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Tempting Providence by Jonathan Thomas

So there’s me, sitting with a copy of Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror and I come across this story by Jonathan Thomas called “Tempting Providence” and it’s so good, I immediately get hold of a copy of the collection, appropriately titled Tempting Providence (published by Hippocampus Press, 2010). So now I have the chance to take the measure of Jonathan Thomas at greater length.

Let’s start with a few thoughts about what it means to write weird fiction. The use of the word “weird” to describe strange or unusual events has been around for centuries but, as a description of a style of writing or the content, it spins off the concept of Gothic by dropping the romantic element, refining the terror element, and occupying a niche between the rock of horror and the hard place of fantasy. As the Enlightenment took hold and we came to value rationality over faith, there was still a need to discuss the inexplicable — those situations in which the primitive flight or fight instincts were roused. No matter how tough we like to think ourselves, there’s a limit to what materialism can provide and cynicism may help us believe. Hence, fiction that described events going beyond what we can easily understand grew in popularity as a kind of safety valve to release our more primitive fears. Characters on a page could engage with the unknown and offer us vicarious thrills as they survived encounters with the eldritch. Except, of course, many turned out to have no defence against these dark forces. This proves the old adage. Without deaths, there can be no terror.

“Dead Man’s Shoes” shows this in action. A casual walker gets off the beaten track and finds himself caught up in a funeral. For reasons he cannot explain, he goes to the wake in a small village. People talk to him as if he’s the dead man reincarnated. He plans to leave. He wants to leave. But something, perhaps it’s fear of the village headman, or something they put into the wine, or something unknowable, keeps him there. He feels his old identity slipping away. Jed is dead, long live Jed. Except our hero never acknowledges himself as Jed. He refuses to be sucked into what he considers a group delusion. Yet he stays. Time passes in tending the land to provide food. Although this is displaced into a weird context, we all know what it’s like to be trapped by circumstances in a role we never looked for. Think of all those who wake to find they are suddenly carers for family members. All it takes is an accident or illness. In this story, all it takes to change the role from civilised man to country bumpkin is an accidental meeting with a funeral cortège. Now that’s weird!

“Into Your Tenement I’ll Creep” is more overtly supernatural in that a man who worms his way into the affections of an accommodating young lady learns something new about his vocabulary. Most people use “tenement” as referring to a building or piece of land which has multiple tenants. Yet there’s no reason in principle why the word should not apply to any vessel that may hold many different occupants. This may seem, at first sight, to be unremarkable until you remember how destructive some tenants can be. Some have no respect for the buildings they occupy and allow everything to fall into a great state of disrepair.

“Tempting Providence” appealed to me so strongly because it roused a memory of a story I read back in the 1950s in which a man awakes to find a really strange-looking new toaster on a work surface in his kitchen. Rerunning the same idea in an elegantly described Providence with recognisable academic characters produces an entirely more satisfying result. “A Different Kind of Heartworm” asks and answers an uncomfortable question for all of us who marry or enter what we hope will be stable relationships. Must there be a full disclosure of all our faults and weaknesses, or can we hold things back? More importantly, should a failure to disclose creep like a worm into our heart and kill the love that was there? “Gumball Man” also tackles a difficult subject. Parents who shout and scream at each other create the wrong environment for a small boy growing up in their home. With role models like that, could the boy develop real social skills as the years go by? Perhaps he would stay an alienated outsider or become an axe murderer. Who can say. . .

“The Silence in the Copse” is a beautifully atmospheric piece in which we speculate on genetic heritage. If we are predestined by our genes to particular likes and dislikes, it’s only a matter of time before they manifest themselves. For me, this is the stand-out story. “The Lord of the Animals” is less substantial although it’s an interesting example of minimalist weird, doing no more than is needed to introduce the uncanny and then move on. “The Salvage Saints” is a more or less straight piece of historical fiction where one of the corrupted looks for wealth in the incorruptible. It interprets and so fictionalises the past in a way allowing the sea to judge saintliness for the benefit of those who follow the faith of the day. It’s altogether more arbitrary than the modern system for assessing sainthood, but no less reliable. “Passenger Bastion” is a kind of future steampunk where the oil has peaked, but air travel is still desirable. It ponders on what makes a hero and what rewards are reaped for those who answer the call.

“Power of Midnight” takes us back into the distant past where we were young and obsessed by the obscure in music, always pawing through boxes of LPs in the hope of finding that one rarity. But suppose that ultimate grail was inherently evil, a gateway to doom. Would we be cursed if we found it or, worse, were given it? Would our world end immediately or would the destruction of our world come more slowly? “The Men At the Mound” catches the Anglo Saxons on the cusp between the old religion and the invading Christianity, between different times and different perspectives. Finally “Three Ounces over Advent” provides us with extremely unreliable narrators, one of whom may be in possession of more than a few ounces of street drugs.

This is an elegantly restrained book both in terms of the content, and as a physical production. Indeed, it’s pleasing that a small operation like Hippocampus Press can make a good job of design. Overall, this is a very interesting collection and signals an author to watch.

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