By John Porter
Horror can be a tricky subject for a writer to tackle. No less an authority than H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Author James G. Carlson has taken that statement to heart in his recent collection of short stories, Seven Exhumations, from Terror Tract Publishing.
Carlson grounds the fear of the unknown in the familiar—houses, lunch between two acquaintances, teenage boredom, a meeting at a bar—and gives those mundane realities a violent twist so that the ordinary becomes extraordinary. And violent, oh so violent. Each of the seven stories delivers a gut punch along the way that will leave the reader affected for some time to come.
Don’t imagine for a second that these are your ordinary serial killer, slasher-style horror stories. They don’t border on the weird, they jump in with both feet and swim in bizarre waters. There is a sentient house with uh, arms? tentacles? that is looking for company. A couple of star-crossed lovers just happen to be celestial beings on opposite sides of the holy.
Not with the consequences of Good Omens, but close. Let’s just say that things heat up very fast and that the climax is very satisfying.
The anthology begins with a Bradbury-like premise: two brothers out for a walk in the woods exploring their new surroundings. But with a title like Grim, you know it is unlikely that things will go well for our heroes. The story is based partly on an event that took place between the author and his brother and the narrative has the most concrete set up. However, once things start going south, the boys find themselves in the direst of circumstances.
Hell comes into play in two other stories: one of escape and another of acceptance, both with chilling consequences. In another, bored teenagers in a small town discover a hidden spring and the strange lifeform that inhabits it. Trust me, what waits by the spring is something out of your nastiest nightmares. Finally, nature rebels in a couple of tales leaving the human race rocking on its heels once and for all.
Carlson presents these seven dark stories in an economical 134 pages, keeping a tight rein on his descriptions and interactions. Neither are slighted in the least, he merely keeps them lean and paints a vivid picture in the reader’s mind while leaving plenty of room for their imagination to run wild.
Although it is difficult to believe, horror can be a delicate creature. Ask any group of connoisseurs and you will find that one person’s love of gore is another’s turn off. Psychological terror might attract one person but be too subtle for others. It is most difficult for an author to walk that tightrope and find a style that will suit a wide audience. Carlson utilizes a few different techniques—ranging from quiet fear to the gross out, sometimes within the same story to great effect.
While Carlson has published stories in a few previous anthologies, Seven Exhumations is his debut solo collection. I doubt it will be his last. He displays talent with his six shorter works and in his opening missive, Grim. It is only a matter of time before he sets his sights on a full-length novel, and unless I miss my guess, he has all the tools to succeed there as well.
John Porter is a writer of horror, dark fantasy, and is a former stand-up comedian. He also writes about blues music and plays records at VPM.org/timefortheblues. He has written extensively about surrealist theatre and Mexican Exploitation Films. His website is under construction because he is too lazy to finish it.