We are in the middle of a horror fiction renaissance, of sorts. The evidence is everywhere: professional paying markets for horror stories keep increasing. New horror anthologies pop up almost weekly. Even mass-market publishers are taking more chances on horror, even if the word isn’t usually seen on the spines of their paperbacks. And T. E. Grau published a great short-story collection.
What? Never heard of him? I hadn’t either. I subscribe to Nightmare and Fantasy and Science Fiction (and am a lifetime Cemetery Dance subscriber), read Datlow and Guran’s anthologies regularly, and peruse several horror blogs a week; nonetheless, I didn’t have any idea who Grau was. I came across his collection while browsing on Amazon, and was impressed by the blurbs for it–Paul Tremblay and Laird Barron both loved his work, and I definitely knew who they were. I decided to give it a try, convinced by the accolades that Grau was at least a serviceable writer.
Grau ably exceeded my expectations with the first story in Dark, “Tubby’s Big Swim.” Tubby is a miniature octopus in a pet aquarium who can make things disappear. Alden is a boy with bully problems and mom problems and mom’s dipshit boyfriend problems. Eventually these two characters come together in a perfectly realized 1970’s urban jungle, but Grau takes his time about it, really letting us get inside Alden’s head (a very close third person POV), seeing the world from his perspective. Grau does pre-teen boy as well as he does the ‘70’s, so when things finally get weird near the end of the story we accept it without question. Grau melds an interesting premise, a vivid setting and an irresistible character, penning one of my favorite stories published this year. Which again raises the question: where has this guy Grau been hiding?
“Tubby’s Big Swim” is one of several stories in Dark that was previously unpublished; many of the others were published in relatively obscure anthologies. Most of Grau’s earliest stories were Lovecraftian in nature, with “The Screamer” being perhaps the best of them. Again, Grau’s fine depiction of setting impresses, this time a cold look at office life in Los Angeles. Like most of the stories in Dark, “The Screamer” is a novelette, giving Grau time to set up his characters and their world before piling on the strange. And this time, Grau really does pile it on, as a simple scream builds force until it is a weapon of apocalyptic force, transfiguring Los Angeles into a wasteland: “From Pico onto Century Park East, Boyd dodged debris: discarded clothing, a gutted snack cart. A long, broad streak of scarlet stained the pavement,as if someone hit a deer and dragged it under their drive train until it ground down to nothing.” Grau uses vivid imagery to bring his nightmarish tale to life, much like Laird Barron, one of my favorite writers. Indeed, a later Lovecraftian tale, “The Mission,” feels like Barron-lite, and another was published in a Barron tribute anthology. It makes sense that Grau spent the first few years of his career focusing on cosmic horror; he displayed a knack early on for melding the overheated language of Lovecraft with his own mastery of setting, a must for this kind of story.
Grau mentioned in a recent interview that he has been attempting to move away from cosmic horror, and “Expat” is a good example of that. Here, Grau opens with a man waking up in a strange apartment next to a naked corpse, then provides a nifty twist that I didn’t (entirely) see coming. The strong premise and the immediacy of the first-person narrative are the things that really work here, although Grau’s setting (Prague) is diverting enough. Another recent story, “Mr. Lupus,” is a cross between a Dickensian fairy tale and a werewolf story. Like most everything Grau writes, the backdrop here proves to be as arresting as the narrative.
I could go on. A few of the tales in the collection were ho-hum, but that was more due to my preferences than to anything wrong with the stories. Grau has managed quite a feat here: turning out a stunning collection comprised of the first group of stories he ever published. It is a testament to the breadth of quality work being done in the horror genre today that Grau has flown under the radar until now, but I believe that will change soon. This Is Horror is scheduled to publish two of Grau’s novellas next year, and I would be surprised if he isn’t nominated for some hardware (Shirley Jackson award, maybe?) next year. That’s a good thing; a writer as good as Grau should be benefiting from the current horror boom, not being hidden within it.