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The horror field has a well-deserved reputation for substantial shorter works that stretches back to its infancy. Breaking out past the standard 5,000- or 7,500-word cap allows a writer to pack in more detail, more backstory, more calamity, and characters grow beyond pale sketches into fully formed people. Many leading lights of the weird horror scene deliver some of their best tales at novelette or novella length, and anyone paying attention over the past five years knows that Philip Fracassi has been shining bright among them.

After delivering a trio of short novellas in Mother, Altar, and Fragile Dreams, Fracassi dropped his first collection Behold the Void, which brought together those first two works with another seven tales of similar heft, and since then has released another three standalone novelettes in Sacculina, Shiloh, and Overnight, with Commodore’s headlights beaming balefully over the horizon. It’s no surprise, then, to find that Beneath A Pale Sky consists of a mere eight stories, nor to see that each tale takes its time to grow and push its shoots under the discerning reader’s willing skin.

Some weird fiction writers mine the quieter waters of horror for allusive, elusive works, and some lean into the noise and fury for more visceral takes – Fracassi walks a narrow line between the two worlds. Yes, his fiction often muses on the natures of humanity and ineffability rather than throwing us headlong into the action, but it’s a mistake to assume he won’t suddenly toss one aside in favour of another. Beneath A Pale Sky offers us introspection aplenty, but it also features apocalyptic disaster writ large: tornados, earthquakes, a pier-side calamity that would dominate the real-world news for weeks. Fracassi is a writer with a broad scope who thrives on dropping his readers into situations that will confound their expectations… and he’s not one to shy away from scenes that will disturb in their brutality, either.

He begins as he means to go on, with “Harvest” bringing us to a Southern wedding that all but smolders with the usual tensions we’ve come to expect from such events: the bride is uncertain of her choice and pining for an old friend, her mother and bridesmaids are blissfully blind to the signs this marriage is a mistake, the groom and his posse are entitled drunken boors just itching to act out. Things quickly run off the rails in ways we both do and don’t expect as violence and catastrophe erupt in the small country chapel, but Fracassi here introduces another element he’ll develop across the course of the collection – the excitement, intimacy, and personal redemption of love.

This theme is expanded upon in the book’s cover star and undoubted cornerstone, the previously unpublished “The Wheel”. Rob and Mary are mad for each other, and tonight they’ll walk the pier and ride the Ferris, an occasion Rob has chosen to pop the big question. Nothing goes to plan – a strange hobo accosts them, the ride operator is a creep with poor impulse control – and Rob is almost frantic in his desire to have this night turn out right… but fate has an even worse trick up its sleeve, one that no-one could have expected or avoided. Throughout the ensuing chaos, Rob and Mary’s love is the thing that keeps them hoping and fighting, and it’s love that leads them on to a curveball ending that titillates and confounds in equal measure.

Indeed, fans of inscrutable weirdness will find plenty of it in this book, from the small-town apple-pie Americana gone wrong of “Soda Jerk” to the feverish reality slips of “Fragile Dreams”. Fracassi often eschews explanatory endings, instead seeming to take his cues from the oblique dream logic of David Lynch. What’s happening to the unnamed narrator at the end of “ID” is anyone’s guess, though it’s safe to assume we may have missed some subtle clues given the story’s focus on identity and mental health; “Fragile Dreams” plays out like a nightmare, the kind that shocks you awake and leaves you trying to assemble its fractured pieces into some semblance of sense even as they slip through your fingers and disappear into the void of lost thoughts.

Though Beneath A Pale Sky is a cohesive body of work, there are some stories that buck the prevailing trend and allow themselves to be understood in a more traditional sense. “Ateuchus” recalls “The Forest” by Laird Barron (another modern master of the novelette) in its beetle-infested dreams of immortality, and the reader is left in no doubt of the protagonist’s position come the final line; and the closing story, “Death, My Old Friend”, is a sentimental semi-fantasy in the vein of Joe Hill, a fairly obvious tale that warmly returns to the theme of love and closes the loop as much as it can – for as we know, a loop never truly begins or ends. Time is a ring… or, perhaps, a wheel.

The only real flaw I can find with Beneath A Pale Sky is that I wish there were more of it, and that’s less a criticism than a hunger pang. As the old adage goes, “Always leave ‘em wanting more”, and in this case, it’s a relief to know that Fracassi has more courses coming our way – a new novel will be unveiled in October, and the aforementioned Commodore will soon be pulling up to offer eager readers a lift. It’s a good time for the uninitiated to discover Philip Fracassi, with a clutch of promising work lying both behind and ahead, and an equally exciting period for those of us already sold on his wares. Just as a blank page may be a writer’s favourite sight, so may this pale sky be a delight for the adventurous reader, and for the same reason: the possibilities are endless, and so freighted with promise, this void becomes a pleasure to behold.

 Matthew R. Davis

Matthew R. Davis

Author

Matthew R. Davis is a Shadows Award-winning author and musician based in Adelaide, South Australia. His works include the collection If Only Tonight We Could Sleep (Things in the Well, 2020) and the novel Midnight in the Chapel of Love (JournalStone, 2021). Find out more at matthewrdavisfiction.wordpress.com.

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