A highly satisfying mix of genres, C.W. Briar’s debut short story collection Wrath and Ruin offers a voice reminiscent of George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, with a healthy sampling of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With a clear moral compass, Briar has crafted several speculative tales which target demons of the human soul: lust, greed, obsession with fame and power, and pride. Some of the standout stories include:
“Escape From Wrath and Ruin,” which features a man who wakes up lost in a nightmarish landscape, bereft of memory and hope, hands covered with blood and the looming guilt that he’s committed some horrible crime (though he can’t remember what). An allegorical tale showing the clear influence of the aforementioned Lewis and MacDonald, it’s a story about ultimate forgiveness, and the debt which makes it possible.
In “The Other Edge” Briar switches genres and takes us into space, on the brink of an encounter with intelligent life. In this story, pride overwhelms caution and prudence, and the entire Earth suffers the consequences.
“The Case of Elizabeth Flora” once again hearkens to the allegorical sensibilities of Lewis, but this time by way of Robert E. Howard or A. A. Merritt’s pulp sensibilities. A psychologist interviews the lone survivor of a shipwreck who, along with several others, becomes stranded on a very strange island. There, they find that all their greatest dreams—or nightmares—can be theirs. All they have to do is wish it to be so, and they do—with the exception of the narrator—and reap the consequences of their desires.
“Stargazing” achieves a rare feat in that it invokes a sense of Lovecraftian cosmic horror without resorting to squirming tentacles and alien beings with unpronounceable names. Very much with the flavor of Algernon Blackwood—most notably his story “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”—a man regales his love of walking in the woods and gazing at the stars. Of course, this character eventually discovers his smallness in the face of the stars and the darkness, understanding, perhaps too late, that the darkness and stars watch him, too.
Best of all is the novella “Ghoul,” introducing paranormal investigator Gideon Wells and his eccentric assistant, Rose. Set during the late 1800s, “Ghoul” is a gaslight fantasy which introduces a character I sincerely hope Briar will bring back for another go-round. In this novella, Gideon Wells is called to investigate reports of what he initially believes is a ghoul, responsible for several attacks and deaths. Wells is accompanied by his eccentric assistant Rose, whom I couldn’t help but visualize as a gaslight version of River Tam from Serenity. In any case, what Wells discovers is something far worse than an undead creature of the night. As is often the case, man is the root cause of this horror; man and his seemingly unquenchable desire to tamper with nature. It also seems Wells has a taste for alcohol (similar, perhaps, to Sherlock Holmes’ taste for cocaine) and you wonder if, in a future installment, Wells might find demons to fight on the inside. Here’s hoping we’ll find out. Recommended.