Exploring ‘These Lonely Places”
by Tony Hicks
Filmmaker and storyteller Guillermo Del Toro has referred to monsters, in multiple interviews, as ‘great symbols of power’ – and they are. Within the context of a story, a specific moment, at a special place or certain time, monsters can symbolize a great many other things as well; the things we love, the things we fear, the things we want. In “These Lonely Places,” the first collection by R.K. Kombrinck, our own Kelley explores the implications of several different beings – ghosts, devils, cryptids, and other, more nameless horrors – upon the lives of very real people. These points of intervention, wherein mythic, arcane forces collide with those of the typical human experience, are the Lonely Places in question, where ‘people seldom venture, and the living feel unwelcome.’
The very first story, the shortest in the book, is the efficient “Late Night Laundry.” In less than 500 words, several motifs are established and, more-or-less, maintained throughout the course of the book. One is Mr. Kombrinck’s inclination to twist a mundane situation into an impossibly horrific one, often with a breathless enthusiasm for bombarding his characters with nightmares made flesh. Another motif, on the other hand, is a strong sense of restraint, as well as a deft handle on the powers of suggestion. Kelley seems to have a rather precise idea of what he wants to shove into the spotlight, and exactly what he chooses to stay hidden from the reader. These are crucial decisions for a writer (horror or otherwise) to make, and Kelley is skilled at selecting the best strategy for his desired effect.
The second entry is “The 16th Floor,” a good story that serves well to open the first half of the collection. Sort of like “Office Space”-meets-Lovecraft, it centers on the abandoned floor of an office building in which an ancient evil seemingly lurks. There are no heroes in “These Lonely Places” – Kelley inhabits his stories with endearingly damaged folks, some worse off than others. Scott, the protagonist of this story, is no exception. There is never really any hope that Scott can ‘win,’ or defeat the thing that prowls the 16th floor. This sense of nihilism, which pervades the entire book in varying degrees, is largely what creates the Lovecraft-vibe (aside from a few overt and stylistic references to Howard’s stories, in the form of a certain few cursed artifacts).
Next are “Fishing Hole” and “The Visitor,” two monster-in-the-woods stories that complement each other nicely, and put Kelley’s most obvious goal on full display: to fucking scare you. Evident in these stories, as well as several later ones, is the impression of a writer with a finely-tuned sense of terror, one keen to avoid the perceived transgressions of other modern horror writers – to keep it simple, to keep it scary. It’s effective, and it works. “Fishing Hole” lacks the nuances that begin to develop in the second half of the book, but stands as one of its strongest stories regardless. “The Visitor” is all about execution – take a horror staple, polish it up, and make it shine again. It’s a spooky tale that relies on dread of the inevitability first, and the monster second.
“Mrs. Lumley’s Masks” is an anomaly, as it strays away completely from the supernatural horror fuelling the collection and focuses entirely on a weirdly old-school brand of human cruelty and mean-spiritedness. What really makes it work is the avoidance of any ‘on-screen’ horror; the really awful stuff isn’t part of the story at all, merely suggested. This pre-occupation with ‘spookiness’ feels like an extremely conscious decision, and I’m personally thankful for it.
The final entry in what I like to think of as the book’s ‘A Side’ (sort of arbitrarily, but not without reason) is “On Powdered Wings.” Again, this is a really simple story that reads like the logical progression of a very disturbing ‘what-if’ scenario. To be clear, when I say ‘simple,’ I’m referring to the plot itself, which is fairly basic; a man succumbs to the antagonistic attention of several hundred spiteful moths, for no identifiable reason, and thus begins a swift descent into madness. (This is at least the second story, possibly the third, in which moths play a noticeable role as portents of doom.) The details are really what throw this story into high gear: the moralistic intent, and repercussions, of the characters is vital to the progression of the plot, leading to a morally unsettling ending that speaks more to the fears of personal agenda in the modern world than, well, bugs. I also extracted from this story a very cynical meditation on the consequences of self-pity and inaction, and how easy it is to destroy yourself when hope is nothing but a glint fading fast on the horizon.
I identify this as the turning point of “These Lonely Places” because, although the second half of the book stays true to the first in spirit, the inclusion of sinister undertones regarding true life experiences, independent from the fantasy aspects of the plot(s), becomes more frequent, more apparent, and far more unnerving. No story illustrates this more appropriately than the next story, titled “Giant.”
“Giant” is the first story in the book to focus specifically on adolescent characters, two brothers who venture into an abandoned and dilapidated building to uncover a hellish suburban nightmare. The boys are painfully well-drawn, such that when the truly fantastic elements of the story come into play, they’re woven seamlessly into two ostensibly very real lives. It’s entirely convincing, harrowing, and scary. Again, the terror lies not in the monster (at this point in the book, it would be unfathomable to not face a monster), but in the unflinching impossibility of the scenario, the total embrace of a nightmare reality in white-picket fence setting. The clincher lies in the struggle against this terror, and an ending that any fan of horror can intimately relate to; an ever-so-brief reflection on the genre’s abilities to both repulse and fascinate, even seduce, the lizard-brain inside us all that craves such violent interventions. The ending is perfectly analogous to the horror genre’s basic appeal, and struck a very personal chord in me.
“Simulacrum” is a twisted vignette that details a very unlikely (although apparently efficient) revenge plot. It has a certain campfire-tale vibe that gels strangely well with the extreme nature of the content, and is probably one of the only stories presented here that might be construed as having a ‘happy’ ending (as well as a very filmic use of a great Stranglers song). Hot on its heels is “Flood Photos,” a touching story that, on its surface, is simply about a tense encounter with a very unpleasant urban legend; however, it’s very clearly about the significance of stories, shared memories with the ones you love, and what’s left behind when the ones you love are gone forever. Dangerous creatures are easily declawed when side-by-side with the insistent, mindless cruelty that Death can come to represent, and most of us would probably take a battle with the paranormal over one you have no hope of winning. No contest. (As a side-note, this story reminded me a bit of Robert R. McCammon’s “Boy’s Life,” a sprawling novel in which the main character faces a threat similar to the one in “Flood Photos.” The mental comparison led me to thinking, fondly, about how greatly the emotional emphasis of a story matters, regardless of plot – that’s the point of it all, no?)
Next is “Trailer Trash,” an ambitious story that, despite excellent writing and a tangible sense of dread, is hampered by characters that feel inauthentic and slightly unrealistic. Without having those characters to firmly anchor the reality of the story, the jarr
ing reveal of the climax doesn’t make quite the impact it deserves. This is one of the more pleasingly ambiguous stories, however, and I sense a small nod to old Howard Lovecraft. The description of the blasphemies depicted near the end is somehow abundant, yet tastefully fleeting. It’s probably the most evil thing revealed up to this point in the collection – at least, until “Celaeno.”
I’m quite sure that “Celaeno” is the meanest, most deliciously gruesome tale here. The overall sentiment is nihilistic and, again, quite Lovecraftian; in essence, sometimes the universe fucks you, and if you’re lucky, you’ll die. It’s a real uneasy read, and as bad as the monster is (and it’s pretty goddamn bad), even more brutal is the characters’ inability to save themselves or each other. Redemption is rendered painfully futile by man’s lethal inaction and deceptively crippling psychological weakness – and if the antagonist itself isn’t straight-up Lovecraft, than the hopelessness sure as hell is.
Rounding out “These Lonely Places” are three of the book’s best stories, a real wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am of a closer. First up is “Unremembered,” which I like to think is a spiritual (perhaps literal) sequel to “Late Night Laundry.” This story details the experiences of a twenty-something ‘loser’ – I use the term affectionately – working the graveyard shift at a late-night liquor store. The meat of the plot involves two restless spirits haunting the outskirts of the store, bolstered by a disturbing subplot involving his sick mother, as well as the all-too-real drudgery associated with working a shit job – with or without dead people trying to get you. “Unremembered” features Kelley’s best, most lucid writing so far, a style clearly informed prominently by a love of film. Every story in the collection contains certain filmic qualities, but this one in particular is very cinematic in its pacing, and in the explosive, frankly awesome, climax. It’s also a thoughtful rumination, like “Flood Photos,” on the significance of memory, of the impact you have (or don’t have) on other people. Flawed perception is a major theme here as well, and bleeds into every facet of the story; what something ‘looks like’ has no bearing on reality. Dead or alive, man or monster, exists somewhere else entirely. The dread of not being seen for who or what you are, of being trapped, neglected or hurt based on the faulty perception of others, is what brings this story to life.
Then comes “Last Night at the Red Carpet Inn,” a short, sad story full of restraint, hardened by two truly endearing characters. This is probably the most emotional story of the bunch, only utilizing the horror of the ending to frame a tragic, and hugely relatable, message about regret and, again, inaction. Genre trappings are often useful, sometimes seemingly necessary, for rendering the worst, most senseless aspects of the human experience comprehensible. Handled artfully, the crudeness of the genre can be used, instead of as a crutch, as a tool for crafting something far more honest, far more human, than the sum of its parts might suggest. Sentimentality is a criminally overlooked ingredient in horror fiction, and here it’s used to great effect, employed to highlight something singularly horrific: the dreadful notion of simply not knowing – not knowing what might have been, not knowing if, somewhere else far away, you might have found happiness.
Finally, we have something truly ambitious, “The Boy from Deleary Park.” By far the most unconventional tale of “These Lonely Places,” this story reads like an entry in the “Borderlands” series of anthologies, and is enormously illustrative of R.K. Kombrinck’s growth as a writer (and all the more exciting because of it). “The Boy…” brings us back to the lives of two children; one an outcast, the other (more problematically) simply an outsider. A friendship is sought after, with unfortunate results. I’ve tried my best to not seriously spoil any of these stories, but I’m especially wary of this one. It’s so unpredictably weird, so ‘out-there’ in comparison with the rest of the book that I can’t imagine a better story to end on. The writing is perfectly descriptive, and the characters – one lonely young boy in particular – are completely compelling. Kelley manages to strike a fine balance between fantasy and terror, neither outweighing the other. It’s a great amalgamation of bizarre, disparate elements, strengthened by a genuinely chilling ending.
Obviously, I was highly impressed with this collection; I was taken by the flawed, occasionally despicable characters, the great attention to detail, and, in the end, a finely-honed and consistent approach to horror valiantly put to practice on the written page. A very clear philosophy of the genre belies the tales in “These Lonely Places,” and perhaps what’s most fun to see, great storytelling aside, is the visible growth of an artist working with passion and imagination – and that’s a beautiful thing.
Whether it’s “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” horror fiction is an art form. Many people, fans and critics of the genre alike, seem wary of attaching that sort of label to ‘horror,’ to scrutinize it in that way, but I don’t see how there’s any avoiding it – or why you would want to. I read this book because the genre resonates with me on an unshakable level, and if you’re reading this, it probably resonates with you as well. We want to be afraid because there’s honesty in fear; it’s part of our lives all the time. Stories like these help us understand ourselves, understand that we don’t want to be forgotten, that we want to love and be loved, that we’ll die for each other if we need to. Monsters inhabit dark places, lonely places… But so do people – and sometimes, we need art – we need stories – to find our way out.