Marked to Die: A Tribute to Mark Samuelsby Justin Isis

The Weird Tale, as a genre, plays host to stories of far more diversity than most other genres.

It can combine elements of horror, literary fiction, historical fiction, humor, adventure, science fiction, and fantasy. Examples abound of Lovecraftian experiments in cosmic dread and Machen-esque descents into sub-realities, but no author better epitomizes the trend than Mark Samuels. Alongside Ligotti and a host of infamous small-press authors, Samuels has infused the genre with staying power, primarily by concocting reams of nightmarish visions which haunt the reader’s psyche for years afterward.

This volume contains a dozen and a half tributes to the power of his storytelling. From recognized names in the sub-genres of s-f, we are treated to a lengthy sampling of gruesome and ingenious stories featuring charming cameos by “JBon” Quentin S. Crisp, and of course Samuels.

The anthology maps the human condition in all of its diverse interpretations, charting the heights of ecstasy and the pits of despair, the outskirts of human striving to the dark interior of the soul. David Rix should be commended for finishing the collection with a powerful novella about slag glass. Reggie Oliver provides another elegant foray into the subtly weird, while James Champagne embarks on a surprising and satirical quest toward an unsettling abyssal discovery.

Key notes of alienation, loneliness and piquant encounters with the unknown punctuate this eclectic grouping. Justin Isis’ fiction contribution was impressive and hypnotic, as usual, but actually stood out as more straightforward than expected. Several other tales spin into startling and experimental territory such as Yarrow Paisley’s. You’d have to dredge to the bottom of some of the stories to find the Mark Samuels references or influences, but they all embody the mystique in some way, and tend to culminate in spine-tingling climaxes, occasionally forsaking the technique of dénouement in favor of an aftertaste of memorable discomfort—take “The Singular Quiddity of Merlin’s Ear” for instance.

Some wacky psychedelic exercises congeal into startling imagery and a harrowing accumulation of sinister atmosphere. Having read three collections of Samuels’ stories so far I can attest that the tributes do play off the general feel of the weird aesthetic and can be appreciated by readers unfamiliar with Samuels’ works. Though plenty of references will go unrecognized by the uninitiated, there are many delectable riddles and unique literary panoramas to delight any connoisseur of vibrant speculative fiction.

The impressive array of authors and keen editing that went into this book produce a cohesive work which can only be fully fathomed with careful reading and open-minded enthusiasm. There were moments I doubted whether the stories could grapple with all their disparate ideas, or if they were spinning out of control, and many of them verged into quirky territory, lassoing in esoteric concepts and indulging in asides, only to swerve back on track by the end, justifying their eccentricities through sheer bravado and annihilating my preconceptions. Isis and Co. have conspired to sacrifice their time and shun easy categorization on a mission to enrich the body of literature about less conventional humans and do something different for a change.

Having read Marked to Die at a slow pace, I feel the need to revisit it. For the second half I did not want it to end, and it took more than one adjustment to orientate my reading mind. But use your peripherals, scratch past the ink with your fingernails and you’ll uncover deep and mesmeric emotional resonances worthy of the label of Samuels-esque.

Review of Hettie and the Ghost by Becca De La Rosa

In this richly descriptive and atmospheric novel, I was pleased to find intricate sentence structure and mature characters. 

Many of its descriptions have an old-fashioned elegance. It is a nuanced ghost story with an intriguing premise, tackling central concepts of spiritualism, the afterlife, and growth. The language is always surprising and contributes to the cinematic scenes, which are ensconced in a setting of baroque splendor.

By and by, I found it to be book that exceeds expectations on multiple fronts, delivering realistic dialogue and fantastic descriptions, while incorporating much magical realism into a satisfying plot. The little details pile up, contributing to a sense of dread. The reader picks up cues from characters’ actions and speech, since the author does not rely on info dumps or long interior monologs. I was reminded time and again of Shirley Jackson, who masterfully weaved tales in a similar vein, capturing subtle changes in character and dark turns of fate without sacrificing the abundant dreamy texture of the prose. It is as much an exploration of the speculative world of spirits as it is an interior examination of the self. Our main characters’ scars run deep, and her world is fraught with unrelenting tension. The storytelling elements are impressive, working with the world building to construct a convincing ambiance. Words like reticule, crinoline, and laudanum crop up frequently. Make sure you are prepared for a slower pace, akin to twentieth century fiction, with an emphasis on eerie locales and creeping dread. I would not be surprised if the author went on to publish many excellent novels revolving around the supernatural, since she knows how to handle historical subjects and language with undeniable ease.

Review of Survival: A Sci-Fi/Horror, where reality begins to bite. by Chris Wright

Guided along by smoothly flowing prose, the reader will perceive a consistent building tension in this genre-bending novel. 

Parts of it almost read like diary entries, and provide intimate details as well as high-level backstory description.
Full of subtle tension and propelled by the interactions of realistic characters in a sequence of atmospheric scenes, the dialogue is especially compelling, revealing the inner psychology of the players while creating a continual sense of movement.

Using a host of diverse characters and a shifting setting enhances the constant exploration of inner lives as much as it evolves the exterior mysteries. The psychological ramifications of our protagonist are elaborately exposed, dissected, and revealed throughout the fast-paced plot.

Many of the characters pursue specialized sciences, and the large interrelated cast members do not fall into simple categories. While the plot took a little while to get started, the author does a good job of building and developing his characters. Through riveting action scenes we are treated to their turn by turn recounting of the traumas and fallout involved in the horrifying experiences in the woods, as the mystery of the encounter suffuses the storytelling on every layer.

Paranoia, the skewed perspective of desperate characters, the nature of reality are all accounted for. Suspenseful ambiguities, thrilling action and an interplay of dependable speculative tropes make for a delightful reading experience. A highly twisty plot, with unexpected reveals and a persistent dread will surprise the reader.

Review of Fragments – A Sci-Fi/Horror: The sequel to Survival: The rules of reality have now changed by Chris Wright

In this second installment in the series, the pace ratchets up quickly. 

We join characters familiar from the first book (but I think this book can even be appreciated on its own, without some of the backstory). It is a good example of descriptions of cosmic proportions, and how paranormal events infringe on the lives of relatable characters. Each of them is part of a set of rich, well-rounded individuals, whom the author established through reliably good dialogue. They are pursued by supernatural vortices, giving the reader a very cinematic view of large-scale urban destruction.

The disintegration, the threat of annihilation, serves as a backdrop to human drama, all of which sustains a high pulse throughout the book. A dark fate for mankind lies in wait at the edge of our perception, as in the best science fiction, shedding light on our inner flaws.

This is a nanobot apocalyptic vision of the future, with an action-film tempo, radiating a white heat that will have you sweating over the pages. The persistence of haunting dreams plagues our protagonists. Our imaginations are powerful tools and our sentience can often be taken for prophesy. We rely on other human beings for validation of our worldview, but we are fundamentally self-serving. This give and takes adds even more tension to an already tense reading experience.

By alternating perspectives, the author gives a feel for a variety of well-crafted, believable characters. He delights in describing intricate set pieces, utilizing sweeping grand symphonies of molten metal and tidal waves of melting cars to set the stage, creating a constant scrambling toward purchase in a shifting landscape of demolishment, balanced upon a precipice of fear. A page-turner in the most primal sense, something to keep you up at night with its suggestions of immanent collapse of our unstable universe. – How reality may very well be a facade, a thin curtain dangling between the world we know and an untenable void. That is the cosmic horror immediately visible in this fictional version of our world. We are caught up in a pursuit against uncontrollable forces, a hive of our worst fears, a predator beyond imagining. Following interdimensional twists, with unexpected consequences, the telepathic link between an entity which challenges our perceptions intrudes upon the fate of the Everyman of the story, adding layers of techie futurism.

The book operates with logic and sciency, savvy depictions of disturbing realities fraught with a nonstop mingling of dreamlike imagery. It is a frantic tunneling through cause and effect, searching for answers amid the havoc of chaos, complicated by our own messy existences. It weaves in quantum theories, artificial intelligence, and many other concepts to craft a complex work of speculative fiction that comments on our troubled times.