At the Rim of Daylight by Justin A. Burnett

Yes, I’m releasing a chapbook of my own stories under the Silent Motorist Media banner. Let me explain: as part of SMM’s Patreon goals, we promised patrons an exclusive chapbook once we hit $100 in subscriptions. Well, we’ve hit it, and this is the result of that promise. The paperback edition of At the Rim of Daylight is and will remain a Patreon-exclusive publication. To obtain a physical copy, all you have to do is subscribe to SMM on Patreon at $4 or more. At the Rim of Daylight will remain an ongoing bonus to Patreon subscribers. 

At the Rim of Daylight consists of four full-length stories and one flash fiction piece by me. None of these stories are set to appear in my first full-length collection, The Puppet King and Other Atonements, set to release in 2022 from Journalstone. Three of the pieces are unpublished, and one is from a collection permanently out of print. The chapbook will also feature notes, art, and benefit from all the care and attention of any other SMM publication. 

Cover art for Kindle edition

This chapbook will also be released on Kindle. This will be its only public release, and it will not be accompanied by a physical release on Amazon. This work is dedicated, with love, to SMM’s Patreon supporters, who have unwaveringly supported and encouraged us through every project. THANK YOU, and enjoy.


About the Author


Justin A. Burnett is the author of The Puppet King and Other Atonements, to be published by Trepidatio Publishing in 2022. He’s also the Executive Editor of Silent Motorist Media, a weird fiction publisher responsible for the creation of the anthologies Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, which was named best multi-author anthology of 2019 by Rue Morgue magazine, The Nightside Codex, and Hymns of Abomination, a tribute to the work of Matthew M. Bartlett. His quarterly chapbook, Mysterium Tremendum, explores the intersection between horror and the holy. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, with his partner and children.

Classic Review: Kwaidan

There’s no doubt that weird fiction easily bears comparison to the folk tale. I imagine that many readers and writers of weird fiction developed their initial attraction to the more unsettling dimensions of literary creation by way of a particularly well-told folk tale. I vividly remember my own initial tinge of the uncanny gleaned from campfire ghost stories, and any child who pursued fairy tales from their whitewashed Disney iterations into the tomes of Grimm certainly experienced a similar rending of the veil (today there’s Creepypasta in lieu of the campfire yarn—one must admire the ghost tale’s tenacity).

What seems to lend the folk or fairy tale a certain openness to the “weird” is its dreamlike fluidity. Objects undergo outrageous transformations seamlessly in the haunted space of suspended causality. The inanimate realm of the fork and spoon can become the sudden locus of andromorphic relationship and no one suspects foul play. Boundaries aren’t so firm here, allowing characters to remain subject to the intercession of the archetype: the witch’s cabin in the woods, the living dead family cut off from civilization, beautiful ghosts that attach themselves to wandering heros only to become the agent of their unmaking.

All of these elements are present in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn’s magnificent collection of Japanese weird fiction. Hearn may not have obtained the status of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, or Clark Ashton Smith in what is typically conceived of as the pantheon of weird fiction. This isn’t for a lack of merit, even if much of Hearn’s work here was translated from Japanese texts. If I had to guess, I’d say we don’t talk more about Hearn because what transpires in these pages feels even weirder than the classic weird tale, an alien element not entirely due to the stories’ context external to the Eurocentrism common to weird fiction. The stories are short, hallucinogenic, and rooted firmly within the realm of the folk tale. Most importantly, they frequently obtain the chilling, uncanny depths that only the best weird fiction evokes in the reader.

Much like in medieval romances, cottages dot the landscape, small pockets of humanity abandoned by the forward thrust of civilization. Danger resides in these remote locales, even if they are temporarily shrouded in an appearance of beauty or hospitality. They are areas of magical transformation, thresholds between our world and the strange and often maleficent astral land beyond. In “Jikininki,” a Zen priest who has lost his way stumbles across a remote dwelling. The inhabitant, also a priest, refuses the traveler shelter, directing him to a nearby village instead. When he reaches the village, he obtains lodging in a house that happens to hold the corpse of a recently departed family member. The villagers warn the traveler against staying the night, citing an ancient local custom that requires abandoning the house and body at nightfall. The priest firmly adheres to his occupational role, offering to perform the pre-burial rites on the corpse in the family’s absence. Happily, they leave him to his duties. Under the shadow of darkness, an amorphous shadow fills the hut, consuming the body. The priest departs in the morning, finding his way back to the remote shack of the priest who directed him to the village the night before.There, he discovers that the inhabitant was the amorphous, flesh eating shadow, an undead jikininki cursed to repay a lifetime of greed.

Many of the stories in Kwaidan play develop in this simple, matter-of-fact progression, likewise delving into territory all the more unsettling for its lack of commentary or justification and all the more chilling for the ease of Hearn’s style. In the story above, the unexpected presence of the jikininki, described eerily as a noiseless “Shape, vague and mast,” is left sufficiently vague and otherworldly to maintain the aura of mystery a lesser writer would sacrifice for the sake of a concrete image. If this points to an aspect of Hearn’s work I admire, I’d call it taste. Hearn never appears to exploit his subject, letting it speak for itself in its understated remoteness, its glacial calm in the face of a metaphysics that accommodates, aside from a host of otherworldly beasts and goblins, current lives that fulfill the bloody karma of the past. Kwaidan is a haunted book, full of ghosts of history and ghosts of something more terrible still, something beyond karma and restlessly clawing through the holes in reality beyond which we hear the moan of a cold, cosmic wind.

In 1964, two of the stories from Kwaidan were combined with others from Hearn’s work to produce the titular classic of Japanese horror film (which I’ve written about on this site before). Although it remains a masterpiece in its own right, don’t expect the same slow, plodding pace from these stories. Readers should expect a similar reliance on color, however–the world of weird fiction isn’t always gray after all (see Jeff VanderMeer’s work, which I expect to write about in this segment one day). Hearn’s work is brilliant, unique, and absolutely essential for any reader looking to broaden their weird horizons.

Verdict: deserves way more hype!

by Justin A. Burnett

Classic Review: Teatro Grottesco

I admit to being totally smitten by the work of Thomas Ligotti before actually getting around to Teatro Grottesco. The Penguin edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe no less than changed my entire literary trajectory. Here it is, I thought, the collection I always knew was out there waiting for me.

Not that Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is perfect–what collection could be? While some stories, such as “The Frolic” and “Dream of a Mannequin,” left me perfectly breathless, others, like “The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise,” remained little more than puzzling curiosities. This isn’t to say that the experience of reading Ligotti didn’t leave me with images and questions I still haven’t stopped thinking about–it did, and there certainly aren’t many pieces of fiction out there that have exerted a similar impact.

Still, even though I bought it directly after finishing Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (along with The Spectral Link, which I have read but there’s no space to get into it here), I delayed reading Teatro Grottesco for years. It was an experience I wanted to relish, to meditate deeply on, and I didn’t feel the time was quite right until recently.

Is it better than Songs…? I think so.

Not a single story falls flat here–things get heavy, complexities of perspective abound, unexpected shifts crouch in every darkened corner ready to shake off the unwary reader, and the dread of existence is so thick it’s often funny, but it’s never boring. Ligotti has successfully honed the obsessively monomaniacal curiosities that grip his characters to a fever pitch, and the path their discoveries take never leads to the light. There is something hollow in these characters, something puppetlike, even when Ligotti isn’t dealing explicitly, like in “The Clown Puppet,” with the puppet theater. I’m reminded of the poet Dennis Silk’s justification for the elimination of the human actor in “When the Dead Awaken,” his essay on the “thing” theater:

[T]he personal actor has lost the thing in himself […]. He’s squandered his strength in a hundred personal emotions which he then inflicts on his role. But the thing-actor has guarded its strength. It’s a form of locked-up energy waiting for the right outlet. (228)

Ligotti’s protagonists are more “thing-actor” than human, hollowed by the fantastic repetition of their mechanical lives (“Our Temporary Supervisor,” “The Bungalow House”) or held in thrall by the enduring (and often communal) curiosity that leads them to a sudden prespectival shifts which amount to traumatic confrontations with the wholly negative Other (“The Town Manager,” Gas Station Carnivals”). There is no hope here, only the magnetic draw to the emptiness that ripples through the environment, poisoning the landscape with a black hole’s radiation that causes a strange decay that isn’t quite the same as disintegration, a fermentation that only looks like decay on the surface, turning a useless town into an absurd carnival, or a ruined factory to a factory of nightmares.

It’s true that Ligotti’s characters here, rather than victims of the inexplicable evils of the cosmos (“The Frolic”), are part of the mechanical deterioration of reality themselves. They are drawn, like the library employer irresistibly attracted to a voice recording entitled The Bungalow House in the titular tale, by a “locked-up energy” back to their sources, only to undergo an ontological shift that radically externalizes their inner emptiness. True to this emptiness, there is plenty of room within for Ligotti to seamlessly manipulate metaphors that reflect on the experience of reading weird fiction (“The Red Tower”)–one cannot help but feel a certainty that Ligotti writes from a place of empathy. He achieves what he does precisely because he knows how it feels to be alone and utterly captivated by an impossible blackness the rest of the world is unable to see.

Ligotti achieves a truly vertiginous terror unlike any other I’ve yet to come across in weird fiction. For this reason Teatro Grottesco is best read slowly, with a cautious finger against the pulse of the reader’s mental well being. Ask any reader who has experienced a deep affinity with this collection if I’m exaggerating.

It’s truly impossible to successfully characterize Ligotti’s work in such a short space. I can only encourage you to read it if you haven’t. For me, it’s only a matter of time before the smoke gathers and I’m compelled, like a puppet on its strings, to read My Work is Not Yet Done. But it must be the right time. In a way, the act of reading Ligotti is sacred.

Verdict: Too good to be true!

by Justin A. Burnett

Classic Review: The House on the Borderland

The House on the Borderland is my first successful reading of William Hope Hodgson, and one that I initiated with some trepidation, given what a slog the beginning of The Night Land was. The latter’s pseudo-archaic stylization and meandering plot didn’t exactly inspire me to press forward, particularly in the midst of the obligatory readings I was undergoing at the time. I quit it early on, something I do a lot (and unapologetically) as a reader–there’s only so much you can read in a lifetime, after all.

The House on the Borderland is different. The elements that interested me (without quite winning me over) in The Night Land are still front and center–the narrative-within-a-narrative structure (here a narrative-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative… this was written in 1908!), the passing experimentation with textual deterioration, and the fearless dive into blatant unreality–only this time housed inside an immediately manageable and engaging plot that allows these elements to get to work right away.

Hodgson’s truly unsettling novel opens with two young men who stumble across the ruins of a house while on a fishing trip in Ireland. The ruins are perched on a seemingly impossible outcropping of rock that stretches over a deep hole full of water, and even in his description of the locale, Hodgson already displays a fearless mastery of scene that will serve him well over the ensuing 290 or so pages. A transcription of the journal the two men find inside the ruined house serves as the remainder of the narrative, and my god, what a tale it is.

After the protagonist (called simply The Recluse) recounts an unnerving hallucinatory(?) journey to the “Plain of Silence,” humanoid beasts besiege the cursed house, searching for a point of entry with nightmarish determination. The Recluse’s frenzied attempts to protect his home are merely the beginnings of a horrific tale that only grows more cosmic in scope as it progresses (unwinds), leaving the reader less and less tethered to a firm metaphysical vantage point. It’s difficult to overstate the lengths this novel will cross to undermine the reader’s place in the universe, aligning it much closer thematically to contemporary cosmic horror fiction than many of Hodgson’s weird contemporaries. In many ways, Hodgson’s novel renders the metaphysical emptiness at the heart of Lovecraft’s cosmos more acutely than much of Lovecraft’s own fiction.

This isn’t to say that Hodgson is better than Lovecraft. Just as Hodgson’s strong core of “negative transcendence” makes The House on the Borderland difficult to describe, it also makes for a frequently taxing read (albeit well worth the extra effort). There’s also the matter of long-lost romance that inorganically materializes in some of the novel’s most hallucinatory moments, a misstep that Lovecraft himself rightly counted against the integrity of the work as a whole. It’s nevertheless an error to write The House on the Borderland off as anything less than a giant in the world of weird fiction. The relative nature of time in the novel is perhaps its most well-handled tool; the scene where The Recluse watches the world around him accelerate dizzyingly into the future has proven chillingly tenacious.

Perhaps this malleability of time is what aligns The House on the Borderland, at least to my mind, with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and William Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (especially the former). All three works stand out as utterly unafraid to test the outer limits of imagination (even at the expense of the reader’s comfort), and more than a little of Wells’ bitter rendering of the far-distant future appears to be echoed here by Hodgson. It’s nevertheless impossible to see Hodgson as derivative, even if Wells’ subterranean Morlocks seem to faintly present in Hodgson’s own cave-dwelling Swine-Things. After all, Wells’ protagonist had the Eloi for company. The Recluse, although technically accompanied by a sister who is next to invisible throughout the narrative, remains increasingly alone.

Hodgson’s work remains somewhere in between the imaginative science fiction of Wells and the weird, atmospheric mastery of Algernon Blackwood. For me, Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland embodies the best–at least the best possible for his time–of both worlds. It is an inexcusable mistake for any fan of classic weird fiction to overlook his work, and I look forward to revisiting The Night Land with this utter triumph of his in mind.

Verdict: More than deserves its sterling reputation!

by Justin A. Burnett

S. L. Edwards’ Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts: A Review by Justin A. Burnett

There is no true end to becoming. The future winks in the distance like a promise that the past whispered from the shadows. Bridging these ends is the present, an epiphenomenon resulting from the narrativization lent by consciousness to the messy business of being. Although depression might be characterized as the sense of letting the narrative strand go–the sudden dissolution of the past and future elevates the present horribly into naked meaninglessness–the narrative can’t truly disappear. The human enterprise is always teleological, and as such the story must go on. Undoubtedly, the strand may twist: turgid personal histories tug painfully against futures, limiting their range of potentiality; unhappy childhoods lubricate the atmosphere for fierce storms in later life; acts of extreme violence inject the circular causality of trauma into entire cultures, but the narrative never vanishes. More than anything, Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts is an account of narratives that feel broken but live on despite themselves.

Another way do articulate this might be to compare S. L. Edwards’ debut collection to The Shining. There’s a certain lack of artifice that inhabits Whiskey, a willingness to forgo the trappings and rhetorical nuances of the kind of writing that thinks of itself as “literary” in favor of a steady gaze towards life at its most repulsive. Stephen King famously opposed Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, which, in my opinion, appeared to obscure Jack Torrence’s struggle against alcohol under a distorted lens that prioritized mystification over character motivation. Kubrick’s tendency towards obscurity is actually a groping towards something similar to what Frederic Jameson calls “formal contradiction” in his discussion of Mahler, that unanswerable question that “secures the work’s position in history” (loc 1325). Kubrick, in other words, aspires to reach beyond King’s novel into the realm of high art. While much has been said online about King’s reaction to Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, one observation stands out as particularly relevant to Edwards’ work. While I can no longer remember or locate the source, the formulation went something like this: “while Kubrick approaches The Shining as an artist, King’s first concern is always man.”

In the context of this opposition, readers can expect much more of King than Kubrick in Edwards. That isn’t to say that Edwards wields the stripped stylistics of Brian Evenson or Cormac McCarthy, but that Edwards deploys every narrative device in utter deference to the human concern he wishes to explore. “I’ve Been Here a Very Long Time” isn’t about a monster in the closet; it’s about abuse and the hideous scar it leaves on a life. It’s about dreaming into existence a different life, that omnipotence childhood pretends to in its most painful moments; it’s about disappointment and reluctant acceptance, things that many of us have somehow lived through. It’s never truly about Edwards’ “simple premise” to which he admits in the author’s note following the story: “the monster in the closet loves you” (30). We can dismiss that with a chuckle, since the “monster” never seduced us–it slithered into the light to perform its mechanical duty and vanished, moving the plot to the next plateau of despair. The horror here is the impotence of the child amidst the violence of its parents. Edwards concern is always with the repulsively human rather than the supernatural.

There’s something deeply admirable in Edwards empathetic concerns, despite the fact that art can never be life (it arises from life, certainly, and nuances our life perspectives without a doubt–it is never, however, being in and of itself, and shouldn’t aspire to be). Nevertheless, the strongly human locus has led to brief moments of narrative weakness. The lower functions that devices of “horror” play throughout Whiskey do, at times, come with a price–the darkly supernatural Golden King in “Golden Girl” supports a depiction of the rather pedestrian anxiety of physical attraction. Here, without the backdrop of a historical or strongly-felt personal trauma, the narrative pressure is intensely focused on the supernatural aspect. Every writer has an Achilles’ Heel, and, in this collection, the supernatural isn’t Edwards’ strong suit. “Movie Magic” is a unique point in Whiskey that, lacking a deeply-felt human struggle, relies entirely on truly effective horror and spends a lot of time covering very little ground. What’s missing in these stories is what could be termed  “The Call of the Void.”

I would be tempted to advocate the use of l’appel du vide to represent the central attraction of weird fiction if the term weren’t associated now (rather indelicately) with mere “suicidal impulse.” I associate it with the strange magic of immense spaces, the soft conjurings that truly immense weirdness makes when we stumble across it. In this sense, weird fiction is characterized by the reader’s seduction by the otherworld, or, as in Ann and Jeff Vandameer state it in their introduction to The Weird, “the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane” (loc 211). Although this seduction does surface in Whiskey–slowly in “Cabras,” and fiercely in the beautiful “We Will Take Half,” a story that still fascinates me–readers shouldn’t go into Whiskey expecting pure weird fiction.

What readers would do better to expect is a solid debut that owes more to the author’s reading of humane authors like Tolstoy rather than the cold but brilliant Ligotti. While I’ve noted the places where Edwards’ focus extracts a fee, we should by no means consider his focus a weakness. Writing–particularly in the short story form–is always a matter of sacrifice, and often Edwards does so to strike a magnificent balance that forces the otherworldly to enhance the gritty concerns of life. I’ve already mentioned “Cabras” and “We Will Take Half,” two effective stories about war; “Volver Al Monte,” “When the Trees Sing,” and “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” neatly complete this category, and it should be noted that Edwards deeply empathetic perspective makes him admirably suited to engage in themes of universal import.

It takes a certain boldness in a writer to put war to paper; it’s a theme much larger than God, and that Edwards can successfully evoke it without cheapening it is an event worth celebration. In “When the Trees Sing,” a man comes back from Vietnam to infect a loving family with the destruction the war wrought on him. When supernatural voices call him sweetly to the void (l’appel du vide again, literally this time), one can still tie the narrative strand back to the primal trauma a continent away. Nothing is subtracted from the human horror in the manufacturing of the otherworldly; in fact, it heightens the weirdness of the war itself, locating both on a plane beyond the immediate, where they rightfully belong. Despite the terrors the soldier has committed, we feel his loss is fated by the blind mechanisms of violence rather than deserved.

The “stories of war” uniformly follow suit, combining the blind force of the supernatural almost allegorically with the senseless cruelty of war. The others are (with only a few exceptions), “stories of growing up.” Although war and maturation seem thematically distinct, Edwards’ strength is his ability to underscore the universal aspects of both. In lieu of the division between “war” and “maturation,” we could posit the “communal” and “individual”–nothing would be lost, and we could still note with astonishment that Edwards is at home in either affective realm.

In “Whiskey and Memory,” a father towers ferociously over a young man’s life. The young man, true to trauma’s circularity, learns to replicate the transgressions for future generations, creating a dark stain that descends through time with the persistence of an inheritance. A cursed bottle of whiskey is the supernatural mechanism here that revives the father in all his terrible majesty, allowing him to loom in the flesh as the bloody idol that suffering and memory built to withstand like a sphinx the ages. The father is like war in Whiskey; both swell monstrously with the individuals they swallow; both are beyond hope, and carry with them the chiming doom of the inevitable.

Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts admirably aspires to be one of those immortal debut collections of dark fiction, such as Michael Wehunt’s Greener Pastures and Nadia Bulkin’s She Said Destroy. Only time can tell if Edwards succeeds in this. What can be said is that Edwards’ efforts are well worth experiencing, so long as we appreciate the deeply empathetic soul of this collection. Given the current rift in political and socioeconomic perspectives, something should be said about fiction’s empathetic responsibility; no better case could be made for this collection than the stories themselves. Do not plan for escape. Prepare, instead, to engage.

Justin A. Burnett