Paul Roberts Comes in Under the Radar with “The Phantom Power of Purgatory”

Purchase The Phantom Power of Purgatory.

My dear unknown friend,

I love a scrappy independent. In this day and age with all the options available I think it  wise of authors to ask a small press what they bring to the table. I see presses asking authors what their presence is on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads etc. which should definitely beg the question. Never forget, this is a business arrangement and the stigma associated with the self-published author is swiftly being cast aside. It is being cast aside by those authors courageous enough to take on the hard work and varied roles required of that mantle and by those readers brave enough to look past the sneers of their betters to actively seek out new voices and new visions.

makersOf course there must be authors presenting great work for these readers to find. Ralph Robert Moore’s Ghosters is in my mind one of the most criminally overlooked works in the past few years and I am chomping at the bit to showcase it here. A(W) Baader’s We are the Makers of Maps is another example that I also look forward to shining the light on. Gladly today is the day I finally am able to do so for Paul Roberts and his short story collection, The Phantom Power of Purgatory.

amberPaul Roberts first caught my attention with his novel Burning Amber. There are those who will tell you that it is not possible to effectively maintain a proper sense of dread in a novel length work. Paul Roberts laughs at these fools. As you can tell merely by looking at the cover Paul doesn’t play by the genre’s “rules”. Primary colors right on the front? Then one discovers Paul commissioned Jef Whitehead, Wrest, of the underground Black Metal ambient project Leviathan to paint the wraparound cover for the book. Paul’s roots in the underground are myriad, deep and shine through in his work. Not in the obvious name dropping of bands and movies other writers employ as a grasp for relevance yet rather in an easy familiarity which pulses and breathes throughout his writing and nourishes the ground from below.

phantomI desperately wanted to review Burning Amber for Lovecraft eZine if for no other reason than to go, “You have a really good writer in your midst deserving of your consideration.” However even though there are ominous hints of cosmic horror lingering throughout the background Burning Amber falls more in line with the epic works of Robert R. McCammon than the soul crushing abyssal horror served here. That said Burning Amber does feel as if its world will be further explored and expanded. If it does, I fully expect Paul Roberts to serve us a fresh take on mythic horror very few have captured in recent memory.

Today we are here to discuss The Phantom Power of Purgatory. Starting with the physical object itself the book is striking, bearing a beautiful cover by industry veteran George Cotronis. I would encourage you to follow the link to this artist’s website and not only drink in the beautiful book covers he has designed but also read the articles and stories he has written and are linked to from his website. This is another factor I appreciate in the DIY underground. Not only do they wear multiple hats but they take pleasure and excel in all of them.

This attention to detail carries over to the body of the text within. In this day when major publishing houses are feeling the crunch and relying more on layout programs to flow and align text they have fewer eyes examining the final output. I found far fewer widows and orphans within The Phantom Power of Purgatory than I did within a recent science fiction novel I just completed that ranked high on the NYT’s best sellers list. Along with that the only misspellings that truly caught my attention were this, twice I saw “taught” where the word should have been “taut”. That’s it. (Thanks to Madeleine Spencer for letting me know the proper term for this is a “contextual spelling error”.)  Yet that was the only one I spotted in the entire collection. That is an accomplishment that puts a large number of presses both large and small to shame.

Of course none of this would matter if the stories did not within did not warrant the care on display. I trust you can bring your own colloquialism to bear in this situation. Thankfully this is not the case. Right from the start Paul Roberts sets forth his statement of intent with the opening of the titular story, “The Phantom Power of Purgatory”:

“To evoke a demon is a sordid, dangerous affair. Call loudly over the dense cathode with offers of bleating lambs, and sometimes a fiend scratches back against your tar-paper reality.”

paulThis story does not mess around. It is contemporary in a manner that current events make all the more uncomfortable. Two brothers man a black ops rendition site in the wilds of Alberta. No one knows of this site. Not the Canadian government, not NORAD, only the people who deliver their subjects to be interrogated and they operate through so many cutouts the brothers themselves can’t be sure who pays them nor do they care.

This milieu is already surreal. It calls to mind De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom with its feel of isolation from the world in order to fully transgress. Then a new element is brought into play, one straight from our modern collective unconscious that is so identifiable that the first time I read this story I marveled I have not seen it utilized before. I found this interesting because once again we’re operating within the power of a trio, a dynamic I have discussed previously with Christopher Slatsky and as others have pointed out is used to great effect in the works of Kathe Koja. Now we can add Paul Roberts to that list because with the introduction of this iconic figure not only does he also draw upon the dramatic tension of the third but also grounds the mythos in the terrifying present.

Up next is “Psychros”, another tale set in the remote wilderness that Roberts utilizes so well. In this case the Harriston brothers must travel to their grandfather’s cabin in Northern Ontario to remove his personal effects before the cabin is sold. While their grandfather’s body has never been found the statute of limitations has run out and the law office their grandfather hired to handle his affairs will not be paid until his estate is settled so the matter is removed from their hands.

paul2As the brothers make their way to the remote cabin a snow storm is rapidly approaching, wolves are seen outside their normal hunting range and a sense of dread worthy of “The Colour Out of Space” starts to build. I do not wish to write too much about this story because I admire the manner in which Roberts added layer upon layer to what I thought would be a simple tale and each time I grew comfortable with the story it would take a turn in an unexpected direction that added deeper meaning to what was going on within. I have a suspicion the world of “Psychros” will be revisited, expanded and hopefully interlock with the mythology of Burning Amber. This is my hope and I eagerly await any such undertaking.

“Wild Lines” deals with a sound recordist working under the table on a non-union movie shoot. Here Roberts’ background in independent film pays off in small touches that add veracity to a story that would make a captivating found footage film. If one were able to use the sound design team behind the recent film Don’t Breathe this would make a chilling project.

In “Black Leviathan Prophecy” a couple vacationing in Thailand becomes convinced their hostess has slipped a powerful hallucinogen into their drinks. This set up alone is enough to make me sweat but then having to explain to police officers how your wife disappeared while you are under the influence of said chemical cocktail? It doesn’t help matters that the police are pretty sure the reason you traveled to Thailand in the first place was the aforementioned drinks, drugs and hostesses. This is only the set up for the story proper because then it gets weird. Oh yes. Delightfully so.

“redLightAngel” closes out the collection. This is the one piece that may be the stumbling block for readers. In truth I hate calling any work of art experimental unless it is a live improvisation, otherwise material has been edited, a choice has been made and those results presented. So let us say that this piece differs from what is normally offered to readers of weird fiction. I would call it a prose poem presented as a manifesto that was uncovered “during an investigation of brokenlives.exit – a Deep Web forum frequented by sexual tourists.” I for one applaud its inclusion and would like to see more of this kind of work, pushing against the structures of what we have grown to expect from genre fiction but I did want to give a heads up to those staunch traditionalists we find among us.

I deeply enjoyed The Phantom Power of Purgatory. It is a solid, well crafted collection of tales that will delight any fan of cosmic horror out there and a strong example of what is on offer by self-published authors. Is there room for improvement? Of course. The side bar TOC was spotty in the kindle version (sometimes it was there, other times not) and the aforementioned contextual spelling error. However with the TOC issue it’s hard to know whether that is on Roberts from when he converted the file or Amazon and the fact it’s up to date with all other features while other small presses still have yet to incorporate these features into their releases speaks volumes. The Phantom Power of Purgatory is available as part of the Kindle Unlimited program so if you belong to that you may check it out for free.

As far as a soundtrack of course I’m going to leave you with Jef Whitehead’s Leviathan. Did you think for one second I would defy Chekhov’s gun?

Purchase The Phantom Power of Purgatory.

This review written by Acep Hale.

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