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On the Verge of Madness
By George Wilhite
“I wake up in a world of utter silence...”
All of us are haunted by something—our pasts, fear of our futures, even the memory of a departed loved one. The questions remain: Do we let these demons that haunt us destroy us? Do we let them make us obsess? Do we surrender to them? Do we let them to take us to the brink? Do we fight them or do we stay on the knife’s edge? And how long can you stay On the Verge of Madness...?
George Wilhite is an author with which Spinetinglers is well acquainted. His stories have been published on our site several times and have received some rave reviews from our members. So, of course we were delighted to review his first compilation of short stories.
All of the stories have the same resounding theme: each main protagonist is, in some way, obsessed or haunted by someone or something. In short, all of the characters are On the Verge of Madness.
The first two stories, Victor Chaldean and the Portal and Murmurers, are terrifically tantalising teasers as to what this author has to offer. Both stories are fractured tales of another world beyond our own, where the souls of the dead have tales to tell and vengeance to seek. The reader can clearly see the influence of Poe and Lovecraft, and this horror author has obviously read the classics. I can’t wait for the continuation of both of these stories in his next book.
The rest of Wilhite’s tales stand on their own, and apart from the On the Verge of Madness theme, they have few similarities. This, of course, is a very good thing, because when trying to stick to a common theme, a lot of authors can fall into a trap and tell you ten or so versions of the same story. The result is a reading experience that can be quite boring for the audience. On the contrary, Wilhite’s stories are original, dark and devilishly distinctive.
Apart from great gothic literature, the author also gives you an insight into his process. He tells you in some detail what inspired him to write such a first-rate anthology. This may offer some burgeoning authors tips and inspiration to spark their imagination.
George Wilhite’s On the Verge of Madness is a commendable selection of short stories. Our only criticism, if you can call it that, is that some of the stories are too short. There is definitely room to expand on these wonderfully crafted tales.
Spinetinglers wants to see more from this author!
From “Horror Bound Online Magazine”:
“On the Verge of Madness” by George Wilhite is a collection of disturbing stories that will send shivers down your spine. This book will make you think about and fear the person next to you on the bus even well after you put it down.
“Victor Chaldean and the Portal” is the first story in Wilhite’s “Fractured Realms” series of stories. It focuses on a self-described skeptic whose wife disappears and he agrees to participate in an experiment into the paranormal out of desperation, not realizing how completely it would turn his life upside down. The ending is shocking, but not more so than the journey there. The series gets off to a good start here, and more stories will be gobbled up by fans of both psychological and supernatural horror.
“Checks and Balances” is a story of a recovering alcoholic who makes a deal with a supernatural trickster. The story is about unforeseen circumstances more so than dire happenings, but the problems that arise from the main characters pact seem more like the laws of karmic justice. He is a sympathetic character and the reader feels sorrow for him nonetheless.
“A Plea from the Cradle” is a chilling tale narrated by a prisoner of his own body who wishes to communicate but cannot. His hopes for contact are constantly averted by circumstances beyond his control. The ending is somewhat reminiscent of “A Brave New World” and will horrify readers at the level of cruelty humans can achieve so calmly.
“A Tale of Two Moons” is a story about a wolf who changes at the New Moon with the help of a shaman for revenge against the white man for the murder of his litter and mate. When he discovers an innocent girl who does not fear him, it may be the end to his vengeance except for her protective father. The plot is interesting, but it feels rushed and as if it ended too soon. The shaman, even though he never takes direct action, is a vital part of the story. This character should have been more fully developed. However, this is a good werewolf story that fans of the genre would more than enjoy.
“Masque Profane” is the story of a woman who wonders where her husband goes every Halloween. She finds more than she bargained for when she follows him one year, and it has disastrous results in both of their lives. The protagonist is a strong independent woman, which makes the ending even more surprising when she seemingly goes mad. The consummation of her apparent madness is gruesome and yet even the audience does not know whether it was truly justified or simply a result of the trauma she suffered that fateful night. This story will make the reader think and leave them wondering about the state of her sanity.
This eclectic collection is a must for fans of dark fiction. The “Tales of the Fractured Realms” series has great potential to be a fantastic group of stories dealing with the darker side of humanity. The other stories are also wonderful in their ability to surprise and shock the reader. It is no surprise that some of these stories have already won acclaim and recognition in this genre.
From Reader’s Choice Reviews (William R Potter):
On the Verge of Madness by author George Wilhite is like a perfectly cooked steak...dark on the outside and a little bloody in the middle. This collection of fiction features eight very different stories, each showcasing Wilhite's considerable talent and vast knowledge of the horror genre. His work has already drawn comparison to Poe and Lovecraft. But let me tell you, Wilhite's own twisted style and warped voice is evident on every page.
The opening novella, Victor Chaldean and the Portal is worth the price of admission. Victor is desperate to solve the disappearance of his wife. After he begins to have strange visions, he seeks help from a psychologist studying the paranormal. An experimental drug takes Victor into a fractured realm, into a place trapped between life and death where he struggles to find his lost wife and each day is more convinced he is insane.
Next up is Murmurers. I settled in for a great read as Wilhite hooked me quickly with a story of an Earth all but stripped of human life. A former combat soldier and a teenage girl find a special bond after he saves her life. To survive they must trust each other and keep moving to avoid the mysterious Murmurers. The only problem for me was how quickly this one ended.
In Checks and Balances, alcoholic John breezes through the first of the twelve steps to recovery. It is step Eight - making amends with those he has hurt - with which he struggles the most. If only he could make a trade, a deal, to skip this step. But who or what would make such a bargain?
Lars kills for money. He is very good at what he does. When it comes to clothes, only the very best will do for Lars. In The Gangster's New Clothes, Wilhite attempts a short in the style of the old Twilight Zone TV show. The result is a fun, frightening tale. A second after Lars puts on his handmade suit, he finds himself facing his checkered past and, step by step, is pushed closer to insanity.
Wilhite then gives us two amazing examples of the old adage: less is more. A Plea From the Cradle and Cast of Characters are "flash fiction" at its finest. Not a word is wasted - both of these tales will quickly put a shiver up your spine if not a smile on your face.
All good things must end, and I believe Wilhite saved the best for last. A Tale of Two Moons is a Werewolf classic and could possibly explain the origin of these legendary monsters.
Masque Profane takes us beyond the "Verge of Madness," delving straight into full blown insanity. Rhonda and Jeff are happy newlyweds...or are they? Rhonda becomes obsessed with the fact that Jeff has never spent a Halloween night with her in their time together. This fixation takes Rhonda to the gathering place of a strange ritual one Halloween night. Her experience there, and later the birth of her child would one day take her to madness and a horrific murder.
In all eight of these stories, whether novella or short, the author's skill at character development, crisp dialogue and page turning suspense is forefront. He captivates the reader with intriguing characters and fine plotting without the pointless brutal violence and gratuitous sex that has become so common in horror today. I highly recommend On the Verge of Madness and I look forward to the follow up, Silhouette of Darkness. I doubt that it will be long before a major publisher signs Wilhite, as his work deserves to be on shelves next to the likes of Peter Straub and Thomas F. Monteleone.
From Bitten by Books:
On the Verge of Madness is a collection of a novella and various short stories. This book is a very palatable offering for a reader who likes stories that probe into the unknown and often disturbing areas of the imagination. Mr. Wilhite offers up stories that stand out and distinguish themselves from many in the modern horror scene. They call to mind classic horror and weird fiction tales where the emphasis is on the psychological impact of horror and not on the splash of blood or the gruesome depictions of death, although these elements are used with a tasteful application for maximum impact. The horrors in these stories are definitely of the supernatural variety, yet things are rarely clearly explained, leaving the reader the opportunity to come to her own conclusions. And the human part of the equation always remains evident. I found myself becoming emotionally involved with the people in his stories, which is ideal for me as a reader.
I appreciated the writing style exhibited in these stories. Mr. Wilhite writes with a simplicity and a keen perception of humor nature. He had me laughing at the often cynical and unflattering manner in which his protagonists view the people around them and the way in which his characters expressed themselves verbally. His narrators are often irreverent characters who don’t tend to mince words. I think that he does have an appreciation for human nature which he exhibits through the characters in his stories. They feel very much like real people. With a good horror story, you need this human element.
The first story in this collection is part of a related story arc called Tales of the Fractured Realms. This story, “Victor Chaldeon and the Portal,” is the longest and it reads like a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale. The story is told in the form of notebooks written by the titular person in this story. The story unfolds in part through the eyes of Victor’s lawyer who finds the notebooks and is trying to sort through them to discover what happened to Victor. This story really brought back memories of reading Lovecraft stories, such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” or “Pickman’s Model.” I like this narrative device very much where you as the reader are given the opportunity to sort through the information given to form your own perception of what occurred. It’s such a delightfully misleading way to tell a story because you are allowed to approach things in a very unemotional manner and to maintain a so-called sense of detachment…at least until you end up being sucked into a world beyond your understanding where things often don’t make sense according to the rules of the normal, everyday world.
Reading the notebooks, the reader learns about Victor and the way that his life changes irrevocably. Victor Chaldeon’s wife disappeared abruptly, and while others have moved on emotionally and urge him to do the same, he refuses to let go until he finds out what happens to her. He is having disturbing dreams about his wife that lead him to seek help from a noted parapsychologist who happens to be involved with his daughter. This leads him to involvement in a set of experiments in which a drug allows the participant to travel to an alternate realm where that individual can communicate with spirits. Seemingly benign at first, it soon becomes apparent that this realm is filled with malevolent beings who want to break through to the world that we live in. I liked the ebb and flow of suspense and terror. These moments of horror are skillfully juxtaposed with the seemingly mundane moments as Victor takes trips into this realm and comes back to interact with the doctor performing the research, his troubled daughter, and the other participants in the experiments, one to which he forms an emotional bond.
The horror of the beings in the Fractured Realms builds slowly. At first, you aren’t suspecting that there is a true menace, but it soon becomes apparent that this is not just a mind-altering drug. These creatures, formless of body but full of evil intent, will take any opportunity they can to enter this world. There are a few gruesome moments but they are executed stylishly. The violence and the gore never overshadow the narrative. Far be it for me to criticize a master of horror, but I liked Mr. Wilhite’s subtle, calm writing approach in contrast to Lovecraft’s. He doesn’t rely on exaggerated and melodramatic turn of phrase as the late Mr. Lovecraft did. I liked the modern edge of language that he uses in contrast with the classic Lovecraftian-esque horror of this tale.
Victor is a troubled man but he’s a man with his own sense of honor, and that makes him an appealing protagonist. He has promised one of his fellow participants who educated him on the menace awaiting them in the alternate realm and his wife, who he encounters on the other side, that he will do whatever is necessary to resolve the threat of the beings that are determined to cross over. As a reader, I was never in doubt of his love for his wife but I wanted him to get closure and make a life for himself in light of the fact that his wife was lost to him.
Although “Victor Chaldeon and the Portal” ends on a note that suggests that the beings have not been completely defeated, you are able to feel hope that Victor will overcome these eldritch forces. I look forward to reading more adventures about Victor Chaldeon.
I chose to go into greater depth in this review of “Victor Chaldeon and the Portal” since it takes up half of this volume. However, I will briefly touch on the other stories. “Murmurers” is another story set in the Fractured Realms universe. Very atmospheric, it takes place in the dystopian future. The narrator is a man that strikes me as an iconic hero. He goes by the name of Raven. A former soldier with a formidable will to survive and the emotional baggage from his numerous military campaigns, he is completely appealing as a character. I liked the lone stranger against the dark menace tone of this story. “Murmurers” is a tale in which you really don’t know what to think when it ends. You are left to figure out for yourself what Raven is truly facing but you hope that Raven will prevail, regardless of the true nature of his enemies. I definitely want to check out more stories about Raven.
This volume concludes with several very short stories. Each of them establishes their place as worthy titles in the library of a fan of weird tales and pulp fiction. You don’t get the traditional happy ending. In fact, they often end on an ironic or disturbing note. This is quite true to the nature of weird/pulp fiction, and I expected nothing different. One story was written to bring to mind the kind of episode you would enjoy on “The Twilight Zone.” I do believe that Mr. Wilhite succeeded in his goal. I feel sincere appreciation for Mr. Wilhite’s imagination and the homage to the old school tales that he delivers to the readers of this book.
On the Verge of Madness is one of those books that really takes time to absorb before you can say what you think of it. I think that is the mark of good fiction. You can easily write off and dismiss something that was not good or was clearly bad. Or stories that were just okay but nothing really stood out about them. But fiction that is subtle and multi-faceted requires deeper analysis. This definition fits On the Verge of Madness.
I believe that Mr. Wilhite is a talented author in a genre that seemed to be dying out. Thankfully, weird fiction is on the resurgence. George Wilhite is a writer that makes a much-needed contribution to this genre, giving us weird fiction/neo-pulp fiction fans something to sink our teeth into that brings to mind that lost age of fiction. Better yet, these stories will have a modern relevance, lacking the distasteful elements of racism and bigotry that was overly prevalent in the stories of the early 20th century.