Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth
Scott R Jones (ed.)
Martian Migraine Press
I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so disturbed by a book as I have been by Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth, published very recently by Martian Migraine Press and edited by Scott R Jones. I read the entire anthology over the course of the weekend, finishing it late last night, and I genuinely had trouble getting to sleep after reading the final story. I’m no stranger to creepy or disturbing stories – I’ve read more post-apocalyptic and zombie horror stories than I’ve had hot dinners, to make use of an ancient cliché, and also dabbled in straight-out horror and even some splatterpunk, but I’ve never had this same feeling. I don’t really know how to describe the exact effects that the anthology had on me, to be honest, just that both the individual stories in the collection, and its overarching theme, have stayed with me a lot longer than any other title I’ve ever come across. Given that I’m still a little twitchy and sleep-deprived this morning as I’m writing this, I’d say that makes this anthology a huge success, entirely fulfilling the back cover’s promise that it includes “Stories that plumb the depths of earth at least as deeply as they explore the human capacity for suffering and enlightenment”
The overarching theme for the seventeen stories to be found inside Chthonic is, essentially, tales of horror and suspense and other delightful emotions and feelings under the earth, ideally the deeper the better. So we have stories that take place in caverns, in cave systems, in Hollow-Earth style scenarios, and even in a hotel in London that is entirely located underground. The cover art for the anthology, by Lucas Korte, is a simple but eye-catching design that features what appears to be a green, gently-glowing (or pulsing) cube that looks like it has tracks – or perhaps it’s scar tissue, or an insect’s burrow – across its surface. It’s simple but evocative piece of artwork that really reinforces the theme of the anthology, and it also meshes well with the interior artwork pieces by Fufu Frauenwahl that accompanies each story – very detailed and often quite disturbing black and white illustrations that illustrate a key moment in each tale. I always enjoy it when a publisher decides to commission interior artwork for an anthology – I feel like it’s another way to tie the reader into each story, working best when the piece of art comes before a story, so that you’re already a little tense, a little intrigued by what is represented by that illustration.
I’ve just winced again at the first piece of Fruenwahl’s artwork featured in the collection, which accompanies Where All Is Night, And Starless by John Linwood Grant; it’s a close-up of the left-hand portion of a man’s face, and one eye has been brutally plucked out and replaced with some kind of crystalline formation, blood dripping down from the eye socket onto his face. The story itself is one of the best of the entire anthology, a tense piece of fiction following a veteran of the First World War, and the astonishing (and gruesome) story he reluctantly tells his daughter about his experiences as a miner and sapper on the Western Front. Leading a company of men in an attempt to plant a mine underneath the German lines, a sudden rockfall isolates the protagonist and a few of his men; they have no choice but to try and dig deeper to escape, either risking suffocation, starvation, or capture by the Germans. Unfortunately the Germans are the least of their worries, as they uncover something very, very old and very, very malevolent under the French soil. I have read a few tales by Grant, and I think is might be one of my favourites – he brilliantly portrays the stifling, claustrophobic nature of mining, combined with the ever-present fear of being counter-mined by the Germans; and the latter half of the story, as they discover an ancient entity under the earth, is equal parts stomach-churning and chilling, especially when Grant hints at the fact that the entity is as trapped as the men it encounters.
A Song for Granite Khronos by Aaron Besson is definitely on the unconventional side of things – supposedly a story about a new employee of a city’s sewage system being given a tour of the system by a veteran worker, it rapidly descends into insanity, mind-bending knowledge and a fascinating digression into the nature of cities, those who live and work in them, and their symbiotic nature with those who came before them. Highly recommended. UNDR, by Sarah Peploe, is the story about the underground hotel I mentioned earlier in the review; it’s a fairly short story, but it packs in a lot of existential horror, perfectly evoking the soulless, generic nature of your average corporate hotel, and the feeling that I’ve had on occasion that walking down another identikit corridor will lead me into an endless maze of beige carpet and wood-effect doors – or even worse, as the unfortunate characters in this story experience.
To be honest, I almost couldn’t finish The End of a Summer’s Day by Ramsay Campbell, it was so unsettling to me, both as a reader and as a parent; the notion of being the only person in the world convinced that a loved one has changed, quite dramatically, despite the protestations of everyone else around you, is genuinely horrifying; it fits perfectly into the theme of the anthology, and should be required reading for anyone serious about the horror genre. The Harrow, by Gemma Files, is another disturbing story, this time about the nature of obsession and universal truth with a rather stomach-churning ending that had me unconsciously touching my forehead to make sure all of it was still intact. And Nivel Del Mar by Scott Shank was an interesting take on depression, sibling relationships and how we all deal with loss in different ways, and on different timescales.
Moving towards the end of the anthology, I greatly enjoyed (and was disturbed by) Pugelbone by Nadia Bulkin, a stifling and even oppressive tale of family and motherhood in a strange, Fallout-esque underground city called The Warren, that had me cringing several times at the relationship between the Warren’s authorities, the protagonist and her daughter as it unfolded. The Writhe by Tom Lynch seemed like the exact sort of tale that Lovecraft himself might have written if he was alive in modern times, mixing up human emotions like a fear of guns and violence with an otherworldly creature that preys on weakness and fear in humanity, and was another story in the anthology that had me cringing in the final sentences. Finally Vault, by Antony Mann, was a particularly good choice of story to end the anthology on, following the dogged attempt by a stubborn man to get his local bank to exchange a counterfeit bank note, only to find that the deeper he goes into the bank, the more that the bank and its workings – quite literally – come together, in an extreme example of synergy of which any corporate trainer would surely be proud.
An assured, confident and above all disturbing collection of short stories and accompanying illustrations, Chthonic is a quality production by Martian Migraine Press, and is by far the most memorable title I have read in a long time – and one that I think will be sticking around in my head for an even longer time.