Review: Sin & Ashes by Joseph S Pulver

Friday, June 3, 2011

There are few weird horror collections that can vacillate between subtle terrors and visceral apocalypses without becoming wildly unbalanced. Now, though, the horror community is joined by Joseph S. Pulver's latest collection, Sin & Ashes, a sizable nightmare gallery published by Hippocampus Press that accomplishes this rare feat. By some indeterminate black magic, Pulver successfully dishes out the grotesque, the chilling, and intellectual dreads by short story and poetry, without losing his foothold on readers' unsettled reptile brains.

The book's real power lays in its ability to stitch seemingly disconnected horrors together, resulting in a Frankenstein collection capable of getting off the table and roaring like the legendary monster. But Jospeh S. Pulver's creation attacks all the unguarded senses, unlike Mary Shelley's fiend. Tales like “Love Her Madly” depict grisly crimes orchestrated by violent psychotics. Others, such as “Last Year in Carcosa” and “Long-Stemmed Ghost Words” carry the same tinge of ultra-violence, but introduce otherworldly incursions by Robert W. Chambers' infamous King in Yellow. Amid stories that read like murder cases and the more familiar weird yarns are unimagined hybrids, linking grim earthly happenings to the oddly supernatural.

Although Pulver's stylistic powers contribute much to the musty, haunted flavor of Sin & Ashes, it also owes a debt to atmosphere. The author's chosen scenery and settings for many tales provide a thoroughly hellish backdrop to demonic happenings. Run down hotels, blinding deserts, fallen cities, and re-imagined weird outposts from Carcosa and Lovecraft's Arkham are all displayed. As a result, a shadow land somewhere between the gritty and the ethereal prevails, animated by the music of the Doors. Pulver's haunts are dark, broken places that almost seem like they are waiting to be fed on blood, and this lends a mighty uniqueness to the collection.

This banquet of blood, ash, and ghostly shards is overshadowed by Joseph Pulver's style, which mostly spurns traditional narrative structures. Instead, he opts for idea rich prose that hits the mind like fiery bullets. Unconventional punctuation and sentence structure are paired with rich imagery and visionary moments that seem like incantations rather than prose. The effect isn't a universal hit in each of the dozens of pieces within Sin & Ashes. However, this experimental approach frequently yields a lyrical harvest that's applause inducing in its strangeness and literary strength.

Just as Pulver's bad dreams come flailing out of the pages in imaginative forms that are gore covered and elegant, he flicks his staff and contorts his monstrous beings and concepts again as the collection progresses from short story to poetry. His experimental scripts, which are reminiscent of William S. Burroughs and other masters, appear in force in both poems and stories. When digesting the collection as a whole, this makes for a pleasing mental texture. Just when it seems certain poetry pieces are mere desserts to soul blackening stories, they turn out to be gateway drugs to new echelons of Pulver's special hell instead.

Overall, Sin & Ashes is a black collection sure to appeal to sensibilities that reach deeper than many readers initially think. Pulver's enchantments are murderous and strange, calling to a literate love of the macabre many readers are familiar with, but also reaching down to the psyche's less acknowledged, primal basement. Although old symbols from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers appear, they serve as phantasmal introductions to Joseph Pulver's original voice. And it's a shrieking sound likely to resonate with many in the coming years.

-Grim Blogger

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