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.