The melting-pot mindset of America lends itself well to the horror genre. A little of this, a little of that – our lives are made of many moving parts with lots of sharp edges. Slip slightly out of line and you are someone else’s cautionary tale. As Jason Wyckoff demonstrates so wonderfully in his second short story collection for Tartarus Press, The Hidden Back Room, there are many ways for us to fall onto the sharp edges with which we surround ourselves.
The title story will give you the perfect entry in Wyckoff’s world. Reed Murmin pops over to get his car repaired at a new shop, and the owner suggests he can wait at the diner across the street. It turns out to be a bit strange – off, sort of. But then it takes another step away from the normal. And then it gets, well, hazardous to human health. And no matter what you expect, rest assured anything you find will be original. By the time you arrive at the titular room, you will know that you are, alas, still in Kansas.
While Wyckoff does love the American (horrific) tall tale, don’t expect him to stay strictly within the bounds of sanity. In “Gut Punch,” Devin goes to visit his mother, who is in a madhouse. Wyckoff takes you one believable step after another until he crafts a scene that completely and without any doubt lives up to the title. “The Homunculus in the Curio” opens up a cabinet of curiosities and considers whether there is still magic in this world. Both remind us that there is – in prose.
One of Wyckoff’s most effective motifs is the sidestep. He really knows how to combine a direct prose voice with a prosaic setting and start readers off in a world where you feel as if someone you know is telling you an everyday story. Reality as we know it is described; and then edged away from. For example, in “A Blood Without Blood,” the narrator is a reporter who goes to great lengths to establish his veracity. Then he’s sent to that most banal of locations, a junkyard. What he finds there is not likely to show up in a newspaper – but Wyckoff makes sure you get the picture.
“The Dreams of Pale Night” is a novella that finds Wyckoff in tall-tale horror with a story that revels in rural American isolation. Like most of the stories in this book, it has the deep, textured feel of a novel. Wyckoff is attentive to invention, with the result that these stories feel fresh and new, even as they strike the same reading pleasure centers activated by any of the great names of horror fiction.
Tartarus Press makes beautiful books, and The Hidden Back Room is no exception. They tend to go out of print fast and increase in value quickly. Happily, they are also available in very inexpensive e-book formats. If you buy ePubs from the publisher, you’ll not have to deal with DRM. Readers who enjoy a good dose of terror mixed with their reality will want to book The Hidden Back Room.