Burnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm all about the creepy, not so much about the gory. Give me
The Twilight Zone
over "Saw" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" any day of the week. It's not about the blood or guts, necessarily, but about the feeling. I'm not a fan of being grossed out, but am a fan of that lingering feeling in the back of my head that things just aren't right. Perhaps this has to do with my love of existentialism, the thrilling notion that terror and death loom just around the corner, but aren't quite in your face . . . yet.
So when I tell people I like to read horror . . . well, I've been given some recommendations that I really, really hated. Part of it is that, all told, the quality of horror writing in general is . . . well, not that great. There are a number of reason for this, not the least of which was a sort of nepotism which Paula Guran referred to as "tribalism" at one point - the incestuous practice of editors who were also authors and authors who were also editors patting each other on the back and frankly looking the other way when bad writing came through from someone they liked.
Those days may be behind us. At least I hope so. But because I had seen this happen first hand back in the early 2000's, I approached Strantzas' collection Burnt Black Suns with a touch of caution. Not because I though Strantzas had been caught up in all of that, but because I hadn't, frankly, read a Strantzas story before, at least not to my recollection. Plus there was the possibility that this was not the kind of dark fiction I most enjoy. But I read some very positive reviews and I positively loved the cover, so I thought I'd give it a shot.
I'm so glad I did!
Let's start with the first story, "On Ice," because no one reads intros, even when they are written by the talented Laird Barron. Okay, I admit it, I read the introduction. But like most other introductions it was forgettable. "On Ice," though, was not as forgettable. I had expected something along the lines of Lovecraft, but was pleasantly surprised (though I like Lovecraft's work a great deal) that Strantzas didn't just fall into the tropes that one might expect in an arctic horror story. Yes, there is a sense of desperation and fear like you might expect, but it's a slow burn, like holding your hand on the frozen juice freezer at the grocery store too long; mesmerizing and painful, but not so scary as to make you simply close the cover. "This," I thought, "is a solid four star story".
I was not quite as impressed with "Dwelling on the Past," which I felt didn't really get off the ground and, once it did, meandered around a bit too much. Not a terrible story, but not terribly impressive, either. I felt that this might have been one of the "filler" stories in the volume.
I was, however, very impressed with the third story, "Strong as a Rock". I liked everything about "Strong As a Rock". It seethes with the dread of that-which-is-not-seen. The evocative character reactions to "off camera" events carry the horror in this, yes, I'll say it, "Ligotti-esque" tale. This story of two brothers, one full of confidence, one utterly lacking in it, starts blue and clear as the sky, and ends saturated in darkness. You may never look at rock climbing or hospitals in the same way again. Five stars!
"By Invisible Hands" was the weakest story so far, which surprised me, since it appeared in a Ligotti tribute anthology. Maybe it was just trying too hard. The right words were there, but the cadence was not, like a singer off beat. It also missed the emotional "oomph" I get from Ligotti, et al. Still not a bad story. Three stars. No more. No less.
"One Last Bloom" is an interesting title for that story. It took a little while to "grow," to be honest, but once it flowered . . . well, it was really gross and horrific. I was surprised by how well I accepted that fact. Maybe I've become desensitized? Extreme social awkwardness, combined with narcissism, make for some very uncomfortable moments. Strantzas has captured this perfectly, and, boy, is it painful to read! Painful in a way that drew me, begrudgingly, into the story. For a while, the main character's lack of touch with reality had me wondering who was real and who was not. It's an insane fugue of a story, as a result, and in the end, I liked the effect it had on me.
Furthermore, there was a phrase in "One Last Bloom" that caught my attention: "[I] knew the way one knows things in the middle of the night . . ." I love that turn of phrase. In the context of the story it totally makes sense and is one of the most clever articulations I've ever heard of that strange phenomenon of certainty at three in the morning. I've felt that. I know that feeling.
I wish I had thought of that seemingly simple phrase myself. You've earned yourself another star, mister Strantzas! Four total, in this case.
"Thistle's Find" is a good story, well told, of science gone wrong. Not spectacular or groundbreaking, but it still makes it into four-star territory.
Take Carcosa, The King in Yellow, a mysterious bookstore containing an even more mysterious manuscript, a restrained rivalry between two brilliant musicians, and the revelation of the "lesser" musician's grand opus, all wrapped in an emotionally-satisfying tale, and you've got yourself a five-star story in "Beyond the Banks of the River Seine". This one resonated in my mind for a long time afterward. I could see this being made into an indie movie by the same people who did the silent movie version of "Call of Cthulhu". It would definitely not work as a silent movie, per-se . . . well, maybe it would . . . hmm . . . interesting . . .
"Emotional Dues" is more hit than miss, but I thought that it slipped from its emotional footing at the end, favoring monster-horror, when it could have delivered a more compelling punch in the form of leveraged angst. Still the central conceit of the monster was interesting and "new," sort of a twist on Dorian Gray. Four stars, but just barely. Oh, and this is another one that would make a good silent movie. I think I'm sensing a pattern here. I wonder what Strantzas thinks of Nosferatu? He seems to stage some things in a theatrical way. Or maybe that's just my brain setting things up that way in my theater of the mind.
The titular story was as bizarre and horrifying as I like. Surreal and creepy. Though I found the protagonist annoying and narcissistic, I see why Strantzas made him so. This story was all the more horrific because I have a friend who was in a very nasty custody case who idealized his son in the same way Noah did in the story. Kinda hits home. This one also stuck with me, all five stars of it.
Overall, then, four stars, when each story is looked at individually. I felt, however, that the sum was greater than the parts. This really was an exceptional collection of short dark fiction with a weird bent to it. So I'm bumping it up to five. It looks like Dark Regions press has seen the genius, too and is doing a signed, limited, leather-bound edition. Hey, my birthday is next month. Anyone feeling generous?
View all my reviews