Another slice of stories as part of Dark Continents Tales of Darkness and Dismay series, A Gentle Hell by Autumn Christian showcases a distinctive cluster of four tales – brimming at the edge with what could be termed ‘surrealist’ fiction but devoid of absurdity. Often hard to nail down but somehow more potent for it, this is a body of work very similar to my previous review ... where the story is – at the discretion of the reader – always open to interpretation. The ultimate payoff here is keen insights from the author and elegiac prose.
An almost dystopian alternate reality is the scene for They Promised Dreamless Sleep. Here our narrator reports living in a realm where families consensually hook up to ‘machines’ and are placated in severe and disturbing ways. Shades of 1984 with a domestic twist.
In Your Demiurge is Dead we step into Neil Gaiman territory with the death of a God and the birth of another. Jehovah has washed up – dead – on the Gulf of Mexico. Heralding a new era for humanity is the Triple Goddess. Another domestic setting is instigated with a police investigation into deaths in a large family. Through quirky characters and idealistic insights, we are granted a story that is at once confounding yet absorbing.
With the The Dog That Bit Her, Autumn delivers what is probably the most unique Werewolf tale you’ll ever encounter. It’s a story about psychological addictions and slavish trust – all given credence by a storyteller who witnesses his wife’s slow decent into what could be termed, unquestionably, a gentle hell.
It is the last tale, however, that is probably the hardest to grant revelation. In The Singing Grass, I imagine artists everywhere will be granted something within the prose to identify with as a writer tries to find her muse. Heavy on metaphor, and (in the end) gore, it somehow serves as symmetry and complements what has come before.
For many, this will be a difficult journey. The often rudimentary formula of ‘story’ has been abolished in favor of flights of fancy that are allegorical or dream like in nature. It is often claimed for horror that it draws on our primitive responses but, as in key moments of this collection, the best stories can owe their power to something closer to the modern surface.