Book Review : Philip Fracassi - Altar (2016)
My nightmares used to hound me way into my waking hours as a kid. Sometimes they still do. Each nightmare has its own logic when it comes to terrify the mind they're born in. Some are images. Other are sounds. Some are an unshakable feeling of wrongness. They're glimpses at alternate universes meant to make you doubt the boundaries of your own. I'm still unsure what to make of Philip Fracassi's cosmic horror novelette Altar, but I can't deny its eerie charm. It is more aesthetics than philosophy but it is good at what it does. Altar is an original and haunting portrait of apocalypse. It's sneaky difficult to shake.
Altar is the story of Gary, Abby and their mother Martha, going to the pool on a warm summer day. They're a Rockwellian family with a contemporary twist: the father has bolted from the portrait, causing grief to Martha and a fleeting sentiment of instability in her children. Gary finds solace in being there for his gorgeous sister and Abby finds her own in the arms of local bad boys. The day is trudging along as well as it possibly can in an overcrowded pool until a young swimmer named Tyler finds a mysterious crevice at the bottom that will transform their lives forever. What they have left to live anyway. It all going downhill for our swimmers from here.
I don't believe Altar is cryptic or complicated. I might be wrong, but I don't think I missed any fleeting, underlying meaning to the story. It's a moment, more than a fully formed narrative. Think of it as a moving Hieronymus Bosch painting with Lovecraftian themes. There's no coherent explanation for what happens (at least, I assume there isn't), it just happens every domestic or juvenile problems Martha and her kids have in the first half of the novel become immediately insignificant. Philip Fracassi exposes the insignificance of human concerns in a sweeping portrait rather than series of occurrences and it gets the job done, given the novelette format. Could it have been a little more subtle? Sure? There's a brutal cut between the Cheever'esque first half and the Lovecraftian finale. But does the aesthetic vision work? Absolutely.
I almost immediately liked Altar because the pool setting and dynamic narration reminded me of one of my favorite David Foster Wallace short stories "Forever Overhead." It's a rather lean and straightfoward story that might drive my fellow eggheads over the edge from seeking deeper meaning. I don't think there is one. Altar is just a terrifying vision of a Lovecraftian apocalypse set against the Rockwellian backdrop of a summer day at the pool. Sure, it clashes with the principles of cosmic horror (developing a mythos, an underlying philosophy, etc.) but it doesn't overstay its welcome and Philip Fracassi never leads you into false assumptions. Altar is inspiring material for people like me who want to develop new nightmares. It offers a vision my mind can unleash its own self-sufficient paranoia on.