Greener Pastures, Michael Wehunt’s remarkable collection of short stories, opens with a neat introduction by Simon Strantzas describing the evolution of horror. To paraphrase, horror must adapt to survive, and Wehunt is a survivor. Strantzas knows something about the genre too. He’s written and edited a number of collections, including 2014’s lauded Burnt Black Suns.
Wehunt’s debut moves beyond the typical horror tropes—you know, conceits like final girls, urban legends, and overnight stays in haunted houses—and into new territory. His brand of horror absorbs other genres, permeating Blob-like through the fiber of familiar fictional classifications. It wants to become something different, something enhanced. Greener Pastures wants to become something better, and it succeeds on so many levels.
The author’s uncanny ability to think outside the box is on full display here, although I’d argue that these stories are so organic, their power so innate, they could never be confined by said box. Heck, I doubt they could be caged. While Wehunt has managed to capture the stuff of fever dreams, pain, and nightmares on the page, his manifestations threaten to roam where they want. And watch out when they do.
The risks Wehunt takes engage the reader and his technical skill keeps us hooked. Simply put, this guy can write. His characters and settings are evocative, easily jumping in mood and tone from cosmic to gothic to supernatural to body horror. His prose, often lyrical, spellbinds.
I like to write, and just pages into “Beside Me Singing in the Wilderness” I was overcome with the need to become a better writer. That compulsion never diminished, building with each turn of the page. There aren’t very many authors that can make you feel that way. Poe. Bradbury. Lovecraft. And for me, more recently, Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth. As a wannabe novelist, I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to watch an author twist and bend the written word to conform to his will.
Greener Pastures is an evolution as Strantzas asserts, but there’s a basic grounding in horror at work here too. If you’re erecting a house, even a haunted one, you’ve got to start with a foundation. Before you can construct belfries filled with bats or lay the plumbing for bloody showers, you’ve got to have a sound underpinning to build upon. Wehunt offers his theory on that foundation when he asks in the story notes (a cool addition to the book that provides insights into stories and the mind of the author), “Is there a greater fear [than loss]?” It’s a good question. I think it begs another clarifying query: Can there be loss without a fear of the unfamiliar? Are we simply terrified of losing what we hold dear, or are we really afraid of what life holds for us once what we love is gone?
When those we love disappear, we are bound to lose our native status. Everything turns foreign, and we become explorers in a now alien world. Unfortunately, the results of such expeditions historically have been grim. We all know what happened to pioneers like Magellan, Robert F. Scott, John Franklin, James Cook, and many more. And for those explorers that lived, we know what became of the indigenous peoples they discovered.
H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” That sentiment really gets to the heart of these stories:
Speaking of Lovecraft, several stories—“Onanan,” “Dancers,” and “October Film Haunt: Under the House”—cross into cosmic horror territory. I could easily see the creatures from these stories coexisting with Lovecraft’s Mi-Go or Ramsey Campbell’s insect-like Shan. I may never think of bees the same way again. At its outset, “October Film Haunt” is probably the most conventional story presented here (it’s a narrative found footage piece), but it develops into something more. There’s madness and subterranean horror, everything you’d want from an entry in the Cthulhu mythos.
Not everything between the covers of this book is so desperate, however. Some of these fables provide hope, if not for the characters, for the reader. It might be too late for those in the book, but we can always turn the next page and start again.
To close, Greener Pastures is beautifully crafted. Wehunt has painstakingly selected the very right words to paint exacting images and evoke precise emotional responses. Consequently, the stories here will haunt you for the days and weeks to follow. Enter this book like a spelunker dipping into the abyss, aware of the dangers and the wonder the unknown holds.
Greener Pastures can be purchased via Amazon.
About the Reviewer.
Matt Darst got hooked on reading early. His addiction a turn for the worst when he started writing…for fun. His experimentation with notebooks (a classic gateway) led to dabbling with typewriters. Soon he was hitting the hard stuff: word processors.
After law school, he decided to straighten out his life. He went cold turkey. He got a responsible job, a place in Chicago, and a dog. He surrounded himself with all the trappings of a normal life. Still…
Pen and pad call to Matt late at night, cooing his name, telling him to take another hit of fiction. Sometimes, when he’s weak, he heeds the siren call of the drug. He wakes from each blackout amid reams of freshly written pages, pages that have seemingly written themselves.
Matt’s second novel, Freaks Anon, is a paranormal superhero tale. The novel includes the free short story Monument. All proceeds from Freaks Anon will be donated to charity. Royalties will be catalogued and donated to Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C).
Also by Matt Darst: Dead Things, a post-apocalyptic tale that's an amalgam of all things Clerks, Crichton, and Zombieland.