A short break from my China posts to catch up on some weird fiction blogging!
In 1870, a spiritualist named Simon Brinklow disappears as he is pulled into a barrel full of leaves at a farm in Vermont. In 1920, Dr. Albert Pond goes missing after he investigates the appearance, and strange disappearance, of a beautiful woman with teeth fashioned out of fossilized trilobites; his investigation is preceded by a bizarre murder. And, today, a retired school teacher takes a sightseeing tour across New England, retracing the path of Pond’s investigations. Though he intends to be only a spectator, he soon finds that it is not possible to be a passive observer of the secretive unnatural parts of the world.
Such is, in broad strokes, the plot of The Sea of Ash by Scott Thomas, which was first published in 2011 but only received wider attention in late 2014.
This novella is, for me, a perfect illustration of how bad I am at recognizing excellent weird fiction at a glance! I had come across it several times in my Amazon recommendations, but didn’t look at it closely or purchase it until I was taking a lengthy trip and needed to load up my eReader. Since then, I’ve read it twice, and its sublime and beautiful weirdness haunts me regularly.
As noted, the story takes place on three different levels. At the top level, we have the narrator of the present day: a man who was laid off from his teaching job but won the lottery, allowing him to indulge his hobby of purchasing and studying rare arcane tomes. One of the rarest, and most unusual, of the books he collects is the diary of Dr. Albert Pond, and Pond’s story, as related from his journal, is the second level of the story. Pond’s encounter with a mysterious woman, washed up on the beach, leads him to follow in the footsteps of the spiritualist Simon Brinklow, whose experiences are the lowest level of the story.
This may sound at first like a confusing mishmash of a story, but Thomas brilliantly weaves the different men’s tales together into an intriguing plot with stakes both personal and global. It is, however, the journey that matters most in the novella, as we are treated to some of the most wonderfully imaginative ideas and images that I’ve read in a single book in quite some time. Along the way, we meet Fractured Harry, a spirit that haunts an old inn and never appears in the same form twice; we encounter a newborn baby with a seashell for a face and something impossible underneath; we travel to the Garden of Guns in search of a mystical weapon; and we visit a Victorian house that has a monstrous mechanical machine in its basement for speaking with the dead. Much more is encountered, in fact, but I would prefer not to spoil the surprises in store for the reader.
What Thomas really does is brilliantly envision a fictional version of New England, which on the surface is indistinguishable from the real world but which hides beneath its surface secrets both wondrous and horrifying. Thomas’ world is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s New England, but Thomas does not reference any of Lovecraft’s creations at all and instead populates his world with his own unique creations. I can’t help but imagine that he used this novella as an opportunity to let his imagination run wild; nevertheless, all of the strange things seem to fit perfectly in his peculiar reality.
As is discussed in an afterword, this book itself has a rather peculiar history. It was originally inspired by a piece of artwork by Travis Anthony Soumis entitled Dreams are Dark, and Scott and his brother Jeffrey were asked to write a pair of stories inspired by it, to be titled (whatever their content) The Sea of Flesh and The Sea of Ash.
The stories were written but the overall project was stalled for a number of years, and was finally released in a relatively obscure printing in 2011, as seen above. Jeffrey Thomas eventually included his novella in one of his own short story collections, and encouraged Scott to find another means of publication as well. At last, in 2014, Mike Davis of the Lovecraft eZine came across the story, fell in love with it, and worked to get it printed on its own in the edition depicted at the beginning of this post. The new cover is more illustrative of the actual events of the novella, including key scenes and characters.
It is short — only 102 pages — but is one of the best works of weird fiction that I’ve read in a long time. I can highly recommend reading The Sea of Ash, which will show you a world both very familiar and absolutely alien.