The Painted Darkness
Brian James Freeman
Cemetery Dance, 2010
I’m on a bit of a horror kick again and was looking for something dark to read. After scouring the web, checking out Laird Barron’s Imago Sequence and Other Stories from the library, and being disappointed that we had no collections of Clarke Ashton Smith or Arthur Machen I settled, I can’t quite remember why, on Brian James Freeman’s The Painted Darkness. The Painted Darkness is a horror novella detailing a painter’s struggle with his own past; a past he can only barely remember. Before its release in December, Freeman offered up the novella as a free download. The Painted Darkness is now available in both ebook and printed form (both the Kindle and nook versions are selling for $2.99) and the novella is up for this year’s Stoker Award for Long Fiction.
The novella alternates between the slow reveal of a repressed childhood memory and the present day where Henry struggles with the repercussions of that memory. In that first tantalizing bit of forgotten childhood Henry’s father urges him to “paint against the darkness” and it is this phrase that becomes Henry’s mantra throughout his life and throughout the novella. There is a weightiness to that statement that is difficult to ignore and Henry’s single-minded adherence to that has, just recently driven his wife and young son away. What we are left with is a psychologically disturbed artist obsessed with his work trapped in a house with a creaky old boiler (in the basement) located in the middle of nowhere while a winter storm rages outside. That’s about as close to a perfect set up for some horrific nastiness as you can get.
Freeman’s slow build of tension and oppressive atmosphere has a very old school sort of feel. As each new tidbit of Henry’s childhood memory is revealed the weight of it seems to grow urging present-day Henry to greater and greater urgency, or at least lending his actions greater feel of urgency. The Painted Darkness is at its been when it is imbuing the mundane with a sense of quiet menace, or subtly injecting bits of the strange and uncanny into the mix. With a careful use of tone Freeman changes an abandoned tree house into an abattoir of dark secrets and transforms an ancient boiler into tentacled monstrosity.
The Painted Darkness works extraordinarily well at face value and doesn’t lose anything if one wishes to scrutinize it on deeper levels. Like many a great piece of horror fiction The Painted Darkness is at its heart a meditation on the incredible capacity of the human imagination. Like the novella’s mantra indicates creativity can be used to “paint against the darkness” and the healing power of creativity and creation is something well explored in countless other works. However, The Painted Darkness twists that notion in a very dark, and a very satisfying away. Explaining in detail would delve a bit too far into spoiler territory for my comfort but Freeman drops hints over the novel as to where things are going and even when the “truth” is revealed there is ample room for divergent interpretation.
With the domination of monsters in the horror world, the growing compilation of zombie, vampire and werewolf stories, it is always a treat to discover a horror tale that manages to do its own thing. If there one thing that makes or break a scary story that thing is atmosphere. Freeman exhibits a masterful command of atmosphere in The Painted Darkness. Managing to evoke the stifling isolation of Henry’s house and tainting the nostalgia of childhood with the terror of the unknown. If you’re looking for a quality tale to dim the brightness of these spring days (or to go along with April’s seemingly ceaseless rain here in the East) than you should look no further than The Painted Darkness.