June 07, 2018
(++++) A MULTIPLICITY OF FEARS
We Are Where the Nightmares Go and Other Stories. By C. Robert Cargill. Harper Voyager. $26.99.
Give the man credit: he finds weirdness everywhere and horror just about anyplace. The 10 tales in C. Robert Cargill’s We Are Where the Nightmares Go and Other Stories have settings ranging from Appalachia to Australia to an anteroom of Hell, with characters from ordinary humans to Cretaceous-era dinosaurs and things even more outré than that. Not everything in the book works, but even the stories that do not really gel have their intriguing moments, and Cargill’s style is both involving enough and variable enough to make it worthwhile to stay with a narrative that does not quite seem successful – because of the possibility that he will pull the proverbial rabbit out of the proverbial hat. And sometimes he does. But it tends to be in small, bloody pieces.
There is plenty of fear and horror in this book, but most of the stories are not written only to elicit a frisson of terror, and are the better for striving for something beyond shivers. Take The Last Job Is Always the Hardest, for example. It is about a man named Brian who is about to blow up a train and kill 238 people, and who suddenly encounters someone who knows exactly what he is planning and has no intention of stopping him because he – the other man – has a job that is “much bigger than that. Much bigger.” Or Jake and Willy at the End of the World, in which two stereotypical good ol’ boys contemplate the incipient apocalypse with banter and beer. Or the title story, which starts with a little girl entering one of those magical portals so dear to authors of children’s stories – but not for a grand adventure: “No one talks about the other children, the children who walk through basement doors and rabbit holes never to return. …Their adventures are not the things of pageants and matinees. Rather, they are the things we try not to think of, the things instead we dream about when we would rather be dreaming of something else.”
Those three stories, packed with eeriness and oddity, are thoroughly successful by virtue of not pulling out all the traditional stops of horror writing. But Cargill is quite capable of writing full-fledged terror tales when he wishes: The Town That Wasn’t Anymore is a genuinely scary ghost/zombie story about angry, vengeance-obsessed dead miners whose spirits must be contained, whatever the cost – and the cost is very high indeed. But pulling out all the stops does not always work in this collection: Hell They Call Him, the Screamers, is intended as a nightmare tale along the lines of Harlan Ellison’s 1967 I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, but Cargill here lacks Ellison’s horrific élan and makes the mistake of not actually setting the story anywhere – it becomes a tale of monstrous brutality without even a soupçon of explanatory justification. And A Clean White Room (co-written with Scott Derrickson), which strives for depth as well as fright in its portrait of an Iraq war veteran assigned to punish the damned for a year in order to find his own way to peace, goes off the rails because it is never quite clear why this punisher has so much difficulty doling out the suffering that he is required to deliver, yet that “why” is supposed to be the core of the story’s intended moral complexity.
Other pieces here succeed in some ways and not in others. As They Continue to Fall is a rather jaggedly written story about a man who hunts evil angels, unless everything he does is only happening in his own unbalanced mind. Hell Creek, the dinosaur tale, has a fascinating concept – an attempt by individual dinosaurs to survive for a bit longer just as their world is coming to an end – but ultimately founders in its weak attempt to anthropomorphize the creatures enough to try to elicit empathy for the unlikely alliance of two herbivores of different species.
And then there are two tales that really work only for readers of earlier material by Cargill and others. I Am the Night You Never Speak Of is reprinted from a collection called Midian Unmade, a group of stories set in the Nightbreed universe created by Clive Barker. It takes place after the destruction of Midian – and without knowing what that means, and understanding what the whole Midian concept entails, readers will find Cargill’s narrative disjointed and puzzling. And The Soul Thief’s Son, a novella that concludes this collection and is the longest entry in it, is a “further adventures” story focusing on Colby Stevens, protagonist of Cargill’s Queen of the Dark Things. It is certainly possible to read this story, and enjoy parts of it, without knowing much about Colby, but the tale gains immeasurably for readers familiar with the earlier novel. Cargill himself is clearly aware of this: he includes a glossary after the story “for those new to Colby’s adventures or for those in need of a refresher.” But the nine glossary entries really do not help much and, indeed, raise as many questions as they answer. On balance, We Are Where the Nightmares Go and Other Stories is an uneven collection by an author who generally writes very well even when specifics of his plots are handled in a somewhat-less-than-articulate way. His style in these stories sometimes underlines and enhances their effectiveness. At other times, it almost, almost, conceals the tales’ lack of clarity.