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 .

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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.

Smoke and Dagger, by Douglas Wynne

“…it could see him. The sudden knowledge was like swallowing an icicle. An eye regarded him from the black disk—a throbbing ball of jelly squirming in an electrical storm rimmed with lashes of fang and claw. He noticed the ribbons of smoke wafted not from the brass dish at the base of the mirror, but from that merciless eye.”

smoke-dagger-final-2[1].jpgCults. Sex magic. Rocket scientists. Spy versus spy. Cthulhu. These are just a few of ingredients that make up Douglas Wynne’s latest novella, SMOKE AND DAGGER: A SPECTRA FILES PREQUEL, published by Prometheus Press (2019) and illustrated by Mat Fitzsimmons. The Spectra Files (RED EQUINOX, BLACK JANUARY, CTHULHU BLUES) were a trilogy of novels that combined the Lovecraftian milieu with hard-nosed, high-tech action-adventure. Following up on their success, Wynne penned this present novella to explore the back story of heroine Becca Phillips’ occultist grandmother, Catherine Littlefield, who is the heroine of this story.  Here, returning readers will be immersed in the history of the trilogy they enjoyed, while new readers will find a fast-paced introduction into Wynne’s Lovecraftian universe. I’m grateful to the author for a gratis copy, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Through a series of revelations, Catherine begins to understand that she is sensitive to vibrations from other realms and comes to meet others interested in her particular gift. A doomsday plot is underway and Catherine’s new friends waste no time in clandestinely sending her into fray. She meets Jack Parsons, fictionally portrayed here, but a real historical personage who was a rocket scientist, chemist, and noted occultist (d. 1952). At first, it is unclear what exactly she is being sent to do; Parsons is known to be into some pretty kinky sex and always seems to keep multiple women around. 6074c322ea52411a401e0363939591a5[1].jpgCatherine isn’t  interested in even pretending to be someone’s sex toy, refusing the offer initially, “I’m afraid I misjudged you and your associates. You’ve certainly misjudged me.” In having her decline to be a femme fatale Bond girl, Wynne signals right away that this will be a more modern noir. She’s quickly drawn into Parsons’ social circle and the spy game begins. It seems Parsons and his associates are up to some pretty nefarious, and occult-like stuff and there is no guessing just how dark they’re willing to get. That said, like a lot of Lovecraftian Mythos stories, at no time during my reading was I scared or even unsettled. This is strictly an occult action-adventure story, and though it is a lot of fun, it is not emotionally or mentally disturbing.

Clocking in at 155 pages, this is a quick read. It moves briskly from scene to scene through the use of short chapters and action-packed sequences. This lends itself to exciting reading, but comes at the expense of deep character development. The writing here doesn’t stand out either positively or negatively, but is entirely sufficient to the task.  At times, some more thoughtful literary gems peek out from the exhilarant backdrop, as here, “There’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom, Catherine. You know that, right? Same tree, different fruit.” Mythos set pieces are sprinkled liberally throughout, and I was particularly excited to see the inclusion of the forbidden tome Unaussprechlichen Kulten, one of Robert E. Howard’s (creator of the Conan stories) additions to the Mythos. Like other Lovecraftian tomes (De Vermis Mysteriis, Liber Ivonis, Cultes des Goules, etc.), it was originally titled in English (Nameless Cults), but was later changed to a non-English language title to increase authenticity and mystery.

A couple of things hold this story back for me from being the fully immersive thrill ride that it could be. The first is something simple (it could actually just be that I didn’t pick up on all I needed to) and that is the sense that while this story is taking place in the late 1940’s, post-WWII, I never really felt like I was in that time period. I’m not sure if it was a case of insufficient exposition, thinly established setting, or what, but I found that I had to keep reminding myself that this story took place a long time ago. Anytime I’m pulled out of the story like that it impacts my enjoyment of the story. The second, and this one is a bit more narratively complicated, is that everything felt way too easy for Catherine. For example, at one point, she has to infiltrate enemy territory. She does so with an unbelievable ease, the wool being pulled completely and easily over the eyes of characters who we’re otherwise asked to believe to be intelligent, sophisticated masterminds. The flip side of that coin is, of course, a total lack of any sense of danger for our heroine.  It’s like watching an Arnold movie; no matter how many bullets fly his way, you know he isn’t gonna go down.  Credibility is sacrificed on the altar of fun. Some readers will likely have no problem with this, but I found it distracting.

yog_sothoth_50595[1].jpgFull confession time: I haven’t read the trilogy of which this is the sequel, and I suspect, if I had, I would have enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I had trouble connecting with the characters but again, I’m guessing if I’d gone on a three-book ride with their descendants, I’d have more invested in them. Additionally, the illustrations, while interesting and well-done, didn’t end up adding a lot for me, and while I understand why they were clumped up like they were (it serves a narrative function), it still was a bit odd to be reading along only to suddenly encounter eight pages of drawings. Still though, this was a fun book to read: a Mythos-fueled, Indiana Jones-esque adventure.

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

As American as apple pie: “Parsons is a dreamer, but he is also an engineer, a practical man who has learned hard lessons about how difficult it will be to even attain the moon. He knows that if we share the universe with other intelligent life forms, it makes more sense to call them to us, to open a door in space and time, through which they might enter.”

“The chants and incense.”

“An apple pie left on the windowsill.”

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

creepy black cat (2).jpg

 

 

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.”