The Case of Yuri Zaystev, by S.L. Edwards

“Days were measured in piling snow, lives in black-rotting cells and time in final breaths. The white-washed landscape was the endless world. To walk there, in that terrible and featureless place, was to take one more step toward heaven or hell…The only refuge from the cold, constant and unchanging place was even worse than the vast frozen desert. Death was written into the architecture of the outpost of humanity before the endless night-world, a prison where men were sent to rot and disappear in fog and ice.”

whiskey-front-cover[1]Whether it was the blasted heath of “The Dunwich Horror” or the dim shores of “The White Ship,” the sanity-stretching bricks of Rue d’Auseil or the colossal piles of bones beneath Exham Priory, one of Lovecraft’s many gifts was to set you with unsettling firmness within his mad geographies. With the indelibility of spilling ink, the importance of a sense of place seeps from his pages staining his settings in your mind as much as any of his quivering professors and eldritch monstrosities. Indeed, one of Lovecraft’s favorite stories was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” a story based upon the notion that the geography itself is set against you. Of Blackwood’s story Lovecraft wrote, “I am dogmatic enough to call “The Willows” the finest weird story I have ever read…” It was a sentiment he repeated in several letters. (As an aside, if you’ve not yet read “The Willows” you really ought to do so. Lovecraft was right; it’s that good.) Taking inspiration from “The Willows,” our current author, S.L. Edwards, has penned a tale of frosty nightmare and frigid death. “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” can be found in WHISKEY AND OTHER UNUSUAL GHOSTS, the second weird fiction collection released by Gehenna Books in 2019. It will be available for purchase on July 15. I’m grateful to Mr. Edwards for supplying me with an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

6787208-1[1]Yuri Zaystev is a soldier in Stalin’s army with a very singular task. He drives a truck out into the arctic tundra and dumps the bodies of those who have died in the Gulag, some friend, some foe. Burying them is not in the equation for Comrade Zaystev; not only is the frozen ground impossible to dig out, but the brutal, biting arctic winds make burial an unnecessary chore. “The tundra winds would claim human refuse, sweep it back into its cold folds and take the bodies far away from human eyes and memories.” And later, “If they were not eaten by polar bears the winds would be kind to them and strip them of their useless skin until their bones were as white and gleaming as snow.” He’s made this run a hundred times if he’s made it once—now, just think about that given the nature of his task and the real-life horror of this story peeks through—but today, for no other reason than garden variety ennui, he seeks companionship with an old, faithful friend: vodka. Stopping the truck at the appointed place, he gets out and walks to the back where he swings open the canvas covered truck bed and glimpses, to his absolute horror, nothing. To a normal person a truck bed full of frozen, emaciated corpses would provide the fright, but for Yuri, it is the opposite, their absence, that scares. What happens next I will leave to your reading, but I did find it enjoyable, and like “The Willows,” satisfyingly ambiguous.

31974480171_9cc0ea6a66_o[1].jpgI found this story to be surprisingly emotionally affecting. I don’t know whether it was reading about the horrific nature of Stalin’s death camps at a time when my own country is running concentration camps along its Southern border, or the howling bleakness of the arctic that Edwards presents, but I was moved by the reading. Did it live up to “The Willows” as a piece of weird fiction? Well, no, but that’s hardly a knock on the story – “The Willows” really is one of the finest examples of the genre, and that’s a tall glass of whisky to live up to. One of the things that made “The Willows” work so well was the long, slow-burn build up of undeniable tension. It’s a fairly lengthy story while Yuri’s tale is pretty brief by comparison. The terror and the weird “otherness” of the stories are very different and so it is difficult to say with any certainty how a lengthening of “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” would affect it. However (and there’s little to suggest that Edwards couldn’t do this well), I think it would improve an already gratifying story. As it is, there isn’t much time for a build up of tension. Rather, there is a presumption of tension already present. That allows the author to jump right into the more terrifying aspects of his tale with a certain, more immediate, ferocity, but the cost is a lot of that which made “The Willows” so successful.

Edwards’ writing is at times evocative and controlled, leading the reader to the edge of the icy crevasse so gently that they never look down to see it coming.  And, as I mentioned, it has the capacity to be emotionally arresting. See:

neverremember-1_fk51dh[1]
Actual photo of a Gulag victim, from the mugshot files of the People’s Commissariat for State Security (NKVD), Stalin’s Secret Police.
“He could not recognize the face or any other distinguishable thing about the body. There was nothing about the shape of the nose, the sculpting of the chin or any sort of scars or hair that would have caused Yuri to recognize the man. He was part of an endless, unremarkable crowd, only remarkable because he stood out against the decrepit wreckage of what is left in the human frame after its humanity has been forcefully removed.” 

Horror works because of empathy; sociopaths who lack it cannot grasp why what they do inspires terror. In passages like these Edwards captures a fleeting empathy amid the wild winds of the tundra. That empathy is present in all of the stories I read in this collection, and is one of the reasons I think he will ultimately be a successful author in the genre. However, at other times, that control I mentioned slips. Even within the beauty of the above quotation, my eye was tripped up when he used the word “remarkable” immediately after saying it was “unremarkable.” Another word might have been more effectively deployed here. I don’t say this to be super nit-picky either, as I found that to be the case several times across multiple stories. Now diction and syntax are incredibly personal, and likely some of those hangups were just my own as a reader. What I don’t think is just me, though, is that it seems like he often uses too many words when fewer will not just do, but be better.  I realize that’s hard to swallow following the thought that the story might be improved by being longer, but it’s a matter of the right words, not just extra words.

Here’s the other main reason I think S. L. Edwards will be one to watch in the weird fiction community: the ideas are there, in spades. Across each story that I read, I experienced a genuine, creeped-out “oh crap!” moment. The talent is here folks and I think he’s going to be around for a while. This story in particular, and the collection in general deserve your attention, especially if you’re interested in not just horror and weird fiction, but in knowing early on who are the up and comers. Like all writers, his craft will grow, his skill will sharpen, and when they do, he will make all those ideas running around inside his head bleed. You’re going to want to be there for that.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Yug and Neb,
~The Bibliothecar

The Unheard Lament of Yuri Zaystev: “He was not a bad man! No worse than the men he worked with! But he had been a hero! He had been a hero of Stalingrad! Stalin personally had thanked him! This alone should have been a ticket for his salvation, something to save him from whatever cruel tricks the snows and winds were playing on him now! He screamed out his life, that it was not his fault men were killed! He was not the one who decided to leave their corpses unhallowed in the Tundra…”

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Of Card Games and Airships: Two from Strange Company, by Pete Rawlik

“The backs of the cards were gray, and without embellishment, though they were creased and stained more than any other deck he had ever seen. Of the cards that sat face up, he could only see details of the top one. The background was white or cream, and held an image of a green line, a yellow curve, a blue five-pointed star, a crimson square, and a circle that was solid black. In forty years of gambling, the stranger had never seen anything like it, and he knew that he had finally found what he was looking for.”

45317055[1]A lot of mythos/Lovecraftian/cosmic horror stories take themselves very seriously, and to be honest, this is not a bad thing. It’s hard not to take the end of the world at the hands (tentacles?) of a galaxy-devouring elder god seriously. But Pete Rawlik is here to remind us that there is another way to look at things, too. A light-hearted, fun, over the top way, because when Azathoth sets his sights on earth, you might as well smile.  I first encountered Pete Rawlik on the Lovecraft eZine podcast, where he is one of the regular personalities and contributors, but until now I had not read any of his work. The good folks at Gehenna and Hinnom Books recognized that Rawlik had written and published a lot of short stories, but thus far had not put out a collection of unrelated short stories, and so they sought to remedy that.  STRANGE COMPANY AND OTHERS is the result, and I’m grateful to them for providing me with an e-arc so that I could end my ignorance of Rawlik’s considerable contribution to the mythos.  When I first glanced at the TOC I saw that it was divided up into three sections: “Mainstream Mythos,” “Other Horrors,” and “Alternate Mythos.” I didn’t think I could do justice to all that this collection entails without taking a closer look at a story from both the first and last sections, so that is exactly what we’re gonna do. First up, the second story from the collection, DRAKE TAKES A HAND.

DRAKE TAKES A HAND

This tale opens up in an unnamed desert town with a tall man in a well used duster, snakeskin boots, and a wide-brimmed hat walking into a saloon that boldly advertises, “NO GAMBLING,” sitting down at the bar, slamming a whiskey, and asking where the card game is. Immediately, I was hooked. Knowing that this story was in the “mainstream mythos” section of the book, I was very curious to read a Lovecraftian/western mashup, and DRAKE did not disappoint.

carl-hantman-cowboy-standing-against-the-bar-of-a-western-saloon[1].jpgIt’s hard to talk about this story’s plot too much without giving anything away, but I think it is safe to say that a card game does break out, and it is a most unusual card game to be sure. Now while this story takes itself a bit more seriously than the other I’ll review below, it isn’t without its pranks. As the rules to the card game take shape, I had to laugh out loud because it’s basically Uno, with a mythos deck! I loved how Rawlik slowly reveals the cards, the rules, the strategies, and ultimately, the stakes of this game: “The table shook, the lights flickered, and Drake was plunged into a nightmare vision of the universe.”  The players, too, are quite a cosmic crew: “He found the cigarette he had made earlier and struck a match. A figure came out of the darkness. Whatever it was that had come from the hall was not human.”

Eschewing Lovecraft’s more pompous diction and syntax choices, Rawlik instead opts for a tale told in everyday language, which allows you as the reader to easily slide into this card game and the world that surrounds it. I thought the sense of place he was able to evoke, and very quickly too, was effective and made the biggest impact on my enjoyment of the story.  There’s no grand message here, no moral or caution. Instead, it’s just good, old-fashioned pulp. At the same time, it is not a pastiche work either. This story, like most in this collection, demonstrate a serious command of and love for Lovecraftian lore. There’s deep respect for the original material here, even if viewed through the lens of an Uno game.

THE STRANGE COMPANY

I’ll turn now to the titular story in this collection, and one found in the final section of stories, the “Alternate Mythos” section. THE STRANGE COMPANY immediately snagged my attention out of the TOC because I noted that it had originally been published in the Brian Sammons anthology, STEAMPUNK CTHULHU. I’d never read anything from that anthology before, but boy was I excited to now! I wrote a moment ago that DRAKE takes itself a bit more seriously than this one, and you need to understand that before going in. While this is a ripping yarn, it is pulpy, a bit bizarro, jam packed with ridiculous action, and is complete with a cast list of the who’s who of the Lovecraftian mythos. And just as I said above, there’s a deep love and respect for the source material here. The name drops he gives, the places he references, the stories alluded to in rapid fire succession all tally up to say you’re not just dealing with an author who is a Lovecraft fan, you’re dealing with a Lovecraft student.  Casual fans will easily pick up on Dunwich and Cthulhu references, but will likely miss out on some of the best ones, like Lord Jermyn.  That said, if you’re in the mood for something atmospheric, weird, unsettling, or disturbing, let me stop you right here.

airship_by_terrylh-d60ffmw-970x342[1].jpg

This story opens in the “observation blister” of the airship “Strato-Sphere” in the midst of what sounds like a very long running, heated conflict between, you guessed it, the forces of good and the cosmic forces of ultimate evil.  Both heroes and villains are ripped from the Lovecraftian canon.  After a brief amount of discussion and plotting, the story charts a course for an action packed, steampunk battle. Physics is pushed well past its generally accepted limit as alien weapons are blasted about and evil scientists and warlocks alike are tossed to and fro. “Far below, the Strato-Sphere hung in the air like a soap bubble surrounded by a strange field of black light. Off to the side, on the top of another tower, a team of men were manipulating a massive array of emitters, while steam billowed out around their feet. St. John cursed the fusion of cheap energy and alien technology.”

While I was reading this, I couldn’t help wishing that instead of a short story, this was a comic book. I say that and I’m not even a comic book fan, but the material is just so well suited to that medium that somebody outta adapt it.  Rawlik writes in that anachronistic pulpy tone that makes you think you’re reading something from a bygone era, but were you to compare this side by side with something from Edgar Rice Burroughs for example, you’d find that Rawlik’s modern milieu is actually shining through more than you expect.  For example, female characters take center stage in the action, and not as damsels in distress but as heroes, something you wouldn’t find in the John Carter stories.

cbab9d9f344dca5adf5bd3f16b167ee8[1]I feel like steampunk, as a sub-genre, has run its course, and that makes me a bit sad because of just how much fun it is.  Rawlik clearly had fun writing this and I hope that this new collection is able to get stories like this into new readers hands who might otherwise have missed out on the steampunk craze.

In Conclusion

This is very different fare from what I typically enjoy and from what I’ve almost universally reviewed on this website, but I am glad I did. While it might not be my go-to style when it comes to cosmic horror, it was an amazingly fun detour. Lovecraftians and cosmic horror junkies alike, if you don’t have any Pete Rawlik in your collections yet, this is a wonderful introduction and a great addition to any bookshelf. Let STRANGE COMPANY take you on its wild ride and help you remember that even while raising up that which you cannot put down you can still have fun along the way.

This review has been brought to you by Dust of Ages: Essential Saltes for Every Household. Remember, a little dash will do ya!

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

I didn’t see that one coming: “Senor Clapham-Lee, haff you not come to understand that there ess nothing that you can keel that I, Doctor Rafeal Carlos Garcia Muñoz, el Reanimatador, cannot bring back to life?”

Split Through the Sky, by Lena Ng

“Instead of stars, the pinpricks of light seemed as holes where an unknown, unfathomable voyeur was spying from the other side of the nocturnal sky as through a camera obscura.”

hinnom-front-kdp[1]As a teenager, one of the many joys I took out of reading Lovecraft was the sense of mystery and other-worldliness he was able to pack into his writing. It wasn’t just his florid prose or his antediluvian monsters. It was the way he was able to hint at whole worlds, whole bodies of hidden or forbidden knowledge simply by dropping the name of some ancient tome. Most memorable, of course, was the Necronomicon—a book which for years of my youth I was convinced was real. And no one could talk me out of it (I even found a copy of the text on the internet, so there!). But he also had others, like Cultes des Goules, and the Pnakotic Manuscripts which set my imagination alight just by seeing their titles. His immediate contemporaries followed suit: Clark Ashton Smith had his Book of Eibon, Robert Howard his Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Robert Bloch created the De Vermis Mysteriis (with HPL’s help on the final name). Brian Lumley later came up with the G’harne Fragments, and Ramsey Campbell had his Revelations of Gla’aki. Outside of the canon of HPL’s works, and the works of the named gentlemen above, I haven’t encountered too much use of this trope and that’s a shame. Then I read Split Through the Sky by Lena Ng and I was right back in my youth, my imagination on fire with possibility as words of forbidden texts and forgotten book titles crossed the page amidst beautiful, lurid, and very Lovecraftian prose.

Split Through the Sky can be found in the latest issue of Hinnom Magazine (Issue #010) published by C.P. Dunphey at Gehenna and Hinnom Books, released on May 20, 2019. G&H Books just completed a massively successful Kickstarter and so their publishing calendar for the rest of 2019 and into 2020 looks incredible! In particular, I am really looking forward to letting you all know about a story or two contained in Pete Rawlik’s forthcoming G&H collection, “Strange Company.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think Hinnom Magazine stands the best chance of being the spiritual successor to Weird Tales available in today’s market. Sure, there’s lots of other great magazines out there, but are they in print? No. Some great print magazines exist, like Black Static, but that’s over in the UK. Each issue of Hinnom consistently has great works of cosmic horror fiction, dark poetry (though that’s not really my thing), cool interviews, writing advice, and great interior illustrations. They’re not full color and glossy, yet, but I imagine that will be an achievable goal for G&H one day. I’m a big supporter of what G&H is doing and think you should be, too. If we don’t support creators like this, then, well, we’ve seen what happens. If you’re interested, check out their Patreon page.

9947739633_341b8e5040_b[1]Split Through the Sky is the haunting story of someone being called from beyond, out of their daily life, into a weird, wide world of terror and the unknowable reaches of space, at times reminiscent of Dreams in the Witch House. Our protagonist, never identified (though for some reason I imagined them to be a woman in their thirties), has trouble sleeping, and who wouldn’t: “Before I has gone to bed on the first night of torments, I had noticed a disturbing alignment of stars. Through mathematics, the stars and planets should follow a predictable elliptical path. But the planets of Versiveus, Kraelov, and Diaxon moved in enigmatic, unnerving voyages. Other stars crossed in horrendous formations, and I quaked at what such signs could mean.” Lovecraft fans should be all a-tingle just now, if you are anything like me. Ng’s writing, while calling HPL to mind, is of a style all her own, often unsettling while rewarding slow, attentive reading.

Through a series of disturbing events the protagonist discovers she (?) is not who she thought she was, and in fact was adopted from the particularly creepy sounding Gentrocide Orphanage. 2974d6bced8cb89094d8cfdfa770b708[1].jpgFrom there, “after much consultation through incantations and incense, oratory and arguments,” her journey of self-discovery takes her to the ruins of an ancient temple, seemingly still presided over by a high priestess. After an arduous journey, she is met by the monks who keep watch over the place, who escort her to the chambers of the high priestess, where not all is as you might expect it to be, no matter or not that you might have been expecting the worst. Clues to her genesis are given, and she is off again to the next nightmarish locale, still in the company of said sepulchral monastics. There she will finally learn the truth, horrible though it may be.

As I said above, most Lovecraft fans will find quite a lot here to satisfy their abyssal cravings. We’ve got nightmares and monks, ruined temples and orphanages, incantations and lost tomes and astrology. It’s all very, very good stuff. But Ng raises it to the next level with her writing, which is erudite (though bordering on stuffy at points where some will think a thesaurus was overused) and evocative. I rejoiced each time I saw another fantastic descriptor deployed —”lachrymosal,” “abattoirial,” “octrine,” “vomitus,”, and “mucosal,” were among my favorites. Somewhere, the Old Gent’s skull is grinning, too. It wasn’t just her vocab, either, that enhanced her writing, but an unusual flow and rhythm that sometimes stretched standard grammatical practices.  monsters in the skyThis sprinkled her prose with spice and flavor in quite delicious ways. For example, “Back in my studio, page after page I flung to the floor as I drew diagrams, scribbled equations, created derivatives and reductions of the movements of the stars, knowing the patterns of the celestial formation must be a part of a grander design.” See how she constructs that sentence to lead you into the emotion and immediacy of the moment, worrying more about what it feels like that what it looks like on a page? The whole story is written in this way and it was both refreshing and fun, without falling into aping HPL or others. Lena Ng, with several publications already to her name and with her fresh voice and clear command of the genre, is definitely an author to watch.

This issue of Hinnom Magazine comes with two other good pieces of fiction. Its Eyes Are Open, by Ben Thomas is a creature feature. As such, it is a lot of fun, and pretty creepy at times, but honestly I kept wanting it to develop in an unexpected way and it just kept on keeping on in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get style. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing special either.  Samantha Bryant’s story, Margaret Lets Her Self Go, on the other hand is very unexpected, creative, and scary. I almost reviewed it but then I read Ng’s story and knew I had to tell you about it instead.

Until next time, my lachrymosal friends, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

Show Your Work at the Bottom of the Page: “Not the math of this world but the math of the parallel: non-Newtonian geometry, Fortunado’s topology, octrine trigonometry. Not even the black calculus of Crucerbus could decipher the malevolent pattern.”

West of Matamoros, North of Hell, by Brian Hodge

“Now you didn’t have to look hard at all to find her. Santa Muerte was everywhere, never more so than during the last decade, ever since the cartel wars erupted into a never-ending series of bloodbaths and massacres. Saint Death, Holy Death, had really come into her own.”

e_chizmar07_360x540[1]It is a testament to Mr. Hodge’s writing that I hadn’t originally planned on reviewing this story, having just recently reviewed another by him, but in the weeks since I read this, it has haunted me like few stories have. Some terrors are far too real, and I think that is the main reason this has stuck with me the way that it has. When combined with a visceral writing style possessed of a certain immediacy, the twin horrors of this story bleed through the page into your mind, your soul, and I, at least, found myself trembling. Originally published in “Dark Screams, Volume Seven” put out by Hydra in 2017, West of Matamoros, North of Hell was chosen by Ellen Datlow for inclusion in “The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten,” which is where I found it. It is easy to see why it was included.

Rock stars Sebatián, Sofia, and Enrique put out a certain kind of music, the kind that your mom probably wouldn’t approve of. Their latest album was a huge success and they want to follow it up by going deeper, getting more real, and strengthening their chosen personas as traffickers of evil and death. The fans love it, but it’s all showbiz. guadalupe-santamuerte[1]So, they line up a video shoot down in Matamoros, Mexico—the heartland for Santa Muerte worship. If you know even a modicum of Spanish, you know that translates to Saint Death. Santa Muerte worship has been around forever, in some form or another, most likely having its origin in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican religion. When the Spanish conquer what is now Central and parts of South America, they bring Catholicism with them, and it co-mingles with the native faith, ultimately producing a vibrant and popular cult of saints unlike anywhere else in the world. Above you can see the similarities in the icon images of La Virgen de Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary, as she appeared in Guadalupe), and Santa Muerte. Traditionally, Santa Muerte isn’t actually all that scary, being associated with healing, protection, financial well-being, the assurance of a path to the afterlife, and the guardian of the LGBT community. santamuerte061[1]However, she has also been adopted (probably on account of the imagery associated with her that gives her more of a Grim Reaper appearance, complete with scythe) by the cartels and other criminal elements in Mexico. Shrines to her can be found everywhere from people’s homes to large, public shrines erected for community celebrations such as this one pictured here, at the International Temple of Santa Muerte, in Estado de Mexico, Mexico. There’s a bunch of other great images and interesting information about her cult in this article, Worshipping at the Altar of Sweet Saint Death, by Allison Meier.

Family cookouts and community festivals, however, don’t figure so much into this tale of terror. After the video shoot, our earnest musicians are ready to get out of dodge. After all, when going for realism in your video and shooting on location in the Mexican desert, you are actually placing yourselves well within the jurisdiction of the cartels who worship Santa Muerte in, shall we say, less than wholesome ways. As they’re rolling out, the most terrifying lines of the whole story appear, suddenly and irrevocably.  “[Enrique] was slumped into the door with his head against the window when he perked up at the sight of something shooting out of a bush ahead of them. Thinking in that instant, holy shit, it was the biggest snake he’d ever seen, even though he knew that wasn’t right.” When I read that, I thought, “oh shit, tire spikes…” and sure enough…“An instant later came the sound of blowing tires, a double bang in front, another double bang in the rear.”

SONY DSCSudden, final, and immediate violence follows. The kind that makes you wonder, even as you read, is this really happening? Did that just happen? Hodge manages to communicate the confusion of the blur of action and blood in an incredibly convincing way, especially the speed of the event. When the dust settles, our cast of characters is somewhat reduced and they find themselves imprisoned in an underground cell of some sort with a bunch of other unsavory folks. There is a small, ceiling-level window, out of which a nightmarish scene is displayed. “Not far beyond the front doors was the biggest Santa Muerte he’d ever seen. She stood fifteen feet tall, easy. Her blue robes were voluminous, enough material there for a festival tent. She seemed too big to have found her a scythe that wouldn’t look like a toy. Yet they had. Somebody must’ve made it just for her, a scythe big enough to cut the moon in half. And somehow…somehow the skull was at scale. “That can’t be real, ” Sofia said. No. It couldn’t. It just looked real. The yellowing of age. The uneven teeth. The missing teeth, random gaps in the jaw. They’d had it made, that was all.”

A gruesome human sacrifice to this Santa Muerte follows, presided over by a man with a skull tattooed over his face and head. I’ll not describe the sacrifice here, but it is drawn from reality, at least as far as the news can report on the atrocities of the cartel gangs. (Descriptions of the skull faced man reminded me of Rick Genest, pictured here, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for most tattoos of human bones. Though I’ll use him to illustrate this story, I draw no connections between this awful fictional character and Mr. Genest, who died tragically in 2018.) This is one of the things that makes this story so terrifying. It’s not fake, this sort of thing has happened and continues to happen to innocent people. Be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and you could be kidnapped for ransom money, or just flat out killed for no reason. rickgenestbanner1200x627[1]However, in this story, Skull Face has a reason. He targeted these band members because he was a fan of their hellish music and wanted to know how they got it all so right. What was their inspiration? He’d carve it out of them if need be.

As the story draws towards its cringe-worthy conclusion, the cosmic horror begins. While not strictly Lovecraftian, there are themes of placating an outer god reminiscent of the bayou scene from The Call of Cthulhu, or perhaps even The Festival. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that the terror moves from the realm of the all-too-real cartel violence to a moment of the cosmically fantastic. Either way, I’m crossing Matamoros off my list of possible vacation destination.

Brian Hodge writes with a fluidity that just pulls you along without calling attention to itself. There’s not a lot of flowery passages or clever turns of phrase. There’s just great, solid writing that allows you to get lost in the story that he’s telling, and that is a very good thing. This is only the second or third story I’ve read by Brian Hodge but I will be reading more, and in part that is because they are just so readable. In this one, I felt the fear dripping from the sweat of his protagonists.  I winced with the characters as the knives went in, and I thought wtf? with those who were stunned by the dizzying whirlwind of violence. Brian Hodge is a master.

That about wraps it up for this one, mis amigos. This was composed listening to the Spotify playlist, “Santa Muerte – Cartel de Santa” compiled by Hilario Ramirez.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

The Liturgy of Santa Muerte: “‘And me, see, I know blood. I know sacrifice. I’m one of the ones they call when they really want to send a message, because I can do it and not blink.’ He motioned to the towering Santa Muerte, the body parts laid out before her. They buzzed with flies and gave off a stink like roadkill. ‘It’s just another day’s work to me.'”

The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons, by John Langan

“I went to touch the thing, to add its texture to my catalogue of impressions, only to hesitate with the tips of my fingers a hairsbreadth from its paper. I was seized by the most overpowering repugnance, such that the hairs from the back of my hand right up my forearm stood rigid. I swear, my flesh actually shrank from the thing.”

I feel like I need to be upfront about this. In the latter part of the last decade I was reading an actual print copy—slick, glossy pages; beautiful, full-color illustrations; edited by the estimable Ann VanderMeer; the whole shebang—of Weird Tales. How we all should have reveled in those days! While reading, an advertisement caught my eye. It was for a forthcoming collection of stories by an author I’d not heard of by the name of John Langan. “Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters.” Somewhere between the gorgeous cover art and the promise of tales truly told in the title, I was seduced. I had just started to come out of my Serious Books Only phase and was looking to branch out. This seemed just the thing.

This is the part I need to be up front about. I was disappointed. Only one of the five stories contained therein captivated me. I was looking for something to scare me, and this didn’t do it. I put it aside and when Mr. Langan’s first novel came out, I let it pass me by. Fast forward to roughly now and I’ve really gotten into horror short stories, particularly those with a Lovecraftian bent. And I start seeing Langan’s name everywhere, so I decided to give him another try. I read and reviewed The Supplement, which I enjoyed most everything about save the title. 9828b5516ad62e6ff3200eaf07ea775e.image.400x600[1].jpgThen I read Lost in the Dark, found in The Best Horror of the Year (2018, edited by Ellen Datlow), Volume 10, and wow, was it awesome! So awesome I recommended it for a Story Unboxed episode of This is Horror! and I think Bob and Michael are going to do it. Then I read John Langan’s short novel, “The Fisherman” and I was stunned. When I finished that book, I laid it down gently next to me and thought for close to forty-five minutes. I’d like to say more about that novel here sometime, if the chance presents itself, but for now I’ll just say that I loved the easter egg he left in Mr. Dunn for fans of “The Fisherman.”

Perhaps Mr. Langan had grown on me, perhaps he’d gotten better at his craft, perhaps I’d broadened my reading tastes so as to be able to appreciate his style. Likely some of all of those. So, when I heard his third collection, “Sefira and Other Betrayals” was coming out this month from Hippocampus Press, I was very excited, and reached out for a review copy which was happily granted. Thank you very much. Mr. Langan was gracious enough to even point me to two stories which might best fit my Lovecraftian requirement. The one I did not choose (not because it was unworthy) was called Bloom. You have to admit, The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons just sounds way cooler.

Like a lot of Mr. Langan’s stories, this one clocks in at a longer word count than most other contemporary short horror fiction, and it contains several nesting stories and interwoven character threads. Combined, these provide for a rich reading experience, if perhaps not one that you can get through in one sitting unless you’ve got some stamina.  It tells the tale of one Mr. Coleman, a novelist, who, having read about the curiosity of Mr. Dunn’s balloons, decided to go investigate them for himself. On the train to Mr. Dunn’s estate, he meets Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw who are also going to visit Mr. Dunn, but for a very different reason. Mr. Earnshaw has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and, with his time short and likely painful, he sought out alternative assistance. Mr. Dunn, in addition to his balloons, was apparently known for easing the pain in the last days for terminal patients.

Balloon Ride by Andyp89.jpg
The Balloon Ride by Deviant Artist andyp89

Things are not all what they seem on the surface, as you might expect. Coleman can’t get a handle on Dunn or on his weird, oddly repulsive balloons, and Mrs. Earnshaw becomes increasingly uneasy with her husband’s course of “treatment.” When Coleman inquires of her about her husband’s tolerance of pain, she responds, “I cannot understand how he bears it. But I might wish he were bearing it with me rather than with Mr. Dunn. I will lose my husband soon enough, Mr. Coleman; I would like to spend what time I have left with him in his company.”  In a very Langanian fashion, nestled inside the Earnshaw/Coleman narrative is another story, told by Dunn, about a former time during a war. Coleman was unsettled by this telling just as much as he was by the balloons. “He was thinking that Dunn had uttered his description of the war in a tone not of horror, but nostalgia.” This kind of thoughtful, gentle disquietude pervades this tale and much of the recent work I’ve read by Langan.

 

266791566021212[1].pngBy the time we get to the end all of the narrative threads return to the source to form a beautiful and horrifying picture more disturbing than any single one of them might have led you to believe. Themes of grief, loneliness, the ethical boundaries of pseudo-scientific research, the questions and emotions and sad futility of end of life care, the horrors of war, they’re all here vying for headspace and cloaked in the weird and the pernicious. In the end, and only in the end does it get Lovecraftian, and I won’t spoil how but it was marvelous. Readers familiar with HPL’s From Beyond, Pickman’s Model, and to some extent The Shadow Out of Time and The Colour Out of Space, have fun stuff to look forward to!

John Langan is a very erudite, studied, and well-read author, and with each successive story by him that I read (though perhaps none as much as “The Fisherman”) I appreciate his scholarship and knowledge base more and more. He layers his texts with complicated but believable emotion. His characters are fully-fleshed out in this one and you want to go deeper with them, to know more. For example, Coleman is the son of a Swedenborgian—a peculiar religious sect of Christianity extant in only a very small part of the United States, that I only know about because I once had the good fortune to meet one—and while this detail might seem superfluous, it efficiently locates Coleman both in time and place, while saying something about his spirituality that might impact how he encounters the rest of what is ahead of him in this tale. Langan accomplishes all that with a word. This revelation was followed by a short ontological discussion touching on both eschatology and soteriology. Again, Langan manages to cram all that into three sentences, molding real meat onto the bones of his characters. Some, I suppose, would label this story “literary horror,” but I find such a description to be an unnecessary restatement and mildly offensive.

Nevertheless, if you like your horror on the longer side, bearing the hallmarks of college-professor authorship, and more thought-provoking than gut-churning, then I suggest you give this story, and this collection, a try. But don’t fret if you’re more into action, because there’s a ripping good sword fight that bookends Mr. Dunn as well! Without a doubt, The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons will tug uncomfortably at an unattended corner of your soul, worrying it like an old dog with an older bone who knows there’s still something to be consumed deep within the scarred and pitted exterior.

If you’ve not read Langan before, I suggest you start with “Sefira”. There’s no reason not to, and in “Sefira” he’s at the top of his game.  Then, if you like what you read, do yourself a favor and pick up “The Fisherman.” I really can’t recommend that one enough. Personally, I’ve come a bit full circle on John Langan, I have to say, and I think I’d like to go back and give “Mr. Gaunt” another try. I still have the beautiful hardcover on my shelf.

This review was composed listening to my wife’s television show, The Real Housewives of somewhere, in the background – a horror of an altogether different nature.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

The Betrayals of Attraction: “The successful arms merchant who washes his hands of the blood in which he’s steeped them for nigh on twenty years to devote himself to the promulgation of his new Spiritualist beliefs—not to mention, to fashioning his elaborate balloons—how could such a figure not be of interest?

The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud

“There were four saved images and a video file. He stared at them a moment. He tried to come to terms with what he was seeing, tried to arrange the world in such a way that would accommodate his own mundane life, the daily maintenance of his ordinary existence, along with what he saw arrayed before him in neat little squares, like snapshots of Hell.”

For a brief slice of time, I tended bar. Oh, not in a down and dirty dive like the setting of Nathan Ballingrud‘s fantastic novella, The Visible Filth, where fights broke out at the drop of a hat and cockroaches ride the beer taps like carnival slides. No, I tended bar for the always rich and sometimes famous (that party is a story for another time) at a swank conference and retreat center with prohibition-era hidden liquor cabinets in the walls and a crown molding that was the actual inspiration for Joe Camel. But, if there’s one thing all bartenders have in common it’s the fact that they’ve seen some shit. Heard a fair amount of it, too. So, when I heard about this bartender story from the good folks at This is Horror, I knew I had to check it out. Though the original publication, a solo novella, is out of print, it has been reprinted in this new collection by Mr. Ballingrud titled “Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell” dropping soon on April 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

51wTZnGf5EL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgBallingrud, though born in Massachusetts, has deep ties to the South where he’s put in some hard hours. When his first collection, “North American Lake Monsters,” hit the shelves it was an instant classic of the weird and disturbing and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best debut collection.  But it wasn’t until The Visible Filth that he fully utilized his bartending experience as the seedbed for a story. And be glad that he did, because this is a tale that will hold you close, settling you down like that first drink in a long night, but won’t let go until who knows how many drinks later when the room is spinning and people are talking without words. Then, when you finally manage to stumble free, blood diluting the alcohol in your veins, you’ll look around and not recognize your surroundings. You’ll ask yourself, did that really just happen, but not until after you’ve crawled your way back to consciousness.

Meet Will. Thirty-something bartender at Rosie’s, a dive tucked back off the main drag in uptown New Orleans. He’s on a first name basis with all the regulars, from the local bad boy to the off duty cop. His best friend, Alicia (who Will wishes he was fucking but isn’t), drops by pretty frequently, too, her newest boyfriend in tow. And back at his low-rent apartment, Carrie, his college-hottie girlfriend is bent over her books. Life isn’t exactly all peaches and cream for Will, but he does alright by a certain standard, and he’s content. Mostly. On a week night (pick one, they all run together), Erik the Bad Boy comes in to shoot pool with a couple of punks, but that devolves quickly into a fist fight. It turns dirty when Erik’s opponent smashes a beer bottle and swings the cut glass like a scythe across Erik’s cheek, harvesting a noticeable chunk of cheek. Lots of people jump in then and it’s over almost as soon as it started, only the room’s more decorated in blood splatter than before. Hours later, when the dust clears and Will is about to go home, he notices a cell phone amid the wreckage. Thinking it belongs to one of the college kids who popped in just before the fight broke out, he pockets it and heads home. He’ll give it back tomorrow when they come looking for it.

Cut_Wound_Transfer_1600x[1].jpgViolence has already spattered these pages, but it’s not until Will gets home that the weird breaks in. The phone he picked up begins beeping with incoming text messages and it sounds like someone’s in trouble. “I think something is in here with me. I’m scared.” As he interacts with the texts they get weirder and more aggressive until some picture files and a video come through. Through four sequential pictures he and Carrie witness a beheading and then, something even entirely more out of the ordinary. “The head shifted slightly, as if it heard something and had to turn a fraction to listen more closely.” There’s much more to this quote but I’m not going to share it because it’s so good and so weird that I want you to experience it for yourself in all it’s gory context and body horror glory.

Will and Carrie investigate, following up on a clue from one of the horrific pictures. A book’s spine is visible near the beheading scene, betraying the intriguing title “The Second Translation of Wounds.” Can we just take a minute to admire the inclusion of the word “second” in that title? I mean, holy hell. (That’s what separates Ballingrud’s writing from the rest of the pack here, little details like that.) As they look into the matter, Carrie gets drawn in deeper and deeper in decidedly creepy and unhealthy ways. Will makes a series of poor decisions, or you might say continues to make them, but somewhat redeems himself by keeping an eye on Erik, the cut up brawler.

At the end of a downward spiral into insanity lies an ending that leaves the reader stunned and feeling in desperate need of a shower and perhaps a prayer. The action that takes place in the end was somewhat inevitable, but I thought a different character would be more involved, so it definitely kept me on my toes. My only regret was that it wasn’t longer. I wanted more. I wanted to know more about who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing. But this is always my struggle with novellas.

Let’s talk about the quality of the writing for a moment. You’ve glimpsed it already. There’s a gritty authenticity to his descriptions and a bitter sorrow in his dialogue. He’s got his finger on the pulse of so many types of people (as perhaps only bartenders, barbers, and clergy can) which gives him the ability to weave a realistic tapestry of character, time, and place. Like here, towards the beginning, when the college kids try to buy a beer, “The kid showed him his ID, sighing with the patience of a beleaguered saint. Legal less than a month.” Every bartender has seen that look. Or here, once the fight has taken place, “The escalation of violence shifted the room’s atmosphere. It almost seemed that another presence had crept in: some curious, blood-streaked thing.” Oh, it had, too, though they knew it not. Or here, my favorite metaphor in the whole story, so perfect for the character and atmosphere, “By the time he arrived back home, the sun was bruising the sky in the east.” Brilliant. When last shift workers head home the sun does not rise. It bruises the sky. Like I said, finger on the pulse of humanity.

I haven’t said much about a Lovecraftian connection for this one because frankly, there’s not much of a direct one. It does share a theme of leaving-well-enough-the-fuck-alone as in From Beyond, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and countless other Lovecraftian stories. But beyond that, there isn’t much of the old gent in this one friends. It’s just a good story, and given what happens at the end, and how, I suspect it will appeal to HPL devotees nonetheless, as it did to me.

When all is said and done, aside from all the weird and the horror and the gore, there’s a melancholic fatalism that bleeds through these pages. Will hates his job, but is going no where else. He’s punching above his weight in his romance, but even so, he loves another. His only swat at changing his stars there is a pitiful, sophomoric attempt that’d be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But even given all that, what gets him deeper and deeper into trouble here is his care and concern, even love, for others. For Carrie. For Erik. For Alicia. Anybody who’s ever even been halfway around the block knows that love can make us do strange things and can take us down some dark roads. That’s really the beautiful thing at the scarred and beating heart of this marvelous story. You should seriously pick it. You should do so quickly even, as there’s a film coming out soon directed by Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) and starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson.  You know what they say about books and movies and which is better. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to see what a director like Anvari will do with it.

The rest of the collection looks pretty amazing too. I had a chance to read only one other story, The Atlas of Hell, which was weird and awesome and terrifying in a whole different way. Know though that these tales are connected more than just by being gathered together in the same collection. They share themes and explorations, dark words and cruel intents. Shaken, of course, not stirred.

I also need to say that I’m grateful to Mr. Ballingrud for providing me with a review copy of “Wounds,” for his kindness, and especially for his generosity towards a friend.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist “New Orleans Jazzfest 2019” complied by user Peter Blair.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

Cockroach[1].jpg

 

Aharesia, by Natalia Theodoridou

“I remember a time when I felt lured by the world’s wonders, when I wanted to see everything,” he wanted to say. “I wanted to live more, be more. What happened to me?”

cover-vol2-issue1[1]There’s been a time or two in my adult life when I felt like I didn’t belong; more if you count my youth. I imagine both go without saying for most of us, which is what makes a theme of displacement so potentially potent. All of us are taken back to “a time when…” Once in a while, when the stars are seemingly aligned, some of us have a chance to return to a place if not a time. Of those who leap at such a rare opportunity, most discover two important truths: the stars were never aligned, not that way, and you can never, ever truly go back. Life has changed for you and the place you left. Both have had divergent sets of experiences, circumstances, and occurrences. To imagine that such a bifurcation can be undone is a daydream. World Fantasy Award-winning author Natalia Theodoridou, explores these themes in her story Aharesia, to be published this Spring by Grimscribe Press in Volume Two, Issue One of “Vastarien: A Literary Journal.” I’d like to thank Jon Padgett and Grimscribe Press for providing me with a review copy of this issue of “Vastarien” in exchange for this fair and unbiased review.

Before we go further, a word about this journal’s literary pedigree is appropriate. In the event you haven’t heard of it (for shame!) you should know that it’s the dream child of Jon Padgett, (an author I’ve reviewed here before), who is something like a literary godson of Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, in turn, found a muse early on in ole HPL, but as Jeff Vandermeer says in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Ligotti’s omnibus collection “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe,” “…in a kind of metaphysical horror story of its own, Ligotti early on subsumed Lovecraft and left his dry husk behind, having taken what sustenance he needed for his own devices. (Most other writers are, by contrast, consumed by Lovecraft when they attempt to devour him.)” So, authors published in “Vastarien” are going to be playing in Ligotti’s sandbox more than Lovecraft’s, but there are non-Euclidean corners overlapping to be sure.

The Road HomeAharesia opens with a young couple, Nathan and Sammie, on a road trip back to Nathan’s hometown, Aharesia. There’s only one problem, as the story’s memorable opening line proclaims, “Except the town wasn’t there.” No map app, no GPS can seem to find it. The only evidence that it exists at all are Nathan’s clear and fond memories of growing up there. His brother and he, riding bikes. Fossil hunting. Eating pancakes at Finn’s with his mom. Swimming in the lake with Brandon. Or was it the pool? Nathan’s memories wobble a bit. But at the same time, they’re so clear, so real. Sammie wonders if he’s suffering a breakdown. For as much as she loves him, she knows he’s coming apart at the seams. Has been, since she met him when she was working at a diner. “He’d shown up, sat at the bar. Lots of guys who hung out there looked haunted, but not the way Nathan did. He’d walk into a room and you’d say, that’s a broken man. Just her type. He hadn’t asked for coffee that day. All he’d wanted was water, so Sam had kept serving him as he emptied glass after glass.” The whole story is told in this dreamlike fugue where reality wavers, an image glimpsed through deep water. The truth dances like a tiny tropical fish, drawing you in with its vibrant colors and then flitting away just as you think you’ve got your hand on it.

IMG_1989_1024x1024[1].jpgAt last, a signpost in the wilderness, as the pancake house Nathan recalls having dined at with his mother “appeared on the right, its green triangular roof and yellow-trimmed letters exactly as he remembered them.” The waitress even recognizes him and things are looking up as they speak of the past. But sore subjects are quickly poked. The waitress, apologetic, “…bit her lip and perked up. “Look at me, dredging up the past like that. No use, I suppose. Your mother knew not to speak about things that are better left unsaid.”” Theodoridou consistently and effectively sprinkles her narrative with these nuggets of malice, almost like lures, that leave the reader nervous and wondering.

As a nightmarish transcorporeality begins to affect Nathan, things dive quickly down. For all she tries, Sammie cannot help him. “No, you don’t understand,” he shouted. “It’s not real, none of it is real, I’m not who you think I am. I’m not who I thought I was.” The whirlpool does not relent, spiraling towards a shocking ending that will leave you gasping for air and answers.

Aharesia is going to appeal to Lovecraft fans, calling to mind stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The White Ship, and The Night Ocean. I’m less versed in my Ligotti (which I am slowly correcting) but of the stories I have read, I found similar themes of displacement and memory in a haunting little tale that creeps up on you afterwards called The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise. The writing, as should be evidenced by the quotes I’ve given you, is superb. Though it is not lush, it is sneakily substantial. She knows how to string you along, gathering your interest, sparking your curiosity, stretching your sense of normality, and then, with a short sharp pain, she sets her hook and you’re hers. Her dialogue is believable. Never once was I taken out of the story to scratch my head at some unrealistic conversation. The characters she draws are likewise believable and real. Their pain is palpable. Their search for what they’ve lost is melancholic. I could close my eyes and be in the booth behind them at the pancake house, guiltily eavesdropping on their misery.

2937692939_c323035788_z[1].jpgAs is usually the case when it is not immediately obvious, I am curious about the title. A quick Google search reveals nothing (which, frankly, I should have expected, given the plot). But the first four letters triggered something in my way-way back memory. It sounded to me like a Hebrew word, so I checked that out and, in fact, it is. Ahar is a word found in Biblical Hebrew meaning “to tarry or delay,” frequently with a sense of leaving something behind or discarding something. I have no idea if this was in the author’s mind when she composed the story or titled it, but I found it surprisingly apropos, for what it’s worth (which may be exactly nothing).

This issue of Vastarien also contains stories by Gemma Files, Matthew M. Bartlett, S. E. Casey, as well as the poetry of K. A. Opperman and scholarly work by Gwendolyn Kiste and David Peak. Everything I’ve read in “Vastarien” has been of the highest quality, combining an enviable erudition with exemplary Ligottian homage. An annual subscription, delivered to your e-reader, costs only $13.50, and were I you, I’d subscribe today so you get this issue when it is released very soon. It’s very much worth it.

This review was composed while listening to “Curse of the Daimon” by Daemonyx (Matt Cardin).

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

For the sake of clarity: “There were no signs for Aharesia Town on the way.”