It's often the case that short story collections coalesced around very specific subjects or core concepts fall into one of two familiar pitfalls: either they cleave so assiduously to said subject or core concept that they lose all verve and variety or they allow for such flexibility in interpretation that the cohering factor becomes redundant.
Lost Signals, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing's latest collection, is notable in that it deftly navigates that cob-web fine high wire: the stories are an excellent example of how selection and composition are as significant to the overall ethos and impact of a work as the subjects and qualities of the stories themselves.
Here, we have stories that are both traditional and abstract; the core concept of communication technology serving as a springboard into territories both familiar and near alien in their abstraction: this is not a by-the-numbers case of technology turning against its creators or becoming a channel for entities and phenomena beyond general human experience (though, for those who enjoy such fare, there are notable examples of both). As in all of the very, very best works of horror that comment upon our relationships to technology (The Ring, Ghostwatch, The Blair Witch Project etc), these stories universally suggest wider mythology, that is sometimes presented in detail, but, most often in the form of suggestion and implication, allowing the reader to engage with the subject matter; to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations (creating a sense of frisson so often ignored or missing from self-proclaimed works of horror).
This factor is most overt in tales such as Michael Paul Gonzalez's How The Light Gets In or the highly experimental Sharks With Thumbs, by David James Keaton; both tales which utilise communications technology to communicate or imply wider mythologies both beyond the constraints of the technology in question and beyond the page; a Lovecraftian quality that pervades much of the collection, as though our technology and the connectedness it provides might expose us to factors of reality we've been previously divorced from. Punctuating these broader, more mythological tales are smaller scope, almost fable-like tales which demonstrate how technology that might otherwise connect us or provide convenience divorces us from one another, allowing for degrees of inhumanity that might otherwise be unthinkable. In the instance of The Givens Sensor Board, by Josh Malerman, the reader is presented a situation in which the protagonist finds himself so distanced from humanity by the technology he operates, he allows for utter atrocity, along with the approbation of everyone around him, including town institutions, social systems and guardians of morality. The story, like many on the collection, serves as a fairly overt commentary on how technology has allowed us to not only communicate far and wide, but to express our contempt for and fundamental disconnection from wider humanity in increasingly unpleasant ways. George Cotronis's Darkhorse Actual, meanwhile, provides a far quieter, suggestive experience; a melancholy metaphysics in which echoes of the dead or otherwise lost might be anchored in ways we do not understand by technology we presume mastery over but generally do not comprehend.
The collection works not only in terms of its individual tales but as a whole piece, not linked narratively or mythologically, but by consistent themes, recurring subjects and suggestions; a rhythm born out of the marriage of one tale to another in the wider composition. In that, it has a certain flow that makes the physical act of reading a joy, that allows the reader to devour forty pages as though they are four, a hundred as though they are forty...despite the weightiness and often profound melancholy of the tone and subject matter, it is an easy read; easily devoured in a handful of sittings, if not one indulgence.
Of course, being a collection of its type, there is a distinct variation in style and tone between each story, which may have the effect of alienating some readers (though this is never jarring; most stories feed into one another tonally without being related in terms of subject or narrative; a quality born of careful selection and a discerning eye, not to mention a clear idea of what the project as a whole was intended to achieve). Those with an appetite for more traditional or clearly defined narrative may struggle, here, as many of the stories are abstract or experimental in style or structure, some even scanning like prose poems as opposed to standard narrative pieces.
The central subject, of course, lends itself perfectly to such experimentations, given that the media itself is generally of an experimental and poorly understood nature (certainly by those that most consistently utilise it). The notion of technology such as radios etc picking up or relaying something they aren't supposed to is hardly a new one, but here, is handled as though it is: the wider -and generally nihilistic- mythologies the transmissions imply bizarre and distressing, suggesting a Lovecraftian madness or state of insanity just beyond human perception, but that our technology is increasingly allowing us to tap and expose ourselves to.
More abstrusely, certain stories in the collection comment upon technology as something not only increasingly integrated into our beings, but becoming parasitic; a thing that has will and intention of its own, to the cost of our humanity, our autonomy of mind (which itself may be a delusion). In that, the collection crosses certain thematic boundaries into the realm of science fiction; arguably inevitable, given its core subject: the concerns it raises those of what constitutes humanity, given the escalating integration of our technologies not only into culture, politics; our abstract selves, but our meat and bone; the stuff of our bodies, minds...our sensory apparatus. In context with the Lovecraftian nihilism of malign and utterly ineffable influence upon our state of being via our technology, the sinister edge that pervades the collection evokes an ethos not unlike that of H.R. Giger's Biomechanoid pieces, in which bizarre and abstruse technology is inextricable from anatomy, in which function takes a distant second place to form and its alien absurdity.
Lost Signals is something of a treat for consumers of such material (the surreal and distressing, the bizarre and the deviant), in that it acts collectively as a culmination of references and influences: reading the collection, the initiated reader will spot references to the likes of Giger and Cronenberg, to Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick, to everything from written fiction to video games, from visual art to cinema. This also may be one of the collection's weaknesses, as the less ardent lover of such material may not spot these influences, stripping a layer of significance and engagement from the collection.
Even so, the anthology is bound to provide some enjoyment, if only due to the varied nature of the tales it contains: those who like their horror to have a more traditional, Stephen King flavour will find plenty here, as will the deviant and transgressive souls like myself, who lie more towards the Clive Barker end of the spectrum.
A rare example of a collection that delivers in multiple levels, catering for a wide variety of tastes, but that does not dilute itself or its over-arching ethos in the process.
Just be warned: after reading, you may find yourself a little less reluctant to plug that I-pod into your ear, to click the link, to turn that radio dial...
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George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.