Copping Squid, by Michael Shea

“When he was a kid, he’d always felt sorcery in the midnight streets, in the mosaic of their lights, and he’d never lost the sense of unearthly shapes stirring beneath their web, stirring till they almost cohered, as the stars did for the ancients into constellations. Tonight, with mad, bleeding Andre riding shotgun, the lights glittered wilder possibilities, and a sinister grandeur seemed to lurk in them.”

Michael Shea, “Copping Squid”

This past week there was an online discussion about some of the now out of print fantasy fiction of Michael Shea, who is also a noted author of mythos stories. Though sadly Shea died in 2014, his mythos fiction is consistently held up by luminaries in the field as exemplary. None less than Laird Barron, whose 2014 award-winning collection OCCULTATION Shea introduced, said this of Shea and his work: “I steadily and inexorably pursued Shea’s fiction over the years, recognizing in it a kind of cynosure of the modern weird tale: a dark star shining at the heart of the matter…Too easily one might be captivated by the visceral elements of Shea’s writing, its panoply of the grotesque, the baroque, and the erotic, missing the subtle textures and flourishes, the fact his pieces are layered tight as folded steel and sharp to the touch. Shea demonstrates an unnerving facility for the macabre, the cerebral, the whimsical, and possesses the deceptively effortless ability to conjure scenes of horror and dread leavened by sly, acerbic humor.” (Read the rest of Barron’s comments here.) After reading the online discussion I really wanted to read some Shea but didn’t think I had any until I remembered BLACK WINGS OF CTHULHU Vol. 1, which features the story “Copping Squid.” (Later, I realized I also had the story “Fat Face” in THE BOOK OF CTHULHU, VOL. 1.) So, I dove in for my first Michael Shea experience.

The first thing I noticed about Shea’s writing was how successfully he pulled me into his world, a familiar enough San Francisco, though I knew the sinister would be lurking just beyond the shadows. I was wrapped up in Ricky Deuce’s (the protagonist) life before the first paragraph was completed. Before you know it, a fight breaks out, a knife is swung, blood is spilled, and you think the story is going one direction when it takes a hard left turn into the weird. Ah, there it is. This facade of normality propped up by the setting was as paper thin as I suspected and I was all in. Reality blurs throughout the story, leaving solid ground just long enough to disorient you, then returning to it for a moment of safety. “Ricky felt a ripple of hallucination, and saw here, for just a moment, a vast inked mural, the ink not dry, themselves and all around them still half-liquid entities billowing in an aqueous universe…” These undulating rhythms form a backbone of sorts to the story’s structure, carrying the reader along on their waves.

Artist: Steven Gilberts. Interior illustration from Perilous Press’ anthology, “Copping Squid.”

The second thing to strike me was how seamlessly he sutured insanity and mundanity together in his characters. So often in Lovecraftian fiction characters go mad and start spouting off nonsense, spiced with a “Ïa!” or two, but rarely does it sound as authentic to who the character is as Shea accomplishes. In this story we have Andre, a man of the streets acquainted with the underbelly of San Francisco. He walks like that, talks like that, acts like that. He’s a great character. So, when his insanity peeks through, he does in fact sound nuts, but he sounds like his own version of nuts, not a generic, Lovecraftian insanity. Witness here, as Andre addressed a gang of street toughs: “Andre barked, hoarse and brutish as a sea-lion, “Jus look at me here! I have gone up to see Him, and I have looked through His eyes, and I have been where He is, time without end. An I’m here to tell you, all you dearly beloved mongrel dogs of mine, I’m here to tell you that it’s consumed me!” It’s brilliantly done and serves only to deepen the reader’s engagement. It’s then that things start to get real weird, real fast, complete with some particularly macabre body horror.

I loved the cosmicism of the story’s conclusion, particularly the way it holds out a certain question without answering it. I suppose that’s the last thing I want to say about my first foray into Shea’s mythos: his restraint when it comes to the more direct mythos components and set pieces keeps the tale elevated above pastiche. To be sure, those elements form an important backdrop to the story, but they are not the story. Lovecraft had already written those. What Shea does is different, unique, his own, and it is all the more terrifyingly wondrous because you don’t know where it is going. His restraint permits your imagination to sail the abyssal winds all on their own, and that is what makes this story truly great. It certainly won’t be the last Michael Shea I read, especially if I can get my hands on DEMIURGE, a volume of the complete collected Mythos tales of Michael Shea.

I really loved this story. The authenticity and realism of his San Francisco setting pulled me in, the believability of his characters—especially as they slowly revealed their insanity—coupled with my sense of connection to their plight held me rapt, and Shea’s restraint when it came to the bigger Lovecraftian set pieces had me applauding by the end. If you’re like me and have not read Michael Shea before, I suggest you get to correcting that. The writing in this story was so good that I can’t imagine the quality is any different in other works. I’m particularly interested, too, in the out of print fantasy from the discussion that started this whole endeavor, so I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled in the local used book store. But until then—

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

In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi, by Molly Tanzer

“It was said that every plant in the world grew in the garden of Ibn Ghazi, even those one might call wicked—poisons and rare herbs with magickal properties. And it was said, too, that Ibn Ghazi knew how to make use of them all. He was an alchemist and sorcerer of great repute, a man of wisdom—but his judgment, while lauded, was not often witnessed.”

Molly Tanzer, “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi”

“As for the attitude of rational men of science toward the claims of the marvellous—the whole thing goes back into the remotest beginnings of epistemology. What do we know? How do we know it?”
—H.P. Lovecraft to Fritz Leiber, December 19, 1936

One day, as the story goes, while writer Molly Tanzer was playing Arkham Horror she drew a unique card called “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi.” Fans will recognize this Moorish name as the creator of the alchemical weapon deployed in “The Dunwich Horror” that revealed the otherwise invisible spawn of Yog-Sothoth allowing Armitage, Rice, and Morgan to drive it out of this dimension. Tanzer says she had the most incredible déjà vu of loving a short story by the same name, a short story all about alchemy, transformation, and kidnapping. But despite many thorough internet searches, she kept coming up empty. No such story existed (at least on this side of the veil). So, she wrote it, and it was recently published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2021 (purchasable here). It is her first appearance in the magazine and later Tanzer would tweet how special it was to receive in her mailbox a magazine to which she subscribed bearing her name on the cover. With a backstory like that I knew I had to read it. I am grateful to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for sending me a gratis e-copy of this issue for the purposes of this review.

Structurally, the story takes many forms but begins as an interview between the protagonist (a writer named Boekner) and The Paris Review. The opening details the exact scenario that occurred with Tanzer, Arkham Horror game and all. Boekner fleshes out the plot and almost immediately the whole thing begins to take on a dream-like feeling. Layers of narrative, shrouded in mystery and time, slowly swirl around obfuscating where the reader is in time and space. Boekner’s interview is published and not long thereafter they receive an odd letter from a Mr. Upton de Vries telling them about a play he is putting on in the Pocono Mountains. The play is an old one, the only copy that had existed was discovered in the trunk of a seventeenth century French noblewoman named Marie de Rabutin-Chantal. Rabutin-Chantal was a real historical woman, the Marquise of de Sévigné, a fashionable woman who was known for her letter writing (her letters feature as a plot device in Marcel Proust’s IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME).

Boekner decides to accept de Vries invitation and he sends her a plane ticket and some further reading material. This book, an eighteenth century travelogue that marks the story’s second structural form, mentions Ibn Ghazi and Boekner wonders if this might be from where Lovecraft borrowed the idea. The fugue deepens. The travelogue says this of Ibn Ghazi, “For who can truly say where the roots of Ibn Ghazi’s garden end and those of the more mundane plants of the city begin? What seeds have drifted here or there—what nuts have been dropped in unlikely earth by startled squirrels?” The somewhat humorous image of started squirrels dropping nuts in unlikely earth aside, one can’t help but feel that this query applies to the entire scenario. Where do the roots of Ibn Ghazi’s garden begin and end indeed.

The third structural form comes later in the story when the play de Vries wants to stage is rehearsed and we are treated to portions of the script. This leads to a startling realization by Boekner and the beginning of the unraveling of their reality. The final section of the story is told as a straightforward narrative with spot on pacing and uncomfortable urgency leading to a tenebrous ending.

Tanzer pours an incredible amount of love into this story for true Lovecraft fans, herself included. But for those who have gone beyond HPL’s fiction and delved into some of the games, the criticism, and other early writers of weird fiction, there are glittery gems dropped along the way that made me smile warmly, laugh out loud, and feel seen as a true fan. The protagonist’s abuse at the pen of S.T. Joshi described as some sort of necessary rite of passage was definitely one of my favorite moments in the story, though casual fans will just gloss right over it. Veteran readers of weird fiction will pick up on Chamberian elements throughout, from the play itself and the French overtones to the stripping away of sanity and the various alchemical processes.

A certain charm is also suffused into the narrative, bringing it to life in a truly authentic way. For example, when Boekner arrives at the mansion in the mountains and is greeted by characters dressed anachronistically, one of their primary concerns is the WiFi connection. In another place, they become hangry, the need for food blocking out all other possible pursuits. There is a kind of joie de vie that runs throughout that is grounding, while at the same time it lends Tanzer’s writing a delightful buoyancy. Given the nature of the how the story is told though, and the ease with which readers will sort of misplace themselves in time, these touchstones of reality are not just charming but functionally important as well.

Sexuality provides another elemental layer to this tale. The travelogue section alludes to salacious stories, and Tanzer weaves this into the modern timeline by wondering if Lovecraft (whose sexuality or lack thereof has always been a point of discussion) had gotten his antiquarian jollies by perusing its eighteenth century pages. A bit later in the story a sexual rendezvous of dubious intent plays an important role. Behind all of it is a romanticism breathing through the entire setting: inhale the Pocono mountains, exhale the theater rehearsals, inhale a hint of danger, exhale a hidden story. The alchemy that reveals. From beginning to end it’s a sexy story, and that, too, is a part of its charm.

“The Powder of Ibn Ghazi” by Deviant Artist enguerrand.

Tanzer writes, in several completely different styles, with ease and grace. She commands the varying disparate elements of the story to work for her and never does that command slip. While more a modern fantasy than a horror story, Tanzer works in enough frightening reminders that the reader never loses the bass line of danger. “I was in the middle of nowhere—no internet or cell reception to call a Lyft, and it was pitch black outside. I hadn’t even seen a driveway leading to a road out of here, and who knew where such a road might go, and for how many miles?” Her descriptions are beautiful and evocative. Jacarandas are “showing off;” blossoms “riot;” the “gentle touch” of a hand both “rouses” and “coaxes.” Beyond the confidence of her voice though, and more importantly to me, is the love she has for this story that I mentioned above. It was dreamed out of false memory, insisted into reality, and transcribed with urgent longing. This story already existed outside of time, called itself into being through a sort of parthenogenesis, and selected Molly Tanzer to be its adoring midwife. This I felt in every paragraph, behind each word. I loved it, and I think many cultured Lovecraft fans will as well.

In addition to this novella, Molly Tanzer is the author of “The Diabolist’s Library” (a trilogy of supernatural Victorian novels beginning with Creatures of Will and Temper), Vermilion (a weird Western novel about the “gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether”), two short story collections, and a host of short fiction published in a variety of the best magazines and anthologies. This review was written while listening to Cryo Chamber’s album “Hastur.”

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

Truth is Order and Order is Truth, by Nadia Bulkin

“You live in a monster’s empire. You’re only upset because you’re not the biggest monster anymore.”

Nadia Bulkin, “Truth is Order and Order is Truth”

“Regarding the setting for tales—I try to be as realistic as possible.”
—H.P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, December 29, 1934

Last year I had the pleasure of reading some of the stories contained in the Valancourt BOOK OF WORLD HORROR STORIES, VOL. 1, and remarked that while they were excellent, the preponderance of them were located in Western European cultures. My hope for the forthcoming Vol. 2 is that we get to read more stories from Africa and Asia, whose myriad cultures with which I am vastly less familiar. I was therefore delighted to find this present story, set in the author’s native Indonesia, in BLACK CRANES: TALES OF UNQUIET WOMEN (Omnium Gatherum Media, 2020), which editor Lee Murray sent me for review.

Nadia Bulkin is an accomplished author who has been on my radar screen for years, but for one reason or another, not an author I’d read until now. It was long overdue. What I knew of her proved true in this story; hers is a powerful voice of politically oriented horror. The particular genius of this story is that she brings her voice to bear while retelling Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and, at the same time, she flips it on its head. While “Shadow” is one of my favorite HPL stories, I am not unaware of its xenophobic edges. Much like Ruthanna Emrys did in her novel WINTER TIDE, Bulkin here both humanizes and empowers her version of the Innsmouth residents, centered on her protagonist, the young, Indonesian princess Dhani. In other words, she flips the roles of protagonist and antagonist from the original Innsmouth material while telling a story that is uniquely and wholly her own. In additon to BLACK CRANES, this story can also be found in her own collection, SHE SAID DESTROY, published by Word Horde in 2017.

“My mother’s death had undone me. I’d believed she would live forever. With that rule broken, nothing else seemed real.” Dhani is in line to succeed to the throne of some indeterminate portion of what I would call the Indonesian islands. Her father is already dead, having been killed when he was thrown from his elephant mount. In the political backdrop to the story, there is a power struggle between Dhani’s mother and the country’s Prime Minister, Jaya Megalang, who “had a far stronger voice and reach.” Dripping venom, Dhani says, “Amassing power was not a skill I’d been taught between courtly dance and batik painting.” Her father sired several other progeny by concubines, including the male heirs, Arda and Murti, who Megalang was now trying to use to turn the country against Dhani. But then Dhani’s mother dies of a mysterious illness and just like that Dhani finds herself on the run with a handful of faithful followers while Megalang’s grip on the troubled nation tightens into a choke hold. He had leveled accusations of shamanism and sorcery against Dhani’s mother to the desired end, and continued to do so now against Dhani, but what he could not possibly understand was just how right he was and how badly that positioned him.

“Mother Hydra” by Deviant Artist, JasonEngle.

Beyond shamanism and petty sorcery, Dhani can trace her family tree back to Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, the mysterious underwater god-like beings worshipped in Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. In that original tale, they are to be feared, loathed, and shunned. Here, Bulkin centers them in the narrative in a story whose feminism is both powerful and authentic. The stakes are high for Dhani and she is not sure she can make it. In the midst of her claiming her identity and power, questions of worthiness almost overwhelm hers, “Every forward step brought me closer to my greatest fear: I would make a terrible queen.” Towards the end of the story a much more cosmic perspective comes into play and Megalang is reduced to an historical footnote.

It is no secret that many writers suffer from imposter syndrome and I have to wonder (if you replaced “queen” with “writer” in the above quote) if some of that isn’t going on here as well. If I can offer any encouragement from my perspective, this is a masterfully written story of feminine empowerment, political striving against the machine, a sort of reverse cosmic horror, and a very welcome entry into the modern Lovecraftian mythos. Bulkin paints with her words and you can see and hear this world unfold around you as you read. Here, writing of a villager Dhani encounters, Bulkin says, “Its voice was too pure for its soggy corpse-skin.” In only ten words, the reader has now heard something, seen something, and felt something unsettling. Or here, as Dhani reflects on her mother, “Once you have looked into her eyes, once her fingers have grazed your scalp, she is hard to shake. She was my mother. I should know.” Again, not only do we see and feel something as a reader, Bulkin couples the unsettling nature of those feelings with an inexorable miasma of familial devotion. The complications of Dhani’s family tree are felt through these and other aching lines of searching, discombobulated emotions. Dhani knows who she is and she is getting comfortable with those facts, though she is perhaps not there yet.

“The Innsmouth Look” by Kari-Lise Alexander. Used with permission.

In 1934, H.P. Lovecraft wrote to a Finnish fan, Emil Petaja, answering a question about the source of the settings of his stories. He informed young Petaja that they were based on real towns, but twisted into his own nightmarish visions. Lovecraft wasn’t humble about it either, calling his Kingsport “fabulous.” I suspect he tried to be as realistic as possible because that helps a reader suspend disbelief and get lost in the narrative. Bulkin does the same thing here in “Truth is Order,” making her native country the only possible setting in which to tell this story. This is as much a story about the land as it is one about the characters, and it’s not heard to read in it the pain that must be felt by the people who have lived through decades of colonialism, political unrest, religious strife, and war. None of that is touched on directly in the text, but it’s all right there, like Mother Hydra, just below the surface. Perhaps a comment on privilege is a part of what Bulkin is trying to say: monsters lurk in these depths, and though you the reader may choose to enter at your own risk, she the author, by virtue of her birth, must swim them. I am so glad I finally read a Nadia Bulkin story and I can promise you, it will not be my last.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist called “Indonesian Traditional Music” compiled by user su_ross.

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

The Church in the Mountains, by Gemma Files

“Ever find yourself remembering stuff you know can’t possibly be true?…I mean—things you think you saw once somewhere, like on TV or whatever, when you were a kid; spooky shit, disturbing, real nightmare fuel. Only you can’t tell if you actually really did see it, looking back, or somebody just told you about it, and it got inside you that way…if you even just dreamed it, maybe. Like the whole thing actually came from you, only you can’t remember how, or why.”

—Gemma Files, “The Church in the Mountains”

“…and last year an alleged Frankenstein on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh! And the screen Dracula in 1931—I saw the beginning of that in Miami, Fla.—but couldn’t bear to watch it drag to its full term of dreariness, hence walked out into the fragrant tropic moonlight!”

—H.P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, February 16, 1933

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day on which many Christians the world over will consider their own mortality and smudge ash on their foreheads as a memento mori. It is also February, which is Women in Horror Month. Could there be a more auspicious day on which to consider a story from horror maestra Gemma Files’ newest collection, IN THAT ENDLESSNESS, OUR END, which from its title onward seeks a teleology of human finitude? IN THAT ENDLESSNESS, OUR END is her fifth collection, this one having just been released by Grimscribe Press (2021), to whom I am grateful for a free e-arc in exchange for this honest review. Knowing that Ms. Files’ is, more than just a cinephile, a real scholar of cinema (you have read her amazing novel EXPERIMENTAL FILM, right?) I decided to review this story which not only features some Lovecraftian themes, but centers on a film. Lovecraft himself, I was a bit surprised to learn, was not a particular fan of the cinema. My surprise stems not so much from the fact that he went to movies and didn’t care for them so much as it does that he went to the movies at all. For a man who subsisted on beans, I would have thought the cinema an extravagance. Digging a bit deeper, it seems he went most often as a guest of Frank Belknap Long, and that reluctantly, describing the experience in his letters as needing to be “dragged.”

One does not have to spend much time among fellow Lovecraftians, particularly on the internet, before one comes across the often tongue-in-cheek supposition that HPL wasn’t writing fiction, but merely fictionalizing a reality humanity was not yet ready to grasp. (Sadly, it seems that for a few this isn’t very tongue-in-cheek at all.) Lovecraft himself toyed with the notion in stories like “Pickman’s Model” and the theme has been picked up by his successors, perhaps most successfully in Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Pickman’s Other Model (1929),” expertly explored here by Bobby Derie. In “The Church in the Mountains,” Files puts her cinephilia to work for her and plumbs the same depths through the lens of film.

The story’s opening calls to mind the beginning scene of the 1931 Dracula Lovecraft walked out on, with a lone traveler arriving at a gothic site in the mountains. In this case though, it’s a young woman returning home after receiving news of her mother’s death. Her aunt, an evil step-mother type figure, greets her coldly and you begin to get a feel for how this story will go. Or so you think you do. Before you know it, an off-stage director calls “scene!” and the camera pans out enough that you, the reader, can tell what you just read was a part of a movie and not the story at all. Rather it was the story Sharla, our protagonist, was recalling. Files expertly layers these levels of narrative throughout, developing a pattern that from the outset upends a reader’s expectations and only deposits them on unsteady ground. It turns out she’s recalling the film because she’s trying to remember where she saw it, whether it’s from her childhood or maybe something she saw on TV reruns at some point. Or maybe even something she dreamed. Reality blurs in the way that it does when you can’t remember something precisely, and the further the story progresses, the fuzzier things get. By the end you are unsettled as a reader, unsure of where you stand in relation to the story and in that confusion there lies a sense a dread you were unaware was even being evoked. It’s masterfully done, but I have come to expect mastery from Gemma Files.

There’s an expository feel to the scenes from the movie which feels natural, but the feeling is entirely different in the Sharla scenes. (This becomes a difficult distinction by the end, but it’s still present.) Files’ write the latter scenes in dialogue-heavy way that draws you in and pulls you along. You’re a part of this conversation, this exploration, which makes it all the more disorienting when the scene changes. These two parts of the story are told with different voices and in the hands of a lesser writer would not so naturally be distinguished. But Files is a practiced hand and so even without the marked section breaks, this structure would be recognizable to a careful reader.

She bends tropes to her will in a way that increases their fearfulness and cosmicism. “…a haunting doesn’t have to be a ghost or rattling chains, a spooky old house, whatever—it could be a memory, an idea. The very definition of a haunting is something that keeps on coming back to you again and again.” Great. Thanks. Now I’m worried about my memories. Did I read that story about the creepy dude who haunted a video file passed around the internet, or did I actually see it? Her blend of vintage and modern is equally as well done, giving us a spooky, traditional gothic setting but also taking us into the back room of a VHS collector’s house. Though the more directly Lovecraftian elements (like cults, sacrifices, and horrible discoveries about the family) appear on the gothic section of her stage, it’s the modern setting that produces the most fear, again, as reality distorts. In mind-bending flurries, she shows us that “Every image is a story, every story a door, most especially those tales you aren’t supposed to tell at all, outside the walls of your family home…and doors open both ways, always.”

Exceeding. Art Credit: Pierre-Alain D.

Humanity is finite. In the most direct sense, our individual bodies will become dust, and most of us never quite get a grip on that. In the more cosmic sense, humanity has no guarantees of being eternal, as the Old Gent was fond of pointing out in his fiction. We are finite and we have spent lifetimes both fighting that fact and searching for meaning within it. At the beginning I highlighted a religious holy day because both religion and horror have explored human finitude, if from different angles. It’s an interesection in which I’m particularly keen on spending time. This collection represents a new exploration of that theme of finitude, asking us what must die that something new may be born? Is our reason for being to pave the evolutionary road for something greater? Is transcendence communal rather than individual? In addition to the present one, in stories like “This Is How It Goes,” and “Worm Moon” Files delves deep into the human psyche in search of answers. I can’t say for sure if Files’ finds the answers she’s looking for, but what I can say is that she certainly seems to suggest that the cycle of death into life is a necessary one. As long as that continues, there will be an endlessness of being, though we ourselves will meet our end. If you’re interested in that search, I cannot recommend IN THAT ENDLESSNESS, OUR END highly enough.

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

The Band Plays On by Alan Baxter

“The sign said ‘Gulpepper, population 8,000,’ Torsten said. “That’s not a tiny hamlet.”
“Did you saw the bit underneath?” Simone asked. “Someone writed it on.”
“What bit?”
“It said, ‘But the dead out number the living.’

—Alan Baxter, “The Gulp”

I saw the body spread on that dank stone,
And knew those things which feasted were not men…”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “Fungi from Yuggoth” (IV. The Recognition)

Recently, I’ve been curious about the relationship between horror and heavy metal music. What is it about either the genre of literature or the style of music that lends themselves to one another? Why are so many heavy metal bands drawn to horror imagery and so many horror fans drawn to heavy metal sounds? The cynical answer is, of course, marketing and dollar dollar bills, y’all, but in “The Band Plays On,” Australian horror maestro Alan Baxter provides an answer that gives credence to the worst nightmares of 1970’s and 80’s suburban moms. The story is found in the number three slot of his newest publication, THE GULP: FIVE TALES OF HORROR, which was self-published by Baxter in January 2021. I’m grateful to him for providing me with a free e-arc in exchange for an honest review.

The stories in THE GULP all take place in or around the fictional town of Gulpepper, Australia, affectionately known as ‘The Gulp.’ Strange things happen in ‘The Gulp’ that no one can explain and that the residents are eerily comfortable with. I was immediately reminded of Twin Peaks and the town of Haven from the Stephen King TV series of the same name. From the first story, told from the perspective of outsiders to ‘the Gulp,’ we are warned that people can flat out disappear there, that the town swallows some people, lending a darker shade of meaning to its otherwise cute nickname. In the second novella, told from the perspective of two residents of ‘the Gulp,’ we are shown just how strange, and indeed how hungry, things can get. But it’s not until this third story that events take on a cosmically sinister tone.

“Patrick noticed his fingernails were painted blood red. In fact, all the band had blood red nails. And the deep black makeup around their eyes wasn’t just smudged kohl, but jet black with dozens of thin filaments, like capillaries, spreading out around the orbit of the eye and over the cheekbone.” This third story is about a group of young vagabonds who catch a concert of the band Blind Eye Moon on their travels through Australia. Patrick, Ciara, Torsten, and Simone get singled out by the band at the show as outsiders and invited over to the band’s house (don’t all bands live together?) for an after-party. They readily accept, end up partying too hard and staying the night. The night turns into several days that get progressively weirder for Patrick, though his fellow wanderers seem quite fine with hanging with these weird rockers for a week or so. Obscure meals are cooked, neon-green shots are thrown back with abandon, and nightmares reign over the night. Patrick clearly wants to leave, and Edgar, one of the band members, even suggests he do so, “The Gulp has a habit of swallowing people…but sometimes it spits one out.” That was one of the creepier lines in the whole story for me, and I found myself rooting for Patrick to be able to break the spell and get out of dodge.

Swedish metal band, “Ghost,” which in some ways is an analog for “Blind Eye Moon.”

One of the great things about this story was how believable it was; yes, the characters make bad choices, but people make bad choices all the time. In this case, they were bad choices I could understand, even though they’re the type that make you stand up in the theater and scream, “Don’t go in there!” Sometimes those are the most fun movies and there’s a similar fun factor here, too. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few lazy days and hard nights partying with your new favorite band? This particular band’s commitment to their creepy horror affect, though, begins to strain credulity which gives rise to much of the tension in the tale. Baxter directs the reader’s attention to this problem too often though, turning a cautionary observation into an obviously winking, kohl-smudged(?), eyeball.

That literary flashing neon sign was my only problem with the writing, however, as the rest of it flows naturally and effortlessly from his pen. The vagabond youths sound like naive college kids while the slightly more mature band members come off as experienced manipulators. This is a writing challenge and Baxter nails it. The dream sequences, another pit of despair into which writers can fall, are pulled off with aplomb. They are neither too long nor too lurid but provide just the right level of weirdness to amplify the growing horror of the narrative. “The wind was cold and heavy, pendulous clouds, arcing with streaks of purple lightning, filled the lowering sky. He almost felt as though he would be able to reach up and touch them. Gaping red wounds opened in the clouds and things fell, far out near the horizon.” Those sequences are where the story takes on its most Lovecraftian tones, though not in an overt way; there is no Mythos here. But the cosmic chords HPL plucked, as well as a note or two from Robert Bloch’s set list, resound.

Like the Old Gent’s vision of Providence gave the backdrop to so many of his stories, Baxter’s Australia features here. When the geography of a story is so important to it’s success, it is mandatory that the story be told in such a way as to be impossible to take place elsewhere. Local jargon aids Baxter’s efforts here. The handful of specifically Aussie terms sprinkled throughout support and do not detract from the overall effect, and there’s a helpful glossary in the back if you want to look some of them up. Even though I’ve never been to Australia, I definitely felt like I was there while reading THE GULP.

In the end, these are addictive stories of abiding darkness that won’t come out in the wash. The pages turn themselves and the images within those pages return to haunt your dreams. Discovering how each story relates to each becomes a compulsion and you will find yourself simultaneously repulsed by ‘the Gulp,” and desirous of visiting. Finally, I think ‘The Gulp’ is to Baxter what Arkham was to Lovecraft and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last time we’ll get to peep into the windows of this creepy town.

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