Merge Now, by Kurt Fawver

“Chisholm knew he should call the police. He knew this other driver’s madness was bound to cause disaster. But even as the situation sparked his anxiety, it also entranced him. He’d seen plenty of minor accidents in the past, but he’d never watched a major collision happen in real time, right beside him. A small part of him wanted to see it: steel and aluminum bending, glass shattering, bodies flying. The aftermath might offer an insight, a revelation, a perspective on life or death or the nature of reality that he’d never otherwise understand. It might offer up a release.”

61IdzlLY5EL._US230_[1]I have both seen and been personally affected by the aftermath of wrong-way, high-speed collisions, and I can say for a certainty it does not offer any insight on life or death other than we are, at our most basic physical level, meat. Once, I lived near a particularly bad intersection where there were always cars banging into each other. Thankfully, most of the time, they did not result in serious injuries. One time though, there was a bad one. I heard it from my driveway where I was working on tuning up my bike. I ran to the street and saw a conversion van versus a sedan, both pretty crumpled. People began falling out of the van, whose side door and been pushed open far enough that they could get out. Most seemed ok, just dazed. One guy though, the last guy, came out screaming and holding his face. He asked if he was gonna be ok, pulling his hand away from his cheek. When he did, half his face rolled down, exposing his muscle and teeth. I winced, gave him the oil soaked rag I was carrying in my hand and assured him he’d be fine. I suspect he probably was with the exception of a nasty scar. That was the accident I saw. The one I was affected by left me bereft of a close friend. We are meat, and when it comes to auto accidents, we are grist for the mill. There is no particular revelation about these sorts of accidents but that. Kurt Fawver’s excellent story, “Merge Now,” however, does offer up insightful commentary on how we live our lives, the vain things for which we strive, and the mindless, blind way we so often follow.

41D3v4VgygL[1]It is located in the extraordinary anthology NOX PAREIDOLIA, edited by Robert S. Wilson and published late this year (2019) by Nightscape Press. (The book’s cover is equally as remarkable, and more so once you understand the title.) In this volume, Wilson collects ambiguous stories by some of horror’s hottest writers, all paying homage to the late weird fiction master, Robert Aickman. If you don’t know Aickman or his singular style, you can still enjoy this anthology well enough, but reading a few of Aickman’s strange tales first would offer a more fulsome experience. Also, if you don’t know the work of Nightscape Press, you should fix that. They are doing amazing work, using a portion of a lot of their sales to benefit charities, and are soon putting out HORROR FOR RAICES, a response to the horror going on at our southern border with, again, an enviable table of contents. They deserve your attention.

“Merge Now” is the story of Chisholm, a bored office worker who could be a stand in for so many of us, grinding it out daily for his meager share of the American dream. While driving to work one morning, he witnesses someone affixing a strangely decorated blindfold to themselves and then speeding up in their car. At first, they miraculously avoided other traffic, but then, once they reached their apparent max speed, they swerved into the oncoming lanes and it was only moments before the inevitable occurred. His work day is shot and he can’t even pull himself together to drive home, calling a ride share. blindfolddriver[1].jpgLate that night, he’s searching the internet, trying to figure out what would make a person do something like that. “…well after midnight, he stumbled upon a Twitter post that mentioned ‘the blindfolded, seeing the answer others cannot see and gnashing their teeth in fear and ecstasy, do the great work of the eschaton. They will prepare the roads for its coming.'”

As the story goes on this sort of event becomes commonplace, with horrific traffic accident after horrific traffic accident filling the local news cycle. He witnesses another accident and can’t erase the grisly images from his mind. “A body hung behind it, limp and positioned at grotesque angles. Its head was partially occluded by a segment of collapsed roof, but the exposed portion revealed an unmistakable white strip of cloth inscribed with unknown glyphs.” The cult atmosphere developed by Fawver’s inclusion of these strange blindfolds is simple, but brilliant, and in the end, it’s all you need to wonder, wtf? One driver speaks as Chisholm encounters her during his unavoidable work commute, “As she passed, she rolled a window down and shouted, to Chisholm or the universe at large, ‘All is wreckage! All is collision!'” Chisholm eventually begs off work, unable to get behind a wheel, and who could blame him? It seems the whole world is spiraling out of control and he wants no part in it, but can he avoid it if it truly is the whole world going mad?

Fawver’s writing in this piece, undergirded with a certain fatalism, is measured and controlled, unlike the story he is spinning. His characters speak naturally and their internal monologues read as authentic. You are never once taken out of the story. Generally, I think that’s the harder feat to accomplish than writing a florid line.

Aickman wrote stories that some would not even consider horror, but I have never read one after which I was not deeply unsettled. He has no jump scares and little gore, but manages to nonetheless infect your consciousness. Upon finishing an Aickman story you are often left wondering, what did I just read? But then you find yourself turning it over and over in your mind hours or even days later, and that’s when you know he got you. This anthology is full of stories that do that, a just tribute to the master, and “Merge Now” is a particularly good example.

NEW-FATAL-2-HOWARD-FRANKLAN_1539945801431_59493418_ver1.0[1].jpgIn the story, Chisholm says he moved to the city for bigger, better opportunities, and wonders at one point if it would not have been a better decision to stay home in his small town and be a big fish in a little pond. But the allure of success, and the financial remuneration that accompanies it, was too much for him. How many of us have struggled with the same sort of question and come up, if not short, then at least mortally uncertain? That is where the cosmic horror is for me in this tale. It is not a horror beyond the stars, but it is one that is much bigger than any one of us individually. It is the horror of questioning whether we are enough. Are we good enough, rich enough, successful enough, pretty enough? If not, who do we have to follow to get there, and what do we have to do? What do we have to barter?  How many, chasing this unattainable carrot, have been left as human wreckage on the side of life’s uncaring, unfeeling highway?

Mr. Fawver recently moved, but before he did, we lived in the same region of Tampa Bay. Earlier this year, we had a rash of wrong-way, head-on collisions on our various cross-bay bridges, all resulting in multiple fatalities. I cannot tell you if these were the result of drunken mistakes, ill-begotten wagers, youthful ignorance, or what, but for a while there, it was a thing and I wouldn’t even get on those bridges. The above image is from the local news channel. I confirmed with Mr. Fawver that this tale is a creative response to those tragedies and I want to thank him for it. We all had a lot of emotion about what happened here and this story gave those emotions a channel to vent. I am grateful for that, as I am grateful for Mr. Fawver’s work. I hope he knows he is appreciated in the weird fiction community and that he is good enough.

Kurt Fawver is the author of a large number of wonderful weird and horror short stories, appearing recently in the August issue of Nightmare Magazine.  Comparisons to Thomas Ligotti are not misplaced. He also has published two collections: FOREVER, IN PIECES, and THE DISSOLUTION OF SMALL WORLDS, which contains the Shirley Jackson award-winning story, “The Convexity of Our Youth.”

Before I close, I would like you to know that no guts were punched in the writing of this review.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

 

The Infusorium, by Jon Padgett

“I turned my flashlight beam —wavy with those black, floating motes—onto the body. Something like the skeletons we had dug up recently. But far more hideous than any of them. It appeared to be fresher. The remains of the thing’s yellowed, shriveled skin cracked across its face like desiccated sand. Its mouth hung open to reveal a single line of small, dark teeth. The hair was black and slick, almost as if painted high on its head, giving the illusion of premature balding.”

51B6pV2-YfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Part of the skeletal frame of Jon Padgett’s eerie debut collection, “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” is discipleship. Infused throughout this delightfully odd little book, published in 2016 by Dunhams Manor Press, are themes of masters imparting knowledge to students (willing or by happenstance), or a student seeking out that hidden knowledge. In fact, the collection opens with a meditation of sorts, the likes of which you might find in a yoga studio or a church (though it would be a singular example of either that used this particular meditation), and the central sphere around which all the other stories orbit is a tale written as an instruction manual. It is fitting that Jon Padgett has been driven by this theme for his initial collection as he himself is one of the horror communities most noted disciples of one of the most noted horror writers, Thomas Ligotti. Years ago Padgett began an online community dedicated to the critical analysis and interpretation of Ligotti’s fiction and non-fiction called Thomas Ligotti Online. These days, Padgett and Ligotti are on a first name basis with each other, and Ligotti helped Padgett substantially with his writing once their relationship developed to the point where Ligotti could “take the kid gloves off” as Padgett related in an interview on the This Is Horror podcast. I can’t help but think that many of these stories, or at the very least their backbones, grew out of a macabre coupling of Padgett’s passion for ventriloquism and this master/disciple relationship.  That, by itself, is enough to make me want to read them.

It’s hard to write about a single story in this collection, and if you’ve already read it you know why, but they all interact with each other. They all inhabit the same literary universe, but more than that, they abide with one another, occasionally reaching between the pages to touch one another in unsettling ways. smokestacks-sunset[1]However, as soon as I read The Infusorium, I knew that I had to tell you about it my fellow ventriloquism aficionados. One part buddy cop story, one part “The Fog,” one part weird cult, The Infusiorium is a story that took hold from the very first sentence and never let go. I’m being very serious when I say that I hope someone, somewhere, options this story for a film, because it would be fantastic. It takes place in the paper mill town of Dunnstown, and in its encroaching outskirts of Treasure Forest. The long silent paper mill still somehow pollutes the area with a noxious fog, choking life and desire from its inhabitants. Oddly, the townsfolk just seem to deal with it. But something else is afoot, too: a series of grisly discoveries. Absurdly elongated skeletal corpses have been turning up in the forest, buried standing up, with only their skulls above ground, screaming towards the blocked out sun. Our protagonist, Detective Raphaella Tosto, is assigned to investigate a possible connection between these grotesque corpses and an annual letter received by the police department going back ten years warning of just such a discovery.

dark skeleton.jpgFor it’s first half, the story is pretty on the level. Creepy, but on the level. Once Detective Tosto and her partner, Detective Guidry, get into the field around the paper mill, it gets pretty topsy-turvy in all the right, mind-bending ways. “…the skeletons’ resemblance to human ones began and ended with the skulls themselves.  The blackened skeletal remains gave the impression they had expanded below the dirt, outwards and downwards. And everything about the skeletons underground was elongated. Limbs, digits, even ribs and backbone just as described, terminating in crablike claws or the jointed, thin legs of an insect.” Ghastly discoveries and dark connections pile up creating an oppressive atmosphere of dread that neatly mimics the physical atmosphere of the town Padgett describes. It is in this layering that we can most clearly discern Ligotti’s tutelage; Padgett has been an apt student.

The story winds you down a putrid path ending in explosive violence, and if you read only this story, it will definitely satisfy. However, the real joy in this whole collection is in observing the connections the tales have, one to another. You begin to want to go back to previous stories to check out some detail or some specific wording you feel like you’ve read before. It connects, but always slightly off, like a puzzle put together with pieces from different editions. It matches up, mostly, but it is in the cracks where the oddities thrive. Padgett’s real success is not just this entertaining horror story so much as it is the unit as a whole. You must read this collection in the order in which it is printed first, and then skip around in your re-read if you like. That’s the only way you’ll appreciate the tapestry being woven here.

Most of the stories I’ve reviewed here have had a straightforward connection to Mr. Lovecraft, but this one’s relationship to HPL is slightly more evanescent.  The old gent was certainly an influence on the work of Thomas Ligotti, who is the primary influence on Jon Padgett, so it’s definitely in there, just more in the background rather than the fore. Here you’ll find no Mi-Go’s, no Deep Ones, neither any Necronomicons (though a forbidden/gnostic text does play a central role), nor any Elder Gods (though a malevolent force does appear to be worshiped). There are, however, cultists operating behind the scenes, driving some of the action. Lovecraft loved the idea of cultists, though here they are put to slightly different literary use. Lovecraft is directly mentioned several times in the introduction by Matt Cardin, but he plays a far less central role here tah in other weird tales I’ve discussed. That’s fine for me because it’s a darn good story, but if you’re looking for something much more essentially Lovecraftian, you’ll not find it here save in whispers and surreptitious nods.

image_286359db-0dc8-49df-90e3-46e80fa46295_grande[1].pngPadgett’s writing is often dreamlike, floating between perceived realities and unwanted assumptions. You don’t want to go where you feel he is taking you. It unsettles you, it makes you wish that weren’t happening, and it likely will drag up an unpleasant memory from the depths of your own psyche from time to time. This is successful horror writing for more reasons that just the skeletons on the page. Like the malevolent air, it gets inside you and suffuses you with its poison. However, in one or two places, I was taken out of the story by what I felt was poor word choice (“…the blood of the non-killed* pollutant victim…”). I also have to say, I was a little skeptical to read a whole collection ostensibly about ventriloquism. I mean, those dummies are creepy sure, but a whole bunch of stories about them? Well, rest assured this collection is far more than that. There is a depth here that makes me excited to see what Padgett can do in the future when he is not writing about his favorite past-time.

That about wraps it up for this review, fellow dummies, so thanks for checking it out. It was composed while listening to soundtrack master Piero Umilani’s “Storia e Preistoria.” That would also be fine listening while you read this collection.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

From Step 9 in “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism”: “Just remind yourself that the ventriloquist dummy, your pets, your family and friends all have one thing in common with each other: they are dummies. With practice, you will be amazed at how they will dance to the tune of your voice.”

* – In a subsequent communication with Mr. Padgett, after he read this review, he clarified this usage: “The “non-killed” adjective…was used by a resident to describe some suffering inhabitants of an actual mill town catastrophe in the 50s. I thought it would be a neat peculiarity for Kroth to use.