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St Rooster Books' New Release, As The Night Devours Us, Is A Triumph Of Short Horror Fiction

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Settled in the 9th century by seafaring Scandinavian explorers, Iceland sits alone just below the Arctic Circle amid the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, its imposing, glaciated, volcanic shores having evolved from one of the poorest areas in Europe into one of the most technologically advanced, peaceable and ecologically friendly nations on Earth. Yet in spite of its modern reputation as a marvel of renewable energy and beloved tourist destination, Iceland retains a crucial mystique. The average American's knowledge of the island has less to do with its Viking-era sagas and eddas than with its quirky cultural oddities--Björk, the Icelandic Phallological Museum, Keeping Up With The Kattarshians, svið (Google it at the risk of losing your appetite)--but to simply accept Iceland as a place of cute eccentricities is to ignore its shadowy legacy. Poised at the pinnacle of the world, Iceland is steeped in both mythic and literal darkness; at the summer solstice the midnight sun never sets, but as the steady march toward winter advances, light dies, day by day, hour by hour, until all that remains is the night.

Best known for her continuing Nocturnal series of Young Adult vampire novels (Nocturnal Blood, Nocturnal Farm and Nocturnal Salvation, with a fourth installment on the way), Icelandic horror author Villimey Mist delves dauntlessly into that same blackened nightscape of her remote native isle with St. Rooster Books' release of As The Night Devours Us, a feverishly fearsome fifteen-story compendium of some of the finest terror fare in recent literary memory.

'A Mother's Job,' the volume's introductory tale, sets the tome's tone when a woman seeking to protect her daughter during a zombie apocalypse performs the grimmest of maternal duties. The Icelandic reverence for nature comes into conflict with a group of disrespectful American travelers at 'The Moss Covered Volcano', just as a father's deranged actions initiated in the name of his daughter infuses 'Hope' with harrowing, heart-wrenching power. A young woman disturbed by dolls finds her fears justified in unexpected ways when searching for a missing friend in 'The Doll Museum', while the frenetic action of 'Split' serves as a pulse-pounding escape into the treacherous world of espionage.

The volume's second half unfolds with 'Skötumóðir', an unusually effective written experiment within the 'found footage' film subgenre that's only one of Mist's many chronicles to explore Iceland's rich folklore. Similarly, the country's fabled Christmastime menace, the Yule Cat, viciously proves to a group of self-centered youths that 'Receiving Is Better Than Giving'. Unforeseen consequences align against a young musician who enlists the aid of a friend to bury the body of a vagrant he accidentally killed in 'Shed The Night's Skin', while the Japan-set 'Kokkuri-san' utilizes Shinto beliefs to realize the retribution sought by a bullied teenager. And a woman battling a demon must prepare the grisliest of haute cuisine to save her children in the tense 'What The Chef Recommends'.

There's an eclectic assembly of horror's myriad subtypes available within these pages; werewolves, devils, sea beasts, the undead, mental illness and a gallery of monsters both human and not spread their maleficence in a multitude of ways. Yet As The Night Devours Us is no simplistic compilation of creature features. Mist's ability extends far beyond that, far beyond even routine splatterpunk blood and guts; her dexterous and kinetic prose is so effective at conveying the intricate spectrum of human experience that each carefully-chosen word lures the reader further into the benighted forest. Her clear vision, deft wit and gift for fully rendering a character's interior state, their motivations, desires and insecurities, cut to the heart of every story and act as a stable center for the presented situations. An impressive and sure-handed use of Iceland's unique mythology, too, elevates As The Night Devours Us above the mire of mediocre horror pretenders. Themes of vengeance abound, as do observations on the bonds of family and the importance of friendship, the perilous disregard for the environment, the abuse of trust and the shattering terror of revelation. And while most collections, like many musical albums, contain at least some filler material, there's nary a dud in Mist's authorial arsenal; every tale strikes its intended target, though five stories deserve acknowledgement for their unabashed supremacy.

For pure shivers, both 'The Rescue' and 'Nails' deliver on the diabolical promise of their premise; in the former, a police detective infiltrating a cult to facilitate a young girl's escape uncovers the shocking truth about the nature of the commune's dreadful deity, while the latter's depiction of a young man's unraveling mind features some of the most hygienically disquieting scenes of mental disintegration ever scribed. A different kind of depraved thought process, that of a serial killer who discovers his latest victim isn't what she seems, is detailed with chillingly realistic effect in 'The Thrill Of The Hunt', while the Viking castaways who survive their sinking longboat struggle to outlast each other as well as the legendary undersea monstrosity, 'Taurmur'.

Many of the selections in As The Night Devours Us would make excellent cinematic adaptations, yet more than any other, it's the volume's culminating entry, 'The Banquet', that earns top accolades as a story strong enough to build a Hollywood franchise upon. Originally released as a stand-alone charity novella, the narrative focuses on Maria, a traumatized sexual assault survivor who is invited by a mysterious organization that gives women the chance to exact revenge upon their attackers. The unrelenting scenario benefits from some of the most excruciating torture scenes yet penned in modern indie horror, but the explicitness here never exploits; indeed, Maria's interior state is so devastated by her rape that the final confrontation becomes nothing less than undiluted spiritual catharsis. With its deep emotional resonance, savage gore and hints at a worldwide clandestine conspiracy, 'The Banquet' rivals such films as Last House On the Left, I Spit On Your Grave, Hostel and Martyrs in its breadth of intensity.

Beautiful in its own way but not for the faint of heart, As The Night Devours Us is an all-too-rare example of what can truly be accomplished with short fiction in general and genre fiction in particular. With her flair for creating realistic characters, her unflinching resolve to push boundaries and willingness to explore, Villimey Mist's triumphant work succeeds in shaking the very pillars of contemporary horror, and it's for that reason that I feel compelled to bestow As The Night Devours Us the full 5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. A dark and dangerous talent arises. Prepare to be devoured.

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0