Old Virginia, by Laird Barron

“The men dressed in hunting jackets to ward the chill, loaded shotguns for possible unfriendly contact, and scouted the environs until noon. Fruitless; the only tracks belonged to deer and rabbits.”

Ok, I get it. I’ve been hearing about this Barron guy for a while, and now I’ve read a story by him and I get it.  He’s good.  More than good.  This is the first weird fiction short story I’ve read in a long time that actually had me looking over my shoulder.  I read at night, when the rest of my family has gone to bed.  I sit up late in my chair in the living room with one light on and read until my eyelids can physically no longer remain in the upright position. (It doesn’t take all that long, actually.)  But then I turn out my light and walk to my bedroom in the dark.  Only, when I finished this story, I didn’t want to turn out the light and walk the measly fifteen feet down my own hallway in the dark!  I get it.  But is Barron the second coming of Lovecraft as some have dubbed him?  Well, maybe.  And maybe not.

cover+-+Imago[1]This story is found in the numero uno position of Barron’s first anthology (trust me, I’ll be getting the others) entitled The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, published in 2007 by Night Shade Books.  The cover design and artwork are gorgeous and subtle with a crispness to the text.  I have to say this, and it may be geeky, but I really like the font of the title. Not sure what it is, but if you do, I’d enjoy knowing.  The first year the Shirley Jackson awards were given out “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic,” guess what book won for best collection?  Yep.

The story opens with these words, “On the third morning I noticed that someone had disabled the truck.  All four tires were flattened and the engine was smashed. Nice work.” Immediately, we know that this is not Lovecraft. This sort of action and even violence are just not typical Lovecraftian fare.  Neither is our narrator, a military man of some renown, though now aging and arthritic.  I’ve been told most of Barron’s protagonists are manly men who shave with a bowie knife and read those Chuck Norris memes for inspiration.  HPL’s protagonists, meanwhile, are bookish fellows, a bit squeamish (though I  do believe our man faints in this one as well – at least it’s hinted at), and haven’t darkened the door of a gym since grade school.  To say nothing of a general unfamiliarity with firearms.  Which is fair, right? Cause shooting at Cthulhu doesn’t exactly get you very far.

It becomes clear pretty quickly that our hero, the leader of a mercenary band, is charged with protecting (against what?) a group of scientists who are out in the jungle doing experiments on human beings.  Totally legit. We learn it’s actually only one human being experiment on, an elderly woman, and from there on out, things get weird.  The candy shell of this tale is the ole CROATOAN legend, and the lingering question of what doom befell those colonists.  Spoiler (highlight to read): Given how the story is titled and ends, I’d be curious to know if you think one of the things Barron is suggesting here is the land itself is the devouring mother?

croatoan[1]
Then, Barron throws in, just for good measure, the declassified CIA project known as MK ULTRA, an all too real mind control program studied and worked on for over a decade under the aegis of Uncle Sam.  That’s a real photo to the right here.  The subject, as it were, is about seven or eight years old and her name is Ellen Atkin. (For another fantastic treatment of this nightmarish chapter in American history, check out the horrifying film Banshee Chapter…oh lawd it’s scary and it has Ted Levine!) MK ULTRA victimThis combination of American legend and scientific investigation proves potent for puissant storytelling and atmosphere.  Shades of Stranger Things here too, or since this came first, does Stranger Things have shades of Barron? I don’t know. In any event, the mood Barron conjures isn’t as dark and brooding as a Lovecraft story; it’s much more balled up energy and fully loaded ammo clips. “Five of my finest men were ground up in the general slaughter. Two were captured and tortured. They died without talking. Lucky for me … I bumped into Hatcher, hanging upside down from a tree branch. He wore an I LIKE IKE button.”  I don’t know about you but I can’t help but think of that scene in the original Predator where Sonny Landham’s character, I think it was, meets a similar fate. I don’t want to say more about the story because I don’t want to ruin it for you, but as I mentioned, the ending is haunting.

Barron’s writing is superb, as is his ability to set a scene and create a mood.  It just isn’t a totally Lovecraftian one in this story. And that’s perfectly fine!  I loved this story. You can see how he takes what he’s learned from Lovecraft and creates his own thing here, and I’ve gotta say, isn’t that really what it’s all about? I mean, unless you’re setting out to write straight up pastiche.  Barron’s originality is on full display, and I suspect it only gets better.  His writing is brisk. His sentences, curt. His descriptions? Amazingly visual given the preciseness of his language.  So no, I don’t see Barron as the second coming of Lovecraft, and I’m fine with that.  In fact, I’m satisfied without a second coming of Lovecraft at all (as it might also entail something from the outer spheres making an entrance…) because Lovecraft was unique. He can be emulated, but not reanimated. Got that, Ward and West? If there was anything that bothered me about this story, that challenged my willing suspension of disbelief, it was that when our main character, our macho, ex-military mercenary sits down to have a drink, he drinks a whiskey sour.  Really?! I mean, don’t get me wrong, a whiskey sour is a tasty drink and all, but for this guy I’d expect him to hold everything but the whiskey and rub the glass with dirt.  Maybe it’s period piece dress, I don’t know.

Anyway, I will leave you with this truly terrifying thought about MK ULTRA. There are conspiracy theorists out there who do not believe the government ever shut this program down. That they’re still experimenting, still learning.  Some of the worst of these foil-hatted friends think MK ULTRA could be behind some of our most tragic domestic scenes, like some of those mass shootings. Here’s one final image from a website I never once imagined I might visit:

2-faces-of-james-holmes1.jpg

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

Particularly eldritch words: “Mother won’t take meat unless it’s alive.”

Hairwork, by Gemma Files

“Ownership works both ways, you see. Which is why, even in its hey-day, Riverside was never anything more than just another ship, carrying our ancestors to an unwanted afterlife chained cheek-by-jowl with their oppressors, with no way to escape, even in death.”

41QCstEYmQL[1]Oh boy, there is a lot of background that we need to go into on this one.  I guess first I want to say a word on the collection in which this story is found.  She Walks in Shadows is an anthology published by the Innsmouth Free Press, released in 2015, that collects Lovecraftian stories, poems, and artwork by and about women.  Now, if you know anything about Lovecraft you know he didn’t hold women in a high regard generally, and he wrote very, very few of them into his stories.  (Off the top of my head, I can think of Lavinia Whateley, Asenath Waite (only sort of a female character, as she was possessed by a male character), and Marceline. Oh, and poor Charles Dexter Ward’s mom. If you can think of more, please, leave a comment.  Though I haven’t yet read many of the stories in this book, it is a collection I already treasure because it is participating in something that I call the “redemption of Lovecraft.”

Ole HPL was a famous bigot, as you likely know.  Basically, if you weren’t male, white (of Anglo descent even), and of New England stock, he didn’t want to give you the time of day.  I didn’t want to address this topic with my very first post, but I knew I wanted to get to it in short order, as it is very important.  Many people, scholars and lay-persons, have out and out written Lovecraft off on account of his bigotry that shows up in his writing in sundry places (“The Horror at Red Hook” and “Medusa’s Coil” being easy examples).  I won’t say they’re wrong to do so, but I do think they might be missing out and for that I am sorry.  Now, a number of modern writers who love HPL’s stories are tackling this head on.  Victor Lavalle, in his amazing novella The Ballad of Black Tom, for example, gives us a black man as the hero of his Lovecraftian story, and even sets it in Red Hook!  Ruthanna Emrys wrote a brilliant novel called Winter Tide (which I just finished) that flips the script on Innsmouth, giving us a female main character who is in the process of becoming a Deep One (!) and tells the story of how the citizens of Y’ha-nthlei were really just misunderstood.   Great stuff there.  And in this collection, women authors, poets, and artists give us stellar work featuring female characters, some familiar and some unfamiliar, who tell tales that would likely cause HPL to roll over once or twice in his grave, if he’s even in it.  So, I wanted to do a story right off the bat that participated in this redemption of Lovecraft.

220px-ZealiaBishopc1945[1].jpg
Zealia Bishop
“Hairwork” is a direct sequel to a short story Lovecraft collaborated on, or even just ghost wrote, with an author named Zealia Bishop. You may notice, she’s a she. Their story, and I’ve already mentioned it, is called “Medusa’s Coil,” and it is regarded by many to be Lovecraft’s most bigoted story.  So, three cheers to Gemma Files for taking it on!  When I first understood what “Hairwork” was, I panicked because I’d never read “Medusa’s Coil.”  I knew a bit about it and had avoided it (much like I avoided “Red Hook” for the longest time, but I finally did read that one). After some thought, I decided I didn’t need to read it. I knew the synopsis, and I certainly knew how it ended. To understand the power of Files’ story, you have to understand “Medusa’s Coil.”  In the original story, it tells of the de Russy family, a slave owning family in Missouri, and of how their prodigal son, Dennis, returns from Paris with a foreign wife named Marceline.

medusa__s_coil_by_thinkbolt-d3cdbwt[1]
Artist Keith McCaffety’s rendition.
She’s described by Lovecraft and Bishop thusly, “Her complexion was a deep olive – like old ivory – and her eyes were large and very dark.  She had small, classically regular features – though not quite clean-cut enough to suit my taste – and the most singular head of jet black hair that I ever saw.”  Dennis’ artist friend, Frank Marsh (of the Innsmouth Marsh’s) comes for a visit and Dennis catches him painting a nude of Marcelline.  So Dennis kills Marceline, but her hair seemingly comes to life and strangles Marsh to death in the commotion.  In horror, Dennis kills himself, leaving the gruesome scene for his father to find.  But the real horror of the story, as HPL intended it, comes at the end when it is revealed that Marceline, whom Dennis de Russy had married, “was a negress.” The strangulation scene then takes on airs of some deep-seated fear or disgust of the hair of people of African descent, a racist belief that still pops up today every now and again.

Pause.  Full Stop.  Lovecraft was a racist. Sure, he was a product of his time as many like to say, but that does not make being a racist any more acceptable.  It only made it more palatable to the dominant demographic. Racism is evil, no matter how you slice it, and it is the presenting sin of dominant American culture today.  So, I’m not here to apologize for or excuse Lovecraft’s racism and bigotry.  I will call it out though.  That said, to most of us today, the final line of “Medusa’s Coil” is so bad it’s almost like the joke is on HPL himself.

That brings us to Gemma Files’ sequel, told from the perspective of the buried but not yet truly dead Marcelline, who lies in wait under the mouldering earth to ensnare and kill every last de Russy family member in vengeance.  She tells of how the de Russy’s made their slaves bury their own dead after dark, in an unceremonious heap, because they couldn’t stomach it. She writes gorgeously, if with a deadly tone, when she tells of “how deep those dead slaves had sunk their roots in Riverside’s heart: deep enough to strangle, to infiltrate, to poison, all this while lying dormant under a fallow crust. To sow death-seeds in every part of what the de Russys called home, however surface-comfortable, waiting patient for a second chance to flower.” Into this long lain trap innocently walks a descendant of the de Russys and her guide (who has some de Russy blood as well), who will both meet a terrible, hirsute end.

erica%20tira[1].jpg
A hair work tiara.
The title of the story, and how it ends, is braided together with both an art culture and the unreasonable fear present in HPL and Bishop’s tale of black people’s hair.  Hair work is a type of art that uses hair of a loved one (mostly living but sometimes deceased) to weave a piece of jewelry or other accoutrement or decoration.  It was considered a great and intimate gift to give someone a piece of hair work jewelry, primarily during the Victorian era, though you can still find artists who will do it today.

The short length of Files story here belies the depth of her subject matter.  Frankly, it’s enormous, and of enormous importance.  Taking, head on, Lovecraft’s racism and sexism, from a fan’s viewpoint rather that purely as an antagonistic critic, is a true labor of love, and ultimately, even respect. It is as if to say, “Dear Howard, here is what you might have become, had you had the chance.”  Now others may disagree and say, he had every chance, and he still wrote these horrid, bigoted tales.  I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.  About this story, personally, I loved it.  I soaked in the raw emotion of it.  Just read this in Marceline’s voice, “I am your revenge and theirs. No one owns me, not anymore, never again. I am … my own.”  One gets the impression she’s speaking both as a black person and as a woman, and it is powerful.  You would do well, fellow Lovecraftians, to not only read this story, but pick up this whole collection.  And get Emrys’ Winter Tide, and Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom while you’re at it.  Lovecraft may be dead, but his work, style, and genre live on.  It’s really amazing to see it transformed in this way. Let the redemption of Lovecraft continue!

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

Favorite line: “When my father-in-law disinterred us days after the murders, too drunk to  remember whether or not Denis had actually done what he feared, he found it wound ’round Frank’s corpse, crushing him in its embrace, and threw burning lamp-oil on it, setting his own house afire.”

 

 

The Church in High Street, by Ramsey Campbell

“…do you know that rites can still be used at the proper season to open the gates and let through those from the other side? It’s true. I’ve stood in that church myself and watched the gates open in the centre of empty air to show visions that made me shriek in horror. I’ve take part in acts of worship that would drive the uninitiated insane.”

32709[1]Welcome to the first post of the Miskatonic Review, an online literary review of individual Lovecratian stories by authors writing in his vein!  We begin this loathsome quest with a look at the past.  I’m glad you’re with me.  Every Warren needs his Carter!  In 1961, fifteen year old Ramsey Campbell, having recently discovered the fiction of HPL, sent a few of stories (only at the encouragement of his friends) to August Derleth at Arkham House.  Derleth knew he liked the kid’s writing, but he sent the stories back with some suggestions for edits.  While working on those edits, Campbell received another missive from Derleth, requesting a submission for a forthcoming anthology.  Quickly, Campbell sent him back an edited version of a story he called “The Tomb-Herd,” which Derleth accepted provided the title could be changed and a few further edits could be made.  In February of 1962, Ramsey Campbell had his first professional published story included in Derleth’s anthology Dark Mind, Dark Heart, where it was entitled “The Church in High Street.” shadowsoverinnsmouth[1]I picked up the story in Stephen Jones’ anthology, Shadows Over Innsmouth, first published in 1994 by Titan Books.

“The Church in High Street” tells the story, in the narrator’s own voice, of the actions and ultimate fate of one Richard Dodd, a very classic Lovecraftian narrator.  Our pauperish protagonist gathers his few belongings, borrows a friend’s sports car (nice friend!) and heads off to the English town of Temphill, in search of his friend Albert Young.  Young had sent him a series if increasingly paranoid missives, concluding with one demanding Dodd’s immediate aid.  Dodd arrives in the tenebrous town of Temphill and encounters the pretty creepy John Clothier, who appears for all intents and purposes to be an homage to Lovecraft himself.  Just read to how he’s described, “He wore a frayed tweed suit. But his most startling attribute was a singular air of antiquity, giving him the impression of having been left behind by some past age.”  Lovecraft himself would blush in embarrassed pride to be described so! Clothier shares some disturbing details about the town and it’s history and sends our hero packing with a dire warning, that became my favorite line in the story.

Dodd finds his way to the eponymous church and, after minimal exploration, discovers a dark stairwell down into the noisome depths, fillethe tomb-herdd with “bloated, dappled fungi” and poor architecture.  He witnesses something horrific down there, which for me was the highlight of the story, and this terrible, otherworldly spectacle is soon overshadowed by things which sound tome an awful lot like overgrown alien maggots attack our narrator. And he FAINTS!  Yes, fans!  How much more Lovecraftian can you get?  (Lovecraft’s heroes are famous fainters.) The story ends in a way that calls to mind the end of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which may be partially why it’s included in this collection.

By the end (heck by the middle), it is clear that this is pure pastiche.  The young Campbell is to be commended though for putting something together so convincingly Lovecraftian that were you not to tell me this was not Lovecraft, I might not know. There’s cosmic landscapes and horror, alien baddies, a bookish protagonist, and a bleak ending. There are no new ideas here, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless. The writing is strong in some areas and it succeeds at conveying a sense of oppressive, ancient atmosphere, like here, “Piles of yellowed hymnals squatted against a pillar like grotesque huddled shapes…”  I love that image of the aged and decaying hymnals piling up.

There are two parts that do bring this story down a bit for me, though.  One, I’ve already mentioned.  When he is down in the undercroft area and encounters the alien landscape through some sort of portal, it’s pretty cool, but the flopping things that make up the tomb-herd, while gross and frightening in their persistence in pursuing him, took away, for me, from the true horror that’s being discovered.  Namely that classic cosmic Lovecraftian sense of other worlds beyond our ken.  Sure, those worlds might be populated by awful beings, like flopping white maggots of gelatinous constitution, but for me this felt a bit like the author needing a monster to round out his story.  I don’t know, what did you think?

The second place that detracted from my enjoyment for a bit came before Dodd makes his descent. He is reading Young’s notes and observes that young was “attempting to unify and correlate various cycles of legend with one central cycle.”  This is common among Lovecraft fans, I think, to try to bring together in one literary universe all of Lovecraft’s eldritch imaginings.  But I don’t believe that Lovecraft created or wrote that way.  The various ways he makes use of the Necronomicon, for example, point to opposing ideas he was exploring.  Is is a text warning against exploring the mysteries of the cosmos? Or is it a manual describing exactly how to do that?   I know that Lovecraft fans the orld over have wished and worked towards that grand Mythos idea, but if I’m being honest, I’m not sure that’s what Lovecraft had in mind originally.  With this statement, it seems Campbell is at once aware of that temptation while participating in it.  I’d love to  hear your thoughts on this.

Well, there you have it fellow Lovecraftians, the first post.  I’m sure the format will change and mature as time goes on, but if you’ve ideas, please share them!  I would dearly love to hear from you in the comments.  Tell me if you’ve read this sinister tale, and what you thought about it, or if you haven’t read it yet, do you think you will now?  Tell me, if you would, what your favorite Lovecraftian story is and why, and hopefully I’ll get it up on here, the Miskatonic Review!

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

Favorite Line: “I wouldn’t go into that house for any reason whatever,” confessed Clothier. “Nor would anyone else. That house has become theirs now.”