REVIEW: Looming Low Volume II

Purchase Looming Low Volume II here.

Reviewed by Pete Rawlik, author of The Eldritch Equations and Other Investigations.

Back in 2017, Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, knowledgeable regulars in the weird fiction scene, brought out the unthemed anthology Looming Low Volume I, a collection of 26 original stories that spanned the spectrum of the genre. A critical hit, the first volume included pieces from well-established writers, as well as presenting voices that were new to many readers. As with any such volume, the success was driven by the personal aesthetic of the editors and the receptiveness of the audience, with some stories being hits and others being consider lackluster, albeit such conclusions were different for different readers.

Five years on, in a world that – as editor Justin Steele notes in his introduction – is very different than the one we knew, Looming Low Volume II appears. Again, this is an unthemed anthology, but at the same time there seems to be an underlying sub-text of loss. There are an inordinate number of stories that I think deal either directly or indirectly with isolation, including Brain Evenson’s phantasmagorical “Vigil in the Inner Room”, Michael Kelly’s “Dead but Dreaming Still”, Gwendolyn Kiste’s fearsome “To the Progeny Forsaken”, and Michael Griffin’s slow-motion tale of child abandonment “We Spend Weekends With Dad”. There is I suspect a relation here to the political turmoil that has faced the world over the last few years, but also the pandemic, which is dealt with both more directly, and more obliquely in Kurt Fawver’s “Radius Unknown”, a rather poignant piece concerning the spread of a noxious odor and the failure of authorities to acknowledge its existence, let alone do something about it. It’s a modern parable, well worth opening the book with, and a story I could see being taught in future high schools alongside Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”.

As noted, this is not a themed anthology, presenting rather a wider spectrum of what one might call the weird. However, there are no overt or secret tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, or Lovecraftian pastiches present, which is perhaps for the best as these sub-genres have significant outlets of their own. There is however something that might be considered a tale inspired in part by Robert W. Chambers, “Ex Astris”. Written by Erica Ruppert, it might be a King in Yellow tale, or it might not be, but I think that Joe Pulver would have reveled in it and called it such.

Jeffrey Thomas draws us into a charming tale concerning puppets, puppeters, and monsters, set in his ever-growing Nameless Country milieu, a setting I am becoming increasingly fascinated with, and which might be a worthy successor to Punktown. Also fascinating is the dystopian and ultra-paranoid world presented by David Peak in “Zones Without Names”, an exercise I think in Orwellian nightmare that strikes just the right tone for the Twenty-First century.

Speaking of tones, Gemma Files delves into the intersection of music and strange cults with Bb Minor, a piece that is presented in a rather experimental manner, from multiple viewpoints, with multiple voices, and multiple opinions. It is, in many ways, a series of uncorrelated content, that is of course correlated, but only in the expert manner that Files is known for. Also experimental, and told with multiple voices is Matthew Bartlett’s “The Cryptic Jape”, a story that leaves you going “WTF did I just read”, but then sneaks up on you in the dead of night, and leaves you wondering even more about the distilled artistry of the language used.

No weird fiction anthology would be complete without a few of what I think of as post-modern ghost stories. Here, Brooke Warra takes a Jacksonian riff on the subject with “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”, while Nadia Bulkin takes a stab at amateur and professional ghost hunting with “Your Heart is a House on Fire”, which carries out what I am sure is Bulkin’s patented startling melancholy ending.

Surprisingly, Cody Goodfellow’s “Protect & Serve” might be in the running as the best of the best in this anthology and might even be the best thing I’ve ever read by him. It fully realizes and at the same time subverts everything the public has ever suspected about law enforcement, police brutality, racism, secret societies, and ancient cultic rites. It’s a complex piece that would make both Margaret Mead and James Frazier laugh with delight.

All in all, Looming Low Volume II is a fine successor to Volume I, and provides a wide survey of the state of the art as it exists today. It also serves to highlight the developing skills that both Steele and Cowan show in gathering and discerning said pieces. It is my sincere hope that these two continue their journey and that the series has a long and happy life. I look forward to Volume III.

P.S.: In the table of contents, the order of three unrelated stories create a kind of haiku:

“Still Packed”
“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”
“We Spend Weekends With Dad”

I suppose it is serendipity, but I kind of hope this was done on purpose. One can always hope.

Purchase Looming Low Volume II here.

Reviewed by Pete Rawlik, author of The Eldritch Equations and Other Investigations.

Justin Steele and Sam Cowan
Dim Shores, 2022
370 pp

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