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Cold to the Touch

Simon Strantzas

" He ran as fast as he could, but even as he did so, he could feel the cold hunger of the universe behind him, peering through the hole it had made in the barriers protecting the world. It was insatiable, wanting its fill of life…"

Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

Simon Strantzas is a Canadian author whose first story collection Beneath The Surface disappeared into thin air after the publisher, Humdrumming, folded. To compensate for that unlucky debut, Strantzas’ new collection appears now as the latest offering from Tartarus Press, an imprint renowned for producing gorgeous books featuring high quality fiction. Cold to the Touch assembles thirteen strange tales that it would be a shame to classify as horror or fantasy tales. Good fiction defies labels. 

Take, for instance, The Uninvited Guest, an unsettling piece where a weird woman (whose identity we can only guess) shows up at a private party, bringing about disquiet both to the party-goers and to the reader, or the excellent The Sweetest Song, a mesmerizing, tragic, obscure tale full of hints, puzzling signs and unanswered questions, starring a prematurely-widowed, strange girl, a lonely uncle and a flock of peculiar birds. 

Strange women abound in Strantzas’ stories such as the old crone with uncanny powers who literally gives birth to a seed of hope in the deeply disturbing A Seed on Barren Ground, a bleak story of loss and desperation. The splendid Under the Overpass pay homage to the childhood ghost, while the allusive, upsetting The Other Village portrays two ladies taking a doomed vacation together. 

Here’s to the Good Life is a (deliberately?) quizzical story where the author's extraordinary storytelling ability makes up for a rather unconvincing plot in which an unsociable girl is told a nightmarish alcohol-induced experience by a man who's not really there. The Fading Light is a tale of loneliness and friendship, imbued with a sense of emptiness and anguish. In the ambiguous but quite effective Poor Stephanie a young girl is forced to leave for a trip with her obnoxious uncle (and we strongly fear for her) . 

The title story, Cold to the Touch, is the frightening account of an unlucky Arctic expedition by a scientist trying to solve the mystery of some threatening monoliths impervious to ice and cold. The terrifying Pinholes in Black Muslin depicts a group of people whose weekend at a cottage by the lake turns into a tragic confrontation with the overwhelming forces of a hostile nature. A tale of cosmic evil apt to disturb and chill to the bone. 

To me, the best story is Like Falling Snow, an outstanding piece probing the meaning of life and death, featuring a terminally ill woman living her existence's quiet, painful, melancholy sunset. The delicate matter is handled by Strantzas with remarkable craftsmanship, which makes the story a superior example of mainstream fiction. 

And this takes us back to my initial statement: to label Strantzas as a horror writer would be unfair and too reductive. He's just an excellent writer who likes to deal with the weirdest and more mysterious aspects of human condition, who likes to disturb and upset and manages to do that very effectively by emphasizing the dark shades lurking behind the light of everyday reality.

Read Pinholes in Black Muslin from this collection on the Tartarus Press website (PDF file)

 Mario Guslandi lives in Milan, Italy. Most likely the only Italian who regularly reads (and reviews) dark fiction in English, his book reviews have appeared in a number of genre websites such as The Alien Online, Infinity Plus, The SF Site, The Agony Column and Horrorwold.

Publisher: Tartarus Press

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?: No

Awards: A short story from this collection, Pinholes in Black Muslin shortlisted for 2009 British Fantasy Award (see link underneath review to read the story)

Author bio: Simon Strantzas is the author of two collections of nightmares and weirdness, Beneath the Surface and Cold to the Touch, and is currently working on a third. His work has been selected multiple times for The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (ed. Stephen Jones). In 2009, his work was nominated for the British Fantasy Award.

Read an interview with Simon Strantzas

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The Publisher': Tartarus Press


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