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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows by Sam Richard.

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I would like to introduce a newer writer on the horror scene who I am sure will be making quite the impact, Sam Richard. He has recently released a collection of his short fiction and it is certainly a breath of fresh air in a growingly stagnant and inbred horror literature scene. A much-needed sense of transgression and real importance informs Sam’s work. This book is a testament to how horror fiction can engage in a real and honest way with real-life trauma and grief. When most more traditional fiction falls into condescending falsehoods and feel good fallacies, horror can be truthful, can convey feelings of deep hurt and shame, can explore secret thoughts and hidden wounds. To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows serves to author Sam Richard as an inner diary of his trying to cope and deal with the real-life loss of his wife Maureen Richard. It is full of self-destructive dreams and a terrifying longing that goes beyond the dark at the end of life. It is shockingly transgressive, a kind of self-inflicted sadism against the author. When you read about Baudelaire and Nietzche talking about writers who bleed out their prose, this is a perfect example of that. Each story is like a bone in a cage made of his dead love's body, trapping him inside. Wonderful and terrible Batailleian visions of diseased sex and universe destroying despair. 

To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows, at its best, is a series of feverish dreams and tormenting nightmares all centered around the death of a loved one, almost all the stories in this collection serve as a kind of self therapy through horror. The collection is a deep delve into the inner life of writer Sam Richard. It has an intimacy that balances with the horrors. Certainly not a light read. In some ways, I would compare this book to Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Bataille’s The Story of the Eye. It is completely an obsessional book, personal in nature, and an attack on anyone who opens its pages. 

It is hard to criticize such a personal book, but there are some criticisms that must be made. There are two stories that seem out of place in the collection. The Verdant Holocaust written for a Misfits tribute anthology, about strange rites and monstrous religions, is pretty over the top and kind of just meanders. The Prince of Mars was written for a Williams Burroughs tribute anthology, and again is an example of over the top writing, it may be of interest to those looking for more Burroughs homages, but to me, it just didn’t capture my imagination. And the first story, the title story To Wallow in Ash, is maybe too autobiographical, it seems that Sam is writing a memoir about his lost love, and then, in the end, it starts turning into a fictional story. Which sometimes may work, but the problem here is that the story never has time to seduce the reader into its fictional world, never allows a sense of its own reality, never allows an atmosphere to develop or allows the reader to enter the dreamworld space of a short story. We Feed This Muddy Creek starts off promisingly, but takes this unconvincing turn with super unrealistic characters and kind of random over the top violence. If you like the more goth punk early work of Caitlin Kiernan or the more Bizarro style of writing you may enjoy these works, but for me, they didn’t really work.

On the other hand, there are some masterful works in here. Love Like Blood is an absolutely nightmarish delirium of doppelgangers and longing. There are also shades of the films Ringu and Lost Highway in this tale. A powerful story that in itself makes this book a must buy. I Know Not the Names of the Gods to Whom I Prey is a descent into an inferno of self-loathing and self-destructive desire. It has this perverse sadomasochism that is so truthful and painfully, it’s like Sam Richards put his most hurtful thoughts directly on paper, I wish Clive Barker in his writings was so honest. Nature Unveiled, a type of end of the world story, is gleefully and unapologetically a revenge story in honor of the main characters lost love. Deathlike Love is a masterpiece of diseased desires and shame-filled infidelities, a story both erotic and horrific in the best possible way.

So overall To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows is a book that is both a loss filled dirge for those we most care for ripped away from us too soon and a celebration of the possibilities of horror fiction and how it can explore deeply personal horrors. I do think the book would have fared better if it just focused on the main theme, making the book a series of repeated nightmares of loss and guilt. The great stories in here kind of overshadow the others which don’t quite rise up to their level. But this is a minor quibble. To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows is one of the most original collections to have come out in years, it will arouse you, bring you to tears, and shock you, sometimes all at once. Life is usually a confusing affair, full of conflicting emotions and disturbing thoughts you would never share. But that is the stuff that weaves through this book like a burning contagion through your heart, flaring and destroying all at once. 

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