Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, by John Linwood Grant

“As I grew older, they brought me night-fevers of vast, deserted plateaus and winds which scoured flesh from bone; visions of drowned cities and forbidden peaks. They gave me hints that they themselves were real, material, and they fed me concepts of stone, in all its conceivable forms, starting my first poor attempts with chisel and file. They fed my isolation from other humans, strengthened it, and they made me a sculptor.”

mountains-of-madness-revealed-hardcover-edited-by-darrell-schweitzer-choose-your-edition-signed-jhc-limited-to-100-copies-4898-p[1]Between 1930 and 1931, one of America’s premier universities launched a scientific expedition to one of the world’s last great frontiers, the Antarctic. Three of that august institution’s leading professors helmed the expedition: Dr. Frank L. Pabodie (Engineering), Dr. William Dyer (Geology), and Dr. Lake (Biology). Their ostensible goal was to drill through the surface to bring up mineral samples buried under layers of ice and stone measured as much in geologic age as material thickness. The discoveries they would ultimately make would undo the world’s understanding of itself and set the Earth on a collision course with the stars. All of this, of course, never actually happened, except in the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s masterful novella, At the Mountains of Madness, published originally by HPL’s friend Julian Schwartz in February, March, and April of 1936 as a severely edited serial in Astounding Stories .

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One of the original Astounding Stories illustrations by Howard V. Brown.
But what if it had happened?
What would the world look like now?
How would we, the human race, have responded?

 

That is the premise for this substantial new anthology from PS Publishing, Mountains of Madness Revealed, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, one time editor of Weird Tales magazine. Within its pages are 19 brand-new stories and poems by some of the leading mythos voices of our time, all of whom have taken for granted that the horrible and awesome discoveries of the Pabodie-Dyer-Lake expedition to Antarctica were all too terribly true. Also included is a wonderful introduction by the editor that takes you through the history of HPL’s story. Because of that, this volume is not recommended for newcomers to the Lovecraft Mythos or anyone who has not read the original novella. These authors assume you know the intimate details of the story, and readers without that foreknowledge will inevitably not be able to enjoy this anthology to the fullest.

For my review, I chose a story by a luminary of the field of weird fiction but who represented a gap in my reading, Yorkshire native John Linwood Grant. His short story, Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, is full of conspiracy theories, the dark web, secret and sinister governmental organizations, climate change, alien beings, and insanity to spare. Glaciers shift and ice caps melt and, in a calamitous moment, the City from Lovecraft’s story is revealed and the truth of human history as we knew it is rewritten. “Most of Lovecraft’s writing is invented nonsense, a blur of horror and science fiction which, if unusually imaginative, is yet of very limited value. Only that one tale matched reality, though the City’s emergence did encourage a mad hunt for other locations, even deep-water submarine explorations for sunken cities which house dreaming gods. Not a single Cyclopean block, not one non-Euclidean ruin, was found elsewhere, above or below the oceans.” But it hardly matters for the hapless humans of Linwood Grant’s story. The cornerstones of their understanding had already crumbled as sunlight dawned on that aeons old city, the definitive evidence of other intelligent life from beyond the stars.at_the_mountains_of_madness_6_howard_lovecraft_by_ivany86-d7jcdsw[1].jpg

Much like many of Lovecraft’s stories, this one unfolds at a leisurely pace. There’s lots of description and exposition, but it never felt unnecessary or boring. A whole worldview was unfolding before my eyes as the pages turned, one which I had previously imagined, even hoped for in that strange way familiar to devotees of fantasy and science-fiction, but had never been presented with as being real in quite this way. For one thing, this story is set in our world and our time. It’s familiar in the very same way that AtMoM is alien, oddly comforting instead of foreboding and harsh. The thrust of the plot relies on our protagonist, a Ms. Paling, completing some sort of to-scale sculpture of the revealed city of the Old Ones. In her attic, no less. She is being urged on by The Four, a group of creatures who commune with her mind, but who may also just be in her mind. Are they themselves Old Ones, or is Paling going mad after confronting the horrifying revelations of the broken ice? Nonetheless, as is so often the case, perception is reality, and she persists in her sculpting.

The City itself is the main thing, not what it contains, not even what it once contained. It is “…a holy text in stone…Lovecraft’s characters claimed they read an entire racial history in the symbols carved on the walls of their find, bands of glyphs that ran along ice-frosted walls. Perhaps they did. They were reading the wrong thing, though…The City is the answer, not what is written upon it.” The question to which the city is the answer I will leave to your reading, but I thought it was an ingenious take on HPL’s story to which I believe even the Old Gent would have been obliged to tip his hat. The ending left me feeling awe, and that is a wonderful homage to the original story which accomplishes much the same thing, if in a very different way. 2b8775f6182650fb21e7d34457044a4e[1]Linwood Grant adds a bit more human touch that HPL could muster, and I’ll go so far to say notes of admiration, respect, and even love are present in his conclusion. Like the original, the action all comes suddenly at the end in a wild avalanche, but one which ultimately feels inconsequential. The story is much bigger than that momentary (if satisfying) action can claim.

This was a wonderful story and I had a lot of fun reading it. Linwood Grant’s writing is fluid and will not at all be the barrier to some that HPL’s represents. He is a modern author writing in a modern, sensible, style. And yet it is elevated. Some of his descriptions are just beautiful, possessed with a matured sentiment tinged with longing. You find yourself yearning for a time and a place that are not, as in here, “It doesn’t matter. This planet was theirs, but their people are dead. Many times the edge of deep emotion has brushed me—better, they feel, that they had slept until the sun grew dark, than been woken to such a world. The last of the true rulers of Earth wish only to leave, to abandon their lonely vigil.” HPL wrote a story of awe, dread, and cosmic horror; Linwood Grant has managed to warp that just ever so slightly so that the exact same set piece sings not horror but melancholy, less warning and more lullaby.

Mountains of Madness Revealed is available now in hardback from PS Publishing, and I highly recommend it.

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

A helpful corrective: “Lovecraft’s suggestions seem ludicrous—flying fungal things and octopus-creatures, always unspeakable horrors that cannot be pinned down. I still do not know how he got so much right, and so much wrong.

Smoke and Dagger, by Douglas Wynne

“…it could see him. The sudden knowledge was like swallowing an icicle. An eye regarded him from the black disk—a throbbing ball of jelly squirming in an electrical storm rimmed with lashes of fang and claw. He noticed the ribbons of smoke wafted not from the brass dish at the base of the mirror, but from that merciless eye.”

smoke-dagger-final-2[1].jpgCults. Sex magic. Rocket scientists. Spy versus spy. Cthulhu. These are just a few of ingredients that make up Douglas Wynne’s latest novella, SMOKE AND DAGGER: A SPECTRA FILES PREQUEL, published by Prometheus Press (2019) and illustrated by Mat Fitzsimmons. The Spectra Files (RED EQUINOX, BLACK JANUARY, CTHULHU BLUES) were a trilogy of novels that combined the Lovecraftian milieu with hard-nosed, high-tech action-adventure. Following up on their success, Wynne penned this present novella to explore the back story of heroine Becca Phillips’ occultist grandmother, Catherine Littlefield, who is the heroine of this story.  Here, returning readers will be immersed in the history of the trilogy they enjoyed, while new readers will find a fast-paced introduction into Wynne’s Lovecraftian universe. I’m grateful to the author for a gratis copy, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Through a series of revelations, Catherine begins to understand that she is sensitive to vibrations from other realms and comes to meet others interested in her particular gift. A doomsday plot is underway and Catherine’s new friends waste no time in clandestinely sending her into fray. She meets Jack Parsons, fictionally portrayed here, but a real historical personage who was a rocket scientist, chemist, and noted occultist (d. 1952). At first, it is unclear what exactly she is being sent to do; Parsons is known to be into some pretty kinky sex and always seems to keep multiple women around. 6074c322ea52411a401e0363939591a5[1].jpgCatherine isn’t  interested in even pretending to be someone’s sex toy, refusing the offer initially, “I’m afraid I misjudged you and your associates. You’ve certainly misjudged me.” In having her decline to be a femme fatale Bond girl, Wynne signals right away that this will be a more modern noir. She’s quickly drawn into Parsons’ social circle and the spy game begins. It seems Parsons and his associates are up to some pretty nefarious, and occult-like stuff and there is no guessing just how dark they’re willing to get. That said, like a lot of Lovecraftian Mythos stories, at no time during my reading was I scared or even unsettled. This is strictly an occult action-adventure story, and though it is a lot of fun, it is not emotionally or mentally disturbing.

Clocking in at 155 pages, this is a quick read. It moves briskly from scene to scene through the use of short chapters and action-packed sequences. This lends itself to exciting reading, but comes at the expense of deep character development. The writing here doesn’t stand out either positively or negatively, but is entirely sufficient to the task.  At times, some more thoughtful literary gems peek out from the exhilarant backdrop, as here, “There’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom, Catherine. You know that, right? Same tree, different fruit.” Mythos set pieces are sprinkled liberally throughout, and I was particularly excited to see the inclusion of the forbidden tome Unaussprechlichen Kulten, one of Robert E. Howard’s (creator of the Conan stories) additions to the Mythos. Like other Lovecraftian tomes (De Vermis Mysteriis, Liber Ivonis, Cultes des Goules, etc.), it was originally titled in English (Nameless Cults), but was later changed to a non-English language title to increase authenticity and mystery.

A couple of things hold this story back for me from being the fully immersive thrill ride that it could be. The first is something simple (it could actually just be that I didn’t pick up on all I needed to) and that is the sense that while this story is taking place in the late 1940’s, post-WWII, I never really felt like I was in that time period. I’m not sure if it was a case of insufficient exposition, thinly established setting, or what, but I found that I had to keep reminding myself that this story took place a long time ago. Anytime I’m pulled out of the story like that it impacts my enjoyment of the story. The second, and this one is a bit more narratively complicated, is that everything felt way too easy for Catherine. For example, at one point, she has to infiltrate enemy territory. She does so with an unbelievable ease, the wool being pulled completely and easily over the eyes of characters who we’re otherwise asked to believe to be intelligent, sophisticated masterminds. The flip side of that coin is, of course, a total lack of any sense of danger for our heroine.  It’s like watching an Arnold movie; no matter how many bullets fly his way, you know he isn’t gonna go down.  Credibility is sacrificed on the altar of fun. Some readers will likely have no problem with this, but I found it distracting.

yog_sothoth_50595[1].jpgFull confession time: I haven’t read the trilogy of which this is the sequel, and I suspect, if I had, I would have enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I had trouble connecting with the characters but again, I’m guessing if I’d gone on a three-book ride with their descendants, I’d have more invested in them. Additionally, the illustrations, while interesting and well-done, didn’t end up adding a lot for me, and while I understand why they were clumped up like they were (it serves a narrative function), it still was a bit odd to be reading along only to suddenly encounter eight pages of drawings. Still though, this was a fun book to read: a Mythos-fueled, Indiana Jones-esque adventure.

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

As American as apple pie: “Parsons is a dreamer, but he is also an engineer, a practical man who has learned hard lessons about how difficult it will be to even attain the moon. He knows that if we share the universe with other intelligent life forms, it makes more sense to call them to us, to open a door in space and time, through which they might enter.”

“The chants and incense.”

“An apple pie left on the windowsill.”