Justin A. Burnett. The Puppet King and Other Atonements (Review)

Trepidatio 2022. ISBN: 978-1685100476. Pp., 190.

Horror is a diverse genre, and it is always a pleasure to read a work that is sensitive to its versatility. In The Puppet King and Other Atonements, Justin Brunett has produced just such a book, mixing elements of horror, weird fiction, and “soft” science fiction in a well-rounded collection that spotlights Burnett’s talent as a writer. The decision to label the individual pieces as “atonements” rather than stories or tales suggests from the start we are delving into an imaginary universe rife with moral and philosophical dilemmas that transcend the individual. This may be, but Brunett’s work is hardly didactic. If The Puppet King draws attention to existential and ontological conflicts in our modern society, it does so with an eye for strong characters and solid storytelling.

Stories like “The Toy Shop” and “Sister” embrace elements of the weird and cosmic with a certain lyricism that highlights a sense of impending dread which is always more visceral than explicit. Burnett’s prose creates fantastic vistas for us to explore, but they are also effective in producing characters afflicted by psychological traumas that resonate emotionally with readers. On the other side, pieces such as “Devourer” and “The Enucleator” eschew lyricism for a more direct style that takes the forms of interviews, monologues, and even descriptions of websites. Stories such as “m.Other,” in which a faltering psycho-analysist is forced to confront his own Freudian hang-ups, and “Labertino,” a story about a local Texan law enforcer investigating a series of mysterious bird sightings that may open portals to other worlds, will certainly please readers of weird fiction. Like many of Burnett’s stories, they subvert the recognizable world of routine and conventional human relationships, suggesting these may just be a patina glossing over an unimaginable chaos the mind is not ready to comprehend.

Despite the diversity of the stories that make up The Puppet King, there are certain themes and leitmotifs that reappear throughout and provide a conceptual framework for the book as a whole. Many of the pieces in the collection assume a cold and analytical gaze, in some cases disaggregating any semblance of the human. “ABDN-1” gives us a story presented form the point of view of a parasitic entity living in a semi-symbiotic relationship with a human host. “Our Endeavors,” which at first seems a story about loss and the slide into depression following the disappearance of a child, takes a sinister turn when we realize the narrator has other plans for the “subject” he is monitoring. The concluding work—the eponymous “Puppet King”—is by far the most direct engagement with these overarching themes of alienation, alterity, and estrangement. It is presented as a monologue in which a speaker pontificates on the relationship between human subjectivity and objectification with the aridity of a university lecturer past his prime. Here, the theories of Jacques Lacan are clearly evident as Brunett theorizes on the nature of “things.” The puppet, as Brunett suggests, is an interstitial being that perennially inhabits a world between person and object, dissolving the boundaries between the two. Like some of the best stories in the volume, the conclusion of this disquisition radically destabilizes what we thought we knew about the speaker and his audience while also inviting the reader to reflect on their own relationship to the text.

In reading The Puppet King, one is struck by the range of influences on display. In various places, Burnett references poets like Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke. He quotes from Lagotti and the proto-surrealist French writer Marcel Schwob while also throwing in tacit references to philosophers like Emil Cioran and Lacan and the theories of Freud. It is not difficult to see these influences at work in The Puppet King either. That said, Burnett is not above taking on more popular subject matter, with references to authors like Stephen King or engaging plot lines like those of “Endemic” and “The Rubber Man” which feels like a throwback to the golden age of the X-Files.

Burnett has turned out a collection that is both thoughtful and enjoyable to read. Most of the stories in the book are appearing in print for the first time, giving readers a wealth of fresh material to ponder over. For those who enjoy challenging works that are not afraid to tackle broad ontological questions, The Puppet King is sure to please.

Eric LaRocca. The Strange Thing We Become and Other Dark Tales (Review)

Off Limits Press. 2021. ISBN: 978-1-7374533-1-3. Pp., 119.

For those who have been paying attention to the horror genre, Eric LaRocca appears to be everywhere. His name has consistently made “best of” lists while the eerie cover art of his books has been plastered across social media sites. He has also not been reticent to speak out on the prospect of horror to promote “queer voices” and encourage the inclusion of marginalized groups.

The Strange Thing We Become and Other Dark Tales collects eight short stories which probe a number of themes ranging from death and loss to the strains unexpected events can place on parental relationships. LaRocca’s style of horror is modern and realist. It eschews the supernatural to focus on the dark sides of love and human entanglement. The best stories in the collection conjure a feeling of dread in the reader because the world that LaRocca paints could so easily become our own in an instant. In “You’re Not Supposed To Be Here,” a gay couple finds their infant child abducted and are forced to play a sadistic game if they expect to ever see him again. “Where Flames Burned Emerald As Grass” similarly plays upon fears of parental concern when a man on vacation Costa Rica is offered a horrific choice between abandoning his daughter or watching her die. Other stories like “Bodies Are For Burning” and the eponymous “The Strange Thing We Become” explore the darker regions of the human psyche, revealing familial and romantic relationships shaded with neurosis and obsession that at times can feel disconcertingly familiar.

There are certainly some memorable stories in this compact collection. As a whole, however, readers may be left with a feeling that the stories collapse into one another and share similarities in terms of diction and tone that undermine the distinctiveness of each individual piece of work. Nonetheless, in these short stories, LaRocca proves that he is a new voice in horror worthy of attention. With a new novella—We Can Never Leave This Place—on the horizon for 2022, it is safe to say that Eric LaRocca will continue to be on the horror world’s radar for the foreseeable future. 

Gemma Files. In That Endlessness, Our End (Review)

Grimscribe Press. 2021. ISBN: 978-0-578-75976-0. Pp., 333.

For over two decades now, Gemma Files has been churning out a consistent body of work focused on all things horrific and macabre. She has become one of the leading writers in horror today, and rightfully so. Over her career, she has proven herself to be an insightful critic of horror films and writing just as much as an accomplished author. Needless to say, when approaching one of Files’ books you are seeing a master of the genre at work.

In her latest collection of short stories In That Endlessness, Our Own End, Files offers up fifteen tales showcasing her fiction writing over the past five years. While it might be difficult to find a common theme linking all the stories in the book, Files’ prose and characters provide a measure of consistency throughout. Her characters after often young, discerning Canadians who are comfortable with iphones and the internet and who are not above snarky comments when called for. One of Files’ principal talents is her ability to locate the horrific in the ordinary modern world we inhabit. In “Bulb,” the transcript of a podcast episode warns listeners of the Lovecraftian terror hidden with the Canadian electrical grid, while in “The Church in The Mountains,” film and real-life blend together to reveal the sinister inheritances that family ties can foster. The milieux that Files creates are populated by Reddit posts, Air B-n-B rentals, internet discussion groups, and modern forms of media, bringing horror into the tech-savvy modern age.

As with most collections, we are given a mixed bag. In stories like “This Is How It Goes,” “The Puppet Motel,” “Sleep Hygiene,” and “Venio,” Files is at her best. She has a knack for playing upon our fears and creating characters that are easy to identify with. The diverse types of relationships she probes—family, romantic, and friendship—are reflective of the twenty-first century, and should be easily recognizable to Gen Xers and millennials. It is, ultimately, this easily recognizable world that gives Gemma Files’ stories such power. We encounter a social and cultural environment that resembles our own yet is nonetheless suffused with dark and menacing forces that defy explanation.

In That Endlessness, Our Own End is certain to please horror fans seeking updated takes on traditional themes such as haunted houses and diabolical cults. For those who might like to sample the work, they can find “Sleep Hygiene” and “Venio” on Pseudopod.

Michael Cisco. Antisocieties (Review)

Grimscribe Press. 2021 ISBN: 978-0-578-83688-1. Pp., 140.

Despite his aversion to being pegged to a specific genre, Michael Cisco has become one of the premier writers of “weird fiction” today. As to whether this is a genre in its own right or simply a catch-all phrase for works that defy categorization is another matter. Yet if he is a doyen of the “new weird,” it is hardly to icons like Lovecraft that he looks. Cisco’s style and subject matter are unique. Much like Robert Aickman, his stories capture a pervasive sense of disquiet and psychological Angst. The environments and the landscapes may seem familiar, and yet there is something utterly wrong with the picture we are given.

In Antisocieties, a collection of ten short stories, Cisco offers readers a glimpse into a lonely and at times anhedonic world where human relationships tend toward the fetishistic, where intense desires are expressed through cold and analytical prose, and a disturbing sense of isolation looms over everything. Alienation is a constant theme throughout the book, as might be guessed from the title. In “Intentionally Left Blank” we are introduced to a guest who wears a Medusa mask that conceals his humanity. At the end of the story, the lead protagonist, a child who has been left in the care of an aging aunt, dons the same mask and hits the road, leaving us with the lines “I don’t know anybody. I never will.” In “The Starving of Saqqara” we encounter a man afflicted by automatonophilia who finds himself rejected by the very Egyptian statues he cannot live without. The book’s eponymous story is dystopian in its implications, as an individual attempts to prefigure what an administrator wants to hear and faces severe punishment for his inability to do so.

 If Cisco’s characterizations and themes hint at an underlying philosophy in his work, it is ultimately a philosophy that defies generalization. Many of the stories in Antisocieties lack resolution, and it is precisely this lack of resolution that gives them their strange quality. In “Milking,” for example, we find a child who is given a fresh glass of milk to drink on a regular basis, yet what produces the milk is left up to the reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, we are told that the revelation of this secret is associated with “the first of many” wounds, suggesting that we are experiencing a traumatic event in a child’s life as the simplicity of childhood is contaminated by realities of which we would prefer to remain nescient.

Those who like stories with linear narratives and well-packaged conclusions may find Cisco distant. He challenges readers on a different level, asking a lot of them in the process. However, Cisco proves himself well adept at conjuring a sense of anxious dread found in the ordinary. Each story is a view into a distorted psyche where reality becomes soft around the edges and what we believe we know is never certain.

Eric LaRocca. Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (Review)

Weird Punk Books. 2021 ISBN: 978-1-951658-12-0. Pp., 112.

What is it about sadomasochistic relationships that perpetually fascinate modern readers? Perhaps it is the way they invert our commonly understood notions of love and fidelity? Or perhaps it says something of the allure of cruelties we cannot bring our own selves to commit and take pleasure in? These questions have been investigated by luminaries such as the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and in Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke Eric LaRocca takes up this theme in a short and compact epistolatory novella.

The book offers a collection of emails and chatroom conversations chronicling the story of Agnes and Zoe, two women who meet online and proceed to enter into a contracted sadomasochistic relationship. It is a Venus in Furs for an age of email and the internet. Coming in at a mere 112 pages, LaRocca delivers a powerful punch that keeps readers engaged. Yet at times the narrative style prevents readers from fully understanding the characters and their motives. As a genre, sadomasochistic literature often gets us to think about cruelty, isolation, and the nature of pleasure in new ways. LaRocca offers brief glimpses into these broader themes, but rarely does the book venture into deeper waters. The relationship between Agnes and Zoe develops quickly, and readers may find themselves wanting more as the novella reaches its horrifying crescendo.

Given the book’s brevity, a committed reader can power through it in a single sitting and will surely not feel disappointed by the end. Yet LaRocca misses an opportunity to add something new to the theme he treats. Sadomasochism probes disturbing questions of power dynamics, sexual aestheticism, and what for a better term might be deemed the “art of cruelty.” These elements seem muted in Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, leaving the reader to decide the level of emotional investment they chose to place in the characters.