Sunday, January 4, 2015

Scott Nicolay's ANA KAI TANGATA

NOTE: as mentioned in a previous blog post here a year or so ago, Scott Nicolay was my room mate at NecronomiCon 2013. He was a great roomie but that is not why I wrote this. ANA KAI TANGATA blew me away, and I want more people to read it. Fully disclosed, here is my take on this top-shelf bottle of Weird.


While Scott Nicolay’s stories had previously appeared in a few places, I was unfamiliar with his work until I read “Eyes Exchange Bank” in the excellent Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology THE GRIMSCRIBE’S PUPPETS (Miskatonic River Press, 2013),  winner of the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology. A dense cloud of confusion, dread, and decay lazily drifted up from his words, and it was one of my favorite stories in a TOC stacked with some of the best names working in the weird/horror field today. (The book won that Shirley Jackson Award for a reason.)

Beautiful cover by Daniele Serra. I think this is my favorite book of any sort for 2013.

Scott had already had stories in The LovecrafteZine (“In The Tank,” July 2012) and Strange Aeons (“You Are What You Eat,” Issue 10). They were shorter and written earlier then “Eyes Exchange Bank” but I still found them compelling, a cut above standard genre writing. I put a tick mark next to Nicolay’s name in my mental catalog.

In early 2014, Nicolay published a chapbook through Dunhams Manor Press, THE BAD OUTER SPACE. Later in the year, he had an entry (co-written with his son) in the outstanding Laird Barron tribute anthology THE CHILDREN OF OLD LEECH (Word Horde, 2014). Their story “Tenebrionidae” closes out the book and again, it is one of my favorite things in a thoroughly superior collection loaded with heavy hitters. 

THE CHILDREN OF OLD LEECH is out in paperback and Kindle now too. Good luck getting your hands on THE BAD OUTER SPACE.

And then he dropped ANA KAI TANGATA (Fedogan & Bremer, 2014) on us. The book is comprised of eight substantial tales, four original stories and four reprints. Of the four reprints, “Eyes Exchange Bank” and "alligators" can easily be found elsewhere. "Eyes Exchange Bank" is in THE GRIMSCRIBE'S PUPPETS, and “alligators” was published in the little-distributed and currently defunct magazine Phantasmagorium, now available as a Kindle edition. The other two stories are nearly impossible to find. “Ana Kai Tangata” appeared in the almost-mythical anthology THE AKLONOMICON, a very interesting book with a sad history that was never properly produced. The fourth story, “The Bad Outer Space,” was printed as that chapbook mentioned above, in a very limited print run (50).

A gorgeous, nicely constructed volume. The deluxe edition comes in an embossed slipcase with an extra chapbook.

So, coming in to the book, I had read two of the eight stories. (I managed to snag one of those 50 chapbooks, yay.) Based on “Eyes Exchange Bank” and “The Bad Outer Space,” I was expecting a very good book. What I read ended up being one of the best single author collections I came across all year, right up there with Simon Strantzas’ BURNT BLACK SUNS (Hippocampus Press, 2014), JohnLangan’s THE WIDE, CARNIVOROUS SKY (Hippocampus Press, 2013), and Nathan Ballingrud’s NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS (Small Beer Press, 2013), itself a Shirley Jackson Award-winner. Yes, those last two came out in 2013 but I just read them this year, so, technicality.

I can't believe I got to read all of these collections in the same year. Spoiled.

The stories in ANA KAI TANGATA have a number of textures and tones, but whether the protagonist is a young child (“The Bad Outer Space”), Jersey punk (“The Soft Frogs”), or doomed cop (the harrowing “Tuckahoe”), Nicolay excels at portraying their individuality while maintaining a consistent voice. Nicolay grew up “amidst the toxic waste dumps and devil-haunted swamps of New Jersey” and moved long ago to New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. His stories are filled with the people you might run across in these places. Life is not easy for many of them, even before they have to deal with an incursion of The Outside. Nicolay has a strong grasp of the everyday mechanics of living life near or below the poverty line, and is sympathetic to the down and/or out (see the subtitle of the book). In AKT, he adeptly infuses his real experiences into fantastical stories that we all should be very, very glad are not so real.

While it is hard to pin down an absolute favorite, I’ll go with “Tuckahoe,” the 100+ page story that closes the collection. Nicolay has plenty of time to lay the foundation before things go awry and the space suits him well. Even his shorter stories are somewhat slow-burners, and while I enjoyed every single story in this book, it is the longer pieces that really stayed with me.

Mention must also be made of David Verba's beautiful cover and interior artwork. It has an abstract yet organic feel that fits in well with Nicolay's stories.

An interior illustration. There are a bunch of them, and they are quite striking.

If you are still on the fence about reading this book, go back and look at the other authors mentioned here. Ligotti, Barron, Strantzas, Langan, Ballingrud… Nicolay’s style is his own, but if you look hard, you might find, for instance, the rugged action-horror of Barron sharing space with the quieter terror of a Strantzas story, featuring a protagonist who would feel right at home with one of Ballingrud’s hard-luck characters. If you like any one of those authors, there is a good chance you will like Nicolay.

If you are unfamiliar with those other names, I weep for you a little bit, and urge you to check them all out as each and every one has much to offer. Strantzas and Langan appear alongside Nicolay in THE GRIMSCRIBE’S PUPPETS, and Langan is also in THE CHILDREN OF OLD LEECH. In fact, both of these books are excellent samplers of the current weird fiction scene, easily obtainable and more than worth their cover price. Though they are both tributes to specific authors, the stories inside function perfectly well without the often tenuous connection to the source.

Bringing it all back home, "Eyes Exchange Bank" was chosen to appear in the inaugural edition of a new anthology series, YEAR'S BEST WEIRD FICTION, VOLUME ONE, edited by Michael Kelly and Laird Barron. Kelly will bring in a new co-editor every year, with Kathe Koja lined up for 2015. This looks to be another amazing collection of diverse strangeness, one I am very much looking forward to reading.

It sure seems like we are in the midst of a Weird Renaissance; thanks in large part to the internet and print-on-demand books, more authors are able to more easily get their stories out to readers. There has been a huge influx of humdrum, rehashed, or just downright poorly-written chaff because of this but there is also an ever-growing pile of wheat. ANA KAI TANGATA lies very near the top of that grainy heap and it fully deserves a couple inches of your bookshelf.

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