Looming Low

Edited by Justin Steele & Sam Cowan


The Convexity of Our Youth — Kurt Fawver
The Stories We Tell About Ghosts — A.C. Wise
In Canada — Michael Wehunt
The Second Door — Brian Evenson
The Christiansen Deaths — Daniel Mills
Dusk Urchin — Betty Rocksteady
The Gin House, 1935 — Livia Llewellyn
This Unquiet Space — Damien Angelica Walters
We Grope Together and Avoid Speech — Sunny Moraine
Heirloom — Brooke Warra
That Which Does Not Kill You — Lucy A. Snyder
Doused by Night — Simon Strantzas
We Are All Bone Inside — Kaaron Warren
Outside, A Drifter — Lisa L. Hannett
The Small Deaths of Skin and Plastic — Kristi DeMeester
When the Blue Sky Breaks — Scott Nicolay
Mirror Bias — Craig Laurance Gidney
Boisea trivittata — Anya Martin
Rock n’ Roll Death Squad — Michael Cisco
Alligator Point — S.P. Miskowski
Stranger in the House — Jeffrey Thomas
SPARAGMOS — Christopher Slatsky
Banishments — Richard Gavin
The Sound of Black Dissects the Sun — Michael Griffin
Live Through This — Nadia Bulkin
Distant Dark Places — Gemma Files

When I review these stories, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

33 thoughts on “Looming Low

  1. The Convexity of Our Youth by Kurt Fawver

    MENTION OF POSSIBLE SPOILER (a rare occurrence in my reviews)

    “We have achieved a level of contentment and stasis in which our primary worry is losing our contentment and stasis.”

    This is the tale of the orange ball that is rumoured to have been ‘born’ in the rural heartland of America, a tale that becomes a relentless, obsessive, subtitled extrapolation-report on the orange ball’s violation of those Americans whose page-upon-which-reality-is-printed is a single trusted page rather than the wild excesses of the Internet. And while I was reading and shaping this Swiftian vision into a gestalt, or ‘rorschach’, I suddenly thought of Trump. And it all fell into place. Powerful stuff, in hindsight.

  2. The Stories We Tell About Ghosts by A.C. Wise

    “Ghosts have always known how to get inside people’s mouths, using them to tell themselves over and over.”

    And here we have the plainspoken mouths of children netted by this story’s prose and dialogue, a childhood of ghost hunting not with mouths opening upon the telling or nursery rhyming of ghosts so much as filtering such ghosts by an app on a smartphone. An app that also seems to encompass local legends of ghosts where the children live. A group of children, playing amid hedge or on-line short-cuts, one particular girl in reluctant charge of her younger brother Gen (half the letters of Orange and perhaps somehow an inchoately naive catalyst like Fawver’s ball)…with incremental creepy encounter with what was thus told or heard … or social-mediated.
    Or naively read in a real book.

    Cf A.C. Wise’s haunting story Mellie’s Zoo that was in Nemonymous: CERN Zoo in 2009.

  3. IN CANADA by Michael Wehunt

    “, the cold coming at him in sheets flapping in the open space. It whistled over the cups of his ears as he caught sight of the monster again.”

    A cold coming they had of it. As TS Eliot once said? To worship the son of the Virgin Mary. Another protagonist whose name begins with GE. A very disturbing work, depending on which implications you take as your own. A lonely man who sees a monster disguised as another man in a tan suit, and GE attaches himself to a girl called Maddy in the same apartment block, has a snow globe called Canada, and morphs himself, at least in his own mind, into animals. Or into just their costumes? If I retold this full story, which I haven’t, it would morph itself into a ludicrous mask of itself. It needs to be read …

    “The clean grace in which the words in his head turned to simpler pictures, to calm.”

    And let it percolate amid your own calm. As the implications pan out. Your implications, if not those of the rarefied cold space within the words’ geographical globe.

    “Inside was a yellow and red dragon’s face. On his knees, he lifted it from the box as if it were a crown at a coronation.“

    Do read further what comes after these words in the text. Meanwhile, what does yellow and red make?

  4. THE SECOND DOOR by Brian Evenson

    “I have lived alone now for long enough to no longer have a proper sense of how to convey a story to another being.”

    Except not to know how to convey something is the best way to convey it. I am a great fan of the deadpan tentative self-location literature inspired by Aldiss’s Report on Probability A and Samuel Beckett’s work, and here with two dolls as role-playing props for a brother-sister mėnage to resolve their parental backstory and the nature of two hallway doors and to what sort of outside they lead, with hints of a mechanical being inside trying to get out and a more amorphous carcass of a creature hunted outside trying to get in.
    Cf the Wise hedge short cut (very significant) and the Wehunt morphing with costumes rather than dolls (‘we hunt’, brother and sister as eventually the first person plural??)
    in the Evenson.


    “I asked if she could tell me when the babe had been conceived, but if she knew, she wouldn’t say. ‘No man,’ she said. ‘No man.’”

    A series of seeming short reports about the Christiansen couple and what happened to them by inhabitants in their community, each report with the reporter’s age. Not -sen, or sun, or even the thunder of snow, but son in that Biblical inference I made in the Wehunt above. A gestalt of these reports, is brain bait enough for the incredibly disturbing climax to work on me. But when gestalted with this book so far, I find it even more powerful by the preternatural power of Chance.

  6. Dusk Urchin by Betty Rocksteady

    “There was a dark stain on the sofa, where the girl had been sitting.”

    A straightforwardly, plainspoken atmosphere piece of a woman called Ashley haunted by a striking young girl, the daughter she and her estranged husband Jon never had? Or the daughter haunting Ashley’s next door neighbour who had already tried to bury her? I put this down to just a fairly effective prose-frisson as an interlude between one story and another.
    But then I wondered. Why were we told that Jon’s brother was the doctor who would have come if Ashley had decided to call one? And can burial plots grow bigger without further digging? And did the girl seem as if she had arrived through a hedge backwards?

  7. The Gin House, 1935 by Livia Llewellyn

    “Maybe it was this century, sucking the lives of its inhabitants away.”

    It is always this century.
    I have read much of this author’s work – and I may have said this before about any number of her previous stories – but this is her apotheosis. In America’s heartland mentioned in the iconic-fabulous Fawver work above, a woman whose hardships and loves reach what I would call a Proust dragged through a hedge backwards, yet paradoxically poetic-luxurious in style and tenor, every home and attic and hallway she has lived in blended as a gestalt in a visionary engulfment towards death or beyond it. A ‘dying fall’ but not necessarily dying finale as throwaway to whatever God or Goddess watches her, I guess.

  8. This Unquiet Space by Damien Angelica Walters

    “New routines: the reason he didn’t take her hand and sing along in the kitchen?”

    In hindsight, a disarmingly clever routine of a story, style mostly plain and routine, too, until the blandness of a milky surface under a black, impossibly indelible stain on the wall, one that stays the same size (unlike Gahan Wilson’s increasingly baroque wall-stain in ‘Again, Dangerous Visions’) – a stain inchoately symbolising an unconsciously failing marriage where the now alcohol-defying husband once disguised his vodka with orange juice? Yes, orange juice.
    Inscrutability as a designing force of silent machinery for people not understanding each other even less than understanding the weird fictions of seeming routine created somehow autonomously around them? As someone wrote to me in a letter last week, ‘you can never know when you are doing something for the last time.’

  9. We Grope Together, and Avoid Speech by Sunny Moraine

    “The mouths in the walls have teeth.”

    Relatively short, but seeming relentless, obsessive, a scything-poetic monologue as refrain. It has strong links with the teeth in the head of the Daniel Mills, the wall stain in the DA Walters (now becoming as baroque as the Gahan Wilson), the Beckettian Evenson, the apotheosis of Llewellyn, the orange ball syndrome, the groping of our times.

  10. HEIRLOOM by Brooke Warra

    “I leaned close to the painting, touched the tear where it had burst through. My fingers came away with wet paint.”

    It is as if the erstwhile painted-over stain or mouth as wall flower from earlier in this book, is still trying to obviate every obstacle in its path. This plainly disturbing story is the compulsive view by one of two twin sisters of the nature of their splicing or grafting or pruning or dead-heading, a realisation that what is most crucial or stigmatic is not the first immediate battle of who survived their parting by BIRTH best, not which of them later had, say, boy friends and which one stayed disfigured at home like a wallflower with a splint, but which of them eventually survived the parting by DEATH best. Mind as well as body. Small mouth and disfigured or groping gesticulations? Looming low,

  11. That Which Does Not Kill You by Lucy A. Snyder

    “Maybe it’s absorbed some of the tree into itself.”

    Your heart almost grafted on a tree, if not speared by it. As a coda to the previous story? No, more as another Swiftian fable, of love, Sapphics who toss and turn between genders, but ‘you’ in the story purely Sapphic, allowing your overloud heartbeat to be your lover’s excuse for the latest ‘it’s me, not you’ upheaval, where body parts are like ingredients for an Italian meal! Or noisy neighbours. Nothing can kill you: the fable’s moral for our killing times.

  12. DOUSED BY NIGHT by Simon Strantzas

    “Give Lorianne enough time and she’ll wear down Mt. Everest.”

    It’s me, not you, again. Ironic, or not, then, that she wants to keep him in a basement looming low towards the end. He who is exploring the backrooms of a pub a la Wyckoff, searching for his Evenson existential self, the self about to be murdered or already murdered because of this book’s stain, not on a wall like this book’s multiform blot or Gahan Wilson’s erupting baroquely, but instilled where he can’t see it behind his ear supposedly during a hard night in the same pub the night before, drinking himself away from his relationship with stub-smoking Lorianne. A stain that migrates to a mirror. Tellingly.

  13. We Are All Bone Inside by Kaaron Warren

    “Would such a stain last 700 years?”

    An incredibly accretive story of a thirty something woman, where at the start we think it just another spelunking story, where they find a Cthulhu monster in the deepest cave. Literally looming low? But here it’s more a feisty over-ripe menses family spunk than spelunk, more worms nesting in the vagina than just another virgin birth, those teeth of Christ in this book’s earlier Mills head, those bones threaded all the way through. A tale of the feisty Naskins, the witch or otherwise suspected prisoners in these caves, age to age, wall to wall. Bloodlines of madness and then later the marketing of scrimshaw, the caves more touristy? And here she is helping her ageing uncle find his sister who stayed down there? He waits while she explores. And what we learn, and she keeps pent up, makes a poignant ending, where men hold guilt but sometimes forget they have it. Very telling in this day and age? Back When.

  14. Outside, A Drifter by Lisa L. Hannett

    “Upright or hunkered, the odd rhythm of their gait was a sure sign they’d been to see the salumitrix.”

    A middle-aged hexenwifman, too. Beautifully written, utterly meaty and massagey, with code words between this meaty masseuse and her regular man client where years were needed till she got down to his pains and his lowest bone for Kaaron constructural dislocation, and sweatily summoned up a whole array of sloughings on culinary hooks, to pay others in kind. Extremely poignant and bordering on Aickman canniness-balls, seething and teeming with unctions, herbs, ointments, and flayings or flensings, even locating a Strantzic tender spot behind the right ear, I imagined!
    Redolent and pungent and tactile. A stylish Peake or Rushdie and something unique, forming a growing awareness in me that this is a potential masterpiece of weird fiction. I can give it no greater praise.

    “‘A song or two,’ he said with a nod. A wince. ‘Maybe a concerto’s worth.’
    ‘A full opera.’
    Before, this would’ve made Ruhlma smile. This evasion of facts. This whimsical invention. This reframing the world to suit them, renaming everyday things.”

  15. The Small Deaths of Skin and Plastic by Kristi DeMeester

    “I don’t even know what I’m sorry for.”

    A dark visionary theme and variations on childbirth from the point of view of the mother, very affecting in subtle ways, variable gestation periods, sense of self or smiling without mouths, being manipulated bodily and internally, either a nightmare suffered diffidently or a diffident message for our times that will only get through with sufficient obliquity as well as diffidence, so as not to touch the sides coming out, coming out, for me, with the substance nature and consistency become consistent with the story’s own eponymity and thus with this book’s Orange Ball Syndrome.

  16. When the Blue Sky Breaks by Scott Nicolay

    “Also you have to be down low to see the ugly wrigglers and where they come out,…”

    Although I think this author is an important fictioneer in the genre, this particular piece did not work for me. It seems to mingle with the DeMeester childbirth trope and here the man-troubled mother, a woman with simple hopes and fears via her brand of blue sky thinking, but blue wrigglers (like the earlier orange balls?) about to infiltrate the world through a rip in that sky.
    Perhaps this work might help an eventual, as yet unseen, gestalt to crystallise, as I am only now halfway in this book.

  17. Mirror Bias by Craig Laurance Gidney

    “It was the blue of sapphires, or heliotropes. The blue of Prussia and Persia. The blue of cobalt and cornflowers. Violet-blue and blue dusk. All of these.”

    Well, now roughly at the halfway point, we still seem to be into Nicolay blue. Worms aplenty in his story. And now blue to black here, one huge black worm, as it were. This is a shocking tale that is rescued by its last line. The gestalt shattered. Is that now what I have to expect from this book after the Gidney male middle-aged loser, so-self-called, of a florist, with a whole mix of flowers to tend, a narrative with some brilliantly itemised blooms and stems and blossoms? Stalked electronically. And then the pareidoliac shower of steam. A gratuitous gestalt shattered by what? And why? I too am shattered. Spent. For now. I keep my powder dry. About this and mirror bias.

    “He was sad that the world was such a cruel place, where angelic sightings were signs of insanity.”

  18. 2286E7EF-64C4-42F6-A950-031112561EEABoisea trivittata by Anya Martin

    “Maybe she was a mother of bugs, at least metaphorically.”

    We are born from our own swarms, from the inside out, but it needs to create its own gestation or gestalt within us as a sort of inverse birth, but the boxelder bugs, upon general research, all seem to have orange markings, not red? This story cannot really disguise that fact for the conscientious reader.
    In fact, it is a story, on the face of it, otherwise trying to be just an American SF bug infestation/invasion story as the woman sees one bug first on her computer mouse then a swarm of them on a real mouse. All happening during her house being redecorated with surrounding civic and then military unrest reported on the radio.

  19. Rock n’ Roll Death Squad by Michael Cisco

    “…and the people in the street became a crazed swarm of shivering flies—“

    A mighty Proustian version of the Anya and the rest of this book so far, swarming unrest against swarming unrest, but which swarm is more evil, and which evil swarm is ‘you’? Proustian, though, without the unrequited love, without the gossamer memory, without the separate selves, without the itemisation of Dreyfus history but merely history’s sweep and swarm. All of us with long sentences. But shorter and shorter lives. Looming lower and lower.

    “And now what are you? Even less than you were then. Less than nothing, less than a failed villain.”

  20. Alligator Point by S.P. Miskowski

    “…Richard Burton approaching the car, shambling and drunk, his face filled with rage.”

    This has so many oblique images seen either in dream or waking, I found myself glimpsing – in the story’s own side wing mirror – other images that were possibly not even referenced here. But there were a swarm of ants and a sort of giant alligator in the undergrowth that were there all the while. Husband-bruised Helen on holiday with her young twin daughters, keeping their boredom at bay, driving in her Grand Prix car on side roads, to land in a downbeat cove where an elderly couple – seemingly on their last honeymoon – were already lounging in their deckchairs. Burton and Taylor, I assumed, playing variations upon Dirk Bogarde at the end of Death in Venice, one of them in drag? Anything can happen when on a wing and a prayer, I guess.
    An author whose work I always look forward to.

  21. Stranger in the House by Jeffrey Thomas

    “He turned his head to gaze up at his waitress. She was pretty; a black woman in her twenties.”

    This story, for me, is the apotheosis of the Jeffrey Thomas work I have previously read. Utterly sad, but uplifting in that I can relate to something that needs expressing, and the most powerful way of expressing something so human is by means of fiction. Here Thomas’ work’s xenophilia provides a backdrop to a treatment of the act of ageing and forgetting that blends heart-achingly with the atomisation of cell or self dust and swarms and bias mirrors and Proustian selves in the rest of this book.
    And where else has a meeting of a son with his mother where both suffer memory loss been so touchingly done?
    And also my review site’s sense of gestalt.

    “He pondered: were all people just one vast living ghost, then? A collective entity, each unit carrying one of the countless pebbles that composed its overall essence, the individual identity of any one of those cells merely a figment?”

  22. SPARAGMOS by Christopher Slatsky

    “A magnetic sign attached to the driver’s door spelled SPARAGMOS in neon-orange letters. The two employees inside the cab wore orange jumpsuits.”

    We learn later they have orange boots, too. And even later, before I forget, the orange is as bright as a tangerine. Or was it a mandarin?
    But this unforgettable standalone story – one that is disturbing as well as blackly humorous – also emerges fully formed from the previous story, a continuation of the theme and variations on memory loss and dementia, here a man and previously his wife with Alzheimer’s. He tries to fix things in a journal, tries to remember his son and daughter when they visit. Tries so hard. I ached for him, for I know how he feels. Seeing things through the cataracts of time, and via bias mirrors. Seeing “plumbing dragged behind like a disemboweled animal.” Exaptions and goby frogs? He tries to make sense of what is broadcast on his radio as I try to make sense from this story, as if a Gestalt from life, a Gestalt from a Slatsky’s growing maze. From this BOOK’s still growing maze. Even its earlier caves and cavers…

    “SPARAGMOS’s respirators, goggles and hardhats with built in lamps made them look like a species of insect found deep underground. Or cavers who’d lost their way.”

  23. BANISHMENTS by Richard Gavin

    “It grew entangled in the low-looming branches and thickets that bearded the mud.”

    For me this promises to become a generally considered Weird Fiction Classic. Perfectly expressed, perfectly weighted and disturbing, bringing to us along a storm-swollen river the story of the two brothers’ reunion, only linked for years by one of them lurking on the other’s social media. The backstory, for fear of spoilers, I dare not tell you nor what flotsam they discovered floating past in that river, what the utter nightmarish implications of one brother’s failed marriage are. It also deploys the feeling in the previous two stories by Thomas and Slatsky of interpreting nonsense while suffering from dementia. Which links in turn to various other syndromes for our times in this book so far. “The newspaper was a jumble of meaningless words.”
    This story is unmissable. In a style to die for.
    “Like a cryptographer, he was compiling lists that twisted the Dear John note into anagrams, into weird insect-looking hybrids of letters, not unlike the iron basket’s engravings.”


    “Finally, at the center of the convoluted wrap is a compact disc, marked with a maze-like pattern similar to the outer wrap.”

    ….which is as exciting as getting a book in a parcel from Dan in Romania!
    This novelette I was intensely in tune with for its first two tracks at least, two out of five. I was then thinking that this was another potential classic to follow the Gavin. It is indeed brilliantly written, spiritually and darkly transcendent by turn, with things that ring with the rest of this book so far. Ash and dust and maze and visions of pareidolia. “The paper is unusually coarse, textured with fragments of seed and leaf, and roughly scrawled with obscure, nonsensical shapes, like letters in a foreign language or unfamiliar alphabet.”
    It certainly conveys the experience of what some modern classical music does for me. With an aura of religious incense. Very astute on today’s nature of music, comparing tangible CDs with torrents of downloads. It is excruciatingly evocative about running a small business selling tangible objects. The same applies to piles of books as it does to piles of unsold CDs. Claustrophobia and depressingly frustrating. And I found this middle-aged man’s unrequited love for the younger married Selene very convincing. But ultimately this work became for me flabby and amorphous. Its final tracks tailing off, not keeping the promise of its initial ‘attack’. Sorry.

    “Atop the bedrock rumble, scratchy noise loops subtly intrude, intentionally low-fi.”
    Looming low.

  25. LIVE THROUGH THIS by Nadia Bulkin

    “The rest of the month’s days and nights and conversations blurred together like water circling a drain that was death: the guttural tunnel through which we all must travel, past stars and moons and planets, into the abyss that takes us apart.”

    This is a transcendental, absurdist allegory or fable in the form of a horror story about a college girl gang-raped at a party who, now a corpse that once committed suicide, later revisits the town house by house. More successful as a fable than a horror story. Another fable for our times. With some interesting tensions within a character study of another girl who experiences these events and the decline of her brother who had been at that party.

  26. DISTANT DARK PLACES by Gemma Files
    for Caitlín R. Kiernan
    A complex version of building gestalts of identity and location from the Internet, as compared to the simpler one between the two brothers in the Gavin…

    “…tracing a person through their digital footprint, or finding echoes of said footprint inside of other people’s tracks, was like trying to catch a ghost in a sieve.”

    And an echo of this whole book and my review of it between the start and end with orange balls, it seems….

    “Or what if—worst of all—the hundred million random coincidences that supposedly combined to produce life on our planet had simply arranged themselves another way?
    […]You can’t just bend the facts to fit your own vision of things, I’d told her, on more than one occasion. This is science, not poetry; it’s supposed to make sense.”

    To the ‘jump-start of one’s own extinction’, as the suicide of a teenage girl to become a corpse comet in the previous Bulkin story…

    “Choose the manner and moment of your own death and you’re finally rendered free of time, death, fear; Prometheus stealing fire, Christ harrowing Hell. For that briefest of all moments, you become your own personal saint, savior, god.”

    This series of Files in info-dump, if you can transcend such churning of scientific and Fortean info, is a mightily cataclysm of event and style, of a cosmic Endism, as one woman seeks her missing lover in her (the lover’s) own version of Endism, deploying a blend of all the factors I just adumbrated above. Yet, for me, it suffers similar drawbacks as the Griffin, starting with great initial ‘attack’, a potential classic, but extending itself just too long and just too over the top.
    Conceptually, though, taken to its core, it represents a fine coda to this book’s inspiring symphony of dangers to face in our times (a paradoxical end game of rapture and darkness.) An anthology with many gems, especially the Hannett and the Gavin.


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