Noxious Fragments Reviewed

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Noxious Fragments is a collection of eleven tales selected from the first seven issues of Fantastic Horror. For years, Fantastic Horror has been a ghostly presence on the web as a longstanding e-publication, dishing out regular servings of frightful tales. A large proportion of these stories have mirrored classic weird fiction in style and content (especially Lovecraftian pieces), so it is little surprise that Noxious Fragments contains tales like this. As is often the case with small press anthologies, this one presents a range of diverse stories differing in quality, though about half of the eleven offerings could qualify as Cthulhu Mythos pieces.

Stefano Magliocco's "The Lure of the Kraken" opens the collection, and clearly represents Lovecraftian atmosphere. It is, in effect, a re-telling of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," substituting Kraken mythology for the Old Ones. It is solidly written, but struggles to escape the gravity of HPL's literary style and plot trajectory. This piece would have been better served by using more of the interesting Norse and Kraken folklore that occasionally crawls through its pages. "Song of Shub-Niggurath" by Richard Eline, as its title implies, is another Mythos story. A hardened investigator and Vietnam veteran encounters the shadow of Shub-Niggurath by prying into the workings of a local cult with his reporter girlfriend. Here, the Cthulhu Mythos elements are married to a slurry of Vietnam War flashbacks, alongside unusual regional horrors from York County, Pennsylvania--spikes of originality that impale the reader's mind to these pages.

J.J. Burke's "The Coyman Manuscript" is another injection of Lovecraftiana. A man attempts to unravel clues left by the disappearance of his friend Robert Coyman. The tale shows off Burke's talent for constructing a well researched story told through real time action, letters, and manuscripts. Fairly visceral imagery also seeps through as the narrator Emiel encounters the horrors of the otherworldly "custodian." Unfortunately, the narrative becomes slightly disjointed by the end--perhaps a product of wavering between several different literary mediums--yet it still offers enough creaturely terror to appeal to H.P. Lovecraft fans.

Jerome Banks Brown's "The Horror in the Traquair Maze" similarly relies upon careful research, and could be read as a sequel to Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." In it, a typically Lovecraftian Professor lurches to his doom via a trail of clues that lead him to a mysterious maze in Scotland. Though this sort of Mythos story has been seen before, Brown nevertheless constructs an engaging story that utilizes historical tidbits in the manner Lovecraft himself was hailed for. Slightly more subtle Lovecraftian references appear again in "A Terrible Binding" by D. Alexander Ward. This story sees a young boy accompanied by a mysterious stranger, who shows up at his house, set off to combat a monster in the woods--the source of their troubling nightmares. Lovecraft's/Derleth's Elder Sign shows up, though the protection it yields is questionable by the dark conclusion of this story that is nearly equal parts horror and adventure.

Amid these deeply Lovecraftian stories are others that may tip their hats to Lovecraft from time to time, but move into stranger territory. "Burkhardt's Masterpiece" from Jack Faber/John Wright features an alien influence that warps a wealthy intellectual's treatise on modernity. Evil book tales of various kinds hold a special charm, and this one is no exception, as the masterpiece and the master fall prey to the unexplained madness poisoning each word. John Di Rosa's "Beat the Devil" brings another questionable influence into the limelight--is it demons or her own head taunting and tormenting his character? Di Rosa answers with a rather predictable ending, but also a gallery of unsettling imagery along the way.

A slightly less compelling tale is Matt Shaner's "A Pale Horse," which places a new doctor in a nodding southern town haunted by a witch. Shaner establishes a convincing backdrop and even an interesting history of bondage involving the witch and the townspeople, but the story feels rushed to a hollow conclusion. Fortunately, the anthology houses another curious southern tale in the guise of Ronald E. Wright's "Rough Justice." This story conjures up its own myth in the form of a monster kept in an old smokehouse to torment prison inmates. The lawyer protagonist unravels the mystery behind this entity and its connection to his respected grandfather's legacy at a gnawing personal price. Without giving away too much, he finds a horror that is both gut-wrenching and in the finest tradition of what might be called weird curse fiction.

Though quite a few of the tales mentioned above are adept, the clear standouts of Noxious Fragments are "The Levee" by Ben Thomas and Anita Dalton's "Gray." Thomas' contribution, like some of the best strange tales, creates its own logic and answers only to itself. Set in a city alternately wracked by unnaturally long periods of rain and drought, a Twilight Zone like twist becomes apparent through the mysterious presence of a meek old man and a sanity demolishing vision in the sky. "Gray," on the other hand, has little supernatural or traditionally weird about it at all. This makes its emotionally charged presence all the more surprising. Dalton shows us an awkward marital relationship with a husband who decides to take the ultimate plunge into inhumanity with an agonizing series of cosmetic procedures. The husband's suffering and its impact on his wife is gripping, and relies only on mildly fantastic technological advancements to achieve its horror. Personally, I usually shun realism in favor of the surreal and pure weird, but not this time. There is something almost damnably indefinable, but nevertheless excellent about Dalton's tale, a quality prompting an immediate desire for a fiction collection from her, if her other works are even half as good as this one.

Noxious Fragments might appear a bit rumpled in the final analysis, but it nevertheless contains skilled the stories that will appeal to several demographics: the general horror reader, the weird fiction aficionado, and the Lovecraft purist. This alone makes it worth the price of admission. Best of all, it is free to read if one cannot be bothered with a physical copy, as is every issue of its benefactor Fantastic Horror. It should also be remembered that these stories were drawn from a market often pigeon-holed into the category of "for the love" (i.e. little to no payment for writers besides exposure). Virtually every tale in this anthology is a sturdy step beyond what one would expect from this sort of market. In fact, Fantastic Horror may well be playing the role low-to-no-paying small press magazines once did in the 1980s. From those bygone outlets, names like Thomas Ligotti, W.H. Pugmire, D.F. Lewis, and a host of others are still with us. Who can say what--or who--may emerge from Fantastic Horror's continuing online presence, and this new foray into print publication?

-Grim Blogger

  © Blogger template Writer's Blog by 2008

Back to TOP