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They That Dwell in Dark Places / Daniel McGachey

Ghost House / November 2009
Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand

Some horror comes in the form of a scream; some, in a whisper. In the right hands, either form can make an equal impact. Likewise, if the skill level isn't there, both approaches can fall flat. Daniel McGachey takes the quiet road in They That Dwell in Dark Places, and the result lands firmly in the middle — a collection of stories that pass the time ably enough, but then pass just as easily from memory.

McGachey's collection is dedicated to M.R. James, who, along with writers like T.E.D. Klein and Charles L. Grant, mastered the form of the quiet horror story. Theirs are stories that don't rely on buckets of blood, creative kills and liberal profanity to drive readers to the end; instead, they employ atmosphere thick with dread and tension, and evil that lurks deep within the shadows, to produce their scares. (By the way, don't read this as an indictment of those other kinds of stories — when skillfully used, buckets of blood, shocking kills and creative cussing can be just as effective and tons of fun.) There's an almost genteel feel to work of this type, a coziness that makes reading such stories more of a comfort than a thrill. The writers of quiet horror – the good ones – use that coziness against us, but of course that's what we want them to do. We are there, after all, to be scared.

McGachey’s love of this type of horror story is evident throughout They That Dwell, from the aforementioned dedication right on through to the style of his prose. Stories are related in a formal voice, as though a professor of literature has invited you into his parlor to share a few intriguing tales that he's picked up during his studies. The majority of the stories here employ just such a device, as a matter of fact — the ghost story is often not something that the reader is experiencing, but is instead a tale that one character is sharing with another. This works sometimes, but the effectiveness wears thin when story after story is presented this way. There's a lack of connection to the characters because the events often aren't happening to the people whose eyes we're seeing the story through, but instead have happened to someone else.

Take "The Ravelled Tress" for example, which was one of my favorite stories in the collection. It's an evocative tale of a lodge haunted by the malevolent spirit and murderous locks of a former inhabitant. You read that right — it's a story about killer hair. It's atmospheric, compact and quite effective, and yet, right in the middle of the story, one of the characters sits down to tell the backstory to the others — in front of a roaring fire, no less! By this point in the collection, it's become expected that someone is going to enter the story simply to tell another story, and here he is. Although "Tress" does focus more on the repercussions of the related events, bringing it that much-needed sense of immediacy that's missing from other entries, it's still an all-too familiar method of storytelling once you've reached this point in the book.

That criticism aside, there are good stories to be had here. "The Crimson Picture," about an artist with the (unwanted) ability to paint the horrific futures of his subjects is a solid piece of work. "The Traveller's Companion" centers on a salesman who buys a book of ghost stories by an admired author at an auction, only to find that many of the stories have been changed since their initial publication. As the reader becomes more and more obsessed with the stories in the book, he finds that fiction and reality are beginning to blur at the edges. On top of that, people connected with the book have begun to seek him out, as this special edition was made for a very particular audience, and owning it has consequences the man never expected.

Some might dismiss They That Dwell as horror lite, and perhaps McGachey does try too hard to capture the flavor of James. But there's potential there for more, and hopefully McGachey will work a little more of his own voice into the mix in future efforts. In the meantime, if you've exhausted your supply of quiet horror and have a taste for more, pick a couple of stories out of this collection. The book in its entirety may be too much of a similar thing, but a selection here and there will do the trick nicely.

Purchase They That Dwell In Dark Places by Daniel McGachey.

Posted on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 01:04PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in , | Comments Off

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