Quick Review – Astrum – Sean M Thompson
For the next few reviews here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, I’ve decided to temporarily take a step back from reviewing long-form works like novels and anthologies, and instead try and concentrate on individual short stories and novelettes released by authors independently of their own collections, or a multi-author anthology. One of my favourite things to do on this blog is track down individual stories released by authors, especially in the Horror genre, as I’ve often found that these solo stories are often even more imaginative, engaging and affecting than those found in wider collections. Over the past few weeks I’ve managed to come across a variety of different short stories that seem to sit comfortably in the ‘Weird Horror’ subgenre, perhaps my most favourite part of the entire genre, and I’ll be reviewing each of these stories in turn. I’ve absolutely loved all of them, and it’s my hope that you will as well – especially as they’re all by new or emerging authors in the genre who deserve a turn in the spotlight.
The first short story to be reviewed as part of this series is Astrum by Sean M. Thompson, an author that I’ve reviewed previously here on the blog, and someone I consider to be a rapidly-rising star in Weird Horror fiction. His novella Farmington Correctional was an intense rollercoaster of a ride that blended weirdness with a searing and unflinching look at the brutality and dehumanising nature of the US prison system, and his short story collection Screaming Creatures was even more impressive, Thompson weaving an eerie and often deeply unsettling feeling of wrongness through all of the stories, producing a collection that had an appealingly strange and oddly philosophical air to it. I absolutely love the weird, unpredictable stuff that Thompson writes, so when I saw that he’d released a short story by itself, I didn’t even hesitate before downloading it and diving into it. Astrum is – I believe – the second release Nictitating Press, the publishing house that Thompson recently set up, the first being the aforementioned Screaming Creatures. Just like that collection, Thompson has opted to give the short story an attractive and also somewhat disconcerting cover image, in this case featuring an eerie triangular spaceship hovering over a jungle. The list of trigger warnings on the page before the story starts is a thoughtful feature for readers and reviewers alike, and also a timely reminder that, as always, Thompson has never tackled simple or straightforward concepts in his horror writing.
The story opens with a bewildered and terrified father wandering through a seemingly-endless forest, desperately searching for his young daughter, who ran off and became lost amongst the trees during a nature walk. However, it rapidly becomes clear that this is no normal forest, or at the very least a forest with no normal inhabitants; the daughter hasn’t just become lost, but has actually been abducted by something, and that same something seems to be stalking the father in turn. Thompson does a great job of slowly but surely ramping up the tension, using the conceit of the man leaving notes on his phone to create an atmosphere of paranoia and confusion; there are bright lights all around him, and he repeatedly becomes disorientated and lost when the very time of day seems to change in an instant, plunging the surrounding forest into darkness. The light almost seems to be sentient at times, engulfing and confusing him, and emitting tones that cause blood to pour from his nose. It’s a great device to evoke an ever-increasing weirdness as the story progresses, as is the slowly-changing nature of the trees and their surroundings. Thompson really gets into the head of the protagonist and brings us with him, seeing the weirdness through the man’s eyes as he becomes more and more desperate and confused, and hallucinations become more and more frequent.
The notion of time literally unravelling and coming apart around the protagonist is both deeply fascinating and chillingly evoked, another carefully-considered plot device chosen by Thompson to further engage the reader. The plot becomes stranger and stranger as it moves towards its end, becoming unmoored from linear notions of time and space as Thompson fully unleashes the prodigious imagination and deft writing ability he’s demonstrated in previous works and which marks him out as such a talented author of weird horror fiction. Drug abuse and horrific childhood experiences blend with the realities of a disintegrating familial relationship to create something hollowing and traumatizing, for the reader almost as much as the protagonist. The story itself is first-rate and pulls no punches, but interesting this seems like a more ‘mature’ piece of fiction from Thompson than anything he’s previously written; not mature in the notion of ‘grown up’ as he’s repeatedly demonstrated his skill as an author, but rather more thoughtful and focused, and even far more personal than his previous works were. That certainly comes across in the afterword Thompson has written, discussing the story and its contents – and honestly, I think it’s all the better for it. I think it’s a clear sign of Thompson progressing in his writing career, trying out new writing styles and subjects, and is always the sign of a great author. Indeed, in a way Astrum feels like a kind of watershed moment for Thompson, a piece of horror fiction that’s taken him to the next level in his career; it certainly affected me in ways that none of his other works had, with a dark, emotional core that resonated with me long after finishing it. What that means is that Astrum is another fantastic slice of weird horror from Thompson and Nictitating Press, and I eagerly look forward to his next work; Thompson is going places in the Horror genre, and I want to be right there with him to see where he goes.