The Black Veldt is a new novella from Michael Reyes, an up and coming horror and dark fantasy author with previous credits in Weird Tales Magazine and Cirsova. We follow Jose Carvel, a self-described degenerate who’s trying to turn over a new leaf as a writer in the Lower East Side but can’t seem to shake his past or the consequences of his side hustle as a heroin dealer. Carvel’s life begins to spiral out of control as he confronts visions of a nightmare plain and the otherworldly denizens that stalk the titular black veldt.
Wow, this is an incredibly strange read. Reyes’ imagination and flair for the unusual are immediately put on display through Jose’s dream sequences. The veldt is a hauntingly sparse fever dream of a place and one we return to often for brief glimpses into an unfathomable beyond. These sequences remain the high point throughout the book, but they aren’t the only thing to enjoy.
Carvel’s waking world is almost equally peculiar– this is late 70’s New York, replete with all the sleaze and crime you would expect but amplified by a protagonist with Hunter S. Thompson-esque aspirations. Jose thrives on the filth and grime of the setting, putting himself at the center of bizarre scenes that probably wouldn’t work were it not for the character’s huge personality. Expect plenty of sex, violence, and heady drug trips, all captured well by the author’s vivid imagination and strong voice.
The first sixty to seventy percent of The Black Veldt is engaging and truly out there, but there are some doldrums in the later bits. We’re going to head into spoiler territory now, and in this case, spoilers may change your experience with the book. You’ve been warned. The tone changes significantly once this becomes a head-over-heels love story and the protagonist falls into addiction after being forced to try his own supply. The comparison between love and drugs is just a little bit too obvious to leave a mark, and it became a little more difficult to care about what was happening as things went further into the occult.
It’s as though the narrative that’s being built up to that point has rolled right off the tracks alongside Jose, and while that’s definitely an appropriate thematic mirror it isn’t as satisfying to read as what came before. The first half of the Black Veldt feels a bit like the work of David Wong with more teeth, where the second half feels like a series of disjointed occult events that don’t come together quite as well as you would hope. The ending itself also leaves a bit to be desired– I was barely okay with this ending when King did it in the Dark Tower series, and it feels even less set up here than it did there.
There’s a character midway through who tries to explain what the symbols and visions Jose is encountering mean (albeit kind of poorly) but who is laughed off because he’s a poser. I can’t help but feel like that info dump was much more crucial than let on, and that we’re supposed to be left in the dark because the protagonist is also choosing to be. The problem is that it’s difficult to parse what’s actually happening towards the end, and the story is done a bit of a disservice by that.
Don’t let the shortcomings in the latter portion of The Black Veldt dissuade you though, as there’s plenty of reason to dive in, especially if you’re a fan of the weird and unexplainable. It’s worth the price of admission just to read Jose’s inner monologues and observations, the prose is high quality, and the whole thing is foreboding. I only wish the supernatural angle had a tad bit more substance in the way of explanation and didn’t feel like a lot of things being thrown at the wall to see what sticks, although there’s also the distinct possibility that I didn’t really “get” it. Mileage may vary.
Rating 7 out of 10 Cackling Hyenas