“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.”
In 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.
“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. Parts 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,
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.”