by Michael Wehunt
Trees feature a great deal in Michael Wehunt‘s debut collection Greener Pastures. This is, of course, not new – the dark forest is burnt permanently into the human mind – but there’s a certain way they’re handled in the book that makes this horror trope even eerier. They are treated less as ominous background and more as sentient beings in and of themselves, centuries written in the twisted canals of their bark, gazing upon humanity with an eye that varies from cold to sadistic. They are not mood nor setting – they are characters.
Michael Bukowski‘s excellent cover, then, sets the tone for the book impeccably. The eye is first drawn to the figures – the diseased golden dog holding a grotesque wooden object, the faceless creatures lurking in the background, the multitude of insects and fungi that are growing on the dirt floor – but truly it is the dark, looming trees that build atmosphere, casting a sickly green-blue light over the whole scenery.
The concisely-designed volume is introduced expertly by Simon Strantzas, a horror veteran cementing Wehunt as one of the masters of our time.
But on to the real treasures – the stories. The book opens with “Beside Me Singing in the Wilderness”, a dark and weird story of a “bloodfall” on a cursed mountain and two young girls who come across it. This writer cannot reveal much more about this story then that, but the reader is assured that it is a fantastically strange and gruesome story with hints of vampirism and unnerving subtext.
The book really gets going at “Onanon”, however, which riffs on the idea of “infected text” (as Wehunt calls it in his story notes) to frightening effects. Adam is a man drifting hopelessly through a bleak life, his mother a broken woman, his life dreary and untethered. But when he moves to a mountain cabin at the behest of a mysterious woman, his world begins to unravel. Revelation is piled upon revelation, but it never feels out-of-control – on the contrary, Wehunt uses subtlety to tell a story mixed with moments of quiet beauty and intense fear. The story also shows the influence of Lovecraft, though the “infected text” appearing herein is far scarier than anything Lovecraft could’ve thought up.
The collection’s titular story is one of the most atmospheric stories I have ever read. As Wehunt mentions in his notes, he wanted to write something that was a cross between the fantasy of The Twilight Zone and the realism of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Not only does “Greener Pastures” pay tribute to both, but it exceeds these influences. This is such a fantastic story that it would be criminal to even hint at – you should walk into this tale unexpecting and nervous, letting it envelop you in its atmospheric, moody darkness. I will, however, quote one line that has stuck with me since I have read it, has rattled me day and night, since it is something I have experienced many times – “He poured the creamer in and stirred his coffee. The clink of the spoon unnerved him. It was too much like an alarm bell.” Quite possibly the most atmospheric tale in the book. It would almost certainly take scariest if not for – well, we’ll get to it when we get to it.
Michael Bukowski’s depiction of “Those Between the Spaces“.
We delve into weirder territory with “A Discreet Music”, a haunting tribute to Robert Aickman (and originally published in the Shirley Jackson Award-winning Aickman’s Heirs, edited by the aforementioned Simon Strantzas). The passing of an elderly man’s wife brings many changes, some supernatural and others emotional. This is a…difficult story – not in the sense that it is poorly written or convoluted; but in that it deals with uncomfortable topics, personal issues, and rough emotions. This one lingered with me. I honestly can’t talk too much about this one either – it is more of an experience than a traditional story, and the reader should not have any foreknowledge of it.
“The Devil Under the Maison Blue” takes the good old-fashioned horror from “Greener Pastures” and the difficult subjects of “A Discreet Music”, combining them into a Jazz Era retelling of the Faustian legend. This story has won many accolades for Wehunt, and while it isn’t my favorite in the collection (though it is utterly awesome), I can see why so many people love it. The fact that its a Faustian story ought to tell you a good deal about the tale, so I won’t talk about it any further, save for the fact that it is a dark story well worth reading. Now onto the goods…
“October Film Haunt: Under the House“. What the hell can I say about this story? Michael said to me in a message he was “putting aside the emotional depth for a bit and just trying to be really scary”. And God, this story is scary. Intensely scary. A found footage yarn, “October Film Haunt: Under the House” reads like The Blair Witch Project (one of my favorite films) on steroids. Following a group of bloggers investigating the house where a surreal horror film was shot, this story spirals into heart-stopping terror almost immediately. While the format in which the found footage is presented can be somewhat difficult to grasp at first, the story is otherwise flawless. Definitely the scariest in the collection, and quite possibly my favorite of the contents.
We take a deeeeeeeep breather with “Deducted from Your Share in Paradise”, about a small hick trailer community that is thrown into disarray when mysterious women quite literally fall down from the sky. These mute visitors quickly integrate themselves into the community, each finding a male partner and engaging in sexual relationships with them. The situation, however, is a little more complicated for the protagonist of the story, who abstains from intercourse with his angelic guest and begins to form emotional attachments with her. Just like “A Discreet Music”, its a quieter story that certainly deserves the label weird as opposed to horror. The ending destroyed me.
“The Inconsolable” is a dark, dark story, following a depressed man’s attempted suicide after a difficult breakup. The story genuinely captures the rough patch following the end of a relationship, and how that can lead to bad places. Of course, it’d be hard to imagine a worse place than where our protagonist ends up, even after the failed suicide attempt, but nonetheless its realism can be far more disturbing than the unusual apparitions that begin to plague the narrator.
Starting out through the lens of a traditional demonic possession story but ending up in a more Lovecraftian place, “Dancers” is another collection standout. Trees also appear in this story, taking a more prominent place in the story. The trees – the story’s titular “dancers” – mirror a woman’s relationship with her husband, which is upended by a disturbing change in behavior resulting in an exorcism. The very physical entity that had taken control of the husband, however, is not gone forever. A beautiful and unsettling tale.
Rounding out the weirder entries in the book is “A Hundred Thousand Years”, which is haunting beyond compare. In his story notes, Wehunt ruminates on the idea that when a child dies, or disappears, all potential futures are annihilated along with the child’s life. Our protagonist is a Mexican immigrant, and Wehunt portrays him as such without bias but instead with objectivity, showing him as human being (some disgusting assholes would have it otherwise, but this isn’t a political blog). To say anything more would be to ruin the story’s haunting ending, but rest assured, it is a tragic and strange story that is worth your attention.
In a book packed full of bleeding mountains, emaciated Christs, tentacle monsters, geese, sexually voracious angels, doppelgängers, ghosts, and less definable things, its strange to close the story with an entirely non-supernatural story. Don’t underestimate it, though – “Bookends” has teeth, and it will bite. The loving couple (their names are a little inside joke, which most Stephen King fans’ll get) around which the story centers are fully-rendered as real people with real emotions, which makes the tragedies that follow all the more upsetting. The story, however, ends on a note of hope, despite it being arguably the darkest story in the book due to its brutally honest realism. And that’s a beautiful thing, no? As Wehunt says in his notes at the end of the book, horror can’t exist without hope.
In regards to Wehunt himself – well, to quote Abigail Williams from Arthur Miller’s seminal The Crucible, “I have something better than hope”. What a debut! These stories are as powerful as any master’s – and Michael Wehunt surely is a master. From the breakneck horror of “October Film Haunt: Under the House” to the weirdness of “A Discreet Music” to the crushing real life situations of “Bookends”, Greener Pastures truly has something for everyone – and I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like the book. It’s quite possibly the best collection of the year, which is really saying something considering the wealth of material produced already. This is the gateway to something truly beautiful and horrifying, and we should all wait with eager breath, watching the spaces between the trees.