Adam Golaski’s collection of strange stories emerges from behind a nicely suggestive image of a deep forest in deep winter, the uniform white of snow contrasting the progressive fade of black trunks to grey with the distance. Divided into two sections – New England & New York and Montana – Golaski presents eleven unsettling experiences which, while not necessarily unfamiliar to readers of horror, all benefit from quality and style not generally associated with the genre.
Worse Than Myself gives us the vampire, the ghost, zombies and cults, unseen presences and misceleneous other creatures of prey. In each case there is a flow to the narrative that quickly draws the reader in, an interesting character or distinctive tone from which an increasing sense of unease can grow, in many cases flourishing into something powerful and effective… but not all.
The scattering of sub-genre topics might make this seem like a horror writing exercise – here’s what I can do with this type, and this, now this – but Golaski succeeds in crafting not just a variety of themes. He writes male and female protagonists, adult and juvenile, with equal attention to depth and detail, creating “real” people, and when one does encounter something of a cypher in these pages it is clear that there is a reason for it.
I must state my position clearly: I found this to be an engrossing collection of stories, definitely recommended (as one story in particular was, here, in an excellent annual run down of horror writing). I have not a single regret in making the purchase; English language books being something of a luxury here on the continent it cost a bit, but after finishing the first piece I was compelled (like at least one character in The Man from the Peak, widely considered one of Golaski’s best) to continue until I’d consumed them all.
However, this may not have been the best approach. While the stories all share a high standard of writing, often they share other things as well. Golaski has a tendency to stop, and sometimes he does so at the perfect moment. The Man from the Peak would be a prime example: nothing he could have added would have improved the story and the lingering sensation the reader is left with is half the pleasure, one of several in this particular case. The first tale, The Animator’s House, similarly establishes an authentic world of non-horror in which to plant its seed, similarly ends before a moment of absolute closure while, similarly, leaving no doubt as to what is still to come. In such cases, Golaski hits his target with frightening accuracy.
In other cases, this stopping leaves something to be desired. Like an end. Two stories from the Montana section, What Water Reveals and The Dead Gather on the Bridge to Seattle, while far from bad by any stretch, suffer this way. It is arguable; in What Water Reveals, we have a story about alcoholism in which perhaps the approaching horror is secondary to the mental journey of the hero, but such was the effectiveness of the characterisation I felt dissatisfied when the ultimate confrontation was left unrecorded, as if my TV broke just as the hooded man cornered the very last girl in the sorority. With The Dead Gather… it was more like it broke before the movie got going. Decent first act, sure, but what happens next?
At the risk of spoiling on this point, one story in particular stood guilty for me. They Look Like Little Girls is an ensemble piece: four passengers on an uncomfortable overnight Greyhound journey are woken from their nightmares only to be abandoned at a cold and lonely shack in the middle of nowhere. Soon strange creatures draw in, circle the flimsy shelter, creatures worryingly familiar to them. First one, then another, then another of the group recall their nightmare for us, between each the situation outside escalating, until finally salvation arrives only to reveal itself as doom. There follows a moment of transformative horror – and then follows immediately the end of the text, oddly short by one dream memory and with the fate of the group left unseen. Okay, we can assume the worst, but in this case for me too much has been left out. Here I find something simply incomplete, not deliciously uncertain.
As must be clear now I had a few gripes with Worse Than Myself, but even in the examples above it must be said that there is real quality on show. Golaski writes well. His imagination is macabre and varied, his characters vivid and believable. Even when his stories miss the mark they don’t leave you totally unscathed; but when they hit, they go right to the bone.
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I hesitate, but go on to include the following link. Raw Dog Screaming Press has a YouTube channel, and upon it one will find a live reading by Golaski from maybe my favourite from the collection, The Animator’s House. The book contains more than enough interesting writing to justify the purchase, but those who would like a taster can find it here – yet it is only a taster! That story continues…