Dark Is Better
Trepidatio Publishing (February 3, 2023)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers
If you’ve been reading any weird fiction or cosmic horror collections in the last decade or two, you’ve seen the name Gemma Files appear prominently on the tables of contents for most of them. Dark Is Better is Files’ sixth short story collection; as far as I can tell, each of the nineteen stories in the collection was previously published elsewhere, from 2008-15. While I wish that there was a brand new story or two included, having all of Files’ stories in one handy volume is certainly worthwhile.
Files’ reach and breadth with these stories is vast, so I will just describe some of the stories that had the greatest impact on me. Note that there are few to no duds included, but these are the ones that I found to be the most emotionally evocative.
Let me begin by talking about “Oubliette.” What an amazing story. Perhaps my favorite in the collection, and that’s saying something because this was an unusually strong and imaginative collection of stories. Thordis Hendricks is a wealthy young woman who is placed in a live-in care program after two failed suicide attempts. She lives in an apartment under a doctor’s care, plus she has a care worker named Yelena who checks in on her daily; Thordis also records her dreams and other thoughts in a journal, which Yelena regularly reviews. A couple wrinkles quickly present themselves: Thordis is in Shumate House, a therapy center/program developed in the late 1970s to help rehabilitate some of the Jonestown survivors. Over the years, Shumate House also housed the sole survivor of another (fictional) cult, a kind of Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, a young woman who eventually killed herself in the apartment because of her regrets about not joining her comrades on their cosmic voyage. I think you can begin to see where this is going. Thordis is now living in the same apartment that the cult survivor did; everyone who has lived in this apartment since then has ended up killing him/herself. Things aren’t looking so great for Thordis. This is almost a kind of ghost story, though I suspect it’s closer to a kind of spectral colonization of consciousness tale, if you catch my drift. I don’t want to spoil any more of this because it’s an amazingly effective tale—truly chilling, once you begin to see what’s going on here—that is mostly told through journal entries, emails, transcripts of therapy sessions, and the like. Really well done. This is the kind of complexity of vision that Files brings to the table in her writing.
I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly discuss the opening story in the collection, the novella “[Anasazi].” This is a story about a memetic infection that comes to plague a paramedic Corin who happens to respond to a domestic disturbance at an apartment where Corin is inexplicably attacked by an old professor. As it turns out, the grandfather of the professor traveled to Tibet with a Nazi expedition and brought back a symbol that drives its viewers insane. The story is interwoven with periodic notes about the Anasazi, who seem to have been malign alien interlopers rather than a Native American tribe. There’s a great deal more I could say about this one, but I will simply note that postmodern memetics map very nicely onto the older weird fiction trope of media (a play, a cursed rune, an ancient grimoire, etc.) that drives its viewers insane.
In “each thing I show you is a piece of my death” (co-written with Stephen J. Barringer), films around the world are being destroyed by the inexplicable insertion of a nude man in scenes that he couldn’t possibly have been in. This all began as a kind of experimental art project but now things have gotten serious, with the explanation for what is going on is wonderfully horrifying.
If you, like me, appreciate works that revisit Chambers’ King in Yellow Mythos, you’ll enjoy “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars,” in which a team of forensic anthropologists are excavating some mass graves on the island of Carcosa near Indonesia. They run afoul of the locals’ traditions, who really don’t like the idea of them uncovering—and accidentally rejuvenating—the King in Yellow, who is also entombed there. A fascinating and novel relook at the King in Yellow/Carcosa Mythos. Really original.
In “Homebody,” Kay is a homeless person living a marginal existence that is spiraling downward. She begins to hear rumors around town of an empty house with a red door that offers shelter, but just for one night. It seems that the place is kind of a genius loci, or something even stranger. It can never be found in the same place, and while it never harms anyone who enters it, they are unsettled by the experience. Kay finds the house and makes a connection with it. A wonderfully atmospheric story that shows just how to craft a work of weird fiction that doesn’t need to revolve around danger or menace.
Some brief descriptions of a few of the other stories that I really appreciated. In “This Is Not For You,” a group of women have returned to a kind of atavistic savagery. They take on the roles of predatory huntresses from Greek mythology and make sacrifices (of men, usually) in the woods. Excellent. In “The Thin Places,” a woman chaperones her son’s summer camp trip; then the boy disappears, seemingly led away into the night by a woman who may have been part of the mother’s childhood experiences. There’s no resolution, and that’s why this one is so powerful. Sometimes really weird (and tragic) things happen, and they may be connected with something half-remembered from a long time ago, or not. “Night-Bird” is a wonderful folk horror tale in a contemporary urban setting. Here, a mother with two children flees her abusive partner. Some older immigrant women take her in and help her. They are not at all what they seem. Are they witches? Are they some kind of mythological creatures reminiscent of birds of prey? They are guardians and protectors but also predators. Hungry, hungry predators. I likewise enjoyed the excellent “Nanny Grey,” in which a wealthy girl has inherited the eponymous nanny from her mother, who inherited this being from her mother and so on. The nanny is far more than a simple servant, and exacts a terrible price for its loyalty and protection.
If you’re into contemporary weird fiction and cosmic horror, or if you haven’t already begun reading Gemma Files’ work, this is a terrific collection to get started with. Definitely recommended.