on us, which is, of course, the universal testimony of anyone who has dabbled with the dark arts, or drugs for that matter. First, all seems wonderful. Then cometh the fall.
Each volume of this four-parter has a slightly different flavour. There are characters who run throughout the entire story, but we see less or more of them depending on the focus of a particular volume. This creates quite an unsettling and unconventional narrative experience. At times I felt like perhaps the net had been cast too wide, and I wanted Noir to focus more on a tighter cast of characters – but she also managed to pull off some incredible plot dovetails that were very satisfactory. In addition, characters whom I had very little interest in at one stage, suddenly developed and became fascinating later on. She practices “less is more”, and knows that readers need space to flesh out characters with their own imaginative fuel. Noir doesn’t overprescribe them.
Amidst all the darkness, however, there is also innocence, and one of the most moving aspects of the novel is the fact that this innocence can be preserved, even where there is trauma and violation. Haley and Tyler are two siblings, good kids, who have to endure the maelstrom that is steadily enveloping Shale. They only really have each other. Throughout the novel we see both of them go through hell, and a good deal of character development. Haley moves from someone who is uncertain about her future, to someone who will do whatever it takes to protect her brother, and her evolving resourcefulness is well depicted. She doesn’t jump from frightened girl to Sigourney Weaver overnight, but we see the steady progression and how each new experience transforms her attitude to the world. This kind of character development is hard to achieve, and in a novel with this many moving parts, even more so; Noir is to be commended for this triumphant effort.
Lastly, Black Planet has an ending, but it’s clear it’s not the ending, and we’ll be following Tyler and Haley again some time in the future. Anyone who has read my work will know I’m very big on endings, and whilst I’ve no qualms with a slightly open-ended approach, especially where there is clearly more story to be told, I would be interested to see Noir tackle a more “final” and conclusive ending in subsequent books or future volumes of Black Planet itself. That said, this is perhaps my own personal preference, and nothing more.
If you’re looking for extreme horror (and it really is extreme folks), something dark that deals with what lies just beyond our civilised sphere, then I cannot recommend picking up Black Planet enough. Nikki Noir has immense writing talent, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.
If you enjoyed this review of this occult horror novel, then appropriately you can sign can sign up to the Mind-Vault as either a “Thrall” or “Cultist”, and get access to tons more content (as well as helping me to finance radical stuff). Your Mindflayer overlord compels you…
Firstly, a very happy holiday season to you all: whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah just past, the Solstice, or one of a myriad of other occasions I have failed to mention, I hope you have the best one possible. And, very importantly, I hope that the New Year which awaits you in 2021 is truly awesome and brings all you want and deserve.
I hope you can forgive me for reiterating what millions have already stated, but this year has been tough. Really tough. And in all kinds of different ways: financially, emotionally, hell even physically. For many, it’s been far worse, and some have even lost their lives. However, I’m ever an optimist, and I must be grateful that despite everything many of my friends and loved ones have held on; I am still able to do creative things, my business is still running, and I’ve managed to survive.
Not only that, but some truly remarkable things have come to pass despite all the setbacks and weirdness of life in varying degrees of lockdown; and I’m not just talking about things I’ve done! As an editor and indie publisher, it’s amazing to see great writers and artists and creatives of all sorts achieving their goals through the pain and uncertainty that’s afflicted us all. I wanted to do a round up of some of those things and perhaps even share some plans with you for the future!
Let’s start just by giving you some stats. This year I have…
edited over 300,000 words!
facilitated the publication of five brilliant books by new authors:
The Age of Wellbeingby David Green: a comprehensive examination of the state of wellbeing in the modern world, and what we need to do to improve it.
Hecctrossipy Book 1by Bia Bella Baker: an amazing YA fantasy novel that will transport you to an intricate and mind-blowingly detailed new world. Get ready for more than a few surprises!
What Do They Really Know?by M. S. Morgan: a brilliant review of UFO sightings made by RAF personnel in the UK over the last fifty years by a senior investigator. Unlike many books of this nature, he takes a completely impartial and unbiased view of the evidence, using his experience as a detective to reveal some surprising truths.
From Liverpool With Love by Joan Collins Owen: a heartbreaking story of love in the face of encephalitis. This biography of an amazing woman and her fight to hold on to the man she loves will have you crying, make no mistake!
A Thing With Feathers by J. John Nordstrom (coming Feb 2021 from The Writing Collective): this is an amazing tale of romantic-era love in the modern world, at once funny, literary, human, and heartrending.
written over half a million words of non-fiction and fiction (some ghost-writing)
launched a Patreon (The Mind-Vault) that has over 2 hours of videos on it now, plus about 30,000 words of fiction and commentary; I update it every month with loads of stuff. Right now there are videos on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, an extract from a VERY dark novel I abandoned, and a video on some upcoming projects for 2021.
joined a writer’s mastermind group, Let’s Get Published!
announced my new novel, Dark Hilarity, which is coming January 31st 2021, as well as an exciting new project, Desecrated Empires, an RPG and world-building experience like no other, which is coming later that same year!
And I sometimes wonder why I’m so knackered! I’ve also read some amazing books this year. Here are a few highlights…
A brilliantly written tale of black magic, spirituality, and loss that can’t but rend the heartstrings. I also marks the beginning of an exciting new series. Definitely one to check out if you like creepy-town tales and well-developed characters.
This really surprising novella is The Matrix meets something infinitely more twisted. This is not just a sci-fi, but also a psychological thriller, in that the technology in this book serves to highlight the perversion of human minds. Noir and Mendes build an incredible world here and just give us a toe-dip into it. Definitely looking forward to more from them.
Headcase is a wild and funny romp through vampires, werewolves, demons and other monsters living in our modern world. Expect buckets of gore, one-liners, and a hell of a lot of sex magic. This is really fun and I can easily see this gaining a cult following.
Dungeon Party was the big surprise of 2020 for me. It is one of the most psychologically rich books I’ve read in a while. It follows a group of nerds who love playing D&D together, until one of them is spurned by the DM, and decides to go rogue. There are very real-world consequences for this and the interaction between the game-world and fantasy world are profound. If you liked my book Save Game, you’ll probably really enjoy this. I found the resolution to be slightlytoo neat but the climax that comes before it is really awe-inspiring. The wild-card of 2020!
Okay, I’m massively biased on this one, but my father’s epic narrative poem is unbelievably good, and I’m not the only one saying it! If you like Dante, visions of hell so vivid they scour the brain, commentary on the state of the modern world, and also a personal journey from cancer to recovery, then you will love this. There’s only one word for it — masterpiece.
I don’t need to say much about Tome, because Ross Jeffery is making waves with his fiction. Tome is my favourite thing he’s written and a truly remarkable book that combines so many elements I love: prisons, dark magic, cosmic horror, Christian theology, and finally a little dose of The Exorcist. It’s a tour de force but not for the faint of heart.
The Ash is one of Soule’s best books yet, a horror with bromance that features a stellar cast of characters, some despicable, some virtuous, and all entertaining as hell. The Ash is all about a policeman trying desperately to find his way home during an apocalyptic event, but like Odysseus, he keeps getting diverted. This homecoming tale (a voyage and return if you will) is really quite powerful.
I have probably missed off a few people. If you are one of them, I sincerely apologise. It has been a busy and confusing year!
There are also many books I’ve read which I can’t speak on yet, but the reasons for my secrecy will be revealed in time! Suffice to say, I had an incredible trip to Glastonbury and raided the bookstores there for some fascinating esoteric tomes which I think are going to feed into some new writing.
Outside of the writing sphere, my mother, Linda Sale, has also been hard at work creating a shopfront for her beautiful artwork (some of which features on the front covers of many books!). You can check it out here.
I would also like to take this moment to thank each of my Patreon subscribers, who have kept me going not just with their financial contributions but also with their feedback, encouragement, and creativity. These Thralls and Cultists are: Kelly, Edward, Tom, Christa, Erik, Iseult & Michelle. You are AMAZING people. Thank you.
Lastly, but certainly not least, I would like to thank the truly incredible reviewers who have supported my work with such tenacity. Without them, I would truly have given up long ago. These awesome people include but are not limited to:
So, that’s my year in review. I’m curious, what have you done this year that you’re really proud of? We’ve all achieved things this year, even if it’s just holding on and surviving. Let’s share our success stories and celebrate that we came this far, even through adversity!
When I say the words “Gothic novel” to you, a few names and titles might spring to mind. First and foremost is probably the groundbreaking Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – arguably also the birth of science fiction in its current form. Next, perhaps, would be Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). Then, there’s Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847), Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847), The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1890), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and, for the real aficionados among you, such relics as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). One might also include playful mockeries of the genre, such as Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1803), along with a profusion of short stories so innumerable that it would be foolish to try sum them up here. There are of course numerous twentieth century contributors to the genre, such as Shirley Jackson, and indeed older works, such as the plays of Shakespeare – perhaps most notably Macbeth (1606) and Hamlet (1609) – that whilst not technically “Gothic novels”, certainly laid groundwork for the genre we understand today. In short, it’s a rich genre that’s yielded many gems over the years and continues to be reimagined and interpreted by a variety of writers today. I love the Southern Gothic of writers such as Eden Royce (I highly recommend her two collections Spook Lights I & II). I’ve not read Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, yet, but I’ve yet to see a bad review!
However, today, I want to take you off the beaten track to observe a Gothic novel that possibly stands above all of these (controversial, I know), and yet has been largely forgotten, perhaps due to the obscurity of the writer, perhaps due to changing circumstance and literary taste, or perhaps even due to the cursed and enigmatic nature of its eponymous villain… This novel is Melmoth The Wanderer, published in 1820 by an Irish Anglican curate, Charles Maturin. Melmoth The Wanderer was ostensibly written as a satire of organised religion, specifically Catholicism, but is far greater in scope and cannot adequately be described as purely “satire”, in part due to the sheer horror and power of some of the scenes it describes that climb to the heights of epic.
In my article on How to write Gothic Fiction, I outlined the four key elements I believed were essential to making Gothic fiction work: Mood, Architecture, Religion, Lyricism. It is probably best for me to approach analysing the novel from the perspective of these four tenets, and therefore to practice what I preach!
Melmoth The Wanderer is the most paranoid book I have ever read. Without wishing to cut into the segment on lyricism, the writing style might be described as a horribly compelling labyrinth. Sentences run on, sometimes for entire pages. Just when you think Maturin has lost this thread, he brings his point home, sometimes in ways so surprising and ingenious they’re frightening. The rhythms of the prose in this book began to effect my thought patterns and circadian cycle. I found myself unable to write particularly well while I was reading this book, because Maturin’s infectious prose-style kept taking over my own; it sucked me in, just as our protagonist, John, is drawn into the tale of the eponymous Melmoth. What’s brilliant about this writing style is not just how impressive it is simply for the sake of aesthetics, but also how the style reflects the crumbling and warped psyches of the novel’s characters. For example, here Maturin describes the dichotomy of addiction:
“When once fierce passion is devouring the soul, we feel more than ever the necessity of external excitement; and our dependence on the world for temporary relief increases in direct proportion to our contempt for the world and all its works.”
Maturin writes, at times, with savage zeal, but the brilliant thing is he doesn’t just rant with a singular viewpoint. He gives voices to unexpected characters and allows them to air controversial or disturbing viewpoints. He isn’t a preacher, delivering his moral lessons to the reader in fatuous and belaboured sermons. On the contrary, he seems to delight in having characters justify the unjustifiable, and trusting the reader to discern what’s right and what isn’t, which becomes increasingly difficult as the novel approaches its climax and morality becomes greyer and greyer. It is almost as if the novel, itself, is an article of temptation, a seduction to the darkside.
Unlike many Gothic writers, who resort to supernatural phenomena as a way to excite strong passions or escalate the extremity of their novel, Maturin’s novel plays down the supernatural in favour of human psychology far more disturbed and troubling than any ghost could be. When the supernatural does occur, it’s often with psychological cause. Our mind creates phantoms of doubt and temptation, and these phantoms often become literally realised. At times we are unsure whether there are supernatural events occurring or whether we (and our narrator) are being artfully deceived, which thickens the fog of paranoia. Maturin makes conspiracy theorists of all of us.
In one of the most memorable and haunting sections of the novel, one of the main characters, a bastard Spanish royal by the name of Alonzo Moncada, is forced into a monastery against his will. His time in the monastery is made tortuous by his sadistic fellow monks, who excruciate him physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Eventually, Alonzo discovers who one of his chief tormentors is on their deathbed. Alonzo seeks to forgive his tormentor (and thereby ease his own mind too), but his tormentor refutes his forgiveness, confessing he doesn’t really believe in God, and that monastic life ironically destroyed his belief. Horrified, Alonzo supplicates him, thinking they are kindred spirits after all – both wanting out of the monastic life. He asks if there is any hope of one day escaping the monastery. His enemy says there is no hope, that monastic life will crush all but “two” types of people:
“…those who can every day renew, by aid of imagination, the hope of escape, and who cherish that hope even on their dying bed; and those who, like me, diminish their misery by dividing it, and like the spider, feel relieved of the poison that swells, and would burst them, by instilling a drop of it into every insect that toils, agonizes, and perishes in their net—like you.”
The monk’s dying speech is so spiritually amoral that it led to Melmoth The Wanderer being banned in several regions of Britain and some countries. It is similar to the narrative of the men infected with HIV in the ‘80s, who decided to spread the disease to as many people as possible rather than isolate; and of course, there is also a relevant comparison with COVID-19 behaviours today. To reflect once more on mood, the sheer untenable misanthropy of the dying monk’s final metaphor cannot but work on the reader’s mind, just as it works on Alonzo’s. That is Melmoth The Wanderer’s uniquepower, and we shall see how it is further enhanced by the novel’s architecture.
The topic of architecture in this novel is not lightly taken on, partly because it is one of the most complex books I have ever read. There are two sides to architecture as I see it: literal and structural.
If we address literal first: Melmoth The Wanderer is packed full of many of the usual tropes of Gothic fiction: decaying castles, dusty manors, monasteries, churchyards, asylums and prisons. However, it is the latter two that make up the majority of the novel, and this fact is key to why Melmoth The Wanderer began to fascinate me so much.
Melmoth, our eponymous villain, is a demon of sorts, with powers of translocation and invisibility, among others. His modus operandi is to appear to incarcerated souls and offer them freedom and emancipation in exchange for their souls. The brilliance of this is that Maturin begins to stretch the definition of incarceration as we move deeper into the novel, so that it is not just physical interment, but familial, financial, and eventually, even psychological imprisonment. Linking physical architecture – the trope-settings of Gothic fiction – with an internal landscape of the mind is part of what makes Melmoth The Wanderer so atmospheric and affecting. Dante-esque, Maturin shows us people who are unable to escape the chains of their own behaviours and thought-patterns, and Melmoth himself is an example of such a person, trapped in an endless cycle. He can emancipate others, but not himself. This dichotomy becomes the heart of the novel’s power and tragedy. We begin to feel sorry for Melmoth as he wrestles with his own inescapable destiny. The scholar Chris Baldick observed that “Melmoth is not just a Faust, he is Mephistopheles at the same time” (1989). He is tempter and tempted, and that gives him layers of psychological complexity that even brilliant characters like Victor Frankenstein and Dracula lack. Melmoth is a living hypocrisy.
To now address the structural architecture is far more difficult. Melmoth The Wanderer takes the Gothic concept of the “framed narrative” – a story within a story – to such extremes that they defy sanity. Mary Shelly artfully gives Frankenstein a triple-layer of narrative: we start on a boat heading into the Antarctic, with the Genovese noble Captain Walton, who then hears the tale of Victor Frankenstein, who then in turn relates the tale told to him by The Creature. The Creature’s story is buried at the heart of the narrative, and the other two stories frame it. The structure is logical and creates many intriguing mimetic effects, which I don’t have the space to discuss here.
Now compare this with Maturin’s frames: John Melmoth (a descendent of the “true” Melmoth of the title) attends his relative’s deathbed, and is bequeathed in the Will a narrative from an inmate of an insane asylum called Stanton. So far, so good. But then, Alonzo, the monk that I previously mentioned, is washed up on the beachhead near to where John is staying. Alonzo, recognising John as a descendent of Melmoth, begins to relate his own tale of incarceration in the monastery and eventual encounter with Melmoth The Wanderer. During the course of this tale, Alonzo meets a Jewish scholar by the name of Adonijah, who has retrieved several manuscripts describing a tale that takes place nearly a century earlier, a tale in which a young woman, Immalee, is abandoned on a desert island, only to be discovered by – you guessed it – Melmoth himself. Alonzo has to translate these manuscripts for Adonijah, and he is shocked to learn that they pertain to Melmoth and his own situation, so he relates these stories (third or fourth hand?) to the young John Melmoth… This section is referred to as The Tale of the Indians.Within this story, we meet another character, the father to the abandoned young Immalee, Don Francisco, who in turn relates his own story, and in doing so, relates another tale told to him by a mysterious stranger at an inn (The Tale of the Guzman’s Family). Within this story, there is another story buried (The Lovers’ Tale) and so on – you get the gist.
But the weirdest thing about this structure is less its total insanity but the fact it works. Like Christopher Nolan’s popular film Inception, each layer of reality leads us down to a new more disturbing one, and the deeper we go, the more uncertain we become of what is true, who is speaking, and what it all means. Yet, at the same time, the emotions we feel intensify, as though we’re upping the dosage of a drug. This means that in the latter stages of the novel, the narrative works on us in a way that a more straightforward narrative can’t. Like a dream, it bypasses conscious analysis and plugs into some more emotive and primitive part of our brain, which is what makes it so fucking scary in places, and moving in others.
Through the course of these “descents” we begin to assemble a clear timeline of Melmoth’s life. Melmoth is almost never the main focus of the narrative; he is elusive and alluded to in mysterious whispers and oblique dialogue. He weaves in and out of these seemingly disparate stories, connecting them all. In this way, he becomes far more sinister and compelling than if he’d been “on screen” the majority of the story. Maturin again understands that psychological paradox that what we don’t see is often more frightening than what we do.
So much can be said of the religious elements in this book. The entire novel is steeped in religion, with the language itself laced with Biblical and mythological imagery. For example, there is one friar, whose curses are so vile, Maturin tells us they were “viperous as the suicide foam of the dying Judas”. This imagery is sublimely disturbed. The very religiosity of it is what makes it heretical and unsettling.
Similarly, Maturin’s decimation of organised religion is at once heretical and righteous. It screams into the modern day, but also runs far deeper than superficial modern allegations of corruption and vice in the church. Maturin, himself a member of the clergy, uses his deep immersion in theology to expose deeper spiritualhypocrisies in the church: “The inhabitants of the world you are about to see call this worship—and they have adopted (a Satanic smile curled his lip as he spoke) very different modes; so different, that, in fact, there is but one point in which they all agree—that of making their religion a torment…” We see this reflected in TheSpaniard’s Tale, where the monks devote every hour of the day to contemplating how to inflict misery on others and themselves; and in The Tale of the Indians, where Immalee, having been finally discovered by her parents and brought home from the mysterious island where she grew up, is then educated in strict and rigid Catholicism, which retrogresses all the spirituality she obtained living in the natural world without human contact.
Maturin’s criticism goes well beyond religion, however, also addressing how it intersects with every other facet of human life. Through the mouthpiece of Melmoth educating a wild, young Immalee on human “civilised” life, he offers criticism of
social injustice and urbanisation:
“those who live in uncontrasted and untantalised misery, can hardly feel it—suffering becomes their habit, and they feel no more jealousy of their situation than the bat, who clings in blind and famishing stupefaction to the cleft of a rock, feels of the situation of the butterfly, drinks of the dew, and bathes in the bloom of every flower. But the people of the other world have invented, by means of living in cities, a new and singular mode of aggravating human wretchedness—that of contrasting it with wild and wanton excess of superfluous and extravagant splendour”;
“These people have made unto themselves kings, that is, beings whom they voluntarily invest with the privilege of draining, by taxation, whatever wealth their vices have left to the rich, and whatever means of subsistence their want has left to the poor, till their extortion is cursed from the castle to the cottage”;
“Sometimes exhausted by the monotony of perpetual fruition, which has no parallel even in the monotony of suffering… they amuse themselves by making war, that is, collecting the greatest number of human beings that can be bribed to the task, to cut the throats of a less, equal, or greater number of beings, bribed in the same manner for the same purpose.”
Maturin claimed these views were not his own in his notations, and perhaps they aren’t, but they certainly ring true to modern sensibilities; Maturin’s, or perhaps we should say Melmoth’s, view is that it is often, ironically, the rigidity of rules-systems that compel us to greater acts of depravity than if we were free and wild and could do whatever we wished. One can’t help but think he would be more at home in our time than he was in his own.
But not only is Melmoth The Wanderer a vehicle for satire and critique, it is also a powerful vindication of religious belief. I spoke about the dichotomy of Melmoth as both tempter and tempted, and the novel replicates this psychological duality in its own theological premise: whilst with one hand it brings a wrecking ball against the walls of the Vatican, with the other, it builds an impenetrable fortress dedicated to the beauty and transcendence of true belief. When Immalee observes a humble woman praying at a cross, she exclaims, “Christ shall be my God, and I will be a Christian” – which instantly banishes Melmoth, where no physical force could. The line that Maturin uses to conjure the image of the fleeing Melmoth is taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) (a line which is, in turn, a reference to the final line of Virgil’s Aeneid, circa 29 BC), “He fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.” This line puts Melmoth on the same level as Satan, yet rather than the touch of Gabriel’s almighty spear being the cause of his flight, it is simply a true-hearted declaration of spiritual belief.
As you can see from the length of this article, Melmoth The Wanderer is one of the most quotable books I have read in a long time. I certainly believe a mark of literary greatness is one’s ability to produce quotable work, with the reverse also being true: that bad writers are hardly quotable at all. As my own father, James Sale, wrote in his seminal HellWard(2020), “That poets be oceans; he is a pond. / The final proof? Poetry no-one quotes.”
Melmoth The Wanderer is lyrical to the core. Its imagery, extended metaphors, and prose-styling are astonishingly unique. Maturin oscillates between horror and sublimity with an intensity that Oxford World Classics described as “reckless”; I’m inclined to agree. I can’t say much more about this mammoth 550 page Gothic masterpiece other than it is probably one of the greatest books I have ever read and it has fundamentally changed my outlook on what is possible in fiction. If that is not a good enough recommendation for you, then I don’t know what is. I will say this is not an easy book to read. But, as the subject of this blog (and book) seems to be dichotomy, that is, of course, precisely what makes it so compelling. Like a challenging video-game, it makes us work for its best secrets.
Charles Maturin died in 1824 at the age of forty-four, in abject poverty, just four years after Melmoth The Wanderer was published. Like Keats, he enjoyed very little commercial or critical success in life, and was only truly acknowledged posthumously, and even then, nowhere near to the degree of many of his contemporaries (though Maturin remains very popular in France, where he is revered among the Gothic greats). I am a sucker for the underdog, the reject, and the outcast – the weirdoes working at the fringes. Maturin was odd, maintained odd views, and wrote very odd books. But that does not mean he should be forgotten. Quite the reverse. The oddballs show us the reality of the human condition the rest of us are too scared to believe is real. Indeed, perhaps the reason Melmoth The Wanderer is so quotable is precisely because its leans toward madness. As Alan Moore sadly observed in his magnum opus, From Hell (1989), “Our lunatics were prophets once, and had a prophet’s power.”
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My first introduction to Steve Stred was his novella The Girl Who Hid In The Trees. That novella was one that took me completely by surprise. It depicted a group of children, troubled by disappearances, who end up spending a night in the woods to disprove a local legend. What follows is a series of horrific encounters that flay the mind of the reader. The most impressive thing about the novella was the way it developed its characters, and the relationships between them, in such a short space; an all-too-convincing portrayal of adolescent anxiety, love, and friendship. The other thing that impressed me was Stred’s ability to ‘go there’. We see some pretty horrifying things happen to these people we come to care about. I greatly admired Stred’s fearlessness.
I knew that Stred was a major talent working in the field of horror from that moment. So, when I saw he had released another novel, titled ominously The Stranger, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.
The Stranger sees us returning to the woods, which seem to be a source of anxiety or perhaps intrigue for the author. This time, we follow a family: Malcom, a hard-working but racist son-of-a-bitch, his wife Sam, and his two children, Britney and Tom. The family spends every year at the same nature resort. It’s almost as if Malcom is drawn to this place, though he isn’t sure why. He assumes it’s just because of the hiking, nature trails, and bike paths.
This year, however, things are different. The camp is being run by a strange man in an expensive suit and a necklace of what looks like (surely it can’t be) human teeth. And, even more to Malcom’s annoyance, they have a new neighbour, a native American man called Wandering River that Malcolm instantly dislikes. Steve deftly portrays the inherent racism at play without laying it on too thick. He drops us subtle clues throughout about Malcom’s attitudes and motivations which explain his actions and behaviours later on.
We sense Malcolm’s distain not only towards Native Americans, but also towards his environment. In other hands, Steve’s two big themes: our environmental footprint and the lack of equality in modern society, could be clunky or even preachy, but he ensures that we are invested in the characters and that the story itself remains king. Throughout, we alternate between sympathy and loathing, between understanding and repulsion. These undertones build along with the horror-tension, until one explosive scene where all hell breaks loose, and Malcolm and his family will never be the same again.
You see, Malcolm’s family take something from one of the ancient structures lying in the depths of the park. Now, the spirit that presides over the forest, the being known only as The Stranger, must take something from them…
Steve Stred’s handling of the supernatural elements in The Stranger is so potent it’s alarming, genuinely making me want to turn the light on at night. He shifts genre effortlessly: from family drama with racial undertones, to explosive Evil Dead-style splatterpunk, to a dark quest into an almost fantastical landscape. His explosive storytelling feels a little like the pacy prose of the great Carlton Mellick III, but with an added mix of bleak Japanese horror (Stred’s horror is similarly all-powerful and inescapable, which makes it all the more terrifying). The Stranger is even more effective than The Girl Who Hid In The Trees because he holds back for the first third or so of the book, building our expectation to excruciating levels. There are so many memorable moments in this story, both of the horrifying and emotive kind. His unflinching portrayal of loss and human suffering sets him apart from many other writers.
Alongside asking us to care more about our environment and our fellow man and woman, Stred asks some other big and bold questions. He asks whether its really is possible to redeem ourselves, and whether any apology is sufficient make up for catastrophic wrongs. He asks the question of what a creator of a universe might look like once they realise how screwed up human beings have become. And, he asks us to look at ourselves, because as we discover in The Stranger, can we really be sure who we are anyway?
In a way, I guess, the real stranger is the one we are to ourselves.