“…each of the three possesses one portion of a riddle, map, or clue meant to lead them to the jewel…each one believes their portion to be the most pertinent and therefore of the most value…”
Earlier this year I read a story that I really enjoyed in “Autumn Cthulhu” called The Well and the Wheel (review here) by Orrin Grey. As I was just then beginning my exploration of these sorts of stories, Grey’s name was new to me. Well, it’s new to me no longer and thank goodness for it! I’ve since come to understand he’s referred to in the business as “the monster guy” for his many ingenious takes on familiar and not so familiar monsters, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to him expound upon his writing and his influences in a pair of “This is Horror” podcasts (available here or wherever you get your podcasts). A while ago I saw on his blog that his new collection, “Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales,” would be coming out soon and I couldn’t have been more excited. It is now in print (2018) and available from his publisher here. (I actually received a free e-copy directly from the publisher just for voting. That’s right, just for performing my civic duty and telling them about it, the good folks at Word Horde gave me a free e-copy of this great collection.)
There’s three noteworthy things about this collection that I’d like to draw to your attention, gentle reader. The first is obvious from the cover: Gemma Files has given the introduction, which, if that weren’t noteworthy enough, know also that it’s an introduction in which she describes her inescapable desire to eat Mr. Grey. Gemma is a considerable talent and it speaks well of this current volume that she wanted to be a part of it. The second is that the author comments on each story after its conclusion. I think he does this in his other collections too, but I absolutely love this feature. There’s nothing I enjoy more after reading something that I loved than to talk about with others who’ve also read it, and these author notes are like getting to do so, however all too briefly, with the author himself. So, thank you for that! Third, and finally, when I got this book it caused me to temporarily put down the other book I was reading—Paul Tremblay’s latest “The Cabin at the End of the World”—which is a rare enough feat as it is, but especially so in this case as this novel by Tremblay is rather un-put-down-able.
I reached out to Mr. Grey on Facebook asking him which of these tales was particularly Lovecraftian, and, because he’s the standup guy that he is, he actually got back to me and shared with me his own personal enthusiasm for the tale we’re examining here. A Circle That Ever Returneth In is a Lovecraftian/sword-and-sorcery mashup that is also a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. That’s right, you read that correctly. What literary-minded child of the 80’s could forget these wondrous tomes?! Now, imagine all that you remember about reading these books and then add in both Lovecraftian and sword-and-sorcery elements and you’ve got the picture, and it is a sight to behold. It’s reprinted here in this volume, but originally it was published in “Swords vs. Cthulhu,” edited by Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer.
This tale, like so many of its ilk (well, those worth their mead anyway) begins in an inn, with a group of adventurers around a beaten up table near a roaring fire. You (because, of course, this is written in the second person) overhear their conversation and your interest is peaked. There’s maps, treasure, danger, and everything that goes along with it being discussed. But then, there’s a disagreement, a parting of ways, and you’re left with the choice of following only one of the three adventurers, the sell-sword, the cut-purse, or the doll mage. I immediately chose to follow the doll mage (duh), being instructed to turn to a numbered section rather than a page, as it was of old. I figured I knew what a sell-sword and a cut-purse were, but of the doll mage I only had high hopes. She did not disappoint.
The doll mage’s tale took us through a few hasty voodoo-like lessons wrought on the anvil of you, the main character. “You see that she is holding a doll, a tiny effigy of cloth and wax, and you notice with a start that it looks like you…she pulls out a black stitch from across the doll’s mouth, and suddenly you find your voice.” You discover that you’re searching for the Shining Trapezohedron (putting versed readers immediately in mind of The Haunter of the Dark) and that you must cross the Forbidden Plateau in order to seek it out. Naturally, it is overgrown with large, predatory fungi. Past that you enter into the court of the King in Yellow and must decide how you’ll handle him, for he holds the Shining Trapezohedron in his hands. I fully admit giving in to my old bad habits while reading these stories and reading with a few fingers (in this case, e-bookmarks) placed at different junctures—come on, you did the same—while at the same time reading with one eye closed so I didn’t accidentally see the bolded final sentence detailing my fate.
I enjoyed my ride through this adventure so much that I went back through it a second time, choosing the sell-sword this time and was pleasantly surprised by how different the story was. Even set pieces that I thought would be static were not and were actually dramatically different lending a completely different feel to the story, though I eventually met the same end. I fully intend to go back once again and see where the cut-purse’s tale will take me, and then maybe go through it all over again making different choices. There’s enough paths here to make that worth your time, while also being short enough that that doesn’t feel tedious.
The prose here is not particularly special, but it isn’t meant to be and it doesn’t have to be. It reads exactly as I remember a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure reading, which may or may not be an accurate recollection of reality. The ideas are simple, the journey enjoyable. But, don’t let that fool you. As an homage to this singular slice of juvenile literature, it’s brilliantly conceived and, more importantly, lovingly executed. The Lovecraftian elements are thoughtfully included, yet don’t take over. The King in Yellow is, of course, properly a Chambers creation, but has been adopted into the Lovecraft canon pretty fully by now I think. You’ll enjoy seeing the different interpretations Grey takes with him in each iteration of the story. The sword-and-sorcery elements are more prevalent, calling to mind Fritz Lieber’s iconic characters and land—Grey admiringly nods to Lieber in naming his country Lankhende.
Above all, I had fun while reading and rereading this, and I think that is his main goal. I was taken back to early mornings huddled in the school library, trying to decide if I could finish my journey before school began, or if I needed to check the book out. I was taken back to my family room floor, surrounded by dice and friends and DM screens and character sheets. I was taken back to watching my taped-off-TV copy of Conan the Barbarian. I was taken back to a time when adventure mattered more than anything, to when traps were actually deadly, and to when the endings could be rewritten as often as you liked. I was taken back. And I loved it. Thank you, Orrin Grey.
This review was written while listening to the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian, the movie, transcribed for organ, because why not. I have to imagine there aren’t many people who’ve listened to this album.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
Roll for Initiative: “Gone are the cyclopean walls, the towering buildings with their many windows for trysts and burglaries. Here the walls lie in rubble, the towers rise a few stories and then terminate abruptly. It is a ruin, and what better place than a ruin for ghouls to dwell.”