“ALTAR is redolent of hard-edged supernatural horror from the golden days of McCammon and King…” — Laird Barron, author of X’s for Eyes
The nostalgia of a child’s summer afternoon can be intoxicating. Tinkling ice cream trucks, games in the yard, young love, swimming pools. For one young boy and his family, days like these can be heaven.
Like any dream, however, things can change. Heavens can fall into darkness, games turn deadly, love become hate. And the seemingly safest places of our world – filled with that sweet, sky-blue nostalgia – can curdle and implode, tearing the dream, and those caught inside it, to shreds.
My friend Adrian Shotbolt messaged me the other night and asked me if I had read this incredible book he just finished. I had not done so and, knowing Adrian to have exceptional taste in dark fiction, I quickly secured a copy (thanks to the author for that). The book is ALTAR and I’m here to tell you that it’s everything I’d been led to expect and so much more.
Until recently, I’ve never been a fan of the weird or cosmic when it comes to fiction. Lovecraft never turned me on. I know this will be blasphemy to purists but, although he was a brilliant creative and wrote some groundbreaking, genre-shaping fiction, he was way over verbose for my tastes. Follow that up with all the Lovecraftian pastiche that’s saturated the market for so long and you’ve completely turned me away. But then I read the work of Laird Barron, an exceptional and brilliant author who showed me that there was a weird and a cosmic that went beyond pastiche and was, in fact, it’s own thing. That fine gentleman then directed me to the works of authors like Gemma Files, Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, and a whole passel of others writing this new weird that is a fascinating combination of literary experimentation, noir, and horror. Consider me a convert.
The author I’m talking about today, Philip Fracassi, is one of that group of authors that has me suddenly so enamored of this new weird fiction that’s being written today and ALTAR is a fine horror story in it’s own right, even without such sub-genre tags attached to it. Fracassi writes with flare and style, demonstrating a level of comfort with his subject material that one would generally expect from a much more experienced writer. His characters, Gary in particular, are real and sympathetic right out the gate and his setting, minimal as it may be, is picture perfect for the tale he tells, a tale that may make you think twice before that next family jaunt to the local swimming pool.
“Gary stared anxiously through the humidity-smeared rear window of the station wagon. The grill of the white Cadillac trailing behind them twinkled in the heat, the chrome glinting like a metal mouth bearing down on the rear bumper every time the brakes squealed them to a stop. Gary stared absently at two shadowy figures, blackened and hazy, hovering behind the Caddy’s sloping windshield like strange voyeurs from another world, a world in which things like air-conditioning and tinted windows proliferated.”
There begins a story rife with such lyrical prose and full of suspense and the promise of bad things to come right from the first paragraph. And bad things do come. Very bad things.
ALTAR crackles with tension from page one and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. The pacing is above par and the plot is engaging, as is Fracassi’s voice.But in the long run, the true power of this story boils down to two of the most important elements of story: character and setting. He builds his setting in a somewhat minimalist fashion with nearly the entirety of the book taking place at a public swimming pool. I know that doesn’t sound very exciting but it’s so perfectly executed, the color and the chaos of a hot summer day at the pool is captured so vividly, with such intimate attention to detail, that you can see it perfectly in your minds eye.
And it’s that intimate, minimalist setting that allows Fracassi the space he needs to develop his characters so spectacularly, especially Gary, who is lovable right from the start and stays that way through to the bitter and horrific end. Philip gets into the mind of a young boy better than I’ve seen anyone do since Stephen King’s IT, and it makes the story that much more terrifying because you feel an almost instinctive need to shelter and protect him from the darkness of the world. But the darkness in ALTAR is pervasive and there’s no escaping it. All you can do is hang on to the edge of your seat and hope things come out okay for the little boy and his typically dysfunctional little family unit.
ALTAR is the first work I’ve read by Philip Fracassi and I absolutely loved every single page of it. Fracassi’s voice is engaging and his story is captivating. It gets it’s teeth into you and refuses to let you go until the very last word. I read it in one short sitting and it had such a strong hold on my attention I probably would have read it in one sitting had it been three times as long. ALTAR is weird fiction with a gigantic bite and if you haven’t read it, you should go fix that now.