Monday, February 7, 2011

BENEATH THE SURFACE by Simon Strantzas

The older I get, the more demanding I become with the fiction I read. With contemporary Horror, I confess I read relatively little of it. This is not to suggest that I have a keen critical eye, or that the books I choose not to read are in any way lacking. The plain truth is that I'm extremely particular. If I am to read a work of Horror, I require it to enrich my life rather than siphon time from it. And in order to enrich my life, said work must be a feast; plump with all the flavours and scents and shadings that the past masters evoked in their time.

Alas, too many writers seem to have forgotten, or perhaps are not concerned with, what Le Fanu called "the aesthetic of terror." Fortunately, my good friend Simon Strantzas is in that minority of contemporary authors who strive to evoke the nightmarish, the weird, as is evidenced by his 2008 debut collection Beneath the Surface (recently rescued from obscurity by Dark Regions Press). In short, Simon's first book had/still has everything I look for.

From the grimy gnosticism of the Liggotian "It Runs Beneath the Surface," to the dusty, truly oneiric "You Are Here," Beneath the Surface strives to present the nightmarish in an undiluted form. This is far more difficult than simply sloughing off "odd for the sake of odd" stories that go nowhere. It is a skill that few Horror authors even attempt, let alone succeed at.

When BtS first appeared in 2008, Simon became one of those writers I knew I could really learn from. (I learn from many of my author friends. Fortunately, I'm blessed with having many of the field's best and darkest as my companions.) While the nature of its contents removed any hope of mainstream success, I was nonetheless optimistic that the book would make substantial waves. Stephen Jones certainly thought highly of it, as did those weird tale aficionados who were lucky enough to acquire a copy before the publisher's implosion led to Beneath the Surface slipping, well, beneath the surface before its time.

In the interim, Simon released Cold to the Touch, an equally excellent collection, though one vastly different from the book at hand. Because the new Dark Regions reprint followed Simon's second, and more widely known, book, there are many who seem to view Beneath the Surface as the author's humble beginnings, a touchstone from which he grew and evolved as a writer.

I disagree.

Beneath the Surface does not "lack" elements such as snappy dialogue or more dynamic protagonists. Those elements are simply not the point of this kind of weird tale. Nor are these stories in any way incomplete. They are expressions of the ineffable, decadent visions in which the grotesque *is* the point.

I think BtS is Simon's crowning achievement thus far, because it is a rare thing; a phantasmagoria. If reading truly is a form of dreaming-while-awake, then think of this book as waking nightmares. Showing the world as you see it is not the point here. Like all great weird tales, Simon's stories are about *an impression* of the world, a glimpse, a chance-sighting that moves to its own alien rhythm.

Simon explains himself far better than this in his new Afterword. I urge all of you to pick up a copy of this feast, seasoned as it is with strange shadings from afar.