The Stagnant Breath of Change, by Brian Hodge

“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.”

Boy EatingI 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-profile-photo-200x200[1]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. il_570xN.1617872404_p2m8[1]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.” 6324586_landscape[1].jpgShub-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.

shub_niggurath_attacks_village_by_kingstantin-d7y0g77[1]

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,
~The Bibliothecar

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.”

In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, by Damien Angelica Walters

“This is the wrong door,” he says, and she startles. “This isn’t my house.”

“Jack, honey, it’s late. Come back to bed. It’s still dark outside, that’s why it looks so different, but it’s still the same house we’ve lived in for a long time.”

He shakes his head. “No. This is the wrong door. The right one is out there.”

A lot of the time, horror stories are utterly fantastic. For as terrifying as Cthulhu would be to encounter rising from the depths of the sea, he sure is fun to read about, because he’s pure fantasy. Damien-Angelica-Walters-2018-Author-Photo-1020x979[1].jpgThat’s one of the joys of reading horror; it gives the reader a sense of control over what would be totally uncontrollable in real life. We know the story will end, and so we bravely trudge on, turning the page. Some horror stories, however, come so close to reality that they reach though the veil and brush it with dreadfully cool fingertips. These are the horror stories someone is most likely to have to set down. They cut too close and the reading is no longer any fun. I suspect Damien Angelica Walters‘ story, In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, is one of those stories for many people.

It’s still Women in Horror Month and I wanted to make sure I highlighted an author about whom I’ve gotten excited. I went back and listened to her interview (Part 1 and Part 2) on the This is Horror podcast and at one point she spoke about how she sometimes gets very emotionally tied into her stories. She mentioned this story as a perfect example, sharing how when she finished writing it, she wept at the end. Normally (at least I imagined so), this kind of response is reserved for the reader, not the creator, and so I was intrigued. I had the story, contained in the excellent anthology “Autumn Cthulhu,” edited by Mike Davis and published in 2016 by the Lovecraft eZine Press, and so commenced to reading it.

dementia2-804x369[1].jpgGoing back over it now, I see how the opening two lines are well-crafted to set the tone, but as of yet, we do not know it. “A doe picks her way from between two trees at the edge of their back yard, keeping to the narrow path, her legs moving with a dancer’s grace. Helena holds her breath, even though she and the deer are separated by a wide expanse of lawn , a deck, and locked French doors.” This is a story about the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Helena’s husband Jack has been slowly slipping sideways into unknowing, and the experience for Helena is like that of seeing the doe. So close, but separated so profoundly by the familiar. I haven’t personally experienced the disappearance of a loved one into this diseased twilight, but have known many people who have and their reports are devastating. Angelica Walters captures that devastation in eloquent, sharp prose: “This isn’t my house,” he says, his voice razor-sharp. “I know it isn’t.” “Would you like to watch a movie?” She keeps her voice bright, cheerful. “Stop talking to me. I know what you’re doing, but it won’t work. This isn’t the right house.” If there is anything to criticize here, it is that while this story works as a weird story (why it does we’ll come to in a moment) it almost would work better on its own, without any elements of the weird.  But this is a Lovecraftian short story blog and the anthology containing the story is titled “Autumn Cthulhu,” and so let’s get to it.

night_forest_by_elenadudina_dcwy6o6-250t[1].jpgAs the story goes on, Jack mentions things about doorways, the right time, often speaking to someone who isn’t there. He gets up in the middle of the night and wanders around, sometimes out of doors. The doe from the opening lines makes more appearances, and now, it seems to be decaying—a symbol of Jack’s disease process. “There, at the end of the yard, the white-eyed doe. More patches of fur have fallen out; the bare skin beneath holds a strange grey cast.” Alzheimer’s works like this from what I gather. Patches of your loved one fall away, leaving behind a sallow blankness that can turn whip-crack sharp in their frustration.

By the time you reach the end, seasoned readers of the Old Gent will be thinking about Yog-Sothoth, what with all these mentions of doorways, gates, and time. It’s even possible some emissary of Yog-Sothoth has shown up.

Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror

And then, finally, you’ll understand why Damien Angelica Walters cried. It’s not so much that the ending is sad as it is that the whole damned, perfectly titled thing is sad. She brings to life this couple, their relationship, Helena’s tangled skein of grief and love with beautiful words and evocative episodes. We get only a glimpse, and yet in that glimpse we can see those we have loved. I imagine for readers who have gone through what Helena is going through this story will be especially painful and perhaps not at all cathartic. For them and their loved ones, there is no sense of control, no knowing the story will end, and so their bravery in facing each day is heroic. But then again, maybe it will be cathartic. That’s the beauty of fiction. This is a powerful piece of writing by an author whose name deserves to be known. It’s unusual for me to get so lost in a story (with a wife, a dog, and two kids under eight), but when I was reading this, it was as if I was in that quiet forest, following that elusive doe, and the world around me had faded into the background.

When I was listening to her interview on the podcast, she mentioned that one of her writing goals was to appear in an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. She’s appeared on the list of Honorable Mentions quite a number of times but had yet to break into the table of contents. Well, just two days ago on February 20, 2019, Datlow revealed the table of contents for the forthcoming The Year’s Best Horror, Volume 11, and right there in the middle of it is Golden Sun, a novelette by Kristi DeMeester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt. Congratulations Damien, you deserve it! Achievement unlocked!

That about wraps it up for today my fellow cultists. Remember, when your time comes, do not go gentle into that good night. This review was composed while listening to the Peaceful Meditation radio station on Spotify.

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

The plaintive plea of the wife: “I’m coming Jack. Stay there. Please stay there.”

Exposure, by Helen Marshall

“The black stars, a trick of that same light, because they weren’t black, not really, not stars really—something to do with the atmosphere, some sort of dust in the air, like how the northern lights could make the sky seem alive and crawling, the black stars were like that, except they made the sky seem dead, they made the sky seem like a giant bloated corpse crawling with flies…”

j5jRPVci_400x400[1]It’s Women in Horror Month! From the Women in Horror website: “Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.” Here at the Miskatonic Review we want to celebrate all of the Women in Horror, but particularly those who are writing in the Lovecraftian vein. When I think about Molly Tanzer, S. P. Miskowski, A. C. Wise, P. L. McMillan, Nadia Bulkin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Angelica Walters, Ann K. Schwader, (of course) Helen Marshall, and so many others, I don’t think “women in horror,” but rather about a group of artists who are in the forefront of the weird renaissance. You can read a lot more about WiHM at their website, linked above, and you can see particular individuals highlighted over at Horror Tree or Thinking Horror: A Journal of Horror Philosophy. At the Miskatonic Review tonight though, we want to highlight Helen Marshall.

cs+small[1].jpgHelen Marshall is the author of two short story collections, two poetry collections, and a forthcoming novel from Random House Canada, “The Migration” (available March 2019). I encountered her in the Chaosium, Inc. anthology “Cassilda’s Song” edited by Joseph Pulver, Sr. (2015). Her story in this anthology is entitled Exposure, and before some of you purists cry “Foul!”, I am aware that Carcosa, the King in Yellow, and the whole bit is first an Ambrose Bierce creation (An Inhabitant of Carcosa, 1886) and secondly developed in Robert W. Chambers weird fiction collection (“The King in Yellow,” 1895) all before being played with by Lovecraft (principally in The Whisperer in Darkness, 1931). From there it was adopted into the Mythos primarily by August Derleth and the rest, as they say, is history.  So yes, we are doing a King in Yellow story on a Lovecraftian blog. What makes it even more appropriate for this posting is that Cassilda’s Song is an entire collection by female authors. From Pulver’s introduction, “Cassilda’s complicated sisters, unwilling to be hidden away and boarded up, sound the thunder. Hot and colorful, in full view and shaded by the aroma of discord, they stand before you unmasked.” Pulver is not only an excellent assembler of anthologies, but also an expert on the King in Yellow mythos, and so is an apt guide through these ladies’ stories.

Exposure begins with a troubled tourist trip by a mother and daughter to a very real place (in the story) called Carcosa; it seems to be an island in the Mediterranean near Greece. While the mother clearly has reasons for going to such a destination, it does not a vacation make for Serena, the daughter. She’d much rather party on the white sandy beaches of Mykonos than visit lost, strange Carcosa. “Fucking Carcosa. She could have gone to Venice. She could have gone to Barcelona. Or Paris. Carcosa was nothing but rocks, ruins—no one went to Carcosa, not now, not anymore.” I loved how Marshall immediately locates Carcosa within reality, even though she hints with an enviable economy of words that it’s not what it once once. And Serena’s whiny gripe isn’t totally true either, because they’re on a sightseeing boat loaded with camera-laden tourists bound for Carcosa’s dim shores like it was Disney. Once they arrive there, she and her mother resume their argument and eventually split up, exploring the island separately. But when it comes time to go, and the captain calls all aboard, Serena’s mother is not among them.

A strange negotiation ensues in one of our first clues (though admittedly I blew right by it) that something is off. Serena says they can’t leave yet because her mother isn’t back, but the mate doesn’t care. He says they have to go, telling Serena in broken English that she will stay on the island and after he drops off the rest of the group back at home-base, he’ll return for her and her mother. camera in surf“They left her on the shore, standing in the wavering sunlight, feeling naked and exposed as they watched her, each of them smiling, each of them with their fucking cameras, each of them grasping after one final, fatal shot of the shoreline. Hours pass. Day turns into night. And then what has been an entertaining if fairly prosaic weird tale takes a left turn. Greatness follows.

In the final act, Marshall takes us on our own tour into the madness of the yellow king as things move from bad, right past weird, on their way to worse. When the black stars of Carcosa ascend, the night goes strange indeed. There’s a party around a bonfire, a liberated sensuality, a transmogification, all shrouded in a sort of cosmically out-of-place feeling that twirls and whirls the reader in its dizzying dance steps. Keep up. Carcosa is not a place where you want to fall out of step or time.

I really enjoyed Marshall’s writing throughout. It never got in the way, even when she deployed the f-bomb on numerous occasions. Not a word I like to use very often, but from Serena’s angsty lips it seemed right. Again, I loved the feelings she was able to evoke in the space of so few words. She sometimes had these long sentences, brimming with description but they never felt over full. They might have been long but they didn’t contain a single unnecessary word. And they flowed beautifully. It felt at times like I was in Serena’s head, just behind her eyes, seeing what she was seeing, and feeling what she was feeling (which in at least one scene was particularly uncomfortable, but that’s a credit to the author). This is a terrific story in a wondrous collection, and you’d do well to familiarize yourself not only with these works, but with these women authors.

GFmc66T[1].jpgThe title of the story relates at first to the argument between the mother and daughter over sunscreen, but then at the end it relates to what was exposed on some film. Marshall doesn’t share with us (for we would go mad) what was on the film Serena picks up. It might have been the Yellow Sign, but I like to imagine that it was the Yellow King, Hastur, him(it)self. At a deeper level, I thought about how far we’ll go in pursuit of our goals, the sorts of things, people, environments, even philosophies we’ll expose ourselves to in chasing after selfish aims. The danger of overexposure is not only that we ruin the picture by saturating it with too much light, it is also that we desensitize ourselves. Sometimes it’s better to stay on this side of reality. Sometimes, when they tell you that the play will drive you insane, you should listen, and burn your ticket.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist, “The King in Yellow,” compiled by Andy Michaels, and the electronica album called “The King in Yellow,” by Martin Kuzniar.

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

Movement in the Carcosa Rave: “She knew it. This was where she was supposed to be. This was always the place she was supposed to be. Maybe it was fucking Carcosa, but it was also fucking Carcosa, baby…She went out onto the dance floor, trailing blood-stained footprints behind her.