The Shadow of the Unknown
A.J. French, editor
Trade Paper, 244 pages, $15.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
“Because Brother hung himself from our chandelier with fine silk ties, Mother and I had to take in a boarder.” This is the first line of a short story entitled “Blumenkrank” written by Erik T. Johnson. It is one of many excellent tales assembled in The Shadow of the Unknown edited by A.J. French, and somehow distills the emphasis of the anthology: Individuals confronting surreal circumstances. Tottering on the brink of madness, the protagonists who inhabit the narratives are reminiscent of characters who populate the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The theme of the the compilation is to focus on the tone/flavor of the horrormeister’s writings. Some of the 29 stories succeed better than others in capturing the essence of Lovecraft’s precepts; several deviate wildly from the concept. Ultimately, the attempt to give the collection an umbrella inspiration-classification matters little. What defines the volume are the perturbing images contained within its pages.
Returning to Johnson’s “Blumenkrank,” it is hard not to be intrigued by an enigmatic character who is oddly depicted: “Blumenkrank transcended privacy; like the great hidden network that spawns mushrooms, he was inaccessibly submerged and indeterminably vast. During the day, he disappeared with small canvas bags that clinked as they swung like shrunken heads from his weathered, gargoyled fists.” While the verbiage is demented, the the description flourishingly conjures up a vision of a disquieting individual.
Intensely vivid imagery also occurs in “In the Valley of the Things” by L.E. Badillo. The creep factor has more than one meaning in this passage: “From around the bend came a large tapered head. The shuffle of flesh against stone was the sound of a complete mass crawling toward me. Pale, almost translucent, huge. Its eyes were pallid, almost clear. They never blinked. From the frown that made its mouth, saliva ran down like water.”
A description that will certainly warm the heart of any horror fan can be found in Rick McQuiston’s “Memories of Inhuman Nature”: “His parents had been too late in realizing their only son’s descent into the seemingly harmless realm of horror fiction. They had argued constantly about which educational direction their child was going to travel but never really addressed his creative and imaginative pursuits. Fiction, mainly horror, dominated his impressionable young mind and spurred his thoughts, for better or worse, to new heights.”
More impressionable young minds are examined in M. Shaw’s “Uncle Rick” and “What’s in a Shell?” by Nathalie Boisard-Beudin. Boisard-Beudin employs Russian nesting dolls, known as matrioshka, as a means of the harnessing aspects of the Lovecraftian mythos. As each doll is opened, strange illustrations are found on the inner shell. And the exterior expressions of the wooden figurines appear more sinister; they alter in aspect as the consecutive dolls become smaller in size. This is a highly clever and unusual yarn; a fine example of inventive evoking of Lovecraft.
Shaw’s “Uncle Rick” is a wise look at a young boy’s interpretation of his world. Rife with childhood fears, the distorted perception produces misconceptions which are baleful and ironic. The kid’s point of view is very well executed.
One tale that profoundly adheres to the anthology’s thematic guidelines is “Terror Within the Walls” by K.G. McAbee. Set in Innsmouth, a favorite locale of Lovecraft, the story’s opening lines reflect a reverence for the master: “Wires. They snake everywhere, running through the air and under the ground, entangling above our heads, beneath our feet, insinuating themselves into the very walls and floors of our homes. They creep around our beds at night like worms of discord, the eerie power that runs through them eating away at our minds as we sleep. Each instant the wires serve as a pathway, a bridge, an opening to a world which none of us who value our sanity should ever wish to broach.” Superb in conveying the feverish aspects of aberrant behavior, McAbee acknowledges Lovecraft’s influence while retaining her own deliciously disturbing voice.
The Shadow of the Unknown embraces a leitmotif used by other collections. Yet the volume is not merely another variation on a well-worn theme. The general high quality of the tales redeems the theme’s replay and rewards the reader.