Greetings from the Ether,
As the second part of our S.P. Miskowski review series, we will be taking a look at her recent collection Strange is the Night, which contains 13 haunting horror tales that further establish Miskowski as one of the best voices working today. We previously reviewed the author’s novel I Wish I Was Like You, and will finalize with an interview that the author graciously agreed to.
Alas, without further ado, let’s dive in!
A volunteer therapist recommended relaxation techniques to facilitate sleep. You fell in love with sleep, when you could slip all the way. You wished you could hypnotize yourself, and hypnotize Charlie when his torso crawled from under the cot, or when he slithered into your cell clasping the back of a centipede. — Excerpt from “Ms. X Regrets Everything”
In a daring, horrific collection, S.P. Miskowski has wowed again with stories of variety, and a keen understanding of the art of quiet horror. Miskowski understands how quickly a reader can be lost, how easily their attention can be swayed or distracted, her utilization of crisp prose and nightmarish imagery ensuring her grasp on the human conscience is always taut and rigid. Through 13 tales, the author takes the readers on a roller coaster ride through a collage of dreamy, often disturbing, chronicles that centralize around believable characters and in-depth examinations of the people she creates. Miskowski wastes no time in establishing motive, personality, and protagonists that are as different from one another as the moon is from the sun.
We open Strange is the Night with a clever, fast-paced story titled “A.G.A.” Primarily narrated through dialogue, the witty banter between our two leads quickly transforms into speculative horror, with the author never leaving the setting, whilst covering a variety of ghastly incidents in a playful, lighthearted manner. It isn’t until the end that we realize just how interesting and unexpected this collection is going to be.
Next up is “Lost and Found,” which begins calmly enough, though a dream-like atmosphere is employed throughout. Meta in some of its themes, the narrator delves into their fascination with a relatively unknown author and attempts to relive moments of the belated writer’s life. Spiraling into a slow, meticulous degradation of the narrator’s health — both mental and physical — we find ourselves stunned at the end of the story, as Miskowski offers yet another clever twist to her already brimming arsenal of narrative techniques.
S.P. Miskowski has a knack for consistently anchoring an atmosphere in the reader’s mind, before flipping the narrative unconventionally, and this couldn’t be more true with “This Many.” One of the most disturbing tales in the collection, we are offered a story of a children’s party that evolves rapidly from a study of motherly resentment towards others, to full blown horror. The ending is thrilling and nail bitingly intense, but most of all, devastating for the inflicted.
“Somnambule” picks up right where “This Many” left off, in regards to the high velocity horror. A story within a story within a story, it’s quite remarkable to consider how eloquently and seamlessly this narrative is sewn together. Miskowski’s expert handling on character-driven storytelling is on full blast, and the strange, dream-like themes carry us home for a cliffhanger of an ending.
Something that Miskowski handles masterfully in the collection is her handling of phobias and mental illness. She tackles these subjects with an unrivaled level of appreciation for the depths in which these conditions can affect lives. Pair this realistic and thoughtful approach with a few doses of horror and we have ourselves a handful of stories that will likely stick with the readers for a long time to come. “Fur” is one of these, and we expect after reading it, most readers might think twice before ignoring that sudden, light itch on their arm or leg.
“Animal House” chronicles several college tenants in an old house who find a new roommate that isn’t quite what she seems. Though most of the story is innocent in nature, Miskowski quietly inserts moments of peculiar happenings with the new roommate, which eventually culminate in perhaps the worst return from winter break ever put into print.
As we mentioned earlier, Miskowski handles mental illness in a gentle, though deeply unsettling way. “Stag in Flight” is the greatest example of the author’s ability to capture into words topics such as agoraphobia and paranoia. The reader is literally transported into the mind of someone inflicted with these illnesses, and the depth in which Miskowski illustrates it is one of the most thought-provoking and disturbing narratives in recent memory. Nearly stream of consciousness, the tale is a fast-paced, deeply disturbing look into a man’s mind, who has contemplated suicide and finds himself seeking the help of a therapist. The thing that seems to finally bring him happiness? You guessed it. A stag beetle. Unnerving, hauntingly realistic, and fantastical, “Stag in Flight” is one of the best stories in Miskowski’s collection.
“Ms. X Regrets Everything.” Yes, the story we quoted at the beginning of the review. Talk about messed up. Talk about upsetting. Miskowski pits the reader into a sequential narrative that bounces between time periods, each section unveiling further detail about Ms. X and how she came to be institutionalized. Visceral, and at times completely bizarre, this story unfolds a disturbing mystery fast and if you don’t keep up, it’ll leave you behind in the bloody dust. At first we’re led to think that maybe there should be some sympathy for Ms. X, but as the story moves along, this notion is quickly washed away. Innovative and demented, “Ms. X Regrets Everything” is all that a horror short story should be. We can only marvel at its conciseness with such an unorthodox structure.
Some of the tales in Strange is the Night are more psychological horror than speculative, and “A Condition for Marriage” is a prime example. No one handles quiet horror quite in the way that Miskowski does, and this story is evidence. We see how far sisters will go to protect one another, and just how important it is to appreciate the little things in life, like vacations to Hawaii and tiki idols.
“The Second Floor” unleashes more psychological horror, this time with a bit of supernatural currents. The attention to detail that Miskowski presents is unrivaled, and her ability to dive into a fictional life, craft its foundations, its sorrows, the regrets and small intricacies that make someone human, are all on stage. She grips us with an instant bond to the narrator, and surprises us with a fascinating twist that seems to jump out from nowhere.
If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know how insane and unreasonable people can be. If you’re handling their money, it’s even worse. If they’re a bit senile? Much worse. In “Death and Disbursement,” we are plunged into these everyday struggles. Our protagonist is damn good at her job, since she can turn off her compassion switch and instantly find indifference towards her clients. Though, we quickly find that maybe the old man on the other line isn’t as senile as we thought, and perhaps this was the one time our lead should have kept that switch on.
Hard-to-like protagonist? Check. Mixed feelings of who to root for? Check. Equal amounts frustration, pity, and an inability to stop turning the pages? Check. Excellent depictions of the rotten, nihilistic side of humans? Check. In the eponymous tale “Strange is the Night,” we get all of the Miskowski trademarks. The author dives into a few themes that were explored in I Wish I Was Like You, primarily theater critics. What is it with these guys? Needless to say, this time our protagonist experiences a fate much worse than Greta ever did.
Picking the last story for a collection is always a challenge. Do you want to go out with a bang, like in Fracassi’s Behold the Void? Or do you want to ease on the breaks and let the readers glide into the finish line, like in Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism? Well, Miskowski chose the former. “Water Main” is one of the more explosive tales in the collection, no pun intended, and starts off innocent enough. By the end of the story, we’re gripping the final pages of the book white knuckled and perspiring from the temples. One of the most supernatural pieces in the collection, Miskowski plants a few Ligottian horror elements into a scenario that is boiling over with terror. If you have something around the house that’s been needing fixing, and your loved one has been begging you to call a maintenance guy to the house for whatever reason, you may want to consider making that call. Sooner rather than later. Who knows where they might go in frustration, and what they might see. “Water Main” yields horrific imagery and some truly disgusting, stomach churning scenes that will stick to the back of your thoughts like gum on your shoe.
Miskowski’s Strange is the Night shines with variety, defeating all expectations and providing readers with one of the most unique and innovative collections in recent memory. Each tale is different, each piece basking in the warmth of a writer whose confidence is unrivaled, whose execution is one-of-a-kind. Miskowski has a voice that is easily recognizable, a tenacity that is stunning, and an attention to detail that is sparse in today’s literary climate. We highly recommend picking up a copy of Miskowski’s collection. We guarantee that it will impress, wow, and definitely hook you as a constant reader for one of the most exciting up-and-comers working today.
S.P. Miskowski is a three-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, a 2017 Bram Stoker Award nominee, and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. Her stories have been published in Supernatural Tales, Black Static, Identity Theory, Strange Aeons, and Eyedolon Magazine as well as in the anthologies Haunted Nights, The Madness of Dr. Caligari, October Dreams 2, Autumn Cthulhu, Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell, Tales from a Talking Board, and Looming Low. Her books are available from Omnium Gatherum Media and JournalStone/Trepidatio