The Visitor, by Farah Rose Smith

“On Rook’s bed sat the hateful tome he’d taken to in the preceding weeks. To say he’d become enamored with the old book was an understatement. He’d been utterly consumed by it, though she understood not a word and only took to her own imaginings in the study of the archaic illustrations. She wished herself a woman of wealth, and wondered if she may have had a chance at deciphering the material with the proper training, but this was a fantasy far from her grasp.”

Imagine with me, if you will for a moment, that Goethe, having just come from an afterlife afternoon tea with H.P. Lovecraft, conspired with Clive Barker to put forth a modern re-visioning of the legend of Robert Johnson. The eventual offering of such a collaboration might be something like Farah Rose Smith’s  “The Visitor,” from her debut collection OF ONE PURE WILL, but ultimately it would lack her unique grace and her singular skill that lend this story its stopping power. I’m not going to mince words or make you wait for it; when I finished reading this story I sat back and actually said out loud, “Holy shit, she can write!” If you read this review no further, you’ll have read far enough.

Of One Pure Will CoverFor the rest of you I would like to, of course, elaborate.  The first thing you will notice, if you make the correct choice and buy the hardbound edition of this book, is that it is stunningly beautiful. Released last month by Egaeus Press, publisher of morbid and fantastical works, the cover captures your imagination almost instantly with a decaying (growing?) visage of the woman (or is it a man?) and glorious calligraphic script. That script is carried over to the inside and adorns the title page and chapter titles. There is an air of classical beauty about the whole book, such that when you page through it and glance at this line or that, you feel you are holding something of both aesthetic and intellectual value.

Numerous Lovecraft tales take as their starting place a professor or other curious sort looking for knowledge to which they have no right, many times in tomes over which they should claim no ownership, and periodically in locales that could charitably be described as inhospitable. While you’ll find no shoggoths or deep ones here, what you will quickly discover is that Smith also takes as her starting place the trope of forbidden knowledge acquired at a cost that can only be fully discovered over time. Such a classic theme is paired with a decadent writing style, and then brilliantly modernized by its subject matter. Rook, with whom we open our story, is a rock musician of little reknown, seeking fame, fortune, and the adulation of thousands of screaming fans.

Of One Pure Will Title Page.jpgIn a hypnagogic state, she has traveled (whether astrally or within her dream is hard to say) to some hellish plane to seek audience with some outside power, reminiscent of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In that tale, Lovecraft described the Plateau of Leng as “a grey barren plain whereon at great distances shone little feeble fires. As they descended there appeared at intervals lone huts of granite and bleak stone villages whose tiny windows glowed with pallid light.” There is a similar decaying bleakness in Smith’s vision where “Vegetation was a mere memory, save for the shriveled vines atop starved monuments, powdered pollen searching the air in desperation for soil to nest in, haunted husks of trees, wisps of life screaming out into the eternal dusk. Low-lying fires flapped silently. Sands cascaded down stone slopes, hissing quietly into the oblivion of the deep. The terrible valley called out to them, its frozen darkness wailing generously at the rippling edges of their hearing. This was the afterworld in peril, wasted, rotting, reaching for the vitality of the waking world.” I highlighted that passage early on because I found it so beautiful in its desperation, but honestly, the whole story and indeed the entire book are so saturated with such dark allure that highlighters ought be be purchased in bulk.

The story goes on from there to tell, truth be told, a pretty familiar tale of desperate measures taken by a struggling artist to gain a boon from another plane and the dire consequences subsequently incurred. Were it not for her extremely confident and gifted hand holding the quill it could have quietly evanesced. But Farah Rose Smith won’t permit that, and commands your continued attention as she spins and weaves her seemingly recognizable plot. Though she here describes something else later in the story, the description is an apt one for her own writing and the reason you want to keep reading, “It had theatre, poise—an erotic tension so powerful that one would feel as if a serrated wheel ran back and forth over the genitals, ever-satisfied with a cosmic teasing.” What proceeds, because you will proceed, makes you question what is real and what is dreamt, what is teased and what is known.

Of One Pure Will Inside Cover.jpg“The Visitor” swims through deep thematic waters of identity (gender among others) and desire, passes through swift-flowing channels of avarice and self-centeredness, to arrive at the last upon an isle populated by the betrayed and lonely. There are no easy answers. There are no shortcuts. There are no cheap tricks to allow you to skip hard work or avoid the necessity of skill. The title of this story raises a question the deeper into it that you go: to whom does it refer? Naturally we turn to the Beast from the “afterworld in peril,” but is that a feint? I wonder if what we’re truly meant to ask here is if Rook is the Visitor, and if she, then us? When I go down that rabbit hole, I wonder if this is not a story more about self-doubt than greed, more about a certain stage fright than Faustian deals. If that is the case, and Farah Rose Smith is asking those questions of herself, then she need question no longer, for she had descended definitively onto the literary stage amidst fire, smoke, and Stygian melody.

A further word, though, needs to be said before we depart and that is that this story is unlike most of the stories contained within this lustrous book. While this story follows generally accepted structure patterns, only one or two others do as well.  The rest read like dreams, some beautiful, some confusing, some terrifying; they are more like free verse poetry than plotted narrative. Unlocking them will require effort on the part of the reader, which is strongly hinted at in the erudite introduction provided by Fiona Maeve Geist. Honestly, after I read the introduction, I wondered if I were smart enough to read this book, but I’ve never backed down from a literary challenge and have usually been rewarded. So, too, will the careful, studied, and attentive reader, but those looking for fast thrills or page-turners should probably look elsewhere. Herein lies literature like a crumbling gothic cathedral where shards of broken stained glass both illuminate flesh and slice it. There are countless stories to be told in such places, but perhaps you will have to sleep, perchance to dream, in order to perceive them.

I was delighted to receive this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review, so my thanks to Farah Rose Smith. I was equally delighted and educated by several interviews that helped me to better understand where she is coming from. That felt more beneficial and necessary in her case than it usually does, and so I commend them to you:

This review was composed while listening to the greatest hits of KIϟϟ.

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

Misplaced Veneration: “Rook worshiped the sound. “If only I could remember such sounds in my waking hours.” Her flesh sloughed off of her bones, rolling through the sand in circles. Fragile sprouts shivered out of hiding as the flesh nourished the ground, collapsing back into nothingness as it squirmed its way back up her legs.”

The Case of Yuri Zaystev, by S.L. Edwards

“Days were measured in piling snow, lives in black-rotting cells and time in final breaths. The white-washed landscape was the endless world. To walk there, in that terrible and featureless place, was to take one more step toward heaven or hell…The only refuge from the cold, constant and unchanging place was even worse than the vast frozen desert. Death was written into the architecture of the outpost of humanity before the endless night-world, a prison where men were sent to rot and disappear in fog and ice.”

whiskey-front-cover[1]Whether it was the blasted heath of “The Dunwich Horror” or the dim shores of “The White Ship,” the sanity-stretching bricks of Rue d’Auseil or the colossal piles of bones beneath Exham Priory, one of Lovecraft’s many gifts was to set you with unsettling firmness within his mad geographies. With the indelibility of spilling ink, the importance of a sense of place seeps from his pages staining his settings in your mind as much as any of his quivering professors and eldritch monstrosities. Indeed, one of Lovecraft’s favorite stories was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” a story based upon the notion that the geography itself is set against you. Of Blackwood’s story Lovecraft wrote, “I am dogmatic enough to call “The Willows” the finest weird story I have ever read…” It was a sentiment he repeated in several letters. (As an aside, if you’ve not yet read “The Willows” you really ought to do so. Lovecraft was right; it’s that good.) Taking inspiration from “The Willows,” our current author, S.L. Edwards, has penned a tale of frosty nightmare and frigid death. “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” can be found in WHISKEY AND OTHER UNUSUAL GHOSTS, the second weird fiction collection released by Gehenna Books in 2019. It will be available for purchase on July 15. I’m grateful to Mr. Edwards for supplying me with an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

6787208-1[1]Yuri Zaystev is a soldier in Stalin’s army with a very singular task. He drives a truck out into the arctic tundra and dumps the bodies of those who have died in the Gulag, some friend, some foe. Burying them is not in the equation for Comrade Zaystev; not only is the frozen ground impossible to dig out, but the brutal, biting arctic winds make burial an unnecessary chore. “The tundra winds would claim human refuse, sweep it back into its cold folds and take the bodies far away from human eyes and memories.” And later, “If they were not eaten by polar bears the winds would be kind to them and strip them of their useless skin until their bones were as white and gleaming as snow.” He’s made this run a hundred times if he’s made it once—now, just think about that given the nature of his task and the real-life horror of this story peeks through—but today, for no other reason than garden variety ennui, he seeks companionship with an old, faithful friend: vodka. Stopping the truck at the appointed place, he gets out and walks to the back where he swings open the canvas covered truck bed and glimpses, to his absolute horror, nothing. To a normal person a truck bed full of frozen, emaciated corpses would provide the fright, but for Yuri, it is the opposite, their absence, that scares. What happens next I will leave to your reading, but I did find it enjoyable, and like “The Willows,” satisfyingly ambiguous.

31974480171_9cc0ea6a66_o[1].jpgI found this story to be surprisingly emotionally affecting. I don’t know whether it was reading about the horrific nature of Stalin’s death camps at a time when my own country is running concentration camps along its Southern border, or the howling bleakness of the arctic that Edwards presents, but I was moved by the reading. Did it live up to “The Willows” as a piece of weird fiction? Well, no, but that’s hardly a knock on the story – “The Willows” really is one of the finest examples of the genre, and that’s a tall glass of whisky to live up to. One of the things that made “The Willows” work so well was the long, slow-burn build up of undeniable tension. It’s a fairly lengthy story while Yuri’s tale is pretty brief by comparison. The terror and the weird “otherness” of the stories are very different and so it is difficult to say with any certainty how a lengthening of “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” would affect it. However (and there’s little to suggest that Edwards couldn’t do this well), I think it would improve an already gratifying story. As it is, there isn’t much time for a build up of tension. Rather, there is a presumption of tension already present. That allows the author to jump right into the more terrifying aspects of his tale with a certain, more immediate, ferocity, but the cost is a lot of that which made “The Willows” so successful.

Edwards’ writing is at times evocative and controlled, leading the reader to the edge of the icy crevasse so gently that they never look down to see it coming.  And, as I mentioned, it has the capacity to be emotionally arresting. See:

neverremember-1_fk51dh[1]
Actual photo of a Gulag victim, from the mugshot files of the People’s Commissariat for State Security (NKVD), Stalin’s Secret Police.
“He could not recognize the face or any other distinguishable thing about the body. There was nothing about the shape of the nose, the sculpting of the chin or any sort of scars or hair that would have caused Yuri to recognize the man. He was part of an endless, unremarkable crowd, only remarkable because he stood out against the decrepit wreckage of what is left in the human frame after its humanity has been forcefully removed.” 

Horror works because of empathy; sociopaths who lack it cannot grasp why what they do inspires terror. In passages like these Edwards captures a fleeting empathy amid the wild winds of the tundra. That empathy is present in all of the stories I read in this collection, and is one of the reasons I think he will ultimately be a successful author in the genre. However, at other times, that control I mentioned slips. Even within the beauty of the above quotation, my eye was tripped up when he used the word “remarkable” immediately after saying it was “unremarkable.” Another word might have been more effectively deployed here. I don’t say this to be super nit-picky either, as I found that to be the case several times across multiple stories. Now diction and syntax are incredibly personal, and likely some of those hangups were just my own as a reader. What I don’t think is just me, though, is that it seems like he often uses too many words when fewer will not just do, but be better.  I realize that’s hard to swallow following the thought that the story might be improved by being longer, but it’s a matter of the right words, not just extra words.

Here’s the other main reason I think S. L. Edwards will be one to watch in the weird fiction community: the ideas are there, in spades. Across each story that I read, I experienced a genuine, creeped-out “oh crap!” moment. The talent is here folks and I think he’s going to be around for a while. This story in particular, and the collection in general deserve your attention, especially if you’re interested in not just horror and weird fiction, but in knowing early on who are the up and comers. Like all writers, his craft will grow, his skill will sharpen, and when they do, he will make all those ideas running around inside his head bleed. You’re going to want to be there for that.

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

The Unheard Lament of Yuri Zaystev: “He was not a bad man! No worse than the men he worked with! But he had been a hero! He had been a hero of Stalingrad! Stalin personally had thanked him! This alone should have been a ticket for his salvation, something to save him from whatever cruel tricks the snows and winds were playing on him now! He screamed out his life, that it was not his fault men were killed! He was not the one who decided to leave their corpses unhallowed in the Tundra…”