My dear unknown friend,
We all know there are writers who not only create worlds but then take us inside these newly created pocket universes. The best of them do it without our notice, a seamless slip into the Other whose passage goes unremarked by our consciousness until a number of pages have flown by. Reflecting upon this is it any surprise at all that gods of writing were the most potent magic wielders of old?
Kathe Koja of course ranks at the head of my personal pantheon of such writers. Close behind her is Elizabeth Hand. Now, happily, I can add Ann K. Schwader to this trifecta.* I was halfway through the titular story in her new collection for Hippocampus Press, Dark Equinox and Other Tales of Lovecraftian Horror when I closed the book to stare happily into space, ensconced in that familiar state of having been transported into another’s world.
“Dark Equinox” is a skillfully wrought calling card. Schwader is tellingly aware of the fearsome aspect of the Other and the most effective communicator of the corrosive effects of contact with the Other I have come across in years. Ponder carefully before you cast your eyes upon her words. Schwader has the unsettling ability to change your worldview. I’m not engaging in hyperbole here. Read her stories and passages from her writing will pass through your mind as you look at the night sky. This I guarantee.
I have recently made it a point to take the word ‘dread’ from my working lexicon. Of late it has become overwrought, especially by those that wish to separate themselves from horror into weird fiction. Few are those wishing to evoke dread that can make a reader go, “That’s not right.” Schwader did so repeatedly and she did it with pure cosmic horror and that most frowned upon and sneered at of literary tropes, the pastiche.
Recently the editor Ellen Datlow was a guest on Lovecraft eZine’s video chat and engaged in a quick discussion of pastiche with Peter Rawlik. As you may or may not know Rawlik enjoys writing pastiche and Datlow tells the writers she works with for her anthologies she does not like pastiche. During the discussion Datlow made the astute observation the reason she may not enjoy pastiche was that for decades following Lovecraft’s death pastiche was all readers were seeing, and like anything, too much of any one thing will make you grow to hate it. If Ann K. Schwader’s collection is any indication, the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way.
Just as I was growing comfortable with the voice in “Dark Equinox”,“The Sweetness of Your Heart” went in another direction, delighting in rich language that is intriguingly aware, a tone poem camouflaged as a Southern Gothic ghost story.
The next story, “When the Stars Run Away” while veering in yet another direction shows Schwader’s mastery by dealing with a child protagonist. This of course is a slippery slope, in one direction the dumbed-downed infantile, in the other the precocious Nancy Drew. Megan however stays the course, the believable, intelligent child knowledgeable enough to be cognizant of “that’s not right,” yet fragile enough to still need and be searching for protection.
I also enjoyed this story because it is forward seeking. While so many of her contemporaries look backwards in time, towards the 19th century and later for tone and content to fuel their explorations Schwader joins a small handful of writers comfortable with modern science’s findings to fuel her revealed horrors. Because make no mistake about this, her stories do not merely unsettle, they horrify.
Much as I am tempted I shall not go story by story except to note “The Death Verses of Yian-Ho” was another that leapt out. A story ostensibly about poetry and calligraphy uses the plateau of Leng and the special collections of a small New England University to divulge concealed layers. This story shows just how skillfully Ann K. Schwader plays with pastiche and how effective it can be when worked with skillful hands.
Halfway through the collection, starting with the story “Twenty Mile”, Schwader shifts over to a collection of stories focusing on Cassie Barrett, owner of the Twenty Mile Ranch, and her ranch foreman, Frank Yellowtail, grandson of a Crow Batce Baxbe (man of power) and badass quartermaster of road medicine.
In a rather nice Jungian synchronicity I had just started listening to a two part interview with Chris Knowles, (the author of Behind the X-Files) about the recent 6 episode mini-series. I say it’s a pleasant synchronicity because within “Twenty Mile” Ann K. Schwader takes a an element of modern mythology, one explored on X-Files several times, and forced me to realize why it is indeed so terrifying.
I will not say, “This is Ann K’s gift…” By now I hope I’ve shown you this writer is immensely gifted. To attempt to limit that in any way would be asinine. Ann K. Schwader gives us the gift of blowing the dust from myth, holding forth that which the rest of us have passed blithely by and saying, “Have you ever considered?” That dear heart, I would hold to be one true definition of Art.
With the Cassie Barrett stories Schwader proceeds to do just that. I will admit I took particular glee with the latter half of this book as I watched trickster figures returned to their proper place. It was glee mixed with “That’s just not right!” Let’s not forget our place here. Given a steady cast of characters to work with I found myself wishing for a novel length treatment of Cassie Barrett, Frank Yellowtail, Jupe, and Juno. Schwader could remove the mythos elements from her work, produce a novel with these characters and setting, and it would kick off a best-selling detective/thriller series. This would not surprise me in the least. Ann K. Schwader has obviously mastered the art of enticing readers to turn the page. The genre she writes in is inconsequential, she has that ability to get into your head and direct your attention we commonly associate with magicians yet are also the hallmarks of great writers and directors.
Which brings me to another point. I am surprised Schwader’s work has not been optioned for the screen or she has not yet been tapped to write screenplays herself. Her work is enchanting in its ability to conjure images to the mind’s eye. Usually to say a writer is visual is to damn them with faint praise yet in Schwader’s case we have already covered she has a finely tuned ear for the fall of a word. So by stating that she is also a visual writer I’m simply marveling that here is yet another weapon in her arsenal. The Cassie Barrett stories in particular, set around Wyoming, within caves and collapsing tunnels, during howling blizzards, place you firmly within their environments. Even though Schwader is dealing with the heady concepts of cosmic horror and reinvigorating the trickster mythology, never does she fall into the trap of letting her characters become empty mouthpieces for her intellectual excursions. Neither Kurt Vonnegut nor Flannery O’Connor would find reason to cast shade upon Ann K. Schwader.
As is painfully obvious by now, I loved Dark Equinox and Other Tales of Lovecraftian Horror. If I have a quibble about this release it would be with the cover design. For the $20 asking price I would like to see a cover that reflected that investment. As it is the font choice is poor enough one has to look at the copyright page to see how to spell Schwader’s last name. With the work of Dunhams Manor Press, Nightscript , and Dim Shores as just a small subset of what’s being accomplished out there, I would like to have seen the cover for this volume match the work within. That however, is not in the domain of Schwader and does not detract from the many hours of enjoyment you will find within. I only bring it up because I know as a fellow reader, even one who is not enough of a self-styled bibliophile to sleeve my books, I am all too aware of the feeling of unwrapping an eagerly awaited purchase to go, “What the hell?” I’m afraid with a cover more suitable to a late eighties TRS-80 computer game there may be more than a few such reactions. I see that on Amazon the book is available as part of the Kindle Unlimited program or Kindle alone for $6. Until the book is released with a cover befitting its contents this is the version I’d go for.
For the soundtrack I would definitely go with Kinski. There is something to their Krautrock influenced psychedelia that gelled wondrously with this collection. Their split with Acid Mothers Temple, Virginal Plane, is particularly memorable. For those unfamiliar, I’d start there.
* If you’re thinking I use a lot of gambling slang, guilty as charged. I am a self-confessed degenerate. My wife and I love going to the track, she even has a dress reserved for just such occasions. I’ve lectured at Coney Island on card-counting and tossing the broads (three card monte to laymen and magicians) and I used to supplement my income in Seattle by dealing private poker games. Buy me a cocktail and I’ll gladly sing for my supper.
This article by Acep Hale.
Article image by parkflavor at Deviant Art. See more of his wondrous photography here.