Ammonia, by William Holloway

“The Pacific Rim was a wasteland of shattered cities hewn by earthquakes and drowned by tsunamis. The West Coast was in ruins, part of a line of devastation extending from Alaska to Cape Horn. New Zealand and Hawaii had essentially ceased to exist. Yes, the human race was only now beginning to comprehend the scale and power of the earthquake under the Ross Ice Shelf.

“Event.” Bamboo enunciated the word as he worked the notepad before him, covered in mind-boggling formulae, trying to understand mathematically what he’d survived.”

~William Holloway, “Ammonia”

ap_cover_front[1].jpgIt has been said before, but it bears repeating: Lovecraft would be shocked by both the popularity and the amount of Mythos-derived works extant today. He was always tickled when his colleagues used some of his ideas and creations in their own stories and, in fact, quite encouraged it. On August 14, 1930, he wrote to fellow Weird-Taler Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian), “[Frank Belknap] Long has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his—in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation.” No creation of HPL’s is as widely cited, utilized, and loved as Cthulhu, the dreaming god. Lovecraft’s seminal tale “The Call of Cthulhu” is one of his best pieces of fiction, and today’s story reimagines it, or at least the cataclysmic event it describes, for a modern audience.

“Ammonia” is found in the new book, THE ABYSSAL PLAIN: THE R’LYEH CYCLE, put out in November 2019 by JournalStone Publishing, and edited by William Holloway and Brett J. Talley. The cover art, by Mikio Murakami, is particularly striking. This book contains four novellas and, through four different lenses, purports to tell about Cthulhu’s rising from the Pacific Ocean. It functions as a sort of mosaic novel but the stories each have their own integrity.

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“The Eye of Cthulhu” by François Baranger. Illustration from “The Call of Cthulhu Illustrated” © 2017 François Baranger. Used with permission.
There are three character POV’s in “Ammonia,” but two of them get a pretty short shrift. The principal character is Quincy. He “…was a good-looking boy who grew into a good-looking man. Until recently, he’d gotten by on getting by, but the hard facts of advanced alcoholism at a relatively young age had hit home. His hands shook, he smelled, and his eyes had yellowed.” He lives in Austin, TX, and though he does not yet know it, Austin is beginning to flood. Sure, Quincy had seen flooded streets before but what is happening now is both more severe and, as it turns out, more widespread. And that’s not all. People are beginning to disappear.

Bamboo is the executive officer aboard the USS Georgia, a nuclear missile submarine that has recently been rocked by an unidentifiable underwater event.  His parts of the story were the most enjoyable for me to read, which is part of the reason why I wanted more of them.

Finally, Natalie is an executive assistant to a powerful Washington Post editor, with whom she is also having an affair. Through her job, she’s connected to and interacts with powerful people, including the Speaker of the House. Her story is uncomfortably sexualized as she perceives that allowing important people to grope her and giving them sexual favors might be her only way ahead. Bamboo and Natalie play very small supporting roles in the broader narrative of “Ammonia,” and I can’t help but wonder if they will reappear in the other novellas. I hope so, because if they don’t, then their characters won’t serve much of a point.

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“heroin” by flickr.com user B.A.D. – used under Creative Commons license

Readers know that this is a story about the beginning of the end of the world as we know it, but the characters do not know that at all. However, for each of them, this is a story about cataclysmic endings. Quincy sinks deeper and deeper into drug and alcohol addiction as he struggles to sort between a reality growing stranger by the hour and a drug induced dream state. It doesn’t help that he falls in with a Beatrice-like character (his own personal guide through the apocalypse) named Junkie Dave. Natalie faces the potential ending of her career if she doesn’t continue to sexually satisfy her married boss—and others—in an effort to make her big break. Bamboo comes closest, at least initially, to understanding the global significance of “the event.” He faces the ending of American hegemony as well as the ending of his ability to understand the world around him.

Holloway’s story is largely effective, and accomplishes what it sets out to do: to tell the story of Cthulhu’s rising through the lens of ordinary people caught up in the event unawares. Quincy was a difficult character for me to get behind, but I personally don’t like reading about drug and alcohol addiction as I see it too often in real life. It’s hard to see how he’d survive and he makes it harder to care. In as much as this is what real-life addicts can be like, Holloway is successful at communicating that struggle for compassion. In tone, “Ammonia” reminded me a lot of John Langan’s post-Cthulhu rising story called “The Shallows.” Langan went for more of a melancholy and fatalistic vibe though, whereas Holloway strives for almost a survival horror feel.

Through a believably authentic voice, Holloway brings Quincy to life in a way that doesn’t happen for the other characters. “Nobody home. He closed the door behind him, but not before he smelled that godawful ammonia again. Fuck. What the hell? Bitch complains about me stinking while that shit is going on?That is about as far as you can get from the Old Gent’s typical protagonists, and though he wasn’t my favorite character to read about, he was still refreshing.

As the horror around him grows, Holloway deftly communicates the rising tension of the unnameable and unthinkable, “He heard a sound above him, a groaning of timbers and a dragging, shuffling, sliding sound. Something was up there in the crawl space, something very big and very heavy. Something that didn’t move right, or something that moved very, very differently.” It is in passages like this that we get the strongest feel of an updated Lovecraft for the modern age. Gone are the florid clauses in favor of descriptive, yet manageable sentences. There is nothing unnecessary in this example, but it succeeds in showing the source of fear all the same.

We are close to the centennial of HPL’s writing of “The Call of Cthulhu,” and if the source material is to survive in the popular imagination for the next hundred years, it will need to continue to be modernized, the Mythos sandbox not only played in but raked out. “Ammonia,” as the first of this quartet of novellas, achieves that and I am excited to read the other three. I am grateful to JournalStone Publishing for providing me with a free electronic review copy.

William Holloway is the author of THE IMMORTAL BODY and other Lovecraftian novels.

This review was composed while listening to the albums “The Abyssal Plain,” and “The Realm of the Void,” by electronic music artist James Clements, aka ASC.

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

Merge Now, by Kurt Fawver

“Chisholm knew he should call the police. He knew this other driver’s madness was bound to cause disaster. But even as the situation sparked his anxiety, it also entranced him. He’d seen plenty of minor accidents in the past, but he’d never watched a major collision happen in real time, right beside him. A small part of him wanted to see it: steel and aluminum bending, glass shattering, bodies flying. The aftermath might offer an insight, a revelation, a perspective on life or death or the nature of reality that he’d never otherwise understand. It might offer up a release.”

61IdzlLY5EL._US230_[1]I have both seen and been personally affected by the aftermath of wrong-way, high-speed collisions, and I can say for a certainty it does not offer any insight on life or death other than we are, at our most basic physical level, meat. Once, I lived near a particularly bad intersection where there were always cars banging into each other. Thankfully, most of the time, they did not result in serious injuries. One time though, there was a bad one. I heard it from my driveway where I was working on tuning up my bike. I ran to the street and saw a conversion van versus a sedan, both pretty crumpled. People began falling out of the van, whose side door and been pushed open far enough that they could get out. Most seemed ok, just dazed. One guy though, the last guy, came out screaming and holding his face. He asked if he was gonna be ok, pulling his hand away from his cheek. When he did, half his face rolled down, exposing his muscle and teeth. I winced, gave him the oil soaked rag I was carrying in my hand and assured him he’d be fine. I suspect he probably was with the exception of a nasty scar. That was the accident I saw. The one I was affected by left me bereft of a close friend. We are meat, and when it comes to auto accidents, we are grist for the mill. There is no particular revelation about these sorts of accidents but that. Kurt Fawver’s excellent story, “Merge Now,” however, does offer up insightful commentary on how we live our lives, the vain things for which we strive, and the mindless, blind way we so often follow.

41D3v4VgygL[1]It is located in the extraordinary anthology NOX PAREIDOLIA, edited by Robert S. Wilson and published late this year (2019) by Nightscape Press. (The book’s cover is equally as remarkable, and more so once you understand the title.) In this volume, Wilson collects ambiguous stories by some of horror’s hottest writers, all paying homage to the late weird fiction master, Robert Aickman. If you don’t know Aickman or his singular style, you can still enjoy this anthology well enough, but reading a few of Aickman’s strange tales first would offer a more fulsome experience. Also, if you don’t know the work of Nightscape Press, you should fix that. They are doing amazing work, using a portion of a lot of their sales to benefit charities, and are soon putting out HORROR FOR RAICES, a response to the horror going on at our southern border with, again, an enviable table of contents. They deserve your attention.

“Merge Now” is the story of Chisholm, a bored office worker who could be a stand in for so many of us, grinding it out daily for his meager share of the American dream. While driving to work one morning, he witnesses someone affixing a strangely decorated blindfold to themselves and then speeding up in their car. At first, they miraculously avoided other traffic, but then, once they reached their apparent max speed, they swerved into the oncoming lanes and it was only moments before the inevitable occurred. His work day is shot and he can’t even pull himself together to drive home, calling a ride share. blindfolddriver[1].jpgLate that night, he’s searching the internet, trying to figure out what would make a person do something like that. “…well after midnight, he stumbled upon a Twitter post that mentioned ‘the blindfolded, seeing the answer others cannot see and gnashing their teeth in fear and ecstasy, do the great work of the eschaton. They will prepare the roads for its coming.'”

As the story goes on this sort of event becomes commonplace, with horrific traffic accident after horrific traffic accident filling the local news cycle. He witnesses another accident and can’t erase the grisly images from his mind. “A body hung behind it, limp and positioned at grotesque angles. Its head was partially occluded by a segment of collapsed roof, but the exposed portion revealed an unmistakable white strip of cloth inscribed with unknown glyphs.” The cult atmosphere developed by Fawver’s inclusion of these strange blindfolds is simple, but brilliant, and in the end, it’s all you need to wonder, wtf? One driver speaks as Chisholm encounters her during his unavoidable work commute, “As she passed, she rolled a window down and shouted, to Chisholm or the universe at large, ‘All is wreckage! All is collision!'” Chisholm eventually begs off work, unable to get behind a wheel, and who could blame him? It seems the whole world is spiraling out of control and he wants no part in it, but can he avoid it if it truly is the whole world going mad?

Fawver’s writing in this piece, undergirded with a certain fatalism, is measured and controlled, unlike the story he is spinning. His characters speak naturally and their internal monologues read as authentic. You are never once taken out of the story. Generally, I think that’s the harder feat to accomplish than writing a florid line.

Aickman wrote stories that some would not even consider horror, but I have never read one after which I was not deeply unsettled. He has no jump scares and little gore, but manages to nonetheless infect your consciousness. Upon finishing an Aickman story you are often left wondering, what did I just read? But then you find yourself turning it over and over in your mind hours or even days later, and that’s when you know he got you. This anthology is full of stories that do that, a just tribute to the master, and “Merge Now” is a particularly good example.

NEW-FATAL-2-HOWARD-FRANKLAN_1539945801431_59493418_ver1.0[1].jpgIn the story, Chisholm says he moved to the city for bigger, better opportunities, and wonders at one point if it would not have been a better decision to stay home in his small town and be a big fish in a little pond. But the allure of success, and the financial remuneration that accompanies it, was too much for him. How many of us have struggled with the same sort of question and come up, if not short, then at least mortally uncertain? That is where the cosmic horror is for me in this tale. It is not a horror beyond the stars, but it is one that is much bigger than any one of us individually. It is the horror of questioning whether we are enough. Are we good enough, rich enough, successful enough, pretty enough? If not, who do we have to follow to get there, and what do we have to do? What do we have to barter?  How many, chasing this unattainable carrot, have been left as human wreckage on the side of life’s uncaring, unfeeling highway?

Mr. Fawver recently moved, but before he did, we lived in the same region of Tampa Bay. Earlier this year, we had a rash of wrong-way, head-on collisions on our various cross-bay bridges, all resulting in multiple fatalities. I cannot tell you if these were the result of drunken mistakes, ill-begotten wagers, youthful ignorance, or what, but for a while there, it was a thing and I wouldn’t even get on those bridges. The above image is from the local news channel. I confirmed with Mr. Fawver that this tale is a creative response to those tragedies and I want to thank him for it. We all had a lot of emotion about what happened here and this story gave those emotions a channel to vent. I am grateful for that, as I am grateful for Mr. Fawver’s work. I hope he knows he is appreciated in the weird fiction community and that he is good enough.

Kurt Fawver is the author of a large number of wonderful weird and horror short stories, appearing recently in the August issue of Nightmare Magazine.  Comparisons to Thomas Ligotti are not misplaced. He also has published two collections: FOREVER, IN PIECES, and THE DISSOLUTION OF SMALL WORLDS, which contains the Shirley Jackson award-winning story, “The Convexity of Our Youth.”

Before I close, I would like you to know that no guts were punched in the writing of this review.

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

 

Up from Slavery, by Victor LaValle

“Well to start, Teddy lived here for thirty years and I have never seen you before. And, well, Teddy was…” she looked at me again and cut off the rest of the sentence.

It took me a moment to figure out what she wanted to say, but couldn’t. “White? Is that what you meant?”

She didn’t answer, but she did look away. “Look, I don’t want this to turn hostile.”

I didn’t understand why simply saying the word “white” made white people assume things were going to turn ugly. “If he was white,” I said, “then my mother wasn’t.”

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Photo credit: Emily Raboteau
The online writing community website, Lit Reactor, published a column a number of years ago that asked an important and direct question. Why the f*ck aren’t you reading Victor LaValle? It’s a fair question and fairly asked. Here I have to give kudos to the author of that column, Keith Rawson, because he asked that question in March of 2014, two full years before LaValle’s masterful Lovecraftian novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, would hit the shelves. If it wasn’t already, that book would cement LaValle’s name in the annals of Lovecraftian lore. Seriously, read it. Now. What he’s up to in that novella lays the groundwork in some ways for what he’s up to here: taking Lovecraft’s racism, turning it on its head, and making racial identity a major device of his plot. It’s brilliant, and part of what I like to call the modern redemption of Lovecraft.

WT-cvrs-01_large[1].jpgIn another corner of the horrorverse, something amazing was taking shape. Weird Tales, the famed pulp magazine which originally published the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard, and the Old Gent himself, was coming back online. It has had a tumultuous publication history over the decades with the most recent iteration, edited by the illustrious Ann Vandermeer, stopping publication after issue #362 in the spring of 2014. Earlier this year, New York Times bestselling horror novelist Jonathan Maberry announced he was resurrecting it! And there was a loud cry, like the sound of many voices across the land raised in exultation!

weird+tales+cover+1[1].jpegOn August 28, 2019, under the editorship of Marvin Kaye, Volume 68, Number 1, Issue 363 was published. You can buy your copy here. Maberry and Kaye did not mess around; they headlined their debut issue with Victor LaValle, Josh Malerman, Stephanie M. Wytovich, and Maberry himself. Hugo award winning artist Abigail Larson did the cover, and as you can see from one of the smaller above images (bottom row, second from right), she paid homage to a past cover, Margaret Brundage’s October 1933 “Batgirl.” Larson’s cover is a less sexualized and more empowered image, speaking to our time while still respecting the original art. The very first story in this new issue? “Up from Slavery,” by Victor LaValle, and illustrated by E.M. Gist known for his covers of Marvel and Dark Horse Comics. The resurrection of Weird Tales could not have had a better author and a better story to celebrate its return.

“Up from Slavery” is the story of Simon Dust, a freelance editor currently at work on a new edition of Booker T. Washington’s memoir by the same title “about his boyhood as a slave in Virginia and his struggles to achieve an education, true freedom, as a black man in the United States.” Washington was a major civil rights leader in the late 19th century whose name can comfortably be invoked alongside other luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X. In the midst of Simon’s work on the memoir, he receives a troubling notice that his father has died. What is worse is that he is the sole inheritor of his estate and holdings. Simon and his father (Thomas Edwin Dyer – some polite nods here, especially to Lovecraft’s professorial character William Dyer who led the Miskatonic Expedition to the Antarctic in At the Mountains of Madness, and to fellow Lovecraftian horror author T.E.D. Klein) had not been in communication. He didn’t even know the guy and now he owned all his stuff, whatever that meant.

1987_Maryland_train_collision_aerial[1].jpgHe arrives in Syracuse, NY by train—the story actually opens at the scene of a train wreck so each train sequence in the story carries a certain, beautiful tension with it—and is greeted by the neighbor Helen, who hands him a silver key (another clever nod, this time to HPL’s dream sequence stories), the key to his father’s house. After a tense, racially charged conversation they enter, and, as LaValle writes, “My father’s home was a monument to mania.” Clearly, it is going to require several trips to sort through the mess and sell the house, something Simon neither relishes nor has the time to do. Helen also reveals to him some creepy details about his father’s body, as she was the one to discover it. On the second train trip up, he seemingly randomly meets a weird man wearing a baggy suit who claims to have known his father. On a further subsequent trip the man accosts him again, seemingly bringing some serious racism to bear in a very uncomfortable conversation. I keep saying seemingly because nothing here is as it seems.

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Art credit: “Shoggoth,” by Florian Haeckh
Events continue to get weirder and degenerate as illusions of all kinds are stripped away leading to a stunning conclusion that interweaves threads from Booker T. Washington’s memoir, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and LaValle’s own narrative. In the end, we are treated to a reversal of epic proportions that at the same time has seemed inevitable to many Lovecraft fans.

Victor LaValle’s writing is confident, mature, and modern. He reveals slowly, teasing a little here, a little there, making you simultaneously wonder and hope. He drops erudite phrases and slings slang with equal ease. His character is constantly aware of his race and what that means in different situations, “A part of me wanted to grab one of them and ask them to hold onto me…But I didn’t do that, didn’t know how they would react. A black man grabs you on the Amtrack train, is your first thought to assist him?” This constant awareness will likely have readers of color nodding at shared shitty experiences. As a white reader, I regarded it as an important narrative reminder that part of my white privilege is not having to consider such things at all. If for no other reason than that, this is a critical entry into the post-Lovecraftian canon. HPL’s influence is pleasantly suffused throughout, but becomes much more obvious in the end.

“Up from Slavery,” like The Ballad of Black Tom before it, is one of my most favorite modern Lovecraftian stories because of its handling of the entrenched racism of many of the original stories by HPL. LaValle neither shies away from the racism nor makes it the one note his stories can sound. He sharpens it, as iron is sharpened in flame, into a natal source of narrative power. This is the kind of story that doesn’t just stick with you, but makes you want to find the author, shake his hand, and say “thank you.”

 

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