Friday 27 January 2017

Recommendation: Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt

I came to this debut collection from American author Michael Wehunt having already admired a number of the stories in various anthologies and yearly best ofs - and yet, it still impressed me even more than I was expecting.

Nearly every story here is worthy of your time, but I'll jump right in and say a few words about my favourites. Your own may vary, as might mine the next time I read them. (And these stories will certainly need rereading.)

'Greener Pastures' is a sustained exercise in atmosphere, set in the a truckers' cafe in the middle of American nowhere. Two truckers fall into conversation whilst staring out into the sodium-lit darkness outside, and it's no surprise that their talk is all about nothingness and empty spaces... Wehunt uses these bare bones to create an utterly compelling, creepy narrative; I've seen this story compared online to a Twilight Zone piece and there's something to that - but it has an emotional resonance beyond any mere twist-in-the-tale piece.

If 'Greener Pastures' was almost minimalist in the elements it used to scare, 'October Film Haunt: Under The House' takes the opposite approach and chucks everything into the pan. We have a classic creepy house, multiple unreliable narrators, Lovecraftian weirdness, entomophobia, and a clever use of the 'found footage' trope in a prose narrative. All these elements are bound by the story's relentless air of fatalist determinism - Wehunt's characters seem stuck in a situation that they know will lead to their ruin but are compelled to play it out anyway. (Or maybe I'm just seeing my own neurosis and intellectual tics staring back at me from the distorted mirror Wehunt crafts here. Readers of 'Fate, Destiny, And A Fat Man From Arkansas' will know how scary I find those notions.)

Like many pieces here, 'Dancers' fuses genuine, poetic symbols of human experience (the titular trees are ones the husband in a long marriage has gradually encouraged to grow entwined together) and horrific imagery that undercuts this human lyricism. 'Dancers' is a darkly terrible story about possession, fertility rites and old gods.

And that's not to mention the Aickman-inspired 'A Discrete Music', the Stephen King-esqe 'Devil Under The Maison Blue' or the superb, surreal, take on small communities and religious fundamentalism in 'Deducted From Your Share In Paradise'.

Overall then, this is a well-crafted, intelligent, not to mention thoroughly enjoyable collection of short stories, each of which builds on genre classics but displays the author's own distinct voice. A fine debut.

Greener Pastures (UK | US)

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