Cold, Black, & Infinite: Stories of the Horrific & Strange
Cemetery Dance Publications (September 26, 2023)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers
If you’ve been paying attention to horror anthologies in the last decade, you’ve undoubtedly come across the work of Todd Keisling. While I’ve read several of his stories over the years, this was my first opportunity to really dive deep into Keisling’s work. I very much liked what I found in Cold, Black, & Infinite, which offers eighteen stories, three of them new to this collection, spread across all manner of sub-genres. They are uniformly excellent—no duds in this batch, even though it’s a highly eclectic collection. Let me tell you a bit more about some of the stories I found most impactful.
The collection starts off with the moody “Midnight in the Southland.” This is a story about those long, dark, lonely nights, cruising down the highway and trying to stay awake by listening to the radio. Gus Guthrie’s midnight show about the paranormal may have gone off the air years ago, but tonight, old Gus is still transmitting and still taking calls from listeners about their strangest experiences.
“2:45 to New Xebico”: A follow up to the classic Weird Tales story “The Night Wire” by H. F. Arnold, which is about the doom that befalls a city that exists nowhere on Earth. It’s an utterly chilling and intriguing story that not nearly enough people know about, so I’m very happy that Keisling picked the idea up and ran with it. On the surface, this is the story of a security guard at a bus station who meets a man making an impossible trip on a bus that doesn’t exist, but it implies so much more. Really good.
“The Happytown Yuletide Massacre”: If you’re like me, you have seen way too many Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. They all have functionally the same plot: a businesswoman from the big city returns to a small town for the holidays, saves the town from some (corporate) menace that threatens the town’s cultural integrity and livelihood, falls in love with a man who lives in the town, and gives up her Type A personality urban existence to settle down in the small town. This is that story but with a truly horrific element added. Lots of fun.
“Y2K”: Told in the format of a transcript of an interrogation of a suspect by a law enforcement officer. The suspect believes himself to be an agent of the Federal Preservation Agency rather than a paranoid and delusional FBI file clerk. He believes that he is on the trail of a plot to use the Y2K bug (remember that?), which will place a copy of “The King in Yellow” on every computer in the world, which will of course drive everyone mad. He seems crazy, but the ending suggests otherwise. Well done, and a very nice modern revisit of Robert W. Chambers’ “King in Yellow” Mythos.
One definite theme that cuts across several of the collection’s stories is that of desperate, outcast children who are tormented by those around them, including those who were supposed to be looking out for them. “The Gods of Our Fathers” is one such tale. This one is not for the faint of heart, concerning as it does abuse, incest, and hypocrisy, though with a decidedly Lovecraftian twist. Mary seeks comfort and relief from her suffering at the hands of her father and brother from the only ones who might be able to help: the old gods worshipped by her mother and grandfather.
While there’s not a ton of cosmic horror in the collection, Keisling excels at the sub-genre when he wants to, and “Solve for X” is a perfect example. He manages to put an original cosmic horror twist on the classic babysitter-alone-in-a-house story. Really chilling and inexorably horrific atmosphere. Well done.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two linked stories, some of my favorites in the collection: “The Smile Factory” and “Happy Pills.” “The Smile Factory” is a modern (or maybe postmodern) corporate horror tale of life inside a bureaucratic organization that is literally sucking the life force out of its employees in order to keep the rest of society happy. Told through the whispered story from one old employee to a new one about the disappearance of another worker, Marty Godot (the surname is not, of course, an accident). If you have ever worked for a company, you should read this one. I suspect you might find that Marty’s experiences are not all that different from your own (a matter of degree, for the most part). I’d describe “Happy Pills” as a kind of prequel to “The Smile Factory.” Here we have a poor guy, Marcus, who is depressed and anxious and just wants to feel better. He’s tried everything and nothing has worked, so, having nothing to lose, he signs up for an experimental drug trial for pills that should make him feel much happier. Well, it doesn’t quite turn out that way, and things go horrifically wrong. Both stories are really dark, just how I like them.
While one of Keisling’s stories was an explicit tribute to Jon Padgett and Thomas Ligotti, I actually thought that “We’ve All Gone to the Magic Show” was the perfect tribute to those two fine purveyors of existential horror. Here, a creepy and empty(?) storefront with mannequins posted outside begins creeping out the townsfolk by inviting them inside. Guess they shouldn’t have tried to use eminent domain to tear down the old place, should they?
I really enjoyed Cold, Black, & Infinite and found it to be an excellent starting point to Todd Keisling’s work that really showcases his talent and breadth as a horror writer.