William Browning Spencer’s fiction often features ancient alien creatures inimical (or at best, indifferent) to humanity, and as a result I don’t think I’ve ever seen a review of his work that didn’t mention a certain author whose name isn’t quite Howard Phillips Adoreart. Like many facile comparisons, it strikes me as unfair. For one thing, Spencer is a much better writer than HPL in every aspect except monomaniacal xenophobia, which isn’t exactly a standard yardstick of literary merit. Even the slightest pair of these 9 stories are free of HPL’s excesses of purplitude, and use their horrors at least partly as metaphors for the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. But on balance, this is a very strong collection indeed.
“The Lights of Armageddon” and “The Essayist in the Wilderness” manage to be funny as well as surprising and creepy. The former evokes the intricate rules of Tim Powers’ and James P. Blaylock’s magical alternate universes with startling economy, and the latter features a narrator of consummate, Donald Antrim-like self-delusion.
“Downloading Midnight” and “The Halfway House at the Heart of Darkness” unflinchingly examine the social consequences of pervasive virtual reality; they brought to mind George Saunders’ dystopian near-futures more than any of the usual cyberpunk suspects.
The pièce de résistance for me was “The Oddskeeper’s Daughter.” It’s at once a strikingly original brief fantasy and an rumination on how love can make someone feel like the luckiest person in the world — dangerously lucky, even. I found it so powerful that it’s transformed how I perceive my own luck in the days since I’ve read it, to the extent that I left a day-long visit to a hospital emergency room feeling positively blessed.
The title tale didn’t strike me as one of the strongest, but it reminds me that I once heard a rock band play a song that was probably actually called “She’s Under Water.” It seems improbable, but I can’t help but wonder if Spencer could have seen the same band and misheard the name of the song the same way I did.
Needs More Demons? Not a bit of it.