In our little corner of literary fandom, it’s a common thought that shorter is better. Horror has always benefited from brevity. One of our progenitor’s, Poe, wrote almost exclusively in the short story format. Fast forward, and Lovecraft, Blackwood, James, Chambers, and more are names thrown about as key participants of the genre’s development—all of them, of course, are primarily known for their short fiction. Horror readers, in contrast to other speculative genres like fantasy, love lean, mean tales meant to be read in a single sitting.
But what about the novella?
The novella has a parallel history in horror. While not quite as pervasive as the short story (or eventually, post-King, the novel), it has existed quietly, content to influence on its own terms. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Carmilla, The Willows, At the Mountains of Madness, We Have Always Lived in the Castle—make no mistake, the history of the horror novella is rich with arresting fiction.
Recently, this form has made a resurgence and it’s no surprise why. Novellas are shorter than novels and longer than novelettes. They can be read in one or two sittings and allow the reader to be more fully immersed in their worlds, while also offering lean pacing and less time investment from the author. The last point isn’t a knock, rather a tip of the hat to what makes short fiction so special—it’s experimental nature. Similar to shorts, novellas allow a safe space for authors to play with new ideas and concepts, without taking on the burden of a 60,000+ word novel (which also bears the chip on its shoulder, that somehow, ultimately must be sellable—which makes experimentation a gamble).
But small presses, like Tenebrous Press, have taken up the slack. They, and many others, are giving the novella the spotlight it deserves. Their latest offering, Agony’s Lodestone by Laura Keating, is an example of the modern weird horror novella exploring new, convoluted territory—interrogating genre tropes under new lenses and angles, without losing the sense of heart that makes stories a distinctly human phenomenon.
Agony’s Lodestone is a novella about grief, but also patterns. Years ago, siblings Aggie, Alex, and Bailey lost their sister Joanne to mysterious circumstances. One day, she just disappeared. Years later, estranged, ambitious, and eternal fuck-up Bailey, comes back into Aggie and Alex’s lives to share a new clue in their sister’s disappearance. What comes to us is the first taste of found footage that the back cover promises—a bizarre VHS tape with a looping image. An artifact that is at once eerie, but becomes more important—and central—to the plot as we go on.
The story itself recalls shades of The Blair Witch Project, Primer, and The Willows. It’s a reality bending mash-up that Keating pulls off well with impressive amounts of detail and pathos despite the short form. The central weird conceit is one that we see a lot in horror fiction as an afterthought, but here it’s given center stage. What for some would be spooky set decorations, Keating serves as the main event.
Reality-bending, time and space hypnotics, alternate paths, and looping timelines are at the heart of Agony’s Lodestone, but one of the greatest tricks Keating pulls off in her narrative is that for the most part, despite the quantum gymnastics, it all makes sense. She does excellent work grounding the story in its characters (who mirror the weird conceit in a variety of ways), and allows them to be the laymen we need to get a firm grip on any strange phenomenon.
The characters themselves are drawn well and immediately distinguishable, and much of the tension from the story is born from the siblings’ interactions and their competing goals and values. Agony’s Lodestone uses weird horror as an accelerant for big emotions already primed by a tragic history. And it’s this sense of shared history that makes the central character’s relationships so compelling. Yes, this is a novella about grief, to a degree, but it’s mined for something that doesn’t feel nearly as perfunctory as other works. I’m of the opinion that grief has become a crutch in horror, an easy ledge to grab onto in the mad-dash to become elevated. But Keating’s treatment of grief is built into the bones of her story. There is no lip service here. There are deep wounds, dealt with in the way we all deal with them—routine. We fall into roles, we become new people in the wake of tragedy. Agony’s Lodestone takes a step beyond the usual lip service and becomes a story about survival in the wake of loss, but also an examination of the myriad ways we protect ourselves.
Agony’s Lodestone is an incredible novella, simultaneously fast-paced and detailed; thematically deep and immediately entertaining. It’s a reminder that the form is vital, electric and in endless conversation with itself. These conversations, these intertextual sparring matches, push the genre forward. They’re weird and difficult and different than anything we’ve ever read, but to grow and howl and allow others to howl back—they only need the right form. Here it is, folks, a call to our own history, revised, challenged, revamped, and re-assessed. Found footage meets the reality-threshing world of Weird fiction—all in Agony’s Lodestone, a novella.