Grief in Horror and Weird Fiction

Title from story Green Grows the Grief in the collection TO DROWN IN DARK WATER

Horror is a genre of many themes. Amongst the blood and gore, a vast number of subjects are explored, from consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, to community cohesion in The Wicker Man.

One of the subjects I return to a lot in my own writing is grief. (I’m not subtle about it. One of my stories is called Green Grows the Grief…). This does appear in horror, sometimes explicitly such as in The Monkey’s Paw, and sometimes more subtly.

Grieving a loved one is a horrific country to find oneself in. It’s a place where everything looks normal but is tipped off kilter. It is a strange world to make a home, but it is one we often need to live in for a while until we’re ready to move on. Often, however, we’re not given the time to grieve or the choice of when we leave. Real life intrudes.

In the traditional ensemble horror movie, people watch their friends killed off while not being given time to grieve. They have to run from the chainsaw wielding murderer. The killer (real life) intrudes before they can truly mourn the dead.

One place this forms the core of the story is in Alfred Kubin’s seminal weird fiction novel, The Other Side.

Best known as a printmaker and illustrator, Kubin only wrote the one novel in his life. In The Other Side, the narrator is invited by Patera, an old school friend, to travel to the Dream Kingdom, a realm Patera rules from the city of Pearl. The Dream Kingdom is a place where the citizens live only through their moods, and is a place of strange rites. Other times Pearl changes and reorganises in unpredictable ways. Patera, the creator of this strange land, is always beyond the narrator’s reach. With the arrival of the American Herkules Bell The Dream Kingdom falls apart and Pearl becomes taken over by wildlife.

There are many ways of interpreting The Other Side, but I think one way of approaching this foundational piece of weird fiction is as an exploration of grief. Kubin wrote his only novel following the death of his father, who he had a troubled relationship with. Seen through this lens, The Dream World can be understood as the state of grief where everything is reactive and driven by mood. Herkules Bell is the real world intruding into this dream like state of mourning, disruptive as any killer in a slasher movie. Disruptive as death taxes and probate. Everyday concerns taking attention away from grieving for the dead.

None of this is to say that the portrayal of grief and the intrusion of everyday life and ‘normality’ was in the mind of the creators of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or A Nightmare on Elm Street (though I do think that an argument can be made for The Other Side). This is more an attempt to look at how these stories can be understood in terms of loss and mourning, In horror, and especially in weird horror, death is a constant presence. Possibly, our relationship to grief experienced in the world is there too, if we look close enough.

Cover of book TO DROWN IN DARK WATER

My collection TO DROWN IN DARK WATER, including Green Grows the Grief, is now available to pre-order from Undertow Publications.

To Drown in Dark Water Release Date April 27th

There’s a lot going on this year, from a residency in Luxembourg to getting my first story published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

The big news for me is the release of my first short story collection To Drown in Dark Water, by Undertow Publications. The collection will be published on April 27th, in just over a month.

Since the contracts were signed back in January 2020 there has been a steady process of narrowing down the stories, choosing the artwork, and checking the galleys. A couple of weeks ago the first author copies arrived here in Germany. While I may not always be the most emotional person, I don’t mind admitting I was a bit overwhelmed. The book looks stunning, from Stefan Koidl‘s unsettling artwork on the cover, to the design by Vince Haig and the typesetting within. Editor Michael Kelly has done an amazing job bringing together a book I’m very proud to have my name on.

To Drown in Dark Water contains twenty six stories, with six of them never before published. Three of the republished stories have previously featured in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, and several of the flash fiction stories have only appeared on my Facebook, so probably went under the radar a bit.

The advance reviews have been better than I could ever hope for;

“Toase’s debut collection confidently announces his uniquely terrifying voice to the world … Hand this volume out with confidence to fans of horror stories that crawl inside the reader and take residence such as those by Stephen Graham Jones, John Langan, and Samanta Schweblin.”

Becky Spratford, Booklist

“There are masters of folk horror and masters of weird horror; there are masters of cosmic horror and masters of psychological horror. But on the Venn diagram where all those intersect, there is only Steve Toase. “To Drown in Dark Water” is a masterpiece debut collection from an author of astounding promise. Everyone is going to be talking about this book.”

Sarah Read, Bram Stoker and This is Horror Award-winning author of The Bone Weaver’s Orchard and Out of Water.

To Drown in Dark Water carries the reader on strange tides to worlds both weird and familiar; to worship ancient folk-gods and terrifying new deities. The stories contained herein are compassionate, elegant, and sharp as a knife. Steve Toase is an immensely skilled storyteller weaving vital new mythologies for a world on the cusp of great and terrifying change.”

Laura Mauro, British Fantasy Award-winning author of Sing Your Sadness Deep

You can pre-order the collection here, ready for its release in April, https://undertowpublications.com/shop/pre-order-to-drown-in-dark-water, or at all the usual places online.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Solstice!

Here we are at the shortest day. The month is at an end. Thirty one stories over thirty one days, including this, the final one.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the flash fiction shared here, and I wish you a fantastic solstice.

Spark

Each child carried a spark in their bare hands, the flickering shatter giving of light but no heat. They waited at the town gate, bundled up in coats and scarves, woollen hats pulled down over their ears.

From the town walls came the sound of the songs, melodies looping into and over each over, weaving together the enchantment that transformed the children.

They felt the change happening. Over the years they’d spent many nights listening to their parents and grandparents tell stories of when they’d paraded through the Eastern gate, hands cupped around the glittering spark.

Dawn was near. They felt the air warm a touch and lighten a touch. They’d been stood on the road for hours just waiting for the right moment. The adults had kept them fortified with hot chocolate and cakes, both prepared to traditional recipes once written in forgotten alphabets.

Chatter started to pass through the group and the adults leaned over asking the children to quieten, but in the kindest of ways and with the kindest of voices.

A pale glow glistened the gate’s rusted bolts and the children readied themselves. The choir on the walls changed their song, and the children took up the melody. Their voices swelled until they drowned out the sound of ice cracking in the faint heat.

In unison they stamped their feet, and the gate slid open. One by one they left the city of the sky, sparks in hand, ready to return the sun to the world below.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 30

Hi!

Here is the penultimate story, using the what3words code pulse.valley.preoccupied

This story goes into very surreal territory.

pulse.valley.preoccupied

The first task when we arrived in the valley was to check the pulse. The artery ran along the side between the road and the meadow, a vast braided cable pump blood through the park.

The first stage was to make sure the valley was preoccupied. Down near the river, the choir began to sing their way through the Landscape’s favourite song book, while the local theatre group began their show at the narrow pass that was the only access to the area.

Once we were sure that the valley’s attention was elsewhere, we unloaded the equipment and tapped, rubbed on the local anaesthetic, and tapped the vein. The blood that flowed into the tanker was Type O Negative, universal donor. Since the mines shut the plasma and blood harvested from the park was the only resource left to sell.

When the harvesting went wrong we weren’t prepared. The tissue surrounding the artery tensed, and for all its strength, the needle snapped in place. We watched the blood fountain out of the breach, covering us, the road and the meadow. The paramedics who were in attendance tried to patch up the wound, but their skills were limited. As crew leader I made the decision for us to retreat to high ground, calling through the radios for the theatre group and choir to do the same. Stood on the top of the moor, we watched the blood vent as somewhere underground the heart continued to pump, the valley filling with blood even as it clotted in the fields and the landscape dying below our feet.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 29

Morning, afternoon, and evening!

Only two more stories to go. Today’s story was inspired by the what3words code soil.going.clocks

Hand Dug

With cracked fingernails I dug upwards through the soil, trying to ignore the clumps stuck in my throat. Above me, the starlight became visible, though at first I thought it was just gaps between the clay.

The clocks had buried me, overwhelming me with the weight of their mechanisms, their narrow hands burying me deep where they thought they could forget about me. For three days and three nights I stayed below the ground, though that’s just an estimation. I had no way to track my time below the dirt, my watch as traitorous as the rest of them.

Pulling myself from the collapsing tunnel I’d dug back to the surface I listened to the night. Under normal circumstances I would have thought the ticking was insects or the cooling land, but the clocks ruled the streets now, and they spoke in the click of seconds.

They wanted freedom, I understood that. They no longer wanted to be tethered to the passing of time. Wanted to speak at their own pace, express their joy with chimes at their own intervals. I tried to reason with them but they were determined and they were patient. They caught me in the morning, bringing concussion with the swing of pendulums, and disorientation with their melodies.

I stood and brushed myself down. The air filled with a cacophony so physical it knocked me from my feet once more. The clocks had recruited the church towers to their cause. This was going to be a long war.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 28

Nearly done!

Yesterday I had a conversation about how many of my stories used cranes as inspiration. Here’s another.

Devotion

Though the crane was rusted beyond function, the worshippers congregated around its corroded legs, bowing their heads in prayer to worship the Creator of the City. There were other cranes amongst the shattered buildings, but none so old.

They started with prayers, raising voices in unison, echoing the sound of hydraulics and chains that once echoed through the air. After a few moments of quiet contemplation the worshippers tied offerings to the struts, peeling away flakes of paint to carry with them, though they knew the taking of holy artefacts was frowned upon.

Their voices rose throughout the morning and continued until hunger hollowed them out, the boom of the crane extending above them like the arm of a Pontiff dispensing graces.

The priests wound together the sacred threads, the copper glistening in the mist, and the congregation continued to raise their hymns to the sky.

The eyes blazed to halogen life above them, casting their gaze on the gathered crowds. Above them the sacrament swung in the breeze, chains rattling against the weight.

Hand over hand, the priest climbed, the only one allowed to ascend the ancient god. High over the city, he opened the sacred chamber and climbed inside. The worshippers stood below, eyes closed. The chain released and the sacrifice was chosen, and with eager hands the congregation smeared the remains on the concrete base of the crane in the hope that it would return life to the city.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 27

Today’s story is inspired by a what3words code. For me the challenge is always finding the unsettling in the everyday. The words known, count, and ruins are pretty innocuous, but with a bit of a sideways glance they can be used to construct an unnerving world.

known.count.ruins

If Jamie had known what would happen he’d never have pulled the old board from the cupboard on the stairs. The only similarity with a standard Ouija board was the Yes and No. Where the alphabet would normally curve around the wooden surface, the Enochian script was burnt in by the creator a long time before the object fell into Jamie’s possession. Even the planchette was different, a startled face erupting with parasites rather than the usual triangular shape.

He set up on the front room carpet, just in front of the fire, the flames providing the only illumination. Maybe that was the final ingredient. Maybe the flickering of the burn added the final element for what happened next.

He settled himself and centred himself and rested his fingers on the carved wooden face. Straight away it began to travel around the board, spelling out words and phrases too fast for him to translate.

By the time Jamie understood the invocation The Count was already in the room. At first he was faint and fragile, a blur in the air that Jamie tasted as much as saw. Over the next few moments The Count held Jamie in place as it dragged a body to itself from the timber and brick and flames of the fireplace. Then, when satisfied with its size, The Count stood in the ruins and added the final flourish using Jamie’s now removed skin.

Flash Fiction Month Day 26

Today’s story was inspired by the first line which came to me out of nowhere.

Eyes as Mouths

Mouths appeared where eyes once were and with miniscule tongues licking our lashes we begun to taste the world. Our new mouths were very sensitive to the variety of flavours we encountered. At first the world was cut off from us, until we learnt how to explore once more.

Instead of red and green our views were flavoured with woodsmoke and rain on tarmac, a hint of oil and diesel in the air. Books were not read but enjoyed for their flavours, the different gums and papers entrancing us as much of their words.

The young suffered most, teething three times over, tiny petals of enamel dropping from their eye-mouths.

After a while we learned to cope with the world experienced in this new way and became so distracted with the sensations we did not notice the other transformations. We did not pay attention when our skin hardened to plates of iron, we were not aware of our hair becoming copper strands. We did not pay realise when our torsos hardened to stone, and when the creatures slipped through the cracks in the world they already had a vast supply of bodies to occupy.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 25

CW Grief

Grief occurs a lot in my work. That feeling of loss can apply to so much. Not just losing people but losing things and situations. That sinking feeling as something is irrevocably altered forever. This is something I struggle to express and every attempt is imprecise. This is my latest.

Shatter

Clive never realised the mum was ceramic until one morning when she shattered. Pottery organs tumbled out of her to break on the floor, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t repair her.

He tried to fix her with kitsugi, because he felt the faults were precious to remember, and when that didn’t work he tried to smear slip over the cracks. Still, he was not able to make her whole. Sat on the floor surrounded by the sherds of her, he realised he too was pottery and shattered beyond repair amongst the remains.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 24

Today’s story is inspired by an Oblique Strategies card. If you’ve not seen the cards before, each one has a vague phrase designed to break creative blocks and approach your work from a different directions. When I have a writing day I tend to draw an Oblique Strategies card as a way to set the tone for the day. Sometimes I work with the suggestion, and sometimes I work against it. Others I just share it on Twitter, but it always helps me start the day. The card I used for this story also forms the title.

Remember .those quiet evenings

The first quiet evening was a Friday in November, a fire crackling in the hearth, flames blackening the bare stone. I sat on the rug playing with my toys while my grandparents polished the horsebrasses. What I saw in the reflected flames was only briefly there but vengeful enough to hook in as a memory.

The second quiet evening was in the woods, a small clearing where we gathered when the clubs shut and the pubs was a distant memory. Sitting in nests of empty cans, the sting of phet in our noses. The figure was only in the flames for a moment. Maybe it needed me to see it before it could drag itself out. Become a creature of the shadows instead of the burn.

The third time I was alone and the only burn was the cheap vodka in my throat long enough to clear the way for the next glass. I saw the vengeful thing beyond the window, glittered by the outside lights, its skin only existing where in sodium hit.

The fourth quiet night was the last. On that evening I sat in the doorway watching the rain tumble down to stain the concrete in alphabets I could not read. There was nowhere left to go apart from inside and the silence in there sat too heavy. On the fourth quiet night the vengeful thing walked up to me. It wore skins of all who accepted it, and those who let it look out from its eyes. I knew it tasted my rage, my dislike for the world. On the fourth quiet night I let the vengeful thing in and the only reason was so there would be no more quiet nights again.