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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Meet Me in the Middle of the Air

14th Feb, 2024

Author: Peter Tennant

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The debut collection from Eric Schaller, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air was released by Undertow Publications in 2016. I read the book when it came out and again in 2021, and now I'm going to write a review because I move in mysterious ways. Meet Me is shown as SOLD OUT on the publisher's website, but Amazon UK has used copies. If after reading this review, Schaller sounds like your cup of tea, then the author published a second collection, Voice of the Stranger, in March of last year. And in March of this year, Lethe Press will reprint Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, so it's all good and my review is timely after all.

Meet Me contains nineteen stories, three of which are previously unpublished. The collection begins with an "Author's Note" explaining the origin of the book's title and the titles of the three subsections that compromise this assemblage of 'Dark Miracles and Black Comedies'.

The first section, I. They're Coming After Me, opens with "The Assistant to Dr. Jacob", which could well be Schaller's best known story, and is certainly the one most familiar to me. A man is questioned by the police about a time in his youth, these enquiries giving him cause to reevaluate his understanding of what happened back then, with horrific revelations that prompt him to question his own sanity and that of those around him. It is an elegant story, one whose shocks are deftly woven into the text and situated not simply for their ability to surprise the reader but also as a way to undermine the 'fragile' mental state of the protagonist. More lightweight but equally horrific is "The Parasite", in which a man's relationship with the titular intruder serves to save and enrich his marriage, but at a high cost. Written with tongue in cheek, it is an amusing and highly engaging piece in which the Faustian pact is given a thoroughly modern twist, one rooted in biology. Alan visits an unusual museum exhibit in "Turing Test", one in which three automata of Oscar Wilde perform disturbing acts that lead Turing to reevaluate his own existence, the story witty and laden with literary asides, but with an undercurrent that is extremely unsettling.

We have more humour in"Talking at Sixty Watts" as Mike engages in conversation with his bedside lamp, with revelations about his own past sliding between the cracks in the narrative. It's a piece with some delicious dialogue and holds the interest all the way, right up to the wonderful denouement, a change of focus that is as appropriate as it is unexpected. At only two pages, "The Baby in the Forest" has about it the feel of a fable, with a fantastical situation that is made even more absurd. Ending the first section we have "To Assume the Writer's Crown: Notes on the Craft", a strikingly clever work that put me very much in mind of an early story by Ligotti, as the writer protagonist builds a story about the fate of a young woman, with fiction and reality blurring along the way, as different approaches are tried and different authorities invoked for each method, and at the end it appears to be the reader him or herself who is implicated in this horrific act, leaving us to question our own culpability.

The second section of the book is titled II. Meet Me in the Middle of the Air and opens with a Poe tribute of sorts, "8) - 5.8". Jason and Cynthia grow 'petits' (homunculus, more or less) of Edgar Allan Poe and Marilyn Monroe, then attempt to monetise their obsession with unexpected repercussions. It's another story stuffed to the gills with literary allusions, many to the oeuvre of Poe himself, packed with fascinating ideas and an anything goes quality to the narrative arc so that the reader is continually and pleasurably wrong footed, while at the end we have a subtext about the morality of what is taking place. In "Crystal Vision" the inhabitants of a house strive after the ultimate drug trip, one that will transport them to another world, though in the event nothing goes quite as they expect. Again, this is a story brimming over with ideas and populated with oddball characters who effortlessly engage our interest and sympathies, even as they slide down the helter skelter into oblivion. "Voices Carry" sees sound converted into insectile life forms. It's an engaging and clever conceit, even if I suspect the whole story exists only for the author to deliver the scathing final line.

Longest story in the book, "The Sparrow Mumbler" is the tale of drunkard John who fails as a sideshow freak, who fails as a beau, and who fails as a source of energy for a witch trying to revive her dead son, but does it all so marvellously well that the reader is entertained throughout. It's a romp of a story, one that never stops ringing the changes, and in the hapless John has a protagonist who delights and disgusts in equal measure, a drunken every-man in a realm of magic, to most of which he seems entirely oblivious. And then Schaller tops it all with a modern reference that had me laughing out loud. We see the return of automata in "Cabinet Number 42", one of the shortest stories in the collection and disturbing for what is not revealed more than for the stuff committed to the page.

In "The Bright Air that Breathes No Pain" Todd tries to recapture a moment of epiphany from his childhood only to throw away all that is precious in his adult life through pursuing this chimera, though at the story's end we have the hint that something magical may indeed have taken place. Closing the second section is "Hemoglobin" in which Schaller puts a different spin on the familiar story of the angry mob storming the monster in his lair, the monster in this case being a witch who seeks to secure immortality through blood. It's a vivid and cinematic piece, one that plays games with our expectations of genre fiction.

Third section III. Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down begins with the delightful three pager "Asleep at the Mortuary", a variation on the zombie trope that is every bit as sad as it is horrific, if not more so. In "Going Back for What Got Left Behind" a man is gifted the chance to undo the great tragedy of his life, but at great cost. It's a fascinating account of loss and redemption, of grief and how we are willing to do anything to set matters right, and with the reader as unsure of what is right as the characters in this terrible dilemma. "Number One Fan" takes the piss out of genre conventions and writers who have a desperate need for validation at any cost with a disarming wit and some genuine affection, even as it lances their affectations. And the Fan of the title is none other than... Sorry, you'll have to find out for yourself.

"Love Signs" gives us the disturbing picture of a man who has been turned into a monster and brutalised by his own family, along the way asking who the real monsters are, with several switchbacks in the plot trajectory, the story as surprising as it is horrific, with a strong moral backdrop. In "The Three Familiars" we have a witch who desires to be a parent, the story pitched in the most fantastical terms and with lurid imagery, and totally engrossing until the final twist in the tale. Our last story is "Are You Properly Desensitized?", presented as a pop quiz with some questions you probably won't find in the pages of My Weekly, the whole gloriously over the top and inviting the reader to laugh with the author at this black comedy.

Finally there are "Story Notes, by Enoch Soames", the latter allegedly an unacknowledged literary genius from a century ago, now remembered only as a minor character in a work by Max Beerbohm, who has been brought back so that he can tear this Schaller guy a new arsehole through analysing his stories and showing how they are wanting, a clever metafictional device that is typical of the sort of playfulness Schaller does so well between these covers. It's the perfect and appropriate end for a book that I thoroughly enjoyed, both for the intelligence and the variety of literary forms on display throughout.






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