Matthew R. Davis
Things in the Well
I was delighted to receive a review copy of Matthew R. Davis’ collection of horror short fiction, the delightfully and intriguingly-titled If Only Tonight We Could Sleep. Although I had not read any of Mr Davis’ fiction before now, I knew that he had recently released Supermassive Black Mass under Demain Publishing’s most excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint, and that the title had received rave reviews from a variety of bloggers and reviewers in my social media feeds. So I was eager to see what his collection of short fiction could provide, given that Demain Publishing have a track record of publishing nothing but high-quality horror writers and their stories.
The title itself was certainly memorable, and was greatly bolstered by that eye-catching cover art from illustrator Meg Wright, which really brings the collection to your attention; and the various blurbs by horror authors really intrigued me and made the title climb up my list of books to be read. But one of the most impressive thing within the collection, rivaling the stories themselves, were the completely amazing series of photographs by Red Wallflower Photography which form the interior illustrations, one photograph accompanying each story. I always love illustrations like this that buttress stories and give greater emphasis to their themes and narratives, and these particular photos are some of the best I’ve seen, brilliantly framed and giving off a deeply unsettling air that accentuate the stories they’re paired with.
[Note: As always with my reviews of anthologies and short story collections: to keep my reviews as brief as I can, I only focus on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which resonated with me in some special way. This is not necessarily a reflection on any authors whose tales I do not discuss, or the quality of their work; it is simply a way to ensure I don’t ramble on forever about a single book.]
The collection opens with Debutante, a complex and multi-layered rumination on death and the responsibilities inherited when becoming a parent. The ultimate butterfly metaphor: hold on too tight and threaten to stifle your child and suffocate their spirit, yet set your grip too lose and risk losing them completely from any number of hazards and risks in the world. So you do your best and hope that the worst doesn’t happen; as it does to the narrator and his wife in this tale, their daughter missing, presumed dead after not coming back one night. Days of grief and misery with no end, no conclusion, simply endless horror; horror that is even more raw and encompassing because there is no supernatural element here, no occult cause, simply all too human emotions. It’s a powerful and almost poetic tale that perfectly sets the tone for the collection as a whole.
The Deep Beneath is an unusual story, the tale of two teenage friends, a homeless man, and a battered machete purchased on a spur of the moment decision. The story takes place in the derelict buildings and urban squalor of the hidden parts of Adelaide, and Davis has a keen eye for describing the decay and neglect of these parts of the city, skilfully bringing it all to its less than enviable life. The machete itself becomes almost a character in its own right, dark, mysterious and even erotic, and ownership of it results in an incident and the two girls being chased into another urban sinkhole, something sinister and wrong. Davis makes it seem like there’s an almost physical weight to the claustrophobic structure, and it only becomes more oppressive and dangerous as the duo are forced to explore it. Add in a terrifying and unexpected ending, and you have a fantastic slice of industrial-urban horror.
The Bloody Rag evokes memories of Midsommar, though it was written well before that iconic film made its debut, with our protagonist becoming lost in a pagan festival with its joyful yet vaguely menacing iconography. Drunk on cider, he meets Felix, a young and beguiling Morris dancer, and a drunken fling turns into a kind of relationship. We get an insight into Felix’s life, and her family’s fascination with pagan rituals, and mummers, and the ancient craft behind these rituals. Davis does a sterling job of showing how beguiling its history and folklore can be, while also deftly highlighting the unsettling elements of the pagan traditions. Ultimately the two new lovers attract the attention of something terrifying dragged from the depths of the roots of these seemingly-harmless rituals, resulting in a story that has ensured I’ll never look at Morris dancing in the same way ever again.
Flights of Fractured Angels makes use of a rather different narrative structure, as we dive into the life of a groupie of a heavy metal band in the late ’80’s, one treading the thin, ragged line between closeness to fame and desolute poverty. Roxy is a great character for getting an insight into the carefully-planned debauchery of the humourously-named VampyromantiX, and the dissonance between the choreographed performances on the stage and the sometimes awkward normality when out of the limelight. It’s a hollowed-out, dull reality that relentlessly consumes those who attempt to inhabit it, and it’s a nauseating journey that Davis takes us on as Roxy finally understands that harsh truth and suffers for it, with an ending that’s a kick in the teeth.
The Heart of the Mission is an unusual take on the Lovecraftian genre as our protagonist Hermes travels to the strange town of Refuge, an intoxicating, bewildering and dangerous blend of every possible human culture – and some decidedly inhuman ones as well. Hermes is searching for a particular refugee within the town who knows something about a mysterious flower he has been forced to care for. Davis weaves a fascinating picture of this strange, multi-layered town of a thousand influences, while still keeping the story grounded by highlighting the class and ethnic divisions that cannot be escaped from anywhere on the earth, real or fictional. He also does a great job of creating an engaging and atmospheric mystery, as we follow along with Hermes as he seeks out the mysterious refugee and a message he has for her about the flower. There’s an unexpected twist towards the end of the story that completely alters the tone of the story, one that delivers a startlingly unexpected yet much-needed message of hope and positivity.
Tea Beneath the Twilight Tree demonstrates Davis’ impressive ability to compose memorable and moving stories regardless of genre constraints. It’s a strange and ethereal tale that takes a worn-down Thomas back to his childhood haunts, meeting up with beloved imaginary friends and situations, and away from his hum-drum, straight-laced life. Away from reality and back into a make-believe land from childhood, but one where toys have come to life, and the pressures and stresses of reality disappear. It’s a emotive, moving and often eerie digression on the sacrifice of childhood for adulthood, and by far the best tale in the entire anthology.
An Endless Echo In Every Empty Space is Davis’ take on the haunted house, and like the rest of the stories in the anthology it takes a distinctly different angle on the concept. We follow the chronologically distant but narratively intertwined paths of several groups of people who have entered the derelict, grafitti-ridden house, and Davis expertly pries open the emotions of each protagonist in turn, flensing them bare by looking at the memories and feelings each mundane room in a house can evoke. It’s a nuanced and clever take, and just the sort of story needed to reinvigorate a classic trope worn out to near-irrelevance. It’s then followed by Big Beats, a short but Splatterpunk-esque tale of musical seduction in a nightclub that turns into something deeply nightmarish and full of genuinely horrifying and unsettling imagery, with the added bonus of making use of a sorely-underutilised ancient deity.
Ivy’s First Kiss opens with the intriguing hook of a man meeting a woman he’s only ever chatted with online, only to meet someone else entirely than he had expected. I have to admit, Davis expertly pulled the rug out from under me with this story; I was confident I had mapped out the rough narrative path the story was going to take, only for it to suddenly move in a completely different and terrifying direction that completely threw me, yet which I welcomed once I had found my feet again. The collection then closes with This Impossible Gift, a fascinating and multi-layered story about a man having to face a reality where his beloved girlfriend never existed: he remembers her but no-one else does, upto and including her parents, friends and even school records. He would believe himself insane except for the titular Impossible Gift that appears at a Christmas lunch with his family, apparently from the nonexistent Amber. We’re taken through a rollercoaster of emotions via a mixtape of love songs representing their relationship, and despite the horrors behind Amber’s disappearance, it ends on a strange yet hopeful note that provides a high point for the collection to end on.
Supplemented by a detailed Afterword that gives some insight into Davis’ working practices and influences as an author, If Only Tonight We Could Sleep is a carefully executed, high-concept journey through a variety of different subgenres in the horror genre. It’s a deeply impressive accomplishment, and one that clearly demonstrates Davis’ natural skill as a horror writer, a skill enhanced in the anthology by the brilliant photography that accompany the title. I can strongly recommend this to anyone interested in engaging, thoughtful and sophisticated horror.