Sean M. Thompson
When it comes to Weird Horror, I think that one of the lesser-known authors , Sean M. Thompson, is actually one of the most talented and imaginative writers within the entire subgenre. I first discovered Thompson in Muzzleland Press’ video-game themed Terror in 16-Bits and I was greatly impressed by Centralia, his slow-burning, tense and eerie contribution to the anthology. That impression was only strengthened by his short story Cats Claw, LLC in Letters of Decline: Four Tales of Job Interview Horror from Orford Parish Books, as well as his novella Farmington Correction. The latter was particularly striking, effortlessly blending the Weird Horror genre with some keen insights into the brutal and uncaring nature of the modern prison industry, and left me with the impression that Thompson was a rising star in the genre. He’s been on my radar ever since, and when I saw that he had a collection of short stories recently released under his new publishing house, Nictitating Books, I just knew I had to review it. I couldn’t get around to the collection as quickly as I’d hoped, thanks to the joys of COVID-19 and its attendant chaos, but I was eventually able to settle down with a copy of Screaming Creatures and see what Thompson had in store for me. The title was intriguing, and perfectly complemented by the fantastically bizarre and rather disquieting cover art by Yves Tourigny; it draws the reader’s attention, like all the best cover art does, and (quite literally in this case) screams ‘weird’ to that same reader.
Screaming Creatures comprises of fourteen stories in total, and opens with Sunny Village. A young woman drives to a condo complex in order to undertake a housesitting gig, something that shouldn’t be any more complex than picking up the post and feeding the goldfish. Yet an eerie and disconcerting encounter with a nudist suddenly escalates into a thunderous, blood-soaked nightmare where reality itself becomes questionable and permeable. Told in a second-person narrative that Thompson deftly pulls off, despite the inherent difficulties and limitations of that particular narrative device, it’s a strange and quietly unsettling tale that makes the perfect start to the collection. The Cliffside Tavern sees a couple, stranded by bad weather, seek refuge in the eponymous tavern in search of food and warmth. Although the alcohol is good and the fish chowder fantastic, there’s a conspicuous lack of patrons, however, as well a sinister bartender who seems to have a real anger problem. An eerie atmosphere and strange cries in the distance leads to a terrifying revelation, and one of the scariest antagonists I’ve encountered in a horror story in a long while. Thompson is fantastic at creating memorable characters, and all three in this story help to make it one of the best in the collection. Centralia, which I previously reviewed in the aforementioned Terror in 16-Bits anthology, remains a vivid tale that continues to resonate with me. The idea of an interactive, VR-based horror game is genuinely unsettling to me, and Thompson deftly crafts a world in which reality and virtual reality blend and merge until it’s impossible to tell what is real and what is fake until it’s much too late. 3 A.M. Orphan is a particularly eerie story, even for a collection of Weird Horror tales, and packs a powerful punch within its short wordcount as we experience a tale where, fascinatingly, the concept of an unreliable narrator is combined with an unreliable and confused narrative to create something unique and thoroughly weird.
We then come to Cat’s Claw LLC, a great little story about a strange and fantastical job interview for a very odd and secretive company; it’s an offer of a lifetime for the protagonist, even after finding out the rather unique nature of her employers, and I must admit I laughed out loud when their secret is revealed. This story felt like the natural start for a wider series, and I’d be intrigued to see what Thompson could do with it as a writing prompt. Make it a Double is another delightfully bizarre and even slightly unhinged story, a slow-burning tale of paranoia and bloodshed as a man confronts the impossible and struggles with the notion of stolen identities and parallel lives; Thompson manages to put a unique, philosophical slant on a certain horror trope, refreshing it and creating an engaging story in the process. Dead Visions Review is a piece of flash fiction and therefore difficult to review without spoiling the story – but suffice to say Thompson absolutely nails the concept of micro-fiction while still retaining that sense of strangeness unique to him. Kiss of the Succubus is a longer piece of fiction involving a Succubus, a lesbian detective turned Private Investigator, and a mysterious supernatural agency recruiting a certain kind of person. Thompson writes noir fiction really well, imbuing it with a gritty atmosphere and an engaging occult angle, as well as some interesting characters that I’d like to see expanded upon in future stories. Metronome is a darkly metatextual piece featuring George, a horror writer attempting to finish a short story, only to be confronted by a mysterious book that seems to have that same story finished within its pages, narrated by a disturbingly-voiced narrator that only George can hear. Delightfully satirical as well as artfully describing the trials and tribulations of a writer as he descends into insanity and becomes enmeshed in the horrifying world created by his own words and imagination, it’s another standout tale in the collection.
Changing up the formats as we move into the back half of the collection, The Silent Man: A Documentary is in the form of a film script about the titular Silent Man. Cutting between an interview with a survivor, and a re-enactment of a small group’s encounter with the creature, Thompson slowly but surely builds up an unnerving atmosphere as the group are stalked by the strange creature. It’s a brilliant idea to intercut between the re-enactment and the interview with the survivor, who is also accompanying the documentary crew to the site of the encounter with The Silent Man, and as the story progresses the two intertwine in unusual and unnerving ways until you reach the sudden and unexpected ending. Rotgut takes us to the end of the 19th Century and an isolated Western frontier town. Gilly, the town’s sole bartender and a woman with her own share of secrets, is haunted by a terrifying dream involving a mysterious, inhuman stranger riding into the town. At first it seems to be nothing more than a disquieting dream, but when a local barfly starts referencing the same dreams, and the stranger approaching the town, it becomes clear something unnatural is about to occur. There’s an intensity to the story that isn’t in many of the other stories, and when combined with that slowly rising sense of dread and wrongness, it becomes clear that Thompson is a natural for writing Weird Western stories; indeed, Rotgut is actually rather reminiscent of the new Splatter Western series from Deathshead Press.
Of the final three stories, The Blind Opera follows a man kidnapped by government scientists and forced to watch something – something utterly terrible and horrifying, something linked to The Blind Opera – a mysterious series he has been hunting down in order to watch. It’s an intriguing concept, delving into the sort of cinematic horror espoused by Raab and Grey, and Thompson makes his own unique mark to the subgenre with this tale of one man’s descent into searching for cinematic depravity. Interest turns to obsession and addiction, and too late our anonymous viewer realises he’s become enmeshed in something he cannot escape from, something surreal that bends the notion of reality itself. Cycle, the penultimate story, is incredibly different to the rest of the material in the collection – a powerful and emotionally resonant piece about childhood abuse and alcoholism that sucker-punched me in the gut and then never let me up. A cycle of abuse, depression and addiction haunts a young woman’s life and fails to bring anything but misery and failure. It’s a horrifying story, offering an honest and brutally sobering look at the realities of this kind of life, and is one of the most haunting and heart-wrenching horror short stories I’ve read since Bracken Macleod’s Back Seat. Just like MacLeod’s masterpiece, there’s nothing occult or supernatural in Cycle – just the worst habits of humanity exposed for all to see. Finally, the collection ends with the titular Screaming Creatures, in which Thompson paints a grim picture of the Earth in 2030 – a time in which global warming is destroying the planet, and a strange madness has begun infecting the world’s population, regardless of race, gender or location. This is Thompson’s take on the post-apocalyptic genre, suffused with his own unique blend of weirdness; it’s a horrifying, surreal journey through humanity’s mass-extinction event, leavened with some intriguing characters and distinctly shocking acts as the world crumbles, and is a great way to close out the collection.
Screaming Creatures is undeniable proof that, when one considers the state of the Weird Horror subgenre, one cannot speak about its leading lights without now listing Sean M. Thompson alongside writers like Gemma Files, Jonathan Raab and Matthew M. Bartlett. There’s a unique signature that runs throughout all of the stories within the collection, an eerie and deeply unsettling sense of wrongness that only Thompson is able to evoke with such clarity, and an often philosophical air that gives his stories that distinctive edge to them. All of the stories within the collection are incredibly strange and weird, and often off-putting and unsettling in a manner that isn’t always easy to immediately put your finger on; that’s entirely down to Thompson’s skill as a writer, and the twisted imagination he so deftly wields to craft these stories. In particular, the haunting and all-too-human horrors to be found within Cycle demonstrates that Thompson is not just limited to Weird Horror in particular; he’s clearly able to move into tap into the wider Horror genre as needed. Invested with a powerful sense of imagination that creates a set of unnerving, ingenious and often deeply disturbing stories, Screaming Creatures is a fantastic accomplishment by Thompson and Nictitating Books, and I greatly look forward to seeing what author and publisher accomplish in the future.