22472298This year’s Shirley Jackson Awards nominations have produced a particularly distinguished slate in almost every category. In fact, Laird Barron, himself one of the aces in the current pack of horror and dark fiction writers, does a particularly fine thumbnail sketch of the strength of the contemporary genre in “A Stitch in Darkness,” his introduction to this particular nominee in the Single-Author Collection category, Unseaming by Mike Allen, who, he says, “has, with this debut collection, immediately made a case for his inclusion at the forefront of the New New Wave. Unseaming is representative of the finest work being done today.”

These fourteen stories show a rare balancing act of different genre styles and a deft swapping of masks and contexts through their narratives. The collection kicks off with “The Button Bin,” initially something like a conventional revenge thriller, which then turns into an intensely imagined and very creepy confrontation with something from quite Outside, and then a far more down-to-earth, yet even more disturbing, confrontation with memory and guilt. Mike Allen is a published poet as well as a horror/weird fiction writer, and it shows in the strength of the language here. “The Hiker’s Tale” works similar sleight of hand with hero and villain, mundanity and mystery. Some have remarked on the level of body horror in Allen’s stories, and it’s certainly there, but there’s just as much emotional and personal distress – the tone is overall pretty dark, and only in a few cases does the horror have some redemptive element or a positive outcome. When the penultimate tale in the volume, “The Quiltmaker,” revisits the themes of the first, typically, its characters and relationships come apart at the seams – emotional and familial as well as physical.

Allen is also a savvy practitioner of cosmic horror in the ontologically disturbing sense. You can see how much Allen has learned from Lovecraftian horror in this passage from “The Music of Bremen Farm” which reads like a pastiche straight out of “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Whisperer in Darkness”:

Throughout the rolling hills, where houses regard each other across wide vales, and narrow roads still ford streams with wooden bridges held together by iron spikes, the Anglicized names speak from rusting mailboxes: Anselm. Flohr. Krone. Newman. Schrader. Yet even in this place of isolation, with cornfields blanketing the land for miles before giving way to defiant oaks on ancient mountain, the Bremens stayed a world apart. They sent no sons to fight in the War of Northern Aggression. They did not come to the whitewashed A-frame churches. They did not grow crops, or ask for work in others’ cattle farms or dairies or tobacco fields. Those few who knew the business of the Bremen family left them to it, and spoke of it at most in late-night whispers that by morning seemed like half-forgotten dreams.

It’s also typical of Allen that the tale morphs from there on into a dark visceral bloodfest closer in spirit to James Herbert than H.P Lovecraft, yet with a sly evocation of the original Grimm fairy tale of the Musicians of Bremen. “An Invitation via E-mail” is equally sly, and far more comic, while “Stone Flowers” again combines family saga with medical horror, history with an unsettling and physically invasive legend, typical of the many layers and inspirations he manages to balance. Allen’s work is (mostly) less bleak than Ligotti, less disorienting than Aickman or Lovecraft, less brutal than Barron, but more intimate and touching, and often even sadder. And I hardly need say this is recommended. Anything but a shoo-in for a Shirley Jackson Award, mind, but that’s only because the entire field is so damn strong at the moment. And here’s one reason why.

TeleRead Rating: 4 e-readers out of 5

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Paul St John Mackintosh is a British poet, writer of dark fiction, and media pro with a love of e-reading. His gadgets range from a $50 Kindle Fire to his trusty Vodafone Smart Grand 6. Paul was educated at public school and Trinity College, Cambridge, but modern technology saved him from the Hugh Grant trap. His acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013, and his second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published in 2011.


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