“The chambers of our four AK-47 assault rifles were emptied by us into the depths of red gloom. The noise was deafeneing, and bits and pieces of mutilated vegetation scattered into the air like wedding confetti. After three or four more bursts we ceased firing.
“See anything?” I said.
“Nothing,” Mayhew replied.
“Think we got the bastard?” Koszalski said.
The smell of cordite masked everything else.”
—Mark Samuels, “The Crimson Fog”
“It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.”
—H.P. Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space
Ever since I watched “Full Metal Jacket” at way too young of an age, I’ve enjoyed war stories told in an unconventional way or from an unconventional perspective. One of the very first stories I reviewed on this site was a Vietnam War era story and it remains one of the most memorable to me. Our present tale is set in more modern times, but the themes of terrible isolation in foreign territory, fear of an unseen enemy, untrustworthy companions, and ineffective weaponry connect these stories together. There’s something about the idea of wandering around in an unknown land armed to the teeth, yet wondering if it’s effective that just sets me on the edge of my seat. The films Predator and Annihilation accomplished that feeling and now “The Crimson Fog” is here to do the same thing. Mark Samuels, a British author, has produced a great volume of work in the contemporary weird fiction scene, but until now much of it has been unavailable in the United States. Thanks to Hippocampus Press (to whom I am indebted for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review) some of Samuels’ best work can now be consumed by US readers. THE AGE OF DECAYED FUTURITY contains 17 stories, all previously published, and is available now from Hippocampus Press.
It descended out of nowhere, the crimson colored fog of the title, over a no-man’s land in the Chang-Yi province of China. No one knew what it was, its provenance, or if it would go away. If anything, it seemed to be growing, consuming the land around it beneath its scarlet shroud. Russian, Chinese, British, and other governments investigate of course, but arrive at no conclusions. Teams that have been sent into it have not returned, and communications out of it are spotty at best. One broken communication has been received from a Major Qersh, the only apparent survivor of a previous team of soldiers. Now, another team of multinational soldiers is being sent on a rescue mission. The story unfolds from the perspective of Captain Thomas Sloane, one of these soldiers, who is joined by three others including a Chinese soldier, Yian-ho, who is the only one among them to have been inside the fog before and return alive. Their journey through the fog is treacherous, not only because they could lose their bearings and even each other, but because there is something in the fog and it is not friendly.
Much of what plays out plot-wise is territory that has been covered before, and indeed, if that were all that was here, this story would fall a bit flat for me. Not only do the two aforementioned films (Annihilation was originally a novel by Jeff Vandermeer, the first part of his Southern Reach trilogy) do something very similar, and to differing degrees better, but Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space was there telling this sort of story well before them. Indeed, Annihilation owes a great deal to Colour. Predator shines in the action; Annihilation excels in its exploration of the sublime. “The Crimson Fog,” however, distinguishes itself in the way it focuses on Sloane’s (and to a lesser extent his companions’) emotional and mental response to the incursion of the numinous. They are soldiers. They are there to do a job. The enemy is unlike any they have ever known, but in the end, that doesn’t matter much so long as the enemy bleeds. (This is an open question.) As fear breaks them down, their true natures are revealed, for better or worse.
Samuels asks, in the very first lines of the story, “How far does reality extend…Across billions of light-years to the mysterious point where the cosmos curves back on itself and the laws of time and space cease to apply? Only just as far as that visible universe mankind can detect and analyse with his instruments? Or is it confined solely within the limits of the skull of each and every isolated person who asks the question?” This question perambulates through the story from beginning to end, with the end particularly causing the reader to question what they think they know from what they have read. Not knowing what is real is a singular source of fear, and one which these soldiers work hard at ignoring for as long as possible. Their struggle against that knowing is what is so fascinating to me. Sloane holds out as long as he can. When he’s asked, “What do we have to lose?” he responds, “Only that which makes us human.” This in turn prompts the question, “You think our miserable species worth saving?” It depends on what is real. The cosmic dread hinted at in this exchange is familiar territory to experienced Lovecraft readers.
Samuels’ writing is very accomplished. I felt quite at ease looking through Sloane’s eyes the whole time; Samuels did not write him as a caricature of a soldier, but as a real person. For some reason, I think it would be easy in this type of story to do just the opposite. But, his doubts and fears, even his private hopes and personal truths, come into play before the end. Samuels is also quite reserved when it comes to descriptions of what’s in the fog, leaving much (save the result) to our imagination and I appreciate that on several levels. First, whatever I’m going to come up with in my mind is worse that what he can put on the page and second, whatever he does put on that page runs a severe risk of sounding silly rather than scary. Like the bloody parts of a Greek tragedy, best to leave it off screen and he is brave enough to do so.
Despite high quality writing and deep philosophical musings, I left this story with some mixed feelings. I could never quite shake the thought that I’ve been here before, many times in fact, and what this story contributes anew to the “alien substance/landscape calmly takes over a geographical area” sub-sub-genre of horror just didn’t quite attain a very lofty height for me. It was, in the end, “just a colour out of space,” that’s it, and one that felt a little too familiar.
I haven’t read every story in this collection yet, but I feel confident in sharing with you that the others I have read (while not Lovecraftian), are superior in every way to this story. For example, the opening story in the collection, “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror,” is one of the creepiest stories I have read in a long time. Its blend of Fawverian and Ligottian horror is spot on, while introducing Samuels’ own elements in a profoundly unsettling blend. In that story, his prose simply sings while his philosophical wonderings are given freer rein. I think Samuels is a terrific writer of weird fiction, and, at the same time, while good, “The Crimson Fog” wasn’t the best example of his powers.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,