CLUBHOUSE: Review: Tales From the Deep End, a horror story collection by Dean Wirth.

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

TALES FROM THE DEEP END – by Dean Wirth

Published by Breaking Rules Publishing, Pompano Beach, Florida, USA, in 2020.

Note: All articles and stories are by Dean Wirth.

Cover art and interior illustrations: Dean Wirth

Horror Versus the World

Review:  

This collection is self-published, a route I am contemplating should I ever get my act together and write that “Great Canadian SF novel” I’ve been fantasizing about (and attempted multiple times) over the past fifty years. Most genre literature today is self-published. It all boils down to the same thing. Is it worth reading?

For a relatively unknown writer some kind of introduction is important. Lets the reader know where the author is coming from. Dean opens with an “editorial” explaining what fascinates him about horror and why he chose that genre. He begins with defining five themes common to horror: death, pain, alienation, things falling apart, and disease. Plausible. There may be more. But these are the themes that stand out for him.

Then, rather refreshingly, he writes “What inspires me to write? I don’t know, but let me tell you about what influenced me the most …”

First, he discusses assorted authors and books, offering interesting observations like “Often compared to Lovecraft but so different, Poe had no monsters from the abyss and Lovecraft had no dark obsessions about death” and “Her [Ann Rice] history rich stories oozed with the very sensuality that [Stephen] King was and is allergic to.” Both these statements debatable, but that’s why they’re valuable. In my case my reaction was “Wait. What? Really? I should think about this.” Of course I won’t, because I’m intellectually lazy, but obviously Dean has put a lot of thought into his favourite books and their impact on him.

In his section on movies the nitpicky film-aficionado in me  was forced to the surface. The Hunchback in Frankenstein was NOT named Igor. Dwight Frye’s character was named “Fritz.” The first and greatest Ygor was Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein. Also, the animation genius behind The Black Scorpion was NOT Ray Harryhausen but his mentor Willis O’Brien. Further, as an editor, my nit-pickiness was also activated by some typos and bits of awkward writing (in my opinion) so I’m guessing the article had not gone beyond self-editing (which is typical of self-published works), but It really doesn’t matter. Dean gets his points across clearly enough.

He also examines the history of horror in graphic art and in music. In all of the categories discussed I was perfectly familiar with the old stuff, but some of the newer items, like so much that is new, consisted of works I’d heard of but never actually experienced. Consequently, I think his capsule “histories” of these categories have value to many readers, not just old guys like me but especially young ones, as the article offers an enticing vision of great works they can look forward to discovering for themselves.

I like his last comment, made in reference to the title, “This is no wading pool. Please join me as we are about to dive off into the deep end.”

Organic Life

Premise:  

Morgan murdered his wife in England. Fleeing the long arm of the law, he has wound up in an obscure fishing port of Devon, Maine, not far distant from Boston. It’s a strange town full of strange people.

Review:  

This story was Dean’s first sale. I published it in issue Polar Borealis #4 in the summer of 2017. I note that this version is not the version I published. I suspect it is the manuscript submitted to me before the changes I suggested were implemented.

No matter, it retains all the elements that led me to accept it in the first place. Undoubtedly inspired by Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth, it is gloriously over-the-top in describing unspeakable creatures doing unspeakable things to unspeakable people in an unspeakable town very difficult for the local chamber of commerce to promote. Dean goes beyond Lovecraft in that he not only strives to recreate the mood of impending doom the latter was so fond of, but eschews his technique of hinting at the indescribable and instead goes full bore with detail piled upon detail. Call it “The Innsmouth look meets the Thing.” The cast is small in number, but were it made into a movie, it would require a significant CGI budget to realize the atmospheric and frightening excess of Lovecraftian critters. Lovecraft is often criticized for purple prose, but in actual fact he exercised considerable restraint in describing his horrors, which makes it all the more fun to read a “Lovecraft on Steroids” pastiche, so to speak. Being a Lovecraft fan, I find Dean’s “exaggeration” of Lovecraft’s style delightfully entertaining.

By the by, this story, as originally published in Polar Borealis, will be available this month in the anthology Stellar Evolutions: The Best Short Stories and Poems of Polar Borealis Magazine’s First Fifteen Issues as selected and edited by Rhea E. Rose. So, his first story sale has been reprinted twice so far. Not bad!

Aurora

Premise:  

Kurt, a Houdini-like escape artist, and his lovely assistant Erin are among the entertainers on the Drury Lane, a 900 foot-long 110,000-ton ocean liner on its maiden voyage from California to Alaska. What could go wrong?

Review:

The description of the Drury Lane portrays opulent wealth and massive size, yet I can’t help but wonder if it is not in fact similar to the most recently launched behemoths of the seas prior to the pandemic. Like the Titanic, the ship represents man’s hubris, but is it big enough to be viewed as the ultimate example? I’m not sure.

The alien threat, beautiful but dangerous, is an acceptable cosmic horror. Its interaction with the people onboard serves its purpose but its interaction with the ship itself, strictly speaking, does not and could be viewed as unnecessary. Then again, this could merely be a side effect of instinct in action, as it is not clear how intelligent the being is. Planning and rational thought may not be a factor in its behaviour.

My primary criticism is that the ship and the menace are the two main characters in the story. Kurt and Erin are shallow and have little to do. As an editor I would suggest less description of the ship and more conflict and action for the human characters. On the other hand, it  could be the point of the story is that humankind and its works are truly insignificant when confronted by cosmic horror in all its majestic and inevitable power, in which case the passive characters Kurt and Erin are appropriate to the theme. The result is not so much a story involving characters the reader cares about as a vignette depicting the nature of the villain. Since the menace becomes the focus of the story once it appears, this makes sense. There is an impressive grandeur to the beast that is splendid and memorable.

Isle of Beatrice

Premise:  

Bosk is Captain of the sailing vessel Endurance which meets with a deadly cloud. Cast ashore on a mysterious island he confronts even greater mysteries.

Review:  

A hard Captain is Bosk. He makes Captain Bligh look like a candidate for Sainthood. He seems to be in a permanent state of rage. Even his journal entries are full of exclamation points. One thing for certain, no matter how much bad luck beats against him, he is determined to win out in the end. He’s not a likeable character. Impossible to identify with him. Yet one can admire his relentless intensity and stick with him just to see if he gets what he deserves. Call him a force of nature. He’d be flattered.

Beatrice, the woman he meets in the centre of the volcanic crater, is very much a force of supernatural nature. Supremely calm, she has a power of mind that gives her an unfair advantage, and a group of henchmen about as inhuman as you can possibly get. She, too, keeps a journal. She is infinitely more refined than Bosk, and infinitely more ruthless.

One of the strengths of this tale, indeed of Dean’s work in general, is the sheer amount of description. In the best tradition of Gothic fiction from The Castle of Otranto to the works of Hodgson and Dunsany, he piles detail upon detail to build a mountain-like edifice of mood and dread more important than mere characterization and plot. Readers who enjoy this sort of thing, as fans of Gothic and supernatural horror tend to do, will enjoy and appreciate this level of detail. Those who prefer action/adventure will probably dismiss it as padding. But only because they miss the point of it. Mood is the single most important element.

That said, though the actual story conflict has a resolution, many questions are left unanswered, mysteries unexplained. Beatrice’s relationship to her henchmen, for instance. Or the impossible geology of the island. But then, they amount to stage-setting, that is their purpose, so their full explanation is a lesser matter. Some readers may feel the story is not quite successful as a stand-alone. Ah, but is it a stand-alone? Or part of a larger tale?

Sweet Beatrice

Premise:  

Before leaving Europe Beatrice murdered Oscar Wilde. Now, living in Staten Island, New York, she learns that her best friend Sarah is in danger. She resolves to do something about it. 

Review:  

We learn more about what Beatrice actually is. Her henchmen make another appearance. She proves how callous she can be, albeit not cruel, simply indifferent. Nevertheless she has a goal which is of service to humanity. That she wants the human race to survive indicates she can’t be truly a villain. Not completely, anyway. But the evil she opposes has the capacity to grow exponentially beyond her ability to defeat it.  No resolution apparent yet.

The mood of changing times is nicely captured. A multiple-period piece if you will. Here dependent not so much on excess of detail as telling detail. But then this tale depends on a genre Dean believes belongs within the horror genre, namely mystery. Consequently, this is more a crime conundrum than a horror story. So there is greater emphasis on plot than on mood. But since this story ends with posing the fundamental question Beatrice needs to resolve, this is definitely not a stand-alone, but a gateway to the next, and final (?) chapter. 

House of Beatrice

Premise:

While preparing to deal with a deadly threat to mankind the friends of Beatrice are dismayed when the appearance of an alien race complicates their task considerably. No end of dangers facing mankind it appears.

Review:

Beatrice is relatively unimportant in this story. The previous tale involved horror morphing into mystery, in this one the mystery is highjacked by science fiction. Heinlein argued that the futurist elements should be introduced without explanation or set-up, so that the reader quickly takes them for granted and concentrates on the story line and characters. But in this case the introduction of both the good aliens and the bad aliens is too rapid, to the point of seeming arbitrary. A build-up in which one or more characters are revealed as obsessed with the dangers of the aliens should they become more active might have served the interests of the story better, methinks.

There are interesting concepts in abundance but my overall impression is that they are not well integrated into the story. Some of the villains are deeply unpleasant, on a par with serial killers, which makes the quick victory the friends of Beatrice achieve over them rather curt, amounting to a dismissal of their evil actions as something easily dealt with and therefore no big deal.

It’s a matter of pacing I think. Almost as if Dean is in such a rush to set the scene for something much bigger to come that he gets the action sequences over as quickly as possible. I would argue the focus should be narrower, victory more difficult to achieve, and that the aliens should have been saved for a later story. As it is the good aliens function like a Deus Ex Machina and I feel a bit cheated. Personally, I wanted Beatrice to outwit the nasties with her devious and ruthless mind, which would have been more consistent with her character and life.

Overall I’d say this is the weakest of the three Beatrice stories. Pity, because I was hoping they were building to something stronger and more satisfying.

By Myself – Dark Day of My Soul 1

It’s So Very Lonely – Dark Day of My Soul 2

I’ll be Your Mirror  – Dark Day of My Soul 3

Around and Around – Dark Day of My Soul 4 

I’m running out of time and space so, apologies to Dean, I’m going to skip over the four-part story listed above and tackle as many of the stand-alone stories remaining in the collection as I can.

Nocturne

Premise:

An unearthly world, indeed, a world unlike any other planet in the universe, evolves over billions of years. There lives a man with no name. Other people exist only when he dreams.

Review:  

I find it hard to know what to make of this story. It goes way beyond fantasy into the realm of metaphysics and metaphor. Not that saying that makes it any easier to understand. The evolution of the planet is majestic and beautiful. The beings unleashed by the Id of the sleeping man are mostly violent and sordid, as if the beauty of the world has been dipped in shit with the coming of man. If it’s a metaphor, it’s a cynical one. The last two sentences of the story somewhat explain it’s purpose but I won’t quote them here. Suffice to say it is an interesting vignette with striking imagery, much of which goes past my head because I don’t get what it refers to. It may appeal to the more mystically inclined.

That’s Me All Over

Premise:

Devin and Calum are both students at UBC Kelowna. They’re going to spend a semester break at a cabin owned by Devin on the shore of Bullet Lake, a perfectly circular “bottomless” body of water. Should be fun.

Review:  

This is a more classically-structured horror story. It takes its time revealing important details about the characters and introducing oddments of past eras and unspeakable cultures to build suspense and dread. In a traditional sense, it is one of the more successful stories in the collection in that it works to a steady drumbeat rather than a breathless near-frantic pace. This adds an air of authenticity to events. In short, I enjoyed the process of revelation and found it easy to immerse myself in the flow of the story. I quite liked this one. If there’s a hidden subtext, it’s probably “be careful how you chose your friends.”

God Game

Premise:

Bart Van Acker killed Tool-Push Willie to get his book of magic and it’s ability to manufacture clones. The clones serve him as if he were their God. It’s fun being a God. Till one of the clones gets ambitious.

Review:  

The premise of providing incredibly cheap labour to service the Northern oil fields in Alberta may be a bit shaky,  but the trope of abusing god-like power is always good for a story of hubris being confronted by reality, or in this case, by supernatural reality. There’s an EC horror comics-like feel to the life of the amoral Mr. Acker.

The Birthday Wish

Premise:

Robbie’s eighth birthday is quite wonderful because his best present is an enthusiastic Terrier he promptly names “Sam.” Unfortunately, while Sam is tied up outside somebody kidnaps him. Tearfully, Robbie sets off with his imaginary friends to rescue Sam.

Review:  

I always feel sorry for pets in distress, or any critter in trouble, actually. It’s why I seldom watch “nature” shows. I hate seeing predators bring down their prey. Of course I know it is part of the natural order of things, but I nevertheless tend to feel sorry for the victims. Which is just my way of saying stories about doggies in trouble hit me emotionally more than they should, I guess. Add the disappointment and fears of a child and I come all undone. Whereas the story of a rogue self-aware “Death Star” attacking the Solar System would strike me as entertaining. Go figure.

Anyway, I identified with Robbie’s rescue attempt like crazy. The ending of the story, however, is a sideways trip into the supernatural bizarre. I’m not sure I fully emphasize with what Robbie is and does. For that matter, I’m not entirely certain I even understand the ending. It’s a bit of a mystical ghost story of sorts.

A somewhat off-putting aspect of this tale is a hard edge to events, a style of gritty reality that crops up occasionally in many of the stories. Scaring the reader is Dean’s stated goal in his introduction, and I think his “candidness” (as he calls it) is a device to remind us fear and reality go hand in hand. After all, the real world at its worst is far more terrifying than any piece of fiction. In that sense horror fiction is solidly based on reality, more so, perhaps, than any other genre.

CONCLUSION:

I have both a positive and a negative response to this book.

First, the negative. If you are the type of grammar Nazi who would throw a book across a room because of a misplaced period, this is not for you. There are problems ranging from simple typos to incongruous intrusions. In sum, a classic case of a self-published work that needs a final edit at multiple levels. Frankly, I was stopped dead or was thrown out of the story many times because the author hadn’t quite managed to say precisely what he meant to say. Didn’t read like a final draft.

However, nitpicky points aside, the variety of theme and approach exhibited is pleasing, and the sweep of Dean’s imagination impressive and exciting. It’s actually a fun read. The trick is to skip past whatever individual sticking points you find jarring (if you are a grammar Nazi or an editor) and concentrate on the visions Dean is unveiling. The imagery he conjures up is often vivid and powerful, even cinematic. This is why it being a penultimate-edit version is not much of a handicap. The strengths overwhelm the weaknesses by far.

At the beginning I asked the question “Is it worth reading?”

The answer is yes, absolutely. Not only for those who love reading horror, but for those interested in writing horror. There are lessons to be learned, but the most important one, as demonstrated in this collection, is “unleash your imagination!” Dean has done this to a remarkable degree.

Check it out at:  < Tales From the Deep End >

 

 

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