Review: Beneath the Surface by Simon Strantzas

Sunday, April 3, 2011

All writers seek to plunge readers into their pages, gently coating them with a psychic grease that clings and drips its residue well after the books are re-shelved. Then there are authors like Simon Strantzas, whose stories are more like a suffocating tar, cocooning readers in a thick blackness certain to contaminate and continually affect the desiccated soul within. His first true debut, Cold to the Touch, already worked its black magic in this way. Now, Beneath the Surface, a previously rare short story collection, is poised to do the same thanks to a reprint by Dark Regions Press.

This book rounds up fourteen tales exploring familiar Strantzean underpinnings from new angles, but flails its tendrils differently than in Cold to the Touch. As in the other collection, these stories deal with bulging human dams who need only a slight provocation from the supernatural to unleash their melancholy contents. Here, however, the flavor of the gruesome sap that washes over us is infused with aftertastes owing more to H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti than to Robert Aickman. Cold to the Touch also saw stories set in far flung locales, while Beneath the Surface witnesses its terrible enlightenments occurring in strictly urban settings. Strantzas' city, possibly based on Toronto, is an epicenter for the gruesome, the degenerate, and the occult in this collection.

Take the book's opener, “A Shadow in God's Eye,” for instance. A faith seeker has his natural sight cruelly stripped away, only to gain insight into an unsuspected manifestation of the almighty holding dominion over this world. Strantzas' monstrosity is an original secret revealed, and effectively communicates the bleak despair within so much of his work. It is “The Constant Encroaching of a Tumultuous Sea,” though, that lays bare the urban terror aesthetic. It may take a saunter through a mass grave to convince the story's narrator that he has made a serious error by coming to the city, but what better way to reveal the unmistakable foulness of a metropolis functioning like a tomb for all its inhabitants?

Off the Hook” is the finest example of the vicious knowledge concealed in assuming cities, and a serious contender for best story in Beneath the Surface. A librarian encounters a mysterious notebook, and then begins receiving strange phone calls from a garbled voice bringing some chilling news. This is serious philosophical horror. It posits quasi-theological possibilities truly unsettling to contemplate. The uncertainty clouding the story is as chilling as its outright conjectures. Another story, “The Autumnal City,” rests on dark ambiguity of another kind. A man in a tarnished city, oppressed with a borderline dystopian air and its eternal decay, seeks his salvation in a pale, wandering girl. Strantzas' prose excels in this piece, flexing his stylistic powers with imagery rooted in seasonal degeneration.

While urban horror writhes within nearly every story, several mix it with strong, unabashed Ligottian elements. In “You Are Here,” Strantzas guides readers into an underworld seething with dereliction and populated by mannequins. It quickly becomes apparent that the dolls have a bizarre connection with the urban explorer, sweeping him into fate's grasp. Mannequins crop up again in “Thoughtless,” where a woman undergoes a psychological experiment conducive to piercing reality's many disguises. Simon Strantzas seems to share Thomas Ligotti's obsession with a sham world, where the day to day splendors and terrors are mere trapping for an overwhelming existential blackness – the true form hiding beneath many costumes. “Behind Glass” echoes Ligotti's corporate horror. A wage slave finds much more to deal with than crabby co-workers and pompous supervisors after his company undergoes restructuring. Strantzas manages to put an original spin on a niche within weird fiction that's beginning to grow crowded. His shadowy office and aloof drones conceal a nastier secret, one on par with other workplace demons summoned by Thomas Ligotti and Mark Samuels.

Beneath the Surface is a predecessor to Cold to the Touch, and thus features labors born by Strantzas' earliest dark imaginings. Many tales are shorter than those found in the other collection. Most of the time, this causes no problem, as Strantzas is a gifted practitioner of the weird, with a proven ability to dispense his horrors dose-by-dose or in one painful blow. A couple stories, however, fail to satisfy with the three three dimensional depth seen in most works. “More to Learn” sees a researcher straining to free himself from a nauseating parasite. While capably written, it lacks the emotional and intellectual body slam Strantzas has rapidly become known for delivering. The same can be said for “Leather, Dark and Cold,” where an ominous tome haunts a college student into adulthood.

Fortunately, these stories are brief, minor imperfections in a collection filled with brilliant continuations of the horror enjoyed in Cold to the Touch. The most polished tales are often the more Lovecraftian as well. Just look at “A Thing of Love,” where an introverted writer tormented by his mother's death receives a curious package that transforms everything. This story's horror is also a dilemma: is it the writer's nightmarish transition that is the true horror, or is it the grotesque creature that has captured his heart? “In the Air” is a beautifully written rendezvous between the Lovecraftian and the Aickmanesque, skillfully married by Strantzas' drama about a wife and sister mourning a dead pilot.

Other tales seep unparalleled woe and wonderment tinged with cosmic horror. “The Wound So Deep” aptly completes the parasite stories contained in this book, as a bullied office worker is possessed by a tentacled growth that enables him to pursue his tarnished dreams by other means. A near apocalypse plays itself out in “Drowned Deep Inside of Me.” Another isolated misanthrope suffers through a blanket of suffocating blackness, inside and out, when the world inexplicably darkens at mid day and he is forced to comfort a neighbor and her young daughter. Both stories are symptomatic of the deeply human spirit embedded in Strantzas' oeuvre, and see a glimmer of hope, or at least relief, from strange quarters for the bitter parties involved.

Unlike many other books, where authors intentionally keep their secretive mystique tightly guarded like professional magicians, Beneath the Surface concludes with Strantzas' illuminating afterward. Rather than a full expose, the afterward is a road map to the fiction and an interesting look at his creative process. Anyone who has ever worshiped at the altars of Lovecraft and Ligotti should get their hands on this book. So should wild eyed seekers after cerebral weird horror. Sampling this affordable and accessible collection now is a fantastic introduction to Simon Strantzas, and a twisted bridge to his forthcoming collection, Nightingale Songs.

-Grim Blogger

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