The Damp Chamber and other bad places
Medusa Press, San Francisco
USA Hardcover first edition
Publication Date: 01-15-2004
345 pages ; $40.00
Date Reviewed: 12-25-2004
Reviewed by Mario Guslandi © 2005
Once in a while one happens to run into a previously unknown book, buy it on impulse and find it to be unexpectedly excellent. 'The Damp Chamber' by Frank Chigas, a short-story collection of 345 pages is proof that sometimes impulsive acts provide delightful surprises.
Precious little is known about Frank Chigas except that, according to the scant information on the back cover, he's a San Francisco Bay area native and that 'The Damp Chamber' is his first published book. The work of the elusive Chigas, who also supplies a number of unsettling illustrations, is published by the equally mysterious Medusa Press, an imprint which appears to have no other books in its catalogue. Hence, the strong suspicion that Chigas and Medusa Press are actually the same thing.
The collection includes nineteen pieces of dark fiction, ranging from ghost stories to terror tales, from horror to SF. Surprisingly for a newcomer, the stories, bar a couple of minor misfires, are all quite compelling, extremely entertaining and, what counts more to the horror fan, pleasantly disquieting. Chigas may well be a newcomer , but he doesn't seem a beginner and one wonders if, by any chance, he's not an established writer in disguise, using a pen-name to try his hand at a new genre. Whatever the truth, his writing style is firm and smooth, his ability as a storyteller is excellent, and his plots very imaginative. Obviously he has learned his lesson from the masters of dark fiction, has done his homework well and now exhibits a voice of his own.
Interestingly, as the collection subtitle ("...and other bad places") suggests, all the featured stories are linked to a cursed, haunted or uncanny place. In addition to the setting of the title story, a strangely damp basement in a Wisconsin house, Chigas's curious geography of horror includes an unsuspected hollow between two walls in an apartment in Manhattan ('The space between two walls'), a damned Polish town extending its evil influence as far as an English manor ('The return of the One'), a rundown hotel in southern USA ('The house of August'), a restless graveyard of a small New England town ('And darkness slumbers') and an otherwise comfortable inn near Dover, become the site of a murderous apparition ('She is a picture in black').
'The copper bell' is located in a haunted village in Japan, where a headless demon looks for human prey, while in 'A face at the window' a Georgian dilapidated mansion is the home of a terrifying, malevolent spirit. Similarly, 'The fourth column' of a portico in a wealthy mansion hides an unspeakable secret which would have delighted H.P. Lovecraft, whereas 'The stone and the hand that touched it' takes place in a cottage garden where odd statues display disturbing habits.
Other disreputable places are Prague's cobblestone old streets, the scene of mysterious disappearances ('The inheritors'), a haunted field in a Chicago lower-class neighbourhood ('The girl in the pipe'), a particular spot on Highway 61 where strange globes of light appear every now and then ('Devil's eyes on 61') , a deserted beach in California holding dark, dancing shadows ('The people of Faces beach'), not to mention an unnamed islet in the Atlantic ocean with its single, malign, ugly tree ('The winter tree', a chilling tribute to William Hope Hogdson). There's also a sad, gentle tale of love and nostalgia, set in a meadow of sunflowers in New England as the roaming place of a doomed, beautiful woman ('Sunflowers').
Chigas' characters are generally well-drawn, carved by means of brief, revealing sentences - an essential point in short stories, where everything must be squeezed into a few pages- and then consistently driven throughout the tale. The only exceptions are encountered in two stories on the SF side ('Yet another god' and 'In the shadow room') where the author unexpectedly adapts his characters to some old clichés (e.g. the mad scientist) who turn out as unconvincing, flat 'personae'. It's no coincidence that those are the less accomplished stories in the whole collection.
The narrative style is always straightforward, essential and simple, but never ordinary or sloppy. On the contrary Chiga's writing is quite elegant, I'd be tempted to say "classical", with a knack for choosing precisely the right word. The result is a very enjoyable experience for anyone who likes to read a well-told story.
In a time when overrated writers unable to create a tale with a beginning and an end often receive praise and recognition by lenient reviewers, gifted authors such as Chigas must be unconditionally commended and encouraged. In a time when so much disposable fiction is immediately out of the reader's mind as soon as the last page is turned, stories like the ones included in this collection cannot be easily forgotten. The publisher informs that Chigas is currently working on a second book of horror stories: I'll be on the alert.