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The Dissolution of Small Worlds: Bold New Horror from a Rising Star

Introducing Kurt Fawver and his work is quite difficult.  Undoubtedly, many horror readers will be familiar with his name due to his contribution to last year’s critically acclaimed Looming Low Volume 1 and his recent Shirley Jackson Award win for “The Convexity of Our Youth.”  Other readers, myself included, came to be introduced to Kurt Fawver via his contribution of “Gods in Their Seats, Unblinking” to the Vastarien Literary Journal.  In fact, Fawver’s play was selected as the opening piece of fiction for the inaugural issue of the journal.  It is the perfect opening to showcase what Vastarien strives to be, a place for experimental and avant-garde works that are a response to cult horror icon Thomas Ligotti’s body of work.  Whichever way you became acquainted with Fawver’s work, you likely had the same three reactions that I did.  Wow, what was that?  Who is this Fawver guy?  Where can I find more?  Thankfully, Lethe Press has recently released The Dissolution of Small Worlds, Kurt Fawver’s second single author collection containing both the before mentioned works and many new and unpublished ones.  We received a copy here at Signal Horizon and we devoured it with glee. 

Kurt Fawver’s before mentioned short stories, “The Convexity of Our Youth” and “Gods in Their Seats, Unblinking” have both generated quite a bit of attention, but interestingly enough each work exemplifies the opposite extremes of Fawver’s work in The Dissolution of Small Worlds.  While both are squarely inside the nebulous borders that form what has become known as Weird Literature, “Convexity” is both nuanced and timely, while still open to multiple reader interpretations.  Like many of Fawver’s works, subtext and context play central roles, yet here his use of lurid horrific detail is muted and the narration takes on a more detached and solemn tone.  “Gods in their Seats, Unblinking” takes the opposite tact, with a removed, almost academic narrative, slowing becoming something far more personal and intimate.  This is reinforced by the choice to present this piece as a one act play written by another fictional author and the skillful addition of some choice imagery.  While both works deserve the praise they have received, and perhaps even more, a reader that has experienced one and not the other is missing out on the tremendous dynamic range that Fawver is capable and displays in full force in The Dissolution of Small Worlds.

While “Gods in Their Seats, Unblinking” was chosen to introduce the world to unique fiction that is on store for readers in Vastarien, it is firmly nestled in the very middle of The Dissolution of Small Worlds.  Instead, a previously unpublished piece entitled “The Myth of You” serves as the opener.  Fawver uses very specific literary tools to take the reader out on a limb, including the use of an unconventional point of view, extremely repulsive and horrific descriptions, and a keen use of metatextual references.  “The Myth of You” is a bold statement which argues: if you are looking for the same old escapist horror fare, the kind that can deliver thrills but doesn’t require much effort on the part of the reader, look elsewhere.  This is going to be a much different kind of read.

With the “The Myth of You” setting the stage, we are then led into “Special Collections” which was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  “Special Collections” is a unique and highly rewarding tale, told in a very seldom used first person plural point of view.  Rather than being a mere novelty, this technique adds to the mystique and tension of this piece.  During an interview with Kurt Fawver on the very excellent This Is Horror podcast, “Special Collections” was described as a story about a single setting, in the same vein as Adam Nevill’s “Hippocampus.”  I went back to my copy of The Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 and reread that particular piece and while the comparison is apt, “Special Collections” contains not only some of the magic that makes “Hippocampus” work, but also contains some of the ambiguity that makes a story like “The Red Tower” by Thomas Ligotti or “The Indoor Swamp” by Jon Padgett stick in your head long after reading.  All of these works rely on not only the setting as a character in and of itself, but that the extreme focus on the setting leaves so much of the narrative unanswered the story becomes fertile ground for the audience’s imaginations and creativity.  Clearly not your standard mass market horror fare, but when it works as well as it does in “Special Collections” the experience is one that is truly otherworldly.

Another facet of Fawver’s creativity that is on display in “Special Collections” and again in “Marrowvale” is his ability to take the cursed or out of place object trope to whole new levels.  Not content with the mysterious object to be a sacrificial dagger or ancient idol, Fawver spins some of the most unique, weird, and imaginative out of place objects into his stories.  Then again, in our genre the horror isn’t the object itself and it never really has been.  Fawver knows this and uses it to tremendous effect, it is as if he is saying to the reader “look here, I could take you down that tired road better than most, but I have something even more frightening in store for you.”  Throughout The Dissolution of Small Worlds I was surprised again and again at the deftness which the basic horror tale is raised into something that reflects a horror that is more subtle, universal, and frankly meaningful.  

There is a huge breadth of range in The Dissolution of Small Worlds, ranging from stories that are more in your face, “Every Weeknight at Seven and Seven-Thirty,” to tales that are much more subtle, like “A Silence of Starlings.”  Many are highly metatextual, “An Interview with Samuel X. Slayden” being a prime example, yet others, like “Cone of Heaven,” purposefully distance themselves from context to create something that is absolutely new.  Other readers may notice, as I have, that when Fawver stumbles it is not because he tried to take us too far off the traditional horror path and blaze his own trail to parts unknown.  No, when Fawver stumbles it is because he has not tried to take us far enough.  His best works use context and metatext to ground the story and springboard the reader into places that are uncharted and terrifying.  These works burn so brightly that they overshadow some of the others, which is unfortunate because each work included in The Dissolution of Small Worlds is an example in themselves of solid horror storytelling.  It’s just that the best stories are so great that they make some of the others look a bit basic in comparison. 

Is this particular collection for you?  Again, it is obvious from the first page of The Dissolution of Small Worlds that if you are looking for a rehash of horror that has been successful before, keep looking.  If you are like me, constantly on the hunt for works that don’t just change the backdrop, but really do take us in new directions and to uncharted corners of the vast landscape of what horror can be, The Dissolution of Small Worlds is a must have addition to your bookshelf or Kindle library.  If you want a sneak peak at where horror is headed in the future, don’t delay and chart a course to this rising literary star on the horizon.

Interested in purchasing The Dissolution of Small Worlds?  Head on over to Lethe Press and buy your copy today.  While you are there, you can also check their impressive catalog of strange, eerie, a queer works that they champion every day.  Also, be sure to read Kurt Fawver’s story notes that he has been posting on his website.  If you are looking for a copy for your Kindle or if you find Amazon a more convenient way to order physical books, please consider clicking on our affiliate link to the right.  It won’t cost you anything additional and it helps us to keep the lighthouse shining here at Signal Horizon.  If you want to read more of our ongoing coverage of the horror and dark science fiction genres, click on the follow us link to the right and connect with us via FacebookTwitter, or our newsletter.