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Strange Seed

by TM Wright

(Bradford, 2006; $65.00; 229 pages; ISBN: 0-977956-0-9. First published in 1978.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanPerception and its unique terrors/opportunities for revelation and suspense are explored with poetry and disturbing ambiguity in this, one of the 'great' novels of supernatural horror. Neither traditional ghost story nor science fiction, Panistic nature ode a la Blackwood or expressionism, but a subjective form uniquely the author's own, Strange Seed is a unique and terrifying new approach to not only the sensation of horror but the very method of constructing a novel. As revisionist in its construction as it remains in its storyline, this 1978 novel immediately defined in Wright an author more concerned with character subjectivity, the nature of reality, and atmosphere than with paint-by-numbers plot. An evocative examination of identity, crippled futures haunted by murky pasts, and an amoral, emotionally terrifying breed of beings formed from, and intimately connected with, the earth, this debut novel ushered in a dark new talent that continues to astound.

Lovingly produced, this special edition of Strange Seed, from Twisted Publishing, an imprint of Bradford Publishing, is the author's preferred, revised version. Celebrating Wright's cosmic vision, this volume combines Wright's powerful, primal fable of fear with evocative black-and-white illustrations by Rick Sardinha, "Some Seeds Take," an introduction by novelist Jack Ketchum, and a self portrait by Wright. As interested in scathing subtexts of personal culpability, guilt, and transformation as it is in telling a frightening story with powerful emotion and lyrical description, this novel features the mortal mind transformed by unrecognized yearning. The uncertain minds and emotions of intimately recognizable, believable characters -- neither heroes nor villains, good or evil, but both victims and victimizers in a world which itself is unstable and ultimately unknowable -- resist classification. Dealing gleefully (and quite disturbingly) with amoralities and ambiguities of Man and Nature, Strange Seed is at once both a celebration of fear and a tragedy of discovered identity. Paul Griffin moves with his wife Rachel from the crowded misery of New York City, responding to a mysterious inner force that compels him to seek solace and identity in the ancestral forests of his youth. Rebuilding a home, he and his wife are soon subjugated to a nightmare of altering perceptions, alienation from the outside world, and, at last, terrified by the darkly beautiful children who come from the forest looking like us, mimicking our behaviors, but lacking the internal sense of mercy and love that defines humanity at its best. This surface story of 'earth children' so close yet alien to our natures is supported and made even more frightening by a subtext which examines the dissolution of relationships and the breakdown of both love and trust. Finally, it is a primal horror story of the loss of identity. As such, it is just as much a tragedy of life and love as it is a nightmare of beings not so much supernatural as organically different. The earth children scare us most because they reflect our darker midnight selves.

While Wright's refusal to play it safe by providing readers with clean cut moral simplicities or easy-to-understand endings has alienated a large percentage of what could be considered the traditional horror readership, his poetically lush atmosphere, evocation of ambiguity in a lonely universe, and anti-plots of subjectivity have delighted just as many. Perhaps nowhere is his skill at evoking alienated characters more apparent than in Strange Seed. This is a novel of 'character,' focusing on a man whose lack of historical or social belonging, restlessness, and dark ancestry is as invigorating in subtext as it is enjoyable as a suspenseful surface story. It is also an example of emotionally-charged atmosphere. Presenting us with the painful and terrifying deterioration of a marriage, this novel of sinister revelations is also a dark descent into the possibilities of transformations, resisting the urge to preach. In fact, there are no conscious morals, no emotional, or intellectual sermons or banal cookie-cutter formula. This makes the story, its characters, and its universal themes so much more terrifying. The earth children first introduced in this novel -- creatures without souls or conscience, living through instinct with all the ferocious savagery, grace, and deadly beauty of the Natural world -- are neither good nor evil; they, like the main character, simply are; they exist, as do death, sex, pain, and terror.

An economically written and deeply felt nightmare of atmospheric subtlety and stark spiritual horror, suggesting a refined sense of occult powers and supernatural mysteries lurking at the very edges -- or, more often, within -- the fabric of "reality," Wright's elegant nightmares expose borderland moments in the lives of characters who through their own folly or, worse, through no fault of their own, discover that preconceived notions of existence are a surface illusion, and that the truth, whatever that mystifying presence may indeed be, is a thin onion peel away from the woken mind. Moments of intellect or emotional overflow, those times when the supernatural is encountered, provoke awe and invite a new sensitivity to the sublime possibilities anchored in the everyday. The very commonplace if hidden proximity of the unknown makes Wright's vision so very chilling in Strange Seed.

Much like his carefully developed ghosts, the 'children of the earth' in Strange Seed are little different than any human being, and therein lies their supreme artistic statement and terrifying effect. The creatures which make this entire series of novels so invigorating, unique, and disturbing (and not just a little liberating) is that, in effect, they are us but lacking the so-called civilized attributes and mannerisms that keep us from tearing each other apart (well, at least in theory). Yet these very same develop, we find, when the creatures interact close enough, long enough with human character, and vice versa, which is precisely one of the reasons that the protagonist's gradual shift from one species to the other is so compelling, organic too, the deceitful, chilling plot at the same time that it makes a telling statement about the nature of humanity itself. Evolution is disturbingly alike in terms of both ourselves and 'the children' of earth, forest, and fern. Where does one end and the other begin? That is indeed the question, and one which is as enjoyable to contemplate as it is difficult.

This modern tragedy of identity, love, loss, and decadent liberation evokes as many questions as it does emotions, refusing to give readers the easy answer they hunger for. In this it is disturbingly true to life. Just as dreadful is Wright's suggestion that our greatest terrors and threats don't come from that mythic 'without' or 'outside' that many genre authors depict. No, the most horrifying impulses and nightmarish conditions of existence stem from the very common, the banal and seemingly everyday reality that we neither know nor understand half as well as we like to think. This relationship between persona and environment is one of the major sources of fear and wonder in the novel; their local environment, their homes, their friends and lovers and memories are all physical, emotional, and spiritual mirrors by which we reflect our own fears and anxieties and secret desires.

Setting is as crucial an element in the success of this novel as the finely wrought characterizations, both living embodiments of character's emotions and a creeping mother to the children whose call cannot be denied. The rural setting of Strange Seed is the ideal place within which to evoke a claustrophobic portrait of a husband and wife doomed by their pasts and different yearnings. The same countryside that births and sustains life only to kill it again is both a surrounding construct and an embodiment of 'the children,' and Paul and Rachel, the doomed lovers, are painfully made aware that while they may exist temporarily in this space of alien freedom, they are also engaged in deadly struggle with it. A struggle that they must lose. Between the supernatural and horribly realistic live and die Wright's characters: doubt, emotional diseases, and ghosts that wear our face. This story, in this special edition, belongs on any discerning horror fan's shelf!

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