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When I found out that Probably Monsters was Ray Cluleys first collection of short fiction, I was frankly a bit shocked. With the amount of times Id seen his name included in anthologies, high end dark fiction journals, award lists (he won a British Fantasy Award in 2013 for Best Short Story and has garnered other accolades and honors), and year-end Best Ofs, I figured he had several dozen stories penned and a few collections under his belt.But no, and so much the better, because Cluley has allowed himself time to write, ruminate upon, then cull the best work from his oeuvre, which plays to the benefit of us his readers, as he presents twenty brilliantly crafted stories that range vastly in setting, tone, subgenre, and even genre itself. Paul Tremblay recently wrote in an interview he conducted with Peter Straub for the Los Angeles Review of Books that Straub is now entering his fifth decade of blurring genre and literary fiction. Blurring. I like that. Cluley does this, as well. Im sure many of the great dark fiction and horror writers, or at least the ones I most admire and enjoy, do that these days.Clulely writes British, and he writes American, and he writes as if hes a native of nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Hes deft with his language, balanced, showing enough poetry to woo you while never slathering on so much cologne that youre running for the exit once you move in close. His is a strong, confident, beautiful voice, enhancing the telling while never getting in the way of the interesting plotting and characters, pulling up all the sadness and horror and guts of this world and others beyond it and laying it out for us to ponder. In short, its the ideal voice of contemporary literature. That he happens to also write about monsters of every species is just the cherry on top. I prefer my literature topped with monsters, dont you?Probably Monsters roars from the gates with a snarl, as the opening story All Change is a powerhouse start to the collection, and fitting, as it features a smorgasbord of creative and horrific beasties. You can see Cluleys mind running wild a bit, having fun creating creatures of all shapes, sizes, and textures. The boy playing monsters. I loved the big H Horror of this story, and how it shifts the mind into a particular setting for what is assumed to come.This mindset is immediately challenged by I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing, which is more of a quiet literary piece, taking place in Nicaragua and centering around the dangers of the free diving lobster industry, shadowed by native superstition. An excellent, interesting, melancholy story that could appear in any fine fiction journal anywhere in the world. Hemingway could have written this story if he had a bit more heart and stylistic art, or Hunter Thompson, if he remained sober long enough. The Festering inspired the cover to the collection, and is a dark piece of new weird fantasy. Im not even sure I know what new weird is, but it somehow seems to fit this tale of a teenager girl who whispers all of her secrets into her bedroom desk, while dealing with a desperately lonely mother and the inappropriate attention from the neighbor down the hall. This is one of my favorite stories in Probably Monsters, and is a perfect example of balancing the real with the surreal in one story, offering up brutal truth and the fantastical without sacrificing the impact of either.At Night, When the Demons Come reads like the opening to a gritty, bleak-as-shit horror novel, or even a big Hollywood film. More mainstream and genre-heavy than his other tales to this point, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world reminiscent of McCarthys The Road, albeit a version of the story menaced by a plague of winged succubae instead of your garden variety hungry hungry humans.Night Fishing was the first story I read by Cluley back in the pages of the tragically departed Shadows & Tall Trees. After reading this tale of a man tasked with fishing the bodies of Golden Gate Bridge suicide victims from the San Francisco Bay on the overnight shift, I was immediately hooked. Night Fishing has the feel of an instant classic, like the sort of story youre taught in university English classes, when the themes get more challenging, and the tone more bleak. Another one of my favorites in this collection.The Death Drive of Rita, nee Carina is another punishing story full of sadness and horror, dealing with the survivors of cars accidents and how one deals with personal survival and the loss of loved ones; while Cluley returns to that new weird territory with Bloodcloth, which is a dark bit of near future fantasy that puts one in the mind of China Mieville or Michael Swanwick. Pins and Needles is piece of dark literature that explores broken people, and how they act out. Im not real wild about the ending, but the main character is so fascinating, not to mention his relationship with a woman he meets on the bus, that this story stands out as a highlight of Probably Monsters.The next three pieces stand as an exceptional trio that can survive in a supernatural vacuum, embodying the best of what true horror fiction is about while also able to draw breath in the real world. Gator Moon takes us to the American south, and again - much like in I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing - plays with local folklore while addressing deep seated issues of race, inequality, recompense, and revenge. Where the Salmon Run is another favorite of mine, full of melody and sadness and regret, set amid a backdrop of the brutal, raw boned beauty of Kamchatkas salmon streams in eastern Russia. Indian Giver brings us back to the New World (where Cluley also sets No More West), and explores the clumsy horrors unleashed upon the native people of the Americas, and some that are unleashed in return. This story was selected for Ellen Datlows upcoming Best Horror of the Year, Volume 8, marking Cluleys third time appearing in this renowned series (Bones of Crow appeared in Volume 6, and At Night, When the Demons Come was chosen for Volume 3). And these are just the standouts, the real humdingers amongst twenty quality tales. A few didnt quite make it for me, but even in the ones that missed the mark, you can see the creativity, the freshness. The natural ability seasoned by the work put in. Each one deserves a close reading, much contemplation, and an enormous amount of respect.Ray Cluleys Probably Monsters is an important collection of contemporary horror fiction. Its a deep, complex, coffee-black book with bite and heat and fragrance and several punches to the temple, and pushpins to the soul. This is true front of table stuff, and comes highly, highly recommended.

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