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 Day 4

Just a little warning that today’s story is a bit graphic, and fairly heavy on the body horror. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy. (The inspiration for this was a dream, so I had this living in my head…)

Salve

We never expected the dead to start religions.

They stood between us and the way out of the city, thousands of them worshipping under ragged carrier bag banners.

When they finished their devotions, the congregation would come in our direction, so hiding was no option. We watched their rituals and tried to come up with a plan.

The priest stood dead centre of the road, torn arms raised to the sky as her damaged throat wheezed words we didn’t understand. Around her, the dead mimicked her invocations.

Some of the gathering still looked human, just at the beginning of their transformation, others little more than sentient pools of muscle, softened bones erupting from the surface. Windblown grass-seeds and corn husks peppered their rotten flesh. Even from a distance we saw where the wounds were tattooed with road dirt and grit.

But the priest? She had been one of the early infected yet still held her shape, and this is what she offered them. Coherence. Identity. The ability to remain whole, even beyond death.

The prayers stopped and she gazed around her flock. When the infections started we thought the dead lost language, but that too was transformed.

“Our calls will be heard by the Lords of the Third Circle,” she said, staring lovingly at a family melted together into a single wall of meat. “We will be delivered to the next world in our true forms. Our brethren who have already succumbed will be returned to us.”

We were so distracted by the proceedings, we did not notice the working party surround us, grasping our hands to our bodies with gloved hands. They walked us down to the centre of the makeshift church. With gasps of joy, the Priest turned toward us.

“Truly the Soured Lords have answered our prayers.”

The gloves should have been the first clue. We expected them to feast upon us, or leave us to be transformed. Instead they kept us alive and healthy, peeling us apart one by one and applying our fat as salves.

While we still held onto rational thought through the pain, we knew it would do no good. The infection did not work that way, but religion was a powerful drug, even amongst the melting dead. We were medicine and cure. Henbane and Belladonna.

We were hallowed and revered, even as they prised us meat from bone, and boiled us down to smear on their skin. We were the most holy of holy and they showed their reverence with each cut of the knife. 

Short Story Collection On Its Way January 2021

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I’m very happy to announce that my first short story collection ‘To Drown In Dark Water’ will be published by Undertow Publications in early 2021.

Undertow are a fantastic publisher, who are responsible for collections by Priya Sharma, Laura Mauro, Georgina Bruce amongst other wonderful writers.

I can also share the amazing cover for my collection. The artwork is by Austrian artist Stefan Koidl, with design work by Vince Haig.

Michael Kelly has done a wonderful job arranging the cover, and I’m so proud that this will be on the front of my book.

While I’d like to keep this blog updated far more than I do, you can keep up to date about my work by signing up for my newsletter at tinyletter.com/stevetoase. Coming out once a month, it includes bits of news about my work, some art related chatter, a bit on archaeology, and a free flash fiction story.

Flowers and Lips-New Stories Published

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“Blumen, Blumen selbst pflücken

Kommt mit mir nach Hause

Du bist süβ und sehr, sehr schön

Drinnen oder Draußen

Eine ist weiß, eine ist gelb

Einige begann sich zu röten

Ob im Boden

Auf dem Tisch

Immer für die Toten”

(Song from Verwelktag)

This week has been a busy week for publications.

On Monday Asymmetry Fiction published my story ‘White Lips’. This is a story about strange neighbours, childhood fear, and getting yourself into situations you can’t easily extract yourself from.

You can read the story online here; www.asymmetryfiction.com/white-lips/

In some ways ‘Verwelktag’, published in the latest Lackington’s, is a very different story, yet there is still that sense of compression by the place where you live. This is my attempt at writing my own take on a Schauerroman, a German tradition of Gothic story.

The magazine is a real treat, with stories by Premee Mohamed, Kate Heartfield, R.M. Graves, Laura Friis, A.J. Hammer, and J.M. Guzman. Subscribers will also get an Exquisite Corpse story by Mike Allen, Amal El-MohtarVajra Chandrasekera, Natalia Theodoridou, and JY Yang.

You can pick up the issue, or subscribe here www.lackingtons.com/issues/issue-17-spring-2018/