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Monsters, Madness & Memories:
The Creepy Flash Fiction of Gregory Miller

Johann Heinrich Fuseli, "The Nightmare,"

Johann Heinrich Fuseli, “The Nightmare,”

1,592 words

Gregory Miller
Scaring the Crows: 21 Tales for Noon or Midnight
Illustrations by John Randal York
Pittsburgh: West Arcadia Press, 2014

Gregory Miller
The Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town
Illustrations by John Randal York
Pittsburgh: West Arcadia Press, 2014

“It’s wonderful. Just like I thought it would be. How completely desolate! How horribly oppressive. How can I ever thank you?”

Once more, the dear, the blessed “free for a limited time” feature of Amazon’s kindle has led this natural born cheapskate to discover a remarkable new – or at least, new to me – writer.[1]

Gregory Miller operates out of Pittsburgh, that ruined white working class city that seems to have had the same deleterious effect on him that Detroit had on Thomas Ligotti or shabby-genteel Providence on Lovecraft.[2] However, like Lovecraft, his settings are usually far from the big city: exurban and small-town if not outright rural.

His genre is horror, but his technique is something the kids call Flash fiction, although no one seems to be able to define it with precision. Think of something shorter than the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, but longer than a haiku. Miller has found his métier here, as Lovecraft and James found their in the longer form nouvelle.

I mention Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, not for invidious comparison, but because the first work of Miller’s that came my way was The Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town, which takes the same form of inter-related tales set in a small town. A radio station starts one of those NPR-style promotions of having listeners write in about their lives, and along with the usual PC, Whole Foods-friendly tales expected, a sack-full of entries arrive with two things in common: whatever the subject, and however more or less grammar challenged, they all come from Uncanny, PA, and they are all, well, uncanny.

The stories recount tales of disappearing dead deer, enchanted gardens, invisible killer dogs, and rattlesnakes that fall from the sky; each contribution adds to a composite portrait that skitters between eerie, ghoulish, and poignant.

In fact, the whole town, as the reader might have suspected, turns out to have undergone a rather Lovecraftian fate  . . . and a disturbingly long time ago.[3]

The overall effect, as story after inter-relegated story unfolds, is perhaps best captured by what filmmaker Larry Blamire said about the legendary narration Coleman Francis provides for his first epic, Beast of Yucca Flats:[4]

“I thought I was listening to Spoon River Anthology performed by atomic mutants.”[5]

Or, in this case, revenants.[6]

I admit what sold me on downloading the text was the recommendation from no less than Ray Bradbury:

“Gregory Miller is a fresh new talent with a great future.”

He is, indeed, and I was reminded of no one so much as the early Bradbury, the writer for Weird Tales whose first collection was published by Arkham House. That book, Dark Carnival, was later retitled The October Country, which he described in the epigraph as

That country composed in the main of cellars, subcellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain . . .

Bradbury is, as Bill Kauffmann calls him, “October’s storyteller,”[7] and so is Miller; that character’s excited outburst quoted at the start takes place on a moor, where

October, that most melancholy of months, seemed highly concentrated in the 280 square miles of dead bracken, rotting vegetation, slimy, standing waters, and quicksand.[8]

In line with the Bradbury bloodline, the stories in Scaring the Crows branch out from outré horror, and Miller’s spare technique serves him well in rendering such everyday bleakness as dashed hopes for a new job and putting down a beloved dog with a clear, unsentimental eye; as in the works of the Master, there is unflinching sentiment without sentimentality or bathos (e.g., Spielberg)

Another lovely, nostalgic feature lies in the covers and illustrations, the work of John Randal York. They are not much like the supremely creepy work of Joe Mugnaini that graced Bradbury’s first collection. Rather, they put me in mind of another Ballantine publication, Lin Carter’s Adult Fantasy series; the colorful covers suggest the Lord of the Rings volumes,[9] and the interior drawings suggest those Melvyn Peake drew for his own Gormenghast trilogy.[10]

It might seem that such personal associations have not place here, but it is in fact a feature of the Bradbury, and Miller, kind of horror; that the vampire uncles and arsonist grandmothers[11] are family, and we look forward to, as one Bradbury story is tilted, “Homecoming.”

After all, October means Halloween, and who doesn’t love the memory of Halloween?

Twenty years ago this month, Bradbury described the deepest experience of his favorite holiday – Halloween, of course – as “tasting darkness, but thrilled by the encounter because we are alive to savor it. It is somewhat similar to leaving the dentist’s after a tooth pull and being unable to keep our tongue out of the deep pit from which the tooth vanished. We taste blood, and a small bit of our mortality.”[12]

There’s nothing particularly “alt-Right” about Miller’s writing,[13] and I suspect he would be – well, horrified – to have any such link found. Any connection is purely negative: what we have here is no postmodern posturing,[14] no fashionable nihilism, and no crude sensationalism; nor, I would think, any anti-natalist manifesto waiting to be published, as with my fellow Detroiter Thomas Ligotti, the urban Lovecraft.

In cinematic terms, what we have here is Val Lewton’s Cat People rather than Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or, lest I seem to be pushing the nostalgia pedal too much, Twin Peaks rather than Hostel.

Now, in Bradbury himself, the connection to the concerns of the alt-Right is clearer, as John Morgan has observed:

The most important aspect of a Bradbury tale is the depth of feeling and passion felt by the characters, and the uncompromising demand they make to remain human in the face of technology and other popular trends of modernization. Bradbury’s best stories are about solitary men who sense that their souls are being threatened by forces driven by the massive engines of progress,[15] and who then embark on an insane battle which they know they cannot win, but which they also know is preferable to continuing to live as one of the mindless herd.[16]

Thus, in Bradbury horror often takes societal forms, and nostalgia can take the definite form of militant opposition to the supposedly unstoppable forces of History and Progress. Seen from Morgan’s perspective, Miller would have to be considered a minor writer, at least for now; a Dowson rather than a Baudelaire, a Delius rather than a Mozart.

But, as Colin Wilson says, perhaps one’s favorite authors are minor ones, and the world would be a smaller place without them.[17] Gregory Miller deserves more readers, and I think at least some of them should come from the readers of Counter-Currents.

Notes

[1] You tree-haters can find them in paperback, and combined as Crows at Twilight (Pittsburgh: West Arcadia, 2013).

[2] And source of the Videodrome broadcasts.

[3] As I described the theme of Lovecraft and Evola, “the worst has already happened, and you can do nothing about it.” See the title essay of The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).

[4] E.g., “A man choked to death. A woman’s purse. And footprints on the wasteland.” The review at Monstershack, here, is interspersed with Coleman’s blank verse narration.

[5] “No Dialogue Necessary: Making An ‘Off Camera Masterpiece’”; special feature found on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XVIII DVD set (Shout! Factory, 2010).

[6] Speaking of revenants, the title story in Scaring the Crows uses a scarecrow to similar effect as the one in John Metcalfe’s The Feasting Dead (see my review here), but while Metcalfe travels in the typically Gothic notion of generation-spanning evil, Miller just as typically concentrates on one person’s psyche.

[7] “Ray Bradbury of Illinois,” here.

[8] Although this story, “Stapleton’s Dog,” bears some comparison with one from Martian Chronicles, “Usher II.”

[9] While Tolkien was happy to have a legal paperback edition finally appear, he despised the covers designed by Barbara Remington, who supposedly never read the books. Imagine, a time when Orcs and Hobbits were unknown quantitates! As with most things Tolkien, I side against the old pedant – feast your eyes here and here.

[10] My own original paperback was the 1971 edition, where Ballantine replaced Mugnaini’s cover with one by Bob Pepper, who designed most of the Adult Fantasy covers (see here).

[11] “Lorna Gould’s Roses” is a sort of empowered-woman version of “A Rose for Emily.”

[12] John Booth, “Ray Bradbury, Master of October,” here.

[13] The aforementioned story “Scaring the Crows” might be given a Laurentian reading, but only to defend it from feminist complaints; otherwise, it’s too delicate to bear that much burden, unlike The Fox. “The Hunt” mines the archetypal themes of man vs. wolf and a boy’s coming of age, and I suspect the usual reader, of the China Mieville sort, today will be waiting for the wolves to win, but they don’t.

[14] “Luminous clarity not postmodern opacity” as Amazon reviewer Roderick Clark says.

[15] “’Caught in the wheels of progress.’ [Coleman] says that a lot.” – Larry Blamire, op. cit.

[16] See John Morgan, “Ray Bradbury, R.I.P.” here.

[17] See Colin Wilson, Chords & Discords: Purely Personal Opinions on Music (New York: Crown, n.d.), p. 132.

 

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One Comment

  1. Buddy Z. M.
    Posted June 8, 2015 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the recommendation. I picked up all 3 of his Collections of Tales for under $15. One of them for a penny, and it’s even signed. These are certainly reminiscent of early Bradbury, and one also throw a nod or two toward Lovecraft and Ligotti.

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