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Review of When I Look At The Sky, All I See Are Stars by Steve Stred

I’ve heard several authors and critics say that When I Look At The Sky, All I See Are Stars is Steve Stred’s best book, and it is easy to see why: the Canadian horror-maestro pulled out all the stops for this one. This compact novel contains psychological horror, mind-warping unreliable narration, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, and demonic possession. It also contains some of Stred’s most beautiful and evocative prose to date. For example, during a disconcerting flashback scene—though we question the reliability of the narrator—the character Richard is described as “speaking through the mud of a dream.” This image is not only exquisite in its own right, perfectly describing that slow, hypnotic speech that can come from shellshocked or traumatised individuals, but it also stands emblematic of the whole story. When I Look At The Sky is a dream, of sorts, told in a dreamlike fashion: jumping between perspectives, wrong-footing assumptions, and leaving much unsaid. The effect of this is total disorientation, a nausea of the mind that makes us feel like we, too, are being assailed by dark forces in daring to read this profane work.

The story premise centres around psychologist Dr. Rachel Hoggendorf and her newest patient David Stewart. David appears to be an extreme case of multiple personality disorder ah la M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. He talks to himself, even interviews himself, and is constantly reciting lengthy letters (allegedly from memory). However, things take a dark turn when it is revealed that David knows information about Rachel that no one else knows, a trauma from her past that went unwitnessed and unconfessed. Could he, therefore, be a genuine case of demonic possession?

From this starting point, Stred takes us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. We dive simultaneously into David’s past as Rachel tries to piece his increasingly fantastical story together, and in turn, through David’s reverse interrogation, we find out who Rachel really is. This leads to a horrifying turning point in the novel which I cannot say more about for fear of spoiling the story, but suffice to say, Stred’s disorientation tactics pay dividends. Ultimately, one of the key themes of When I Look At The Sky seems to be whether we can ever truly know who we are. What defines us? Is it our actions? Is it our memories? Is it our commitments—what we choose to make contracts with?

But what if we are not in control of our actions? What if we cannot trust our memories? And what if we have no choice but to make a pact to survive? Stred explores people who are at the edge of sanity and desperation, who throws themselves upon powers they neither know nor understand. This is what it means to exist in this world of flesh and blood. To use Stred’s own words, “flying forward into the chaos of discovery.”

Another thematic exploration of When I Look At The Sky is the relationship between evil and madness. Unlike most writers, who equate madness or mental disease with evil, Stred takes a far more nuanced and subtle approach. The evil force in his novel is, in fact, extremely wilful and intentional. It is thinking very clearly. However, contact with the intensity of this evil tends to drive people insane. The insanity is not the cause of the evil but the byproduct of it, much like Lovecraft’s protagonists, who go insane because of their inability to comprehend the eldritch deities of the cosmos.

When he looked Father Selinofoto in the eyes again, he saw an evil burning deep within the pupils, an evil that caressed some part of his subconscious.”

Stred frequently uses fire and flame imagery to describe hatred and evil. Whilst it would be easy to think that this is simply a cliched “hell fire” reference, I actually think Stred is doing something far deeper. Evil burns—uses up—those it inhabits. Those who are “possessed” or taken over by these demonic forces are battered and broken and burned out. They are simply tools to be used until they break and then are discarded. In this way, madness actually becomes an escapism—a refuge—from the forces of evil.

I was a slave to both sides. A man stuck barking at the moon for reprieve.”

The moon, of course, has always been a symbol of madness—hence the word “lunatic”. The moon has two sides or “faces”: one we can see, and one we cannot see. It is therefore the perfect symbol for Stred’s story, which is all about trying to find the hidden face beneath. Everyone in this story has a hidden face. At times, characters may seem to change their motivations suddenly, which can be jarring, or even make you think Stred has made a mistake. But upon reflection, I think Stred is really drawing our attention to the duplicity of man’s nature. Interestingly, the moon appears prominently at two key moments in the narrative, both of which herald a cataclysmic change in the psyche of a main character.

The last thing I want to mention is perhaps surprising: in this novel, more than any other he has written, Stred demonstrates a fantastic sense of humour. There are several moments in the novel where, in order to break the tension or highlight a particular irony, Stred made me laugh out loud. He recognises that there is an inherent element of absurdity in the Lovecraftian genre, and uses humour to at once underscore that but also lull us into a false sense of security.

Nothing’s making sense here, Carl. I would rather be prudent and make sure I don’t end up babbling about space monster cocks in my ass.”

This is certainly not a humorous horror novel in the vein of Grady Hendrix or anything like that. But there are moments of unexpected levity, such as the above, that serve to make the scary bits even scarier.

Ultimately, When I Look At The Sky is a harrowing descent into the psyches of two people coming apart at the seams. It is a schizophrenic book that undermines all certainty and forces us to confront the unknowable aspects of our nature, including forbidden desires. In truly Clive Barker fashion, one character remarks: “I’ve done all I could, taken my desires as far as they could go.” When I Look At The Sky, All I See Are Stars takes us as far as we can go, into depths of horror midnight black that yet reveal shining constellations of meaning.

You can purchase When I Look At The Sky, All I See Are Stars at the below links:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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Review of Unmasked by Candace Nola

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As many of you know, poetry is my secret mistress. Whilst I will always love prose and the novel, there is a power in poetry that cannot really be equalled. I have written about this a few times before, and there are many reasons as to why this is the case, but the two reasons that stand out to me are the following:

1) poetry combines several core artistic elements: imagery, music (in the rhythms and meter and in the rhyme), and narrative.

2) in the words of Candace Nola, “Poetry is the purest, deepest expression of self.”

This quote comes from the introduction to Candace Nola’s recent poetry collection Unmasked, and I can’t help but heartily agree with her. Purity and depth are two of the defining characteristics of great poetry. And, in writing great poetry, one is able to plumb the depths of one’s self: not the shallow ego-self, but the true and secret self. As the title of the collection suggests, in removing the ego-masks we wear, and baring our souls, we dig deeper towards the truth of this real identity concealed behind the societal dross and pain of human experience.

Unmasked is an awesome collection that surprised me in a number of ways. Despite the fact that Nola says in her introduction that poetry is also “raw emotion”, many of these poems are shaped, and possess beautiful form. This level of form and restraint allows us access to the visceral emotion and translates it into something beautiful.

A good example of this can be found in the very first poem, “Endure The Broken”. The final couplet is a masterful example of balance between form and emotion.

The void has consumed me, with darkness, with rage.

Let the blood run freely as a I die on the page.

The rhythm of this couplet is complex, but in essence it is anapaestic, a highly unusual choice. Most English poetry is written in iambic, which follows a measured rhythm almost like a heart beat, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum. Anapaests, however, flow more rapidly: de-de-dum, de-de-dum, de-de-dum. Like a horse galloping, or a river babbling. Candace Nola’s choice of meter here perfectly matches the symbolic meaning of the couplet. The blood runs “freely” with the pacy fluidity of the anapaestic rhythm—you can almost see the river of arterial blood flowing out from her pen. Sound, image, and meaning combine in a perfect alchemical formula where pain is transmuted into beauty.

Not all of Candace Nola’s poems are so formally wrought. Some border on prose with poetic elements. However, even in these looser forms, Candace Nola demonstrates a natural feeling for language and for combining striking imagery with mimetic, sonic effect. In her poem, “Masses” this is demonstrated brilliantly in the final stanza:

“Without you, I’m no longer here. My heart, my soul, no longer beat. I searched for you daily, in the depths of the masses, seeking myself in each heartbeat that passes.”

The italics here are my own, in order to underscore that though there are no line breaks, there is a hidden structure concealed in the prose paragraph. You can hear it—both the rhythm and rhyme-scheme—when the poem is read aloud. But visually it is hidden. This is brilliant because the final image of the poem is all about seeking both love and oneself in the masses that pass us by—how we lose the beauty and meaning in a world oversaturated, overcrowded, and overcluttered.

Throughout the collection, there are memorable quotes and images. One that particularly sticks in my mind is from the humbly titled poem “I’m Fine”.

Take the gun. Embrace the steel.

Let the bullet heal.

Heal” is a totally unexpected rhyme with “steel”, and the surprise juxtaposition causes the darker, deeper meaning behind the poem to hit with, well, the force of a bullet from a gun. It’s worth noting here that Unmasked will be a challenging read for anyone who has experienced, or is experiencing, depression or suicidal thoughts. There were a few moments where I had to put the collection down, because it reminded me of the intensity of those feelings, and how difficult it had been to see a way out. In this way, Candace Nola has truly captured a snapshot of her life. Emotions are temporal. They come and go like clouds. Yet, Nola has enshrined them forever, which is the potency of art.

However, all is not doom and gloom. The final poem, “Phoenix”, as the title suggests, offers us a transcendental uplift from the darkness and depression. Before I print the final poem in full, so that you can experience it for yourself, it is worth noting that this collection contains thirty-four poems, which is the same number of cantos to be found in Dante’s Inferno. Coincidence, or is perhaps Nola framing Unmasked as her own dark descent through hell and upwards into the divine phoenix of rebirth?

Born of ashes. Born of dust.

Born of blood, of rage, of scorn.

Phoenix rise. Phoenix fly. Phoenix die.

Cold, heartless, cruel desolation.

Child of hatred. Child of war.

Terrorized soul forced isolation.

Flames of ice. Hatred borne.

Phoenix rise. Phoenix dies.

Ash from flame. Desire wanes.

Burning wings, glowing brighter.

Red gold molten fire.

Slow burn, torrid desire.

Nuclear rage, mushroom cloud spires.

Phoenix flies.

Phoenix cries.

Tears of fire pouring down.

Burning out, destroy the ground.

Phoenix rage. Phoenix splayed.

Ripped open, beat and bound.

Phoenix cries.

Phoenix dies.

From the ashes, embers glow.

Phoenix still.

Phoenix grows.

In conclusion, Candace Nola is a fantastic poet, and I would definitely like to see more of her poetry alongside her novels and novellas.

You can purchase Unmasked on Amazon:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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