Split Through the Sky, by Lena Ng

“Instead of stars, the pinpricks of light seemed as holes where an unknown, unfathomable voyeur was spying from the other side of the nocturnal sky as through a camera obscura.”

hinnom-front-kdp[1]As a teenager, one of the many joys I took out of reading Lovecraft was the sense of mystery and other-worldliness he was able to pack into his writing. It wasn’t just his florid prose or his antediluvian monsters. It was the way he was able to hint at whole worlds, whole bodies of hidden or forbidden knowledge simply by dropping the name of some ancient tome. Most memorable, of course, was the Necronomicon—a book which for years of my youth I was convinced was real. And no one could talk me out of it (I even found a copy of the text on the internet, so there!). But he also had others, like Cultes des Goules, and the Pnakotic Manuscripts which set my imagination alight just by seeing their titles. His immediate contemporaries followed suit: Clark Ashton Smith had his Book of Eibon, Robert Howard his Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Robert Bloch created the De Vermis Mysteriis (with HPL’s help on the final name). Brian Lumley later came up with the G’harne Fragments, and Ramsey Campbell had his Revelations of Gla’aki. Outside of the canon of HPL’s works, and the works of the named gentlemen above, I haven’t encountered too much use of this trope and that’s a shame. Then I read Split Through the Sky by Lena Ng and I was right back in my youth, my imagination on fire with possibility as words of forbidden texts and forgotten book titles crossed the page amidst beautiful, lurid, and very Lovecraftian prose.

Split Through the Sky can be found in the latest issue of Hinnom Magazine (Issue #010) published by C.P. Dunphey at Gehenna and Hinnom Books, released on May 20, 2019. G&H Books just completed a massively successful Kickstarter and so their publishing calendar for the rest of 2019 and into 2020 looks incredible! In particular, I am really looking forward to letting you all know about a story or two contained in Pete Rawlik’s forthcoming G&H collection, “Strange Company.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think Hinnom Magazine stands the best chance of being the spiritual successor to Weird Tales available in today’s market. Sure, there’s lots of other great magazines out there, but are they in print? No. Some great print magazines exist, like Black Static, but that’s over in the UK. Each issue of Hinnom consistently has great works of cosmic horror fiction, dark poetry (though that’s not really my thing), cool interviews, writing advice, and great interior illustrations. They’re not full color and glossy, yet, but I imagine that will be an achievable goal for G&H one day. I’m a big supporter of what G&H is doing and think you should be, too. If we don’t support creators like this, then, well, we’ve seen what happens. If you’re interested, check out their Patreon page.

9947739633_341b8e5040_b[1]Split Through the Sky is the haunting story of someone being called from beyond, out of their daily life, into a weird, wide world of terror and the unknowable reaches of space, at times reminiscent of Dreams in the Witch House. Our protagonist, never identified (though for some reason I imagined them to be a woman in their thirties), has trouble sleeping, and who wouldn’t: “Before I has gone to bed on the first night of torments, I had noticed a disturbing alignment of stars. Through mathematics, the stars and planets should follow a predictable elliptical path. But the planets of Versiveus, Kraelov, and Diaxon moved in enigmatic, unnerving voyages. Other stars crossed in horrendous formations, and I quaked at what such signs could mean.” Lovecraft fans should be all a-tingle just now, if you are anything like me. Ng’s writing, while calling HPL to mind, is of a style all her own, often unsettling while rewarding slow, attentive reading.

Through a series of disturbing events the protagonist discovers she (?) is not who she thought she was, and in fact was adopted from the particularly creepy sounding Gentrocide Orphanage. 2974d6bced8cb89094d8cfdfa770b708[1].jpgFrom there, “after much consultation through incantations and incense, oratory and arguments,” her journey of self-discovery takes her to the ruins of an ancient temple, seemingly still presided over by a high priestess. After an arduous journey, she is met by the monks who keep watch over the place, who escort her to the chambers of the high priestess, where not all is as you might expect it to be, no matter or not that you might have been expecting the worst. Clues to her genesis are given, and she is off again to the next nightmarish locale, still in the company of said sepulchral monastics. There she will finally learn the truth, horrible though it may be.

As I said above, most Lovecraft fans will find quite a lot here to satisfy their abyssal cravings. We’ve got nightmares and monks, ruined temples and orphanages, incantations and lost tomes and astrology. It’s all very, very good stuff. But Ng raises it to the next level with her writing, which is erudite (though bordering on stuffy at points where some will think a thesaurus was overused) and evocative. I rejoiced each time I saw another fantastic descriptor deployed —”lachrymosal,” “abattoirial,” “octrine,” “vomitus,”, and “mucosal,” were among my favorites. Somewhere, the Old Gent’s skull is grinning, too. It wasn’t just her vocab, either, that enhanced her writing, but an unusual flow and rhythm that sometimes stretched standard grammatical practices.  monsters in the skyThis sprinkled her prose with spice and flavor in quite delicious ways. For example, “Back in my studio, page after page I flung to the floor as I drew diagrams, scribbled equations, created derivatives and reductions of the movements of the stars, knowing the patterns of the celestial formation must be a part of a grander design.” See how she constructs that sentence to lead you into the emotion and immediacy of the moment, worrying more about what it feels like that what it looks like on a page? The whole story is written in this way and it was both refreshing and fun, without falling into aping HPL or others. Lena Ng, with several publications already to her name and with her fresh voice and clear command of the genre, is definitely an author to watch.

This issue of Hinnom Magazine comes with two other good pieces of fiction. Its Eyes Are Open, by Ben Thomas is a creature feature. As such, it is a lot of fun, and pretty creepy at times, but honestly I kept wanting it to develop in an unexpected way and it just kept on keeping on in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get style. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing special either.  Samantha Bryant’s story, Margaret Lets Her Self Go, on the other hand is very unexpected, creative, and scary. I almost reviewed it but then I read Ng’s story and knew I had to tell you about it instead.

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

Show Your Work at the Bottom of the Page: “Not the math of this world but the math of the parallel: non-Newtonian geometry, Fortunado’s topology, octrine trigonometry. Not even the black calculus of Crucerbus could decipher the malevolent pattern.”

West of Matamoros, North of Hell, by Brian Hodge

“Now you didn’t have to look hard at all to find her. Santa Muerte was everywhere, never more so than during the last decade, ever since the cartel wars erupted into a never-ending series of bloodbaths and massacres. Saint Death, Holy Death, had really come into her own.”

e_chizmar07_360x540[1]It is a testament to Mr. Hodge’s writing that I hadn’t originally planned on reviewing this story, having just recently reviewed another by him, but in the weeks since I read this, it has haunted me like few stories have. Some terrors are far too real, and I think that is the main reason this has stuck with me the way that it has. When combined with a visceral writing style possessed of a certain immediacy, the twin horrors of this story bleed through the page into your mind, your soul, and I, at least, found myself trembling. Originally published in “Dark Screams, Volume Seven” put out by Hydra in 2017, West of Matamoros, North of Hell was chosen by Ellen Datlow for inclusion in “The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten,” which is where I found it. It is easy to see why it was included.

Rock stars Sebatián, Sofia, and Enrique put out a certain kind of music, the kind that your mom probably wouldn’t approve of. Their latest album was a huge success and they want to follow it up by going deeper, getting more real, and strengthening their chosen personas as traffickers of evil and death. The fans love it, but it’s all showbiz. guadalupe-santamuerte[1]So, they line up a video shoot down in Matamoros, Mexico—the heartland for Santa Muerte worship. If you know even a modicum of Spanish, you know that translates to Saint Death. Santa Muerte worship has been around forever, in some form or another, most likely having its origin in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican religion. When the Spanish conquer what is now Central and parts of South America, they bring Catholicism with them, and it co-mingles with the native faith, ultimately producing a vibrant and popular cult of saints unlike anywhere else in the world. Above you can see the similarities in the icon images of La Virgen de Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary, as she appeared in Guadalupe), and Santa Muerte. Traditionally, Santa Muerte isn’t actually all that scary, being associated with healing, protection, financial well-being, the assurance of a path to the afterlife, and the guardian of the LGBT community. santamuerte061[1]However, she has also been adopted (probably on account of the imagery associated with her that gives her more of a Grim Reaper appearance, complete with scythe) by the cartels and other criminal elements in Mexico. Shrines to her can be found everywhere from people’s homes to large, public shrines erected for community celebrations such as this one pictured here, at the International Temple of Santa Muerte, in Estado de Mexico, Mexico. There’s a bunch of other great images and interesting information about her cult in this article, Worshipping at the Altar of Sweet Saint Death, by Allison Meier.

Family cookouts and community festivals, however, don’t figure so much into this tale of terror. After the video shoot, our earnest musicians are ready to get out of dodge. After all, when going for realism in your video and shooting on location in the Mexican desert, you are actually placing yourselves well within the jurisdiction of the cartels who worship Santa Muerte in, shall we say, less than wholesome ways. As they’re rolling out, the most terrifying lines of the whole story appear, suddenly and irrevocably.  “[Enrique] was slumped into the door with his head against the window when he perked up at the sight of something shooting out of a bush ahead of them. Thinking in that instant, holy shit, it was the biggest snake he’d ever seen, even though he knew that wasn’t right.” When I read that, I thought, “oh shit, tire spikes…” and sure enough…“An instant later came the sound of blowing tires, a double bang in front, another double bang in the rear.”

SONY DSCSudden, final, and immediate violence follows. The kind that makes you wonder, even as you read, is this really happening? Did that just happen? Hodge manages to communicate the confusion of the blur of action and blood in an incredibly convincing way, especially the speed of the event. When the dust settles, our cast of characters is somewhat reduced and they find themselves imprisoned in an underground cell of some sort with a bunch of other unsavory folks. There is a small, ceiling-level window, out of which a nightmarish scene is displayed. “Not far beyond the front doors was the biggest Santa Muerte he’d ever seen. She stood fifteen feet tall, easy. Her blue robes were voluminous, enough material there for a festival tent. She seemed too big to have found her a scythe that wouldn’t look like a toy. Yet they had. Somebody must’ve made it just for her, a scythe big enough to cut the moon in half. And somehow…somehow the skull was at scale. “That can’t be real, ” Sofia said. No. It couldn’t. It just looked real. The yellowing of age. The uneven teeth. The missing teeth, random gaps in the jaw. They’d had it made, that was all.”

A gruesome human sacrifice to this Santa Muerte follows, presided over by a man with a skull tattooed over his face and head. I’ll not describe the sacrifice here, but it is drawn from reality, at least as far as the news can report on the atrocities of the cartel gangs. (Descriptions of the skull faced man reminded me of Rick Genest, pictured here, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for most tattoos of human bones. Though I’ll use him to illustrate this story, I draw no connections between this awful fictional character and Mr. Genest, who died tragically in 2018.) This is one of the things that makes this story so terrifying. It’s not fake, this sort of thing has happened and continues to happen to innocent people. Be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and you could be kidnapped for ransom money, or just flat out killed for no reason. rickgenestbanner1200x627[1]However, in this story, Skull Face has a reason. He targeted these band members because he was a fan of their hellish music and wanted to know how they got it all so right. What was their inspiration? He’d carve it out of them if need be.

As the story draws towards its cringe-worthy conclusion, the cosmic horror begins. While not strictly Lovecraftian, there are themes of placating an outer god reminiscent of the bayou scene from The Call of Cthulhu, or perhaps even The Festival. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that the terror moves from the realm of the all-too-real cartel violence to a moment of the cosmically fantastic. Either way, I’m crossing Matamoros off my list of possible vacation destination.

Brian Hodge writes with a fluidity that just pulls you along without calling attention to itself. There’s not a lot of flowery passages or clever turns of phrase. There’s just great, solid writing that allows you to get lost in the story that he’s telling, and that is a very good thing. This is only the second or third story I’ve read by Brian Hodge but I will be reading more, and in part that is because they are just so readable. In this one, I felt the fear dripping from the sweat of his protagonists.  I winced with the characters as the knives went in, and I thought wtf? with those who were stunned by the dizzying whirlwind of violence. Brian Hodge is a master.

That about wraps it up for this one, mis amigos. This was composed listening to the Spotify playlist, “Santa Muerte – Cartel de Santa” compiled by Hilario Ramirez.

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

The Liturgy of Santa Muerte: “‘And me, see, I know blood. I know sacrifice. I’m one of the ones they call when they really want to send a message, because I can do it and not blink.’ He motioned to the towering Santa Muerte, the body parts laid out before her. They buzzed with flies and gave off a stink like roadkill. ‘It’s just another day’s work to me.'”