Book Review : Michael Griffin - The Lure of Devouring Light (2016)
I'm constantly learning things during horroctober. For example, I didn't know what quiet horror was before reading Michael Griffin's debut short story collection The Lure of Devouring Light. What the hell is quiet horror exactly? It is a subgenre of weird fiction focusing on atmosphere, dread and implicit violence *, which technically makes it a cousin of cosmic horror. That would make quiet horror the older, slightly nerdy cousin who's into James Blake and Sigur Rós to cosmic horror's rowdier and more theatrical personality. There is a lot to like about The Lure of Devouring Light. It's a bit of a mood reading that doesn't shine equally in every circumstances, but it offers several subtle, nuanced and thoroughly unique thrills to its readers.
There are eleven stories to The Lure of Devouring Light, including novelette Far from Streets and novella The Black Vein Runs Deep. The latter two often are highlighted as the collection's standout material alongside title story The Lure of Devouring Light, which is accurate. Michael Griffin's stories are slow and ominous, so they actually benefit from length. Shorter tales in the collection such as Diamond Dust and The Accident of Survival had their moments, they were not as consistently great as Griffin's longer material. The aforementioned title story is only twelve pages long and is the exception to this rule. The classical music subculture setting and the themes of enlightenment and transcendence are vibrant and commanding. It is also's the story that's closest to being cosmic horror in the collection.
My esteemed colleague Bob Pastorella at This is Horror astutely pointed out that the recurring theme of The Lure of Devouring Light was transformation. He is absolutely right and Michael Griffin develops this idea in various ways throughout the collection. For example, the theme of healing is very present in Far from Streets **. Co-protagonist Dane suffers from worker's alienation and becomes obsessed with returning to nature. To him, the forest is both a shelter and a medicine against the implicit weight of social constructions. Healing and overcoming trauma by transcending one's own reality are also recurring ideas in Michael Griffin's work. The overarching theme of transformation is never addressed in a vacuum and the way Griffin's characters all get to this point where their reality becomes paper-thin was the main thing I enjoyed about The Lure of Devouring Light.
The Lure of Devouring Light made (for better or worse) the news this week when it received a controversial review from literary critic S.T Joshi. He stated that Michael Griffin's prose was "pretentious", which really caught my attention. Is it? Is Griffin's fiction trying to be something it isn't? It's a really heavy statement to make, which you should be able to back up. I don't think The Lure of Devouring Light is pretentious and dishonest in any way. I also believe it is unfair to criticize fiction for taking itself seriously since not only most fiction does, but it is something readers appreciate about most fiction. I did not take offense in Michael Griffin's story titles and while I'll admit The Jewel in the Eye was probably the weakest link in The Lure of Devouring Light, I didn't take offense to it either. It's coherent with Griffin's narrative paradigm, which I don't think he ever strays from in the collection. If Joshi believes this paradigm is above Griffin's culture, it's on him.
I do think Joshi's claim did underline a problem with The Lure of Devouring Light, though. The characters of Michael Griffin are all facing the same problem (transformation, departure from reality) and they're all kind of reacting with the same ominous reverence. That caused some of Griffin's stories to feel implicitly repetitive. If you'll allow me to borrow from Far from Streets again, Dane's wife Carolyn is placidly following him into his wilderness adventures. She doesn't put much of a fight, which keeps the story anchored in Dane's perspective. The story is still tremendous but this kind of missed opportunity is all over The Lure of Devouring Light. If you take the fiction of Laird Barron, an author who's mastered stories of ominous doom, his characters often deal with people who are completely oblivious to what's going on and that's what makes his stories so complex and flavorful.
I liked The Lure of Devouring Light despite its flaws. Most interesting works of fiction have flaws anyway. That's what makes them engaging and debatable. I believe part of the problem with it is that it's a short story collection and I am not sure how well-suited the form is to Michael Griffin's style. His fiction needs space in order to be optimally efficient. He's great at creating suffocating atmospheres and has strong insight on human character. He works best in nuances and subtleties. The Lure of Devouring Light is a good mood reading. Is it not necessarily suited to public transportation reading or for quick 5-pages bursts. It is a book you need to enjoy in a calm, quiet late night setting and read one story at the time. Give it time. Give it the necessary breathing room to work its magic. The book will make it up to you.
* Many works of quiet horror, including Michael Griffin's collection, rarely or don't feature monsters at all.
** Which I'll admit was my favorite story of the collection.