Valancourt Books, 2022
translated by Luca Karafiáth
Yikes! I haven't posted anything here since July, but summer is the time of the Booker Prize longlist and that's kept me busy. This year's candidates for the prize have been amazing so far, and two of them would have been right at home as posts here at OWF: Percival Everett's The Trees brings back the dead in a quest for justice, while Shehan Karunatilaka offers a story that begins and then spends a lot of time in the afterlife in his The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Both were fantastic reads, my two favorites on the shortlist. But on with this show, with The Black Maybe by Hungarian author Attila Veres, whose name you may recognize if you've read the first volume of Valancourt's World Book of Horror which includes his story "The Time Remaining."
The ten stories that are found in The Black Maybe are truly some of the weirdest and darkest tales I've had the pleasure to encounter in a long while. Like the very best weird tales, these start in a very recognizable world before ever so slowly making that turn that lets the reader know that we're definitely not in Kansas anymore, as the characters who populate these stories have, consciously or unconsciously, crossed some sort of threshold taking them into the realm of nightmares. In this case, of course, Veres' stories take place in contemporary Hungary, in both rural and urban areas, touching on very human anxieties and fears that exist no matter where his characters live. In his introduction to this volume, Steve Rasnic Tem notes that the urban stories "feature protagonists whose obsessions intensify until a nightmarish climax is reached," and often contain a "background of rock or heavy metal." The rural tales, he says, are "inspired by the realities of farming and keeping and slaughtering livestock," and they also create "weird cosmologies which at times resemble folk horror, but which push far beyond." Whatever the location, I think the idea of "push[ing] far beyond" can be applied to each and every story in this book, all of which are beyond dark, fresh, original, and utterly squirmworthy. In short, my kind of read.
I won't be going into much story detail here, but the weirdness begins immediately in the first entry "To Bite a Dog," a great indicator of the strangeness yet to come in this collection. And as much as I loved each and every story here, I couldn't help but find a few beyond-disturbing standouts that quickly became favorites. The first of these is "Fogtown." While writing a book about the "underground music scene" in his city which "would have been about the growing-up of a generation," Balázs Peterfy becomes obsessed with an elusive band called Fogtown. He'd heard stories about Fogtown but rarely from anyone who was actually there when they played, and he soon became "driven" to discover if the group really existed, hearing stories about people who went to one of their concerts who "were not the same afterwards." Intending to add Peterfy's unfinished work as part of their own book, The Unpublished Books of Hungary, one of its two authors later regrets taking it on, since it started her partner "down a path that led to his end." Thoroughly eerie and related via various forms of text, this is a good one. Seriously good. Another particular favorite is "In the Snow, Sleeping," an utterly surreal (a word I don't bandy about needlessly) story that involves a couple taking a short vacation at a wellness spa. For Luca, it starts when she discovers an engagement ring in the pockets of her boyfriend Robi's jeans, which makes her a bit uneasy, but for some reason she can't put her finger on she is anxious and afraid about the vacation itself. All I will say is that they hadn't quite arrived at the spa when things start to turn weird, but once they get there, the weirdness only escalates. She wants to go home, but the boyfriend refuses to budge, until ... Yet another story that kept me awake at night is "The Amber Complex." This one is set in a town in Eastern Hungary, where "most people who are born here move away ..." and "miracles rarely happen." Gabor is one of those people living there, and has always known that "the town is a trap," and that there was no escape. He tried to make a life elsewhere but ended up coming back, and by the time he was thirty had decided that he would become an alcoholic. After witnessing a murder, he knows his time is limited when the murderer suggests they go to a pub on the outskirts of town, but a car pulls up in the nick of time, knocking the killer to the ground. Gabor is invited along with the car's occupants to Zanó's wine cellar, where he and the others are to partake of a special tasting of something called a "complex." There are seven of these, ordered by color, but they must be tasted in a particular order. The final one to be poured is the Amber complex, but very few people have ever gone that far. There are very good reasons why this is so, but I will say no more.
The book as a whole takes the reader on an unnerving, disturbing, and more often than not, a hallucinatory journey into terrifying spaces that exist somewhere on the outskirts of the mundane. These stories are experienced rather than just read, and a writer who can make that happen is definitely one to watch. I loved The Black Maybe; it rises miles above the norm into its own space of brilliance. It is definitely a no-miss for readers of the strange or the weird, and dark enough to satisfy any readers of horror fiction.
Very, very highly recommended, and my appreciation also goes to Valancourt for making The Black Maybe available in English.