This collection opens with the titular “Black Tongue”, taking place in the North American frontier in 1869. A bounty hunter investigates a series of gruesome slayings at a logging camp and eventually finds that he is up against the living dead, in both human and animal form. The story achieves a tactile sense of reality: first the gruelling nature of the protagonist’s life, and then the macabre details of the various corpses. Onto this solid base is thrown an element of the supernatural, and the whole narrative is given straightforward emotional heft by the protagonist’s relationship with his dog. This is a good start, but is the rest of the book able to meet the same standard?
The main character in “Conflagration” is a firefighter who begins the story reminiscing about the traumatic sights that he has seen on the job, contrasting the heroic public image of firemen with the horrific reality in which fires are not always put out in time; his anecdotes lead to an incident in which he attacks a wildfire and sees a strange being, “Like a child’s primitive stick figure, blown up to a massive scale and comprised entirely of fire […] frolicking, the way you see a beautiful woman frolicking through a field of flowers in those cheesy commercials.” The trouble with this story is that it is front-loaded: the encounter with the fire elemental (implied to be a Native American deity named Johanna) is less disturbing than the realistic horrors described at the start.
The basic structure of this story – that is, placing characters into a disturbing but earthbound situation before adding a monster for the climax – turns up repeatedly throughout the collection. Take “Red Death”, which is set in the future and deals with characters who retrieve crashed spacecraft. For most of its run, it uses a quiet, melancholy sort of horror deriving from the protagonists finding the corpses of dead astronauts, but finally settles into Alien territory as one wreck turns out to contain a deadly extraterrestrial organism. In “Search and Destroy”, a story of the Vietnam war, US troops enter a village where, they are told, a shaman working for the Viet Cong has placed a curse for them. The villagers start turning into distorted, gut-chomping monsters – not zombies, but occupying similar genre ground.
Even when the stories choose less familiar subject matter, they tend to run into recurring flaws – namely, the author’s habit of making the mundane world more interesting than the supernatural incursions. “Sons of Luna”, about a group of lifelong cult members gathering together for a horrific annual ritual, has an exploration of cult psychology with far more intrigue than the supernatural climax. “Obsidian”, about an elderly cat lady whose home is violated by a parasitic alien mould, at least derives appeal from seeing a well-drawn and believable mundane setting gradually altered by the incursion of the alien, even if the alien in this case is essentially Venom from Spider-Man.
“The Chiwaa’e” is the strongest of the collection’s many grizzled-character-meets-monster stories. The protagonist this time is a mixed-race white/Navajo man who is torn between the traditions of the reservation and his career in industry. He is also haunted by a dark incident in his past involving drunk-driving and vehicular manslaughter – an incident dredged up all over again when he encounters the supernatural being of the title.
The author evidently has a few particular settings that he enjoys revisiting, although he does manage to find different spins on them. “Castle in the Sky” and “The White Suits” are both post-apocalyptic stories, but quite distinct from one another. In the former, aliens have rendered Earth’s surface uninhabitable and the surviving humans now live in submarines – but not all of them are aware of what happened up above. The latter takes place in a disease-racked world, following a woman as she evades such dangers as roaming cannibals and mysterious “White Suits” – the identity of which is revealed in an EC Comics-like twist ending.
Cults are another topic of interest, turning up not only in the aforementioned “Sons of Luna” but also in the fast-paced and hallucinatory “The Golden Shepherd”, a story about two women fleeing a transhumanist sex-cult that insists on a regimen of drugs and sensory deprivation. No formula to see here: this is the author unleashed.
Towards the end of the collection, we find a couple of stories that are slim but nonetheless successful. In “The Conversion” two lesbian honeymooners head on a camping trip, only for one of them to encounter an unknown entity and undergo a personality change; although the result is a fairly tame example of Lovecraftian fiction, it still works – and, commendably, the author uses his own voice without mimicking Lovecraft. “Riene de l’Enfer (The Queen of Hell)” pares the grizzled-man-meets-monster formula to its most potent essence, with a murderous criminal heading into the Lousiana swampland hideout, only to find the lair of a Voodoo queen – the contents of which terrify even him. The narrative may be slight, but the macabre imagery pays off.
It should be stressed that none of the stories in the book are outright failures when taken on their own merits. The problem is that, when read one after the other, their shortcomings – reliance on a single formula, and on supernatural creatures that are either over-familiar or under-developed – becomes unmissable. Had the author let loose as he did in “The Golden Shephard” more often, the volume would have been stronger overall. As it is, Black Tongue and Other Anomalies would have benefitted from a few more anomalies.