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Jason A. Wyckoff
Black Horse and other strange stories
Tartarus Press
UK Hardcover Limited Edition
ISBN 978-1-903-78441-7
Publication Date: 06-25-2012
266 Pages; £32.50
Date Reviewed: 07-07-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Fantasy  Horror  Science Fiction  General Fiction

As much as we are novel and non-fiction readers now, America is a nation that was defined first by the short story, and more specifically, the strange short story. Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irving are among those who made us one nation under weird. It was in New England that H. P. Lovecraft found such fertile ground as to twist the minds of generations to follow, and in the quiet suburbs of Illinois and California, Ray Bradbury was haunted by the future and the past. Rod Serling re-defined the American myth with the help of Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson both in print and in the once futuristic medium of television.

It's more than a bit ironic then, that noted British specialty publisher Tartarus Press is publishing Jason Wyckoff's 'Black Horse and other strange stories,' a miscellany of American Weird stories that would certainly feel right at home were one to have found them in Weird Tales. But for readers of the American Weird and Strange, and indeed, any sort of strange story, 'Black Horse' is good news. The sixteen stories in this volume offer a great example of the range possible in the American Weird story, and more than that, they're of uniformly high quality. Wyckoff is clearly a talented writer with an impressive imagination and an innate storytelling skill.

The stories here run the gamut of weird fiction. In "The Highgate Horror," Joe Ishler finds what appears to be a small hole in the fabric of his cubicle; from it emerge insects like no other he has ever seen. The hole proves to be much more problematic than Joe first presumes, as a science fiction underpinning leads to personal dissolution. The visionary vistas belie a psychological despair. A number of the stories feature disturbing portraits of minds gone awry in the face of the unknown; two hikers make an unfortunate find in "Intermediary," while in the superb "Panorama," an artist documents a reality that is at odds with the one we inhabit. Wyckoff knows how to create compelling characters in the confined space of a short story and then undo them when they are confronted with the products of his imagination.

Humor is a key component of the American Weird Story, and it is well represented here. Alan Burke, in the Department of Development deals with Bill's Middy's unusual housing problem in "A Civil Complaint," and he's a character I'd like to see again. Vampires get an original vision in "A Matter of Mirrors," while "The Trucker's Story" has the real ring of 20th century Weird Americana. Wyckoff never repeats his riffs, characters or prose stylings from story to story, so the humor seems fresh.

Not all the stories are rooted in science fiction and the supernatural. "The Mauve Blot" and "A Willow Cat in Meadowlark" are more in the realm of the surreal. "Knott's Letter" is a heretical take on cryptozoology that will boil the blood of those in the field. On the other hand, "The Bells, and Then the Birds" follows the folklore behind song lyrics and finds that unfortunately, there is indeed a reality behind every story in song. The title story is a perfect piece of weird fiction, quiet, unusual and evocative of place and character as a young man inherits a black horse. It proves to be an unfortunate inheritance.

In every story, Wyckoff displays an intuitive understanding of the demands of form, no matter what that form is. "The Night of His Sister's Engagement," for all its American feel, is a perfect example of the "strange story" style of Robert Aickman, and for that matter, Ray Bradbury. "An Unseen Hand" offers truly unique terror in the subway. It's short and very creepy. The more straightforward supernatural stories, "The Walk Home," "Raise Up the Serpent," and "Hair and Nails," mix smart prose and new angles even as they evoke the welcome familiarity of the American Weird.

'Black Horse and Other Strange Stories' may be something of a departure for Tartarus Press, but all the familiar quality of their work shows through. The literary quality is high, and the production values of the book itself are of course peerless. Readers looking for an original and entertaining voice in American Weird fiction — and proof that we can keep up with the rest of the world in this regard — need look no farther than this book. It's the sort of collection that you'll read slowly, deliberately, drawing out the pleasure on your porch in the long afternoons and haunted evenings.

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