“His shift had an hour to go yet, and by the look of things he’d been home long enough for three cans of Iron City already. Matt was the first person she was aware of who’d figured out that once you had a job in Tanner Falls, it was impossible to lose it, a fact of life he exploited with heedless impunity. Termination was change, and hey, they couldn’t have that.”
I play on a recreational softball team with a person who just moved to our area. When I asked her how she chose to live here, she smiled and said, “I closed my eyes and pointed to a map of the United States.” Incredulous, I inquired further. She said it was true, and in the last six years this method had taken her from Asheville to North Dakota, from San Francisco to Hawaii. She moves, finds a job, and then finds a club sport to play. I couldn’t believe it. When I didn’t know what to say, she smiled and said, “I like change.” I immediately had two thoughts. The first as an arm chair psychologist: from what are you running? The second, as a realist: I would hate that. I don’t like change, you see, and if you’re anything like most people I know, neither do you. That’s what this story is about – change, and what it might actually look like if its withheld. At first glance, some of you might think that sounds great. Think again.
Brian Hodge is an author whose work you ought to know. And yet to my dishonor, while I was familiar with his name, I hadn’t read anything by him until recently. My own ignorance aside, the man has been publishing forever with over ten novels, over one hundred twenty short stories, some now compiled in six collections, several novellas, and of whom no less than Peter Straub wrote, “a man of spectacularly unflinching gifts.” His latest collection, “Skidding Into Oblivion,” published only this month by ChiZine Publications (who graciously provided a review copy to me in exchange for a fair and unbiased review of a story) in 2019, gathers together twelve stories, all of which have been previously published (since 2010) except the final one. Two of the stories are overtly Lovecraftian, the one I’ll review here and another entitled The Same Deep Waters As You. I could have picked either one, as they are both equally effective and entertaining, but The Same Deep Waters As You is an Innsmouth inspired tale and I feel like I written about a bunch of those already. The Stagnant Breath of Change (originally published in “Shadows Over Main Street,” Cutting Block Books, 2016), however, is about Shub-Niggurath and there aren’t near as many of those stories.
The story opens with two horrors: a man who won’t/can’t/is not allowed to die, and a town that will not abide change. Both are tied to one another. The man, Beasley, is the last of his ilk, a good-ole-boy-town-patriarch type who we’ll learn brokered some sort of Faustian deal to maintain the town’s prosperity. Or maybe it was just about that way he liked it. On account of this bargain, almost nothing is allowed to change, “It was all exactly the same, as immutably fixed as the old spoke-wheeled cannon on the courthouse lawn, commemorating a war no one alive had even fought in.” Even a sign almost everyone acknowledges as racist, highlighting the town’s history as a sunset town, cannot be taken away, painted over, or otherwise destroyed. “It had been more than fifteen years since they’d given up trying,” shining light on how the concept of socio-cultural immutability is fraught with peril and commenting subtly and brilliantly on how the sins of our civilization cannot easily be wiped away or forgotten. But with who, or what, had the deal been struck to effectively freeze the evolution of Tanner Falls?
In 1928 in The Dunwich Horror, HPL “quoted” from a chant in the Necronomicon that discussed the Old Ones and mentioned, “Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” Two years later, in The Whisperer in Darkness, we’d get only slightly more information as he wrote, “Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!” What’s our first clue here that this is the particular Old One we’re dealing with? “The hoofprints…a row of inches-deep depressions striding along the broadest clearing in the field. They hadn’t filled in during the twenty-two years they’d been there, as if something about their creation had seared them in place for all time. Life shunned them. Not even the most opportunistic weeds grew in them, or anywhere close.” Shub-Niggurath gets a little love among mythos writers, but perhaps most recently by being an obvious (to those who know) influence on the popular film, “The VVitch.” Of course, the black goat has long been associated with Satan as well, and viewers not tuned to the mythos will only pick up on that.
I thought one of the creepier aspects of this story was in how no one could leave Tanner Falls. Not only can nothing change, but literally nothing can leave. This is described wonderfully when, after being alluded too several times, one family decides they’ve had enough and pack up to go. One of Shub-Niggurath’s infamous “thousand young” is dispatched to bring them back, bonus points if they’re whole. This was honestly one of the most creative uses of the Black Goat’s thousand young I’ve ever encountered and I loved it. Such an inescapable position leads naturally to despair, and despair to thoughts of self-harm. But in unchanging Tanner Falls, such ideations are ineffective in their execution. Hodge evokes that sentiment to perfection, to absolute perfection, when he refers to the hospital in town as a “warehouse of failed suicides.”
That brings me to the writing. Not once did it get in the way, but by the same token, only occasionally did it cause me to sit up and take notice. Between reading this story and writing this review I’ve had a chance to read a bit more of Hodge’s work, and I can tell you quite readily that he’s an accomplished writer. However, of the very small sampling that I’ve read thus far, he’s not a lyrical writer. I don’t find that to be a bad thing, particularly when the author is writing in the mode of modern-day Lovecraft pastiche. The story flowed quickly—very well-crafted, without hiccup—and I didn’t want to put it down. Yet, if you’re looking for high language, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for fun, thought-provoking, Lovecraftian horror, stop here, for you have found it. Shub-Niggurath has got you in her clutches and she’s not wont to let you go.
Everything organic, from our bodies to our societies, tends towards homeostasis. Biologically, it’s one of the ways we know something is alive. We don’t like change, on the cellular level, a fact written into our DNA. What I love about Hodge’s story is he takes that life necessity, indeed that societal preference, drags it to the extreme edge and then forces it back down our throats. Without change, as you’ll discover when you read this, we become violent creatures. Perhaps more violent than we are when change is allowed. Because as much as we don’t like change, we don’t want to die either. The absence of homeostasis is contraindicated for life, but as Hodge defly shows, too much of a good thing is just as fatal.
There are many more great stories to encounter in Hodge’s collection, many more unnatural fears to stare down and overcome. I suggest you buy this book and get started. Be warned though, skidding into oblivion is thirsty work.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
Bleatings of the Young: “These were not cries of physical pain. She was intimately familiar with those. These were worse, in a way. Pain could be managed. Hopelessness and despair came from a deeper place than nerve endings.”