"Art is illuminating, but there's also something dark about it -- something menacing, magical, obscure ... a conjuring of sorts, a reaching beyond the circle of the campfire, a groping of sorts, a reaching beyond the circle of the campfire, a grouping for dangerous things hidden in the faintly-perceived undergrowth."
As the dustjacket blurb notes, art is also a "spirit board" that allows his people to "contact shades from the past, or to discover danger in the shadows."
While I could certainly write great things about each and every story in this book, I'll have to settle for just a few of my favorites in the interest of time and space. In "Golden Book," the collection's opener, a woman makes contact and finds connection with a young girl in a library in Thailand while introducing her to a completely different understanding of the afterlife. Up next is "Bradycardia," a reality-bending (and pardon the phrase from the psychedelic 60s), utterly mind-blowing stunner of a tale which you will want to reread straight away before even thinking about going on. The subject of this story is a successful editor whose work has allowed him to "shout into the void" a number of "new voices," but who is also plagued by a debilitating series of nightmares of being on the editorial board of a company that has published some really crap hack material. Reality is interwoven with vivid dreamscape here as well as the "contradictory images" that keep floating through the editor's mind, and just when you start to wonder what the heck might happen next, Carlson provides a most shocking, unexpected and horrific ending to it all. "Salt" is a redacted transcript of the interrogation of a professor who enjoys witty rebus puzzles and who, like the character Campbell in Vonnegut's Mother Night (mentioned more than once here and throughout Dark Arts), believes in his own form of a "Kingdom of Two" -- "a closed circuit" where he and his wife are deeply in love, and
"thought for each other, lived for each other. We would finish each other's sentences, were probably thinking each other's thoughts..."
and, as he says, came to develop other distinct ways to communicate with each other so as to "avoid detection" -- a "triple layer of communications" -- when she first drew him into the world of espionage. As he lays out their life together including the birth and death of their son (with whom he can still supposedly communicate afterward) his interrogator drops a bombshell that very likely changes this man's life completely, and yet, because "all those messages have to count for something ... some greater meaning," the show must go on.
Eric Stener Carlson is an incredibly gifted writer who never fails to offer a deep, enriching and soulful quality in his work which illuminates the humanity of the author's characters no matter where they exist in the world. Like the best of the best weird tales, the stories in Dark Arts reach that certain point where people in the mundane world find themselves at some point having crossed a threshhold into a completely different reality; like the best authors, Carlson's skill is in illuminating the challenges of his characters who must make their way through what he describes as the "dark spaces" that are "intertwined with life and death and art." At the same time, it seems to me that one major idea that he never loses sight of throughout this book is that even in the darkness there will continue to be love and hope that may help to offset the horrors found there, so very much the case in our current world. Dark Arts is a truly excellent collection, both beautiful and terrifying, written by a skilled master of his own art. Beyond highly recommended, I cannot praise this book enough.