Book Review : Autumn Christian - Ecstatic Inferno (2016)
"I can't be alone anymore," she said.
"You're not alone," I said. "You have Mimi, and all your brothers and sisters."
"I'm still alone," she said.
The original idea for horroctober was to plaster the site with reviews of contemporary cosmic horror novels and movies for a month. That was the plan on paper anyway. I wanted to explore how cosmic horror had evolved from H.P Lovecraft's style and philosophy. Truth is, contemporary children of Lovecraft who don't simply ape the master's style often have ideas of their own and don't hesitate to veer in and out of the iconic subgenre. Autumn Christian's short story collection Ecstatic Inferno features several elements of cosmic horror and yet doesn't have a story that I would be comfortable identifying as that. I wouldn't be comfortable identifying it to anything, really. Since I try to champion this kind of reckless originality whenever possible, here's a review of one of the most cerebral, dreamlike and terrifying collections I've read in a while.
The driving principle of cosmic horror is that the universe is indifferent to the human race. That often translates into a predatory relationship between men and their environment. Autumn Christian has ideas of her own on what constitutes men's environment and the opener to Ecstatic Inferno They Promised a Dreamless Death portrays a new form of parasitic symbiosis between men and their creations: machines have transformed men into subservient and peaceful drones. The population have given up on their humanity for convenience and mindlessness. Now, They Promised a Dreamless Death is very much a statement on people using smartphones and tablets to avoid their own existence as much as possible but where I thought Christian's story stood out was that it featured the willing self-destruction of humanity without ever exposing the source. It's freaky that everyone thought having your personality leveled by a machine was a good idea, you know? The people in Ecstatic Inferno refuse their own reality and allow unknown forces to bend it.
The mythos of Ecstatic Inferno is fragmented but admirably cohesive. There is no overlap between the stories (at least not to my knowledge), yet every story happens in realities bent by unknown (and unknowable forces). It is not far fetched by any means to think they're happening within the same universe. The writing of Autumn Christian is also quite personal. So, there are things she wants to talk about and these are more important than to her than creating a mythos, but she does it anyway because she's really great at what she does. Your Demiurge is Dead is about the death of God and the end of monotheism but it also is about the end of innocence and neatly wrapped stories that explain the universe. The Gods of Autumn Christian aren't necessarily indifferent or hostile but the human race is a commodity to them. A means to an end.
Not every story in Ecstatic Inferno has cosmic horror elements to it. Crystalmouth is a wicked body horror short featuring craniophagus siamese twin sisters sharing the same brain and an incubus. There's a lot of sisters in Autumn Christian's stories. Parasitic sisters. Sisters who die. Melancholic survivors. Bonds that transcend reality. Perhaps my favorite story in the collection Sunshine, Sunshine (also the most abstract) is about the transcended bond between a woman and her childhood boogeyman, which gains strength as her world is slowly disintegrating. There always is an invisible, cosmic balance behind reality in the stories of Autumn Christian and that balance is often thrown out of wack by unknowable factors and it's by making the causes of these imbalances unknowable that her stories become so terrifying and compelling. What makes great (cosmic) horror is terrifying readers while they're trying to connect the dots and NOT connect the dots FOR them and Autumn Christian understands that.
I had originally planned to analyze more than four stories. I wanted to slip a word about Honeycomb Heads, which undoubtedly earned Autumn Christian the Philip K. Dick comparisons on the cover of Ecstatic Inferno and The Dog that Bit Her, which I thought put the majority of monster stories I've read to shame, but they didn't quite fit the otherwise original and seamless paradigm of Ecstatic Inferno like the others. The best way I can describe this collection is that it's probably what Norman Rockwell's America would've looked like if he lived through an alien invasion. Autumn Christian's imagination is a place where the sacred lives in parasitic symbiosis with the profane. It's a place where transcendence is not necessarily something to aspire to. Where the human race has abandoned the illusion of self-determination. It's beautiful, dislocated, tragic and it is very much worth a read, whether you're a cosmic horror enthusiast or not.