Orford Parish Murder Houses: A Visitors Guide – Tom Breen
Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror – Tom Breen & Joseph Pastula
3 Moves of Doom: Weird Horror from Inside the Squared Circle – Matthew M. Bartlett, Tom Breen & Joseph Pastula
The more titles that I’ve read in my journey into the depths of the Horror genre, the more that I’ve been able to identify which particular subgenres I’m particularly interested in reading; those that somewhat hold my interest; and the ones that either don’t interest me at all, or are so stomach-churning that my brief encounters with them have made me all the more determined never to come into contact with them again. In the latter category sit subgenres like body horror and splatterpunk, where despite the obvious quality of many of the stories and the talent of the authors involved – often some of the most well-known authors in the whole of the Horror genre – I’ve quailed at the horrifying descriptions and often disgusting imagination to be found in titles in these subgenres, to the point where I’ve felt physically sick. I know that can often be the point of these stories, but I’ve discovered my limits – and they run out well before then!
I have a soft spot for quiet horror, and an enduring love of cosmic horror in all of its forms, not just the Lovecraftian titles that often dominate that area of the Horror genre; but in the past few months I’ve come to realise that ‘my’ niche in the genre – the one that I’ve come to gravitate to naturally, and which seems to speak to me on some instinctual and even soul-deep level – is Weird Horror. Give me a horror story where things are not just terrifying, but are downright bizarre, confusing, genuinely and mind-bendingly weird. Where you finish reading a story and have no idea what the hell you just read but you know you loved it, or based on subjects that you hadn’t even considered could be used as the basis for a story, let alone a slice of Weird Horror. That’s my particular fetish, and luckily enough there are more than enough authors and publishers in the subgenre to entertain me.
It was Muzzleland Press and author/publisher Jonathan Raab that really started me down this path, with the fantastically weird titles published by Muzzleland: anthologies like Terror in 16-Bits where the stories were based around video game tropes, and High Strange Horror, filled with tales based on paranoia and damnation. And of course the incredible Sheriff Kotto titles, where a conspiracy theorist-turned backwater county Sheriff discovers that *all* of the conspiracy theories he believed in were true, and that he was the only one able to fight them, willingly or not.
Muzzleland was a revelation for me, being a publisher solely focused on Weird Horror, and from there I found a number of its authors that had published further stories; not under the auspices of Muzzleland but in the same subgenre. To my complete delight, several of them had even banded together and begun writing stories set in a shared universe of sorts, which allowed them to focus on all sorts of weird and strange themes. Authors Tom Breen, Matthew M. Bartlett and Joseph Pastula have together created the fictional Orford Parish, a small, insular and intensely *strange* backwater town in the depths of New England, which has become the setting for all manner of Weird Horror tales. As I became enmeshed in the good Parish and the tales set within and around its environs, I discovered that it was rather like the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, focusing on strange and surreal horror stories where things are never quite as they seem, embellished with a healthy dose of New England mythology. But unlike Welcome to the Night Vale, there is a much purer and tighter focus on the Horror potential of the setting, and no in-jokes and plot arcs that might drive away or alienate New readers. Just pure, weird, New England-infused horror.
And I love it.
Therefore I’ve decided to start reviewing all of the Orford Parish publications, as they really touched a nerve with me, and impressed me with their utter weirdness and wonderfully perverse and surreal imaginations. Each title has some unique take on weird horror, zeroing in on a theme or topic that I never would have considered as something to base horror stories on, but which is then taken as a prompt for writing some amazingly strange and chilling pieces of horror. I first encountered this approach with the Letters of Decline collection, which took the innocuous yet stressful topic of job interviews as the basis for a unique blend of weird horror, conspiracy theories and cutting satire of the bland and soulless nature of the corporate mindset. I’ve chosen to begin with three of the shorter publications from Orford Parish, which individually would be difficult to review due to their short word-count and chapbook style; but which I have instead brought together to form this blog’s first MEGA-REVIEW.
We start with author Tom Breen’s solo title, titled Orford Parish Murder Houses: A Visitors Guide and featuring a cheerfully-coloured cover that evokes those rather macarbre publications that provide an oversight of the famous murders and scandals in a particular State or County in the UK or USA. A family of tourists, complete with garish shirts and cameras, take pictures of a roped-off crime scene and its chalk outline; only the victim doesn’t appear to be entirely human and has received some disturbingly explicit injuries during their (its?) murder. It was a brilliant idea of Breen’s to create a chapbook-style title that gives an overview of Orford Parish itself – filling out the fictional universe of the Parish, its inhabitants and its blood-spattered history – in the form of a pamphlet written by what is effectively the tourist board of the Parish. It allows Breen to develop Orford Parish and the murder and/or disappearance of some of its most famous inhabitants through history, creating a world that other authors can then work within, but also maintain that bizzare and weird air that pervades all of the Orford Parish publications.
The murders that Breen details in the chapbook are always wonderfully bizarre, inventive and disturbing – my favourite is by far the the story of the infamous Elderkin Tavern, and the notion of a Revolutionary War-era hero actually having a dark and incredibly sickening secret life – and deftly provide insights into Orford Parishes culture and its inhabitants unique take on religion. They’re also used, as with all of the best horror fiction, as a base for social commentary, and some probing and often uncomfortable questions about the United States and its colourful history with revolutions, racism and minorities.
Breen achieves all of this with a dark, wry and above-all subtle sense of dark humour – from comments about the early 20th Century being “A time of tremendous activity for America’s ax murderers” in an attempt to excuse one of the Parish’s more infamous murderers, to a delightfully strange and almost perverse reimagining of early American history though the influence of the Parish and its colonial inhabitants. Or simply mind-bendingly odd, yet enthralling, scenarios, such as a man confessing to murdering his mail-order bride: not a woman from overseas, but something quite literally purchased from the advert in a magazine. It’s a deeply impressive title, packing a huge amount of depth and imagination into a mere 56 pages, and provides the base for other authors to build on the culture, weirdness and strange inhabitants of Orford Parish.
We then turn to Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror, another short chapbook featuring a story each from Tom Breen and Joseph Pastula.’Flag-orientated horror stories’ might be the weirdest phrase I’ve ever written, review or otherwise, and yet the two stories found within this anthology not only situate themselves in that description, but are also some of the best pieces of short-form horror I’ve ever come across, at once both superbly imaginative and genuinely unsettling. They both play on the transgressive nature of bringing together horror and the sacred nature of the United States flag, adding an extra dimension to the horror invoked by rejecting the implicit and explicit social conditioning that states that the flag could ever have anything other than positive connotations. It’s a very brave move to make, and one that could easily have gone wrong, potentially turning into a turgid and unreadable mass of anti-Americanism or anti-imperialism. Instead, what Breen and Pastula provide are two thought-provoking and chilling horror stories that ruthlessly interrogate the nature of the flag and what it means, both to societies and the individuals that form those societies.
After an intriguing short introduction that creates some fictional context for Breen and Pastula writing the stories while living in Orford Parish (and disappearing shortly afterwards), we come to Orison for the Departed by Joseph Pastula. With this story, Pastula goes straight for the metaphorical jugular, taking on the social obsession with American flags; as someone from the UK, I’ve always been surprised and mildly disquieted by the sheer number of Stars and Stripes flown in the United States, and this is something that Pastula targets. Our protagonist returns to their hometown to deal with the house of a recently-deceased relative, and is disturbed by the sheer amount of flag-based paraphernalia to be found in the house, with flags of all sizes and descriptions to be found inside, particularly in the bedroom. Bemused, the protagonist removes many of them, only for flags to keep reappearing outside. Soon it become evident that the locals really like their flags, but not for purely patriotic reasons; there are actually entirely practical reasons for having as many flags around as possible, a lesson our newcomer learns extremely well. The second story in the anthology is Tom Breen’s Our Hearts’ Blood Dyed In Every Fold, which looks at another town obsessed with the Stars and Stripes, but for much more sinister reasons. Breen peers into the darkened corners of suburban America and conjures up a supernatural tale of townspeople wrapping themselves in the flag and taking to the psychic skies to defend against those who would pray on them and their children. But there is more to these rumours than newcomers to the town are being told, and finding out too late could come at a very steep price. Both stories are very well written, thought-provoking and, above all, very weird horror fiction that makes one wonder about what flag worship actually means in a modern society.
Finally we come to my personal favourite of the three titles, 3 Moves of Doom: Weird Horror from Inside the Squared Circle with stories by Matthew M. Bartlett, Tom Breen and Joseph Pastula. This chapbook is rather different from the others mentioned above – not only because it comes in a .pdf format but why it comes in that format. 3 Moves of Doom is focused on the Weird Horror aspects that can be pulled from wrestling, but not the sanitised, mass-market, corporate-friendly wrestling of today; instead, it takes as its inspiration the old-fashioned, blood-spattered indie wrestling in backyards and outside events in trailer parks. The whole book comes across as a passionate love-letter to the indie, anti-corporate, almost anarchistic style of wrestling. Not only do we have three stories in the chapbook, but the .pdf format allows the authors to mimic the format, layout and design of an old wrestling fan magazine – from the cheery introduction from the editor all the way through to the wonderful adverts scattered across the pages for VHS tapes of scantily-clad female wrestlers and gimmicks to build muscles or…avoid being cursed?
It doesn’t take long to see that unsettling elements have infiltrated this magazine, starting with Matthew M. Bartlett’s The Dark Match, a wistful, almost lyrical look at the sort of wrestling events that would take place at old seaside towns – amateurs and semi-professionals going at it in the ring with minimal supervision. Only our protagonist, newly-moved to the town, discovers that more than just a little blood can be shed in such arena and that certain eldritch and ethereal competitors can come together to wrestle as well. It’s a fantastically haunting tale that slowly builds up the tension until the final pay-off, and is a joy to re-read. After some more adverts we get A Severance of Roots from Joseph Pastula, which is an intriguing tale of obsession and rivalry in the square ring. Hunting down old wrestling fanzines – real obscure ones – leads a particularly curious wrestling fan to meet an old wrestling legend, and learn some unwholesome truths about a legendarily brutal match that took place decades ago. The horror at the end of stomach-churning enough, but Pastula peppers in enough wrestling know-how and trivia that it becomes very easy to get drawn into the world of old-school wrestling, and the intoxicating feeling of belonging to some rare, almost exclusive club that focuses on a very niche subject and can lead to obsession. The final tale, The Vision of James Lee Dawson, King of the Deathmatches goes fully surreal, following an aging amateur wrestler as he travels across the country for yet another wrestling match, one that he fears may be one of his last due to money drying up and people slowly becoming less interesting in the hobby. But one final match against a mysterious foe who refuses to follow the usual rules and gimmicks leads to a strange, reality-distorting match with potentially dire consequences.
All three of these chapbooks are wonderful when experienced separately, but when read one after the other (the order really doesn’t matter) you can truly begin to see the genius of the authors involved; Breen, Bartlett and Pastula have captured and bottled up the true essence of Weird Horror and then slowly uncapped it, leaking it into these brilliant publications. Chilling, unsettling, often bizarre or transgressive, and always well-written, all three chapbooks demonstrate why Weird Horror is in such safe hands – along with fellow author and publisher Jonathan Raab – and are a must-have for any fans of Weird Horror, or just quality Horror in general.