The Best of Gamut Chronicles a New Movement in Dark Literature

Illustration by Luke Spooner, Design by Todd Keisling

In 2017, author and editor Richard Thomas assembled a staff of other writers, editors, and artists to pursue a new venture in dark speculative literature. Backed by a Kickstarter, the project aimed to pay competitive pro rates, putting creators first in a business that often privileges virtually everyone else.

That year, Gamut Magazine was born, and over the course of twelve issues, it published some truly pivotal work for dark-leaning literature, pushing genres like horror, fantasy, and science fiction into new realms. Unlike many other literary magazines, Gamut’s only aesthetic was that the writing had to turn its gaze to dark things. Seemingly everything else was not only fair game but encouraged.

Thus, Gamut succeeded in removing many of the stylistic and creative guardrails for contemporary genre literature. Unfortunately, after its inaugural run, the choice was made to close Gamut Magazine.

But it turns out Gamut didn’t die. It just went to sleep for a while.

Thomas has returned with a new partnership and a bolstered and reinvigorated staff to open the doors to a new house built for a community. House of Gamut is a new kind of literary venture. No longer just a magazine, it also publishes longer-form, standalone books and operates an academy for writers seeking growth.

This New Year’s Day, House of Gamut released its first magazine issue alongside an anthology, The Best of Gamut, which celebrates that first year, and it’s a book that sets a flag in the timeline that literary historians will certainly observe if not study.

The anthology begins with a one-two punch of bizarre tales. “Etch the Unthinkable” by Kurt Fawver investigates a tendency humans seem to share with moths: we’re drawn to flame. It’s a story about people lured by something disturbing that they’ve only heard whispers about, and their morbid curiosity drives them past all the red flags because, in the end, they just have to know. They have to see. That’s us, isn’t it? It’s why we pick up this book and others like it. It’s why you’re here now, reading thoughts about a book of dark speculative fiction.

“Metal, Sex, Monsters” by Maria Haskins continues with the idea of desire for the darkness, but the story looks at it from another side. Written in a compelling monologue, we find we not only wish to see what’s in those dark places, but that which is inside that darkness is looking back. It wants us to come. More than anything, there is a completion when we join with it. A circuit closes. Pieces assemble into a whole. 

In these two quick tales, the anthology illustrates our entire relationship with those dark places, and the book, itself, is the viewfinder that enables us to see it. It’s the messenger bearing instructions. It’s the map into the dungeon.

The Best of Gamut hits with horror-laden imagery over and over again, striking a balance in the macabre, finding beauty and elegance in the darker side of existence. The writers in this anthology—while diverse in style, taste, and perspective—seem connected by one thing: an enduring love affair with the part of life many people seem disposed to pretend doesn’t exist.

Notably, The Best of Gamut eschews the profane and gratuitous elements generally associated with horror and, instead, digs deeper into the fleshy body the darkness inhabits. This book is a collection of authors who are probing the darkness’s very core, tapping spines, scraping bones, swimming through viscera.

Not every story landed for me, of course, and frankly, I think that’s to be expected with an anthology. With a diversity in voices and styles, it just isn’t reasonable to expect every piece to be a home run. For me, if a quarter of the stories in an anthology resonate, I’m happy. That provides several new writers to check out and follow, a bargain if I’ve ever seen one.

Two stories stand out for me: Michael Wehunt’s “An Ending (Ascent)” and Kate Dollarhyde’s “The Arrow of Time.”

In Wehunt’s tale, a man was born a mere 38 days too early to take a new drug that effectively grants humans immortality. Everyone he loves will live forever, and he has to reconcile the fact that they all will forget him. Absolutely heart-gripping, this piece keyed into fundamental anxieties about legacy and remembrance, about the consequence of our very existence and whether we matter at all. When asked what happens after we die, the great Keanu Reeves said the only thing he knew for sure was those who love us will miss us. What if not even that is true?

Whereas the anger and resentment simmers in Wehunt’s piece, it boils in Dollarhyde’s story. In a climate-change-ravaged world, a woman’s brilliant mom has invented a time machine, but there is a twist and a cost to using it. This trope combination is fascinatingly innovative because time machine stories invariably involve a plot for changing a dire future. But what if you can’t? Forget fate and the illusion of free will. What if the problem is just too big? “The Arrow of Time” is a perfect story about our collective loss and our individual losses. Man, what a beautiful piece.

For my money, The Best of Gamut characterizes a new movement or generation of horror. It’s dark, of course, but it’s also weird and uncanny, sometimes surreal and abstract. It features the living’s ironic obsession with death in richly philosophical terms without neglecting raw human emotion. It comes without pretense and flows like pools of ink into riverbeds, the darkness going not where it wills but where it’s welcome, and it begs you to go with it.

This is not the best of horror. It’s the best of a new kind of horror.

And House of Gamut is just getting started.

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