19 thoughts on “The Hidden Back Room by Jason A. Wyckoff


    “We wouldn’t want to put too much on his plate.”

    This, I reckon, mis-echoes deliberately the pattern of ‘The Hospice’ by Robert Aickman, where it starts with a car that needs mending (the protagonist takes it to a garage recommended by a fellow worker whom he doesn’t know well) and while waiting visits, through heavy rain, the Restaurant opposite where they have plates that are already empty rather than too full. But that gives you no real clue as to the accretive ‘disarming strangeness’ and oblique objective-correlatives of this narrative. The mis-skewed series of doors that one palms open or needs to negotiate like revolving doors and a slowly descending chandelier (a combination of ‘All Fools and Horses’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’?) – again all this gives you no real clue as to the disturbing power of this absurdist work, and I haven’t yet covered for you the nature of the characters he meets in that restaurant! I will leave you discover those for yourself. The spiders, too. And more.
    (The slow motion descent of the chandelier is in tune with the likely slow motion nature of this real-time review (very slow-motion indeed) although this first story has given me a positive spur towards a speedy engagement with the second story, but at the moment I am inundated with books all of which I anticipate relishing in real-time, each book slowing down the others. Such is life.)

    “A woman sang in a foreign language over a jazz trio, drizzling honey into the spaces between bass and piano.”


    “Did you save yourself?”

    For months now, I have had a troublous thing on my neck, which was removed a couple of days ago and I am still recovering from that gory minor operation, but having now read this, I am both disturbed and relieved! A striking story, in the middle of nowhere, that starts with a car breaking down (cf my comparison to ‘The Hospice’ above), and we are gradually led into the type of story where presumably ordinary people meet with strange behaviour from locals, here a well-characterised married couple finding themselves among country inbreeds, a curt man, deformed boy and some young women having a mix of colluding with or fearing the arrival of a priapic Minotaur….
    Somehow, for me, this compelling story is constructively reminiscent of John Langan-type bullicose fiction but has its own unique take upon the collusive nature of this Minotaur and its accoutrements that you may never forget.


    “I squirm as that oppressive ‘limbo’ sensation thickens the air between stucco and low-pile.”

    This story IS a gut punch, as well as being about one. The male narrator offered to be tucked in by his Joseph whom he also wants to involve once the catharsis or purging point is reached by the end, although involvement is often more a contaminant that hides all other contaminants, even hiding itself, “a man whom no cigar is just a cigar.” He blames his mother for his sexuality, but is that anything for anyone to be blamed? This GREAT story has, for me, the literary traction of some American writers that I have read in recent years, John Updike, Philip Roth, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, reaching a psychic apotheosised Aickman more like HP Lovecraft…. A terrifying vision of a close-encounters sort of indoor mountain built into or by his past and current hang-ups, a Lovecraftian monster as well as a mountain of madness. You will not believe how this story develops so powerfully, the relationship of the narrator with his mother (a relationship that is the crux of everything here), his return to the tawdry town where he grew up, revisiting the church where the people ask after his mother, and his mother’s unshrinking shrink who entices him back, along with his mother, to the actual house where he lived as a child with her… a male shrink.
    Any review of this work needs thus to tail off without definition so that you can start it on a sober, shockable footing, assuming you haven’t read it before and thus already gut-punched.


    “Finally, I was exasperated by the very weight of the decision.”

    Legal judges sometimes, when clinching evidence is unavailable, need to judge on where the weight is in a balance of probabilities. I judge this story is a metaphor for my own seeking of a gestalt, whether subtle, preternatural or obvious, whenever I conduct a real-time review of a fiction work or a series of fiction works in a single book, obsessed as I am, with the fruits of my own pareidolia and apophenia. I am convinced, too, that this story will haunt me, come what may, just as the metal-detector-wielding beachcomber’s discard of a metal cup haunts the narrator over years of his routine life’s commuting and fighting to maintain his own diffidence against the onset of coincidences regarding that cup. I have never before read a work about a person’s agonising over the value of diffidence, and here it is portrayed convincingly amid recurrences of discarding, initiation, disquiet, and a need for a clinching closure, but such passionate-diffidence (an oxymoron?) is a human emotion that needs treating, and here we have it at last, I suggest. Meanwhile, the name ‘Donna Louise’ (embossed on the cup), for example, will now nag at me until I solve it by means of my on-going reading of this book. And if not found directly in this book, I will seek that closure elsewhere, I guess.


    “She walked with the steady indifference he had seen seen displayed by the woman on the path.”

    They keep on coming!
    Another treatment of diffidence in the shape of a scenario that, for me, blends Flannery O’Connor with the Twilight Zone. I infer a protagonist named Nathan who is black, having dithered for some years, with a studied diffidence, the woman he loves and who may love him but now she is marrying someone else, CharISE, her name, like a similar dithering as with the previous story’s Donna LouISE cup. As a metaphor for his diffidence, perhaps, Nathan takes a journey to Charise’s wedding reception … In his car that breaks down like cars tend to do in this book! A spooky fog engulfs him, and the text is good on the various natures of fog in general, this a cloying, emotional fog, whence evolves a stage set town, to the tune of his own jazz music (music significant, here, as it was in this book’s first story), and people conjured by that town and then acting to fit those emotions and those people conjuring or cloying others, potentially HIM. Who the playthings, who the urchin kids you orphaned in this fog-locked town? Who the living, who the ghosts? Almost a sentimental slow-motion. A telling ending, too, for this remarkable work. A little touch of Harry in the night, to quote someone.


    “You were much closer to non-life when you were eight than now when you are eighty.”

    … building, as I do, long and longer queues of books to real-time review so as to extend real-time itself, perhaps forever, “as always, kept busy on your path.”
    This pungent, well-bellied, old man has civilised trans-Cartesian conversations with the homunculus in the curio, the one he had created or captured like a hostage from grave-wax. They talk about eschatology, existentialism, Stockholm Syndrome. magic, faerie, ley-lines, in “languid whimsy”, “desultory”, of “affable peculiarity”, and dare I say there is a paradoxically diffident determination by the agent to bring magic into the principal’s dying existence. A decided poignancy, and a special theatrical quality, a dialogue similar, I guess, to Waiting for Godot, giving this work the potential for being classicised, if not classified.


      “I could not even trace a larger rhythm born of mania; despite the apparent obsession fuelling its builder, there appeared to be no consideration as to how each section might relate to the whole,…”

      Which is just how I feel about my own gestalt real-time reviews, but more a mania than an obsession.
      I am glad this article-writer left its “lede” intact, and did not remove it nor just tell the meat of the story straight; after all, his lede is, for me, a fine literarily textured treatise on writing such articles about the eccentric collector or constructor, and it gives a feel of his own participation in this most fateful one of his writing career, even if he didn’t in the end dare write it for his editor. Of course, it goes without saying that the meat of the story starts with a sputtering car…
      The collector-constructor is one who accretes found art, and I love found art, especially the stuff I find in the Tate Gallery or other museums of extreme modern art. Which brings me back to the whole gamut of being a Dreamcatcher or Hawler amongst the mainframes, axles and bumpers of literature. It is as if his car was attracted to the found auto art created organically and fatefully-by-its-approximation-to-Death that was, in a different time and place, to be written up in the protagonist’s article about the found auto art and its ‘artist’. That very ‘attraction’ of metal magnetising metal over time and space pervades this remarkable text to its very end, factored into by the statistics of car accidents.
      The text’s description of the found art pile-up proves, by the way, to be stunning.


    “Her criticisms of her son, justified as she felt they were, pricked at her until feelings bloomed both of fondness and of protective worry, each fuelling the other in turn. ‘What am I supposed to do about him?’ she whispered.”

    This tantalising novelette fills me with memories of childhood’s waking dreams, like watching a beam of light managing to find its way into the canopied darkness of my bedroom and my fearing its passage worse than any monster, or having to leave the canopy of my existence and meeting giants outside of it, maybe become one of those giants myself. I don’t know where to begin. Alaska? Some alternate or fantasy Alaska? Hosea, a gawky lad, due to become gawkier, and we are told allusively of his “desultory” ditherings to leave the canopy’s commune, by deviousness leaving his feisty relationship with his mother or the semen-stained fumblings with his girl Hannah. I was particularly taken with what I shall call the hawling of the tarp canopy, a prime example of my own hawling or dreamcatching, and you will need to go far to find such an off-the-wall obsession with keeping the canopy intact at night from those stray beams of light. The small upside-down trees. The dreadful or hopefully not dreadful but dreamful fate of his mother, amid those tangled trees. And the lackadaisical fate for Hannah who continues her life with a husband and children, and with her only being able to see Hosea out of the corner of her eye. The beehives. The charms of finding gold in the river or the lucky charm of having a crystal around the neck. The seeking of an entrance into the head as dome or skull or canopy – via the nostrils? – like ever trying to find this book’s hidden back room there. An engaging group of characters all on the edge of something they need to transcend. The reader, included.

    “…these people locked in tradition, united by belief.”


    “I have wondered since if ghosts are able to avail themselves of those optical illusions wherein they seem to appear.”

    This text of personal narrativizing is high on the graduations of the eerie. It is a student’s compulsively structured agonising, even dithering, with the concept of the haunted house and of ghosts while he is staying at an address with this reputation. The eventual haunting he experiences feels real to me – and you can’t often say that about fiction stories as I presume this is. It depends upon a fabrication of this book’s previous found art, here random objects in a bedroom, dreamcatching or hawling them into a gestalt, and then the gestalt autonomously turns into a ghost. This is extrapolated beyond the preterite of his pre-internet student days into the Internet days proper – where substantiation is available on-line (if that is not a contradiction in terms). Genuinely creepy as a hidden back room,


    This seems to be the synaesthesic apotheosis of this book’s theme of agonising or “wistful” or diffident pareidolia-apophenia towards a gestalt of some haunted fate or rarefied state of existence. It takes a while to grow into the narrator of ‘Details’ wherein the or a devil resides. Via an overheard casual conversation of easy racism, a sense of superhuman power, recurrent meetings with someone called Roger (as if some call signal of goodbye), a rock music earworm, and a ceiling-fan growing closer like this book’s earlier chandelier – and the first time I’ve seen ‘deadpan’ used as a verb.
    ‘Intent as nine-tenths of the law’, which brings me back to my lifelong interest in Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy with regard to dreamcatching or hawling literature like this book’s literature. The narrator and myself both fulfilling the role of the classic jinx? Just begging for that sinkhole of wrongness to open up beneath me…

    • Also compare with how I started my review of ‘On Balance’ above: “Legal judges sometimes, when clinching evidence is unavailable, need to judge on where the weight is in a balance of probabilities.”


    “The ‘disconnect’ between the creature’s existence and the problem its body heat created was obvious…”

    You know, this is an unquestionably remarkable and ground-breaking collection of stories, each story working stoically, morosely, moribundly, acceptingly, assimilatingly, dawdlingly, goadingly, intrepidly, aspergically, for the gestalt of the whole in which each shares. As does Davis in this particular story. If the previous story was some form of this quest’s apotheosis, this one is its dragon in the lowest basement of all. Another homunculus in the curio with whom to chew the fat, or dowse the water. Davis, on another level, is the stoical worker in the Ligottian Corporation, but Ligotti works in different, more diluted office politics. Nothing can touch the Wyckoff version in this story, I contend. It is sheer diffident bravado, as we follow the path of Davis trying to transcend the heating problems of the office building and the leg or is it log of the foot where the hot-blooded office workers work, and ends up burning the log – the one he once had aspirations to sculpt into a new shape – onto his own fireplace at home. This story deserves a trophy, or at least a metal cup. Its determination of “decrescendo” is the optimum. The pessimum, too.


    “It had a reversed L-shape, running tall north-south, with a second shorter leg turning right from the top.”

    They keep on coming. Well, this one sort of comes on its own, a potential future classic for those who love the generic Weird tale, the Horror story or Ghost story, including, but not exclusively, the Lovecraftian – as well as something special that makes this story its own backstory, its own hidden back room, implicit with the frightening ceiling that’s planted above it, like a psychological or spiritual chandelier or fan, an insectoid-human intertwining of text with the dragon or demon inside your own unvented stomach. Yes, I feel this story IS a classic, and does not need yet to become one.
    At first, I thought it was exploratory by the protagonist of a haunted building like Danielewski’s HOUSE of Leaves, one that perhaps was never written, one that I just imagined reading, triangulating – as we do alongside the protagonist – the historical backstory of the building, its library and secret room, a literal House of LEAVES with its books. And then triangulating its frightening implications, its aftermath and its future beyond this book.
    On a personal note, I sensed this work as an extrapolation of the Nemonymous from the Weirdmonger side of me. As if my thousand plus published fictions before 1999 were the inferior insects that gave birth to the bigger and better ones in Wyckoff. (Even his name seems apposite!) The essence of Nemonymity…. ‘The Familiar’ I never then knew I had.

    “On not a single novel in that library did I find the conjunction used for attribution, either on the cover, the spine, or the frontispiece — never was a book ‘by’ someone.”


    “In a propitious Sunday matinee, Laurence Olivier had taught her to smoke only when the moment required the affectation, and to always discard the cigarette emphatically after no more than five puffs.”

    Although this seems to be the book’s penultimate story, I am treating it tentatively as the charmingly diffident coda. A genius loci, ceiling and chandelier et al, of a basement theatre and a shadow play shadowing another shadow play, the relationship between a love-seasoned Sunset Boulevard type actress and her son, as they talk about the nature of the word ‘legendary’ pre-empted as it is by anyone legendary having to be in a fiction rather than real life, and about the difference between a love affair and a romance. And later, when alone, her slipping on of a neat number of a dress leading her to transcend time (but in which direction?) and become the artwork she always was or would be, meeting another woman as her self or soulmate amid a soirée with Erik Satie. I was rather taken aback that as I read this work a couple of hours ago, there was being broadcast by the BBC, live on its Radio 3, a cabaret of music and words celebrating the music of Erik Satie: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07m58xc !

    “The wish, if there was one, seemed more towards promoting her neglected health for its own sake, sans objective.”


    “I left my car by the side of the road with a note saying I’d had engine trouble…”

    If a coda can have a coda, this relatively brief text is it. It’s the hidden back room beyond the hidden back room, not straddled by ceilings with chandeliers, but a roof as an active theatrical stage for a ‘found art’ ghost fixing it not while the sun shines but as a storm already rages.
    The narrator — involving himself in a dithering, diffident self-palliative care for cancer, carrying a deadly gun as its own fixing hammer — takes a solitary walk to where in a forest he can be lost even to the disease that chases him – but he finds instead a precarious abode with Aickman’s settled dust inside. And his log-lit smoke through the chimney is due to alert the reader on the roof, a reader left with something at last to grasp – a life as a precious but expendable act of goodness that will outlast that reader who is anyone and everyone who triangulates, real-time reviews, hawls, dreamcatches such goodness from this fictively and luxuriantly stiff-paged and sturdy book I hold in my hand, a book, out of, not in, the library, one that will become dust last of any of us, no doubt. Dust or “grabby mud.” A story where the car only pretended to have broken down, uncertain whether to self-start. The ultimate method acting.
    I read this story today, on a day that UK news is full of an item about cancer no longer being life-ending; it is now simply life-changing: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-36925974
    The back room many of us carry with us. Including me.


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