Stabilimentum, by Livia Llewellyn

“She only noticed it later, as she was getting ready to leave for work—looking up as she struggled with her hair, she spied a large brown spider trembling on invisible strands, high up in the far corner over her bathtub. Thalia stared, momentarily slack-jawed, as the creature seemingly floated through thick circles and curves of a white spiral pattern within the invisible rest of the web, its pace furious in tempo and intent.”

When I lived in Chicago, I had a small, second floor apartment in an eight-unit building, each unit having exterior doors. Outside our doors on the second floor was a wrought iron, scroll work guard rail. It wasn’t until my first summer there that I discovered just how perfect that scroll work was for spiders to spin their webs. Almost overnight, as if a signal had gone out when the temperature rose to a certain degree, the spiders showed up. And I mean showed up en masse. Heavy, fat bastards, too; none of these wimpy, spindly types. I cannot impress upon you enough, gentle reader, the sheer number of spiders that invaded. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. That first evening, when I got home from work, I discovered why they were there. The lights. The lights outside each door attracted an equally enormous amount of flies, and by the later evening, each of the thousand, thousand webs was laden with gift-wrapped future meals. It was a perfect micro-ecosystem.

This is a story about spiders.

51FJMdhTYzL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Livia Llewellyn is an author who has made her name by writing stories that ask the questions, “What if desire were not absent from Lovecraft’s stories? What does cosmic horror look like if the erotic were present?” Well, that in addition to being a damn fine writer. This story is found in her second collection, called “Furnace,” which was brought to my attention recently in an interview I heard with Laird Barron over at This Is Horror. It was published two days after Valentine’s Day 2016 by the excellent group at Word Horde. I’ve read a number of stories in this collection now and they are mostly all fantastic. They call to mind the aesthetic and style of fantasist K.J. Parker in many ways: fantastic urban environs falling apart, strange societies almost like our own, and particularly in both her use of language and how she names her characters. The main character in this story is called Thalia, a name deriving from a Greek origin and meaning “to blossom or flourish.” You’ll shudder more knowing that after you read this story.

A ‘stabilimentum” is, according to wikipedia, “a conspicuous silk structure included in the webs of some species of orb-web spider. Its function is a subject of debate.

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Now you know. As our story opens, Thalia is residing in an apartment on the 37th floor of a downtown New York building. While getting ready for work she sees a large spider in the corner of her shower, spinning a web complete with one of these stabilimenta. Like me, Thalia’s not ready a spider person, and so immediately goes after it with a can of insect spray. She suffers a small bout of vertigo as she prepares to destroy the arachnid,  “always the sensation that she was rising, rushing upward into the clouds.” It will be a recurring theme. Remember that for when you get to the end. When she returns home from work, she is horrified to encounter three more fat spiders furiously spinning their webs in the same corner of the bathroom. She goes at them with hairspray—“Screw the ozone layer. She had spiders to kill, and an apartment to protect.”—having blown all her insect spray that morning.

Back in Chicago at my former apartment building, I remember that first week of the summer of spiders. I grew more and more disgusted with each passing day. I tired of dodging stray strands of webbing. I had nightmares about the spiders getting inside. When I could stand it no more, I took up arms—a broom—and knocked down the webs. I was a god among mortals. The spiders tried to scamper away, furious at the invasion. My boots crushed them as they scampered, popping their fat bodies like a kid with bubble wrap covered in corn flakes. When I had done my worst, I sprayed the area down with Raid and declared victory.

Things get worse for dear Thalia. As she sleeps, a blossoming takes place. And when she awakes, “Over the bathtub, a black mass writhed around a giant, white-webbed X.” She has absolutely had enough. Her neighbors, a gay couple, invite her to stay with them until the problem can be resolved. Maintenance is called in and an arachnid abatement protocol is enacted. As you might guess, it doesn’t work. She tries to break her lease, but that would mean financial ruin. And then shit gets really weird. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you at all because it’s pure, Lovecraftian awesomeness. I’ll just end with one quote as a teaser. She calls maintenance again in a fit of fury. (Recall her vertigo.) When she gives her 37th floor apartment number there is some confusion, “My switchboard says you’re calling from the three hundred and seventieth floor.”

It only took a few days after the slaughter of the spiders for me to realize my mistake in Chicago. The flies. Their predators annihilated, they spawned and spawned and spawned. And whereas the spiders were content to stay outdoors, the flies came inside,  black, whirling dervishes that tormented my sleep and disturbed my leisure. I could not get rid of them. Winter finally accomplished what I could not, and when summer came again and the webs went up again, I left them alone. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than to see those buzzing bitches caught and silk-wrapped. The spiders and I reached a truce; we left each other alone, so long as they stayed outdoors. With no flies in the apartment that summer, that wasn’t a problem. To this day, I leave spiders alone. Thalia should have, too. And maybe you should consider it.

I loved this story. By the way, if audio books are your thing, this story has received the Pseudopod treatment for your listening pleasure. Check it out here! Stabilimentum doesn’t have the hallmark eroticism Llewellyn is known for, and so if you’re looking for that (and you should), you’ll have to pick a different story, probably the final one in this collection, The Unattainable. But this one was fantastic, Lovecraftian, creepy, and crawly. All things that set my teeth chattering. Her writing, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, is evocative and puts you right in the story with ease. This is a quality present in almost all of her stories that I’ve read. (I keep hedging those kind of statements because I really just didn’t like Wasp & Snake.) The presence of sexual desire in her stories really sets her apart. Lovecraft detested sexuality, and so there is simply none of it in his stories. I don’t buy into the theories of latent homoeroticism present in such stories as The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Thing on the Doorstep, or The Dunwich Horror. I know others will point to other stories, too, like Hypnos. And it’s true, Lovecraft may have been gay, but it is my belief that even if he were, he was above that, asexual. In Hypnos the possibly sexual is described in ways that indicate HPL was disgusted, “It was like the others, yet incalculably denser; a sticky, clammy mass, if such terms can be applied to analogous qualities in a non-material sphere.” What Llewellyn is able to do so well is to bring both the immediacy and the beauty of human sexuality to the fore in her writing. You owe it to yourself to check out this fantastic author! Only, just in other stories, not this one. This is a story about spiders. In bathrooms.

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That about does it here, fellow arachnophobes (-philes???). Naturally, this review was composed while listening to a Spotify playlist of my own creation called “Crooner Christmas.”

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

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SPECIAL DOUBLE FEATURE! Azathoth in Arkham; The Revenge of Azathoth, by Peter Cannon

“At the end of the session, I impulsively proposed to host the next meeting at my place, the very house where Edward Derby had grown up! The gang enthusiastically accepted my offer, and a date was set for the following week.”

9781568820408-us[1].jpgPeter Cannon kept company with an esteemed literati, including such lofty Lovecraftian personages as Frank Belnap Long, Dirk Mosig, S.T. Joshi, Robert Bloch, and others. Whereas a lot of the authors I read and review here are more modern in their context, Cannon was active in the early days of this contemporary renaissance of Lovecraftian literature. These two stories were first published in 1994 and collected in the volume in which I found them, “The Azathoth Cycle,” edited by Robert M. Price and published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1995. Do you remember 1995? Braveheart was in the theaters, that’s what I remember; and I loved it. But that was before most of us recognized that Gibson was an ass with a Messiah complex. In any event, these Chaosium volumes are intriguing, collecting stories focused on a single Lovecraftian entity or concept for the particular purpose of providing background reading to those who delve into the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Now, I’ve never played that myself, but these resource books are actually a fantastic boon to fans of the Mythos. Admittedly they are a little hard to read straight through due to the lack of variety (I mean, there’s only so much Azathoth I can take, you know? At least in one sitting…), but when you just want a story about that one elder God and can’t remember which collection you found one in, voila!, here you go.

Peter Cannon brings a vast knowledge and love of the original tales by the Old Gent, but doesn’t fully prostrate himself at the altar. Were he to visit the supposed grave of HPL, I imagine he’d smile wryly, maybe give the headstone a pat or two, and then walk away. He certainly wouldn’t leave a silver key, read poetry, or offer a malediction of blood, all things done fairly regularly there at the Swan Point Cemetery. galaxyy[1].jpgThis one-step removed posture allows Cannon to write with a wink and a nod, and infuse his compositions with an informed humor that you can only chuckle at if you’re as well-read as he in the native tales.

These stories are both sequels to The Thing on the Doorstep, imagining that it was Azathoth which somehow infected the minds of Asenath and Ephraim Waite. The first story, Azathoth in Arkham, follows the exploits of Edward Derby Upton, son of Edward Derby’s best friend, though never a particular fan of his namesake. “I confess that I never much cared for ‘Uncle Eddy…’ as a youth keen on such manly sports as boxing and baseball, I found Derby too flabby, too feminine.” The story takes place a little over a year after the events in Thing and finds Upton attempting to settle his own father’s affairs, who had died following a fit of madness and brief incarceration in the same padded cell at Arkham Sanitarium that had held Edward Derby. While doing some research on his father’s interests he learns of a group of young men who’d formed an interest group of sorts, the Dead Edward Derby Society. (Here, as elsewhere, we get a glimpse of Cannon’s sense of humor.) He ingratiates himself rather easily into the society and soon invites them to his home for their meetings, the home where Edward Derby had grown up.

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The Derby House in Salem, MA
They’re astonished and immediately accept the offer, though after a rich repast upon their first meeting there, the young scholars request spaghetti for the next dinner, which was lovingly prepared by the house butler, Soames. As with the previous story based on Thing that I covered, the tale ends unsurprisingly with a bit of a switcheroo.

However, Cannon isn’t done yet.

The second story, The Revenge of Azathoth, retells the action from the first story, but from the perspective of one of the Derby acolytes in the Dead Edward Derby Society, a young man named Vartan Bagdasarian. It’s important to read these stories both in order and together, otherwise you run the risk of missing important details and the full extent of Cannon’s authorial whimsy. In this sequel to a sequel, we learn the why of certain events from the first story and a fuller picture comes into focus. Vartan is a literary critic who isn’t as star-struck with Upton as his compatriots. Rather, he has a deeper drive to research Derby, and Azathoth, and will use the fortuitous happenstance of the Society encountering Upton to his utmost advantage, especially after glimpsing a cupboard that contained some of Derby’s writings. “There was a silence as I  waited for him to make the obvious offer. Finally, I spoke up, and in as casual a tone as I could muster, suggested that I’d be glad to save him the effort of examining the cupboard’s contents, not that I wanted to impose or anything…” A female foil (from Innsmouth, of all places) named Wendy is introduced, who provides a focal point for Upton’s transforming appetites. I do have to add, though, that there is a flavor of misogyny present around this character—even if it’s written in a less than flattering light—that this reviewer found distasteful. In the end, another rather unsurprising conclusion is offered as we all are once again supposed to gasp at miscegenation.

The second story is better than the first, though neither of them particularly blow your hair back. Sure, there’s a chuckle or two to be had, especially with the flip way in which Cannon handles Lovecraftian material to which other authors, and HPL himself, assigned such grave importance and cosmic magnitude. There was something human in that, and somehow that was a bit refreshing. There is real genius in the second tale, though, and I would have missed it, I admit, had it not been for Robert M. Price’s introduction to the story. I quote, “The literary cult of Lovecraft himself becomes the basis for the “Dead Edward Derby Society,” and the chief Derby zealot who has moved to Arkham for the sole purpose of living among his hero’s haunts, Vartan Bagdasarian, is based on both August Derleth…and S.T. Joshi…” That’s both a fun and a tongue-in-cheek move, and I’m indebted to Price (who isn’t the darling he once was in the Lovecraftian community on account of his own outspoken xenophobic beliefs, and more recently, his public approval of Donald Trump as President) for pointing it out.

These two stories are a good example of some of the earlier work being done in this current wave of Lovecraftian fiction. Derleth, Bloch, Campbell, Carter, Ashton-Smith, and others wrote a lot of pastiches on the way to laying down a few of their own original bricks. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But this isn’t even on the same playground where Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín Kiernan, Ruthanna Emrys, and others are currently giving flesh to some of the best dark fiction period. If it took some pastiche work, and some less than inspired stories to get to where we are today, then I’m deeply grateful. Don’t get me wrong, gentle reader, these aren’t bad stories, and if you’re a Lovecraft fan you’ll have fun with them. They just aren’t up to the mind-blowing, reality-shifting status of some of the others I’ve reviewed here. I may be in danger of overvaluing the present at the expense of the past, but I don’t think too much so.

One final point, despite the intent of these tales, and despite their titles, they didn’t have a lot to do with Azathoth. I’m still in search of a really good Azathoth story, so if you know of one and can point me to it, please do so in the comments. I don’t know exactly what Daniel Upton found on his doorstep, but if Azathoth had anything to do with it, it was only in the inspirational sense.

This review was composed listening to the Spotify playlist “Classical in A Minor” compiled by Laura Guthrie.

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

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“wash away my demons” by Deviant Artist: crimsonnonyxx

A Circle That Ever Returneth In, by Orrin Grey

“…each of the three possesses one portion of a riddle, map, or clue meant to lead them to the jewel…each one believes their portion to be the most pertinent and therefore of the most value…”

gost-cov300[1].jpgEarlier this year I read a story that I really enjoyed in “Autumn Cthulhu” called The Well and the Wheel (review here) by Orrin Grey. As I was just then beginning my exploration of these sorts of stories, Grey’s name was new to me. Well, it’s new to me no longer and thank goodness for it! I’ve since come to understand he’s referred to in the business as “the monster guy” for his many ingenious takes on familiar and not so familiar monsters, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to him expound upon his writing and his influences in a pair of “This is Horror” podcasts (available here or wherever you get your podcasts). A while ago I saw on his blog that his new collection, “Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales,” would be coming out soon and I couldn’t have been more excited. It is now in print (2018) and available from his publisher here. (I actually received a free e-copy directly from the publisher just for voting. That’s right, just for performing my civic duty and telling them about it, the good folks at Word Horde gave me a free e-copy of this great collection.)

There’s three noteworthy things about this collection that I’d like to draw to your attention, gentle reader. The first is obvious from the cover: Gemma Files has given the introduction, which, if that weren’t noteworthy enough, know also that it’s an introduction in which she describes her inescapable desire to eat Mr. Grey.  Gemma is a considerable talent and it speaks well of this current volume that she wanted to be a part of it. The second is that the author comments on each story after its conclusion. I think he does this in his other collections too, but I absolutely love this feature. There’s nothing I enjoy more after reading something that I loved than to talk about with others who’ve also read it, and these author notes are like getting to do so, however all too briefly, with the author himself. So, thank you for that! Third, and finally, when I got this book it caused me to temporarily put down the other book I was reading—Paul Tremblay’s latest “The Cabin at the End of the World”—which is a rare enough feat as it is, but especially so in this case as this novel by Tremblay is rather un-put-down-able.

journey1[1].jpgI reached out to Mr. Grey on Facebook asking him which of these tales was particularly Lovecraftian, and, because he’s the standup guy that he is, he actually got back to me and shared with me his own personal enthusiasm for the tale we’re examining here. A Circle That Ever Returneth In is a Lovecraftian/sword-and-sorcery mashup that is also a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.  That’s right, you read that correctly. What literary-minded child of the 80’s could forget these wondrous tomes?! Now, imagine all that you remember about reading these books and then add in both Lovecraftian and sword-and-sorcery elements and you’ve got the picture, and it is a sight to behold. It’s reprinted here in this volume, but originally it was published in “Swords vs. Cthulhu,” edited by Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer.

This tale, like so many of its ilk (well, those worth their mead anyway) begins in an inn, with a group of adventurers around a beaten up table near a roaring fire. You (because, of course, this is written in the second person) overhear their conversation and your interest is peaked. There’s maps, treasure, danger, and everything that goes along with it being discussed. tavern_by_ltramaral-d55g796-1024x595[1].jpgBut then, there’s a disagreement, a parting of ways, and you’re left with the choice of following only one of the three adventurers, the sell-sword, the cut-purse, or the doll mage. I immediately chose to follow the doll mage (duh), being instructed to turn to a numbered section rather than a page, as it was of old. I figured I knew what a sell-sword and a cut-purse were, but of the doll mage I only had high hopes. She did not disappoint.

88e1e11768bbcbb365d0ca09798614df[1]The doll mage’s tale took us through a few hasty voodoo-like lessons wrought on the anvil of you, the main character. “You see that she is holding a doll, a tiny effigy of cloth and wax, and you notice with a start that it looks like you…she pulls out a black stitch from across the doll’s mouth, and suddenly you find your voice.” You discover that you’re searching for the Shining Trapezohedron (putting versed readers immediately in mind of The Haunter of the Dark) and that you must cross the Forbidden Plateau in order to seek it out. Naturally, it is overgrown with large, predatory fungi. Past that you enter into the court of the King in Yellow and must decide how you’ll handle him, for he holds the Shining Trapezohedron in his hands. I fully admit giving in to my old bad habits while reading these stories and reading with a few fingers (in this case, e-bookmarks) placed at different junctures—come on, you did the same—while at the same time reading with one eye closed so I didn’t accidentally see the bolded final sentence detailing my fate.

I enjoyed my ride through this adventure so much that I went back through it a second time, choosing the sell-sword this time and was pleasantly surprised by how different the story was. Even set pieces that I thought would be static were not and were actually dramatically different lending a completely different feel to the story, though I eventually met the same end. I fully intend to go back once again and see where the cut-purse’s tale will take me, and then maybe go through it all over again making different choices. There’s enough paths here to make that worth your time, while also being short enough that that doesn’t feel tedious.

r1heyg3hbtwz[1].jpgThe prose here is not particularly special, but it isn’t meant to be and it doesn’t have to be. It reads exactly as I remember a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure reading, which may or may not be an accurate recollection of reality. The ideas are simple, the journey enjoyable. But, don’t let that fool you. As an homage to this singular slice of juvenile literature, it’s brilliantly conceived and, more importantly, lovingly executed. The Lovecraftian elements are thoughtfully included, yet don’t take over. The King in Yellow is, of course, properly a Chambers creation, but has been adopted into the Lovecraft canon pretty fully by now I think. You’ll enjoy seeing the different interpretations Grey takes with him in each iteration of the story. The sword-and-sorcery elements are more prevalent, calling to mind Fritz Lieber’s iconic characters and land—Grey admiringly nods to Lieber in naming his country Lankhende.

Above all, I had fun while reading and rereading this, and I think that is his main goal. I was taken back to early mornings huddled in the school library, trying to decide if I could finish my journey before school began, or if I needed to check the book out. I was taken back to my family room floor, surrounded by dice and friends and DM screens and character sheets. I was taken back to watching my taped-off-TV copy of Conan the Barbarian. I was taken back to a time when adventure mattered more than anything, to when traps were actually deadly, and to when the endings could be rewritten as often as you liked. I was taken back. And I loved it. Thank you, Orrin Grey.

This review was written while listening to the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian, the movie, transcribed for organ, because why not. I have to imagine there aren’t many people who’ve listened to this album.

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

Roll for Initiative: “Gone are the cyclopean walls, the towering buildings with their many windows for trysts and burglaries. Here the walls lie in rubble, the towers rise a few stories and then terminate abruptly. It is a ruin, and what better place than a ruin for ghouls to dwell.”

Water Main, by S.P. Miskowski

“Terrible things happen,” she said. “We can’t change that. We have to go on living every day in the real world.”

“I don’t know,” Jim said. “Maybe everyone should be a little bit afraid of the things we can’t explain.”

Autumn Cthulhu8bS.P. Miskowski is an author I’ve been hearing a lot about the more I get familiar with the big names in horror and, specifically, Lovecraftian fiction. I’d also been looking for a good story to review for you for Halloween, and so it’s simply fantastic that Miskowski has a story in the wonderful collection “Autumn Cthulhu” put out by the Lovecraft eZine Press in 2016, and edited by Mike Davis. I recently read another story by her in the “The Best Horror of the Year” but it wasn’t particularly Lovecraftian and so didn’t work for here, but it’s still a great story and worth a look. A lot of Miskowski’s fiction takes place in Seattle or the Pacific Northwest, and having been there once in the Autumn, I can attest that it is a delightful setting for horror stories of any kind. This current story takes place on a residential street near downtown Seattle, a street filled with less than desirable apartment buildings near a place she calls “Dead Poets Corner,” which at least feels in her descriptions like a real place, though I don’t know if it is.

As she begins her tale—first of all, the opening paragraph is some of the most gorgeous autumnal writing, it just puts you in the right mood straight away—we discover ourselves to be in a flashback of Nancy’s, our main character. She’s gone back to a time when she was a child, listening to her Dad tell, for the umpteenth time, the story of his surviving an earthquake when he was a child. It’s dressed up slightly differently each time he tells it, often personifying the earthquake as a giant who chased him down though never caught him. For the first few pages of the story, we learn a lot about Nancy’s dad’s experience and the kind of person it made him. We get the sense that Nancy herself, while valuing her Dad’s experiences and stories, has no desire to emulate him. (Oh, how right she’ll be…) All of her dad’s cautionary tales could be summed up, we learn later, in one word: “Don’t.” He lived his life in fear, and she does not want to do that.

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Halloween imagery is infused throughout this first sequence, and it really provides a lovely atmosphere when combined with the feel of the fog smothered city. Jack o’lanterns and references to the holiday abound, all serving to remind her, in an unwelcome way, of her father and his warnings. But, as we move into the present of this story, it is her boyfriend, and not her father, who becomes her chief foil. He’s an app programmer, which means he sits around all day playing video games and eating last night’s pizza. Nancy is not a happy camper. Nothing around the apartment is getting done, including the fixing of a leaky toilet and series of pipes, causing constant water issues. They have an argument and Nancy decides to go out for a walk, contemplating either breaking up or cooling off.

This middle section of this 20 page story contains some of the most beautiful writing Miskowski musters.  As Nancy reflects on her history, her present situation, and her immediate surroundings, we get a taste of Miskowski’s literary prowess. One passage in particular caught me up. As Nancy passes Dead Poet’s Corner and sees two aging hippies walking hand in hand, presumably seeing also everything she does not have in her current relationship, we get a profound sense of both melancholy and regret. “Night was spreading across the neighborhood. Nancy walked on. The sad grace of the couple on the lawn made her shudder but she couldn’t say which emotion was stronger, disappointment or dread. She didn’t like to think of the future anymore.”

This is a turning point towards the story’s final and weirdest act. On her walk back she observes an apartment building that has somehow escaped her notice before. It’s a bit odd looking, but then again, so is a lot of Seattle. It seems to her out of place (she mentions New Orleans), and possibly out of time. It has a bizarre, Seattle_-_west_on_S_Washington_St_at_night_02[1].jpgalmost nautical, theme to it appointments. A man, “studying his fingernails,” sits on a folding chair outside the main door. After a brief and equally as odd conversation, she enters the building to allow the man to show her an apartment. She doesn’t think she’s serious in any way, just wants a handle with which to shake her languorous boyfriend. Very quickly the tour turns quite Lovecraftian, and into something that I thought was reminiscent of some scenes from the John Carpenter film “In the Mouth of Madness.”  I’ve always liked how that film showed images that maybe were crazy, maybe weren’t and played on your doubts and fears, and Miskowski does that very well here in a few, short pages. At first, there’s just a little bit off…“She forced herself to look down at three babies crawling in sodden diapers, all of them wailing. Their faces glistened with tears and snot and as they crawled they left wet trails like slugs.” Three sick, crying babies in diapers. An innocuous enough image until you begin to  think about it. Who let’s their babies crawl around apartment hallways and steps? Who lets sick babies out unattended? It’s a very subtle madness and very well done. In the end, our hero makes a choice that is the living opposite of her dad’s best advice in a move that calls to mind the ending of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

As I’ve stated throughout, Miskowski is capable of beautiful, evocative writing, replete with an underlying dread that only fully manifests in the end, like some horrible, hatching egg. It’s normal, until it isn’t, and then all of a sudden, it really isn’t. There’s a danger in this kind of writing that somehow Miskowski neatly sidesteps. You don’t want to let your readers go too far in thinking one thing, only to knock them sideways in an abrupt and unexplained ending. She rides that edge here, but she accomplishes it. The only thing I was left wondering at the end was what the title of the story had to do with anything. Sure, there’s water problems in her apartment and that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for her with her boyfriend, but that doesn’t really merit a title. The only thing I could come up with here, and I know this is a pretty far reach, is a water main runs underground through everything, and when it goes, everything really goes. Emotionally, in the weird final act, everything really goes for this character. I don’t know. Maybe. What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

That about does it for tonight, fellow cultists. I wish you all a very happy Halloween, by which I mean full of creeping dread and cosmic nihilism. This review was composed listening to the Spotify playlist “Classical Halloween.” It’s pretty good.

Also, please remember, sharing is caring and if you enjoy these reviews, please give them a Like and maybe follow the blog. Better yet, leave a comment and start a conversation. Best of all, let your fellow Lovecraftians know about it, and help point them this way.

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

Leasor/Leasee fine print: “He stepped off the stairs at the next level and offered one hand to steady her. She touched it for a second but his softly tapered, damp fingers repulsed her. She let go and resisted the urge to wipe her palm on her coat.”

 

Harvest Song, Gathering Song, by A.C. Wise

“Adams lowered her scarf. Her lips were cracked and bloody, but light clung to her.  She was holy, we all were, and I watched in wonder as she used her teeth to pull her glove free, ran her finger around the inside of the bottle, and rubbed the last of the honey on her gums.”

916DsQjmudL[1].jpgIn The Shadow Out of Time, H.P. Lovecraft put forth his grand oeuvre on the subject of cosmic horror. His fictional (?) theory (doctrine?) was that humans were really only a galactic blip, here for but the blink of a horrible, solitary, nictitating eye. There were races that came before us, like the Yith, and races that would succeed us, such as the beetle-like Coleopteran. If human beings were anything on the cosmic scale of things, we were a joke. In this magnificent story, A.C. Wise deftly plays with that horrible sense of sheer insignificance. Such an enormous backdrop would swallow a lesser author. One of the many brilliant things she does to avoid that, though, is despite working with a galactic size canvas, she focuses narrowly on the very local story of a group of mercenaries out on just another job. Though this story was first published in “For Mortal Things Unsung,” edited by Alex Hofelich, I read it in “The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Ten” edited by Ellen Datlow, and published in 2018 by Night Shade Books. I didn’t get all the way through this volume before I had to return it to the library, but it’s very well worth your time. There’s some great stories in this collection, though the vast majority are not particularly Lovecraftian or even cosmic horror. Of particular note is John Langan’s story Lost in the Dark – I loved it.

“Our first night out on the ice, we traded war stories. Reyes, Viader, Kellet, Martinez, Ramone, McMann, and me. We were all career military, all career grunts, none of us with aspirations for command.” This otherwise inauspicious group is out on another mission – another day, another dollar. This time, the assignment is Antarctica on a top secret mission to acquire a military asset of incomprehensible value: a honey-like substance that blocks the pain receptors in the brain while still allowing the user to operate at full physical and mental capacity. The military applications of such a substance are lost on none of the group, and neither are they lost on the reader. The harsh environment (putting one immediately in mind of At the Mountains of Madness) takes its toll on our soldiers even as the addition of a blowing storm delays and debilitates them. A sample of the product they’re after is brought forth. It’s the only way they’ll be able to keep going. They ingest, and shit gets weird.

normal-honeycomb-with-honey[1]“Then Adams tilted the bottle and let a drop touch my tongue. Her limbs bent strangely, and there were too many of them. I saw myself reflected a dozen-dozen-dozen times in multi-faceted eyes. The honey was liquid fire…it was like swallowing stars.” As their situation continues to devolve, their seeming acceptance of all the inexplicable and bizarre things happening to and around them is notable. They are caught up in something so much larger than themselves (and so much more horrible and terrifying) that they simply acquiesce to otherwise very objectionable goings on. I don’t know what it was particularly about this story but it caused me no small amount of distress as I read it, and even now as I reflect upon it. It wasn’t look-over-your-shoulder scary, but it was shudder-inducing, cringe-inducing, grossed-out body horror mixed with a grave sense of insignificance and cosmic horror. And it was beautiful to behold. Once they discover where the stuff is kept/produced/stored, madness sets in and not everyone makes it out alive. Towards the end, the story fast-forwards to the present and we, the readers, get to see what has become of our ill-fated mercenary companions in the months gone by since the mission ended in, dare we say, success. It has not gone well for them.

The ending was spectacular, exploding outward from the local to the universal, and I won’t say much about it to avoid spoilers, but Wise very effectively gives us a hint (in her own version of the cosmos, not HPL’s – this is very much not a pastiche but a creatively original work) of what’s really out there, of what has been, and of what might yet be. The eponymous concept of the song, which I, again, can’t say too much about, is brilliantly executed. It’s a forbidding foretaste, slathered in sickly-sweet honey. trypophobia face.jpgParts of it reminded me of some scenes from Nick Cutter’s novel “The Deep,” though Wise does it better here. Some of those same parts triggered a feeling of trypophobia, and, I suspect, if you truly suffer from that, this is not a good story for you to read. Also, don’t look at the picture. Trypophobia is the fear of closely-packed holes and if Wise wasn’t playing with that on purpose, I’d be surprised.

Her command of pace, of structure, and of language are all top-notch. This is an experienced author who knows what she is doing, at the top of her game. I’d say, above all, her ability to evoke a mood of dreadful apprehension is what sets this story apart from and above many of its contemporaries, even in a volume of the year’s best. At the same time, we feel sorry for the characters, and then we don’t, but not because they deserve what they get or any such nonsense as that. This is a tale above petty ideas about karma. We don’t feel sorry for them because they don’t matter. We don’t matter. And that sets us a-trembling. It’s masterfully accomplished; I can’t say that enough.

It should tell you something that A.C. Wise is the only author in this collection to have two stories included. I didn’t read the other, but I sure would like to go back and give it a shot as well. Besides the Langan, other standouts include Fail-Safe by Philip Fracassi, Better You Believe by Carole Johnstone, and Furtherest by Kaaron Warren (it was very strange indeed, but I’m still thinking about it long after the memory of lesser stories has faded).

That about wraps it up for this review. So, in this ending, remember: Harry Crews had it wrong. You should cross the street to read genre fiction. Just be sure to look both ways first. Twice.

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

Clinging, sticky lyrics of the harvest song: “Adams dipped a finger in the honey and held it out to me. I pictured light leaking from her eyes like tears, seeping from her pores. The harvest song howled in the dark. Shadows bent over us, long fingers needle-sharp and venom-tipped, ready to stitch through skin and bone. I sucked her finger clean. It wasn’t sex, it was more like farewell.”

The Space Between, by P.L. McMillan

“I should be out of the Space by now—if it respected any known laws of physics, that is, but I am still walking. The ground remains uniformly flat, almost smooth in its sameness.”

14206925991_801393ddf2_b[1]I read this story in New York City when I was visiting a few weeks ago, and thought, since I had about an hour, to install myself in the Rose Reading Room of the public library sitting off 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. It’s an impressive building begging to be explored. Fortuitous for me, when I drew close to the steps it had begun to rain, and so I took refuge inside as well as respite. However, much to my dismay, the area I had entered was no gorgeous piece of early 20th century architecture, all dark wood and rounded arches of heavy glass. Rather, that area was cordoned off for repairs, and I was ushered into a sad, small room with hastily built supplemental shelves and folding chairs and tables. It had a sterile, fluorescent feel, as if one was in any waiting room in any hospital. I almost left, but paused and thought, perhaps this is the perfect room in which to read a story called The Space Between. Turns out, it was.

22818-1808150436319[1].pngI should say that this story was provided to me free of charge, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review, by the good folks at Gehenna and Hinnom Press. If you’re looking to find this story, you can do so in Hinnom Magazine #006 available digitally or in paperback through Amazon.  I also want to say, at the outset, that I know female authors are encouraged by publishers to use initials in place of their first name because it sells better—men, it seems, are less apt to buy a book from a female, and that this reticence is mitigated somewhat if initials appear in place of a female first name—but I long for a day when that is not a necessity. It really ought to be here by now. (I also don’t know if that’s the reason for the “P.L.” here or not.)

In any event, onward: this is a story about Alyssa Dean, “employee of the US government and chairwoman of the Humanity Rescue Committee.” It takes place in the not so distant future at a time when the steadily increasing world population has passed a critical juncture. There is no space left for anyone, anywhere.  Into this (totally plausible) dire reality, a surprising discovery has been made in the Sonoran Desert, straddling the border of Arizona and California. A strange, extra-dimensional space, eight meters by eight meters, and rising six meters high has…developed?…appeared?…that can’t be seen but only felt. If you get too close to it, odd vibrations unsettle your body, sometimes accompanied by nausea and fainting. We get the impression that when our story opens, the government has know of the existence of this space for some time but hasn’t made much headway in understanding it. desert-clipart-cactus-desert-500898-4743694[1].jpgInitial forays into the space have revealed it to be enormous, exponentially larger inside than outside (shades of “House of Leaves” here). But Alyssa will be the first person to really go deep inside it.

Inside, though, gets weird in a hurry. Alyssa tries to measure the time she is inside it with her watch, until it stops working. She guesses at the distance she travels and ponders the possible uses of such a vast, free space. Apartments. Agriculture. Mechanized labor.  There are a lot of potential solutions to the earth’s census problems incarnated by this space, but the farther she travels, the less likely any of them seem. She sends notes and observations back to her colleagues via a pulley system, to which are attached plastic bottles that can contain her missives from within. She sends plenty of notes out, but her inbox remains empty, as it were. Farther and farther she walks, and her sanity suffers with the growing dearth of reference. “The mist surrounds me on every side. This rope is my only anchor to life. I wonder how far this rabbit hole stretches.” Towards the end of her journey she encounters…something. I’d rather not say too much for fear of spoiling it, because you really do want to read this story. I’d be curious to know, in the comments, what you think of what she encounters and how it ends. I think the story works fine with it, but I wonder if it might not work better without such…shall I say, clarity about the encounter. It doesn’t make for a bad ending in any way, but I didn’t need it. There are several other startling revelations at the end that worked better for me at instilling the sense of powerful dread and fear of the unknown for which the author seems to strive. The physical dimensions are not the only ones bent by the Space.

This really was a fun story that built up a creeping sense of fear, grounded in the fear we all share of that which we know not. Think of any exploration story you’ve read or seen on film, and this same sense of base terror at least touches it. I’m imagining the scene from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” when they go walking on the ocean floor the first time. For some reason, as a kid, I was more scared at that part than in the final confrontation with the giant squid. Or perhaps you might recall “The Goonies” crew spelunking in One-Eyed Willie’s final resting place. It was far less Ma Fratelli chasing them, terrifying though she was, that freaked me out, and much more not knowing was around the next corner. Here, it was fascinating to discover, as a reader, that that same fear was present when exploring a detail-less landscape. Alyssa’s plodding on and on into nothing effectively pressed that same part of the amygdala.

Someone suggested to me that McMillan might be one of the next great cosmic horror writers and if this story is a good indication of her talent and imagination, I’d say they could well be correct. I really thought she did well in the pacing of the story, and the structure of how it was told: small narrative chunks that were Alyssa’s notes back to the outside world. The stilted language of the scientist taking notes was also well done and served to ensconce you in the mind of our protagonist at first.  That pattern of language, though, then degraded as Alyssa’s mind degraded. She becomes less formal, and then downright pleadingly honest by the end, making her very believable as a character. Sound and smell were communicated effectively; I could sniff while reading and almost, almost sense cherries and bleach wafting towards my nostrils. Some refinements and restraint are in order, though, at least for my tastes. Entry 13 was too descriptive and, for me, took the fear of the unknown that had been building, and shone a great big light on it. The temptation, of course, that leads readers to think “oh, now that I see it…” That aside, there is a lot to love here, and The Space Between fits nicely in the broad canon of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. I truly look forward to reading more by this author, and you should too.

This review was composed listening to “Desert Roads,” composed by David Maslanka, and played by the Illinois State University Wind Symphony.

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

Hopeless, pleading messages in a bottle: “I don’t know how long it is taking each message to cross the vast distance between us, but if you don’t get here soon, it will be too late…”

Victor Lavalle’s e-book “The Ballad of Black Tom” FREE through 10/13/18

I interrupt the flow of short story reviews to being you the great news that Tor is giving away free copies of Victor Lavalle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom” until October 13, 2018!

ballad-of-black-tom-header[1].jpg

If you haven’t read this novella yet, it is fantastic.  I don’t hesitate to say that it is the best piece of Lovecraftian fiction I have read written in the modern era. Period. For starters, Lavalle gives us a black protagonist and sets his tale in Red Hook. And it gets better from there.

Follow this link:

https://www.tor.com/2018/10/09/download-a-free-ebook-of-the-ballad-of-black-tom-by-victor-lavalle-before-october-13-2018/

~The Bibliothecar