Water Main, by S.P. Miskowski

“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.”

Autumn Cthulhu8bS.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.

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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, Seattle_-_west_on_S_Washington_St_at_night_02[1].jpgalmost 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.

Also, please remember, sharing is caring and if you enjoy these reviews, please give them a Like and maybe follow the blog. Better yet, leave a comment and start a conversation. Best of all, let your fellow Lovecraftians know about it, and help point them this way.

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

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.”

 

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Harvest Song, Gathering Song, by A.C. Wise

“Adams lowered her scarf. Her lips were cracked and bloody, but light clung to her.  She was holy, we all were, and I watched in wonder as she used her teeth to pull her glove free, ran her finger around the inside of the bottle, and rubbed the last of the honey on her gums.”

916DsQjmudL[1].jpgIn The Shadow Out of Time, H.P. Lovecraft put forth his grand oeuvre on the subject of cosmic horror. His fictional (?) theory (doctrine?) was that humans were really only a galactic blip, here for but the blink of a horrible, solitary, nictitating eye. There were races that came before us, like the Yith, and races that would succeed us, such as the beetle-like Coleopteran. If human beings were anything on the cosmic scale of things, we were a joke. In this magnificent story, A.C. Wise deftly plays with that horrible sense of sheer insignificance. Such an enormous backdrop would swallow a lesser author. One of the many brilliant things she does to avoid that, though, is despite working with a galactic size canvas, she focuses narrowly on the very local story of a group of mercenaries out on just another job. Though this story was first published in “For Mortal Things Unsung,” edited by Alex Hofelich, I read it in “The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Ten” edited by Ellen Datlow, and published in 2018 by Night Shade Books. I didn’t get all the way through this volume before I had to return it to the library, but it’s very well worth your time. There’s some great stories in this collection, though the vast majority are not particularly Lovecraftian or even cosmic horror. Of particular note is John Langan’s story Lost in the Dark – I loved it.

“Our first night out on the ice, we traded war stories. Reyes, Viader, Kellet, Martinez, Ramone, McMann, and me. We were all career military, all career grunts, none of us with aspirations for command.” This otherwise inauspicious group is out on another mission – another day, another dollar. This time, the assignment is Antarctica on a top secret mission to acquire a military asset of incomprehensible value: a honey-like substance that blocks the pain receptors in the brain while still allowing the user to operate at full physical and mental capacity. The military applications of such a substance are lost on none of the group, and neither are they lost on the reader. The harsh environment (putting one immediately in mind of At the Mountains of Madness) takes its toll on our soldiers even as the addition of a blowing storm delays and debilitates them. A sample of the product they’re after is brought forth. It’s the only way they’ll be able to keep going. They ingest, and shit gets weird.

normal-honeycomb-with-honey[1]“Then Adams tilted the bottle and let a drop touch my tongue. Her limbs bent strangely, and there were too many of them. I saw myself reflected a dozen-dozen-dozen times in multi-faceted eyes. The honey was liquid fire…it was like swallowing stars.” As their situation continues to devolve, their seeming acceptance of all the inexplicable and bizarre things happening to and around them is notable. They are caught up in something so much larger than themselves (and so much more horrible and terrifying) that they simply acquiesce to otherwise very objectionable goings on. I don’t know what it was particularly about this story but it caused me no small amount of distress as I read it, and even now as I reflect upon it. It wasn’t look-over-your-shoulder scary, but it was shudder-inducing, cringe-inducing, grossed-out body horror mixed with a grave sense of insignificance and cosmic horror. And it was beautiful to behold. Once they discover where the stuff is kept/produced/stored, madness sets in and not everyone makes it out alive. Towards the end, the story fast-forwards to the present and we, the readers, get to see what has become of our ill-fated mercenary companions in the months gone by since the mission ended in, dare we say, success. It has not gone well for them.

The ending was spectacular, exploding outward from the local to the universal, and I won’t say much about it to avoid spoilers, but Wise very effectively gives us a hint (in her own version of the cosmos, not HPL’s – this is very much not a pastiche but a creatively original work) of what’s really out there, of what has been, and of what might yet be. The eponymous concept of the song, which I, again, can’t say too much about, is brilliantly executed. It’s a forbidding foretaste, slathered in sickly-sweet honey. trypophobia face.jpgParts of it reminded me of some scenes from Nick Cutter’s novel “The Deep,” though Wise does it better here. Some of those same parts triggered a feeling of trypophobia, and, I suspect, if you truly suffer from that, this is not a good story for you to read. Also, don’t look at the picture. Trypophobia is the fear of closely-packed holes and if Wise wasn’t playing with that on purpose, I’d be surprised.

Her command of pace, of structure, and of language are all top-notch. This is an experienced author who knows what she is doing, at the top of her game. I’d say, above all, her ability to evoke a mood of dreadful apprehension is what sets this story apart from and above many of its contemporaries, even in a volume of the year’s best. At the same time, we feel sorry for the characters, and then we don’t, but not because they deserve what they get or any such nonsense as that. This is a tale above petty ideas about karma. We don’t feel sorry for them because they don’t matter. We don’t matter. And that sets us a-trembling. It’s masterfully accomplished; I can’t say that enough.

It should tell you something that A.C. Wise is the only author in this collection to have two stories included. I didn’t read the other, but I sure would like to go back and give it a shot as well. Besides the Langan, other standouts include Fail-Safe by Philip Fracassi, Better You Believe by Carole Johnstone, and Furtherest by Kaaron Warren (it was very strange indeed, but I’m still thinking about it long after the memory of lesser stories has faded).

That about wraps it up for this review. So, in this ending, remember: Harry Crews had it wrong. You should cross the street to read genre fiction. Just be sure to look both ways first. Twice.

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

Clinging, sticky lyrics of the harvest song: “Adams dipped a finger in the honey and held it out to me. I pictured light leaking from her eyes like tears, seeping from her pores. The harvest song howled in the dark. Shadows bent over us, long fingers needle-sharp and venom-tipped, ready to stitch through skin and bone. I sucked her finger clean. It wasn’t sex, it was more like farewell.”

The Space Between, by P.L. McMillan

“I should be out of the Space by now—if it respected any known laws of physics, that is, but I am still walking. The ground remains uniformly flat, almost smooth in its sameness.”

14206925991_801393ddf2_b[1]I read this story in New York City when I was visiting a few weeks ago, and thought, since I had about an hour, to install myself in the Rose Reading Room of the public library sitting off 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. It’s an impressive building begging to be explored. Fortuitous for me, when I drew close to the steps it had begun to rain, and so I took refuge inside as well as respite. However, much to my dismay, the area I had entered was no gorgeous piece of early 20th century architecture, all dark wood and rounded arches of heavy glass. Rather, that area was cordoned off for repairs, and I was ushered into a sad, small room with hastily built supplemental shelves and folding chairs and tables. It had a sterile, fluorescent feel, as if one was in any waiting room in any hospital. I almost left, but paused and thought, perhaps this is the perfect room in which to read a story called The Space Between. Turns out, it was.

22818-1808150436319[1].pngI should say that this story was provided to me free of charge, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review, by the good folks at Gehenna and Hinnom Press. If you’re looking to find this story, you can do so in Hinnom Magazine #006 available digitally or in paperback through Amazon.  I also want to say, at the outset, that I know female authors are encouraged by publishers to use initials in place of their first name because it sells better—men, it seems, are less apt to buy a book from a female, and that this reticence is mitigated somewhat if initials appear in place of a female first name—but I long for a day when that is not a necessity. It really ought to be here by now. (I also don’t know if that’s the reason for the “P.L.” here or not.)

In any event, onward: this is a story about Alyssa Dean, “employee of the US government and chairwoman of the Humanity Rescue Committee.” It takes place in the not so distant future at a time when the steadily increasing world population has passed a critical juncture. There is no space left for anyone, anywhere.  Into this (totally plausible) dire reality, a surprising discovery has been made in the Sonoran Desert, straddling the border of Arizona and California. A strange, extra-dimensional space, eight meters by eight meters, and rising six meters high has…developed?…appeared?…that can’t be seen but only felt. If you get too close to it, odd vibrations unsettle your body, sometimes accompanied by nausea and fainting. We get the impression that when our story opens, the government has know of the existence of this space for some time but hasn’t made much headway in understanding it. desert-clipart-cactus-desert-500898-4743694[1].jpgInitial forays into the space have revealed it to be enormous, exponentially larger inside than outside (shades of “House of Leaves” here). But Alyssa will be the first person to really go deep inside it.

Inside, though, gets weird in a hurry. Alyssa tries to measure the time she is inside it with her watch, until it stops working. She guesses at the distance she travels and ponders the possible uses of such a vast, free space. Apartments. Agriculture. Mechanized labor.  There are a lot of potential solutions to the earth’s census problems incarnated by this space, but the farther she travels, the less likely any of them seem. She sends notes and observations back to her colleagues via a pulley system, to which are attached plastic bottles that can contain her missives from within. She sends plenty of notes out, but her inbox remains empty, as it were. Farther and farther she walks, and her sanity suffers with the growing dearth of reference. “The mist surrounds me on every side. This rope is my only anchor to life. I wonder how far this rabbit hole stretches.” Towards the end of her journey she encounters…something. I’d rather not say too much for fear of spoiling it, because you really do want to read this story. I’d be curious to know, in the comments, what you think of what she encounters and how it ends. I think the story works fine with it, but I wonder if it might not work better without such…shall I say, clarity about the encounter. It doesn’t make for a bad ending in any way, but I didn’t need it. There are several other startling revelations at the end that worked better for me at instilling the sense of powerful dread and fear of the unknown for which the author seems to strive. The physical dimensions are not the only ones bent by the Space.

This really was a fun story that built up a creeping sense of fear, grounded in the fear we all share of that which we know not. Think of any exploration story you’ve read or seen on film, and this same sense of base terror at least touches it. I’m imagining the scene from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” when they go walking on the ocean floor the first time. For some reason, as a kid, I was more scared at that part than in the final confrontation with the giant squid. Or perhaps you might recall “The Goonies” crew spelunking in One-Eyed Willie’s final resting place. It was far less Ma Fratelli chasing them, terrifying though she was, that freaked me out, and much more not knowing was around the next corner. Here, it was fascinating to discover, as a reader, that that same fear was present when exploring a detail-less landscape. Alyssa’s plodding on and on into nothing effectively pressed that same part of the amygdala.

Someone suggested to me that McMillan might be one of the next great cosmic horror writers and if this story is a good indication of her talent and imagination, I’d say they could well be correct. I really thought she did well in the pacing of the story, and the structure of how it was told: small narrative chunks that were Alyssa’s notes back to the outside world. The stilted language of the scientist taking notes was also well done and served to ensconce you in the mind of our protagonist at first.  That pattern of language, though, then degraded as Alyssa’s mind degraded. She becomes less formal, and then downright pleadingly honest by the end, making her very believable as a character. Sound and smell were communicated effectively; I could sniff while reading and almost, almost sense cherries and bleach wafting towards my nostrils. Some refinements and restraint are in order, though, at least for my tastes. Entry 13 was too descriptive and, for me, took the fear of the unknown that had been building, and shone a great big light on it. The temptation, of course, that leads readers to think “oh, now that I see it…” That aside, there is a lot to love here, and The Space Between fits nicely in the broad canon of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. I truly look forward to reading more by this author, and you should too.

This review was composed listening to “Desert Roads,” composed by David Maslanka, and played by the Illinois State University Wind Symphony.

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

Hopeless, pleading messages in a bottle: “I don’t know how long it is taking each message to cross the vast distance between us, but if you don’t get here soon, it will be too late…”

Victor Lavalle’s e-book “The Ballad of Black Tom” FREE through 10/13/18

I interrupt the flow of short story reviews to being you the great news that Tor is giving away free copies of Victor Lavalle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom” until October 13, 2018!

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If you haven’t read this novella yet, it is fantastic.  I don’t hesitate to say that it is the best piece of Lovecraftian fiction I have read written in the modern era. Period. For starters, Lavalle gives us a black protagonist and sets his tale in Red Hook. And it gets better from there.

Follow this link:

https://www.tor.com/2018/10/09/download-a-free-ebook-of-the-ballad-of-black-tom-by-victor-lavalle-before-october-13-2018/

~The Bibliothecar

The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad, by Molly Tanzer

“I’ll tell you what I did on my summer vacation.”

With the notable exception of the gut busting film “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil,” I don’t normally go in for horror-comedies. Something about it just doesn’t do it for me, or maybe better said, they are usually never done well enough. That Netflix movie released a while back, “The Babysitter,” supposedly a humorous homage to 80’s slashers? Yeah, it just fell flat. On its stupid face.

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Molly Tanzer
So, it’s safe to say that a few pages into Molly Tanzer’s story —collected here in the fantastic feminist-Lovecraftian anthology “She Walks in Shadows,” edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles which was published by Innsmouth Free Press in 2015—I was a little nervous. (Not near as nervous as I was, though, to go google-image searching for this post. Wow, that was an exercise in…well, “wincing avoidance” might be the best phrase.) However, I can safely say that Tanzer has pulled off a delightfully playful story that, though it borders on pastiche, manages to stand up to its more grim sisters in the collection. This was, above all, a fun read. It relies totally on, as you can likely guess, The Thing on the Doorstep, and if you haven’t read that one first, you’ll be missing so much that it’s probably not even worth it. But I know you all have the original HPL tale under your belts, no problem. (Sidenote: there is, on Amazon Prime video, a modern adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep that I have not seen yet. If you have, I’d love to know what you thought of it.) Ok, onto the story with the title that begs to be read aloud in as sinister a voice as you can muster. In it we meet Asenath Waite, the high school cheerleader and her goody-goody-two-shoes cousin, Veronica Waite.

 

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“Asenath Waite” by Deviant Artist: MaryCountsTheWalls
The new school year is just starting up again and Veronica, fresh from Bible summer camp, can’t wait to have her shot at the varsity squad. Asenath’s summer was spent in less wholesome ways, shall we say. Our first glimpse of her is when she’s leaning against a car swapping spit with…gasp!…another girl! As the days go on, it becomes clearer and clearer to Veronica that Asenath isn’t herself. This is where Tanzer’s playfulness comes in. If you know the original story, you know how funny lines like this are: “Who did Asenath think she was? What she was doing, it wasn’t right—socially, academically, or spiritually.” Again, I normally don’t go for this kind of stuff, but I couldn’t help myself; I enjoyed this story. Later on we meet the mewling and drooling Uncle Ephraim Waite who comes to watch the cheerleading practice.  Studied readers will wonder at his seeming incapacitation, and why he goes about muttering things like “Thief…” 

Closer to the end of the story, Tanzer does include some Lovecraftian dread that added a nice seasoning to the work while not being so much as to be out of place. The girls’ strained relationship is coming to a head and Veronica, bless her heart, can’t figure out what’s going on with Asenath. She confronts her about her behavior and Asenath can’t take it. She makes fun of Veronica for frittering away her summer time at Bible camp and then tells her she can do all the praying she wants, because after what she’s seen, she knows none of that matters. She tells Veronica that over the summer, “I looked into a well of absolute darkness, a well without a bottom, full to the brim with writhing whispers blacker than the darkness. I looked—and I listened.” You can imagine how well this goes over with our Bible camp attendee. Asenath doesn’t tell Veronica that there’s nothing beyond this world. Quite the contrary. She tells her that what there is out there, doesn’t care about her, doesn’t hear her prayers.

 

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“Demon Cheerleader” by Deviant Artist: treystimpsonart
The story goes on to end about the way you’d expect it too, if you know HPL’s tale. How closely this story follows the original I suspect could actually be a divisive point. Some readers will wish it either did more or did something new with the original material. Other readers will take a lot of pleasure over how close it stuck to the blueprint. For my money, I’m in the latter camp. I appreciate what Tanzer does with the original material and how easily she translates it to this new setting. Now, I don’t think it’s going to win any awards for originality, but that’s not really the point I suspect. Tanzer’s prose is accomplished, and she does an admirable job capturing the diction and sentence structure of teenagers. I won’t say it’s a perfect capture, but then again if it was, it’d be indecipherable and involve emojis. I’d quite like to read something of hers that was more original because I believe there’s a pretty deep imagination at work here. I mean, I would never have read HPL’s story and then thought, “You know what would be great? If I took this and set it on a cheerleading squad!” I do have to say though, that unless I’m getting confused by all the…switching…that goes on in the end, this doesn’t end up having a particularly feminist ending. This collection, you’ll remember, is all about female characters, written by females as part of the unofficial redemption of Lovecraft movement that’s going on. It is definitely authored by a woman and is definitely about women, but women don’t totally come out on top in the end and perhaps that’s a twist that might have made for a stronger story as well as a more original one. All said and done though, this is a fun one. It’s not scary, not even particularly dreadful, nor does it feature a ton of cosmic futilitarianism (though it touches on it). There’s no big Lovecraftian baddies here lurking in the dark, interstitial places. But, it is extremely faithful to the original piece of writing, if in an impish fashion.

This review was composed while listening to the terrifying soundtrack to the (original) Dario Argento film, “Suspiria”. Now, the children are tucked into their coffins, the wife is stirring her cauldron one more time before she dreams, and I have to go let the shoggoth out.

 

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

Wicked lines to chortle at:Asenath was in Gifted, so Veronica hadn’t expected to see her during the school day.”