The Amnesiac’s Lament, by Scott R. Jones

“Somewhere, in that vast array of sleeping bodies laced together in sticky pits of artificial neural tissue below me, is a dreamer who used to be a writer, or dreams she was one.”

—Scott R. Jones, “The Amnesiac’s Lament”

“One baffling thing that could be introduced is to have a modern man discover, among documents exhumed from some prehistoric buried city, a mouldering papyrus of parchment written in English, & in his own handwriting, which tells a strange tale & awakes—amidst a general haze of amazement, horror, & half-incredulity—a faint, far-off sense of familiarity which becomes more & more beckoning and challenging as the strings of semi-memory continue to vibrate…This idea has lain dormant in my commonplace-book for ages…”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Clark Ashton Smith, November 11, 1930

71zYC53sB5L[1].jpg If asked, “in what genre did Lovecraft write?” most of us fans would probably answer in an unconsidered, if decisive, manner: “Cosmic horror.” Lovecraft himself, however, would probably have said that “cosmicism” played a large role in his writing of strange or weird tales. What we think of now as cosmic horror was a homebrew by the Old Gent, stirring in elements of mystery, science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and the strange. Some of his stories, like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” lean pretty hard into the adventuresome thriller category, while others, like “The Shadow Out of Time,” rely heavily on sci-fi. The horror lay in the discovery of just how insignificant humanity was on the cosmic scale. Scott R. Jones‘ thrill-ride of a story, “The Amnesiac’s Lament,” found in his debut collection, SHOUT KILL REVEL REPEAT, follows Lovecraft through this particular portal. This collection was published by JournalStone’s imprint, Trepidatio Publishing (2019), last month and is ably introduced by Ross E. Lockhart of Word Horde. If this description isn’t enough to pique your interest, take note of the blurb at the top by none other than horror master Ramsey Campbell himself.

“The Amnesiac’s Lament” tells the futuristic story of Sunset Grey Theremin, a personality construct sent on a mission into an unforgiving desert landscape with partner personality construct Livid Ransom Stormcell. Right away you’re able to tell that this will be an unusual and very fun story to read, brought to you by Jones’ colossal imagination, which uses Lovecraft as a launching pad into his own unknown realm of cosmicism. Deserts in Lovecraft often mean the Yithians will be in play and here is no different. Our duo’s destination is a subterranean Yithian complex. However, before they set out, some precautions are in order. See, I mentioned this was a futuristic tale, and in this future, the Old Ones have returned and they are not messing about. 1_CPI-6ZtpYfMyV3bTt8EumQ[1].jpegThrough some seriously advanced tech Sunset and Livid cloak themselves in a “Deep Dendo” psychic shield, made up of the personalities of others, to protect themselves from the sanity blasting properties of the visitors from beyond the stars. “I don’t go outside unless I’m a hundred thousand people at once,” warns Sunset Grey Theremin. A hundred thousand people, casually sloughed off like so much dead skin.

Their adventure is thrilling, occasionally charming (“Yeah, well, hurry it up,” says Livid Ransom Stormcell. “Because it’s irritating the living fhtagn out of me.”), replete with countless Lovecraft and friends references—these, sewn into the skin of the narrative in clever ways so as not to distract the uninitiated, while paying homage to the devotee—and above all, entertaining. Like some of the best of Lovecraft, it saves its terror until close to the end, when you then sit up straight in your couch and take someone’s name in vain.

Lovecraft would finish writing “The Shadow Out of Time” in February of 1935, some four years, four months after the letter to Clark Ashton Smith referenced above. He was initially so disgusted with it that he almost ripped up all 65 pages, as he says in another letter that he had been doing a lot of lately. (Oh! Lovecraft! What hath we lost?) The ideas he sketched out in his commonplace-book (what he called his book of disassociated ideas and notes) would finally come to fruition and be published in Astounding Stories pulp magazine in 1936.

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From the highly acclaimed “Providence” comic book series by Alan Moore.  Art by: Jacen Burrows
“The Shadow Out of Time” is considered his magnum opus now by many, but I would never tell an inquiring reader to begin their Lovecraftian journey there. It’s long, and when Lovecraft gets long, he can get boring. (I know, I know, blasphemy, right? Who didn’t fall asleep reading Lovecraft at least once though?) What Jones does so well in this contemporary story is bring to the foreground the ideas Lovecraft used as the background, and spin a damned exciting yarn to read. It’s faithful and fresh all at the same time, and not one page felt boring. Few authors can do this as well as I felt like it was done here. Attempts either come off as pastiche or are too distant a cousin.

Jones’ balance here is near flawless and would be Lovecraftian storytellers should make a note. The fast-paced, page-turning sci-fi style (calling to mind Hugh Howey’s Wool series, strangely enough) is unlike anything HPL ever even approached. His writing is accomplished and crisp, confidence spiced with just a dash of whimsy. Combined, these elements produce the story’s biggest success for me: I felt as if I was reading something completely new while simultaneously being rewarded for having a base of knowledge.

The next story in the collection will go on to play in Ramsey Campbell’s Lovecraftian backyard, with just as satisfying results. I cannot wait to find out what the collection has in store beyond that, and neither should you. This is one for the fans, but neither will it be lost on newcomers.

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

Ammonia, by William Holloway

“The Pacific Rim was a wasteland of shattered cities hewn by earthquakes and drowned by tsunamis. The West Coast was in ruins, part of a line of devastation extending from Alaska to Cape Horn. New Zealand and Hawaii had essentially ceased to exist. Yes, the human race was only now beginning to comprehend the scale and power of the earthquake under the Ross Ice Shelf.

“Event.” Bamboo enunciated the word as he worked the notepad before him, covered in mind-boggling formulae, trying to understand mathematically what he’d survived.”

~William Holloway, “Ammonia”

ap_cover_front[1].jpgIt has been said before, but it bears repeating: Lovecraft would be shocked by both the popularity and the amount of Mythos-derived works extant today. He was always tickled when his colleagues used some of his ideas and creations in their own stories and, in fact, quite encouraged it. On August 14, 1930, he wrote to fellow Weird-Taler Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian), “[Frank Belknap] Long has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his—in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation.” No creation of HPL’s is as widely cited, utilized, and loved as Cthulhu, the dreaming god. Lovecraft’s seminal tale “The Call of Cthulhu” is one of his best pieces of fiction, and today’s story reimagines it, or at least the cataclysmic event it describes, for a modern audience.

“Ammonia” is found in the new book, THE ABYSSAL PLAIN: THE R’LYEH CYCLE, put out in November 2019 by JournalStone Publishing, and edited by William Holloway and Brett J. Talley. The cover art, by Mikio Murakami, is particularly striking. This book contains four novellas and, through four different lenses, purports to tell about Cthulhu’s rising from the Pacific Ocean. It functions as a sort of mosaic novel but the stories each have their own integrity.

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“The Eye of Cthulhu” by François Baranger. Illustration from “The Call of Cthulhu Illustrated” © 2017 François Baranger. Used with permission.
There are three character POV’s in “Ammonia,” but two of them get a pretty short shrift. The principal character is Quincy. He “…was a good-looking boy who grew into a good-looking man. Until recently, he’d gotten by on getting by, but the hard facts of advanced alcoholism at a relatively young age had hit home. His hands shook, he smelled, and his eyes had yellowed.” He lives in Austin, TX, and though he does not yet know it, Austin is beginning to flood. Sure, Quincy had seen flooded streets before but what is happening now is both more severe and, as it turns out, more widespread. And that’s not all. People are beginning to disappear.

Bamboo is the executive officer aboard the USS Georgia, a nuclear missile submarine that has recently been rocked by an unidentifiable underwater event.  His parts of the story were the most enjoyable for me to read, which is part of the reason why I wanted more of them.

Finally, Natalie is an executive assistant to a powerful Washington Post editor, with whom she is also having an affair. Through her job, she’s connected to and interacts with powerful people, including the Speaker of the House. Her story is uncomfortably sexualized as she perceives that allowing important people to grope her and giving them sexual favors might be her only way ahead. Bamboo and Natalie play very small supporting roles in the broader narrative of “Ammonia,” and I can’t help but wonder if they will reappear in the other novellas. I hope so, because if they don’t, then their characters won’t serve much of a point.

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“heroin” by flickr.com user B.A.D. – used under Creative Commons license

Readers know that this is a story about the beginning of the end of the world as we know it, but the characters do not know that at all. However, for each of them, this is a story about cataclysmic endings. Quincy sinks deeper and deeper into drug and alcohol addiction as he struggles to sort between a reality growing stranger by the hour and a drug induced dream state. It doesn’t help that he falls in with a Beatrice-like character (his own personal guide through the apocalypse) named Junkie Dave. Natalie faces the potential ending of her career if she doesn’t continue to sexually satisfy her married boss—and others—in an effort to make her big break. Bamboo comes closest, at least initially, to understanding the global significance of “the event.” He faces the ending of American hegemony as well as the ending of his ability to understand the world around him.

Holloway’s story is largely effective, and accomplishes what it sets out to do: to tell the story of Cthulhu’s rising through the lens of ordinary people caught up in the event unawares. Quincy was a difficult character for me to get behind, but I personally don’t like reading about drug and alcohol addiction as I see it too often in real life. It’s hard to see how he’d survive and he makes it harder to care. In as much as this is what real-life addicts can be like, Holloway is successful at communicating that struggle for compassion. In tone, “Ammonia” reminded me a lot of John Langan’s post-Cthulhu rising story called “The Shallows.” Langan went for more of a melancholy and fatalistic vibe though, whereas Holloway strives for almost a survival horror feel.

Through a believably authentic voice, Holloway brings Quincy to life in a way that doesn’t happen for the other characters. “Nobody home. He closed the door behind him, but not before he smelled that godawful ammonia again. Fuck. What the hell? Bitch complains about me stinking while that shit is going on?That is about as far as you can get from the Old Gent’s typical protagonists, and though he wasn’t my favorite character to read about, he was still refreshing.

As the horror around him grows, Holloway deftly communicates the rising tension of the unnameable and unthinkable, “He heard a sound above him, a groaning of timbers and a dragging, shuffling, sliding sound. Something was up there in the crawl space, something very big and very heavy. Something that didn’t move right, or something that moved very, very differently.” It is in passages like this that we get the strongest feel of an updated Lovecraft for the modern age. Gone are the florid clauses in favor of descriptive, yet manageable sentences. There is nothing unnecessary in this example, but it succeeds in showing the source of fear all the same.

We are close to the centennial of HPL’s writing of “The Call of Cthulhu,” and if the source material is to survive in the popular imagination for the next hundred years, it will need to continue to be modernized, the Mythos sandbox not only played in but raked out. “Ammonia,” as the first of this quartet of novellas, achieves that and I am excited to read the other three. I am grateful to JournalStone Publishing for providing me with a free electronic review copy.

William Holloway is the author of THE IMMORTAL BODY and other Lovecraftian novels.

This review was composed while listening to the albums “The Abyssal Plain,” and “The Realm of the Void,” by electronic music artist James Clements, aka ASC.

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

Merge Now, by Kurt Fawver

“Chisholm knew he should call the police. He knew this other driver’s madness was bound to cause disaster. But even as the situation sparked his anxiety, it also entranced him. He’d seen plenty of minor accidents in the past, but he’d never watched a major collision happen in real time, right beside him. A small part of him wanted to see it: steel and aluminum bending, glass shattering, bodies flying. The aftermath might offer an insight, a revelation, a perspective on life or death or the nature of reality that he’d never otherwise understand. It might offer up a release.”

61IdzlLY5EL._US230_[1]I have both seen and been personally affected by the aftermath of wrong-way, high-speed collisions, and I can say for a certainty it does not offer any insight on life or death other than we are, at our most basic physical level, meat. Once, I lived near a particularly bad intersection where there were always cars banging into each other. Thankfully, most of the time, they did not result in serious injuries. One time though, there was a bad one. I heard it from my driveway where I was working on tuning up my bike. I ran to the street and saw a conversion van versus a sedan, both pretty crumpled. People began falling out of the van, whose side door and been pushed open far enough that they could get out. Most seemed ok, just dazed. One guy though, the last guy, came out screaming and holding his face. He asked if he was gonna be ok, pulling his hand away from his cheek. When he did, half his face rolled down, exposing his muscle and teeth. I winced, gave him the oil soaked rag I was carrying in my hand and assured him he’d be fine. I suspect he probably was with the exception of a nasty scar. That was the accident I saw. The one I was affected by left me bereft of a close friend. We are meat, and when it comes to auto accidents, we are grist for the mill. There is no particular revelation about these sorts of accidents but that. Kurt Fawver’s excellent story, “Merge Now,” however, does offer up insightful commentary on how we live our lives, the vain things for which we strive, and the mindless, blind way we so often follow.

41D3v4VgygL[1]It is located in the extraordinary anthology NOX PAREIDOLIA, edited by Robert S. Wilson and published late this year (2019) by Nightscape Press. (The book’s cover is equally as remarkable, and more so once you understand the title.) In this volume, Wilson collects ambiguous stories by some of horror’s hottest writers, all paying homage to the late weird fiction master, Robert Aickman. If you don’t know Aickman or his singular style, you can still enjoy this anthology well enough, but reading a few of Aickman’s strange tales first would offer a more fulsome experience. Also, if you don’t know the work of Nightscape Press, you should fix that. They are doing amazing work, using a portion of a lot of their sales to benefit charities, and are soon putting out HORROR FOR RAICES, a response to the horror going on at our southern border with, again, an enviable table of contents. They deserve your attention.

“Merge Now” is the story of Chisholm, a bored office worker who could be a stand in for so many of us, grinding it out daily for his meager share of the American dream. While driving to work one morning, he witnesses someone affixing a strangely decorated blindfold to themselves and then speeding up in their car. At first, they miraculously avoided other traffic, but then, once they reached their apparent max speed, they swerved into the oncoming lanes and it was only moments before the inevitable occurred. His work day is shot and he can’t even pull himself together to drive home, calling a ride share. blindfolddriver[1].jpgLate that night, he’s searching the internet, trying to figure out what would make a person do something like that. “…well after midnight, he stumbled upon a Twitter post that mentioned ‘the blindfolded, seeing the answer others cannot see and gnashing their teeth in fear and ecstasy, do the great work of the eschaton. They will prepare the roads for its coming.'”

As the story goes on this sort of event becomes commonplace, with horrific traffic accident after horrific traffic accident filling the local news cycle. He witnesses another accident and can’t erase the grisly images from his mind. “A body hung behind it, limp and positioned at grotesque angles. Its head was partially occluded by a segment of collapsed roof, but the exposed portion revealed an unmistakable white strip of cloth inscribed with unknown glyphs.” The cult atmosphere developed by Fawver’s inclusion of these strange blindfolds is simple, but brilliant, and in the end, it’s all you need to wonder, wtf? One driver speaks as Chisholm encounters her during his unavoidable work commute, “As she passed, she rolled a window down and shouted, to Chisholm or the universe at large, ‘All is wreckage! All is collision!'” Chisholm eventually begs off work, unable to get behind a wheel, and who could blame him? It seems the whole world is spiraling out of control and he wants no part in it, but can he avoid it if it truly is the whole world going mad?

Fawver’s writing in this piece, undergirded with a certain fatalism, is measured and controlled, unlike the story he is spinning. His characters speak naturally and their internal monologues read as authentic. You are never once taken out of the story. Generally, I think that’s the harder feat to accomplish than writing a florid line.

Aickman wrote stories that some would not even consider horror, but I have never read one after which I was not deeply unsettled. He has no jump scares and little gore, but manages to nonetheless infect your consciousness. Upon finishing an Aickman story you are often left wondering, what did I just read? But then you find yourself turning it over and over in your mind hours or even days later, and that’s when you know he got you. This anthology is full of stories that do that, a just tribute to the master, and “Merge Now” is a particularly good example.

NEW-FATAL-2-HOWARD-FRANKLAN_1539945801431_59493418_ver1.0[1].jpgIn the story, Chisholm says he moved to the city for bigger, better opportunities, and wonders at one point if it would not have been a better decision to stay home in his small town and be a big fish in a little pond. But the allure of success, and the financial remuneration that accompanies it, was too much for him. How many of us have struggled with the same sort of question and come up, if not short, then at least mortally uncertain? That is where the cosmic horror is for me in this tale. It is not a horror beyond the stars, but it is one that is much bigger than any one of us individually. It is the horror of questioning whether we are enough. Are we good enough, rich enough, successful enough, pretty enough? If not, who do we have to follow to get there, and what do we have to do? What do we have to barter?  How many, chasing this unattainable carrot, have been left as human wreckage on the side of life’s uncaring, unfeeling highway?

Mr. Fawver recently moved, but before he did, we lived in the same region of Tampa Bay. Earlier this year, we had a rash of wrong-way, head-on collisions on our various cross-bay bridges, all resulting in multiple fatalities. I cannot tell you if these were the result of drunken mistakes, ill-begotten wagers, youthful ignorance, or what, but for a while there, it was a thing and I wouldn’t even get on those bridges. The above image is from the local news channel. I confirmed with Mr. Fawver that this tale is a creative response to those tragedies and I want to thank him for it. We all had a lot of emotion about what happened here and this story gave those emotions a channel to vent. I am grateful for that, as I am grateful for Mr. Fawver’s work. I hope he knows he is appreciated in the weird fiction community and that he is good enough.

Kurt Fawver is the author of a large number of wonderful weird and horror short stories, appearing recently in the August issue of Nightmare Magazine.  Comparisons to Thomas Ligotti are not misplaced. He also has published two collections: FOREVER, IN PIECES, and THE DISSOLUTION OF SMALL WORLDS, which contains the Shirley Jackson award-winning story, “The Convexity of Our Youth.”

Before I close, I would like you to know that no guts were punched in the writing of this review.

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

 

Up from Slavery, by Victor LaValle

“Well to start, Teddy lived here for thirty years and I have never seen you before. And, well, Teddy was…” she looked at me again and cut off the rest of the sentence.

It took me a moment to figure out what she wanted to say, but couldn’t. “White? Is that what you meant?”

She didn’t answer, but she did look away. “Look, I don’t want this to turn hostile.”

I didn’t understand why simply saying the word “white” made white people assume things were going to turn ugly. “If he was white,” I said, “then my mother wasn’t.”

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Photo credit: Emily Raboteau
The online writing community website, Lit Reactor, published a column a number of years ago that asked an important and direct question. Why the f*ck aren’t you reading Victor LaValle? It’s a fair question and fairly asked. Here I have to give kudos to the author of that column, Keith Rawson, because he asked that question in March of 2014, two full years before LaValle’s masterful Lovecraftian novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, would hit the shelves. If it wasn’t already, that book would cement LaValle’s name in the annals of Lovecraftian lore. Seriously, read it. Now. What he’s up to in that novella lays the groundwork in some ways for what he’s up to here: taking Lovecraft’s racism, turning it on its head, and making racial identity a major device of his plot. It’s brilliant, and part of what I like to call the modern redemption of Lovecraft.

WT-cvrs-01_large[1].jpgIn another corner of the horrorverse, something amazing was taking shape. Weird Tales, the famed pulp magazine which originally published the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard, and the Old Gent himself, was coming back online. It has had a tumultuous publication history over the decades with the most recent iteration, edited by the illustrious Ann Vandermeer, stopping publication after issue #362 in the spring of 2014. Earlier this year, New York Times bestselling horror novelist Jonathan Maberry announced he was resurrecting it! And there was a loud cry, like the sound of many voices across the land raised in exultation!

weird+tales+cover+1[1].jpegOn August 28, 2019, under the editorship of Marvin Kaye, Volume 68, Number 1, Issue 363 was published. You can buy your copy here. Maberry and Kaye did not mess around; they headlined their debut issue with Victor LaValle, Josh Malerman, Stephanie M. Wytovich, and Maberry himself. Hugo award winning artist Abigail Larson did the cover, and as you can see from one of the smaller above images (bottom row, second from right), she paid homage to a past cover, Margaret Brundage’s October 1933 “Batgirl.” Larson’s cover is a less sexualized and more empowered image, speaking to our time while still respecting the original art. The very first story in this new issue? “Up from Slavery,” by Victor LaValle, and illustrated by E.M. Gist known for his covers of Marvel and Dark Horse Comics. The resurrection of Weird Tales could not have had a better author and a better story to celebrate its return.

“Up from Slavery” is the story of Simon Dust, a freelance editor currently at work on a new edition of Booker T. Washington’s memoir by the same title “about his boyhood as a slave in Virginia and his struggles to achieve an education, true freedom, as a black man in the United States.” Washington was a major civil rights leader in the late 19th century whose name can comfortably be invoked alongside other luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X. In the midst of Simon’s work on the memoir, he receives a troubling notice that his father has died. What is worse is that he is the sole inheritor of his estate and holdings. Simon and his father (Thomas Edwin Dyer – some polite nods here, especially to Lovecraft’s professorial character William Dyer who led the Miskatonic Expedition to the Antarctic in At the Mountains of Madness, and to fellow Lovecraftian horror author T.E.D. Klein) had not been in communication. He didn’t even know the guy and now he owned all his stuff, whatever that meant.

1987_Maryland_train_collision_aerial[1].jpgHe arrives in Syracuse, NY by train—the story actually opens at the scene of a train wreck so each train sequence in the story carries a certain, beautiful tension with it—and is greeted by the neighbor Helen, who hands him a silver key (another clever nod, this time to HPL’s dream sequence stories), the key to his father’s house. After a tense, racially charged conversation they enter, and, as LaValle writes, “My father’s home was a monument to mania.” Clearly, it is going to require several trips to sort through the mess and sell the house, something Simon neither relishes nor has the time to do. Helen also reveals to him some creepy details about his father’s body, as she was the one to discover it. On the second train trip up, he seemingly randomly meets a weird man wearing a baggy suit who claims to have known his father. On a further subsequent trip the man accosts him again, seemingly bringing some serious racism to bear in a very uncomfortable conversation. I keep saying seemingly because nothing here is as it seems.

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Art credit: “Shoggoth,” by Florian Haeckh
Events continue to get weirder and degenerate as illusions of all kinds are stripped away leading to a stunning conclusion that interweaves threads from Booker T. Washington’s memoir, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and LaValle’s own narrative. In the end, we are treated to a reversal of epic proportions that at the same time has seemed inevitable to many Lovecraft fans.

Victor LaValle’s writing is confident, mature, and modern. He reveals slowly, teasing a little here, a little there, making you simultaneously wonder and hope. He drops erudite phrases and slings slang with equal ease. His character is constantly aware of his race and what that means in different situations, “A part of me wanted to grab one of them and ask them to hold onto me…But I didn’t do that, didn’t know how they would react. A black man grabs you on the Amtrack train, is your first thought to assist him?” This constant awareness will likely have readers of color nodding at shared shitty experiences. As a white reader, I regarded it as an important narrative reminder that part of my white privilege is not having to consider such things at all. If for no other reason than that, this is a critical entry into the post-Lovecraftian canon. HPL’s influence is pleasantly suffused throughout, but becomes much more obvious in the end.

“Up from Slavery,” like The Ballad of Black Tom before it, is one of my most favorite modern Lovecraftian stories because of its handling of the entrenched racism of many of the original stories by HPL. LaValle neither shies away from the racism nor makes it the one note his stories can sound. He sharpens it, as iron is sharpened in flame, into a natal source of narrative power. This is the kind of story that doesn’t just stick with you, but makes you want to find the author, shake his hand, and say “thank you.”

 

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

 

Dark Lantern of the Spirit, by Max Beaven

“The mass in the darkness seethed and churned and with a sudden furious motion…shed a part of itself. Now, in the small concavity that sat just a short distance from faint light that entered through the enlarged crevasse, a second writhing mass began agitated movements.”

51SBpwmEnGL[1]With a cover that looked like the lovechild of Red Dead Redemption and Bloodborne and a description boasting an adventure in the style of Robert E. Howard draped in the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, I was all set to love this self-published story from new author Max Beaven, who graciously sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review. DARK LANTERN OF THE SPIRIT: AN ARTHUR C. WILSON & BENJAMIN HATHORNE NOVELLA advertises itself as having a “late Victorian era frontier western setting” and when combined with the Mythos, this sounded right up my alley. So, it was with a certain amount of excitement that I turned the first page.

There I discovered the story of Arthur, a sheriff’s deputy originally hailing from New England but now finding himself in the Cheyenne territory of Casper, Wyoming. Truly, a tough place to be a law man. Through a whiskey haze he begins to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a well known and experienced trapper called Miles. A brief chapter later we are taken cross country to Salem, MA to meet Benjamin, a wealthy and typically bookish Lovecraftian protagonist, who is excitedly opening a newly delivered package. It turns out to be a bonafide copy of the Liber Ivonis, otherwise known to HPL fans as the Book of Eibon. This artifact makes its canonical appearance in “Dreams in the Witch-House,” “The Haunter in the Dark,” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” and then among some of the more familiar pastiches like ‘Ubbo-Sathla” by Clark Ashton Smith. After a few more chapters, primarily bouncing back and forth between these two characters, we are treated to an Interlude focused on some Lovecraftian style beastie from beyond the stars, and with that, the stage is set.

I wanted to try and get the plot description down in as positive a way as I can, because I do think there is a seed of a fun story buried within. Unfortunately, however, there are serious flaws with this book and I have to address those. Almost from page one there are numerous grammar and spelling errors. I’m usually forgiving when it comes to this stuff, but in this case they were so numerous that they quickly became difficult to overlook. Other errors abounded as well, like ignoring the conventions around dialog tags and the sudden deployment of a fifty-cent word betraying the obvious usage of a thesaurus. I can appreciate the desire to sound antiquated and erudite, but it must also be authentic. The vast majority of these missteps could have been fixed by an editor, which this book sorely needs. There are several things, though, I’m not sure an editor could have fixed. For example, each character’s voice sounds like the others to the point that it’s hard to distinguish who is who. Why does the Shoshone scout sound like the educated New Englander? Finally, while I can appreciate the author’s father passed on to him an encyclopedic knowledge of early firearms (so noted in the acknowledgements), the level of detail provided in both the prose and dialogue is often out of place to the point of being distracting. Like this, from a letter to Benjamin written by his friend Thomas, “I have taken to carrying an Enfield revolver with me at all times.” Would not “gun” have been crisper?

Unfortunately, this was a DNF for me, as by the half way point I had become entirely too frustrated to continue. I wanted this to be a fun Lovecraft pastiche in a wild west setting. I really wanted to enjoy this book, and I stand by what I said earlier – there are some enjoyable plot and character ideas here. The execution of them needed a lot more work before publication, however, and certainly needed the services of an editor. I hope Mr. Beaven continues to write and hone his craft. His passion for the Lovecraft mythos and the adventure stories of Howard is clear, and his enthusiasm for writing the tale he wanted to read, which he saw missing from the market, is evident. But, there’s still some work to do before I can recommend it.

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

Pieces of Blackness, by Michael Kelly

“It was a dark sky, but he could see another darkness, pieces of tainted blackness, tumours, coiling, forming a greater blackness. One day, he knew, it would open up, all of it; the sky, him, and the entire world.”

all+the+things-finalLurking just beneath the surface of your psyche, just out of sight, dwells a tiny demon comprised almost entirely of a warped and wicked mouth. This demon has a very limited, but a nonetheless puissant vocabulary, and it talks non-stop. Drilling through your ear canal it whispers, over and over again, “You are not good enough.” Some of us learn how to ignore this demon; a few of us can even temporarily silence it. Others, though—too many—succumb to its malice. Old, young, successful, it matters not. They succumb. Sometimes, you may not ever notice that they’ve given in. And other times, it is tragically obvious. In Pieces of Blackness, a story found in weird fiction anthologizer and author Michael Kelly’s latest collection (ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SEE) you’ll read of one man’s fight against that insidious foe. As the title suggests, this is a very dark story, suffused throughout with an almost overwhelming atmosphere of woe.

I am grateful to Undertow Publications for providing me with a free copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review. ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SEE was published in June of 2019 and is currently available for purchase in hardback, paperback, and e-book formats.

Our story opens with a scene of cosmic foreboding and moves quickly to introduce us to Peter, his wife Katy, and their six year old adopted son, Timothy. Katy awakens Peter, spoiling a naughty dream, with a worry that something is wrong with their son. He has been sleepwalking and they’ve found him on other nights in dangerous places. They’ve been told that this can be a normal part of the adoption process, as the child gets adjusted to the new home. The-sleep-paralysis-demon[1].jpgIt seems though that it is not just Timothy who needs to get adjusted. “Peter moved to the bed, stood staring at Timothy, his son. Son. He wondered, on nights like this, if he would ever truly think of the boy as his son. Wondered if he could be a father.” I was already gripped by this story before I even got to this section on the third page. As a parent myself, I’ve had many sleepless nights worrying over my children. But then Kelly introduces this extra element of dread, not worry over whether my child will be injured or killed, but worry over whether I will be a good father. He is here tapping into some pretty deep, primal stuff, and he drapes it in such heavy, black literary curtains that it became oppressive. It would not be going too far to say at times I found it hard to breathe.

Not willing to stop there, Kelly piles on the existential angst and, in a sentence or two, shows how Peter and Katy’s own marital relationship has changed since Timothy came into their home. This child, by his very existence, is an even greater interruption to life than it appears. What parent, on their darkest, most exhausted days, has not thought the same?

old-barn-hazel-billingsley[1].jpgTo escape the pressures of family, Peter from time to time will retire outside to an old barn on their property. In fact, it’s been in the family for ages as we learn that this is Peter’s boyhood home. Whilst out there he indulges in some of his more hidden pastimes, among them, cigarette smoking. It seems he was supposed to have quit when Timothy arrived, but he did not, and now he cannot bear to tell Katy that he has been unable to quit. So, he smokes clandestinely. “He didn’t know why he couldn’t just tell her that he hadn’t quit smoking. Maybe he didn’t want to disappoint her any more than he already had. Didn’t want her to see him as a failure.” There’s that demon again. This is the same fear of failure, of inadequacy, that drives so much parental dread and, in Peter, is even realized physically in his impotency. Turns out that his were the faulty parts that led them to adopt. Kelly works with some brilliant, connected symbolism throughout this tale, and I don’t want to get into all of it for fear of spoiling it. However, I need to say there isn’t a wasted action or loose symbol dropped here; everything is horribly connected and the barn is the locus.

Kelly’s writing is crisp, authentic, and emotionally evocative. He knows how to weave on the loom of the weird so that a greater image emerges over time. The only minor complaint I had was the overuse of the word “blackness.” I understand the need to create the atmosphere but by the fifth deployment of that word I was ready for another. What worked well though was how on each page a new crushing emotional challenge was unveiled making me as a reader want to cry out, “How much more can this guy take?” The only thing that stopped me (aside from normal social conventions) was the realization that most of us operate every day under the oppressive weight of these and even more stresses. We are all connected by the pain we have endured. 43eeb3e0-8c8d-4f96-9b3a-6563e2641295[1].jpegPunctuating these ideas are short, sharp pokes of sentences littered about at the ends of more effusive paragraphs, like the quick jabs of a professional boxer that set up a more powerful blow. Individually, they are sustained. Over time, they break you. Witness, from the ends of three paragraphs on the same page, “To no avail,” and “He was a failure,” and “Nothing was permanent, Peter knew.” That sense of impermanence closes out the story in a similar scene of cosmic dread to where we began. The supernatural here is definitely more implied than explicit, and so for our purposes here comparisons might more easily be made to J.S. Le Fanu than to Lovecraft.

This a fantastic story, but a deeply disturbing one. Sometimes it can be said that a story would work just as well without the supernatural element. That is not the case here. It works on many levels, and yet removing any one of those levels, including the supernatural, would diminish the whole. Pieces of Blackness is such a depressing, oppressive tale that when I finished and looked up I was surprised the sun was still shining. I read it in the mid-afternoon and it’s a pretty short story so I was less concerned that time had gotten away from me than I was that the cosmos had. I’d be careful about pairing this tale with alcohol of any kind. That said, and the good writing being a fine indication, I’ll read much more of what Michael Kelly has to offer. I suspect in a collection like this there is quite a variety of genre from the more to the less explicitly supernatural and I look forward to discovering it all.

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

 

Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, by John Linwood Grant

“As I grew older, they brought me night-fevers of vast, deserted plateaus and winds which scoured flesh from bone; visions of drowned cities and forbidden peaks. They gave me hints that they themselves were real, material, and they fed me concepts of stone, in all its conceivable forms, starting my first poor attempts with chisel and file. They fed my isolation from other humans, strengthened it, and they made me a sculptor.”

mountains-of-madness-revealed-hardcover-edited-by-darrell-schweitzer-choose-your-edition-signed-jhc-limited-to-100-copies-4898-p[1]Between 1930 and 1931, one of America’s premier universities launched a scientific expedition to one of the world’s last great frontiers, the Antarctic. Three of that august institution’s leading professors helmed the expedition: Dr. Frank L. Pabodie (Engineering), Dr. William Dyer (Geology), and Dr. Lake (Biology). Their ostensible goal was to drill through the surface to bring up mineral samples buried under layers of ice and stone measured as much in geologic age as material thickness. The discoveries they would ultimately make would undo the world’s understanding of itself and set the Earth on a collision course with the stars. All of this, of course, never actually happened, except in the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s masterful novella, At the Mountains of Madness, published originally by HPL’s friend Julian Schwartz in February, March, and April of 1936 as a severely edited serial in Astounding Stories .

AMOM-01[1].jpg
One of the original Astounding Stories illustrations by Howard V. Brown.
But what if it had happened?
What would the world look like now?
How would we, the human race, have responded?

 

That is the premise for this substantial new anthology from PS Publishing, Mountains of Madness Revealed, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, one time editor of Weird Tales magazine. Within its pages are 19 brand-new stories and poems by some of the leading mythos voices of our time, all of whom have taken for granted that the horrible and awesome discoveries of the Pabodie-Dyer-Lake expedition to Antarctica were all too terribly true. Also included is a wonderful introduction by the editor that takes you through the history of HPL’s story. Because of that, this volume is not recommended for newcomers to the Lovecraft Mythos or anyone who has not read the original novella. These authors assume you know the intimate details of the story, and readers without that foreknowledge will inevitably not be able to enjoy this anthology to the fullest.

For my review, I chose a story by a luminary of the field of weird fiction but who represented a gap in my reading, Yorkshire native John Linwood Grant. His short story, Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, is full of conspiracy theories, the dark web, secret and sinister governmental organizations, climate change, alien beings, and insanity to spare. Glaciers shift and ice caps melt and, in a calamitous moment, the City from Lovecraft’s story is revealed and the truth of human history as we knew it is rewritten. “Most of Lovecraft’s writing is invented nonsense, a blur of horror and science fiction which, if unusually imaginative, is yet of very limited value. Only that one tale matched reality, though the City’s emergence did encourage a mad hunt for other locations, even deep-water submarine explorations for sunken cities which house dreaming gods. Not a single Cyclopean block, not one non-Euclidean ruin, was found elsewhere, above or below the oceans.” But it hardly matters for the hapless humans of Linwood Grant’s story. The cornerstones of their understanding had already crumbled as sunlight dawned on that aeons old city, the definitive evidence of other intelligent life from beyond the stars.at_the_mountains_of_madness_6_howard_lovecraft_by_ivany86-d7jcdsw[1].jpg

Much like many of Lovecraft’s stories, this one unfolds at a leisurely pace. There’s lots of description and exposition, but it never felt unnecessary or boring. A whole worldview was unfolding before my eyes as the pages turned, one which I had previously imagined, even hoped for in that strange way familiar to devotees of fantasy and science-fiction, but had never been presented with as being real in quite this way. For one thing, this story is set in our world and our time. It’s familiar in the very same way that AtMoM is alien, oddly comforting instead of foreboding and harsh. The thrust of the plot relies on our protagonist, a Ms. Paling, completing some sort of to-scale sculpture of the revealed city of the Old Ones. In her attic, no less. She is being urged on by The Four, a group of creatures who commune with her mind, but who may also just be in her mind. Are they themselves Old Ones, or is Paling going mad after confronting the horrifying revelations of the broken ice? Nonetheless, as is so often the case, perception is reality, and she persists in her sculpting.

The City itself is the main thing, not what it contains, not even what it once contained. It is “…a holy text in stone…Lovecraft’s characters claimed they read an entire racial history in the symbols carved on the walls of their find, bands of glyphs that ran along ice-frosted walls. Perhaps they did. They were reading the wrong thing, though…The City is the answer, not what is written upon it.” The question to which the city is the answer I will leave to your reading, but I thought it was an ingenious take on HPL’s story to which I believe even the Old Gent would have been obliged to tip his hat. The ending left me feeling awe, and that is a wonderful homage to the original story which accomplishes much the same thing, if in a very different way. 2b8775f6182650fb21e7d34457044a4e[1]Linwood Grant adds a bit more human touch that HPL could muster, and I’ll go so far to say notes of admiration, respect, and even love are present in his conclusion. Like the original, the action all comes suddenly at the end in a wild avalanche, but one which ultimately feels inconsequential. The story is much bigger than that momentary (if satisfying) action can claim.

This was a wonderful story and I had a lot of fun reading it. Linwood Grant’s writing is fluid and will not at all be the barrier to some that HPL’s represents. He is a modern author writing in a modern, sensible, style. And yet it is elevated. Some of his descriptions are just beautiful, possessed with a matured sentiment tinged with longing. You find yourself yearning for a time and a place that are not, as in here, “It doesn’t matter. This planet was theirs, but their people are dead. Many times the edge of deep emotion has brushed me—better, they feel, that they had slept until the sun grew dark, than been woken to such a world. The last of the true rulers of Earth wish only to leave, to abandon their lonely vigil.” HPL wrote a story of awe, dread, and cosmic horror; Linwood Grant has managed to warp that just ever so slightly so that the exact same set piece sings not horror but melancholy, less warning and more lullaby.

Mountains of Madness Revealed is available now in hardback from PS Publishing, and I highly recommend it.

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

A helpful corrective: “Lovecraft’s suggestions seem ludicrous—flying fungal things and octopus-creatures, always unspeakable horrors that cannot be pinned down. I still do not know how he got so much right, and so much wrong.