Sometimes, it just happens; wham! Visceral, ineffable; that shock of engagement when we shake someone's hand, say hello for the first time; at the opening credits of a film or when we read the first page of a book.
For those of us immersed in one media or another, that phenomena comes rarer and rarer the more exposed to material we become. Stories become tried and tested; patterns more familiar; tropes and traditions more overt. When it happens, it is something to treasure; something to effuse about and obsess over.
J. R. Hamantaschen's You Shall Never Know Security hit me almost immediately with that frisson; the first few pages, the first few stories, crackling with a kind of morbid energy. Stories of defeat and despair; stories of worlds and minds dissolving, of rules and laws proving themselves false, this is the kind of fiction that I actively seek out; that I wallow in like a pig in filth, given the opportunity. Variety is king and god and the fundamental seam in this collection, every tale subtly removed from the next by deviations in format, style, perspective, but cohered by a consistent and palpable atmosphere; one in which expectation slips and life derails itself, often resulting as much in macabre transformation as atrocity.
Things spiral out of control in this collection; in every tale, often due to circumstances that protagonists have no influence over; this is horror in the Lovecraftian vein, in which reality is a gauntlet; a state of hostility and suffering through which we scrabble from womb to grave, often no solace or release on either side of that dynamic. Here, stories take the forms of legal reports and court house documents, detailing gruesome crimes, for which the defendant has only the most absurd and abstruse pleas, but which we as the reader know is the result of something far, far deeper and more abyssal than the court's facade of fairness and reason is willing to allow. Here, men and women born to deformity, disease and disability (many of them abstruse to the point of supernatural) struggle to find place and purpose in a world that denies and despises them; often denying and despising themselves as a result. Here, thwarted lovers and those disappointed in their art, their ambitions, slowly lose themselves to addiction and insanity; the world around them similarly dissolving, comprised of nothing beyond such processes of decay. Elsewhere, mutant music makers, divorced from the common herd by both their natures and inspirations, invite mutilation; having the offending articles of their anatomy cut out by lunatics and vagrants, while isolated sociopaths hallucinate receptacles into which they might pour their mania, their obscene appetites. There is a nightmare like, hallucinatory quality to the imagery, often counter-pointed by the tangible grit and grime of the environments in which it occurs (run down rental rooms, ill lit apartments, office blocks, alley ways and street corners; all notably urban in tone, all notably decaying), the psychological depths and ambiguities of the characters. Nothing is clean cut or cartoonish in these stories; no heroes or villains; no monsters or innocents. The characters the reader is obliged to identify with are damaged and fragmented; often demonstrating ambiguities that are, sadly, lacking in much of horror fiction. The monsters and murderers; the demented and the delirious, are echoes of the reader's own experience; often products of circumstances that are, at least metaphorically, more familiar than many would like to admit. They are manifestations of frustration and despair; of becoming people we despise often through no fault or control of our own. That's the true hideousness behind most of the stories in this collection; very few of the atrocities they contain come about through choices or conscious decisions; they are the products of unhappy circumstance, and that acknowledgement; that lack of control, is terrifying.
The collection knows its audience; knows them to be niche, and caters to them exclusively; this is storytelling for those who appreciate the surreal and the moribund; for those who aren't concerned by familiar tropes or formats and who do not wish to be comforted or consoled by reading's end. In that, the collection has a somewhat archaic ethos, in the vein of Ramsey Campbell et al; a highly deliberate and entirely successful effort to define itself. As a result, it will appeal massively to a particular kind of reader whilst alienating others; for many, its often highly abstract, nightmare-like style will be off-putting, as will the floridness, absurdity and grotesquery of its subject. For others, it will be a rare and sincere joy; something black, seeping and distinct; a cannibal or necrophage treat.
One notable bug-bear; a technical issue that clanged like a bum note in Hell's own hymnals every time it occurred: the editing. The quality of editing in this collection ranges from the adequate to the fairly terrible; there are numerous instances of words or sentences repeating themselves, of minor grammatical and punctuation errors that serve to break engagement with what are otherwise beautifully crafted and gloriously imaginative tales. Whether or not the tales are strong enough to sustain such blemishes will largely depend on the individual reader; for some, their intensity, their strangeness and the pervasive ethos of despair will be enough to carry them, for others, those factors may prove similarly alienating.
Frisson; the reader will know from the first page whether this collection will enrapture or repel, those in the former camp having found something they have no doubt been starved of and scavenging after for some time.