[Review] In Somnio: A Collection of Modern Gothic Horror, Edited by Alex Woodroe
Proof that Gothic Horror isn’t going anywhere…
There’s nothing quite like curling up next to a fire on a rainy autumnal night with a Gothic horror in tow. Done right, the foggy tendrils will reach out for you immediately, beckoning that you should fall under its spell and follow it along the moonlit path as it whispers its tales in your ear. Such mysticism requires a deft hand to craft it, and consequently Gothic horror remains one of the most difficult yet rewarding genres to explore. I make it a habit to return to the greats every autumn, but am always delighted to discover more modern voices bringing the brightest light to one of literature’s darkest genres; Tenebrous Press’s In Somnio collection is one such delightfully unsettling surprise.
One of the best things about indie press collections is that, more often than not, their as open for stories as it is possible to be, allowing a platform for writers who may have otherwise gone under a reader’s radar. More than once have I discovered someone new through anthologies like this one and gone on to feverishly pursue their growth. Bursting at the seams with tales to terrify that feel right at tonal home with some of the genres founding figures, In Somnio is a collection of 18 short stories that occasionally throw convention to the wind. From songs to conversation pieces, straightforward stories to unconventional perspectives, In Somnio is certain to have something for any Gothic horror lover. Below are just a few of my favorites.
J.A. Bryson’s “Senescence” is a hauntingly beautiful, moderately monstrous tale of love taken too far. Woven with the prose pattern reminiscent of some of Poe’s finest and darkest, it echoes with the same dark, venomous longing as Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” and marvelously sets the tone for just what kind of journey readers of this anthology are about to embark on. Part poem, part scientific body horror nightmare, “Senescence” is sure to sink under your skin and grow more terrible the longer you ponder its grotesque images.
Aster S. Monroe’s “Trespass” feels right at home alongside the likes of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle. A young witch seeks the bones of a wrongly-murdered man to complete her spell of protection against an insidious danger lurking in her town. Framed as a conversation between the young witch and the ghost who’s bones she is digging up, “Trespass” is an unexpectedly poignant tale from all sides. The protagonist is fleshed out with such a unique relationship to sadness and loneliness that she leaps off the page and into our own misty moors. The threat she seeks to end is told in just enough detail so we may understand the stakes, and even the ghost is given space to express his own emotions. He is also given the truth behind not only his own death but also the fate of his lover, at whom he had died angry. The narrator’s emphasis on carefully explaining not only her plan and emotions but the truths this wronged man never got to hear in life makes her an especially sharp tool for vengeance. No one works as effectively as one who can see into the heart.
Julie Hutchings “The Beach” is proof positive that Gothic horror can be both insidiously dark and playfully light. The wordplay at work with the names in particular adds both a levity and a narrative connection for those seeking stories with obvious connective tissue to some of mythologies heaviest hitters. It’s also just a delightful little reminder not to make fun of goth girls at beaches, lest they drag you to the depths and consume your souls. Another seaborne tale of mythologically vengeful women, “Ghost Light, Or, To Swell So High That He May Drown Her In Him” by Elou Carroll weaves a sense of equal parts wonder and danger through its siren song of a story about an artist chosen to craft pieces for a traveling show who discovers the job and its people, while enchanting, are not as endearing as they first seemed. But it will take every ounce of strength she has to escape.
When not exploring the terrain of dangerous women and the even more dangerous men from whom they are trying to escape, In Somnio approaches the furtive corners of haunted — sometimes hungry — houses. Helen Whistberry’s “Needs Must” is one such uniquely told journey through a house ravaged and wasting. Our narrator, a dog, mourns the changing temperament of his owner, who does not seem to have had the energy for much lately. The horror at work here is almost entirely beneath the surface, though just enough clues poke out to paint a terrifying picture of desperation unlike anything else in the collection.
There really aren’t too many positive stories on offer here. Most of them are dipped in such shadows you might begin to wonder at the ways of humanity. But every once in a while comes a story shot through with optimism for the protagonist’s future in spite of the depths of personal history they’ve had to leave behind. Rachel Unger’s “We Named You After Her” is one such example, in which a woman is tasked with returning to her dead relative’s decaying house to retrieve the only family heirloom worth saving from the ravages of time and nature. While there she is confronted with a slimy, hungry creature who seeks to drown her alongside them. Grown from the seeds of such stories as Natalie Erika James’ film Relic, “We Named You After Her” explores the same sort of familial ground, with slightly more optimism for the future at its core.
M. Lopes De Silva’s “A House Without Ghosts” imagines an entirely different sort of haunted house story. One controlled by the dominating force of a man with the power to erase the things of the world he finds distasteful. It is a sneaking, sharp approach to the topic of abuse the likes of which call to the world of Carmen Maria Machado. There’s more than one way to make a ghost, and more than one way to haunt a house, after all. In Somnio aims to uncover them all.
As it began with poetry, so it ends with a song. The anthology’s final offering, the elaborately titled “The Burning of Langston Flare’s Haunted Masquerade and Seafood Restaurant Experience (For Love)” by Lin Darrow would have gotten an honorable mention on the strength of its title alone even without the disturbing tale it heads. If, like me, you have ever had a somewhat inexplicable fear of family-restaurant-animatronics, “Burning” should certainly hold a masochistic sort of appeal. An animatronic has come to life to share its blood-soaked version of the song it is bound to sing, all while it seeks to burn down the establishment that traps it. If you had convinced yourself such manmade horrors had no sentience, “Burning” just might make you think twice and cast a nervous glance on your next trip into Chuck E, Cheese, after all.
Whether you’re looking to round out the spooky season or extend it as I am, Tenebrous Press has compiled a worthwhile Gothic collection with In Somnio. Even with having somewhat accidentally covered more stories than I anticipated, I have but scratched the surface of the talent and the tales they have assembled for your next crisp evening by the fire. So curl up and keep your eyes peeled; the collection is available November 1, 2021.
I would like to thank Tenebrous Press for the ARC opportunity of this collection in exchange for an honest review.