Simon Strantzas' Cold to the Touch Reviewed

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Simon Strantzas is a still looked on as a relative newcomer to the world of weird literature, but he has built high expectations for his stories. Fortunately, his latest collection, Cold to the Touch from Tartarus Press, goes beyond the rumors and the previous standards set, the comparisons and the anticipations, to arrive at an honest and promising representation of his work. In all fairness, Strantzas' Cold to the Touch must be considered his true debut collection, after his first book, Beneath the Surface, escaped the attention of many readers due to the unfortunate demise of Humdrumming Press. Perhaps this is for the better, as Cold to the Touch presents thirteen very polished pieces free from the stylistic groping and unbalanced themes that sometimes taint early collections by weird writers.

In this collection, Strantzas guides us through a world of surreal ugliness, where hope glimmers just long enough to be blotted out by a greater blackness, and the only escape from that darkness--when it appears at all--comes in salvations that are eerily vague, questionable, and definitely strange. In these tales, readers will hear the echoes of Robert Aickman, Thomas Ligotti, and H.P. Lovecraft, among others, but only from inside the steady voice of a different creature named Simon Strantzas. Still, this is not a writer clawing through the shadows of his predecessors and contemporaries, but one who has emerged as his own literary entity.

Cold to the Touch opens with "Under the Overpass," a strong tale about childhood cruelty and the lifelong footprints of psychological torment left in the wake of one senseless act. Without giving too much away, our viewpoint character experiences a coming of age that is distorted and feeble, never completely blossoming in every sense one knows when thinking about coming of ages. When he revisits the site of his childhood trauma, he finds paranoid reminders of the past, and a cocktail of emotions possibly more deadly unchained than suppressed. The story showcases Strantzas' talents for placing fairly realistic characters in strange settings. Readers come to know their pain and their feelings in an intimate way as they pass through less tangible, irrational shadows: a stylistic feature distinguishing this author from others like Ligotti and Lovecraft.

Later stories in the book such as "The Uninvited Guest," "The Other Village," "A Chorus of Yesterdays," and "Poor Stephanie" place similarly well portrayed characters in incredibly mysterious situations. Each contains an Aickmanesque sense of strangeness, but also border very close to the almost too confounding happenings represented by Aickman. However, Strantzas' talent for weaving this deep mystery with different sized doses of the supernatural is seen in these tales. The grotesque and unnaturally symbolic arrival of a spectral stranger in "The Uninvited Guest" contrasts with the shocking appearance of an...(ahem) "over protective" uncle in "Poor Stephanie," where a supernatural component more horrible than the cold reality served up in this story seems unlikely.

A different current runs through still other stories. Here, the sympathetic, pitiful, and wretched characters of Strantzas' worlds wander into bleak, modern settings reminiscent of Thomas Ligotti. "A Seen on Barren Ground" is a blatant nod to Ligotti's influence. References to puppets, a decrepit festival, and even gas station carnivals are alive in this story, where a tortured woman who has recently miscarried a child seeks relief from an old woman with a particularly odd ability. A character named "Tom" even shows up, though it does not appear to be a fictionalized representation of Ligotti himself (if so, it would be the first I am aware of). The story reflects familiar Ligottian themes, flickering shards of horrors from Ligotti stories like "Mrs. Rinaldi's Angel," "The Bungalow House," and "Gas Station Carnivals." It has a predictably bleak, but excellent ending that wraps up a homage by Strantzas to his literary predecessor, while proving he can comfortably work with the imagery and ideas of others on his own terms.

The stories "Writing on the Wall, "Here's to the Good Life," and "Fading Light" also recall Ligotti in more subtle ways. These are odd urban tales that take readers deep into the seedy urban vistas usually in the backdrop of Ligotti's work. Dark discoveries, awkward relationships, and terrible ailments cause the characters of these pieces to rush through haunted foreign alleys and appalling restrooms. Instead of the corporate horror found in these places in the words of Ligotti and Mark Samuels, Strantzas' characters find horrors of the self nearly equivalent to the visible frights lurking in the greasy bars and shoddy apartments. This is quite an accomplishment when one learns what creeps out of one's body--or into it--in "Here's to the Good Life" and "Fading Light."

Further stories in Cold to the Touch more effectively evade traceable literary influences and provide longer samples of Strantzas' skills. "The Sweetest Song" slams the prominent sense of mystery and alienation in aforementioned stories together to produce a stirring work of sad, bizarre, and mildly erotic horror. An unusual dance through the ballrooms of death and marital love animates every character, as the near hermit Cecil attempts to unravel the painful death of his wife, the unwelcome marriage of his nephew, and a myriad of strange events involving a flock of birds. Death, love, and ghostly partnership sketch a different story in "Like Falling Snow," where Strantzas introduces a dying woman cataloging her last days in a hospice. This story contains the only thing close to a happy ending in this collection, though the seemingly apparent migration of consciousness segregates this happiness from its normal meaning.

Strantzas is a Canadian writer, and two stories see the convincing usage of his nation's unique terrain and climate to stir chills. "Cold to the Touch," the title story of this collection, follows a science expedition to Canada's northern wastelands. Unlike H.P. Lovecraft's own strange story in the arctic, "At the Mountains of Madness," Strantzas' offering focuses on spiritual questions and frigid inner isolation rather than exterior scientific realism. Similarly, the punishing, otherworldly winds that bring havoc at a forest cabin in "Pinholes in Black Muslin" are one more problem to deal with for a viewpoint character already falling prey to his inner demons and soul killing weaknesses. Strantzas' Nature is a fearful catalyst that enlivens emotional furies rather than exorcises them, a nice opposition to the more elegant portrayals of nature by earlier weird writers like Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.

Cold to the Touch is a formidable gift to the field of weird literature so full of diverse strangeness and mystery that it demands readers return to its pages in the days, weeks, months, and years after one has turned all its pages for the first time. In his Afterword, Simon Strantzas indicates a desire to coax readers into a dark nightmare they may never fully escape from. If this is the objective, it has been met in this collection that offers a fistful of bitter pills coated with different flavors of artistic weirdness. It also seems determined to mark the permanent addition of an important name to the newest circle of weird literature, a dangerously energetic writer who delights in filling other minds with his icy emotions and curious terrors.

-Grim Blogger

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