Ginger Nuts of Horror
HORROR FICTION REVIEW: PHANTASM/CHIMERA: AN ANTHOLOGY OF STRANGE AND TROUBLING DREAMS EDITED BY SCOTT DWYER
In case you haven’t noticed, we’re currently living through something of a literary horror renaissance. You can’t throw a rock these days without hitting upon some exciting new voice in the genre: a Matthew M. Bartlett, a Livia Llewellyn, a Jon Padgett, etc. These are singular writers, each one exploring themes of the inhuman and irreal (and by extension the all-too-human and oh-so-real) with an eye more towards poetry, atmosphere, and subliminal suggestion than traditional narrative tropes.
Few people appreciate this as well as Scott Dwyer, who runs the weird fiction blog The Plutonian, where he reviews, interviews, and dissects the beating black heart of the genre. Now going one step further, Dwyer has edited and published Phantasm/Chimera: An Anthology of Strange and Troubling Dreams, a self-described “sampler of the cutting edge of weird horror.”
In his introduction, first-time publisher Dwyer reveals his personal philosophy of horror, or more specifically what he dubs “Nightmare Horror.” That is, he promotes a transgressive strain of bleak surrealism which seeks to reflect deeper truths about mundane reality while simultaneously distorting its boundaries in ways both beautiful and grotesque. As testament to this vision, Dwyer offers us 11 stories by authors who themselves manage to reflect that vision while also distorting in ways uniquely their own.
Quick to impress, the anthology opens with “The Wind, The Dust,” a 40-page novelette by Adam Golaski about a pair of fresh-faced college graduates getting an apartment together, only to find themselves plagued by freezing gusts of air, puzzling nightmares, and the gradual unraveling of their lives. On the surface, the tale presents itself as little more than simple, if sad, slice-of-life portrait of everyday mundanity. However, the fringes of the portrait darken and warp as time goes on, creating a sense of unease which builds to a heartbreaking Kafkaesque conclusion.
Matthew M. Bartlett ratchets up the distortion considerably in the story that follows. A grisly freakshow account of a five-year-old’s birthday’s party gone hideously wrong, “Provisions for a Journey” slithers beneath your skin with a nonstop parade of loathsome characters and bizarre imagery, including giant skittering black beetles, a repulsive piñata resembling no animal on Earth, and crooked men with cadaveric smiles.
A sinister grin likewise features in Christopher Slatsky’s “The Bruised Veil,” about an Asian-American college student doing her dissertation on the ghostly Slit-Mouthed Woman of Japanese folklore. Like “The Wind, The Dust,” “The Bruised Veil” flies by despite being one of the anthology’s longer entries. Structured around a pair of vibrantly voiced interview transcripts—one with an old man whose father may or may not have been the Black Dahlia killer, the other with a survivor of a WWII Japanese internment camp—it draws you inexorably into its damning examination of American race relations and systemic misogyny.
Thana Niveau’s “The Last of Liquid Sleep,” meanwhile, offers a more particular and personal perspective of gender oppression. A woman with no memory struggles to assert her own identity against the demands of disembodied male voice hiding in her mind, eating away at her like a psychic parasite. Niveau plays to a variety of emotions here, blurring the line between magic-realism and science-fiction.
Sci-fi trappings (as well as the fear of lost autonomy) also take center stage in “The Hole,” by Brian Evenson. This one drops an exploratory astronaut into a dark pit on an alien world, with only the rotting (and talking!) corpse of a fellow crew member for company. Making use of a less ambiguous, more straightforward approach to storytelling, “The Hole” stands out by providing you a refreshing chance to regain your bearings before plunging back into the murky shadows.
Nowhere are the shadows blacker than in Livia Llewelyn’s “The Hotel Pelagornis, 1899,” a noteworthy highlight even in an anthology full of highlights. A haunting and erotic account of adulterous lovers absconding to a mysterious hotel at the turn of the century, this story unexpectedly mutates along with its characters, shapeshifting into a writhing mass of carnal horror that beautifully captures the shuddering death of one age and the fleshy, glistening birth of a new one.
“Binding,” by Mike Allen, hearkens back to the straightforward style of Evenson’s “The Hole,” but revisits Llewelyn’s themes of secrets, sex, and the passage of time. Here, a group of tabletop gamers listen in rapt attention to a tall tale (or is it?) told by their dungeonmaster, about a horndog swinger who finds an end to his seemingly insatiable lust in the pages of an ancient book. Despite the story-within-a-story presentation (wherein both the storyteller and his audience are lured deeper into the narrative, both figuratively and literally), “Binding” is unusual in just how not unusual it is; its no-frills ghoulish fun is a welcome break from the angst and obscurity that otherwise pervades the anthology.
Of course, Jon Padgett is more than willing to bring the gloom ‘n’ doom with “The Great, Gray Bulk,” though he laces it with enough sly humor that you feel like you’re in on the joke, even when you wish you weren’t. Written as an extended monologue from a motor-mouthed patient rambling to his curiously mum therapist, “The Great, Gray Bulk” reimagines the Hindu myth of Ganesha as a vehicle for the existential terror of human consciousness. While often compared to the work of Thomas Ligotti (and for good reason) Padgett’s fiction is truly a unique animal all its own, as evidenced here.
So too is that of Jean Claude Smith, whose story, “Chrysalis,” introduces us to a once promising poet-cum-alcoholic housewife stuck in a loveless marriage. When a bird flies into her kitchen, speaking words in a language she can’t make sense of, she struggles to decode them. But then more strange messengers come bearing even stranger messages. A perverse tale of transformative self-actualization, “Chrysalis” starts out depressing but ends on an oddly uplifting note.
Clint Smith’s “Fiending Apophenia” proves much more pessimistic. A John Dies at the End-esque story of mind-bending drug use resulting in soul-harrowing glimpses beyond the veil of reality, like Bartlett’s “Provisions for a Journey,” this one is positively overflowing with provocative dream-imagery. All the better to make you feel like you too are getting a quick peek at forbidden truths.
Finally, Jason A. Wyckoff’s “The Last American Lion Pelt” brings Phantasm/Chimera to a close with a macabre mockery of shallow corporate opportunism. A lawyer seeking induction into an elite secret society begins to wonder if he’s at the center of some elaborate practical joke. There’s nothing practical about this gag, though. Nothing funny, either. Almost as long as Golaski’s opening novelette, “The Last American Lion Pelt” finishes things on a similarly oblique and impressive note.
Despite a few too many glaring typos throughout, indicating a need for at least one more copyediting pass, Phantasm/Chimera proves Scott Dwyer is a more than capable anthologist. Making good on its mission statement to assemble some of the very best names in literary horror today, and to depict a vision of the genre that is simultaneously surreal, thoughtful, and deeply unsettling, Phantasm/Chimera is an essential read for anyone interested in the current state of weird fiction.
Phantasm/Chimera is an all original collection of cutting edge Weird Horror. In these pages, you will find an all-star line-up of some of the most innovative and exciting writers working today. Phantasm/Chimera has one goal: To disturb its reader with the most dark and surreal visions ever put to paper. From tales of strange imposters from other worlds to tales of ordinary people hideously alienated from themselves, from tales of black abysses hiding behind human masks to tales of weird and erotic obsessions. Phantasm/Chimera features tales from Adam Golaski, Matthew M. Bartlett, Christopher Slatsky, Thana Niveau, Brian Evenson, Livia Llewellyn, Mike Allen, Jon Padgett, John Claude Smith, Clint Smith, and Jason A. Wyckoff.