Ginger Nuts of Horror
Reading an S.P. Miskowski story is a lot like being in one. While engaged in a seemingly mundane, everyday act, you gradually feel an increasing unease creeping up your spine. It’s subtle enough that you think you can shake it, but you can’t, and soon enough that unease gives birth to dizzying paranoia. By the time you’ve wised up enough to what’s going on to recognize that said paranoia is not unwarranted, you’re all too aware that the darkness you thought was intruding on your life was in fact already there. In truth, it has always been there. It is a part of you. What’s more, you are a part of it.
Bringing together ten stories previously published elsewhere along with three all-new tales, Miskowski’s new collection, Strange is the Night, is full of damaged souls, the sort that beg you to reach out and give them a hand even while a voice in the back of your mind screams at you to run away.
To wit, “This Many” introduces us to Lorrie, a well-meaning but ultimately self-absorbed mother more interested in giving her daughter the childhood she herself never had than the one the young girl actually wants. Her misplaced priorities are brought into sharp focus when a mysterious woman shows up to the child’s birthday party, splattered with blood stains and reeking of rot.
Elsewhere, in the vaguely Kafkaesque “Stag in Flight,” Benny, an antisocial agoraphobe searches for a reason to live while under a pall of suicidal depression, social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rejecting society’s fixation on manufactured happiness in favor of transformative misanthropy, Benny finds unexpected companionship in the form of a hungry, skittering insect.
Such an emphasis on broken and jaded people results in Mikowski’s fiction frequently coming across more as quietly tragic than outwardly horrific. Though irregularly tinged with surprising hints of dry humor, Strange is the Night is built atop a foundation of sadness and regret far more haunting than any skull-faced specter or furniture-flinging poltergeist. Miskowski doesn’t shy away from more overt genre archetypes, your monsters and murderers and what-have-you, but she isn’t afraid to peel back the smooth skin of normality to expose a more familiar foulness either. The hulking, razor-taloned beast that prowls the namesake domicile of “Animal House” is scary, but the buried traumas and careless cruelties concealed by its cash-strapped collegiate victims prove even scarier.
What draws you in to these tales is the depth of Miskowski’s characterizations and the seemingly effortless quality of her prose. It’s not just the confident, conversational smoothness that propels you through them at a rocket-powered pace, nor is it simply the skillful use of detail through which Miskowski evokes a concrete sense of place without ever bogging things down in descriptive excess. It’s the conviction, the harsh, heartbreaking earnestness which all but erases the line between audience and text. It makes you feel less like you’re reading words on a page and more like you’re experiencing real events as they actually happen, even at the height of their uncanny strangeness.
Some of these stories are so simple as to be brilliant, such as “A.G.A.,” which is told entirely through the dialogue of a pair of drinking buddies, one of whom observes a peculiar coincidence: anyone and everyone who’s ever wronged him meets a grisly accidental end, almost as if he’s got a particularly vengeful guardian angel watching over him. Still other tales resist explication, pulling raw emotional power out of mystery and murk; in “Death and Disbursement” a life insurance agent endures increasingly abusive phone calls from an apparently senile client. Is he descending into dementia, though, or is there something else afoot, something unseen and unheard lurking on the other end of the line, terrorizing an old man? How? Why? Miskowski keeps the answers just out of reach.
Horror, it must be said, is often at its best when it defies understanding. After all, understanding requires order, and order puts people at ease. When horror has a scapegoat, a creature or killer you can point to and say “That’s the Other,” then even the most outlandish situation is, if nothing else, comprehensible. It may be dangerous but at least it has parameters, boundaries which limit it to a decidedly human sphere. But if mankind were to brush up against something truly Other, is it not more likely that it would not come in some recognizable form, that we would not manage more than an incomplete glimpse of the whole picture, and that we would not be afforded satisfactory explanation?
That is why the stories in Strange is the Night are so effective. Miskowki understands that there is horror in not knowing. More importantly, she understand that, even in our daily lives, in our own hearts and minds, in the reflections we see in the mirror every morning, none of us really knows as much as we think we do.
Over cocktails an executive describes to a friend the disturbing history of a strangely potent guardian angel. A young mom tries to perfect and prolong her daughter’s childhood with obsessive parenting. A critic’s petty denouncement of an ingénue’s performance leads to a theatrical night of reckoning. A cult member makes nice for a parole board hearing years after committing an infamous crime.
A multiple Shirley Jackson Award nominee, S.P. Miskowski serves up an uncompromising collection of thirteen modern tales of desire and self-destruction. Strange is the Night offers further proof that Miskowski is—as Black Static book reviewer Peter Tennant notes—“one of the most interesting and original writers to emerge in recent years.”