“Of course, the mid-’80’s decor matched just about everything Gwen associated with Florida: out-of-date pastel aesthetics, innocuously campy beach-bum trinkets. Beneath the Jimmy Buffet facade, though, there was a sense of everything being scoured and scrubbed. Sand-eaten, as though the Gulf Coast were just one slender, eroding jawbone.”
—Clint Smith, “The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein”
“…As a whole, climate is South Florida’s chief asset. It braces the old man up like a tonick. But the landscape is flat and rotten—swamp or sandy pine barrens—except in spots…But Key West is the real thing. Vast palms, banyans, and all the fixings. That’s the place for me!”
—H.P. Lovecraft to James Ferdinand Morton, June 16, 1931.
I’m always on the lookout for solid weird fiction set in Florida. Not only is it my home state, but I also think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it is very difficult to write creepy Florida fiction that doesn’t come off as campy or clichéd. When it comes to genre, ours is a state more inclined to provide the backdrop for salty crime or noir than it is horror. It’s just too damn bright here. So, when I come across a successful piece of weird Florida fiction (and no, the Florida Man reddit doesn’t count), I am always excited. Clint Smith has provided just that in this melancholy vacation story, weighed down with memory, yet buoyed by hope. It can be found in his second collection, THE SKELETON MELODIES, just released by Hippocampus Press with this beautifully haunting cover from Daniel V. Sauer. I am grateful to the folks at Hippocampus Press for providing me with a free copy of the paperback in exchange for an honest review.
This is the second story in this collection and before I go any further, I’d like to reassure Adam Golaski, who penned the introduction to this volume, that I did read the first story first, and so came to this present one in order.
The story opens on Gwen, a young single mom, taking her children and mother by car from Memphis to the Gulf Coast of Florida for a fun-in-the-sun vacation. They’re spending the night at a cheap interstate motel halfway to their destination as we’re alerted to the several states of being occupying that forlorn room. Abbi, the youngest, is thirsty but there is no chocolate milk which is what she really wants. Charlie is intrigued by a television report of the spate of shark attacks along the Atlantic coast. Kathy, Gwen’s mom, is feeling a bit weepy after a rare emotional dream of her deceased husband. Put another way: nothing will satisfy, danger is all around, and death is unfairly mitigated in dreams. Those three are the undertow that pulls at you throughout this tale.
Much like it does in Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the weird slips in here subtly and slowly. A glimpse of a shadowy, not-quite-right figure down the hotel hall transports us momentarily back to the halls of Gilman House, but there’s no time to dwell there. “Gwen realized, getting to the door, that the figure was not her mother at all, rather something masculine yet featureless, his movements stilted, disjointed. A long arm was raised, beckoning.” Smith drops this here and then leaves it, a malodorous pile encountered on a stroll best avoided and forgotten. It’s an example of authorial restraint that allows the reader’s mind to be at play. We move on, but like a distant bell, it niggles at our memory.
A short time passes and then a mundane horror rises for a bite. Someone once asked me if any horror story or film has had a lasting impact on my life, and the answer is most assuredly JAWS. I swim in the ocean a lot and every time, every time, I wonder if this is the time a shark bites me. Here on the Gulf Coast of Florida, the water is pleasantly warm and clear. With the right polarized sunglasses you can see everything below and around you. Not so in Cape May, NJ, where I once swam – there the water was threatening and deep. I just knew Jaws was right below me, circling and biding his time. I don’t know many people for whom shark stories don’t provide a jolt of fear, and this one succeeds there as well. (Interestingly, from 2014-2017 the number of shark attacks off the coast of Florida experienced a sharp uptick. This story was first published in 2017, making it feasible Smith is responding to reality.) But that’s not the main thrust of the tale at all. It’s just the veneer of the real laid over the much more unsettling dimension below. Smith stitches those two together in this story with a deft hand and a sure stroke. In the end, with the right knowledge, the mundane can be fought off whereas the numinous will not be denied.
HPL’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth had a lot to do with ancestry and that’s true to a certain extent in this story as well, but it’s modernized and made relatable to the contemporary reader. From the very first page we observe who is not present: men. Kathy’s husband is long dead and she did not re-marry. Gwen’s husband, father to her children, is out of the picture and almost a verboten topic—“Gwen’s gaze drifted, eyeing the south, thinking of Key West, where she and Sean had honeymooned more than a decade before. She blinked a few times, ultimately looking away, releasing the inverted metaphor that the nadir of the country’s terra firma was simultaneously the apex of their happiness.” The scary figure at the end of the hotel hall is masculine, making the first hint we get of a male both frightening and clouded in mystery. Both of the absent husbands have a strong emotional pull on the women, another undertow if you will. Their effect is felt all around, yet unseen. Like all of us, they can escape neither their pasts nor the people who populate them. If I’m being honest though, readers unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth might struggle with the presence of the weird here.
Smith’s pen is a controlled one and he deals most effectively in suggestion, foggy memories and clouded futures. Gwen is a relatable character and shines a clear light on Smith’s talent. Her status as a single mother is highlighted by her generational uncertainties, both forward with her children, and backward with her mother. The visuals Smith summons are impressive given their brevity. Rain as “silver needles;” the Gulf Coast an “eroding jawbone;” a marriage as “an ill-shaped accretion.” Pain. Decay. Malformation. The Undertow. Structurally, he shows restraint as well, not bloating the tale with unnecessary backstory, but giving you just enough to understand. There’s quite a lot to like about this story, and from what I’ve read of the rest of the collection (though it might not be the best choice for a neophyte) The Skeleton Melodies is a worthy addition to any collection of elevated weird fiction.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
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