Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Black Horse and Other Strange Stories

The latest release under the Contemporary Fiction banner at Tartarus Press is Black Horse and Other Strange Stories, the debut collection by American writer Jason A. Wyckoff. Not only is this Wyckoff's first collection, it's also his first-ever appearance in print. Reading the early work of a new writer is typically an exciting yet anxious experience for a reviewer, because there's no existing baseline for comparison: one is offering a judgment, however tentative, on an entire career. There are, generally speaking, three possible responses to debut fiction. It might be so underwhelming that one doubts the writer will ever produce great work; at the other extreme, it might be so powerful that one heralds it as great work in and of itself. Or more commonly it might occupy the middle ground often labeled "promising," in which the author isn't doing great things yet but demonstrates the potential to do so. It is in that thoroughly respectable territory that Black Horse lands. Wyckoff's prose has its drawbacks and not of all of the ideas he explores have found their ideal forms, but the range of his imagination and his particular command of eerie, psychologically-fraught supernaturalism make him decidedly a writer to watch.

Although Wyckoff's style is admirably developed and natural considering his lack of previous publication history, there is nonetheless a slightly stiff quality to much of his language, an echo perhaps of the formal feel of the classical supernatural fiction on which his work often represents a modern spin. Precisely because his characters are modern, the description of their thoughts and actions in this manner sometimes creates a distancing effect, and in any case the language doesn't flow as naturally, or with quite the desired distinctiveness of voice, as when used by the best adherents of such style. An extended quotation may demonstrate what I'm getting at:
Either because of the chasm of their years, or because he had less shared history with Martin than his father and grandfather, Jesse was less affected by the degradation of the old man, and was, ironically, able to suffer his presence more easily. Because of this, Jesse was assailed more frequently with the strange, taunting fragments about the treasure that everyone else dismissed as the fantasies of dementia. But, though there was nothing in the specifics of the telling that could be considered convincing, there was a perspicacious earnestness pervasive in Martin's comments that led Jesse to believe some truth was trying to claw out from behind the incipient madness. Jesse thought that if there were a treasure, then Martin's dismay at his weakened memory may have prompted him to reveal its existence, just as the meanness corroding his personality caused him to hold back its location--the result being exactly as witnessed: a series of indistinct teases dropped among knowing or suspicious looks.
That's from "Hair and Nails," for which the formal tone is a particularly odd fit, as it's a direct, faintly ironic supernatural revenge story with a (by traditional standards) gruesome climax. In other tales it feels more logical, but there are still places where a loosening of the vocabulary and sentence structure ("perspicacious earnestness pervasive") would enhance Wyckoff's stories. (On a more trivial note, it would also help to use character names less often: once a paragraph is about sufficient, and reading "Joe... Joe... Joe... Joe..." and similar disrupts the reading experience. A small concern, yes, but in fiction as dependent on mood as this, small concerns can have large effects.)

When the stories of Black Horse are themselves less than satisfying, it's generally not because the concepts involved are inherently flawed, but because they haven't been used to their fullest effect. The opening story, "The Highwall Horror" (available as a PDF preview here), is a case in point. The elements are more traditional than is usually the case with Wyckoff: an unexpected disruption in something mundane (in this case, a cubicle wall) reveals a world inhabited by monstrous creatures (insects) with which the protagonist is in danger of becoming obsessed. All promising in the abstract, but the story draws to too abrupt a conclusion before any of these features have been used to their fullest effect. There's something to the idea of leaving things unsaid, but in this case the result feels jagged rather than subtle. In the title story, on the other hand, there is rather too much (wonderfully suggestive) build-up toward a resolution that turns out to be more mechanical and (as the supernatural goes) straightforward than the story deserves. It has both a good beginning and a good ending, but they don't quite mesh.

"The Trucker's Story," which comes come to being a brilliant story of inexplicable dislocation, stumbles when the ending makes a certain thematic point too explicit. The reasons for this artistic decision seem clear (and this reviewer admittedly wouldn't have grasped what was being gotten at otherwise), but it's still something of a letdown. The only story that seems in need of thorough reconsideration rather than reshaping is "The Bells, Then the Birds," in which a folk music enthusiast pursues a song about a spurned woman's ghostly legacy. Again, traditional stuff, but there's a pleasure in the form, and the story starts strongly with the logical development of the protagonist's research. Once he reaches the town behind the story, however, there's only one way for events to develop, and there are no unexpectedly powerful images or turns of phrase to elevate the expected denouement.

From the descriptions of stories like "The Highwall Horror" and "The Bells, Then the Birds," one might imagine Black Horse to be a collection narrow and familiar in its scope. In fact one of the best things about the volume is its variety. From the satiric fantasy of "A Civil Complaint" to the short, sharp, melancholy ghostliness of "The Walk Home," from the surreal urban horror of "An Uneven Hand" to the unexpected conclusion of the wonderfully odd "A Willow Cat in Meadowlark" and the postmodern vampire of "A Matter of Mirrors," there are enough different forms of the supernatural to make for a rich collection, and to demonstrate the versatility of Wyckoff's mind. The settings and characters are equally diverse-- architects, archaeologists, farmers, undertakers-- but always described with well-chosen details that have the feel of reality. One gets the sense that these sixteen stories are only the beginning of the long revelation of Jason Wyckoff's talent.

The finest stories in Black Horse are often laden with a disturbing ambiguity, as though they might almost fit together if one just knew a little more; there is something of Robert Aickman about the overall effect. Such is the case with "The Night of His Sister's Engagement," in which a late-night boat trip leads to a pair of strange encounters that could, barely, be explained away, perhaps, but which also have mythic resonance; and with "The Mauve Blot," in which escape from a stressful marriage brings its own dangers to a harried wife and mother whose inherited house contains an unusual blur of light. "Knott's Letter," on the other hand, is reminiscent of Lovecraft, not because of any alien entities with unpronounceable names, but because its account of a search for Sasquatch cemeteries has the formality, the meticulous detail, and the febrile awareness of impending doom that characterizes some of his finest work. In this case the unusual manner of the prose works in the story's favor, adding an odd pathos to the narrator's awkward attempt to write an apologetic explanation to the family of a lost friend. Then there's "Panorama," in which the masterpiece of a missing painter is dense with loosely-connected, evocative images, almost impossibly so. This story, in which the description of the panorama's elements becomes hypnotically compelling both for the character and the reader, is perhaps the finest and most distinctive in Black Horse. It's not the sort of thing to be read at night as one prepares for sleep, when certain mental barriers fall and notions of reality become malleable.

The description of a debut collection as "promising" might seem to be damning with faint praise, a tacit suggestion that readers wait for a later, better book before laying their money down. With regard to Black Horse and Other Strange Stories, this is certainly not the case. Jason Wyckoff may not yet be a great writer of supernatural fiction, but he is already a good one, and sometimes very good. Readers in search of further indirect yet intense horror are especially encouraged to give this collection due consideration, but any reader who collects limited editions in the field will likely find at least one intriguing tale to reward their purchase.

The publisher supplied a review copy of this book.