I’m quite a fan of Undertow Publications – their roster is home to some good anthology safe-bets like Simon Strantzas and D.P. Watt, and I never miss their Year’s Best Weird Fiction round-ups. So I thought I’d take a gamble on a single-author collection by an Undertow writer I had no previous experience of: Meet Me In The Middle of The Air by Eric Schaller. But was I rewarded for my magnificent open-mindedness and generosity of spirit?
As it happens, I was, pretty much immediately. I was slightly disconcerted by the zombie/Jesus humour in the Author’s Note (I don’t have a good history with zombie fiction), but the opening story ‘The Assistant to Dr. Jacob’ is great. It takes an old theme – the deranged gardener and his weird plants – and takes it somewhere horrific and unexpected, via a sharp, brightly-hued prose style that is more than equal to describing a greenhouse of strange blooms. It also pulls off the trick of spreading a bit of gore around AND being unsettling at a deeper, metaphysical level.
It soon becomes obvious that economy of style and a readiness to experiment are a recurring feature of Schaller’s work. ‘Turing Test’ is a witty but heartbreaking piece of LGBT-themed dark science fiction drawing on the legacies of Turing and Oscar Wilde. I normally hate it when real people from the past are repurposed and put to work in fantastical fiction, but this is a rare example of that process actually working, and it’s got sinister automata in it too. ‘To Assume The Writer’s Crown: Notes on the Craft’ is a horror story masquerading as an essay on how to write, which could be epically pretentious, but in fact the gamble pays off and it’s amusing and dark. The sardonic tale of fairground witchery ‘The Sparrow Mumbler’ initially threw me due to the author’s insistence on having what I think are Victorian English characters speaking and thinking like modern Americans (and it is a deliberate decision here, not just bad writing) but eventually won me over. Schaller is also good at the very short story based on a single impactful concept, such as in ‘Voices Carry’, which also gives a likeable final nod to Aimee Mann’s 80s pop classic of the same name.
My favourite story in the collection, however, was ‘The Bright Air That Breathes No Pain’. This isn’t one of Schaller’s more experimental efforts, and in fact features a very ordinary setting, as we watch an adult man become gradually consumed by memories of a childhood encounter with weird forces, at considerable cost to his love life. The sylvan schoolgirl magic theme gives this encounter a pleasing echo of the Arthur Machen story ‘The White People’, though the style is very different. Schaller excels at depicting the psychology of mundane despair, and although you might think that his crystal-clear, trenchant prose style might harm a story featuring such nebulous forces as those reaching out for the hero, that’s absolutely not the case.
Of course, not all the material is this good. Schaller is sold partly as a writer of humour, and an enormous amount of horror writers seem to find humour very hard. Schaller doesn’t always hit the jackpot, and there are a few tales that fail to hold water. ‘The Parasite’ felt stale to me, like one of those domestic macabre stories that littered horror anthologies in the 1970s, and ‘8) – 5.8’, a near-future sci-fi number which features Edgar Allan Poe and Marilyn Monroe resurrected as miniature pets, struck me as oddly mean-spirited in its treatment of the protagonist. I had high hopes for ‘Number One Fan’ since it features a horror convention setting and I was recently impressed by Nick Mamatas’ con-set novel I Am Providence, but it failed to really deliver. And when you don’t get humour exactly right, every miss feels like a mile.
That said, another reason comic writing is difficult is possibly the fact that everyone has a different sense of humour, and defining what is “funny” can be hard, so other readers may well enjoy these stories too. And even if they don’t, the relatively short length of most of the tales here means that there’s always something better coming along very soon. I would definitely recommend Meet Me In The Middle of the Air to any reader looking for a very promising new voice in weird fiction.