A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe
[Please note that the author sent me a copy of this title in return for a fair and honest review]
The cover art of A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe scares the ever-living crap out of me. Author J.R. Hamantaschen not only sent me a digital review copy of his latest anthology, but also a physical copy as well. It’s an incredibly generous gesture, and there’s absolutely nothing like having a real book in your hands, as compared to the pale imitation of a digital one; but when it has a terrifying, disturbing piece of imagery on the front cover that makes me feel like my brain isn’t properly assembled, it’s rather more difficult to hide from. Whereas I can just turn my Kindle app off or go to the next book on my reading list, with the physical copy I ended up physically turning it around on my bookshelf. I still to this day, weeks after finishing the anthology, don’t know exactly what it is; I’ve found myself staring at it for minutes on end, even rotating the book to see if another angle will suddenly make it more recognisable. But there’s a little voice in the back of my head that queries whether I would actually want it to be recognisable, and in the end each time I just put it back on my bookshelf, a mild queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach for minutes afterward. Yet I keep going back to it, time and again, prodding at it like a diseased tooth.
In many ways, the whole of A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe is exactly like that – the stories found inside the cover are often horrifying, deeply unsettling and even made me genuinely uncomfortable at times with their themes and insights into human nature; and yet, above all, they were compulsively readable. I had to structure my reading in blocks, almost story by story, because of the way that Hamantaschen deftly and seemingly effortlessly devises tales that aren’t just simple horror stories; while there are always elements of horror, sometimes more overt than others, the author always manages to go far, far deeper than most horror writers I’ve ever encountered, providing tales that relentlessly analyse the human condition and what, exactly, makes people tick and behave in certain ways.
An excellent example of this would be one of the earlier stories in the collection, titled No One Cares But I Tried. I think this might actually be my favourite of the entire collection, and it’s certainly one of the strangest stories that I’ve ever encountered in the Horror genre – it’s certainly one that’s stuck in my mind for weeks on end now, poking at me occasionally, again like a diseased tooth. On the one hand, this is a story that has a relatively simple and compact narrative structure – an officer worker discovers that she is being haunted by a mysterious disembodied voice, which starts off by whispering vicious insults at her, but rapidly escalates to showcase a terrifying power to implant incredibly powerful suggestions in a person’s mind, to the extent that they might endanger themselves or others as a result. The conflict in the story then revolves around the protagonist trying to discover where the voice is coming from, and then how to stop it. It’s well-written, with excellent pacing and characterisation; but what really elevates it in my eyes, and what makes Hamantaschen such a skilled writer, is that there aren’t any easy answers provided.
As the story progresses we find out who is projecting the voice, and the extent of their powers, but the story finishes with so many questions left unanswered, and Hamantaschen refuses to do the easy thing and wrap the story up with a nice bow for the reader. The antagonist’s reasoning for inflicting such mental agony is barely explored, and it’s instead left to the reader to try and guess why they’d do such a horrific thing – and how, exactly, they managed to achieve that power in the first place. And for me, that cuts to the heart of both the author’s skill as a writer, and the human condition – sometimes people do the worst, most inhumane and cruel stuff because they just can, or because they want to see someone suffer. That’s the truth underlying the story, and Hamantaschen almost revels in it, resulting in a tale that is as discomforting as it is entertaining.
As a result, Hamantaschen’s stories don’t leave you alone after you’ve finished reading them; instead, they always leave you with an unsettled or discomforted feeling afterwards, and they make you think incessantly afterwards, turning around all of the themes and angles that were brought together. It’s something that I discovered in the first short story of the author’s that I read, the excellent I’m a Good Person, I Mean Well, and I Deserve Better in the Terror in 16-Bits anthology from Muzzleland Press. That is a fantastic piece of short weird horror fiction, much like those found within this collection, and it also delivered a challenging and often uncomfortable gaze into the human condition, with a focus on unattained entitlement and a savage deconstruction of the ‘rescued princess’ trope so common still in videogames and fiction. Those are some of the same sort of themes and tropes that you’ll find within A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe, but twisted and reconfigured in so many different and unique ways. Indeed, as I worked my way through the collection – watching as aliens disrupted marriages, as creatures from another dimension climbed the greasy pole of business by deploying killing machines into gas station rest rooms, and as strange, vaguely unwholesome relationships blossomed between a man and his barista, I realized that each story was written and characterised entirely differently to its neighbours. It felt like a dozen different authors had been brought together, as in the usual sort of anthology; and if this had been sent to me to review without any of the usual author details, I believe that I’d have sworn blind each story was written by a different person. It’s an incredible feeling, to see one author demonstrate such skill in writing so different and coherently in such a diverse manner.
Another thing to note is the distinctly unique nature of the book itself. There’s a dark and almost subversive sense of humour that runs through the entire book – almost every element of the title except for the stories themselves is in some way undermined and twisted around to poke fun at the author, the readers, and anything and everything else in between them. The copy-right text – usually sacrosanct in even the most humorous of books – is laced with witty comments, the rights reserved section is twisted into something that is almost non-Euclidean in nature; and even the author’s introduction is darkly comedic and slightly acerbic. It all combines together to create a written product that I’ve never really encountered before – Hamantaschen has effectively created a meta-horror book, where every element of it, even the unsettling and stomach-churning cover imagery, has been weaponised to turn it into something that will disconcert the reader and prepare them for the incredibly good writing to be found in the collection.
In many ways this has been an atypical review for me – it hasn’t followed the same set patterns, the same basic template that I usually use for book reviews. Usually I break down anthologies and collections on a story-by-story basis, but the unique nature of this collection has completely disrupted my nice, safe way of doing things.. But that’s because A Deep Horror That Was Very Nearly Awe is, to me, such an atypical collection of weird horror stories. It discomforts, challenges and refuses to mollycoddle the reader, instead unleashing a torrent of brilliantly-written, intensely imaginative stories that are embedded in the vagaries and horrors to be found in the human condition. Not only is this a fantastic collection of weird horror short stories, it is a gut-punch to the brain and the emotions that leaves you disturbed and uncertain, yet sincerely glad to have read it. I absolutely and heartily recommend it to anyone who loves the horror genre, but also those who like to be challenged by the fiction that they read. I will certainly be hunting out more stories and collections by J.R. Hamantaschen – as long as I’ve had some time to recover first.