When we think of weird cosmic horror there are a few authors that traditionally come to mind. Lovecraft, obviously, and if you’re well-read Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard and Robert W. Chambers. They’re the guys that opened the floodgates on what would become one of dark fiction’s most longstanding and influential themes, or subgenres. But there’s a new breed of authors out there with their own ideas about what makes the darkness vibrate with the tones of cosmic disturbance. Authors like Laird Barron, Lucy A. Snyder, and John Langan write a new brand of cosmic horror that places an indelible stamp of freshness on the genre and that has served the purpose of reviving the interest of horror fans in general rather than appealing exclusively to the recently diminishing subgroup of hardcore Lovecraftian devotees. Many of us call this trend the New Weird, and there are some damn fine new-to-me authors working to redefine and reshape the landscape of the dark imagination, giving us heretofore undiscovered worlds, brand new territory to explore and escape into and pushing the boundaries of what were the formerly established norms of the works being produced. And while it’s true that I’ve discovered no small number of new favorites in the bunch, there are some particularly notable names that come to mind immediately when I consider the subject. Three I’ve already named and one other who wrote the book I’m very breathily winding up to tell you about today. It took me one short read to become a diehard fan of author Philip Fracassi.
Less than an hour spent with his novella Altar and he became in my mind a household name. Since then I’ve gone on to devour every book he’s produced and loved every single one with a passion beyond words, but none quite so much as his brilliant novella Mother, a story that I thought it would be difficult to impossible to ever surpass for any author, not just Fracassi. And I was right. For a short time, anyway. Then along came this little book called Shiloh. Set on the fields of southern Tennessee in the bloody waning days of the Civil War, it’s a dark, moody, and brutal tale of two brothers trying to survive the hazards of battle and … something other. There are horrors afoot in the form of demons and angels and the brothers find they may not simply be fighting for their lives but for their very souls. I would be remiss in telling you much more than that. It’s a short, lightning quick read that would be easy to spoil with just a few words and I’m not going to do that. All I’ll tell you beyond that brief synopsis is that it’s Philip Fracassi’s best work to date and you need this book on your shelf and in your brain.
I love a good Civil War story and it is–of course–no secret that I love a good horror story, but if you want to find the two combined, especially to good effect, you’ll discover a shallow mine indeed. In fact, when I try to think of such stories, the only two that come immediately to mind are this book, Shiloh, and Edward M. Erdelac’s novel, Andersonville. And in this case in particular, it’s important to note a particular distinction. Where Erdelac’s work is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Fracassi’s is set right in the bloody thick of it, the horrific scenes of what’s been called the first “modern war” in history painted in vivid technicolor imagery that places us firmly and instantaneously into the very real terrors of violence and atrocity that are part and parcel of all wars. But as our protagonist Henry and his brother William fight stalwartly for their beloved South, it doesn’t take long to discover that those horrors are just the gateway drug to an imminent and much more dreadful supernatural reality.
Philip Fracassi is a master of character, atmosphere, and setting and he leverages all three to stunning effect here, delivering a powerhouse story that’s simultaneously small in length and gigantic in scope, taking us on a nightmarish, surreal terror-trip across the savage fields of war and into a cosmic unreality that could only be born of a mind like his. A storyteller by nature, he makes his whole life about the telling of tales, whether for the screen or the page, and this full immersion approach to imagination informs his work and his person. Chatting with him sometimes seems akin to consulting with an idea oracle, so constant and reliable is the flow of creativity in his mind that one might suspect him to be an author who’s not even sure what the term “writer’s block” even means. And the seemingly bottomless well of his creative genius is further evidenced by the bonus short story that comes with this edition of Shiloh. “Soda Jerk: A Sabbath Story” is a full on cosmic horror story that again takes a setting, this time 1950s small-town America, and makes it seem more like a character than a place, introducing us to Carrie-Ann, a recent transplant to the small, more than passing strange town of Sabbath. It’s another perfect example of Fracassi’s brilliance and his love of the English language, and it’s also a damn fine reason to stick around a little longer listening to his mesmerizing narrative voice as he weaves us into a complex web of magic and imagination.
If it’s true that dynamite comes in small packages, then Shiloh and the accompanying short story are nothing less than literary singularities left waiting for the perfect time and opportunity to go full big-bang on the reading community. Fracassi grows in ability and concept with every story he writes and he’s at the very top of his form here. Plus, I have it on good authority that we will likely be seeing more from the pleasant little community known as “Sabbath,” something you’ll be ecstatic to know after reading the brilliant tale included here. If you’ve not read his work yet, you’re robbing yourself and you should unfuck that soon. Start here. My money has you quickly proceeding to acquire all of his other works as soon as you’re finished with this exemplary masterpiece from one of the best authors in his field.