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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Review: The Skeleton Melodies by Clint Smith

 The Skeleton Melodies: Smith, Clint, Golaski, Adam: 9781614982869 ...

With Clint Smith’s first collection Ghouljaw and Other Stories, a new exciting voice emerged on the horror scene. From bizarre body horror to tales of creeping dread, it was evident that Clint was a dedicated student of the horror story. And now with Clint’s new collection The Skeleton Melodies, he has returned as a master of the form, showing himself to one of the most important writers working today. His collection Ghouljaw was a mixed bag, it had some masterful stories that showed Clint’s potential, but it did also have some works that I don’t think showed Clint at his best. So his follow up collection has been eagerly awaited, to see if Clint comes through on the promise of his strongest works, or if it will be another mixed bag like his first collection. And I am happy to say that this is the collection we horror fans have been waiting for from Clint. A wide range of styles and subject matter, stories like Animalhouse are good old fashioned monster pulp goodness, The Rive is like the prologue to some strange 1970’s science fiction film, Fiending Apophenia is a drug saturated fever dream, and Her Laugh is a creeping and disturbing variation on the ghost story. But for my tastes, the two best stories in this collection are The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein and Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow. But before I talk a bit about my favorite works, let me talk a bit about where Clint Smith sits in the horror literature tradition. 

I think one of the differences between classical horror and the modern era of horror is in its view of the nature of reality. In classical horror, the author is trying to upset your notions of a safe and relatable reality. In modern horror, day to day reality is uncertain and surreal. In classic horror, something from outside attempts to destroy your sense of self. In modern horror, the self is already corrupted and unknowable. Writers like Ray Bradbury or H.P. Lovecraft wrote tales of imagination. Their works took place in this personal dream space and were written down as personal visions. In the current era, we find ourselves in, personal space and media space no longer has the hard boundaries that made it easy to tell fiction from reality. Writers now must navigate a terrain that intermingles personal space as public and public space as personal. With the advent of social media and lifestyles that are lived mainly in the digital world, personal space has been seamlessly intertwined with constant media involvement. Public space has lost its “otherness” and now is an arena to engage and pursue one’s deepest fantasies and desires, transforming the “outside” to just another area of one’s personal space. 

This brings us to one of the major developments in modern era horror literature. An offshoot trope that now is where maybe some of the most important work in horror fiction is being done. The literature of delirium. A view of reality as this hallucinatory dreamscape where meaning and identity slide and mutate. There is no normal to defend or return to, in this delirious literature, it is more a matter of how to live, how to navigate this new terrain we find ourselves in. Some of the hallmarks of this branch of horror are, its intentionally perverse use of genre tropes, the absence of a “base” reality for the characters, “shock” endings that further transform the narrative into something completely different then the reader was expecting, and the use of surrealist imagery and concepts. You may ask, how is this different than say, classical avant-garde methods of attack or say, writers like William Burroughs or Roland Torpor? The difference is, writers like Burroughs and Torpor used unreality to attack the social norms of society, to attack the status quo. By mutating and transgressing social boundaries and taboos they hoped to change, or even destroy, "normal" society. This new era of writer, which I take Clint Smith to be a part of, finds that the “normal” has disappeared, and is using surrealism, horror tropes, and avant-garde techniques… to try to find a level ground, a steady reality. If everything is “hyperreal”, how do you attack the status quo? How do you attack the reader's sense of normalcy? What is transgressive in this modern era? The literature of delirium primarily functions as a kind of exploration of transgression and notions of reality in a world where clips from shows on Adult Swim rest beside Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou on YouTube. 

Some of the masterworks of “literature of delirium”, mainly collections of short stories since it seems the best format of fiction to best explore these concepts are in the short story, are Adam Golaski’s Worse Than Myself, Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, and Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark. I think Clint Smith, at his best, fits into this school of horror literature. Clint Smith is a master of the literature of delirium. His tales unnerve you and inconvenience you. He takes what you thought you were familiar with, like your body or your day to day life, and renders them new and strange. In an ever more uncertain reality that we find ourselves in, Clint Smith’s work is almost prophetic. Now let me talk about what I feel are his best works from The Skeleton Melodies. 

The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein is, in my opinion, one of the great stories of the post 2000 era. In this one we find Clint Smith firing on all cylinders. The story centers on Gwen, who is driving down to the beach to take a vacation along with her two kids and her mother. Her children keep seeing news of recent shark attacks on television and social media, which may lend to news-driven hysteria, or it may be that for some strange reason, shark attacks have increased to an alarming rate. So there is this kind of overlaying anxiety about the dangers of the ocean. Also Gwen’s mother Kathy has been having an increasing number of disturbing nightmares about her dead husband. So, they arrive down to the beach to take a relaxing break from their stresses. But with all the underlying fears of shark attacks and nightmares of dead spouses, there is this haunting atmosphere of dread that lingers over the narrative. It is vague and undefined, but increasing as the story unfolds. And when they just start to relax and enjoy some swimming, one of the great scenes in horror literature erupts. There is a scene, a visual, that like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, is a thing that could never be visualized. It could be one thing, or another thing, or both combined. It is a moment of shock, of surreality, and of utter doom. It is one of those stories that sticks with you in the best horror tradition, leaving a nice scar on your psyche, both pleasurable and painful. 

Details That Would Be Otherwise Lost to Shadow is another destabilizing masterpiece. The story focuses on Tara, a woman happily married and luckily employed in her desired profession, interior design. They have a daughter and just recently moved from Chicago to the outskirts of Detroit. While settling in, Tara notices this strange house nearby, a house built for some reason with different sections of the house using different architectural styles and different building materials. Brick, cobblestone, wood planking, tile, all mixed together. She never sees anywhere come or go from that house and she becomes fascinated, wanting to discover who, if anyone, lives there, and what the inside of the house looks like. One day, intent on acting like she was just making a social call, she goes over to the strange house and tries the door. No one home. She looks around and finds a back door and decides to take a chance and enter the house. The inside is just as puzzling and intriguing as the outside. While looking around she hears a car door slam, scaring her. She runs over to the upstairs window and looks across to her house, where her husband and child are exiting the car, with a woman who looks just like Tara. There is this great nebulous quality about this story, where nothing really comes clear. This story resembles the strangely put together house of the story. Like the different segments of the house, this story is a puzzle made up of pieces that all fit together but you don’t understand how they all fit together, only that is some underlying meaning and purpose to it that is not clear, and it is up to you to decide what the puzzle means. There are strange doppelgangers, shadowy strangers, and implications of nightmarish connections. 

I highly recommend this book, Clint Smith is a rising star of horror literature who has now made a permanent place for himself with The Skeleton Melodies. I fully expect even more brilliant and challenging works in the future coming from Clint. Combining a poetic sense of prose with a delight of horror literature that shows him to be a true connoisseur of the genre, Clint Smith is helping keep the long and important tradition of taboo-breaking, idea-driven, horror fiction relevant and essential. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

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