Dead Keys Review by Desmond Bullen
Dead Keys: Typewritten Tales Of Terror
Edited by Richard Polt, Frederic S. Durbin, and Andrew V. McFeaters Loose Dog Press, Cincinnati, 2021
Dead key (n.):
a typewriter key designed not to advance the carriage--no matter how desperately you hit it.
Review by Desmond Bullen
Long before Freud first turned the phrase, horror was trading in the return of the repressed, the seepage of the disavowed into the orderliness of polite society. As the cheerleaders of our own culture insist upon the torrential evanescence of the Cloud-based media, it’s not a complete surprise that a contrarian analogue rearguard should be intent on spoiling the party. Spotify may well be as ubiquitous as nitrogen in the atmosphere, but sales of L.P. records are swelling against its tide. As, indeed, are those of its tanglefoot cousin, the cassette tape. Likewise, Polaroid is manufacturing film once more, and the weighty solidity of the typewriter is back in vogue. Most pertinently for the collection under consideration, it is the instrument on which Wednesday writes her novel in Tim Burton’s uneven Netflix resurrection of Charles Addams’ deathless family. The typewriter and the gothic go together, it seems, like his and hearse.
Drawing a veil over the sometimes tenuous connection between the near-titular tool and the tales that unspool from it, this is a collection of breadth and merit, with voices as distinct as the impression of a typehead on paper. Each story is presented in the font in which it was typed, an effect which, whilst not as individualising as longhand’s impenetrability, serves to accentuate the differences in authorial approach.
Often, but not exclusively, these are tales of the past, in which the clatter of keys sounds unobtrusively as part of the period dressing. Shelley K. Davenport’s opening ‘All Hallow Summer’, for instance, slips with serpentine ease between the bell jar claustrophobia of 1950s America and the more literal witch trials which preceded it. Both spare and unsparing, showing its hand only at the denouement, it is, of course, no accident that its protagonist is named Sylvia.
By contrast, in ‘The Fate Machine’, Frederic S. Durbin’s sepia-tinged postcard from post-civil war America, a typewriter serves as the technology of revelation. Like the carnival-barking medium at its keys who claims to be a conduit for the discarnate, Durbin’s prose channels the vernacular of the period with a convincing verisimilitude. There is more to his act, however, than a skilled ventriloquism. With a stage magician’s misdirection, his flourish is in a final reveal that brings a kind of comfort out of the disquieting.
Closer to home, the typewriter in ‘The Experiment' is in the past tense, so that its anachronistic coexistence with robotic technology passes more readily below the threshold of detection. Matt Wixey’s layered narrative is structurally reminiscent of David Foster Wallace without the footnotes, and, like Wallace, is clearly besotted by the horror in Kafka’s humour, as well as vice versa.
By contrast, the machine in Ian Gillespie’s ‘It Won’t Go Away’ depends on its atavistic qualities for its narrative potency. A figurative fetish for the collector who attempts to refurbish it, it soon becomes clear that it is imbued with a more literal power owing nothing to consumer gratification. In the process, Gillespie invokes a visceral disgust familiar to anyone who has ever felt nauseated at the dead mass of very human remains which accumulate in a shower plughole. If the excess of its climax owes a little too much to the lurid melodrama of E.C. comics, the insidious understatement of the noisome suspense which proceeds it more than compensates for its minor misjudgement.
Perhaps the most affecting story in the anthology, however, seamlessly stitches a number of its recurrent themes together. Although, these days, a patient surgeon of the broken-spined volume inevitably evokes the unreliable narrator of You, ‘Ex Libris’ by David Freeman exists at one remove from the ever-flowing streaming of this last century, in a time and place when a library might still depend upon a card catalogue, one whose indices would be typed punctiliously by a librarian’s hand. A finely-worked miniature, it is wrought in tense ambiguity between grief and something more sinister, each effect heightening the other. Its exquisite irresolution settles deep into one’s bones, draining the warmth from one’s blood.
Like the best of its companions, it unsettles the imagination long after the covers of the paperback are closed, and the book itself laid to rest, almost as though, through the walls of one’s room, one can dimly discern the unmistakeable rhythm of it being tapped out anew. Ask not for whom the carriage returns...
Dead Keys: Typewritten Tales of Terror (Cold Hard Type)
Front cover photo: Frederic S. Durbin
Back cover photo: Merinda Boekhoudt