Over the past year I have been stunned by the consistent strength of the books authors have sent me to review: the last six or so books which I have been honored to read and review for burgeoning writers in the horror field have been astounding. I don't write negative reviews, but for the past year or so I haven't had to worry about that: the books authors have sent me have been well worth the read.
The one at which I am looking today keeps the trend humming: it is unquestionably one of the most engaging collections of short stories that I have encountered in the last five years, and one of only a handful of short story anthologies which I have ever been asked to read (novels, of course, are much commoner in the genre). It is (and I mean this in all seriousness) a collection after my own heart, and easily one of my very favorite reads of the last year...
The anthology in question, In the Heart of the Garden is a Tomb, comes from the pen of veteran writer Joe Pawlowski (Why All the Skulls are Grinning, The Watchful Dead: A Tale of Old Hastur, The Vermillion Book of the Macabre) and is made up of nine disquieting, well-crafted tales about – as he puts it – “Lost souls seeking a way out. But there’s no escaping the bitter truth that awaits us all in the heart of the garden.” Included among them are:
An ill-fated party of lost loggers who stumble upon an old log cabin and rustic cemetery guarded by a shocking, odious presence that has worn a massive path in the woods (cf. Lovecraft’s “Curse of Yig,” Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, and the weird tales of Lord Dunsany)
A traumatized girl whose psychopathic uncle is kept locked in a shed after he assaults her best friend, who is driven to suicide; what follows is a brutal showdown (cf. Sin City, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt)
A middling artist whose genius only shows through when she paints scenes of extraordinary criminal violence – visions which always prove prophetic (cf. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model,” The Vault of Horror’s “Drawn and Quartered” segment, and Velvet Buzzsaw)
Two brothers from a dying family line learn that they come from a long line of murderers and deviants after their Nazi relative writes them from his death bed begging them to let the line die (cf. Roger Corman’s House of Usher and The Haunted Palace, Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” and “The Cask of Amontillado”)
An unhinged actor with a fetish for women with large hands (spawned by an obsession with the Mona Lisa) decides that he must posses his androgynous co-star at any cost – even if it means murder (cf. Poe’s “Berenice” and “William Wilson,” the films of Vincent Price, The Phantom of the Opera, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo)
A deliciously indulgent sword and sorcery tale with Spaghetti Western elements set in the otherworldly Carcosa Desert finds two travelers from Hastur encountering a soothsaying skull merchant buried up to his neck by his enemies. They reluctantly free the man – whom they call an “old ghoul” – but are disturbed by the grim fortune he shares with them as a token – that and the monstrous, roc-like vultures (“dragon hawks”) watching them from a distance (cf. the many sword and sorcery works of Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, and Fritz Leiber – plus a dash of Jeremiah Johnson)
I have always had a deep fondness for the short story form – both in general and in the context of the horror tradition – with its ability to artfully home in on a philosophical concept with economy and style. Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe excelled at this, and today’s book clearly continues in the mode of their tradition – with deep relish and fun, I might add.
My favorite part of these stories is that they are largely centered in the same literary universe and geographic area: most, though not all of them, share clear references to previous or future stories in the collection (particularly a recurring, evasive serial killer called the Midwest Butcher, who has murdered several of the various characters’ relatives and acquaintances), and are mostly set in Minnesota – specifically, the broader Twin Cities metro – giving them the sort of eerie, local cohesion that we see in Lovecraft’s Miskatonic County, Stephen King’s Maine, or – hell – Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon (which is surely not far from the epicenter of Pawlowski’s own macabre Minnesota).
I will immediately own up that I write this way myself, and I have a weakness for these kinds of collections which call to mind anthology films like Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Vault of Horror, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Four Rooms, Pulp Fiction, Heavy Metal, Dead of Night, Creepshow, and Sin City. My own short stories all tend to be set in my native eastern Indiana and feature common themes, characters, and settings which, if collected in an anthology, would also cause them to share an unsettling pulse. Such is the case with these stories most of whom share a decadent, noir sensibility set in the secretive, Scandinavian-populated prairie-towns of rural Minnesota and the urban Twin Cities metro.
Another element that I can’t help but gush about regarding this anthology is its loving homage to classic horror. The book is positively saturated with delicious Easter eggs for attentive fans of classic horror: my favorite deep take is an allusion to Algernon Blackwood’s chilling story “Valley of the Beasts,” in the timely story "Gunplay," which also follows a macho, gun-toting hunter named Grimwood. Carcosa, Hastur, Ligeia, Valdemar, Usher, and Dunsany’s Bethmoora Valdemar are all referenced, as are characters from Dickens novels and the ill-fated Detective Loomis from Robert Bloch’s Psycho.
Aside for the in-text allusions, each story begins with a literary epigram, usually from the works of many of our old friends: Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur Machen, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lafcadio Hearn, Robert E. Howard, and Edgar Allan Poe. As I said, it is an anthology after my own heart…
(Pawlowski in particular shares a good deal with
Arthur Machen, who also painted a dimly-lit universe of lurking evil, decadence, depravity, and infectious corruption, equally spelled out in subtle, haunting episodes split between remote, rural and gritty, urban settings)
It’s episodic, anthology nature and its emphasis on secrecy, decadence, and depravity immediately called to mind Robert Louis Stevenson (New Arabian Nights, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Robert W. Chambers (The King in Yellow), and Arthur Machen (The Three Imposters) – three of several prominent influences on these campy, noir courses, forming as they do an indulgent and cohesive banquet of unease.
As I mentioned, there are spades of references to Poe – whose influence is utterly profound in several stories, in particular the campy “My Dark Friend Déjà Vu”, which calls to mind bits of “William Wilson,” “Berenice,” and “Hop-Frog” as well as “The Last of the Sebeka Mungers” which is something of a riff on “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado” by way of Ed Gein.
While the stories can be very violent, they clearly belong to the tradition of classy, intelligent horror which is always welcome on my nightstand: the gore, when it comes, is impactful and effective, not superfluous or inane, and each story meditates deeply on the contradictions of the human condition. They are sad, thought-provoking, and tragic. Sometimes the endings are buoyed with unexpected and generous hope, however, and once you pick up on this possibility (rare in horror fiction), it makes the subsequent stories all the more tense – now that you realize that a (somewhat) happy ending is possible, it makes each new tale that much more intriguing: where is this going, I found myself wondering by the third or fourth page.
In general – like a good student of the classics – Pawlowski’s anthology broods over themes of inherited sin, obsessions, the power of art, collective secrets, moral ambiguity, revenge, self-loathing, redemption, and the sometimes-horrific side effects of undiluted self-indulgence. There are strong whiffs of Bierce, Lovecraft, and Hawthorne here, with their shared obsessions with generational guilt, repressed trauma, and moral decay, not to mention the brutal modern influence of Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, and Neil Gaiman.
Another notable influence on the collection, already alluded to, is the medium of film. The stories are delightfully littered with cinematic Easter eggs, including allusions to Hitchcock films, and their anthologist structure – arranged as they are in a shared universe with common characters and geography – perhaps most reminded me of Sin City. Here too are themes of sexual perversion, moral desperation, campy villains, gritty urban decay, lust killings, widespread corruption, rampant crime, misogynistic violence, and – most of all – lost innocence.
(Sin City's brutal-but-artful treatment of innocence, sin, corruption, desire, and the noir aesthetic finds a
worthy parallel in Pawlowski's stories)
Although the stories keep pace with the horror genre – almost always including an overtly supernatural element or a psychological one which (a la Henry James) casts uneasy doubt on reality – they revel in the tropes and language of neo noir films and fiction, projecting a cynical vision of a hideously corrupt humanity – from the family unit on up – desperately fighting to restore itself to spiritual peace and actualization.
As I mentioned, a few of the stories do see their characters arrive at a sort of bitter-sweet victory over their surroundings, but the triumphs are slight and wistful – not to mention rare. This, perhaps, is where they borrow the most from films like Sin City, Psycho, The Maltese Falcon, or The Big Sleep: where straight horror usually starts and ends on an entirely dark note, noir films brutally fight back against the crime and corruption, with their hardscrabble protagonists almost always carving out a small territory of justice – often at the cost of their own lives.
Likewise, the stories in this collection are largely about characters who are genuinely in search of peace, and the tragic beauty of them taught me something both as a critic and as a writer myself. Like the proto-noir cycles of Stevenson, Chambers, Poe, and Machen, these tales explore the lost-ness of the human soul as it has been chewed up and digested by modernity, but – unlike, say Upton Sinclair or George Orwell – the characters are not fighting against political enemies, but internal forces of depravity: impulses, prejudices, and fears that hold them back from realizing their potential and moving on into the light (this is usually a metaphor, but one story takes this on very literally). Traumas, desires, family legacies, anxieties, greed, lust, bitterness, and fears restrain the dimly-lit characters in this book from moving ahead in their spiritual evolution.
I think it is this precise problem which makes the book’s title so fitting: an allusion – by way of Clark Ashton Smith – to Jesus of Nazareth’s stone-hewn tomb brooding grimly at the center of the otherwise cheery garden adjacent to his execution site. This archetype perfectly summarizes both the terrors and the hopes of the human condition, viz., that we are dominated by the realization that at the black heart of our own Garden (of life, of beauty, of art, of spirituality and sublimity and transcendence) Death is waiting for each of us -- patient, permanent, and unyielding. None of our accomplishments or joys can remove this tomb from the heart of our gardens.
(M. R. James' "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance" is yet one more brilliant piece of horror literature that ponders the phrase: "In the Heart of the Garden is a Tomb"
-- both literally and metaphysically)
On the other hand, there is a sprawling garden built around our tomb – one of experiences and accomplishments and small joys that we might be able to access and delight in if we could only step out of the tombs that we find ourselves lurking in and clinging to in fear. So, which is it? Are we lingering in a garden working our way towards a tomb, or languishing in a tomb peering out at the expanse of a garden? Is life a descent into degeneration and decay, or can we – even if only for a moment or a season – transcend corruption?
This book clearly favors the former interpretation, but commendably holds the other with an open hand: it is not a depressing catalogue of human failure and incompetence, but a realistic exploration of the genuine horrors lurking in one homely swathe of the American Midwest.
And so it is up to us, the readers, to decide what we should make of the often pathetic, always tragic lives of Pawlowski’s unfortunate characters. As with the end of every good noir anthology, we are mostly treated to a banquet of devastation, corruption, sin, and living damnation, but the occasional palate cleansers sprinkled throughout are the truly thought-provoking hors d’oeuvre that make this anthology an intellectual delight genuinely worthy of its classic influences.