by Simon Strantzas
Published by Tartarus Press, 2009.
The thirteen tales in Simon Strantzas’ latest collection appear, like the author himself, to have been “born in the harsh darkness of the Canadian winter”. Dark but with frequent glimpses of light and beauty creating a dazzling mix of heady highs and tragic lows.
We start with a coming of age story, Under The Overpass, as a group of friends take a tragic and violent detour. The story explores the loss of youthful innocence but also the impossible desire in all of us to return to those innocent days.
In The Other Village a pair of estranged friends take a holiday to a mysterious and unknown island in an attempt to leave their troubles behind. Needless to say their troubles come with them.
The Uninvited Guest is an excellent creepy tale where a gatecrasher to a party creates conflicting emotions as consideration for our fellow man meets self interest and individual greed.
A Seed On Barren Ground, a mysterious festival in a dead end town, a carnival and a strange old woman who possibly offers hope, what more could you ask for?
Writing On The Wall is set in Warsaw as a pair of old schoolmates are reunited bringing back some unwanted memories. The setting brings home the divisions between the characters.
In A Chorus Of Yesterdays a reclusive and mysterious musician moves in next door bringing some strange music with him.
The Sweetest Song sees a widowed Uncle and his divorced nephew with a new strange and ultimately dangerous third party in their relationship. A heady mix of erotic intrigue and the difficulties of opening up to new relationships.
Pinholes In Black Muslin examines isolation and friendship. The great emptiness and solitude of the stars is the canvas on which Simon Stranzas paints an almost poetic vision of loneliness.
In Fading Light two old friends lives are shattered by break ups causing a gradual slide into despair.
Poor Stephanie is an extremely unsettling tale as young Stephanie finds herself the pawn in strange relationship. Another tale examining loss of innocence but the hints at abuse and the inability of the protagonist to prevent it make this a harrowing read.
In Like Falling Snow we follow the last few days of a woman dying of cancer as she tries to remember her life amidst a wintery landscape.
Here’s To The Good Life is a cautionary tale on the dangers of drink and friendship. This one has added gore to spice things up a bit, it might not stop you drinking but it might just make you think twice.
And finally Cold To The Touch is a remarkable excursion into the frozen arctic where faith and nature collide amidst a strange Lovecraftian landscape.
In the afterword Simon Strantzas states that he is interested in “not what makes us fear for our lives but fear for our sanity”. In order to examine these fears he has delved deep into the psyche and looked at how “psychology pushes and punishes us”.
There are few tales here that most readers won’t feel a connection with because the emotions on display here are common to all humans. There is a deep resonance to the feelings invoked by these tales. There is little of the traditional, more visceral horror, instead these stories deal with the darker unseen things, the skeletons in the closet. His writing reminds me of Thomas Ligotti but with frequent glimpses of the kind of insecurities and isolation seen in much of Lovecraft’s work. Yet all this is achieved with only the lightest supernatural touch. There are no cosmic giant squid on show here, just some very strange individuals, all of which make these tales even more real.
Whatever comparisons or compartments you try to fit these stories into though, is largely irrelevant as this collection stands on it’s own merits as a work of great quality. Long may the Canadian winters be harsh if work like this is the result.
Rating 4.5 out of 5