“Terrible things happen,” she said. “We can’t change that. We have to go on living every day in the real world.”
“I don’t know,” Jim said. “Maybe everyone should be a little bit afraid of the things we can’t explain.”
S.P. Miskowski is an author I’ve been hearing a lot about the more I get familiar with the big names in horror and, specifically, Lovecraftian fiction. I’d also been looking for a good story to review for you for Halloween, and so it’s simply fantastic that Miskowski has a story in the wonderful collection “Autumn Cthulhu” put out by the Lovecraft eZine Press in 2016, and edited by Mike Davis. I recently read another story by her in the “The Best Horror of the Year” but it wasn’t particularly Lovecraftian and so didn’t work for here, but it’s still a great story and worth a look. A lot of Miskowski’s fiction takes place in Seattle or the Pacific Northwest, and having been there once in the Autumn, I can attest that it is a delightful setting for horror stories of any kind. This current story takes place on a residential street near downtown Seattle, a street filled with less than desirable apartment buildings near a place she calls “Dead Poets Corner,” which at least feels in her descriptions like a real place, though I don’t know if it is.
As she begins her tale—first of all, the opening paragraph is some of the most gorgeous autumnal writing, it just puts you in the right mood straight away—we discover ourselves to be in a flashback of Nancy’s, our main character. She’s gone back to a time when she was a child, listening to her Dad tell, for the umpteenth time, the story of his surviving an earthquake when he was a child. It’s dressed up slightly differently each time he tells it, often personifying the earthquake as a giant who chased him down though never caught him. For the first few pages of the story, we learn a lot about Nancy’s dad’s experience and the kind of person it made him. We get the sense that Nancy herself, while valuing her Dad’s experiences and stories, has no desire to emulate him. (Oh, how right she’ll be…) All of her dad’s cautionary tales could be summed up, we learn later, in one word: “Don’t.” He lived his life in fear, and she does not want to do that.
Halloween imagery is infused throughout this first sequence, and it really provides a lovely atmosphere when combined with the feel of the fog smothered city. Jack o’lanterns and references to the holiday abound, all serving to remind her, in an unwelcome way, of her father and his warnings. But, as we move into the present of this story, it is her boyfriend, and not her father, who becomes her chief foil. He’s an app programmer, which means he sits around all day playing video games and eating last night’s pizza. Nancy is not a happy camper. Nothing around the apartment is getting done, including the fixing of a leaky toilet and series of pipes, causing constant water issues. They have an argument and Nancy decides to go out for a walk, contemplating either breaking up or cooling off.
This middle section of this 20 page story contains some of the most beautiful writing Miskowski musters. As Nancy reflects on her history, her present situation, and her immediate surroundings, we get a taste of Miskowski’s literary prowess. One passage in particular caught me up. As Nancy passes Dead Poet’s Corner and sees two aging hippies walking hand in hand, presumably seeing also everything she does not have in her current relationship, we get a profound sense of both melancholy and regret. “Night was spreading across the neighborhood. Nancy walked on. The sad grace of the couple on the lawn made her shudder but she couldn’t say which emotion was stronger, disappointment or dread. She didn’t like to think of the future anymore.”
This is a turning point towards the story’s final and weirdest act. On her walk back she observes an apartment building that has somehow escaped her notice before. It’s a bit odd looking, but then again, so is a lot of Seattle. It seems to her out of place (she mentions New Orleans), and possibly out of time. It has a bizarre, almost nautical, theme to it appointments. A man, “studying his fingernails,” sits on a folding chair outside the main door. After a brief and equally as odd conversation, she enters the building to allow the man to show her an apartment. She doesn’t think she’s serious in any way, just wants a handle with which to shake her languorous boyfriend. Very quickly the tour turns quite Lovecraftian, and into something that I thought was reminiscent of some scenes from the John Carpenter film “In the Mouth of Madness.” I’ve always liked how that film showed images that maybe were crazy, maybe weren’t and played on your doubts and fears, and Miskowski does that very well here in a few, short pages. At first, there’s just a little bit off…“She forced herself to look down at three babies crawling in sodden diapers, all of them wailing. Their faces glistened with tears and snot and as they crawled they left wet trails like slugs.” Three sick, crying babies in diapers. An innocuous enough image until you begin to think about it. Who let’s their babies crawl around apartment hallways and steps? Who lets sick babies out unattended? It’s a very subtle madness and very well done. In the end, our hero makes a choice that is the living opposite of her dad’s best advice in a move that calls to mind the ending of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
As I’ve stated throughout, Miskowski is capable of beautiful, evocative writing, replete with an underlying dread that only fully manifests in the end, like some horrible, hatching egg. It’s normal, until it isn’t, and then all of a sudden, it really isn’t. There’s a danger in this kind of writing that somehow Miskowski neatly sidesteps. You don’t want to let your readers go too far in thinking one thing, only to knock them sideways in an abrupt and unexplained ending. She rides that edge here, but she accomplishes it. The only thing I was left wondering at the end was what the title of the story had to do with anything. Sure, there’s water problems in her apartment and that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for her with her boyfriend, but that doesn’t really merit a title. The only thing I could come up with here, and I know this is a pretty far reach, is a water main runs underground through everything, and when it goes, everything really goes. Emotionally, in the weird final act, everything really goes for this character. I don’t know. Maybe. What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
That about does it for tonight, fellow cultists. I wish you all a very happy Halloween, by which I mean full of creeping dread and cosmic nihilism. This review was composed listening to the Spotify playlist “Classical Halloween.” It’s pretty good.
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Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
Leasor/Leasee fine print: “He stepped off the stairs at the next level and offered one hand to steady her. She touched it for a second but his softly tapered, damp fingers repulsed her. She let go and resisted the urge to wipe her palm on her coat.”