Alexander Glass on a new collection of stories by Lynda E. Rucker
I hold in my hands a thing of dark beauty. This limited hardback edition of Now It’s Dark (Swan River Press, 2023), a collection of stories by Lynda E. Rucker, is one of those objects that goes a little way toward restoring one’s faith in humanity, just because it was clearly created by people who cared enough about their work to make it perfect. The wraparound cover is by John Coulthart, as are the printed boards beneath; the main image is a doorway which is also a grotesque, infernal mouth, based on the ‘House of Monsters’ entrance of the Palazzo Zuccari in Rome – now a library. The image is almost too dark to make out the details, so you lean closer; and thus the book invites you in, at your own peril.
And within are dark stories. Rucker’s early work appeared in The Third Alternative and Black Static, and she contributed columns to the latter. Now It’s Dark is in a similar vein. The long shadow that lies over the ten pieces assembled here is perhaps that of Robert Aickman: they are stories not of overt horror but of deep and abiding disquiet, with a sense that, upon turning a corner or turning a page, one might stumble upon something unspeakable, something malevolent and beyond comprehension. Rucker holds back from showing us the full horror. She leaves it lingering, lurking, at the corner of one’s eye. Of course, when we turn to look, there is nothing of note to be seen – a random collection of elements, transformed by a kind of Arcimboldo effect into a snarling face.
A recurring element of that malevolence in Rucker’s stories comes from human nature; and her characters are all too human. Here we find abusive relationships, strange obsessions, guilt, shame, anger and regret – the darkness within echoed, amplified, in the darkness without. The ugly familiarity of flawed humanity plays a soft but insistent counterpoint to the eerie topnotes of the stories.
The first, ‘The Dying Season’, owes the clearest debt to Aickman – deliberately so, having been written for the Simon Strantzas anthology Aickman’s Heirs. Rucker evokes masterfully the sense of an off-season English holiday resort, the characters straining against despair, a description of a terrible relationship saved from caricature by the assuredness of the prose.
‘The Séance’ takes its cue from the photographs – and the tragically short life – of Francesca Woodman, whose subtly disturbing photographs of women (often herself) blurred by long exposure or merging with their grimy surroundings are apt for another recurring motif of these stories: characters who lose themselves, or fear losing themselves, or are under pressure to submit their identities to the will of another. In the story, the main character is obsessed with a dead painter she had known as a child; a strange tension is drawn from the contrast between the child in her memory, and the woman – morbid, reclusive – she later became.
‘The Other Side’ is inspired by a fragment left behind by the late, much-missed, Joel Lane (also sometime alumnus of The Third Alternative, and himself influenced by Aickman). The story is Rucker’s own – the fragment is only about three hundred words, buried deep, and seamlessly integrated, within the piece – but Lane’s ethos is discernible: a thread of too-bright yearning in the shadows. It is fascinating as an exercise, but more importantly it is moving as a story.
‘The Secret Woods’ has echoes of Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ and ‘The Great God Pan’): a game played by children is half-remembered by the adults they become, and a creeping horror is implied in the lost elements of the game, the ones that have fled from their minds.
‘Knots’ is the only story here not previously published; the protagonist is another woman at risk of losing herself to her surroundings and to the will of another, but here the disquiet really arises from the impossibility of knowing or understanding the world, or one another, or even oneself.
‘The Vestige’ draws a discomfiting power from a sense of being out of place – ‘unbelonging’, as Robert Shearman puts it in his sensitive introduction. The story is inspired by a journey by night train across the Romanian border. Oddly, I made a similar journey only a few years after the author, and my own sense of being profoundly out of place remains vividly in my mind.
‘The Unknown Chambers’, sees Rucker casting a wry glance at Lovecraft (and his precursors, including Machen; and his successors). This piece – odd though it is to say of a story in the Lovecraftian mode – shows Rucker having fun with the expected tropes, and with her chosen setting, for she borrows her own home town for it. It would be unfair to call it a weaker story than the others in the collection, but tonally it is subtly different, taking a couple of small steps toward pastiche, which almost breaks the spell. And yet, Rucker’s enjoyment in its creation is infectious.
‘So Much Wine’ is set at Christmas, and bears some of the trappings of a Christmas ghost story, but it is far from cosy, and is really about how one person can be mystified by another – how, in particular, some men see women as a mystery, and the sadness that inevitably results.
‘An Element of Blank’, Rucker explains in her succinct but interesting story notes, is partly a female response to Stephen King’s It. Again, though, it is very much Rucker’s own story. Three women feel compelled to return to what may be a haunted house they visited as teenagers; the focus really is on the characters rather than the haunting, and the story is all the better for it.
Closing the collection, ‘The Seventh Wave’ is perhaps the closest thing here to a traditional ghost story, and as with the best ghost stories the chill grows with a slow, steady accumulation of detail, like cold sea waves crawling ever further up the shore. If the narrator is unreliable, it is because she wants to conceal a terrible truth – or more than one – not only from the reader, but from herself.
Each story works well on its own terms, but there is a cumulative effect here too: read them together, and a brooding darkness gathers. The reader follows where Rucker has trod, trusting her to guide them – hoping that, on reaching the end of the trail, they will not suddenly find themselves alone, abandoned, in the dark. ∎
Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Horror, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.
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