One of my discoveries this year – by which I mean an author whose work is new to me, rather than implying any kind of Svengali-esque arrangement – is Philip Fracassi, whose novelette Mother was the highlight of my reading schedule in February. Mother was published by Dunhams Manor Press and so it was with much delight that I saw publisher and author had once more collaborated to produce Altar – a story which I devoured in one sitting, not because of its (relatively) short length but because I was gripped by the story, unwilling to pause because I wanted to see in which direction the narrative would find itself progressing next. It’s one of the many joys of Altar that it consistently confounds expectations, leading the reader down one narrative path only to change direction – often in the most unexpected of ways.
This misdirection is achieved by telling the story from multiple viewpoints, a technique which serves to build tension as the story jumps between characters, offering brief glimpses of how their own narratives are progressing before switching to another. The reader begins the story knowing something bad is going to happen – this is, after all, a horror novelette but this fracturing of the narrative has an unsettling effect, adding to that tension in a most effective manner.
The story begins innocuously enough with a family’s trip to their local swimming pool, housed in the Akheron Community Centre. Fortunately, neither mother Martha nor her children Abby and Gary are scholars of Greek mythology otherwise that particular name may well have given them second thoughts about going anywhere near the water. It’s another strength of the story – and Philip’s writing – that the characters of all three family members are fully realised in the first few pages of the novelette.
Once in the pool area, the family members go their own ways and the slow build-up of tension begins: The introduction of an older boy brings with it an undercurrent of violence waiting to happen, further unsettling the reader; Gary remembers disturbing dreams of malevolent amphibians brought on by a childhood accident; Abby wanders off on her own, seeking her own entertainment; Martha remains on her own, poolside, slowly slipping into a spiral of self-loathing.
Then a crack appears on the bottom of the pool…
Not long before beginning Altar I’d read Scott Nicolay’s Noctuidae and was mightily impressed by the way in which the weird and the everyday came together, and was most impressed of all by the fact that no attempt at explanation was given, adding to the mystery and – well, weirdness – of the story. I shared those feelings on completing Altar (and feel the story bears ample comparison with Nicolay’s work) – the climax of the story is wonderfully strange, and beautifully written. The denoument is made even more effective by the structure of the story, the way in which the tension is built pretty much from the outset. Out of left field it may be, (or not, actually, there are hints along the way), but it’s utterly devastating. And brilliant.
Altar is a wonderful piece of writing. As an added bonus it’s a wonderful piece of horror writing and I highly recommend that you should read it. Like me, you may even want to read it twice. You can buy it here.