by Russell Smeaton
Review by Sarah Johnson
I’m not squeamish when it comes to horror literature, but as I read Bedtime Stories, the thought ‘eww!’ often came to mind. In this collection of fifteen short stories, warty bodies, emasculated bodies, welts, sweaty drummers, and penises all glisten. Amphibian and fish-type creatures mate with humans, and Lovecraft-inspired horror dominates. Yet Smeaton also offers a smattering of stories which expand on his theme of corporeal nightmares, and he displays versatility with tales of crow-girls and divine cats.
This collection contains flash fiction as well as longer pieces, and was originally funded as a Kickstarter project. Smeaton often contributes to other anthologies such as the Short Sharp Shocks series published by Demain, and is a winner of the 2019 Lovecraftian Micro Fiction Contest held by the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon. He’s an experienced writer of the form and Bedtime Stories is full of stories which are tightly structured and to-the-point. However, I most enjoyed the longer pieces in which Smeaton displays a skill for writing that is lyrical – even poetic.
Exploring Lovecraftian themes, numerous stories feature familiar creatures from the Cthulhu Mythos, such as the Deep Ones and the Old Ones. ‘Monday Morning’ finds them embroiled in a cold war at the expense of humanity. Ancient rituals are performed in ubiquitous city-centre office blocks, with office banter and japes adding a touch of humour. This humour features in several stories: Smeaton displays a fondness for Lovecraft’s work which is respectful but not excessively reverential. In ‘Destination R’lyeh’, Colin and Rachel set their SatNav to the city where ‘dead Cthulhu waits dreaming’ and the contemporary setting juxtaposes the ancient and modern, often to comic effect.
Other stories are more serious, but equally fantastical. I particularly enjoyed ‘The Path Out of Ulthar’, which draws on ‘The Cats of Ulthar’. This was written by Lovecraft in 1920 and is indicative of his love for cats; in his 1926 essay ‘Cats and Dogs’ Lovecraft wrote: ‘The dog is a peasant and the cat is a gentleman.’ Smeaton has also expressed a similar love; he stated in an interview with Demain Publishing in 2019 that he will ‘try and sneak a cat into quite a few [stories]’. The writing in ‘The Path out of Ulthar’ is lyrical at times, and I was struck by descriptions such as ‘cats floating away like dandelion seeds up to the moon’.
Cats also feature in ‘King Bryan’ and ‘Nine Lives’, stories in which Smeaton again demonstrates his ability to write with depth and feeling. I found ‘Nine Lives’ affecting, as the nine lives of the protagonist are recounted with details familiar to anyone who has lived with cats. This is an animal mythical and mystical, possessing all the qualities admired by Lovecraft.
King Bryan is indeed a cat who sneaks into stories, and Smeaton creates a world by weaving together events and characters. As I progressed through Bedtime Stories, I felt that – while each tale is self-contained – the collection presents a universe in which all the stories take place. The Deep Ones appear regularly, with characters frequently transforming into human-fish-amphibian hybrids. As in Lovecraft’s universe, the Deep Ones mate with humans, but in Smeaton’s stories the descriptions of these events are explicit rather than implied, with the Deep Ones driven to impregnate both males and females. ‘The Street’ presents a creature woken by ancient rituals and driven by desire to mate with any warm human body it encounters, with or without their consent. At this point in the collection, I was reminded of Alan Moore’s Neonomicon; ‘The Street’ is certainly not as explicit, graphic, or dark as Moore’s book, but the rape of a character in it struck a discordant note with me, and I question its use as either an exploration of body horror or a plot device. In other – more effective – ways, Smeaton explores this theme in stories such as ‘Snot’ and ‘Spells’.
In Bedtime Stories, bodies defy or fulfil their genetic programming. The squirming creatures of ‘Snot’ ooze through mucous membranes, and a beautiful aquatic creature seduces a character in the bath. In ‘Spells’, incantations come to fruition and a character pisses tadpoles. The horror of bodies out of control is central to several of the stories, and the descriptions are vivid: I found that of Sufi John’s body in ‘Snake Charmer’ fascinating, much as I am still repulsed by and attracted to the physicality of the Cenobites in Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987). Smeaton’s narrators are predominantly male, and references to phalluses abound: either entirely absent as in ‘Snake Charmer’, the ‘big cock’ of a mysterious, naked party-goer in ‘These Guys’, or the ‘glistening’ member the size of a forearm in ‘Milk’. Interestingly, some of the transformations which characters undergo are seen as an improvement on their (previously flawed) human body and mind. I’m reminded of Seth Brundel’s statement in The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1987) that he’s ‘getting better’ as he turns into a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly. Perhaps being a Deep One isn’t so bad.
Of all fifteen stories in this collection, I engaged most with ‘Circus of Crows’. Beginning with the arrival of a circus in small town America, Smeaton sets the scene for the fantastic events that follow with crows who ‘[have] leaflets in their beaks which they [give] out to the delighted crowd.’ There’s a touch of Ray Bradbury in the descriptions and characters, but Smeaton makes it very much his own story, with a gentle exploration of what it is to be human – or not – through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old girl. As one of the longer stories, there’s also a substance to the protagonist and her world which I enjoyed. Given that Bedtime Stories contains several examples of flash fiction, ‘Circus of Crows’ provides a good contrast, and is evidence of Smeaton’s versatility as a writer.
Although there is a Lovecraftian theme running through the collection, Smeaton also draws on other literary genres, and produces much that is original and thought-provoking. I’m curious as to how Russell Smeaton’s writing will develop, and am certainly interested in his potential as a novelist as well as a writer of short stories.
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