Thursday, 28 August 2014

Burnt Black Suns

Simon Strantzas is one of an abundant crop of Canadian horror writers who emerged over the last ten to fifteen years. Burnt Black Suns falls squarely into the modern horror genre (if I'm any judge, which I may not be). The overall tone is somewhat grim, but there are a few touches of humour - and indeed absurdity. Indeed, at times I was genuinely unsure whether Strantzas is offering 'straight' contemporary horror or a satirical commentary upon it. But perhaps that's the point?

'Thistle's Find', for instance, is a grisly little story in which the narrator - a typical pulp fiction low-life seeking sanctuary - discovers that the eponymous mad scientist has build a strange portal. Something has come through this trans-dimensional door, and without giving too much away it sums up why a lot of horror fiction puts me off. It manages to be wholly incredible as a story, and at the same time rather unpleasant.

'Emotional Dues' is a more sophisticated take on the body horror theme, with an artist unwisely trying to cut out the middle man and sell his paintings directly to a shadowy collector.The collector, it transpires, does more than simply gloat over his purchases... A problem I had with this one is that it feels as if two very different stories have been bolted together. One is a pulpy tale of a strange, grotesque entity and its bizarre needs, the other concerns the source of an artist's creativity. Arguably, one idea informs the other, but for me they merely seemed to get tangled to no good purpose.

Several stories show Lovecraft's influence. 'On Ice' is an almost straight Mythos tale, in which a scientific expedition to an Arctic island find more than they bargained for. There are some powerful passages, but it is somewhat undermined by the impression that these are Hollywood movie scientists and nothing like the real thing. A similar problem besets 'One Last Bloom', in which a deep sea expedition finds alien life. All good fun for the Arkham academics.

Altogether different is 'By Invisible Hands'. It has a whiff of Ligottian fantasy about it, with its tale of a puppet maker recruited to perform one last job. It works as horror because the nightmare situation is dramatised rather than explained, leaving the reader unsure as to how much of it is real and how much the product of a mind that has forgotten what humanity is like.

'Strong as a Rock' also recalls he author's earlier fiction. Here two brothers embark upon an ill-advised climb, and one is injured. The reasons for the climb - a way of bonding and overcoming grief over bereavement - become interwoven with the strange events at the hospital where they seek help. There is a genuine sense of disorientation, here - the horror of a world that we can pretend makes sense, but which falls apart under stress, as do we.

'Burnt Black Suns', a novella that closes the collection, is also powerful. A man sets out (long-suffering, pregnant girlfriend in tow) to find his ex-wife, who absconded with their son. The quest takes them to a Mexican town where the locals follow a strange hybrid of the Aztec and Christian faiths. The atmosphere is well-evoked, as is the protagonist's selfish, blinkered obsession with his son. The grand finale is suitably overwhelming, and bizarre enough to be a genuine religious experience - something few horror writers can manage.

I preferred the earlier collections Cold to the Touch and Beneath the Surface - get them if you can. But Burnt Black Suns has plenty to offer, and I suspect that its sheer diversity means that most readers will find something to satisfy them.

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