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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Reviewing: Ty Tracey's Upcoming Novel, The Corroding

We had all begun to accept that things may never go back to normal. Civilization as we knew it was in the midst of a great turning. We were no longer in control of our fate; something outside our most basic human faculties had taken over…”

— Ty Tracey, The Corroding

One of the most pleasurable parts of my job is reading and recommending the work of rising stars in the world of speculative fiction. Since I myself am hardly a mainstream staple in the industry – just an indie publisher working from home with his daughter and wrangling two cats between folding laundry – the budding authors who approach me are also often either newcomers to the field, or seasoned writers who have grown tired of jumping through hoops to win over the risk-averse, time-strapped editors in Big Publishing. They tend to be creative, unconventional, and idealistic, and I have the greatest respect for these authors – especially those whose books I enjoy enough to publish a review (if I’m not excited or interested by it, I will correspond and advise, but I don’t write middling or negative reviews).

Today I have the honor and privilege of – for the first time in seven years of writing reviews – recommending a second work by one of my authors. Many of them have brought to me either their very first novel (as this one did) or their first effort at speculative fiction. It is hard to write one novel, and many authors in the industry either stop at one or take a while to work their way up to a second, so while I am always eager to consider a second request for a review, I have never received one – until now.

Three years ago, I was delighted to read and review Ty Tracey’s freshman novel, Three Days at Ashford, an unnerving story about the fictitious ghost town of Ashford, Ohio, where a paranormal investigation TV crew explore shocking reports of the bizarre events that took place there over several decades – culminating in the town’s dereliction.

The spooky adventure rapidly devolves into a traumatic encounter with personified evil. Cut off from civilization by gloomy forests, the team find themselves sucking into a portal of madness and metaphysical terror. Three Days at Ashford beautifully blended elements of speculative fiction – horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural – and Tracey’s sophomore opus picks up where it left off… cranking the dial up to the proverbial eleven.

The Corroding leans even further into Ashford’s Lovecraftian ethos, but where Ashford was styled like Lovecraft’s middle period (allowing unsettling peeks into a misanthropic conspiracy, but without pulling back the curtain, a la “Call of Cthulhu”), The Corroding leaps into the vast, science fiction drama shared with Lovecraft’s later period. It is a sweeping, cinematic drama replete with cosmic malevolence and mind-blowing dangers to the entire human race.

The novel – set once again in the Ashford universe – begins with a salt-mining company excavating thousands of feet beneath Lake Erie when they uncover a strange, basketball-sized crystal which glows with its own hypnotic light. As the miners and geologists examine it, the unthinkable happens: when it is dislodged from the salt wall, a noxious, tar-like ooze gushes from the cavity, covering the stunned men, and when the crystal begins strobing with otherworldly light, they suddenly burst into flames and are burned alive. Once no one is left alive to notice, a figure – ghostly and sinister – emerges from its ancient hiding place:

“From the now-blackened crystal emerged a mist in the silhouetted form of a man. It was sentient but otherwise inhuman. It walked with no discernable features. It was smoke but alive and conscious. It was a being who was now free and making its way out of the mine. As it progressed, the mine collapsed behind it in an organized fashion that it was clearly responsible for orchestrating. The scorched bodies of the miners became entombed within a mountain of salt beneath an immense and wild lake.”

Freed to wreak havoc among mankind, evil forces spread across the world, sowing fear, division, hatred, paranoia, and distrust. Bizarre coincidences, celestial signs, disappearances, dark omens, and uncanny portents haunt everyday people and communities all across the globe.

Humanity finds itself inexplicably incapable of putting its finger on what is wrong, but everyone seems to sense a nearing cataclysm and an increasing sense of unease. It seems like that feeling that you have about having left the stove on or the backdoor unlocked before leaving on vacation – except this is an uneasiness that follows you every single day, growing in power and potency without relief, and it is a sensation quietly felt by every person on earth.

Strange visions appear in the skies, medically impossible deaths are witnessed by thousands, inexplicable housefires fan out like rashes (and at the scene of each fire, a three-legged, striped rat is witnessed), whole villages vanish, and corpses are discovered in bizarre places with unbelievably complex mutilations – down to the very veins. While humanity struggles to understand their adversary – what its aims, methods, and message are – and as gruesome and unnatural deaths mount, along with increasingly bizarre signs and wonders, the confounded media gives it a name: The Corroding.

What follows is a novel worthy of H. G. Wells, with all the rich social commentary of The Time Machine and all the cosmic horror of The War of the Worlds. It is not a simple story or a processed spine-tingler for a lazy weekend: it is a gripping, challenging piece of fiction that is unbelievably timely, speaking directly to the most fundamental bonds that hold humanity together, and to the most sinister impulses that threaten to tear us apart. It is a novel which – were it not so fantastical – might offer a fairly believable solution to the question: what the hell is going on with mankind?

In an early chapter, Tracey writes:

“There was a quiet but unmistakable static manifesting somewhere behind our previously undistorted vision of reality… There was joy among us but only as we watched through frightened eyes, waiting patiently for the other shoe to drop…

“We were a civilization existing for the first time within a probability that didn’t favor our continued accomplishment, happiness, or prosperity. The truth wasn’t only something we all grappled with beneath our thin façade of normalcy; it was something everyone projected at all times. It formed a collective consciousness of unease that blanketed the countryside.

“The bizarre and unsettling had become the new normal…”

Re-reading this, I find it astonishingly relevant and touching: a series of observations that could come from a brooding social commentary disguised as a horror novel, or from a history book written thirty years from now about the last decade. Tracey unflinchingly invests his novel with the agonized spirit of our times which yearns for understanding, connection, and justice, but finds itself force-fed distrust, alienation, and corruption.

As the Corroding blazes its way across the world, robbing humanity of its collective sanity and forcing more and more people to question reality and whether or not they live in a simulation, the pitiful people of Tracey’s world find themselves – like us – terrified, divided, and desperate for salvation from the spreading malaise and hopelessness. The terror only increases with the continued appearance of the sadistic shadow man who was unleashed from the crystal under Lake Erie – a vicious, surgically-creative predator whose haunting, schoolyard refrain is:

“Sorry for intruding. So sorry for your luck.

“But Allister Smoke is gonna chop you up.”

In light of the wave of terrors that sweep the earth, a band of experts and investigators pitch together to solve the question of the Corroding: what is it, can it be stopped, and does humankind even deserve to be saved?

Tracey’s novel powerfully blends the Wellsian and the Lovecraftian into a unique and engaging web of action and terror, an intellectual horror story in the vein of sweeping, philosophical classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, It, The Mothman Prophecies, At the Mountains of Madness, The Stand, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Arrival, and The War of the Worlds.

Its refreshingly unapologetic humanism balances out its brutal terror, causing it to both provide a fair critique of human depravity as well as a loving pean to humanity’s value and potential. It is thrilling and dramatic and beautiful.



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