Nicole Cushing has earned her first award nomination for Children of No One, a novella published by the exciting new (as of 2012) publisher, DarkFuse. It is one of the seven novellas nominated in a strong field for the Shirley Jackson Award, an award I consider most apt to give me good reading recommendations.
The theme of Children of No One I find especially fascinating: art can be abused to horrific effect. It has always been true that what one person thinks of is artful and outrageously original is another person’s garbage; “My kid could do that!” is a phrase that has been directed toward any number of modern pieces, such as, say, the splatter paintings of Jackson Pollock. But there have also been discussions about whether certain art is cruel and unworthy of a mentally healthy audience. Some of Francis Bacon’s paintings, for instance, can easily be classified as horror — look at Three Studies for a Crucifixion, for instance. But when an artist engages in performance art, and uses human beings as his raw materials, the horror immediately escalates to criminal heights.
Cushing’s novella opens with two teenage boys arguing in Nowhere, Indiana, about the possible existence of light. In their world, there is no such thing, but one of the boys believes that once there was. All these boys know is a completely dark world in which the oak walls move, making it difficult to find food delivered each day by “Angels” — employees of the artist of whom the boys know nothing. We quickly learn that the boys are two of dozens purchased by Thomas Krieg as small children and enclosed in his underground labyrinth as “art.” McPherson is a “patron of the arts,” as he calls himself, who pays an enormous amount of money to get a preview of this “masterpiece.” In a conversation with Kitterman, the security guard who greets him, McPherson shrugs off the security problems posed by the type of art that Krieg specializes in, though he acknowledges that an artist with a reputation as “Krieg the Torturer” and “Krieg the Sadist” has to be careful.
This setup is bad enough, but things go from bad to worse when the occult, aided by drugs, enters the picture. A man named only as “the Englishman” (he says he doesn’t have a name) claims to be a magician who wants to use Nowhere, Indiana, as a battery for a magical engine that will reveal the nothingness that lingers beneath our universe. He wants this Great Dark Mouth to enter the universe and gobble up “our tacky delusions of light, life and meaning.” McPherson has perhaps bitten off much more than he can chew. Krieg is willingly cooperating with the Englishman’s effort, but only because he thinks they’re harmless.
The twists are plentiful as the novella proceeds inexorably toward a perfect, and perfectly chilling, ending. Cushing deals expertly with all the plots and subplots she has set in motion. She tells her story with a distinctive voice, using description to good effect for a story full of light, darkness, color and the absence of color, appropriate to her artistic theme. I’m now eager to read Cushing’s first novel, I Am the New God, released by DarkFuse last month. This is a new voice in horror that promises some dark, scary reads.