Greener Pastures – M. Wehunt – 7.5/10

Wehunt’s Greener Pastures, gathers together a number of his stories that draw heavily from the American south and urban legend and blend it with the cosmic horror of Lovecraft and the unsettling world of M. R. James in a striking and unusual collection.

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“Beside Me Singing in the Wilderness” is an excellent example of Wehunt’s ability to bend tropes into something new and fresh. His riff on the vampire mythos – a bleeding mountain that infects two young girls and leaves them craving blood – is given extra poignancy in its perspective of the only surviving sister making a pilgrimage to the place of her rebirth, looking back on her life. The strength of this story is Wehunt’s exploration of what it is to be a monster, and to know one is a monster through no fault of your own.

“Onanon” is a disturbing tale of a writer and his relationship with his mother, who is not all that she seems, and his writing, with a piece of gibberish texts haunting his works. His conscious blending of the Cthulu-mythos with the hive-structure of bees makes for an interesting source of cosmic dread.

From existential cosmic dread, Wehunt moves on to “Greener Pastures”, an unsettling urban-legend story of truckers discussing hauntings on the interstate. The real horror is drawn from that of loneliness, with the protagonist desperate to make it home for his young daughter’s birthday. Wehunt cleverly inverts the usual haunting tropes of the often malevolent dead, and instead has the truckers being haunted more by the living. The story has no real conclusion, heightening the dread, but in a way that some readers may find unsatisfying – but such is the way of weird fiction.

The themes of loneliness are further explored in “A Discreet Music”. The loss of the elderly Hiram’s wife leads him to recall and attempt to rekindle a lost love of his past. This is a deeply moving story of love, loss, and the importance and difficulty of moving on and accepting that some choices are irrevocable. The slow transformation of Hiram into a black swan illustrates his grief and his slow acceptance that he, like a swan, has mated for life; but there is a hint at the hope of a future life for him.

The next two stories follow a completely different tack. “The Devil Under Maison Blue” is in essence story of the spirit of an old jazz player recollecting his Faustian bargain that gave him his skills and freed him from his father. His relation of it to a young neighbour undergoing abuse at the hands of her father leads to the means of her own release. On the other hand, “October Film Haunt: Under the House” is a valiant attempt at the found-footage genre in written form. While the Lovecraft-tinged story begins in an entertaining way, the genre is one that I feel works better on film; on the page the randomness and confusion are considerably harder to follow. The creatures involved in the haunting, however, are truly chilling.

Religion forms the crux of the following two pieces. “Deducted From Your Share in Paradise” is an excellent take on the image of the fallen angel. As mute women fall from the sky onto a southern trailer-park, the locals take advantage of their new-found ‘spouses from heaven’, with the exception of the protagonist, whose innocence is what saves him when the apparent angels re-earn their wings to the detriment of their captors. “The Inconsolable” is more explicitly religious: a grieving widower turns to American Evangelicalism to ease his pain, but his obsession with the “Footsteps in the Sand” poem and an inability to cease despairing leads to an altogether different fate.

The final three stories are the best in the anthology. “Dancers” is a moving tale of a couple’s inability to conceive, a husband’s years-long topiary project to make it up to his wife, coupled with another Lovecraftian tale of demonic possession. The deep despairing love between the couple, and the wife’s desperation to conceive, hits at the roots of a deep human fear, with the Cthuloid creature that appears among them being more a representation of this than a malevolent being in its own right. Another base human fear that Wehunt expertly plays on is the loss of a child in “A Thousand Hundred Years”. This follows an illegal immigrant in America desperately seeking his lost daughter, while being blamed for her disappearance and threatened with deportation. The feelings of loss, guilt, fear and grief are palpable, though the fey-tinted ending is not entirely without hope.

The anthology concludes, appropriately, with “Bookends”. This is the story with the least – if any – traditional horror material, but it is perhaps the most moving. Once again, the protagonist is a grieving widower, dealing with the loss of his wife and unable to bring himself to look after the baby that he blames for her death. The story takes us through his relationship, which began and ended with the life-cycle of a specific species of cicada, which swarms ever 13–17 years. The structure is clever and intricate, the themes are sensitive but raw, and once again Wehunt strikes at the true core of human fear – loneliness and the loss of a loved one.

This is overall a fine collection of unsettling weird fiction. Wehunt is adept at tugging at the heartstrings and drawing out the fear at the heart of many human relationships, and his work is at its best when it revolves around this. This is not just horror – it is truly moving fiction.

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