Read This! Volume 9: June 2019
Once I finished reading the second of my selections for this column, I found myself wondering if a common thread or theme that bound them would come to me, as it has so often in past columns. I was settling into my bedtime ritual, with sleep creeping closer, when it suddenly came to me. Both are related by the concept of the Looming Doom, a theme fully familiar to horror readers.
In stories driven by the Looming Doom, the source of dread isn’t articulated as clearly as the effect it has on the protagonists. Like a black hole, until the very end we know the thing itself only by witnessing what it does to those around it. From The Wicker Man to Get Out and Hereditary, we’ve watched or read about heroes or heroines who walk blindly into an awful unknown, only to be overcome or consumed by it. Sometimes the consumption is literal as something otherworldly actually eats them, but it’s more often internal, as the pull of the object of fear draws its victims into itself, and transforms them physically or mentally. It’s always a story of slowly mounting dread, with the protagonist often only learning the truth of the doom they face in the brief moments just before it finally overtakes them.
I’ve always thought, like others, that genre fiction, whether in print, film, television, and now online, reflects the zeitgeist of its age, and these two books seem to validate that notion. We live in an era of Looming Doom, haunted by the subliminal static of impending death or destruction by gun violence, crushing debt, untreatable illnesses, economic collapse, climate change, military intervention, or having your brain implode as you try to make sense of the news each day.
No matter what side of the political fence you stand on, the view looks grim and seems to be slowly, consistently, worsening. We move through our lives day by day, power still on, food still available, our world still functioning, even if we have the sneaking suspicion as we watch riots, earthquakes and fires in other countries, that all is not well and whatever is out there is coming for us.
I think that’s at the heart of the current immigration panic, the hope that all the danger is “out there,” and that if we lock our doors and seal our windows, it won’t get us. A Quiet Place and The Silence, recent films released a year apart, both posit a world in which predatory monsters have wiped out most of the population, and survivors live by being as unnoticeable as possible. That seems to be an apt metaphor for putting our heads in the sand until the danger passes as so many seem inclined to do. In these novels the protagonists respond to their own Looming Doom in a variety of ways, from denial to obsession, some more effectively than others.
There are two things that make a Looming Doom story work for me—one is a plausible build-up of growing unease that rises as realistically as it would in life, and the other is the effective reveal of “what it all really means,” the “Ah ha!” moment that makes the long build up worth the wait. In these two books the denouement is less a bombastic reveal than the grim slam of a coffin lid, but both are still worth the wait.
Paperback / Ebook
Two Dollar Radio, May 14, 2019, 367 pages
When the seventeen-year-old narrator of Triangulum falls asleep, something that she calls The Machine goes into motion. It fills her room with alien technology, invades her body and mind for reasons unknown to her. Girls her age are disappearing in provincial South African townships around her, and her father, Tata, is slowly succumbing to a consumptive disease. Since her mother’s mysterious disappearance, the girl has been on a constantly changing host of anti-depressants to control what the adults around her view as hallucinations. Seeking answers about the missing girls, with odd clues from a package mailed to a missing friend, she takes part in an enigmatic study that only adds to her growing sense of disconnection to the everyday world and traditional time.
Though marketed as science fiction, Triangulum trades in the kind of creeping dread that takes it into horror territory as well. Most of the action takes place in the years right after the end of apartheid, when South Africa was going through changes as significant as those of a teenager’s mind and body, the same conflicts and confusion. Seeing it through her eyes gives it an added sense of loss and yearning.
Whether what she experienced as a teenager is real or not haunts her into adult life in 2025, when she’s caught up in an underground eco-terrorist organization working to break down corporate mental manipulation of a sheep-like populace. The company she works for transfers her to a special project with terrifying potential to escalate that end, at the same time D., a young woman artist who becomes her lover and co-conspirator, recruits her into a shadowy subculture. Their relationship in both leads to her ultimate understanding of The Machine, her mother’s disappearance, and the greater nature of the universe we live in.
The book is purported to be an edited manuscript released in 2043 as an organized accumulation of recordings and printed pages written from 1999 to 2025, organized by Dr. Naomi Buthelezi, a science fiction writer approached by the scientist who held the material in 2038. Delivered anonymously to the South African National Space Agency, the documents warn of the total extinction of Earth in 2050. After a recent bombing, the collection’s now taken more seriously as a potential threat, as the same eco-terrorist group the author described were said to have planted the explosives in 2026. Naomi works with the scientist to determine their veracity. After his death she presents the public with this book, the results of a five-year study of the apocalyptic message sent, a warning ignored by scientists and politicians.
To that degree the book becomes a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. In unraveling the threads of its intricacies we are led back to ourselves. Like Frankenstein in Baghdad and Infidel, reviewed in previous columns, Ntshanga effectively uses a work of genre fiction to reveal meaning in our own world. Everyday events in a changing twentieth century South Africa and its potential future is used as background to a larger story of our own frail and fallible human nature, written in quietly beautiful language that is poetic, yet conversational and engaging enough to ground its unreal events.
Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell
Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Gallery/Saga Press, April 9, 2019, 288 Pages
“The Atlas of Hell,” the first story in this collection, introduces us to Jack, a bookseller in New Orleans who’s in thrall to Eugene, a local gangster with a new demand. Fascinated by old books, Jack went into apprenticeship when young to an aging bookbinder that turned out to be a necromancer. He quickly learned there was more money to be made stealing and selling books of more than merely dubious provenance, works from the literature of the damned. After a bloody battle with a death cult over an ancient scroll, Jack starts stealing more supernatural books for Eugene. His boss recently received the thighbone of his dead son, retrieved from Hell by Tobias, another one of his thralls. He used the atlas to do it and Eugene wants Jack to bring it to him. Even Jack knows providing Eugene with a gateway to Hell is a bad idea, but Patrick, Eugene’s armed and dangerous muscle, offers him no other options.
Jack travels with the thug into the depths of the swamps to find Tobias. He’s a low-level crook who feels despised by Eugene, only to discover he’s actually beneath his notice. Even worse. Sending Eugene his son’s bone (which strangely regenerates into a shrieking homunculus by the end of the story), was meant to be an act of defiance, but it backfires as the trip goes as far south as one can in New Orleans. This story kicks off an anthology that reads as if written by the love child of Ray Bradbury in dark mode and Clive Barker . . . lyrically chilling as The October Country or Something Wicked This Way Comes and grotesquely beautiful as The Books of Blood or The Great and Secret Show.
The stories are related by the world they inhabit, on the literal border of Hell, in both the past and now, depicted consistently throughout the anthology as feckless humans venture in and its horrific inhabitants skitter or stampede out.
“The Diabolist” and “Skullpocket” are told from the point of view of imps and ghouls brought into contact with humanity by means both deliberate and accidental. It’s oddly easy to feel sympathy for them when you see things from their perspectives, even if the values expressed are somewhat antithetical to our survival. Even if their games include kickball with human heads, and their diet includes us . . .
“The Maw” follows up on the climax of “The Diabolist,” where imps were summoned from Hell in the town of Angel’s Rest by a theomancer who sought to bring back his dead wife by ripping holes in time and space. They’re unleashed after his death by an angry abandoned young daughter who tries to do the same for him, and her horrors have now spilled into neighboring communities. “The Maw” takes us on a rescue mission into an abandoned town nicknamed the Hollow City. Its Hellish occupants, the demonic Surgeons and Wagoneers, have cored all the old structures to make room for their new construction; assemblages shaped from the bones and weirdly still living flesh from once human inhabitants who didn’t evacuate in time.
“The Visible Filth” takes us back to New Orleans for a lost pink cellphone that sends strange and increasingly frightening text messages to the bartender who finds it—from someone who may have been killed or worse. It leads him and his live-in girlfriend down a rabbit hole to a secret cult that may be committing sins that exceed mere murder. It builds step by step, as we watch the normal moral lives of its characters slowly stripped away as the truth behind it all—well—consumes them, in ways described at the start of this column. I won’t spoil it by telling you which or where it leaves them. No great surprise that it’s already been adapted into a horror film.
The collection closes with a Lovecraftian elegy, the grimly glorious tale of “The Butcher’s Table,” that incorporates almost every one of the ingredients of a good Grand Guignol theater piece. It also brings the collection full circle, with the creation of a key element in the first story, the titular atlas of Hell, which can give you anything you want. As anyone who encounters it learns, it’s best to just say no.
As we feel the oppressive force of our own Looming Dooms, these two books offer a look at how much worse things could be. In that, they offer some hope we can survive ours better than these characters do. In any event, at least our horrors are only of our own making, so we can hope that should make them that much easier to overcome than the horrors of a literal Hell or an alien intrusion . . . right?
We shall see.
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