Nightingale Songs collects 12 short stories, 4 of which have never been published before. While his previous two collections were similar in a lot of ways, the stories in his debut, Beneath the Surface (review here), tended to be a bit more stark and in-one's-face than those found in Cold to the Touch. The latter was comprised of tales that were generally more subtle and atmospheric. Nightingale Songs bares a closer resemblance to Cold to the Touch than it does to Beneath the Surface in that most of the tales it collects rely on subtlety rather than starkness to work their destructive magic on the reader.
Already accomplished in this regard, Nightingale Songs shows that Mr. Strantzas is becoming even more adept at navigating the logic of dreams and nightmares. Just as dreams are sometimes obvious metaphors for one's life and other times seem practically nonsensical, Mr. Strantzas' work is truly dreamlike in that it is often difficult to discern the significance of what one encounters in his stories, even as it is obvious that one is staring at and contending with symbols, metaphors, and other reflections.
"Tend Your Own Garden" is a perfect example of a story that is more nakedly metaphorical than some of the others. It concerns a man who returns to the home that he had shared with his wife until they split up and he was replaced by his wife's former lover. Ostensibly, he has returned for a box of old blueprints that he thinks he has left in the house. While there, he recalls how while he was renovating their marital home--shoring up its foundations--she was laying the seeds of infidelity by reconnecting with an old lover via their computer. Once in the house, the man quickly discovers that he is disoriented and doesn't remember where anything is. The metaphor is obvious but that does not diminish this story's power in the least.
On the opposite end of the spectrum in the sense that its symbolism is much less easy to discern, is the first tale, entitled "Out of Touch." Here, one gets an early glimpse of one of this collection's most pervasive themes: imprisonment. "Out of Touch" is about two boys who are trapped in numerous ways. One is imprisoned in his room by illness, the other imprisoned by the brokenness of his family in the wake of his father's departure. Both are further imprisoned by the monotony and monochromatism of suburbia; so much so, that an oddly nonconforming house that is across the street from one of the boys--the mirror of the boy's house--becomes irresistible, the only means of escape.
Somewhere between these two lies the excellent "Her Father's Daughter," which first appeared in Strange Tales: Volume III from Tartarus Press (review here) and which also concerns imprisonment of a sort. In it, a young woman's car breaks down in the middle of a stretch of unfamiliar farmland on a winter night while she is taking a detour on her way home from school. Her father's past admonitions and likely reactions to her present poor planning are ever present as she tries to figure out what to do. In the only nearby house, however, she encounters overbearing paternal presence run amok in a way that is quintessential Strantzas.
Another standout story that I have been unable to stop thinking about since I read it is "The Nightingale." It is the only story in this collection that really seems to be of a piece with the kind of work collected in Beneath the Surface. It is far less dreamlike than the other stories in this collection and is really more of a traditional horror story than the others. It is about the beautiful songbird Elaina Munroe. Two men hear her singing at the Nightingale club one night and find her irresistible; so much so, that one of them asks her to accompany him overseas. The man left behind, however, is unable to forget about her and may yet be destroyed by her irresistible songs.
Another story dealing with imprisonment is "Pale Light in the Jungle," a story that does a wonderful job not only of illustrating our culture's addiction to television but also of showing how frightening the world can be for us addicts when we finally try to cut the cord. This is one of the most atmospheric tales in the collection and also one of my favorites.
The remaining stories in this collection are all enjoyable, but those discussed above are easily my favorites.
With Beneath the Surface, Mr. Strantzas proved himself to be a compelling new writer of weird fiction. Cold to the Touch showed that he was not the sort to rest on his laurels but instead was continuing to evolve. With the release of Nightingale Songs, Mr. Strantzas has truly arrived. He has perfected a voice and style of weird fiction that is all his own and has cemented his reputation as a modern master in a field already crowded with talent. Whether you read these stories in the traditional manner or are lucky and cursed enough to hear them sung to you late one night by Ms. Elaina Munroe, Nightingale Songs will stay with you.
The True First
Nightingale Songs will be released in February of 2012 by Dark Regions Press. It will be available in two editions: a signed, lettered edition limited to 26 copies and a signed, limited edition of 100 copies.
[This review was based on an electronic review copy]