Ginger Nuts of Horror
Single-author small-press horror collections are often rooted in consistency more so than variety. Sure, any good horror writer will switch things up in terms of setting, character, theme, and monster, but more often than not there is one unifying tone throughout, an obvious and distinct flavor that could usually be summed up as simply “elegant,” or “trashy,” or “ultraviolent,” or “bleak,” or some other handy one-word descriptor.
However, if pressed to succinctly summarize the overarching style of Lee Widener’s collection, Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales (out now from Strangehouse Books), one could hardly think of an adjective more apt than “chaotic.”
Of course, as any good anarchist will tell you, chaos can be a wonderful thing.
The collection opens with the title story, a 60-page novelette originally published as a limited-edition chapbook from Dunhams Manor Press. A straight-faced Lovecraftian horror yarn, “Under the Shanghai Tunnels” sees an antiquarian book-collector and his jazz-musician BFF delving into The Old Portland Underground while searching for clues as to whatever became of mysteriously vanished ancestor. The fate they discover turns out to involve a tragic descent into madness, a slow and agonizing death, and the discovery of an ancient race of sinister subterranean creatures with apocalyptic ambitions.
Reading this story, one might assume Widener’s subsequent tales will offer more of the same: namely, deathly serious pulp-horror with a heavy focus on freaky-deaky beasties. Instead, Widener follows up “Under the Shanghai Tunnels” with “At the Shoe Shop of Madness,” which any reader could be forgiven for assuming was written by someone else entirely. In it, a poor, talentless shoemaker makes a deal with a magic elf to help him turn his failing business around. Though it starts out as a classic Rumpelstiltskin-esque children’s fable, it soon mutates into something far more twisted, obscene, and altogether hilarious.
Before story’s end, our kindly shoemaker has become a greedy opportunist with zero qualms about taking his fellow villagers’ lives, so long as he can also take their coin. The magic elf reveals himself to be a foul-mouthed, alcoholic occultist. And, best of all, there is an invasion of “repellent crawling shoe-things,” which might well be the best line in the book. At the very least, it’s neck-and-neck with the drunken elf’s unholy chant of “That is not bread which can eternal fry, and with strange onions even cooks may cry.” Suffice to say, this vulgar, cartoonish, Bizarro fairy tale is about as far from “serious” and “straight-faced” as one could get.
And yet Widener is not done throwing readers for a loop. The story which immediately follows “At the Shoe Shop of Madness” once again feels like it could have been written by a whole different writer. “Eternal Beauty” is, as its title implies, beautiful. Here, a man finds himself becoming obsessed with an unbelievably perfect pale rose, but the flower turns out to be the property of an old man who lives alone in an empty house and who claims he literally pulled it out of his dreams. Haunting and hypnotic, “Eternal Beauty” reads like a story by the so-called “Polish Poe,” Stefan Grabinski. In other words, not at all the kind of thing one would expect to follow in the wake of “repellent crawling shoe-things.”
Sandwiched between the elegiac “Eternal Beauty” and the outrageous “KONG-Tiki” (we’ll get to that one in a minute) “The Thing That Came to Haunt Adamski” unfortunately feels somewhat forgettable, though it does serve as another showcase for Widener’s impressive range. A short, fast-paced skit of a tale, full of quirky characters (including a gullible Houdini collector, a paranoid conspiracy-theorist in monster make-up, pair of twins who can smell and taste psychic disturbances, and a telepathic space-locust from Venus), this one has plenty of absurd humor and charm, but it ends so quickly that nothing much gets a chance to leave a mark.
Then again, the fact that it’s followed by the aforementioned “KONG-Tiki” does “Adamski” no favors. “Memorable” doesn’t do this one justice. Relating the strange circumstances surrounding the titular tiki-lounge’s grand opening as it is beset by spectral gangsters, “KONG-Tiki” could almost pass for a traditional ghost story, albeit with a swingin’ 1950s club setting. Almost, that is, if it weren’t for the show-stopping throwdown between a giant lime-green gorilla and a lumbering, ambulatory tiki statue. “KONG-Tiki” is like a Golden Age poverty-row monster-mash, but with the go-for-broke attitude of an 80s b-movie.
Finally, in a surprising bit of universe-building, the collection’s closing story, “Sleeper Under the Sea,” turns out to be a quasi-sequel to “KONG-Tiki,” featuring the same lead character and a similar tropical setting: this time a Hawaiian resort which is situated a bit too close to the same waters in which the U.S. military is conducting off-shore bomb tests. When one of those tests awakens some ageless, gargantuan consciousness dwelling deep beneath the sea, it unleashes a torrential storm that threaten to rip the island apart. Good thing one of the resort’s top acts is a psychic medium who may well be able to make contact (and hopefully make peace) with the entity responsible. More restrained than “KONG-Tiki,” but with a more ominous ending, “Sleeper Under the Sea” sees Widener return to the pulpy Lovecraftian horror which kicked off the collection.
Though each of Widener’s tales could hardly be more different from the one preceding it, observant readers will nevertheless find some commonalities throughout, both good and bad. On the good side of the scale, Widener imbues even his most grim tales with a sense of genuine enthusiasm and energy, and his apparent fascination with ‘50s west-coast American pop culture and history gives the stories wherein he gives this aspect carte blanche a very definite, very unique character. Though not everything he writes could be described as “Lovecraftian horror,” Widener certainly takes plenty of influence from ol’ H.P.L. as well, which he filters through a Bizarro sensibility that is most evident in the way he lingers on gross, graphic details.
Which brings us to the bad side of the scale. The images Widener lingers on are not gory ones, but slimy ones: acidic growing slugs and tentacle-headed men with crab-claw hands, gigantic ectoplasmic jellyfish and soul-sucking extradimensional leeches. The imagery and imagination he displays in these sequences is often exciting, but Widener sometimes lingers too much, to the point where he’ll stop story’s pace dead in its tracks so he can point out every last icky, nitty-gritty detail. At times, this results in densely-packed, too-long paragraphs that practically beg a reader to skim them instead of really read. That said, the issue seems to become less prominent as the collection goes on.
Aside from that, and the occasional awkward phrasing or bit of unnecessary padding, there isn’t much to not like about Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales. This collection is, in the end, a colorful, kaleidoscopic portrait of a writer experimenting with a wide range of styles and stories, and it proves just as fun to read as one suspects it was to write. Unwilling to restrain itself to a single approach to horror or Bizarro, what Widener whips up can certainly be called chaos. But it is chaos in the best way possible.