By S. L. Edwards
Mundane. Everyday. Normal.
It’s easy to scoff at these words, to write off any fiction that shows what could happen to any unexceptional person. What could happen to a neighbor, a friend, you or me. But there is a deceptiveness in “normal,” a wicked smile peering out from the face of a shadow that you only catch for just a moment before you blink and explain it away with “exhaustion.” It’s normal to see things. Normal to be mistaken, after all.
It’s happened to all of us.
And so, you keep walking, sure that you are only seeing things and that you will stop after a good night’s sleep. After you make it home. Only…you’re not so sure. Uncertainty, a perfectly reasonable sensation, overtakes you and just to relieve your own (understandable) curiosity, you turn back around.
And then it gets you.
This is Miskowski’s line, the boundary of horror and slice of life which she has seized for her own. Readers familiar with the Skillute cycle and her recent novel I Wish I Was Like You know that the author is not afraid to fully flesh out her characters, to let them take the stage as long as necessary for the reader to crawl inside them. Familiar enough with someone so relatable, someone who we could be or who at the very least we have known before, Miskowski endows her readers with a sense of security. When this security is taken away, the horror is all the more lasting.
Seattle figures into the majority of the stories in Strange is the Night. The characters are actors, journalists, and mothers who move through wet winters and thick fogs. They are college students trying to get by in a haunted house, they are mothers and sisters who find themselves between competing loyalties and desires. And they each come into contact with something, even if that something is merely a glimpse into a darker world. There are stories within stories, “A.G.A,” “Somnambule,” and “Death and Disbursement” being prime examples this format. Just as the revolving door of characters becomes distracting in these stories, Miskowski manages to draw the reader back in, the impact all the stronger because of character-driven meanderings and musings. The effect is that the reader is forced to bolt up in their chair, to bring their finger back over the page to make sure that they really read the words correctly.
There are also tales which are deceptively commonplace, things which could happen to any one of us if we only allowed ourselves to be sufficiently strange, nostalgic or sad. “Fur,” “The Second Floor,” and “Lost and Found” all detail a sort of middle-aged blues, the protagonists each sad and strange. The world seems to move around these characters, rather than them moving through it and the effect of this is a prosaic malaise that even the best ghost stories often struggle to invoke. One should not be so disquieted about a blind date in which the date is only weird, or an unsuccessful vacation or the desire of someone to recapture the heyday of their youth. And yet, Miskowski manages to take each of these seemingly common, everyday stories and twist them ever so slightly to leave the reader just as unsettled as they would have been reading M. R. James or Algernon Blackwood.
Two stories in the middle of the volume complement each other quite well, and their place in the overall sequence of the collection leaves quite the impact because of it. “Stag in Flight,” and “Ms. X Regrets Everything” deal with realistic horror, the sort which can be found in the crime section of every news website. Both stories demonstrate how we, normal people who often worry about being loved and desperate to belong, could become monsters. Again, the impulse to escape solitude and to be recognized by someone else is a sympathetic one and again Miskowski demonstrates the innate terror of such a “mundane” desire.
The final sort of tales, however, deals more directly with what could be called “supernatural horror.” “This Many,” “Animal House,” “Strange is the Night,” and “Water Main” will not disappoint readers looking stories which are bleeding, rotting and shambling. But through ghosts, monsters and haunted houses, Miskowski maintains her wry, creeping just-behind-the-scenes approach to horror that allows a fluid transition between subtle and overwhelming atmosphere. The experience of these stories is akin to stepping through murky water, the reader one moment up their knees and in the next step entirely submerged.
The ultimate accomplishment of this collection is to show that the mundane can be strange. Life, in all its competing sensations, creeping shadows and everyday regrets, is strange. Nothing can be familiar enough for it to not become horrifying.
Buy Strange is the Night HERE
Buy Turn to Ash HERE
Connect with S.L. Edwards HERE