Dr. 999, by Matthew M. Bartlett

“The item arrived without any protective packaging—I found the bottle on its side on my front step, with no mailing label nor postage that I could see.”

62a3e5b0ff498692a87cc7ca1b7d278a_original[1].jpgContinuing to make inroads with the new cosmic horror/noir/Lovecraftian anthology, “Ashes and Entropy,” edited by Robert S. Wilson and published by Nightscape Press (2018), I came across the curious story Dr. 999 by Matthew M. Bartlett. Bartlett is an author I’ve heard about, but have never read. He’s published professionally as well as on his own, and is perhaps most well known for his bewitching tales of covens and radio waves set in Leeds, Massachusetts. Now, he may write horror, but he’s far from a horrific person. That might sound like a dumb thing to say, but I think those on the outside of the horror community often assume all these authors and readers must be terrible, disturbed people. So, I love it when horror writers are discovered to be not only real people with real lives, but kind, charitable, and decent folk (hint: most of them are). On that note, I’m pleased to share that Mr. Bartlett has just written a new chapbook called If It Bleeds!, and has dedicated one-third of the proceeds to benefit his local humane society. Buy the book; help save a cat or a dog.

Dr. 999 is unlike any horror short story I’ve ever read, necessitating a departure from my usual style where I tell you about plot first and then get into structure and writing. Today, I am compelled to proceed backwards. This story’s structure is totally unique and it really couldn’t have been told in any other way. I suppose you could say it takes an epistolary form, but even that doesn’t describe it. This is a story told entirely as an online product description and the reviews of that product. The reviews progress in order from the insane one-star review (we’ve all read insane one star reviews before, but perhaps not quite like this) to the glowing, life altering four-star review. We don’t get a five-star review, and I have to wonder what that might have been like. However, I suspect the person who’d be inclined to write the five-star review is living happily in another dimension just now.

The product in question is “Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk.” And then he throws a “(DISCONTINUED)” in there. I loved that. So, what is it, exactly? This terrible product of eldritch horror is hair conditioner. Actually, if you ask my daughter at bath time, she could confirm that all hair products are eldritch horrors. Right from the beginning we can guess this will be odd, “Bad hair can inhibit or even obstruct your spiritual growth.” hqdefault[1]Now, I went online and looked at several hair conditioning products and not one of them including anything about spiritual growth.

The one-star review comes next and begins innocuously enough, complaining that when the product arrived, it wasn’t even in a box or packaging of any kind. We move quickly into how the product actually hurts when applied, how the reviewer’s hair hurt the next day, and how in turn, that led to poor client relationships and decreased sales. In a fit of frustration, she pours the bottle down the drain which only makes things worse. Black bubbling water burps up from the sink and toilet and eventually the whole neighborhood’s sewer system is affected in a noisome scene ripped from a real life experience of the author’s.

As we move through the different reviews, it’s almost as if the product itself is changing, morphing based on the previous bad review, rather than just the reviewer’s subjective experience changing. Whereas the one-star reviewer complained about the lack of packaging, the four-star reviewer raves about receiving the conditioner “well-packaged in bubble wrap and unbroken cardboard, and undamaged.” The user might not have grown spiritually, but the product sure has. I found this idea particularly creepy. The three-star review, broken into two columns of enumerated pros and cons was actually my favorite. Tossed in the middle of the cons, as if it ain’t no thing, was this gem, Closeup-Hand-Eyes-Scary-Hair-Faceless-Evil-2958141[1].jpg“3. The trampling of the flower garden outside the bathroom window.” There were a few others like this, too. The four-star review goes on for a long time, going into great detail about the freedom and the emotion the conditioner product delivers to them. There’s a lot of attempts to inject the weird and a sense of dread here, but none were as effective as the one listed above about the flower garden. I actually felt the four-star review, the final section, went on a little long, but that’s just my taste. The ending is enjoyably Lovecraftian, with enough fingers twining back through the various established threads to be satisfying. The shades of Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond and Robert Olmstead from The Shadow Over Innsmouth dance just out of sight.

I think this would be a very difficult story to write well, but Bartlett did it. Mastering many different voices in the various reviews well enough to make them believable is a tall order, but he was up to it. We’ve all read bad Amazon reviews. We know what they sound like. The bad grammar, the misspelled words, the invented words, the non-sequiturs, the irrelevancies, and the detours. But try to write that way on purpose, convincingly, and I think you’ll understand a little bit more about the feat that he accomplishes here. A different feat, I think, than writing separate characters or even POVs.

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All of that is to say that it’s incredibly annoying that Bartlett wrote this in less than two hours. The backstory involves an actual bottle of hair conditioner the author was using. He said, “I was reading the hyperbolic copy on a conditioner bottle. I thought, who writes this garbage?” Garbage, indeed. On the backs of bottles and on the pages of Amazon. I couldn’t help but think of bottles of “Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap,” a real product (and a delightfully scented one, truth be told) packaged in a bottle covered in the strangest copy. Seeing is believing.

Our current culture is obsessed with the instant gratification found in the facebook like, the re-tweet, the instagram heart, and the like. We have to grade everything. We can’t ask a question of a customer service agent without being requested to hang on the line for a brief survey. We get called by the manager of the car dealership if we rate them less than perfect tens down the line. Dr. 999 is tapping into the horror of that judgmental climate as well as the culture of needing to be heard regardless of the worth of your speech. Somewhere, someone is watching. Someone is grading your paper. Someone is marking a one for you on a survey. And none of it ultimately matters. For when you are DISCONTINUED, there will be another to take your place. “At night, [Dr. 999] basks in unthinkable, terrible pleasures, and during the day he toils in his laboratory with a silent coterie of masked assistants, devising a new formula which will, he claims, put Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk to shame.” Products are changing all the time, and the real-life horror is to be found in how they are changing us.

This review was composed while listening to the piano works of Leo Janácek.

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

Thoughts on the first day of work after using my new conditioner: “I felt overheated and feverish. Shadows loomed high and wavering on the walls and at times the very desk at which I was sitting seemed miles away. When I reached out to grasp the edge of the desk, my arms elongated until they were thin white threads sailing off into a blurry distance.”

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We All Speak Black, by Lynne Jamneck

“Something moved beyond, in the water, behind a swell of oversized waves. Whales? I looked down and saw my naked legs dangling in shadowy green water that fathomed into infinity. A vast shadow undulated below me, came into focus and it was not a whale at all. Grotesquely bloated, it began surfacing, blooming in size.”

51L6tUbw2+L[1].jpgIt was hard not to be excited when I first heard about the “Ashes and Entropy” kickstarter project. A new anthology, edited by Robert S. Wilson, featuring brand new stories by such incredible authors as Laird Barron, John Langan, Jon Padgett, Nadia Bulkin, Kristi DeMeester, and many, many more, all in the noir or neo-noir vein with a cosmic horror or downright Lovecraftian tilt. Did I mention these were going to be brand new, never before published stories? Cause, holy cultists, Batman, that’s a cauldron-full of amazing authors all producing new tales. Normally, when you buy an anthology, you get mostly re-published stuff with maybe a story or two of new material.  But this is a previously untapped gold mine, and very, very much worth the kindle asking price of $6.99! It’s hot stuff, too, only having been published by Nightscape Press in mid-December, 2018. All the brilliant artwork featured in this review comes from the book and is the work of Luke Spooner of Carrion House Illustration.

I had some time this afternoon and wasn’t all that excited to pick up the novel I’m working my way through, but it was cold and raining and I wanted to read, so I bought the kindle edition and picked three stories to read almost at random. I read two by authors I’d never heard of before, and one by an author I’d been wanting to read but hadn’t had the chance to delve into yet. I think it bodes very well for this collection that all three were stunning, beautifully written, enthralling, and full of existential dread and cosmic horror. All. Three. I had to pick one to write about tonight, so I selected one of the ones by an author I’d never heard of before, We All Speak Black, by Lynne Jamneck.

IMG_2104.PNGLynne Jamneck is a New Zealand author and editor with a publication history as long as my arm, so I guess it’s my fault I’ve not heard of here before now. This story, however, takes place in South Africa where a group of disenfranchised people turned to the occult and got in way over their heads rather quickly. “The Cape Town cults summoned an outer thing they had no hope of ever understanding into a world that the thing itself didn’t understand either.” Right, so we’re off and running then! Surprisingly enough, the events surrounding this errant summoning of what sounded suspiciously like a Godzilla-monster functioned only as the background for the story. The action really takes place in the aftermath of not only the summoning, but the new reality such an event might call into being. Immediately, what might have been a fun-but-run-of-the-mill Lovecraftian cultist story turns into something fresh and interesting. There’s ecological repercussions, political repercussions, physical repercussions, psychological and spiritual and social and economic and on and on and on. It’s a brilliant look at a doomsday scenario plus thirty years in a Lovecraftian world. I think the Old Gent would’ve been proud once he got over the setting and the author’s double X chromosomes.

We follow an unnamed female narrator as she navigates an increasingly speedy spiral into madness. Her dreams are tormented by nightmarish and confusing visions and astral journeys, and apparently, she’s not the only one. Her dreams, however, seem to be the most…advanced I think we can say.  When consulting a pair of self-proclaimed experts in the matter, they ask her what she sees in her visions. “It was kind of a no-no to ask someone that because talking about visions was like admitting that you had a kind of tumour; one that didn’t show itself but instead haunted the nebulous highways of your subconscious.” She tells them she see “burning stars,” which turns out to be bad. (Also, a bit of a redundancy, but I digress…) She’s apparently the first to see the stars, and that seemingly portends a significant shift in the current cosmic arrangement that bodes well for exactly no one. Yet this is taken in stride by these two happy-go-lucky devotees of the elder gods. From there the story speeds on to a somewhat predictable but nevertheless fun, even poetic, and satisfying conclusion.

IMG_2103.PNGPart of the excellence of this piece is in Jamneck’s superb craft. She is able to  communicate vast ideas with devastating one liners and parting, evanescent barbs. From the beginning, there’s a bit of political criticism that I read with a certain extra delight (and cringe), given my American context, now in day 29 of  the longest partial-government shutdown in my nation’s history. She writes, “…as a nation we still couldn’t dissolve ourselves of party politics for long enough to smell the coffee, and in the weeks leading up to the cataclysmic events of a bright October day, the amalgamated ANC and DA parties had been so neck-deep in political shit-slinging that they’d had little time to “waste listening to a bunch of crackpot conspiracists yammering about nothing.”  Then, rather than just let that lie as backdrop, she expertly twists it into a raison d’être for her plot. “…because they were too involved in brownnosing and corruption, the partisan fat cats failed to notice that their constituents, angry and hopeless beyond reason at the lack of change, had begun bowing to altogether darker forces than those at work in parliament.” For me, this was one of the most powerful sentences in the entire story. At other times, she turns her skill to a bit of comic relief, “[The clamor] came from the opposite end of the room where once a coterie of librarians had conversed in secret languages behind a heavy oak counter. Nowadays it was strictly self-checkout.”

This was a terrifically fun, unique story, full of confident, honed, and precise writing in what looks like it will be a very successful and effective collection. I look forward to discovering within its bounds more authors like Lynne Jamneck, who I’ve heretofore not had the pleasure of reading. You should, too. Seriously. Pick up this book and be not disappointed.

This review was composed while listening to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)” and was refreshed by the cold bite of Cutty Sark Scottish whisky. (Couldn’t pour a single malt for this one, this is noir.)

Until next time, I remain yours in the black litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

Navel gazing after nuclear fallout: “After the Koeberg Event there were reports that the big cats—seven of them at the time—had escaped their enclosures. Apparently, nuclear fallout had mutated them into things you really wanted to avoid at all costs. Local legend claimed they roamed the roads between Somerset-West and Stellenbosch, stalking meals of the two-legged variety. Similar stories have grown arms, legs, tails and horns about the animals once kept at Cape Town Zoo. Of course, no-one has ever seen any of this first hand, but I guess we needed new myths to replace the old ones.

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A Shroud of Ghouls: Three Ghoulish Lovecratian Tales

“Clark Ashton Smith finished “The Ghoul” on November 11, 1930 and was pleased with the result. He mentioned it to Lovecraft: “The legend is so hideous, that I would not be surprised if there were some mention of it in the Necronomicon. Will you verify this for me?” Not surprisingly, Smith’s instincts proved to be sound; Lovecraft reported thusly: “Oh, yes—Abdul mentioned your ghoul, & told of other adventures of his…”

~Robert M. Price, Introduction to “The Ghoul” in The Klarkash-Ton Cycle

It’s been a while, fellow antiquarians, since I last reported in to you. Like many of you, the end of the year is a busy time for me and so I did not have much time to either read or write. But then vacation came around the New Year and I read many, many Lovecraftian tales, courtesy of new tomes gifted me by beloved family members. Three of those literary demesnes of doom all began with stories related to ghouls, two by contemporaries of the old gent himself and one by a current author. I thought it might be fun to suture them together here in one post to kick off the new year. Without further ado, a shroud of ghouls!

The Secret in the Tomb, by Robert Bloch

71xwdznqmgl[1]The introductory material contained in this book and in “The Klarkash-Ton Cycle” reinforced for me that HPL had great relationships with other writers, and loved playing with them in his mythos sandbox. His letters with these contemporaries, one of which is quoted in part above, are full of charm, playfulness, and wit, and I just love that. A ghoul, technically defined as “an evil spirit or phantom, especially one supposed to rob graves and feed on dead bodies,” was a concept attractive to HPL. He played around with it first in Pickman’s Model, then later in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” while hinting at it in other stories, like in The Statement of Randolph Carter.

Here we get a fairly straightforward take on the trope, as we do in the Smith tale. Robert Bloch (most well known as the author of “Psycho”) weaves a competent tale, though somewhat ham-fisted at times, about a man in search of a terrible family secret. Naturally, the secret involves the ancestral tomb, “rambling screeds in Arabic, Sanskrit, and pre-historic ideography,” and “the dust of centuries.” The secret turns out to be how to achieve a sort of life eternal, but it is guarded closely by the family member who has achieved that aim and become a ghoul. In an exciting sequence, it attacks, “Two claws, cold as flames of icy hell, fastened around my throat, two eyes bored like maggots through my frenzied being, a laughter born of madness alone cachinnated in my ears like the thunder of doom. The bony fingers tore at my eyes and nostrils, held me helpless while yellow fangs champed nearer and nearer to my throat.” You can immediately see the apeing of Lovecraft’s adjectival style. Truth be told, it largely worked for me, at least until we got to “champing.” Then I just had to laugh; who says “champing”? What really worked for me though was the way the story ended. It’s thoughtful, creative, and I didn’t see it coming, so check it out. This edition was published by Chaosium, Inc. in 2009 as a part of their Call of Cthulhu Fiction line (a tremendous resource!) and is readily available.

The Ghoul, by Clark-Ashton Smith

1568821603__93699.1403797795.500.659[1].jpgWhereas Robert Bloch came a bit after HPL, Ashton-Smith was a contemporary and a friend.  Reading some of their letters back and forth is incredibly humanizing, and sympathetically incarnates these literary giants. That said, I didn’t think this story worked as well as the Bloch one, but what does come through is his abject love of HPL and almost a juvenile desire to please. Of course, that could just be my interpretation of Smith’s impish solicitation of affirmation in his letter. This story is definitely less ham-fisted, but it is also less interesting, with an ending you see coming a mile off. It’s set sometime in the distant past (perhaps between 842 and 847 AD if the Caliph Vathek character is supposed to be the real Abbasid caliph, al-Wathiq who reigned during those years in what is near modern day Baghdad), and adopts a style that calls to mind the Arabian Nights stories. The protagonist, Cadi Ahmed ben Becar, is on trial for a series of heinous and gruesome murders, but everything is not as it seems. Though he admits his guilt, he has substantial mitigating evidence. The tale he tells beggars belief: a ghoul has made him do it to fulfill a hellish bargain. I wonder if Smith modeled his ghoul after the Arabian djinns, as that’s the vibe I pick up: “Then the ghoul said: it is this, that thou shalt bring me each night, for eight successive nights, the body of one whom thou hast slain with thine own hand. Do this, and I shall neither devour nor dig the body that lies interred hereunder.” No copying Lovecraft’s writing style here.  Nope, instead Smith goes for an antiquated lexicon akin to Tudor English. It was alright.

This edition was published by Chaosium, Inc. in 2008, also a part of their Call of Cthulhu fiction line, and is likewise readily available. So now, if Bloch’s ghoul is kind of like a lich, and Smith’s ghoul is kind of like a djinn, our next ghoul (for me) was actually the most ghoul-like of them all.

The Anatomy Lesson, by Cody Goodfellow

6161a8rza6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgCody Goodfellow might not have known HPL personally, but he’s got one thing our other two authors lack: breath. Therefore, this story is our most modern of the three, coming from Goodfellow’s initial collection, “Rapture of the Deep and Other Lovecraftian Tales,” published in 2016 by Hippocampus Press. And it was by far my favorite. This is so original, so interesting, and so action-packed. Now it isn’t totally thought provoking, and lands more in the camp of a fun adventure story with a (big) horror element than it does in the Lovecraftian head-scratching cosmic doom camp. Aw, let’s just call a spade a spade, this is a B-movie splatter-romp and it’s awesome!

Several medical students have to go grave-robbing to secure their “subjects” for their anatomy class (the university system falling on dire financial times, apparently). As they’re digging deeper into a recent grave in the local potter’s field, something horrific happens.  I’ve got to admit, while I saw the end of Smith’s story written all over the wall, what happens here totally surprised me and I was hooked. Never in unnumbered aeons did I imagine where this story would go. The bottom falls out of the coffin they choose and down they go into a grotesque underworld warren of the rotten and the hungry. “We fell in a screaming, battling tangle and landed in an insensate pile…We lay on the floor of a tunnel like a mineshaft, but the prospectors here were not hungry for gold. 9255054889_29d92b5a03_b[1].jpgAbove our heads, the root-choked roof of the tunnel was pocked with vertical shafts that terminated in the broken coffins of the nameless dead of Arkham.” What a vision! What an idea! The rest of the story sees our surviving scholars explore, invade, fight through, and flee the ghoul-world and it is a wild ride.

When you think of H.P. Lovecraft, ghouls might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but he definitely played with the idea. Sure, it’s not mythos stuff, but some of his most memorable stories employed the trope, and both his contemporaries and his literary followers enjoyed trying their hand at it as well. One that I wasn’t able to get a hold of was The Vault Beneath the Mosque (though I think it is also usually easily accessible) by Lin Carter, another HPL contemporary and correspondent. I had fun taking a look at some of these earlier pastiches, and even more fun digging into the relationships their authors shared with one another. In many ways, the horror community today maintains that close-knit feeling among its creatives, and for that, I think we can be grateful.

Speaking of the horror community, this review was composed listening to a new Spotify playlist I created, based on the suggestions of members of the HPLHS facebook group in response to a query about what classical music sounds like it could have been played by Erich Zann. Feel free to check it out, it’s called “The Music of Erich Zann.”

Until next time, I remain your in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

One more quote by Goodfellow, because it was so fun: “Show your work, boyo,” [the ghoul] said. Then he took out a meat cleaver and chopped off my right hand at the wrist.”