There is no doubt that any current discussion of popular culture must by necessity make some reference to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. We are all grappling with the effects of what happened, trying to make sense of an ultimately senseless act. William F. Nolan’s Dark Universe is a collection of his best stories, many of which are classified as horror. With so much horror already present in the world, in real life, what place does horror fiction hold for us? Do we even need it, when there is so much horror fact? How can we be scared of a (possibly) imaginary monster who steals children’s souls on Halloween night (“The Halloween Man”) when we are worrying about whether or not the letter we just opened might be laced with anthrax?
In his introduction, Christopher Conlon answers these questions. “These are not imaginary companions . . . they are starkly real . . . helping me navigate through regions for which I as yet have no names, but will later call sorrow, grief, rage.” Indeed, horror stories hold a unique place in the American psyche. They help us name our nameless fears. They help us escape the often-horrific real world into a world of imaginary horror. The authors who put these fears onto paper help us realize that we’re not the only ones out there who are scared, not the only ones who imagine creatures slithering beneath our beds once the lights are out. And they serve as reminders that while some human beings may choose to use their creativity to cause genuine horror, others use it to capture on paper the things that cause us fear. By defining those things, they help us cope with them. And in the end, reading a good book of any kind helps ease the real world troubles that beset us.
Dark Universe presents us with 41 of Nolan’s best stories. They are arranged chronologically and span most of his career, from 1956 through 1999. It is an eclectic mix of science fiction, dark fantasy, suspense, and (mostly) horror. Each story is introduced by a brief author’s note outlining the background of the story and when it was written. Some of these notes seemed a little pompous to me until I realized that almost every story in this book has been selected for numerous “Best of” anthologies. Given that fact, you can’t much argue with Nolan’s assertion of their high quality.
Overall, Nolan’s delivery is a terse machine-gun style, which moves the action along quite nicely. Nolan does experiment successfully with other techniques as well. He makes good use of dialect in “Fair Trade,” a story about a man risen from the dead to get revenge on his brother. In “The Francis File,” about a supernaturally disposed serial killer, Nolan relates the entire story through police report items and tape-recorded interview transcripts. There are a few surprise-ending stories, the best being “Him, Her, Them” (a story about a horror writer who enacts his books in real life) and “The Visit,” a prison interview told entirely through dialogue.
Nolan’s science fiction stories are well told and hearken back to the pulp fiction he grew up reading. I found “Kelly, Fredric Michael” especially interesting. In this story, a stranded astronaut is being slowly drained of all his memories by the alien planet on which he crashed. Nolan uses memories from his own life to give this story a very real feel. The first story in the book, “The Underdweller,” also presents an interesting twist on the alien invasion motif. Among the horror selections, there are several stories that put the reader into the heads of some very unpleasant people. “A Real Nice Guy” is the story of a serial killer who targets victims at random, told from his own point of view. “Saturday’s Shadow” presents us with a crazed killer who has become so obsessed with the movies that the characters become real to him/her. There are also some dark fantasy selections. “Dead Call” tells the story of a man who is encouraged to commit suicide by his friend—who has been dead for almost a month. “My Name is Dolly,” about a girl who gets a voodoo replica of herself from a witch, is interesting because the ending is very ambiguous (according to the note, even Nolan himself found it so).
I could go on and mention every story in the book—the only one I didn’t enjoy was “A Final Stone,” which seemed too rushed to me. I think, though, that you would be better off to go and buy this book for yourself. The stories are great, and we could all use a break from the real world for a while. Let yourself go, and enter the Dark Universe.
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