The first thing that hits you while reading Scott Nicolay’s short story collection is a familiar feeling: That old black magic that comes with encountering great weird fiction for the first time. These tales convey dread and fun, often at the same time. And that’s great news for me. I think we may have forgotten that horror fiction can be unapologetically thrilling- among other things.
The second thing that hits you is that this is Nicolay’s debut. And I could stop this review here and just point out that the book is now available to pre- order and what are you waiting for?
For those who like a bit more detail however, well, these stories often use familiar tropes. There are entities from beyond, anthropologists in trouble, corrupt detectives, backwoods cultists and the occasional monstrous toad. The difference is all in the telling. Nicolay understands that there is a darkness just beyond our perception that can never be explained or bargained with and a lot of his work is about exhausted, hangover and desperate protagonists, encountering it for the last time (this point is helped enormously by David Verba’s abstract, skin- crawling artwork). For all the pulpy elements these stories don’t treat cosmic horror as a playground. In this, he is closer to Ramsey Campbell to, say, Brian Lumley (and I am a fan of both).
This darkness rushes in and engulfs everything in Eyes Exchange Bank (the story first appeared in the Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets) and Geschafte– perhaps the bleakest, most unpleasant tale here and one that reminded me of Terry Lamsley’s Suburban Blight (I should have mentioned that there isn’t a whole lot of hope in these tales. Just sayin’). The Soft Frogs would have been a standard monster story, if not for the nihilistic punk streak coursing through it. The Bad Outer Space is deliciously sick and I suspect Robert Bloch would have enjoyed it. Still, shallow bastard that I am, I enjoyed the pulpier stories more. The self- titled story starts out as an adventure yarn, before finding the dark heart of Easter Island and fading to black (bonus points for the Thor Heyerdahl reference). Phragmites is exactly the sort of story I love, offering a wealth of fascinating detail on caving and osteology, not to mention Navajo culture. It all feels real and lived- in, written by someone who knows what he is talking about. I thought it was my personal favourite until I reached Tuckahoe, the last- and longest piece. A fairly conventional blend of noirish procedural and eldritch horror, Tuckahoe is basically awesome. A cool, entertaining mystery, it gradually goes off the rails in a spectacularly fucked- up, gory fashion. I don’t mean to sound like a PR person, but if you liked True Detective you are going to have a blast with this one (the fact that it also reminded me of vintage Karl Edward Wagner and TED Klein didn’t hurt).
So here it is. If you like your fiction weird, dark and challenging, you should pick Ana Kai Tangata up. You won’t know what hit you.