Review: Notes from the Crawl Room by A. M. Moskovitz

As an artistic object, Notes from the Crawl Room by A. M. Moskovitz plays with the reader’s expectations of how a book should behave. Billed as ‘A Collection of Philosophical Horrors’, its first act of storytelling occurs not within the safety of its pages but instead on its front cover. This is because the author A. M. Moskovitz is himself a work of fiction – a pseudonym of Adam Ferner, whose real name is revealed only on Notes from the Crawl Room’s very last page, in a section titled ‘Credits’. Keen-eyed readers may have earlier spotted ‘A. M. Ferner’ amongst the small print of the copyright note, but even the familiar and often-skipped prelims is a place where fact and fiction is blurred. At the bottom of the Contents page, just before the book’s introductory essay by Susan K. Lang (who we later find out is another Ferner creation), we find this disclaimer:

In 2018, these seventeen short stories were found in a desk drawer in the former office of Dr. A. M. Moskovitz. They are collected here for the first time. All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

The way that Notes from the Crawl Room arrived at The Ghastling for review meant that we were given a glimpse behind the curtain but, such is the dedication to hiding the identity of the real author, it would be interesting to know at what point other readers began to question the reliability of what they were reading. Most bookselling websites list A. M. Moskovitz as the author with no mention of Ferner, and even the cover blurb quoters are in on the framing device ruse, with Emily Berry celebrating ‘A. M. Moskovitz’s vanished selves’. The tone of Susan K. Lang’s introduction offers a clue that not all is as it seems, however, with its building of the Moskovitz mythos: an egoist and a fantalist, we’re told, who some have gone as far to suggest was simply a conglomerate of Russian Twitter bots, or the output of a random text generator. This surreal departure from the typical endorsement by another author is accompanied mid-foreword by the casual admission that Susan K. Lang is just one of the many pseudonyms of A. M. Moskovitz. However, by the end of her introduction Lang (or Moskovitz/Ferner) has somewhat restored the ambiguity surrounding the author, and as we begin the first of the seventeen philosophical horrors it still isn’t clear whose work we are reading.

In the note found by the caretaker, Daniel P., tacked to the top of the papers retrieved from the author’s desk…Moskovitz wrote in smudged and shaking letters: ‘These are my words. Read them, but whatever happens, do not read them.’ A warning and an entreaty that I echo as an introduction to this collection.

‘Introductory Essay: Uroborotic Horror’ by Susan K. Lang

As fun and inventive as this framing device might be, some readers may be pleased to hear that – for the most part – it isn’t crucial to the enjoyment of these stories (though it does certainly enrich them). The majority of stories collected in Notes from the Crawl Room are actually immensely readable, quelling the fears of this lover of page-turning horror that the whole book would lean towards the more experimental side of literature (the avant garde is of course not without merit, but it’s fair to say it has greater odds of providing more misses than hits, especially when butting up against the horror genre’s traditions and expectations). This readability is largely because Ferner is simply an excellent writer, but it is also aided by the fact that he intrigues his reader by creating a sense of unease in very ordinary, everyday settings. The places where these stories occur are often unusual locations for horror: a garden party, a book club, the top deck of a moving bus. ‘such brittle bodies’ takes us to a full lecture theatre, magnifying the very real horror of asking a difficult question while other students throw ‘more-of-a-comment’ softballs. But even when Ferner is treading well-worn boards, he still manages to offer readers the unexpected: ‘The Gravesend Institute’, a story of a building surrounded by fogged time, has an ending many readers will predict but that still manages to offer something new to the ‘haunted house’ sub-genre, while ‘Cloakroom, 1984’ is a Body Snatchers-esque tale of possession that transforms into something delightfully original by its conclusion. 

There was a gentler knocking, growing louder. Louder. Someone, some thing, was knocking on the cloakroom door. Instinctively, he braced himself against it, forcing the legs of his chair alongside the wooden frame. Go away, he thought. Go away.

‘Cloakroom, 1984’

As Emily Berry alluded to on the cover, many of these stories in Notes from the Crawl Room are centred upon vanishings, often involving a physical disappearance. They also share linked settings and characters, the most memorable of the latter being The Empty Man, who appears (or rather, doesn’t appear – the gruesome figure is always ‘both there and not there’) most effectively in ‘Bare Subtrata’, a story of unravelling realities centred upon a book reading group that meet in a basement. An existing knowledge of the concept of the substratum would no doubt complement this story, but this deep level of philosophical learning isn’t necessary to feel haunted by the appearance of this pale and empty man at the story’s end. Ferner delights in giving his tales of mundane academic life a whiplash turn into horror in their final pages, though he is also capable of providing a slower build too. ‘The Master’s Delight’ is perhaps the collection’s strongest offering, a slice of truly guttural horror concerning a fraternal club ritual. In this story, the realisation of the horror surrounding the ‘Master’s Delight’ portion of a five-course meal is allowed to seep and thicken, and remains in the pit of the reader’s stomach long after its final page.

She saw Grace listening with an expression of mild amusement. Those beautiful brown eyes darted to Marcia. Marcia winked, in spite of that nagging sensation in her chest, that ache, like a bone that wants to be broken. She shouldn’t have brought her, she thought. She was too young for the Master’s Dinner. But this was something she always thought. She would change her mind in a course or two…

‘The Master’s Delight’

This may be Ferner’s first published work of fiction, but he already has an impressive bibliography in the field of philosophy, and so is well placed to produce a collection of ‘philosophical horrors’. I had initially presumed that he had coined this term as a play on the more-familiar ‘psychological horror’, but a quick Goodreads search revealed that other writers (Arthur Machen, José Saramago, Samanta Schweblin) have also been placed in this lesser-known sub-genre. With their references and metaphors, a knowledge of philosophy would likely enhance the reading of the stories in Notes from the Crawl Room (accompanying the allusions to Aristotle’s work in ‘Bare Subtrata’, there is also a modern take on a tale from Plato’s Republic in ‘The Ring of Gyges’) but you don’t need this background to enjoy and understand them. The only possible exception to this is ‘A Response to C. D. Baird’s Reading of the Pitwell Phenomenon’: a story in the form of an essay, said to be printed in The Socratic Quarterly: a fictional journal introduced in the story prior. Centred upon a hypothesis that souls attach themselves to other souls in haunting, ‘A Response to C. D. Baird’s Reading of the Pitwell Phenomenon’ is filled with the jargon and overwriting you would expect to find in an academic journal and, despite the fact it does so in parody, it is a difficult read for those who are not acclimatised to journal essays of this nature. This essay, said to be penned by someone called Richard Yates, may also have the reader flicking back to the earlier note about how these ‘seventeen short stories’ were found in Dr. Moskovitz’s desk drawer. Whose work, then, are we reading here? Is it Moskovitz writing as Richard Yates, or is this an essay by Richard Yates mislaid amongst Moskovitz’s short stories? With this story Ferner’s finely-crafted framing device becomes a little muddied, briefly taking you out of the magic of it. However, this confusion is fleeting, and all will later be revealed in the collection’s final story.

A horror book is a nesting ground for disease. A horror book is a spongiform mass, a fibrous solid, a mucous membrane that wriggles with maggots and worms. Horrific writing is alive with fleas.

‘A Manifesto for Horror As Critique of Analytic Philosophy’

For all its philosophical horror, beneath Notes from the Crawl Room flows an undercurrent of quiet mystery – a whodunnit in terms of authorship. ‘A Manifesto for Horror As Critique of Analytic Philosophy’ acts as an afterword of sorts, drawing the collection (and this quiet mystery) to a conclusion, but its revelation has the effect of wanting to go back and read the book again, to see how each story fits with the twist. Perhaps the best test of good horror is its ability to make the reader want to return to it even after it has revealed its secrets. ‘A Manifesto for Horror…’ is followed by two appendices: one offering short biographies of recurring characters and the other a collection of quotations ‘found’ alongside the manuscript. Typically this type of subsidiary matter is only engaged with by academics and completists, but you are afraid to pass over it in Notes from the Crawl Room in case the story is still being told. I must admit I even combed through the Select Bibliography and Acknowledgements, just to see if the framing device continued to grasp this collection to the very end. And so Ferner (or Moskovitz) goes out as he came in, playing with the reader’s expectations of how a book should behave. This commitment to framing will set Notes from the Crawl Room apart from other short story collections on a bookshop’s horror shelf, ensuring that readers are enjoyably unsettled in more ways than one. But, as our enigmatic author cautions us:

Be warned, for whatever else horror writing is, it is certainly not safe for the writers, or readers. In the right conditions even the most dusty words can bring forth life…

Notes from the Crawl Room is available from Bloomsbury.

Rhys Owain Williams is a writer from Swansea, Wales. He was assistant editor of The Ghastling from 2018 to 2022.