by J. Ashley-Smith
There’s something so personal about a collection of short stories. While a novel—a good novel, at least—can immerse you completely in its universe, the lives of its characters, the thrust of its narrative, it’s still just one idea, just one thread in the weave of an author’s potential. Think Hilary Mantel: a reading of Wolf Hall would not predict Beyond Black, and yet a collection like The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher makes both possible, joins the dots between otherwise incomparable works. Reading a great collection brings you closer to an author, closer to the depth and breadth of their imagination, closer to their voice. It’s intimate. And, with the best collections, lasting.
These five diverse single-author anthologies of dark, weird and fantastic fiction each made a distinct, but deep, impression on me. They chart—over the thirty-odd years between which I read them—the course of my own writing practice. Each opened doors in my imagination that made possible, via tangled passages and circuitous byways, the stories in my own collection, The Measure of Sorrow.
Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges
I learned about Borges through the first writer friend I ever made. At seventeen, eighteen, I had only just come out, officially, of the writing closet, identifying as a writer, even going so far as to actually put pen to paper and scratch out some early ideas. I fell in with a group of other aspiring creatives, one of whom turned out to live in the next road to me. We hung out often, late into the night, drinking tea, getting stoned, and reading to each other from authors he turned me onto—in particular the holy trinity, the three Bs: Burroughs, Ballard, and Borges. While I went down rabbit holes of the imagination with both W.S. and J.G., it was Jorge Luis that wormed his way most deftly inside my head and tore my mind a new one. His precise, impeccable prose; his blurring of the lines between story and essay, between fantasy and fact; his obsessive love for the mysteries of time. Labyrinths is Borges’ ode to eternity, an Escher lithograph of dead gods and detectives, of memory and the spiralling infinite, sentences cool and clear in the sultry heat of an Argentine midnight. This book is a masterpiece, with almost every story, in its own way, genre defining. Those that have stayed with me since I first read them include The Garden of Forking Paths; Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius; Death and the Compass; and my eternal favourite, Funes the Memorious.
Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti
I stopped writing—or even aspiring to write—for many years after moving to Australia. The combined pressures of building a new life in a new land, of bringing children into the world and keeping them there, along with the festering corpse of a book I had written but could not finish, acted together like a lid on my imagination. I buried it deep, bottled up in an industrial oubliette, all concrete walls and a great iron seal. Reading Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco for the first time blew the lid off that underground bunker, releasing all that pent up dreaming in a foetid black geyser. No book I have ever read has come so close to the reality of nightmare—and I don’t mean the Hollywood kind, the kind you might dream on Elm Street, but the unutterably claustrophobic, inexplicably surreal kind, a vision-prison of Lynchian proportions where you pray you’ll wake up screaming before you’re driven mad. Each story is a descent from strangeness into something much more terrible. And each step on the way you feel the ground slipping further and further beneath you. Every story in this collection is a work of incomparable genius, but the standouts for me include The Red Tower; the title story, Teatro Grottesco; The Bungalow House; and my favourite, the demented, degenerate The Town Manager.
Dead Sea Fruit, Kaaron Warren
There’s something wrong with Kaaron Warren. How else can you explain those elaborate dream-prisons we call her stories? I first met her at a convention in Sydney in 2015 or 2016, introduced by a mutual friend. Inspired by our conversation, I came away with a copy of Dead Sea Fruit, which I began over breakfast in a small cafe in Surry Hills, and devoured on the train home to the Blue Mountains. Somewhere inside Kaaron, in a place so deep and hidden it doesn’t have a name, is a dark machine ceaselessly churning, birthing world upon miniature world. They look familiar, these worlds, so very much like our own. But something’s awry. The walls are rotten-soft and collapse at our touch. The birds no longer fly south, only hobble in ragged flocks along the highway. The girls giggle and pine for the wasting kiss of the ash mouth man. The ghosts are everywhere and not all of them wish us well. Each tale is a snow-globe, dark and glittering, detailed and beautiful and perverse, filled with broken people and black smoke. This collection covers so much ground it’s hard to pick favourites, but the stories that have stayed with me include The Grinding House; Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall; and the title story, Dead Sea Fruit.
Occultation, Laird Barron
This collection was my first exposure to the extraordinary nightmare world of Laird Barron and his Old Leech mythos. I was struck down with some terrible flu, the kind where you cook for days in your own rank juice, hallucinating madly, neither fully asleep nor awake but trapped somewhere between. In my more lucid moments, I listened to the excellent audiobook adaptation of Occultation, tag teaming with Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters (another contender for this slot in the list). Even in the company above, I can honestly say I had never heard anything like Occultation. Those long, dense, character-rich stories, with their vibe that’s four parts Cormac McCarthy, two parts Edgar Rice Burroughs, with the remainder veiled in shadows so deep you can see them writhe. In this and other collections, Barron walks a path first cleared by H.P. Lovecraft: a contiguous mythos of great old terrors from the darkest reaches of the cosmos, and takes it so far beyond the Lovecraftian it becomes its own thing entire—something better suited to our own times (with none of the questionable views or, frankly, boring bits). I’ve read and watched and listened to a LOT of scary stories, but none ever really frightened me before Occultation. I still can’t think of Mysterium Tremendum, 30, or the exquisitely horrific Strappado, without a shudder.
Velocities, Kathe Koja
I came late to the party with the books of Kathe Koja, completely missing The Cipher on its first release and only connecting with it the second time round—almost thirty years later. I read its opening chapter and the title story from her collection Velocities in a Meerkat Press sampler and was instantly hooked, had to get my hands on both books the moment they hit the shops. There is something so earnest and immediate about Koja’s writing, even when the characters themselves are cynical to the bone. Something playful. You can tell she’s enjoying herself with every moment in every story—even if that story covers difficult or dangerous or heartbreaking ground. You can tell she’s having fun. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean that in a callous way. There is a freedom to the writing, to the subject matter, to the endless, luscious, intimate details that bring each story to blessed and broken, beautiful life; a freedom that gives to each a kind of exuberant self-confidence, a joy in their own being. It’s contagious. And it brings startling coherence to a collection that moves from cutting-edge horror, to near-future dystopia, to Carver-worthy lit, to straight-up historical fiction. These disparate and far-reaching stories feel all of a piece because of the voice—curious, passionate, intensely alive, and weird to the bone. Standouts include Velocity; Road Trip; Coyote Pass; At Eventide; and the short but perfect Fireflies.
J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian author of dark fiction and co-host of the Let The Cat In podcast. His first book, The Attic Tragedy, won the Shirley Jackson Award. Other stories have won the Ditmar Award, Australian Shadows Award and Aurealis Award. He lives with his wife and two sons beneath an ominous mountain in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires. You can find him at spooktapes.net, performing amazing experiments in electronic communication with the dead.
THE MEASURE OF SORROW: STORIES by J. Ashley-Smith
GENRE: Collection / Dark Fantasy / Horror
Shirley Jackson Award-winning author J. Ashley-Smith’s first collection, The Measure of Sorrow, draws together ten new and previously acclaimed stories of dark speculative fiction. In these pages a black reef holds the secret to an interminable coastal limbo; a father struggles to relate to his estranged children in a post-bushfire wilderness; an artist records her last days in conversation with her unborn child; a brother and sister are abandoned to the manifestations of their uncle’s insanity; a suburban neighborhood succumbs to an indescribable malaise; teenage ravers fall in with an eldritch crowd; a sensitive New Age guy commits a terminal act of passive-aggression; a plane crash opens the door to the Garden of Eden; the new boy in the village falls victim to a fatal ruse; and a husband’s unexpressed grief is embodied in the shadows of a crumbling country barn. Intelligent and emotionally complex, the stories in The Measure of Sorrow elude easy classification, lifting the veil on the wonder and horror of a world just out of true.