On the Night Border
By James Chambers
Raw Dog Screaming Press — September 2019
ISBN: 9781947879119 — Paperback — 218 pp.
Cover: Daniele Serra (Art) and Jennifer Barnes (Design)
Seeing posts about the recent release of There Comes a Midnight Hour by Gary A. Braunbeck put me in the mood for reading something from Raw Dog Screaming Press, so I read one I had on-hand: The Fourth Whore by E.V. Knight. After reviewing that the other day, I decided to just make both review posts this week on RDSP titles.
It’s been awhile since I read James Chambers’ collection On the Night Border, so I glanced through it anew to write this. I’d previously encountered Chambers’ writing in Truth or Dare?, an anthology from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, which included the Chambers story “Marco Polo”, reprinted in On the Night Border. Though I thought it was an average to good story back then, it is only upon rereading it in the context of stories by Chambers that I could fully appreciate all it is, and the wide range of what Chambers can effectively write within the horror genre.
The first handful of stories in this collection immediately establish that Chambers can work well with completely different voices and styles. “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” features a Lovecraftian plot set in New England. Its protagonist is an artist, a painter, who once knew Jack Kerouac. A mathematician seeks him out at the local bar to hear a story about his time with Kerouac, in particular an incident that occurred in the nearby hills on a trip with a band. As they travel back to the hills, the artist recalls the otherworldly sounds they experienced there, and he faces the mingling grief and indifference of being recently dumped by his boyfriend. The story is written with poetic descriptions and complex layers to its sentences. Chambers renders one section in the style of Kerouac, a mad frenzy that is a fitting pairing to Lovecraft. Though taken place in relatively contemporary time, the richness of the style and words evoke the eldritch inspirations behind the tale.
The next story, the aforementioned “Marco Polo”, is also set in relatively contemporary times and draws on themes of madness and recovery, but centers on a completely different population: teens. A group of friends dare one another to enter the fire-charred remains of a house to recover an object. The notorious house inspires fear both due to the physical danger of its ruins, but also on the spiritual side. It was the site for something horrendous, and the object is somehow associated with it. The reader soon learns more details, and the meaning of the title becomes apparent. But I won’t spoil that. With a focus on the impetuousness of youth, Chambers style and tone completely shifts from the first story. Curt dialogue between the friends and colloquial taunts blend with the inner thoughts of teenage uncertainty. But these soon give way to text again depicting madness. However, where in “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” that madness fit the Lovecraft style mold, here it takes the form of slasher film syle.
Already, readers can begin to get a sense of those elements common to all of Chambers’ stories. First, he uses a plot set up that will be familiar to horror readers, or anyone who has heard a scary story or urban legend. He then chooses a unique voice to explore one central theme through that plot setup. He does that in ways that then take something ordinary and and skew it into a dark and dream-like haze. The story formed as the end product thus really fits with the title to this collection: a tale on the border between the mundane and bone chilling, on the border of familiar and uncanny.
“Lost Daughters” serves as a great example. One of my favorites in the collection, it began like something I read or heard before. A man drives on dark road over ‘suicide bridge’. He stops to pick up three young women, concerned for their safety out alone on such a night. Sounds like a ghost story from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. To that setup Chambers then explores the emotions of a concerned father, and through that character’s voice reveals the terror as terror begins to unfold and his concern shifts to self preservation. I quickly realized these aren’t ghosts, they are another horror staple But, then the end brings the fatherhood concern theme full circle in novel ways.
To follow this, “Sum’bitch and the Arakadile” demonstrates yet another unique character/voice for Chambers to use, while also illustrating the first example in the collection of using some humor alongside the horror, even if the tone doesn’t ever really become ‘light’ per se. Later, with “Living/Dead”, Chambers shows that he can in fact do that too, with a memorably sweet story that uses the zombie concept to explore the mystery of love. This, right after the most brutal story in On the Night Border: “The Driver, Under a Chesire Moon”, where the main character is the eponymous driver, explaining to a passenger his fascination with the evils done against children, and the staggering statistics of child disappearance.
Though Chambers’ stories all share some common core, the shifts in voice and sub-genre of horror make it a very eclectic and varied collection. Looking at other reviews of On the Night Border, readers often seem to indicate very different stories as favorites, note others as good, and more rarely point out one not liked. Considering Chambers’ range, I don’t find this surprising. He’s very much a jack-of-all-trades within short fiction horror. Unless one really doesn’t like the voice or sub-genre he chooses, a reader will at least find a story to be decent. He’s not going to change your mind about what you’re partial to. But whatever horror thing is your favorite, he’ll write one that you will probably just adore.
I could not read “Mnemonicide” because it is written as an exercise in the second person. No matter how much that fits the story, I just don’t care. But others mark that as a favorite. I could take or leave Lovecraft. “Odd Quahogs” a story here featuring Dagon was good, but nothing special to me. The Lovecraftian “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” I liked even more, but still wouldn’t put at the top.
Beyond ones mentioned earlier above, “The Many Hands Inside the Mountain”, “What’s in the Bag, Dad?”, “Picture Man”, and “Red Mami” were among my favorites. I won’t belabor things with summaries of those, and I’m out of fresh insights to particularly connect with them as examples.
Before getting to my last points, for the sense of completeness: “The Chamber of Last Earthly Delights” sat kind of in the bottom middle for me in level of appreciation. It’s inspired by the mythology of Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow (not James Chambers the author of this collection). Unlike Lovecraft mythos, I have never heard of Robert Chambers or his work before. The story goes in a more SF direction than others, which I found interesting. But, perhaps missing the reference/inspiration, the themes and plot of the story were really lost on me.
That James Chambers can so effectively employ varied voices/styles in a range of horror sub-genres seems to have led him to not just use other mythos as his inspiration, but to go even a bit further and pen additional stories featuring classic characters. The remaining two stories in the collection I haven’t yet mentioned fall into this category. In both cases, I’ve read nothing on the original sources, but unlike The King in Yellow, I have at least heard of them and/or their creators.
The first, “A Wandering Blackness” features Anton Zarnak, Supernatural Sleuth, a character by Lin Carter. Once Zarnak gets into this story by Chambers, it is awesome. The lead up to that, however, seemed unnecessarily prolonged. The second I read as far more successful: “Lost Boy” featuring Kolchak, the Night Stalker, a character who Chambers has also written for in the graphic novel format. It’s a familiar changeling fairy story, but the modern twist of a mother wronged by a rich businessman and the Kolchak series placement make it interesting and satisfying.
The collection is followed by author notes on each of the stories. I found these really useful for recalling some stories for this review so long after first reading them, but also they provide fantastic insights into why Chambers wrote them – the themes he found himself pondering or the inspiration/voice he wanted to delve into. The notes enhance the stories, especially for then rereading and gaining new appreciations.
Horror fans are sure to find a good deal to enjoy in On the Night Border. I failed to mention earlier one other element that ties together all the stories. No matter their voice or style, they are all cinematically evocative. Chambers writing really makes the reader hear and see what is going on, while also triggering the other senses like any good horror should. It deserves continued notice, and I hope to see much more from Chambers.