Book Review: Autumn in the Abyss by John Claude Smith

Autumn in the Abyss cover

I had the pleasure of reviewing John Claude Smith’s earlier collection, The Dark is Light Enough for Me. I was suitably impressed with Smith’s work, and so I embarked on my new reading journey with Autumn in the Abyss with some excitement.

I was not disappointed. In fact, I can see a maturing of Smith’s style and subject matter/themes. Deeper insights and sophistication; greater complexity—and yet a well balanced structure. Additionally, Dark is Light Enough for Me was a heterogeneous collection of short fiction, without an obvious thematic context of the whole (albeit, it was a good collection of individual stories), while Autumn in the Abyss is, on several levels, a case where the stories, together, have strong collective impact, more so than the individual components. More on that later.

Smith is a visceral writer—he does not feel the need to be limited in subject matter and description to get to the guts of a tale, and yet he is also an artist, choosing from his expansive palette to achieve the right hues, proportions, texture. Squeamish readers should carefully consider reading his work.

Smith’s five stories have two major themes or threads running in a zigzag fashion through them, both distinctly Lovecraftian in influence, and clearly delivered in a unique voice.

Firstly, and most notably conveyed in the first story, ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, the author deliberately eases the reader into a creeping and growing sense of cosmic horror. There’s nasty shit out there and humanity features rather insignificantly. While this sense runs through all the other stories to some degree or another, ‘La mia immortalita’ certainly oozes this sense as well. Smith’s style—and again, particularly in ‘Autumn in the Abyss’—pays homage to Lovecraft’s style, particularly with the use of first person in ‘Autumn in the Abyss’.

The second thread is more interesting and effective, and saturates the last four of the five tales: the depths of depravity and evil that humans can attain, without the aid of the supernormal. By intertwining the cosmic-layered horror with the human-layer, Smith etches a greater clarity in each, but the human side of the equation is the most disturbing, and insightful.

The first story, ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, was a pleasant surprise and sowed the seed of my view of Smith’s growing sophistication. On the surface the short story is a surrealistic tale of a man obsessed with writing a biography of a long dead Beat-period poet. I won’t spoil the ending by detailing much more of the plot. As stated above, it decidedly invokes HPL’s style and allusions to the Mythos. Smith slowly and cleverly reveals horrifying powers linked with the poet that the narrator is obsessed with, where words have multidimensional powers that parallel Lovecraft’s depiction of the terrifying dimensions associated with angles in space and time, as per the ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’ (which in turn was influenced by Frank Belknap Long/August Derleth). Ultimately, the most Lovecraftian element of Smith’s story is the sense, at the end of the tale, of the utter futility of humankind, in the face of horrifying powers that dwell on the edge of perception. This is a highly recommended piece, for the reasons outlined above, as well as being a great horror tale in itself, and its thorough research into the poetry movements in the US in the 1950s and 60s.

‘Broken Teacup’ is probably the most disturbing of Smith’s short stories, where he explores in jagged, clawing depth the depravity of humanity. Nothing can easily come near the heartless horror of men who choose to torture and destroy people for the sake of entertainment—including their own. In terms of tapping into a dark, bleak underbelly of America, this story is somewhat reminiscent of ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ in The Dark is Light Enough for Me, although without the brief moments of humor. This story, however, is plainly intense. Where one of the dimensions of horror that comes out of Lovecraft’s ancient, alien gods is the sheer detachment of these cosmic entities, in this tale Smith presents a very different, vivid detachment from a pair of snuff moviemakers. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a well-constructed story.

La mia immortalita’ moves away from the physical horrors that can be perpetrated by humanity, to the psychological. Again we have indifference in an individual—in this case a self-obsessed artist blind and deaf to the feelings of other human beings, even those who are close to him. A strong piece, adding another dimension to the impact of the anthology as a whole, and drawing from Smith’s exposure to art, and in particular, sculpture.

‘Becoming Human’ seems, perhaps coincidentally, to draw the physical and psychological together. This story has the least tie-in with the Lovecraftian theme, but certainly stabs deep into human depravity. Two detectives’ lives were scarred for life by their exposure to a sadistic serial killer, leading to the suicide of one. The other is an emotional husk and must contend with a copycat killer and his own humanity at the same time. This story contributes the least to the two-theme effect of the anthology as a whole, but doesn’t lack quality, and certainly does provide another insight into the indifference of evil—with a twist.

‘Where The Light Won’t Find You’ is the last story and rounds the anthology nicely. Mr. Liu and representation of his ‘patrons’ make another appearance, and, most interestingly, draws a little back from the visceral horror well executed in most of Smith’s previous stories. Yes, there’s some nasty stuff, but it’s at an arm’s length, where the focus is on a young man, following an argument with his girl friend, enters a movie theatre with dire consequences. This story isn’t as deep as the previous tales, but it adds information about Mr. Liu and his patrons, and contributes granularity to what evil is (and isn’t) at the supernormal level.

I had a lot to say that’s good about John Claude Smith’s ‘Autumn in the Abyss’, and it is deserved. The allusions to the sinister, indifferent powers that exist beyond most of humanity’s perception is well crafted and multi-dimensional when the anthology is read as a whole. The evil that exists in human beings are more tangibly described, and are more horrifying by far. So much so that even the mysterious Mr. Liu and his patrons must sit up and take notice.

I recommend this anthology to any serious reader of horror. Five well-deserved stars.

The book can be purchased in print and ebook format from all good online stores, including Amazon.

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