Low Res Scan: The Age of Decayed Futurity: The Best of Mark Samuels, ed. Mark Samuels, 2020.
I could tell you what decayed futurity means: an attack on linear time, the tyranny of repetition, the entropic static of the future rolling into our world. Or, as Michael Dirda’s “Introduction” tells you:
Samuels’s favorite tropes include dreams, derelict or labyrinthine buildings, run-down European cities, subtle infection and contamination, mandalas, the dead alive, a pervasive sense of alienation, and the quiet desperation of the corporate world.
We’re both right, but grocery lists of dressed up nouns tell you nothing of what the stories are like. Most buildings have doors, but the experience of entering them is very different. The places Samuels takes us to, the stories he tells may have certain similarities, certain repetition of imagery and plot, but the impression they leave is often different – though, it must be admitted, doom usually awaits.
I wondered if it were the case that some dim intimation had come to him during his architect days as to the final destiny of his project: to house his own personal nightmare, to create a zone where human beings could not live.
So ponders our narrator, an amnesiac architect, in “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror” after he’s invited to an art installation by Golmi.
Golmi is just the first of the dangerous artists we meet in this collection.
Singular and powerful visions can be communicated via literature. That’s the banal, benign way to put it. What if, as “Vrolyck” shows, contamination and transfiguration can be communicated by text too?
It is as if the text is a reflection of my own thoughts. No—that’s wrong. It is as if my thoughts are only a reflection of the story. While I read I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the page, and I forgot all about the outside world. It seemed as if my mind was becoming a part of the text. It was horrible and irresistible at the same time. And the really bizarre thing is that, on the surface, it appeared only to be a confused jumble of disconnected words!
Besides literary production, literary scholarship and its pretensions are frequent subjects of Samuels’ work. In “Ghorla”, an amateur literary scholar, Arthur Staines, and his cat go looking for information about the deceased Julius Ghorla from his twin sister Claudia. He finds her in the seaside settlement of Scarsdale Bay. But he’s in for a lot of abuse from Claudia – and some strange revelations about Julius. Was there any truth in Ghorla’s fictional conceit that
. . . high-level sentience collapses in on itself near death in a manner akin to the demise of a massive star and that dying thoughts approach infinite duration. Post-mortem, these thoughts, if driven by a will of sufficient power, can tumble over a synaptic event horizon and subsequently appear in another body with an almost exact genetic identity.
Victor Armstrong isn’t looking to be a scholar, just some Mexican literature he can have translated for the English market. He certainly isn’t looking for Lovecraft pastiches from “A Gentleman from Mexico”. But that’s what he gets from Felipe López, a man who woke up on March 15, 2003 with his own memories replaced by Lovecraft’s. Of his past, the gentleman says
López was a fanatical devotee of Lovecraft’s life and work. Moreover, he was one of that rather contemptible breed of freaks who adhere to the outlandish belief that, rather than writing fiction, Lovecraft had unconscious access to ultramundane dimensions.
López mimics Lovecraft perfectly. What puzzles Armstrong is why “Lovecraft” won’t alter his work for sale instead of passing them off as Lovecraft’s – or why threatening messages on his answering machine are insistent that work must remain in Mexico. López/Lovecraft “belongs to us. His products belong to us. No one will take him from us.” And, of course, the only possibility for Lovecraft/López is that he’s a lunatic.
Questions of identity also show up in “Cesare Thodol: Some Lines Written on a Wall”. It combines a psychological mystery with weird fiction and sort of a takeoff on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Young Cesare Thodol was incestuously attached to his twin sister who died of tuberculosis when he was 23. After a lot of drugs, orgiastic sex, and bad investments, he blows through his inheritance and winds up, at age 35 in 1905, in the Colney Hatch Asylum. As an experiment, he is confronted by the fungus-ridden wax replica he kept of his sister. The fungus begins to cover up the writing Thodol covers his cell walls with. And he insists the wax figure, unlike everyone in the asylum, is human. Does something Thodol calls the “Fungi Mind” exist?
There’s also an insane asylum in “Regina vs. Zoskia” which owes some inspiration in its setting to Samuels’ working for a firm of solicitors and going to some of the more obscure rooms in the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Dunn also works for London solicitors and is taken along by partner Jackson to learn about the firm’s longest-lived and most lucrative case.
Dr. Zoskia runs a “self-sufficient community” based on “collective therapy”. Dunn sees lots of disorder in the community which uses an “abandoned holiday camp”. Patients mutter, pointless tasks are performed, and a sign proclaims “THE CURSE OF SLEEP DAMNS THE WORLD” and that only its patients are sane.
It seems the case is very stressful, and Jackson announces his sudden retirement and that he will now stay at the asylum. And Dunn will see some strange things after taking over Jackson’s work. Samuels’ ending hints at the incomprehensible and inhuman institutions that lurk in the shadows of modern life.
Also set in the environs of London is “Sentinels”. While it’s a more conventional horror story than others in this book, a text, The Secret Underground, is at its heart. Scotland Yard Inspector Gray is called on to investigate the disappearance of its author, Adam Drayton, a driver of trains in the London Underground. And Gray learns that the strange stories and photos filling Drayton’s book were the result of first-hand research. Indeed, Drayton took a job with the Tube to investigate the vast system.
Beneath our feet are the ruins of Anglo-Saxon Lundenwic and of Roman Londinium. The contemporary city will, in time, be swallowed up. This neon and concrete labyrinth will become an Atlantis of catacombs. The higher we build up, the deeper it is necessary to build down in order to support the structures above. All the nightmare sewage that we pump into the depths, all the foulness and corruption, the abortions, the faeces and scum, the blood and diseased mucus, but mostly the hair.
And what Gray discovers, in those accumulations from past beneath London, is a disturbing and deadly secret.
“In the Complex”, a story from 2017, is accidently resonate with our Bio-Medical Security State in the Age of COVID.
For a long time I wished for a window to see outside, even one that was barred, tiny and high, as in a prisoner’s cell. But no longer. I am not, after all, entitled to the rights of a prisoner. Dr Prozess has finally explained the facts to me: I am a symptom of a disease; he is the antidote to it.
When they brought me here, by ambulance, in the dead of night, I first insisted I felt perfectly well and saw no need. But the orderlies calmly showed me the documents that confirmed my health was potentially in serious danger, explained sagely that an attack could occur at any moment, and ended by insisting that the peril not only was confined to myself but could also affect others around me. I had a responsibility to be reasonable in the matter. If my condition worsened, as it was likely to do, then they would be obliged to confine me involuntarily anyway. To demonstrate compliance at this stage would be the first step on my road to recovery.
Maimings will follow along with gaslighting messages like “You brought this upon yourself.”
All the above stories are top-tier Samuels stories.
While I found “The Crimson Fog” gripping and memorable, I didn’t quite buy the depiction of the military expedition at its heart. In sort of a weird version of the film Apocalypse Now, a Crimson Fog has descended upon parts of Asia. It extends to space and is impervious to satellite photography. Even electronic communication is difficult in the affected area. And the Fog has altered the topography of northwestern China and brought with it deadly fiends.
The Fog is also expanding, and it is hoped that Major Qersh, who has survived weeks in the Fog after most of the others on his explanation died, has some useful knowledge. Thomas Sloane is commissioned to lead a team into rescue him. Even here, Samuels’ interest in weird fiction casts Sloane, our narrator, as a failed horror writer as well as a soldier.
While I liked the central idea of “Apartment 205”, I found the execution and plot more traditional than I would expect from Samuels. Slokker, a medical student in Paris, has a strange encounter with a very gaunt fellow resident in his apartment building. Eventually, he learns the man, Deschamps, was involved with an occult group’s legacy and a “psychomantium”, a device to communicate with the dead because
the dead . . . sustain the structure of the waking world through their dreams and that all living existence is illusory.
Also a bit of a miss for me was “Court of Midnight”. A man suffering from a “lunar plague” which causes a leprosy-like illness retreats to a shuttered building waiting for a Dr. Prozess to cure him in a Europe ravaged by this disease. His friend Stanton, a poet, says something which again brings up that Samuels’ horrors often involve the abolition of linear time:
He had written that I was the past and he the future; but now as imagination itself warped in the rays of the moon, past and future had merged into a single moment of the dying present. Memories and hopes alike were now diseased and unreliable.
This book also includes “The White Hands” in a longer version than the one I previously reviewed. I didn’t see any substantial differences between the two. I did notice, as per Dirda’s introduction to the collection and in the wake of reading the previous story, “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror”, a couple of things. First, Muswell says of Lilith Blake that she reveals “the truth beyond the frontier of appearances”. Second, as with Golmi’s manifesto in “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror”, Muswell talks about the eternalness of Art. Golmi wants to preserve his horrifying truth in a moment of time, and Muswell says that not only was Blake’s artistic vision eternal but that “eternal visions preserves them” meaning artists like Blake.
Definitely the first collection to pick up if you’re new to Samuels, and his fans will want it for stories not previously appearing in his other collections.