Tiny Bones Beneath Their Feet; The Backwards Path to the Limbus, by Betty Rocksteady

“The bones had reminded her of Riley, of course, but everything did. They were too small, far too small, but they reminded her of him still. The bones that showed through his thin skin and the bones that by now filled his grave.”

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See what pleasure cats gave him?
H.P. Lovecraft loved cats. This is one of a few places where I disagree with the Old Gent, firmly being a dog person, but, I’d not want to trade barbs with him about it. He once committed ink to page for this biting piece of commentary, “The dog is a peasant and the cat is a gentleman.” Perhaps his most famous story involving cats is “The Cats of Ulthar,” a revenge/karma tale where a clowder of cats devour a despicable old couple who had previously killed a kitten. These same cats show up as sentient in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” And, of course, there is an unfortunately named kitty in “The Rats in the Walls;” even more unfortunate is that fictional feline seemed to bear a similar name to HPL’s real cat. Betty Rocksteady, in her debut collection IN DREAMS WE ROT, features two cosmic kitty stories that when read together form a perilous pair. It’s forthcoming (October 18) from JournalStone and I’m grateful to the author for a free advanced review copy.

 

idwr-front-cover[1].jpgRocksteady, who has published novellas like THE WRITHING SKIES and a host of short horror fiction seems to be primarily known for—ahem…tentacles in places where they ought not to go—erotic cosmic horror. And you’ll get that in this collection as well, fear not, but it’s not as closely related to HPL as these two tales. She’s also quite the artist and illustrates many of her own works, though this collection is not.

In “Tiny Bones Beneath Their Feet” we meet Harold, an eccentric man who keeps a few cats. Well, more than a few as the sheer number of his pets has come to the attention of the authorities. Sarah, representing a “trap, neuter, and release” organization shows up unbidden on his doorstep with an offer to “help.” Harold, however, is having none of it, but she wiggles her way into his home anyway, pen scribbling away on her clipboard. The further she gets into his house, the more cats we realize that he actually has (though he rejects the notion of ownership) and the more horrified Susan becomes. After realizing there is no getting rid of her easily, he decides he wants to show her something out back. Rocksteady is successful here at building a sense of unease as I think just about anybody in their right mind would be weirded out by this many animals of any kind in somebody’s house. “She scanned the yard as she spoke, and all the cats looked back at her. So many eyes.”

He leads her on a peculiar trail into the woods, a trail from which the title is derived. “He was hyperaware of what lay beneath their feet, but Susan didn’t seem to notice. That was fair, of course. There was a lot to take in, and the bones were so small. If you didn’t look closely, you might mistake the trail as some sort of rock purposefully pressed into the earth.” What happens in the latter half of the story I’ll leave for you to discover, but I have to say that I certainly didn’t see it coming, 50880b73d7a04.preview-620[1].jpgand that it opened up the story from what had been a fairly localized narrative into something more cosmic. It shows up at the beginning of the collection, and, when paired with the second cat story which comes near the end, they provide great bookends. I enjoyed it and would recommend it on its own. However, when coupled with the next one, they really blossom.

The Backwards Path to the Limbus” finds us in a bookstore with Miranda, who seems to have been sanctioned to serve time in a book group not of her choosing by a particularly creative psychologist. The title of the story is the title of the book they’re discussing, and Miranda is so not into it. “You’ll appreciate it more the next time you read it,” the woman reassured her. “I doubt I’ll read it again.” The man next to her butted in, a smear of chocolate on his face. “Oh, you will. We’ve all read it lots of times.” That’s on the second page of this story, which, at least for me, set the creep factor climbing a lot earlier than it did in the previous one. That notion that you’re the only one in a book group, which you didn’t choose, who hasn’t read the book once let alone multiple times just sent some cultic shivers up my spine. I can almost see them all leaning in to find out what she, the new one, thinks. We don’t really get to know what the book is about, but Rocksteady does drop this line which connects the stories, “The book had been divided into three sections, and the first concentrated on a man winding through a trail of tiny bones.” Now she had my full attention as I’ve really come to appreciate this sort of mosaic structure.

weird bookstore (2).jpgThe bookstore cat makes an appearance and something in his eyes reminds Miranda of her dead son, Riley. She finds she needs a breath, and a break from the hiveminded group. She follows the cat into the back stacks, away from the group and the light. Reality blurs and she’s following her son now into a small, cramped room where, “in the farthest corner, Riley, his hands in his lap, [is] sitting quietly on a box. Beautiful. Healthy.” Aside from the frightful notions of this apparition, there is something remarkably comforting about the idea Rocksteady works with here of being able to connect with a lost loved one in a bookstore or among the pages of a book. A character might remind us of them, in their description or in their actions. Or we might see a novel and remember reading it with a now deceased friend or lover, or recall the place where once it was read, or the company we kept when we read it. What is thought lost can be recovered among the pages of a well-loved book. I really loved this story. On its own it was my favorite of the two, but when read together, the emerging picture is rather wonderfully and cosmically frightening.

Rocksteady’s writing is surreptitious. At first, as you make your way through the opening paragraphs and even pages, there is nothing about it that stands out. Nothing that gets in the way either, to be sure. But then, you suddenly find yourself tearing through the story and wondering, when did she get me? How did she do that? The answer has something to do with the fact that it doesn’t take too long for you to find yourself in these tales (perhaps especially in the more, shall we say, moist ones). I believe that’s what makes them so successful. You’re reading along about someone else at the beginning, but by the end, you’re reading about yourself and it is a well-crafted and familiar nightmare. Prepare to squirm.

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

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To Rouse Leviathan, by Matt Cardin

“My theological namesake quoted approvingly to his Greek audience a common bit of philosophical wisdom from their own cultural milieu when he spoke of God the Father as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” Does not such a formulation recall Yog-Sothoth, who walks with the other Old Ones between the dimensions, and in whom past, present, and future are one? Does it not recall Azathoth, the primal chaos that resides not only at the center of infinity but at the center of each atom, each particle, perhaps serving as the unaccountable subatomic bond that has categorically escaped scientific explanation?”

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INTRODUCTION

This is a review I’ve been looking forward to writing for a long time. Years before I knew of him, Matt Cardin published his first collection, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP (Ash Tree Press, 2002), and his second, DARK AWAKENINGS (Mythos Books, 2010), both of which are pretty hard to find now at an affordable price. However, you don’t need to. TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN in an omnibus collection containing revised and expanded versions of both of those previous collections, as well as an entire section of newly collected work, published in August 2019 by Hippocampus Press. The exquisite cover art is by the very talented Michael Hutter. If you find you enjoy Cardin’s thinking, he, along with a brain trust of cosmic horror luminaries, blog over at The Teeming Brain. For those unfamiliar with him, Matt Cardin writes a very particular brand of cosmic horror. Don’t turn away when I tell you that what he writes is theological horror, for it is of an ilk you have never read and I dare say most have not presumed to imagine.

Why have I been looking forward to reviewing this ever since I knew of its existence? Because TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN exists at a strange cross-section in my life. What you may not know about me is that in addition to being a fan of Lovecraftian and cosmic horror, I am also an Episcopal priest. So, this will be a longer and different sort of review, as I want to cover in the Introduction what I think is going on in Cardin’s work (which I believe I am uniquely situated to do) and then comment on a specific story I’ve chosen, “The New Pauline Corpus.

1271d404bc966d20f3fed067649475e2[1].jpgA significant amount of 19th and early 20th century western horror was situated in a faithful literary world. That is to say, the Judeo-Christian worldview held sway. Bram Stoker’s vampires could be warded off by a cross, for example, and many of M.R. James’ ghost stories featured Christian clergy in a positive light. Lovecraft adopted a different world view (save, oddly for him, in “The Dreams in the Witch House”) which largely ignored or denigrated a Judeo-Christian heritage, and posited a universe in which magnificent, malevolent, and/or uncaring alien deities were at the top of the divine food chain. As Christendom died, many horror authors abandoned theologically-based or theologically-resolved horror, choosing instead the milieu championed in 1882 by Nietzsche in which “God is dead.” Now, in the wake of sinful and heinous sexual abuse scandals across denominations, we see a lot of horror content in which the church itself and her chosen representatives are the antagonists or, in the least, at the root of the antagonism. Cardin does not fall easily into any of those categories, but you must understand those categories if you’re to grasp the genius of what he is doing.

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“The Undying Worm” by Ed Odson
Cardin’s work imagines neither that God is dead, nor that God never existed; God, in Cardin’s work, is very much real and very much alive. Further, he does not imagine that God is all-benevolent either, but rather that God is almost exactly as the Judeo-Christian scriptures present him, difficult passages and all. Especially those difficult passages. Passages like Genesis 15:12-13a, 17; Numbers 11:33; 16:46, 49;  Isaiah 66:24; and quite a lot of the book of Job. In Cardin’s stories, he wrestles extensively with something theologians like to call theodicy, which are the ways we try to prove God’s goodness in the face of the existence of evil. The book of Job is a biblical mythological work of theodicy, but has a conclusion that does not satisfy most readers. The complicated problem can most easily be explained by imagining a triangle of three philosophical points.

One point maintains that God is omniscient, the second point that God is omnipotent, and the third that God is omnibenevolent. Ask most believers if they agree with those points individually and you’ll likely get near universal assent. However, if you examine it more closely in light of the existence of evil, one point seems like it must break down. If we take for granted God’s omniscience and omnipotence, then, given the existence of evil, we cannot understand God to be omnibenevolent. If God knew bad things were going to happen, and had it in his divine capacity to stop them, and if he were all-good, he would. But evil still exists. It works the same way as you go around the three points.  When taking for granted God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence, given the existence of evil, God cannot then be omniscient. Likewise, when taking for granted God’s omniscience and omnibenevolence, given the existence of evil, God cannot then be omnipotent. For thousands of years theologians, philosophers, and regular people in the pews have wrestled with this concept, making little headway.

 

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Tiamat
This difficulty so befuddled early Christians that it is easy to understand the rise of Manichaeism, a particular brand of gnosticism that sought, in part, to address theodicy. Mani was an early third century Persian who said that, because of the very problem our triangle above illustrated, the world could not have been created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good god. It didn’t work. Mani believed that such a god existed, and that this god was the God of the scriptures, but did not believe that god was the creator of world, because of the manifest presence of evil. Mani, like many gnostics, divided the cosmos into duologies. Therefore, while the god of the scriptures was out there somewhere, the creator deity (who was NOT omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent) was not that god. This explains the presence of evil in the created world. Cardin taps into this concept immediately in his stories, marrying it with the early Babylonian creation myth (Enûma Eliš) that tells of order—in the form of Marduk, bull-calf of the Sun god Utu—triumphing over chaos—in the form of Tiamat, dragon goddess of the salt sea. A similar, if less anthropomorphic, creation narrative is told in the first verses of Genesis.

In TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN, Cardin writes of a god who is something of an amalgamation of Tiamat and the demiurge of Manichaeism, and, from my perspective, is a genius creation and a terribly thought-provoking character who is decidedly not benevolent at all. No where does Cardin abuse the scriptures or take any more liberties with them than Christian orthodoxy does. He just interacts with them in a decidedly different way. His accurate and working knowledge of biblical Hebrew goes a long way to help this and his understanding that both Masoretic vocalization of the text, as well as all punctuation, are editorial decisions as much as literary fact solidifies his command over his material. Remarkably, Cardin is doing a lot more than that in these stories, but time does not permit me to tell of them. While as a theologian, I do not reach his same conclusions, I also operate from the perspective that this is not primarily a work of theology, but a work of contemporary cosmic horror fiction. On to the story!

 

THE NEW PAULINE CORPUS

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“Let the day perish on which I was born. That day—may it turn to darkness. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let the blackness of the day terrify it. Let those sorcerers who place a curse on days curse that day, those who are skilled to rouse Leviathan.”  ~Job 3:3-5, 8
At first I wanted to write about the first story in the collection, “An Abhorrence to All Flesh,” which still ended up being my favorite. Then I read the second story, “Notes of a Mad Copyist” and wanted to write about it. Then I wanted to write about “The Basement Theater,” the most Ligottian story in the book in my opinion. But when I finally reached “The New Pauline Corpus,” I knew I had to write about it as it combines a good portion of Cardin’s theological musings with the Lovecraftian Mythos.

Towards the beginning, Cardin writes, “…theology-as-story does not preclude ontology but incorporates it…we are living the story of a war between levels of reality. Our metanarrative is the tale of how space-time, the cosmos, the created order, was usurped by a reality that is more fundamental, primary, and ancient.” That usurpation was of the Lovecraftian gods over the god of the scriptures and this story is told from the epistolary perspective of a neo-Paul writing to a certain Francis (the current Pope?) attempting to integrate the Christian worldview with the cosmological disaster that has occurred. Further ponderings ultimately lead to the eminently quotable line, “What has Christ to do with Cthulhu?”

Neo-Paul answers this query in sections bearing such theologically awesome sub-headings as “Its Immanence,” and “Its Awefulness.” In them he explores the concept of divine fear, and how the mythos gods more acutely evoke such reactions. He questions the true purpose of religion, but not in the same tired way that Marx did. b62823de8fba75f50b67d94136fe47a4--pictures-of-jesus-christ-pictures[1]He closes the loop between the creation myth of Genesis and the vision of John the Revelator. He wonders about the sustaining power of narrative, invoking the scene from Ezekiel wherein God commands the prophet to eat the scroll. And finally, given their awful circumstances, he is forced to conclude that, “What might be a wholesome human form dressed in liturgical vestments and wearing the papal mitre might also be a mutated manshape sprouting dragon’s wings and surmounted by a head like a cuttlefish…” This is, obviously, a much less serious story than those that precede it, but at the same time it is a more fun one which I enjoyed immensely not only for its self-awareness, but for its function near the end of this omnibus of allowing you to breathe again. To breathe, and even to laugh.

Matt Cardin’s writing is beautifully erudite, at times bordering on academic, but it is never boring or oppressive. He invites you to bring your brain to this reading and then thoroughly engages it. TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN is a thinking person’s collection of horror, and will lustrously reward those who are willing to peep with him over the edge of the abyss and not retreat when it returns the gaze. It is also the most fun I’ve had with a single author collection in a long time. This volume deserves to be shelved in your place of highest honor, a fair companion to Lovecraft, Ligotti, and whomever else you consider to be a master of the craft. Matt Cardin’s brand of horror is Lovecraftian in some ways, it’s true, and Ligottian in many others, but I suspect it won’t be long now before we refer to it simply as Cardinian.

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

A Reading from Matt Cardin: “These psychic disturbances that have so terrified us of late, all the collapsing distinctions between thought, imagination, and physical reality, so that a stray wish or undisciplined notion may cause finned, clawed, and tentacled atrocities to appear, or may even alter one’s own physical body in awful ways that some of us have been unable to undo afterward, as in a nightmare from which one cannot wake because one has awakened inside the nightmare itself—may these not be the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the paraclete to “guide us into all truth” and “convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment,” and of his promise that his followers would perform even greater miracles than he himself had performed, and of the apostle Paul’s teaching that the divine spirit living within us will show us directly those primal mysteries which “no eye has seen, no ear had heard, no mind conceived?”

Here endeth the reading.

 

Catfish Lullaby, by A.C. Wise

“Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters.”

Catfish LullabyIn 1929, H.P. Lovecraft published “The Dunwich Horror” in Weird Tales Magazine, in which he told the now famous story of the troubled Whateley family, and their horrible dealings. Full of incantations, misbegotten births, monstrous contracts with great beings from beyond, and a great action sequence, it remains one of HPL’s most revered stories. The geography plays a major part in setting the stage for the story, with the cursed Sentinel Hill being at the center of it. Old Whateley prophesied about it once in the memorable line, “Let me tell ye suthin’—some day yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!” While I can’t say for certain that it was an influence, A.C. Wise’s masterful novella, CATFISH LULLABY (published by Broken Eye Books, and now available for pre-order), bears some similarities to “The Dunwich Horror.” Only, replace Sentinel Hill for the deep South of the Louisiana bayou, and set it in modern times. I am grateful to Broken Eye Books for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

CATFISH LULLABY (defined by the publisher as a queer cosmic horror story) tells the multi-generational saga of Caleb, the son of the county sheriff (a black man) who grows up to follow in his daddy’s footsteps, his life long friendship with Cere, a mysterious girl rescued from a terrible house fire, and their persistent conflict with the Royce family, whose occult dealings run more than skin deep. Oh, and then there’s Catfish John, the folkloric boogeyman used to scare children of the bayou to sleep at night.

The story opens in 1986 with Caleb’s daddy and his men finding a body in the bayou that might belong to a girl who went missing many years ago. Catfish John is blamed among the townsfolk, but Caleb’s daddy knows better. As Caleb goes to sleep that night, “…a terrible sound split the air, echoing over the trees and making [his] skin pucker with goosebumps. It was a snarling, wet sound. A scream that wasn’t animal nor human but both. Like the swamp itself had found a voice, and it was angry that something that belonged to it had been taken away.” With those beautifully composed lines, A.C. Wise has lured you in and viciously set her hook.

c8e919711966425ab13d32580bcdac98[1]We then pick things back up in 1992, when Caleb’s daddy rescues the mysterious Cere from a house fire. Wise amplifies her aural horror here with exquisite prose, “The girl pivoted on her bare heels, and for a moment, Caleb feared she would sprint back into the burning house. Instead she spat in the dirt at her feet. A sound like the one he’d heard the night his father pulled the bones from the swamp, a sound Caleb would never forget—sorrow and rage—split the air. Caleb’s skin prickled, but movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention. The smoke above the house shifted. As Caleb stared, it formed a face, impossible but distinct and inhuman.” Something is clearly going on in the bayou that is beyond Caleb, his daddy, and the good folk in town. And somehow, Cere seems to be at the center of it.

The second half of the novella takes place in 2014. Caleb is all grown up and has succeeded his daddy as the Lewis County sheriff. He lives with his partner, Kyle, who is a great calming influence on him when the stress of law enforcement gets too much, or the townsfolk’s racist or homophobic remarks cut too deep.  When another body is discovered, it dredges up old history Caleb would rather have left packed away in the depths of his memory. “Terry peeled back the covering over the body, and the world jolted out of time…for a moment, Caleb was twelve, looking at a grainy newspaper photograph.” 920x920[1].jpgLike his father before him, though, he cannot afford the luxury of forgetting and is beholden to investigate. The past, it seems, just cannot stay buried.

Wise is known in her short stories for brilliant pacing and incisive plotting, and both are on full display in CATFISH LULLABY for the duration of the increased length. A sweltering, muggy, and oppressive atmosphere saturates the text as surely as it does the bayou, at times making it hard to breathe. The American South is nekkid here, in all its beauty but also with every wart exposed. Wise manages to comment on both racism and homophobia without making social concerns the principal part of the narrative. This is Caleb and Cere’s story, and Wise won’t allow how other people feel about them to steal their limelight. But neither do the bigots get a free pass. As Cere says at one point in my favorite line of the story, “Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters.” I think I’d like to have that made into a poster and given to every child. Once I had turned the last page a sadness descended over me, for I had come to love these characters. So much so that I would like to politely request a sequel.

Wise’s writing, as I hope I’ve demonstrated with quotes, is beautiful, controlled, economical, and penetrating. This pair of sentences, for further example, testify to her mastery of her craft: “Overhead, scraps of sky had been torn away, showing stars that had no business there. They made Caleb think of eyes, opening and blinking in the dark.” Cosmic horror tropes on full display, check. But look what she does with sounds. “…scraps of sky…” You almost don’t have to be told that something has been torn. “…showing stars that had no business there…” Hissing sibilants like a snake foretelling a strike warn of imminent danger. “…blinking in the dark.” d82058699a653a417b36e5e1bd5dde0f[1].jpgHarsh “k” sounds, created by preventing air from leaving the vocal track and then releasing it in fury, slams the door on this sentence. Lesser writers bow before prose like this while readers are generally only vaguely aware something magical has happened. As it should be.

If you’re not able to tell, I loved this story and I’ve come to adore A.C. Wise’s writing. Not only are her narratives usually totally up my alley, but her writing is gorgeous, at times mystical. She said somewhere that this was the longest work she has published, and if CATFISH LULLABY is any indication, I sincerely hope that Wise tackles a novel soon. In a brief 115 pages, A.C. Wise has composed a southern gothic, queer, cosmic horror story that will suck the air from your lungs with it beauty, poignancy, and terror, leaving you on your knees wheezing for more. You do not want to miss this one!

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

Occult bone scrawlings: “There are stories about him along the Mississippi River from Cottonwood Point all the way down to New Orleans, maybe further still. Every place’s got their own name for him—Wicked Silver, Old Tom, Fishhook—but where my people come from, smack dab in the middle of nowhere Louisiana, it was always Catfish John. Depending who you talk to, he’s either a hero or a devil, one so wicked even hell won’t take him.
—Myths, History, and Legends from the Delta to the Bayou (Whippoorwill Press, 2016)”

The Serpent’s Shadow, by Daniel Braum

“I didn’t feel like I was doing the tourist thing anymore. I was in the real world. The real jungle. And it terrified me. These were real monkeys. And real Mayan people. Everything was much stranger than I could have imagined. I’d seen real guns. And a dead body. Someone had gotten hurt. This was living without a net. I was small. I was vulnerable. I reached for Anne Marie’s hand.”

61ms48j3laL[1].jpgThe one and only time I stood in the shadow of the Mayan empire was when my family’s cruise ship had a port of call in Belize. I gazed at the ancient temple (a paid excursion) with awe and wonder. My father-in-law, who is Peruvian and compares any ancient structure to Machu Picchu, strolled up next to me, casually leaned over, and said, “Don’t get too excited. These are very minor ruins.” Some of the awe and wonder dissipated, but I didn’t let him completely take away my appreciation. Daniel Braum’s novella/short novel, THE SERPENT’S SHADOW, eviscerates, in some ways, tourists like me. Set against the backdrop of the hotel district in Cancun and the surrounding environs, Braum weaves a mostly successful tale of cosmic horror steeped in folklore, history, and contemporary political and environmental concerns. THE SERPENT’S SHADOW is published by Cemetery Dance Publications, and came out on July 2, 2019. I am grateful to Mr. Braum for sending me a free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The plot centers on David, who is on a long promised vacation in Cancun with his sister Regina and their parents. During a night of partying, David meets up with the enchanting Anne Marie, her sister Trudy, and Trudy’s boyfriend, Reginald. Quickly, very quickly actually, Anne Marie and David are inseparable, and she invites him to accompany her on a horseback riding trip. Reginald has a sort of surprise proposal planned for Trudy, and the horseback jaunt provides the excuse to get to the beautiful secluded spot perfect for a romantic engagement. Only, while Reginald and Trudy are off getting engaged, Anne Marie and David are led by their guide Ramon deeper and deeper into the jungle. Take it from Daniel Braum folks: never go into the jungle. That’s where bad things can happen, as indeed, they begin to do here. roq_quetzalcoatl[1]Braum begins to introduce his folklore in this section, calling our attention directly to the Santa Muerte cult (that I also wrote about here, in a Brian Hodge story) and indirectly to the legend of Quetzacoatl, the Plumed Serpent god of Mayan culture.  The reality of all that goes on is called into question by the near-constant presence of Xtabentun, a plant local to that part of Mexico known for its hallucinogenic and psychedelic properties, out of which a liquor and tea can be made. Things begin to spiral out of control here and I can’t say more about how without spoilers, but suffice it to say that the horror elements ramp up quite a bit, and the cosmic horror elements poke their heads around the dimensional corner.

It’s also at this point that Braum begins to write about twinned worries for the indigenous people and the native land of the Yucatan peninsula. He’s clearly done his research on this matter and equally as clearly his genuine concern shines through. I suspect this is a matter of some importance to Braum, though whether it is personal or not I have no way of knowing. On the one hand, we read lines like this, “Listen, and I tell you the story of our history. The Spanish came to take from us. The Mexican Government came to take from us. Everyone takes from the Mayan people. They kill us. They kill each other. For treasure…for our true treasure. This land. This beautiful land.” NIGHT-CLUBS-JOYFUL-LIFE-CANCUN[1]Laments about the ugliness of the hotel district and the blight that is the tourism industry are liberally sprinkled throughout. But Braum doesn’t give in to easy hand-wringing. He counters his own argument with the second of the twinned concerns in lines like this, “My father worked in the chicle fields,” he said. “All day. I thought I would grow up and do that too. Now the plantations are all gone. I am glad for Cancun,” he said. His words sounded defiant and a little like a confession. The fact of the matter is that the tourism industry employs thousands of native persons who might otherwise have no job, or at least for whom the prospects for a better life would be far slimmer. Scylla and Charybdis.

The horror and even the cosmic horror elements are all present, and when combined with a pair of real world concerns for the people and the land, this ought to have been a beautifully devastating story, but unfortunately for me it did not reach those heights. I think the writing is where it falters. Oh, not in every place, for in the beginning we get gems that just throw us right into the midst of these characters lives like, “I waved to Anne Marie and she made like she was holding a camera with her fingers and pretended to take my picture. Neither of us had a camera, but it didn’t matter.” That’s just so real, so human, that it made me ache for younger, simpler days. mayan-ruins-of-chichen-itza-built-by-may[1].jpgIn the action-packed horrific moments of the story, too, Braum succeeds in hurling us into the middle of it all. Most of the time his brief, staccato sentences were effective. But it is in the characters reactions to things, how they accept so quickly and easily truly horrible sights and experiences. These are experiences that should traumatize and in many ways debilitate, not ones that could be internalized after some weed and few beers before a quick sleep and then, hey, let’s do that again! I found my ability to suspend disbelief stretched, and that caused my interest to dwindle. This was my main issue with this novella, but I had a few minor quibbles too. Two side characters with annoyingly similar names (Regina and Reginald) for example, make it hard on the eye. Also, by the end, I felt like the concerns for the marred natural beauty of Cancun to have gotten too heavy handed.  We got it. Less might have been more.

In the end, this is an enjoyable, if flawed cosmic horror tale wrapped in well researched and deeply felt history. Awe and wonder to be sure, but minor ruins. Fans of Latin American settings in their horror will find plenty to enjoy, while cosmic horror buffs will also get a satisfying helping of what they desire. I really enjoyed and had fun with the ideas Braum presented, which is what kept me coming back, but they could have been tighter with more believable character reactions. Despite that, I look forward to what Braum comes up with next, because, with his ideas and concepts, I want him to keep getting better. Lovecraft could never write positively about other cultures. I love it when authors like Braum set their cosmic horrors in places Lovecraft would never have tread.

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

Novenas to Saint Death: “I dreamt we were wrapped in xtabentun vines; vines that had crept along the stones and bound us together, their white flowers open to the night. I rolled over. Light was ready to return to the sky. I reached for her. My hand felt sand. She wasn’t next to me. I sat up and saw her walking out of the ruin…”It’s time,” she said.”

A Lost Student’s Handbook for Surviving the Abyss, by Gwendolyn Kiste

“We offer plenty of great times around campus, but please remember this one rule: absolutely no underage drinking. Alcohol dulls the senses, and you’re going to need all the alertness you can muster.”

d342d2cf1ba6a29a110ca2dff632144e_original[1].jpgThe University Experience in the United States is not only a defining series of years in a young person’s life, but, if my international friends’ experiences are any kind of tell, also distinctly, and uniquely, American. It should be an easy thing to say that the most important thing you come away with after those four years is your degree, but if I’m being honest with myself, it is not easy to say that at all. There’s friendships and relationships to consider, mistakes made and re-made, lessons learned inside and outside the classroom, the whole Greek system (if you indulged in that), and just a whole lot of growing up that happens in a mostly unregulated environment. Maybe, at the end of the day, the degree is what you came for but you left with quite a bit more besides. That degree may hang on your wall now, proclaiming to the world that you are qualified to do and say as you do, but those other, more intangible lessons are what you carry much closer to the heart on a day to day basis. It is into that kind of collegiate co-ed setting (and not the stuffier, more erudite, cherry-paneled setting you might think of when you imagine the Miskatonic University from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories) that Gwendolyn Kiste drops her readers in this story.

Miskatonic University first appeared in 1922 in HPL’s “Herbert West: Reanimator” but went on to star in “The Dunwich Horror (1929),” where its prestige was first implied, and then it quickly became a favorite prop for many other mythos stories. The fated Dyer Expedition to Antarctica found in “At the Mountains of Madness (1931)” was funded by Miskatonic U’s geology department.  Nathaniel Peaslee, narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time (1936)” was a professor of Political Economy at MU. But in this anthology, WELCOME TO MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY, put out by Broken Eye Books, and edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski, Miskatonic University is brought forward in time to the present day where students email and text one another, join fraternities and sororities, complain about the food, and attend normal sounding and not so normal sounding classes in an attempt to graduate with that coveted four year degree. A big thank you to Broken Eye books for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.

michele-botticelli-miskatonicuniversity[1].jpgGwendolyn Kiste, no stranger to the mythos, contributes our present story of a young woman just starting out at MU and finding it all a bit overwhelming. What she manages to accomplish, both masterfully and quickly, is a very realistic campus feel in which the narrator’s problems can, by an experienced mythos reader, all be easily attributed to the mythos. What’s so masterful about it, though, is that they’re all normal college kid problems—confusing class schedules, trouble making friends, sexual pitfalls, and academic woes—that in this case can be blamed on the mythos backdrop, but in real life (certainly in this author’s experience) had no such easy scapegoat. Let’s face it, college is a terrible, wonderful, confusing, and enlightening time. I wish there had been an easy scapegoat for all my difficulties, but there never was. So when Kiste provides the mythos backdrop to those otherwise very real issues, it had the effect of letting me laugh along, sometimes at, sometimes with, the characters. And subsequently, laugh a bit uncomfortably along with myself and my own memories of college.

The narrative is peppered throughout with brilliant snippets from the titular handbook that, again, are funny because they are in a mythos story, but just as easily in most cases, could not be. For example, “Your schedule might seem a little arcane at first, but rest assured, these courses will prepare you for a world that isn’t always as welcoming as it pretends to be.” It’s good advice, really, whether it appears in a mythos tale or not!

Miskatonic_Library_1__41790.1425053206[1]As the story progresses, the weirdness ramps up in the midst of a rather believable account of a first semester freshman. Parts of buildings come and go in the ether at will. Class titles get stranger and stranger. Students disappear. It’s all very unsettling but told in a lighthearted tone. One of the more emotional moments, for me, came in the midst of a typical campus tryst. Kiste writes, “Owen keeps talking about escape and freedom, and I can’t stand the sound of it, so I kiss his lips, his throat, his chest, anything to stop him from saying what I don’t want to hear.” Sex, drugs, and alcohol are time honored student aids to depress the growing and terrifying realization that none of us have a clue. The lie is that you’re supposed to discover that clue in college. The truth that so few manage to discern is that college is actually more about learning how you’ll deal with the fact that you’ll never have as much of a clue as you’d like. It is less about what the answer for any given problem is, and more about how you navigate it, because the darkness is all around and encroaching more and more every day. Somehow, I think Kiste gets that, and it bleeds through into her story.

Kiste’s writing is crisp, clean, and a delight to read. It is not frilly, or indulgent, but just exactly what it needs to be for this story. Her command of the voice of her narrator is great – I think it would be difficult to write a first semester freshman, but she nails it; I never once was taken out of the story.

I had a lot of fun with this one, as well as with the other stories I read in the anthology, but here’s the thing: this is a very niche market book. This anthology is only going to appeal to mythos diehards. It is neither for general consumption (not even as a light introduction to the mythos) nor is it even for all fans of HPL’s stories. It’s a clever experiment and a quirky answer to the theoretical question: What if Miskatonic University was real in 2019? Each one of these authors’ (and it is an enviable TOC) answers to that question is an individual joy, complete with a wink and a nod. But I can’t imagine too many people will find it necessary reading outside of a pretty tight circle.

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

The Visitor, by Farah Rose Smith

“On Rook’s bed sat the hateful tome he’d taken to in the preceding weeks. To say he’d become enamored with the old book was an understatement. He’d been utterly consumed by it, though she understood not a word and only took to her own imaginings in the study of the archaic illustrations. She wished herself a woman of wealth, and wondered if she may have had a chance at deciphering the material with the proper training, but this was a fantasy far from her grasp.”

Imagine with me, if you will for a moment, that Goethe, having just come from an afterlife afternoon tea with H.P. Lovecraft, conspired with Clive Barker to put forth a modern re-visioning of the legend of Robert Johnson. The eventual offering of such a collaboration might be something like Farah Rose Smith’s  “The Visitor,” from her debut collection OF ONE PURE WILL, but ultimately it would lack her unique grace and her singular skill that lend this story its stopping power. I’m not going to mince words or make you wait for it; when I finished reading this story I sat back and actually said out loud, “Holy shit, she can write!” If you read this review no further, you’ll have read far enough.

Of One Pure Will CoverFor the rest of you I would like to, of course, elaborate.  The first thing you will notice, if you make the correct choice and buy the hardbound edition of this book, is that it is stunningly beautiful. Released last month by Egaeus Press, publisher of morbid and fantastical works, the cover captures your imagination almost instantly with a decaying (growing?) visage of the woman (or is it a man?) and glorious calligraphic script. That script is carried over to the inside and adorns the title page and chapter titles. There is an air of classical beauty about the whole book, such that when you page through it and glance at this line or that, you feel you are holding something of both aesthetic and intellectual value.

Numerous Lovecraft tales take as their starting place a professor or other curious sort looking for knowledge to which they have no right, many times in tomes over which they should claim no ownership, and periodically in locales that could charitably be described as inhospitable. While you’ll find no shoggoths or deep ones here, what you will quickly discover is that Smith also takes as her starting place the trope of forbidden knowledge acquired at a cost that can only be fully discovered over time. Such a classic theme is paired with a decadent writing style, and then brilliantly modernized by its subject matter. Rook, with whom we open our story, is a rock musician of little reknown, seeking fame, fortune, and the adulation of thousands of screaming fans.

Of One Pure Will Title Page.jpgIn a hypnagogic state, she has traveled (whether astrally or within her dream is hard to say) to some hellish plane to seek audience with some outside power, reminiscent of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In that tale, Lovecraft described the Plateau of Leng as “a grey barren plain whereon at great distances shone little feeble fires. As they descended there appeared at intervals lone huts of granite and bleak stone villages whose tiny windows glowed with pallid light.” There is a similar decaying bleakness in Smith’s vision where “Vegetation was a mere memory, save for the shriveled vines atop starved monuments, powdered pollen searching the air in desperation for soil to nest in, haunted husks of trees, wisps of life screaming out into the eternal dusk. Low-lying fires flapped silently. Sands cascaded down stone slopes, hissing quietly into the oblivion of the deep. The terrible valley called out to them, its frozen darkness wailing generously at the rippling edges of their hearing. This was the afterworld in peril, wasted, rotting, reaching for the vitality of the waking world.” I highlighted that passage early on because I found it so beautiful in its desperation, but honestly, the whole story and indeed the entire book are so saturated with such dark allure that highlighters ought be be purchased in bulk.

The story goes on from there to tell, truth be told, a pretty familiar tale of desperate measures taken by a struggling artist to gain a boon from another plane and the dire consequences subsequently incurred. Were it not for her extremely confident and gifted hand holding the quill it could have quietly evanesced. But Farah Rose Smith won’t permit that, and commands your continued attention as she spins and weaves her seemingly recognizable plot. Though she here describes something else later in the story, the description is an apt one for her own writing and the reason you want to keep reading, “It had theatre, poise—an erotic tension so powerful that one would feel as if a serrated wheel ran back and forth over the genitals, ever-satisfied with a cosmic teasing.” What proceeds, because you will proceed, makes you question what is real and what is dreamt, what is teased and what is known.

Of One Pure Will Inside Cover.jpg“The Visitor” swims through deep thematic waters of identity (gender among others) and desire, passes through swift-flowing channels of avarice and self-centeredness, to arrive at the last upon an isle populated by the betrayed and lonely. There are no easy answers. There are no shortcuts. There are no cheap tricks to allow you to skip hard work or avoid the necessity of skill. The title of this story raises a question the deeper into it that you go: to whom does it refer? Naturally we turn to the Beast from the “afterworld in peril,” but is that a feint? I wonder if what we’re truly meant to ask here is if Rook is the Visitor, and if she, then us? When I go down that rabbit hole, I wonder if this is not a story more about self-doubt than greed, more about a certain stage fright than Faustian deals. If that is the case, and Farah Rose Smith is asking those questions of herself, then she need question no longer, for she had descended definitively onto the literary stage amidst fire, smoke, and Stygian melody.

A further word, though, needs to be said before we depart and that is that this story is unlike most of the stories contained within this lustrous book. While this story follows generally accepted structure patterns, only one or two others do as well.  The rest read like dreams, some beautiful, some confusing, some terrifying; they are more like free verse poetry than plotted narrative. Unlocking them will require effort on the part of the reader, which is strongly hinted at in the erudite introduction provided by Fiona Maeve Geist. Honestly, after I read the introduction, I wondered if I were smart enough to read this book, but I’ve never backed down from a literary challenge and have usually been rewarded. So, too, will the careful, studied, and attentive reader, but those looking for fast thrills or page-turners should probably look elsewhere. Herein lies literature like a crumbling gothic cathedral where shards of broken stained glass both illuminate flesh and slice it. There are countless stories to be told in such places, but perhaps you will have to sleep, perchance to dream, in order to perceive them.

I was delighted to receive this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review, so my thanks to Farah Rose Smith. I was equally delighted and educated by several interviews that helped me to better understand where she is coming from. That felt more beneficial and necessary in her case than it usually does, and so I commend them to you:

This review was composed while listening to the greatest hits of KIϟϟ.

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

Misplaced Veneration: “Rook worshiped the sound. “If only I could remember such sounds in my waking hours.” Her flesh sloughed off of her bones, rolling through the sand in circles. Fragile sprouts shivered out of hiding as the flesh nourished the ground, collapsing back into nothingness as it squirmed its way back up her legs.”

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 Nug and Yeb,
~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…”