I can think of no better way to ease my way back into reviewing horror titles than to read and review the latest collection published by my friends at Demain Publishing. This is the intriguingly-titled Distant Frequencies from author Frank Duffy, an author I hadn’t encountered before personally, though I’d heard good things about his previous stories published in various high-quality journals and collections through the genre. Adrian Baldwin has given us another fantastic piece of cover art, one that might perhaps his best so far for the publisher: a stark and unsettling gasmasked visage that evokes a post-apocalyptic graffiti style, something that’s truly striking when seeing it as the cover for Duffy’s collection.
Distant Frequencies opens with Permanent Hunger, which is a rather interesting take on that venerable horror scenario, the zombie apocalypse. While originality in regards to zombies seems nigh-on impossible these days, I appreciated Duffy’s decision to set the story in modern-day China, which is a nation seldom seen in zombie fiction (or indeed horror fiction as a whole) and therefore something of a breath of fresh air. A mysterious priest, a sabotaged water container, and an isolated Chinese village intersect to begin God’s Will, a terrifying undead plague. Duffy has a real eye for grim, apocalyptic language centred around the undead that borders on the poetic at times, even managing to imbue the undead with a certain kind of grace. That language helps to propel the story forward as the shambling corpses are deliberately unleashed on the rest of the world by Father Jose. There’s an eerie sense of nihilism in the story that really makes it stand out, especially with Jose’s opaque motivations that make a change from the usual grandstanding by villains in the subgenre. It’s one of the more original and engaging zombie stories I’ve read in quite some time, and highlights Duffy’s skill and imagination as a writer.
Bolton, a man with a closet full of skeletons catching up with him, attends a school reunion in A Greater Horror, and Duffy artfully recreates the air of faint desperation and cloying desire for approval from old peers that always seem to dominate these vaguely seedy proceedings. As the reason for Bolton’s attendance at the reunion is slowly revealed, so is more of the horrific character he has become, and the many grim and violent actions he has taken over the years. The sinister truth behind his meeting with several old school acquaintances merges with the decrepit architecture of the old school and distant, unwelcome memories, creating a fascinating melange before closing with a disturbing and unexpected ending that leaves the reader with numerous unsettling questions.
In Apperances, protagonist Jack drifts into an anonymous town, deposited by taxi, living in an anonymous flat in the aftermath of some kind of marital dispute and awaiting to finalise a business contract. It’s a dreary location by all appearances, with a disparate bunch of locals whose bland, depressing exteriors match that of the town itself. Jack, a recovering alcoholic, takes solace in the attentions of a local bartender’s daughter, only to discover that appearances, as the title suggests, can be deceptive. It’s a surreal and utterly inexplicable story that becomes more and more unsettling as it progresses, making the reader feel almost divorced from reality; it’s pure Bizarro Horror in styling, and is one of the highlights of the entire collection.
The Seat is one of the shortest in the collection, focusing on Vincent, a man who has travelled to an obscure town in Poland in search of something missing in his life, something that a job and a girlfriend in the UK had not fulfilled. Now he comes to a strange church in the middle of the countryside, taking a mysterious journey that is obscured to both his loved ones and, of course, the reader as well. What that void in his life is, exactly, is an unknown value – possibly even to Vincent; possibly even to reality itself. A strange and almost daunting story that leaves far more questions than answers, and one that has remained with me for some time after finishing the collection for reasons I can’t quite adequately voice.
This is then followed by The Places, where Duffy brings us into the world of Paul, an author struggling to compose his next contracted novel while also juggling a disintegrating marriage with a distant, distrusting wife and a son he dotes on yet worries about at the same time. His reality is interposed with excerpts of the in-progress novel, while he begins to experience strangers murmuring broken, surreal phrases at him as he goes for a run, or muttered down a phoneline by indistinct voices that make no sense. Reality slowly starts to break down, both in the novel and in Paul’s own life, until the story concludes with a shocking twist. It’s then followed by the strange, blood-soaked words of And When The Lights Came On, which juxtaposes the career of a retiring gas-lighter in Warsaw with transformations in reality – the move from gas to electricity, the passing of loved ones, life inexorably moving on towards death, even the regime changes in Poland throughout the post-war period – culminating in an oddly moving ending.
Moving towards the end of Distant Frequencies, we first come to Not Yet Players, perhaps the most bizarre story yet in the collection, featuring a small, isolated town obsessed with reality TV show Tales of Gruesomeness, and the truth behind the production values of that show and the people playing the blood-soaked parts. A small group of data collectors enter the town to interview some of the residents, only to find that they are, indeed, not yet players in the strange drama that has overtaken the residents. Among Flames, Darkness is the penultimate tale, in which an elderly man muses on his past in the Blitz while he slowly wastes away the last few years of his life, cared for by a series of inattentive carers, keeping a terrifying secret about the occupants of the old air-raid shelter in his neighbour’s garden. And finally The Extra, almost flash fiction in length, a particularly surreal and disconcerting ending to the entire collection.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like Distant Frequencies in all the years I’ve been reading and reviewing fiction in the Horror genre. Upon finishing the collection, it becomes clear that Duffy has a unique mastery over the language of horror, one which is on full display here. Surreal plots, disquieting characters and inexplicable imagery are all blended together to create disconcerting and often thoroughly alienating landscapes that bring the reader to a place where the familiar disintegrates into the unreal and the obscene. Duffy wields his words with effortless ease, creating nihilistic tales that leave an imprint on you long after you have finished reading Distant Frequencies. Reminding me of my forays into the Bizarro subgenre, yet with an unsettling distinctiveness that makes it stand out – perhaps in its own place in the genre – Distant Frequencies is a must-read for anyone who wants to find new, fresh and original ideas in the Horror genre.