Archive for October 30, 2015

Abandon All Doubt, Ye Who Seekest Chills: Zimmer’s Hellscapes, Vol. 2 Delivers Wild Images, Guilty Delights

With the second volume of Hellscapes stories, Stephen Zimmer solidifies his imagining of Hell for the twenty-first century and becomes its invisible tour guide. He shows readers, in details with vividness often worthy of Dante, a pit expansive enough to include contemporary multicultural values, but the pit has both fire and teeth to devour people from across the spectrum who transgress against those values. In short, he gives us a Hell most of us can believe in.


After all, everybody has a different notion of “sin” these days—two members of the same church will often disagree on the finer points—but Zimmer finds enough common ground for damnation to make his condemned almost transcendentally loathsome. A corporate raider leaves thousands destitute. A man does nothing while people around him suffer. A cop beats people with wanton, deliberate cruelty. While Zimmer’s visions of Hell and its monstrosities are frightening, he engages the parts of our brains that take pleasure in the damnation of such people without forcing us… too much… to share in the guilt of the transgressions punished. As a result, this Hellscapes makes for a fun and chilling read.

For some of Mr. Zimmer’s views on his visions of Hell (particularly their origins in global cultures and religions) and more, see the interview related to this review. For information about the first volume of Hellscapes, see my earlier review and its related interview. As always, I volunteer for all my reviews.

The second Hellscapes volume begins with disorientation as we, along with central character Nicholas, stumble on an unfamiliar path toward Malizia, a major city in Hell where some of the volume’s tales take place. As the first tale’s title, “The Cavern,” might suggest, while it tells Nicholas’s story, gradually revealing how and why he came to be in Hell as well as what his fate entails, details of setting play a large part in storytelling. The final tale, “The Club,” serves as a pendant: characters in both bookend stories flesh out Malizia (Nicholas literally, as he enters a structure made in part from human flesh) while making their ways toward their final tortures.

The description of Nicholas’s journey to Malizia points to one of the book’s greatest strengths, language rich in metaphor and suggestion. Here and in the third tale, “Above as Below,” the landscape itself, and the feelings it inspires, seem threateningly alive. The ground beneath Nicholas’s feet is “bone-dry” (5), contributing to “tendrils of fear” that “slither” near “coils of desperation” (6), and Nicholas must confront a “desert maw” and a “gaping emptiness.” The bones, tendrils, coils, and gaping maws add up to a creature—inhuman, perhaps Lovecraftian, or something from Clive Barker (Zimmer cites Hellbound Heart in our interview, but I find resonance with Barker’s more fantastic works, such as Imajica, as well). In “Above as Below,” central character Gale observes she is on a “mountain” that is “bone-white and dense” (44), and with the enormity of the creatures above and below her, the context insinuates that the mountain could actually be a tooth, a shudder-inspiring touch of cosmic horror.

Zimmer doesn’t hold back, serving up explicit imagery and violence where it’s due, such as the giant phallus set to punish a rapist in eye-for-eye fashion, but he still stops before the description becomes unnecessary, remarking, “It took little imagination to know how the beast’s gargantuan erection would be employed” (84). The style of fearless, luxurious, yet still propriety-inflected description recalls the High Romantics, particularly Coleridge and Keats when Zimmer turns to snake women in “The Club:”

“Her features appeared to change, for just a moment. Eyes shifting into a reptilian hue and face taking on a serpentine cast, her smile became an expression of hunger and malice.” (70)

While I enjoy the state of mind such language puts me in—dream-like, which central character Darion of “The Club” recognizes when he attributes his glimpse of snakiness to “an altered perception” (84)—some readers might find aspects of the style antiquated, which shows when one of these women also receives the description “buxom vixen” (69).


Other than the effectiveness of the description, which consistently delivers images that rock the imagination with jarring combinations of things that slither and bite, the true testimony to the book’s success is that its pages fly by but still manage to engage the brain. That accomplishment is particularly striking because we more or less know characters’ fates at the outset. They’re damned, so Zimmer can’t rely entirely on the tension of wondering how stories will end to propel readers through pages. Instead, he has to maintain interest in how we’re going to get to the end, and he does that by keeping surprises coming on every page, populating paragraphs with new characters, new creatures, and new turns of phrase. The densely populated Hellscapes isn’t a tough crowd to navigate, but it is an amazing place to go people-watching. You might feel a little bad delighting in watching people suffer the ways they’ve made others suffer (if such suffering is wrong, should we really like it?), but you can save that thinking part for later and, for the moment, enjoy the thrills of good comeuppance and good scares.

Nine Cat-Themed Horror Films Worth a Purr

Every now and then I succumb to cuteness. Samara, however, has requested that I base a character on her, one that slaughters all the “insects,” whatever that means.

Samara, ruler of my household, begrudgingly poses for this blog

9. Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971): Dario Argento’s second feature lacks the crazy cat moments memorable in Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which has a character who eats cats, and Inferno (1980), which has a character randomly mauled by cats who fly at her from the sides of the screen. A cat makes the title, however, because our furry Internet-ruling friend provides a metaphor for the entire film, the mystery behind which is like the titular fetish device, so twisted that following its nine suspects/possibilities is like a kind of tickle-clawing torture.

CatintheBrain8. Cat in the Brain (1990): Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento supposedly had trouble getting along for years because Fulci piggybacked on Argento’s early success with animal-themed giallo films (Italian crime thrillers) such as Fulci’s derivative-but-good Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971). Cat in the Brain, a late Fulci effort, follows Argento in having a mainly metaphorical connection to our furry friends, who are tearing up the brain of Fulci himself, who stars as himself, a director whose past films (shown amply in flashbacks) are manifesting in present-day murders. This cat won’t likely please you if you’re not a Fulci fan, but if you like the Godfather of Gore, it’s postmodern catnip.

Kuroneko7. Kuroneko (1968): Stylish Italian films and stylish Japanese films have been trading ideas for decades (more on that in a moment), and this classic Japanese kaidan (wronged women with long black hair out for revenge, most familiar to Americans from the remake of The Ring, 1998 / 2002) hybrid features awesome cat-woman ghost dueling, glorious use of black and white tonality, and some samurai for good measure. Not the best Japanese horror from the 60s, but in my top five, and my favorite one focused on cats. The title means black cat.

catseye6. Cat’s Eye (1985): The frame story focuses on a cat erring on a sort of quest to rescue young Drew Barrymore, whom he reaches in time for the third and final story in the anthology. The third story, about the girl’s (and cat’s) battle with a breath-stealing mini-monster, sort of sucks now that I’m grown up. However, the first two, about quitting smoking corporate-style and going out on a ledge for a married woman (literally), are based on classic Stephen King shorts and hold up due to dark humor, massive tension, and great performances from leads James Woods and Robert Hays. The cat gets important moments in both the grown-up stories, too.

pet-sematary-blu-ray-cover-025. Pet Sematary (1989): Everybody thinks about Gage, who played with Mommy and is now going to play with you, but really, Church, the cat, is the star villain of the piece, especially if you think about the Stephen King novel along with the film. Church snuffs it, and that’s going to make the kids sad, so why not see if that supernatural pet cemetery resurrects him like the neighbor says it will? And if it works on the cat…? What’s good for the cat ain’t good for the kiddies. A cat would be the first to tell you not to follow a cat’s example, and my cat Samara would be the first to tell you that people don’t listen to her advice often enough.

catpeople19424. Cat People (1942): This Lewton/Tourneur collaboration makes some lists of greatest horror films of all time, and with good reason: it’s one of the best films to replicate the effect I forever associate with Turn of the Screw, i.e., leaving in suspension questions of whether the horror is primarily psychological or supernatural. So is this a werecat movie or isn’t it? It’s beautifully shot, with beautiful people and beautiful cats, and the reflections on the psychology and beliefs of the times are so compelling that suspension and suspense become delightfully relentless.

CatPeopleShoutFactoryCover3. Cat People (1982): More a fantasy about the first film than a remake, this is my favorite werecat movie. The transformation sequences are good but not great (appearing not long after American Werewolf in London (1981), they seem uninspired). What is great is the music, famously David Bowie’s “Theme from Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” but really the entire synth-filled soundtrack, eighties dreamy at its best. What is greater are the sex-infused storyline and eye-popping presences of Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell. The first film’s premise gets dilated: certain people get turned on and become black leopards, and to become human again, they must kill. Oh. My. Violent estrus.

twoevileyesblackcat2. “The Black Cat” from Two Evil Eyes (1990): Yes, I wrote a book about Argento, and yes, he gets to have two on this list, because although many have worked with Poe’s “Black Cat,” and many other films have that title (including one by Fulci), this one—half of Argento’s collaboration with George A. Romero, Two Evil Eyes—is my favorite. It ranges across Poe, featuring Harvey Keitel as Roderick Usher, a photographer who captures crime scenes (including one right out of “Pit and the Pendulum”). The ending makes kitties even more horrific than Poe does. Ah, Dario.

House_1977_poster1. Hausu (1977): Ruled by the wild colors and non-rational narrative structure of the Italian films that were becoming popular in Japan at the time, Hausu (House) is one of my favorite films of all time, and since a white cat presides over the house that gobbles up schoolgirls, it’s one of Samara’s, too. Flying severed heads, carnivorous pianos, dancing skeletons, and more await you inside this brilliant little film, colorful, hallucinogenic, funny, scary, must-see.

Horror as Banishment

An annoying question that intellectuals ignorant about the horror genre often think they’re terribly clever for asking: what is horror, anyway?

An annoying corollary: why would anyone read or write such stuff?

The dismissive, tautological answers, “scary stuff” and “because we like it,” are almost as annoying as the questions. My nerd-hat answer, which I write about at length in Gothic Realities, is that a work is Gothic horror if its primary object of representation is fear or the fearful. In other words, a book, movie, video game, or whatever is horror if it’s about scary stuff. It doesn’t have to be scary, but it has to be about stuff people generally consider to be scary. My nerd-hat answer is still that it’s scary stuff; I just add qualifications. My definition allows for the meaning of horror to change with shifting perceptions of what’s scary (as well as what is “real”).


This answer doesn’t do shit for the question why, though, and that’s because when I’m wearing my nerd hat, I feel pretty powerless to address causality, as inductive reasoning from empirical data—or drawing conclusions based on observations—rules purist (purest?) nerd logic. Inductive reasoning can allow you to see relationships between and among things, but you can’t infer causality from correlation (correlation does not equal causality is a mantra in some circles). Some people still claim lack of scientific “proof” for cigarettes causing cancer and humans causing global warming because proving causality is itself almost impossible, according to strictest nerd logic. I am therefore going to abandon said logic and enter a flawed a priori sketch mode that is scientifically and philosophically unjustifiable.

With apologies to Aristotle.


Claim: Horror in fiction is the banishment of horror from reality.




  • According to Jean-Paul Sartre, being precedes essence. However, fictional essence—a fixed text’s reason for being—precedes its being.
  • Fiction inverts the real.
  • The reason for fiction being precedes its being.
  • FIRST PRINCIPLE: Why horror fiction is must precede what horror fiction is.


  • Progress is the triumph of life.
  • Modernity as Enlightenment can thrive through medicine as an opponent of disease, diplomacy as an opponent of war, technologies as opponents of scarcity, and other strategic deployments of knowledge for progress.
  • Despite other deployments of power-knowledge, including some associated with the marginalization and relative invisibility of death, progress would also displace death from mainstream home and street-side spectacles to the hospital room or consensual equivalents.
  • SECOND PRINCIPLE: Horror has receded and must recede from reality.


  • Horror in reality is unpleasant for non-psychopathic percipients.
  • Horror in fiction to some degree is pleasant for many, if not most, percipients and is a feature of many, if not most, “great” works of art and literature, including non-fiction, holy texts, etc.
  • To explain the pleasure of horrific violence in art, classical theory of tragedy, which encompassed virtually all the darker arts, postulated that people experience catharsis, or a release of powerful negative emotions, when they experience violent art.
  • A preponderance of research has shown that catharsis does not occur, as people exhibit similar or greater degrees of negative emotion after experiencing violent art.
  • THIRD PRINCIPLE: Catharsis fails.


  • As a horror writer, I write down my nightmares. So did Mary Shelley. So did Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft. And so on.
  • Readers identify with horror fiction. They see themselves in it. They don’t experience a release of feelings: if anything, they feel more.
  • A reader or a writer transfers her- or him-self into the fiction. Feelings are not released; they are moved through the process into the fiction.
  • The process is an individual movement from a mundane real to a horrific fiction.
  • The movement is controlled, the fiction fixed: the process is safe, keeping horror receded from reality, advancing life and the individual.
  • FOURTH PRINCIPLE: Horror fiction is an individual rite.



  • Despite the enormous mainstream success of some horror fictions, cultural authorities often pretend horror’s readers and writers are victims of a pathology.
  • Pathologizing the commonplace pleasure in horror fiction reveals the disconnection of the governing authority from the governed, reflecting on the pathology of the authoritarian perspective.
  • Horror fiction becomes the place to which horrors are banished and in which larger cultural horrors still deserving banishment see themselves reflected.
  • Collectively, cultures use horror for their most revolutionary critiques.
  • FIFTH PRINCIPLE: Horror fiction is a cultural ritual.


Repulsion at the End of the World (a Polanski Masterpiece Turns 50)



Look on the Internet Movie Database, and you’ll see a tagline for Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion that almost preempts interpretation: “A classic chiller of the ‘Psycho’ school!” Marketing-wise, the claim hits its target because Repulsion clothes “higher” art-house sensibilities in lower production values and in horror-genre conventions, just as Hitchcock decided to do with the film that he brought to Universal (home of the horror monsters). Like Hitch, Polanski uses black-and-white grit to showcase a story of a woman in distress that takes an unexpected turn involving two grisly murders in a space distorted by her psycho-logical state. Polanski even uses a beautiful lead whose sweetness misleads with innocence—and although Tony Perkins’s defiance of Robert Bloch’s vision of Norman Bates as an awkward and homely killer is unforgettable in Psycho, I don’t think many would deny Catherine Deneuve as Carol in Repulsion (or as anyone at any point in her career) rivals Perkins with talent and circles him with her stunning screen presence. Her largely nonverbal performance, combined with her environment’s responses to her, conveys the psychological depth that Perkins and “mother” communicate by doing the police in different voices, creating misdirection and ambiguity until a solution may or may not appear at the end. (Beware continuing—here there be spoilers!)RepulsionCap2


Like much else in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, Psycho’s ending has received a great deal of commentary and debate, so to claim that the ending—the psychoanalytic revelation of the shared mind/body of Norma/Norman Bates resulting from a psychotic solution to an Oedipal struggle gone terribly awry—is unequivocally sincere would require proof and argument I am uninterested in providing here. However, the psychiatrist who shows up at the end provides this explanation, and taking it at face value is possible.



Repulsion, like Psycho, has a twist involving its main character’s mind, but its central psycho, Carol, doesn’t go out on a frenzy to claim any victims. She stays home, mostly having conflicts with herself; although Norma/Norman’s victims come to her/his motel and house like flies to a web, she/he still ends up coming after them, whereas Carol’s victims, both men, have to throw themselves at her, the first breaking into her apartment and the second attempting rape, before she attacks. Prior to these attacks, the film demonstrates that Carol is very reticent around men. She refuses a date; she reacts badly when her sister engages in a sexual relationship and brings a man into their shared space; she shows disgust when a man kisses her. Her initial demonstration of the film’s title, repulsion, seems to be a reaction to men, an allergy to heterosexual sex. Ergo, the pathology she exhibits in the film’s second half, as she lets her surroundings decay (she leaves out food and eventually corpses to rot, neglects her own hygiene, etc.), links to her aversion to sex, adding up in the end to what seems to be a sexual pathology, psychoanalysis’s specialty. A psychiatrist doesn’t show up with an explanatory key as he does at the end of Psycho, but, as Carol does emerge as a psychopath, the film adds up in a way that forms a lock that seems the perfect shape.



Two shots in particular support reading Carol as a psychopath. The first shows her walking past a car wreck on the London streets. Everyone stops to look but her. Her lack of interest and empathy suggests social disconnection, a disconnection echoed in the film’s final image, which shows her as a child in a family photo. Here, she looks in a direction opposite her family group, first seeming perhaps to look at a man who might be the source of her androphobia, but then, as the frame tightens around her, she appears just to gaze away, again disconnected from all around her. This reinforcement of her social disconnection suggests it has little to do with any traumas she may have experienced, little to do with the men who keep forcing themselves on her, and everything to do with a pathology that has followed her since childhood. Psychoanalysis often traces disorders back to developmental interruptions, and this film, made during a peak of pop psychoanalytic dominance, embeds psychoanalytic causality for Carol’s behavior. Ambiguity persists, so the explanation is not totalizing or necessary, but it oozes from the film’s celluloid pores.



It also appears in a tagline from the film’s poster-turned-DVD-cover: “The nightmare world of a Virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!” Dreams, the province of psychoanalysis—check. Virginal-frigid-sex-phobic-possibly-queer-woman, the “problem” woman of psychoanalysis—check. Carol makes psychoanalytic interpretive “sense” in 1965.



Of course, she also makes “sense” as a critique of psychoanalysis from a feminist perspective. After all, the men she kills are both attackers. The first stalks her and breaks into her apartment when she refuses his advances, and the second, her landlord, returns her rent and expects payment in sex instead, which he tries to take against her will. In 2015, if not 1965, watching this film, I suspect she might be able to plead self-defense if she didn’t present herself as batshit crazy, which, unfortunately, she likely would, as, by the end of the film, she is seeing hands reach out of her apartment wall at her, which the film gives us no reason to believe is not happening… other than the bits of context I’ve provided that suggest an otherwise realist context in which she is crazy (in 1968, however, Polanski would use Rosemary’s Baby to show the dangers of not believing the woman everyone believes is paranoid and losing her mind in a confined urban space).


Before I close, however, I want to offer a third, more obvious interpretation for what Repulsion is about, and that is, simply, repulsion. To be more precise, it might be what Jean-Paul Sartre calls nausea. I will not allow myself to travel too far into the philosophy in Carol’s mother tongue, though, and will stick, with one exception, to a riff on Polanski’s title and say that Carol doesn’t have to be disgusted and repelled by men in particular. Indeed, while she does have a bigger problem with her sister’s new boyfriend because he’s the reason for her sister leaving her alone for days, she also has a problem with her sister leaving a rabbit in the refrigerator for her to have for dinner later, a rabbit that, like men and other items, she leaves out to rot. What do the rabbit and the men have in common? They are potential objects of appetite. If Carol is rejecting appetite, her rejection and the repulsion that drives it run deeper than sex.



The only place it might be for psychoanalysis is the place that Freud describes as beyond the pleasure principle, but even his heady concept of the “death drive” doesn’t get at Carol’s repulsion. Although she re-pulses, or reverses the drives of hunger and sex, she is not self-destructive. She begs her sister, a lifeline, to stay; she defends herself against attacks, vigorously. Her homicidal acts are not externalizations of a suicidal impulse. The re-pulse is not reducible to an im-pulse at all.


Alone, depressed, and alienated, Carol, a French woman in London, doesn’t want to let the outside in. After her sister leaves, she retreats to her apartment and tries to shut everyone and everything out. She has to eat but doesn’t want to. Her acts of resistance result in the decay of both her food and her body. She doesn’t have to have sex, but men try to force the issue. Her acts of resistance result in the decay of their bodies. Resistance ultimately appears—figuratively or literally, the film stops making distinctions—as cracks in her closed-off apartment’s walls, then hands reaching for her through the walls. The harder she tries to repel the outside world she wishes to reject, the more it presses in on her. As Sartre writes in the play No Exit, “Hell is other people.” Hell, a subject informing Rosemary’s Baby as well as Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999), is also a description of Repulsion, or maybe repulsion as that which Carol fails to accomplish.



What she wants is emotional autonomy. The desire may be impossible to fulfill, but that rock is where her dreams crash. If she is actually a virgin (the film, as opposed to the tagline, does not say as much definitively), sex may be a realm she defends more successfully than others, but that success may result from sex’s relative expendability among humans’ hierarchy of needs (an expendability psychoanalysts would loathe to admit). The madness of social isolation and repulsion may not be the center of Repulsion—the madness of company, the madness of ending up back in the world, may be the most repellent thing of all.


Take a Sure Thing: R.J. Sullivan’s Dark Wit Is Not a Whim

Darkness with a Chance of Whimsy showcases author R.J. Sullivan’s development over ten years with ten short stories, providing a brief introduction for each tale that explains its history. It also highlights the diversity of his talent, which spans genres and modes including horror, mystery, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, and even that thing the writers’ guides call “literary.”


As always, although I seldom waste my time writing awful ones, I don’t get prizes of any sort for good reviews (you’re reading the review; there’s also an interview). This time, I’ll lead with the only potential negative I have to warn this site’s anticipated audience about: as horror goes, the collection is on the reserved side, with a few R-rated words but an apparent preference, particularly in the earliest tales, to leave gaps in the description for readers’ imaginations to fill. Naturally, this leave-it-to-the-imagination approach to scares finds favor with at least as many readers as it doesn’t, so it’s also a potential positive. Sorry, I’m tapped. I really liked the book.


I will therefore describe its qualities as one does an object of brilliance one assumes automatically to be good—a diamond—and make the question not “Is it good?” but “How good is it?” To help you reach a conclusion, I will describe four C’s I associate with Mr. Sullivan’s work.



The first tale, “The Assurance Salesman,” comes to us from Sullivan’s college days, but although his intro refers to “youthful exuberance,” the writing is not jejune. As his narrator takes care moving among characters, descriptions embed their psychological dispositions in a fraught context of taken-for-granted ease disrupted by a stranger with calculated temptations (a bunch of people on a train are getting along fine until a guy comes in who offers them dangerous info too juicy to pass up). To help us understand the impact of Gary’s travel away from his wife, for instance, we learn how he sleeps:

“Knowing she is once more beside him, he will dream, something he has not done in thirty days.” (loc. 100, Kindle version)

Concise statements such as these provide a fullness of time for characters we only know briefly due to the short-story format, a fullness that makes the effect of the darkness—the salesman of the title tests the power of faith with the temptation of reassurance, with mixed results—far more poignant. The characters’ failures and victories become internal as well as external, allowing them to carry readers on multiple forms of rides.

Similarly, the second story, “Fade,” centers on characters who have access to power that endangers them, this time power more based in science fiction than the paranormal. Although the story differs significantly, going further to the dark side, it still derives its emotional energy from characters’ places in life and relationships with one another. In the latter half of the book, this character focus appears even more fully realized as Sullivan shares tales of a character he has also taken into longer tales, Rebecca Burton. In “Inner Strength,” we see “Becky” as a child and get to know her father, and in “Backstage Pass,” we see people in her organization’s orbit caught in another trap related to technological temptation. While I could describe “Inner Strength” as “about” parents struggling with a paranormal heritage, or “Backstage Pass” about time travel, I could just as easily say the former is about the struggle of a family to stay together in a world that makes understanding the roles of parent and child more and more difficult, and the latter is about the skull-splitting frustration of trying to fight historical injustice (more on that in a moment). All of the above is true because Sullivan provides depth of character.

For the avid horror fans, I would be remiss not to mention Jinan, the title character of “Robot Vampire,” who Sullivan says is his favorite. Jinan, who may be developing true AI, is, among other things, a lovely dancer. We the readers occupy Jinan’s thoughts some of the time, along with a “friend:”

“Lined with several needle-sharp teeth, the snout punctures Toshio’s throat, and my friend drinks in ravenous hunger. As it feeds, I share its pleasure.” (loc. 2519)

Those last seven words convey the turn of AI to sadism quite beautifully.



Like a well-rendered character, well-wrought prose goes a long way. Not only does Sullivan command style well enough to put introductory clauses next to the nouns they modify (see the previous quotation for an example!), but he bases one of the collection’s two flash fiction pieces (extra-short short stories) on grammar and style: “Grammetiquette 2030.” I suppose some people might be turned off by a futuristic bit of humor based on grammar and etiquette, but I can’t imagine readers who read much not appreciating the joke. Since he earns the appreciation by not needing the sort of technology featured in this flash piece (he discusses the value of “standard” English in the interview), I find the humor welcome.

Still more welcome is the well-wrought wit that makes both “Grammetiquette” as well as “I Remember Clearly” successful and funny flash fiction and also propels the longer tales. The droll manner of most, but not all, characters and narrators in the collection evokes earlier writers for me, writers who may have been indirect influences (see the interview). I do see influence from writers Sullivan names (Roddenberry and Serling in particular), of course, but I see others as well. Although Sullivan’s writing doesn’t share the surface difficulty, particularly in the earlier stories, I found characters’ interactions reminiscent of some of the “society” interactions of Henry James’s characters (or, for that matter, early Gertude Stein), especially because philosophical questions related to the natures of time and the universe lie just beneath the surfaces of events that at first seem quotidian.

Beyond the craft of character, I see the melding of whimsy and darkness as very close to the soul of nineteenth-century American wit Ambrose Bierce, whose paranormal stories (I’m thinking “Middle Toe of the Right Foot” et al.) keep a tongue firmly planted in cheek even as they veer into severely creepy terrain. Dickens is similar, though not as dark or whimsical (or American). Even if Sullivan hasn’t digested Bierce’s work directly, he has digested such contributions to the history of the craft and made them his own, creating stories and worlds that are fresh in their imprints of Sullivan’s own age and timeless in their refractions of the history that bore his influences and their influences before them.




Sullivan’s prose has a reserved surface, but as with the characters, the stories’ depths leave room for extra navigation. Without being heavy-handed or didactic, he addresses many topics genre writers are told to avoid (but all the best ones approach anyway), particularly politics and religion.

Creating enough room for anyone to engage sympathies, Sullivan portrays disability from an unusual angle in “Able-Bodied,” and “Backstage Pass” uses its time-travel storyline to examine historical injustices related to the mainstream music career of a woman in a relationship with another woman. Perhaps most fascinating, “Starter Kit” takes the “world in a grain of sand” or “universe in a blade of grass” idea (William Blake, Walt Whitman, Stephen King) and gives it new concept and meaning that raise religious questions you’ll need to read the story to come up with on your own. For now, take my word that they’re there.



I’ll close with a fourth C that is the same as with diamonds, as it results from the presence of the other C’s. Reading Darkness with a Chance of Whimsy was clear, effortless fun for me because Sullivan crafts characters with cunning, allowing them to propel narrative with meaning that doesn’t bog down the stories. The one story I haven’t yet mentioned, “Do Better,” Sullivan refers to as “a writing exercise.” The title functions in several ways. It is advice the characters receive, a moral imperative, but it is also an imperative for a writing exercise—the purpose of exercise is to improve. The duality of darkness and whimsy avoids a steady state. Sullivan’s book guarantees neither a good nor a bad ending, but it does guarantee variability, change. With change the only variable, hope is always possible, so writers and readers both always have the potential, and the responsibility, to do better. Sullivan’s book shows a ten-year arc of doing that. In his final notes, he promises not to wait so long before his next showcase of bettering. Let’s hold him to it.