Book Review: “Swirling Darkness” by Sam M. Phillips

swirling

Promotional art for Sam M. Phillips’ “Swirling Darkness”

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Sam Phillips is an author, poet, and a co-founder of Zombie Pirate Publishing with Adam Bennett. They published some of my very first short stories and have been a lot of fun to work with.

Sam is branching out as an individual author and I recently read two of his books, Infinity and I, published by the aforementioned Zombie Pirate, and Swirling Darkness published as part of the Underground series by Black Hare Press

The description for his anthology is:

INFINITY AND I is a collection of seventy brand new science fiction stories from Sam M. Phillips, the co-founder of Zombie Pirate Publishing. Inside you’ll find surreal space journeys, bizarre aliens, futuristic technology, rogue AIs, and a girl who just wants to be loved. Follow a huge array of exotic characters across the galaxy as they use inter-dimensional drugs and fight battles on faraway worlds. Action, drama, and science combine with the complexity of the human soul in the year’s most exciting new sci fi release. Open up a portal and step into the depths of a unique mind with INFINITY AND I: Seventy Science Fiction Stories!

As an aside, I should note that my novella Time’s Abyss is also part of the Underground series.

Sam publishes his poetry on his blog Big Confusing Words. That’s important to know for my review as you’ll soon see.

The blurb for “Darkness” states:

An artist lives in the perpetual night of the Arctic Circle during winter, making paintings which he interprets symbolically. Pressured by an upcoming exhibition and driven mad by his isolation, he seeks an escape, as well as a way to get to the heart of the meaning of art, so he digs.

What follows is a surreal journey into the centre of the Earth as the artist overcomes a series of bizarre trials and tribulations, confronting the horror of his inner psyche and the terrible denizens who dwell deep underground.

Ultimately, he must confront himself and the true nature of his world.

infinity

Cover art for Sam M. Phillips’ “Infinity and I”

When reading “Darkness,” I was glad I had this description because it’s not an easy book to read and comprehend. As the above-description states, the book enters the mind of an artist gone mad and his supposed hallucinations of a macabre and nightmarish underground realm. He encounters devils and demons and even a dragon, all seemingly bent on his horrific mutilation and ultimate demise.

Most of the book is the protagonist’s agonizing introspections as he delves into his dark world. In reading “Infinity,” each of Sam’s short stories (some classify as drabbles) have similar styles and themes. Many involve drug use and addiction as well as insanity. He also returns to the theme of what it is to be truly alien, either from another planet or as an interdimensional being.

Sam’s use of language is rich, erudite, and densely packed. Along with the “otherworldliness” of his writing, this can cause the reader to become lost as to what is happening, to whom, when, and how. At an equivalent of eighty pages, this digital book is short, but not a quick read.

For me, the advantage that “Darkness” had over “Infinity” is the length. Across seventy short stories which qualify as both science fiction and horror, just as the reader is penetrating into the protagonist’s world, suddenly that world ends, and we’re on to the next tale.

In “Darkness,” we have time to more fully explore a complex and frankly confusing realm. I was certain for the majority of the book that the protagonist (he’s never given a name) was absolutely bonkers and hallucinating. What he describes would certainly have killed a person many times over. But once he’s rescued by “the woman,” things aren’t so clear.

Is he in an underground world similar to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series? For a while, I thought so.

But the story ends in a different world (or reality) with the man and the woman together and supposedly at peace.

Sam’s stories tend to seize upon the character’s exploration of themselves, their reality, and their ultimate identity. Pretty existential stuff. Even writing prose, this author’s work reads very much like poetry, and at the end, the reader is left wondering if the protagonist has returned to his own mind or is truly lost in some “otherness” forever.

If symbol-heavy writing and questions of self and existence appeal to you, then Sam Phillips’ Swirling Darkness may be the book for you.

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