In That Endlessness, Our End by Gemma Files
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don’t hide the fact that I’m a fan of Gemma Files’ work. Her writerly reputation is solid, and deservedly so. Take, for example, her previous novel, Experimental Film, frankly one of the best horror novels I have read in many, many years. I had read and enjoyed Files’ stories as they appeared in various publications, but felt like she had hit a new watermark with Experimental Film. I was, admittedly, amped-up to read In That Endlessness, Our End. I even pre-ordered it, something I rarely do with books. But I had pre-ordered Experimental Film and loved it, so I felt that being an early adapter for this collection was a pretty safe bet.
And I was right.
Like any collection, there are “danglers and outliers,” but really, these fifteen stories hung together quite nicely. There are no bad stories among them. And because of my very high expectations, the one story that I rated at three-stars (out of five) might have just as well had something to do with my mood or something I ate (or didn’t eat) the evenings I spent reading it. Keep in mind that, at three stars, I still liked it. And overall, I loved the collection. The tales are sometimes horrific to the point that you wonder if the author poisoned the pages themselves, but many of them have a subtext of intimacy – not explicit sexual intimacy (though that is implied, in places), but familial intimacy and the intimacy of close friends. This, I think, is what sets Files’ stories here apart from much of the horror field – the foil of these intimate relationships against an uncaring or even inimical universe is profound and stark, casting love and friendship into relief against hatred and selfishness.
Note: Hatred and selfishness win out when you least expect it to. Some of these stories are heartbreakers, full stop.
Without further ado, here are my (slightly edited) notes from each story:
"This is How it Goes" posits a split. I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say that doppelgangers are compelled to kill their originals. Many Worlds Theory comes into play here in a quantum apocalypse unlike any other you've read about, guaranteed. The horror comes both from without and from within, the apocalypse arising from and further fomenting the horror of literally facing yourself and conquering your demons. Four stars.
"Bulb" skirts the border between creepypasta and cosmic horror. You might not want to turn the lights on after reading this. Makes me want to extend my social media "fasts" indefinitely. If you're at all averse to technology, this story is one giant trigger. A fantastic tale that will have you questioning every source of electricity around you. Five dazzling, electric stars.
"The Puppet Motel" is a haunted-house story for the 21st-Century, a modern take on some old tropes that doesn't feel like a modern take on old tropes, but feels like something absolutely unique and terrifying. It's not your "typical" ghost story, but something far more Weird or, when one really thinks about the story, Weird and Eerie, in the Fisher-esque senses of both words. Five stars.
So, what happens when the haunted house comes to you? And do you regret taking notice of some things, when you could have lived in blissful ignorance your whole life, but that one thing you took notice of consumes your life, consumes you? The characters in "Come Closer" have to ask these questions. And they don't get the answers they want. The characters here are extremely compelling, making us care for them, despite their broken-ness. Four stars.
Take the twitter account Pagan Hollywood, add the Eastern European legends of the Night Hag, and trace the story of an obsession through a multi-document approach, and you get "Cut Frame". I am enamored of all of these things and I absolutely love the method of using disparate documents to point readers to the story behind the story (I am a trained historian, after all). A tragic story leading to the abyss. I love this style of storytelling (both as a reader and as a writer), and Files excels at it.
"Sleep Hygiene" is . . . difficult. Because I've seen, up close and personal, a mental breakdown caused by lack of sleep. It's not pretty. It's terrifying. The narrator in this story ends up damaged in ways that, thankfully, the one I know did not. The fact that it hit so close to the mark is a testament to File's ability as a writer. After this, you might not trust a therapist ever again. And, Public Service Announcement here: please, please see that you don’t skimp on sleep. The effects are truly horrific. Five stars; reluctantly.
"Always After Three" has a decent premise and characterization. For me, though, it lacked a natural sense of dread, like it was forced. I think it could have been longer to allow the characters and their situation to develop a bit more. I liked it, but didn't love it. Three stars.
"Thin Cold Hands" is a morbidly beautiful story of possession, both of the ghostly kind and of the kind that binds mother and daughter in their relationship to one another, even if both parties aren't exactly willing. It's a clever subversion of that relationship, as well as the apocalyptic threat that would arise if such relationships were to multiply as, statistically, they must. Shades of Doris Lessing’s “The Fifth Child” here, folks. Five stars.
The collective unconscious has spawned something inexorable in "Venio," and it's coming. The more you try not to think about it, the closer it is. And you want it to be as far away from you as possible. But its visitation is inevitable; only a matter of time. Here Files develops her familiar themes to a sharpened point, leaving the reader no escape, entrapping them in the story. Five stars.
Folk horror meets vampirism in the guise of a pseudo-Fisher King in "Look Up". The shifting viewpoint is at times confusing, always kaleidoscopic. The motivations of the main subject seem to ebb and flow, winsome and immature with indecision, then stubborn resolve, then submissive acceptance. Tropes of inheritance, destiny, choice, and change swirl throughout the tale, both clarifying and confusing. Four stars.
"The Church in the Mountains" is Files at her best. Varied viewpoints, sepia tones, the hidden interstices of media at once so familiar, yet so alien, the horror of becoming that which we don't want to be, but inevitably must. A written story finds validation in a long-lost film and concludes by folding external reality into internal realization. A symphonic, tenebrous collapse into fate. Five stars.
Science fiction or horror? "Distant Dark Places" has an emotional resonance missing from much of modern dark fiction. It's a big story, yet personal, as big as a planet (or three), yet as small as the misfiring gaps in the human neural structure. The tale takes conspiracy theories and "prepping" to a cosmological level, yet never leaves the human sphere. The undulating scope of the story never loses focus. Five stars
"Worm Moon" is a highly poetic piece of infestation, metamorphosis, and unwanted discovery. A horrific voyage into a murky realm of self: what was self, what is self, what is to become . . . something else. Four stars.
"Halloo" is an utter gut-punch. I don't even know where to begin: the bottle? The therapy? The relationship between Isla and Amaya? Between Isla and her mother and Nan? It's all so wrong and just when you think it's going to turn right, it goes even more wrong. Ugh. This was an excruciating read, but in the good way. Yeah, the good way.
Note: Rorcal's album "Mulladonna" was the perfect background music for reading this story. Definitely the right mood.
Five stars (to Files and Rorcal)!
Much more poignant than horrific, "Cuckoo" asks tough questions of a (autistic?) child's parents. The myths of the Changeling are explored throughout as a means to examine the themes of dedication, love, duty, and disappointment. This is an evocative meditation, if you will, on fate and responsibility, on a universe that gives not one whit about you, and yet calls on you to reach deep to find compassion inside yourself. Five stars.
On balance, I am giving In That Endlessness, Our End a full five stars, despite the one story I only "liked," because I loved the rest to varying degrees. I strongly recommend getting the hard copy - believe me, with many of these stories, you'll want to be able to close the pages quickly when you reach the end . . . so you can pull the covers over your head and hide.
But you can't.
You can't hide;
It's coming . . .
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