The Song Inside the Star, by Madison McSweeney

“Bubbly lyrics about high school romances and accounts of barely-legal clubbing have been replaced by proggy ramblings on black holes and mysterious beings from other dimensions.”

—Madison McSweeney, “The Song Inside the Star”

“Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel.”
—Hunter S. Thompson

planet[1]Very few people could argue that music is not affective. Naturally, Thomas Ligotti is one of them; speaking of a particularly dark time for him in a 2015 interview with many different contemporary weird fiction authors and published by the Lovecraft E-Zine, he said, “I lost music for ten years this time. I also lost my imagination for those ten years. They both came back, and I loved them again. But I didn’t believe in them anymore. I’ll never believe in them as I once did. They’re not real—not really. They are something to kill time, something between me and death.” Very Ligotti. However, Lovecraft wasn’t averse to it, and placed music’s power at the center of his story, “The Music of Erich Zann.” (I wish I could find a quote from one of Lovecraft’s letters on the subject of music, but alas, I am currently away from my library.) Clark Ashton Smith composed an “Ode to Music,” in which he wrote, “We may not know whence thy strange sorceries fall—/Whether they be Earth’s voices wild and strong,/Her high and perfect song,/Or broken dreams of higher worlds unfound.” I think I have to depart from Ligotti and side with HPL and CAS on this one: music can move the soul. It has the power to transport you to the highest heights and the deepest depths. It is inspiring, challenging, soothing, haunting, all depending on the listener, their circumstances, and their mood. I believe in it and so does Madison McSweeney, who composes a confident tale of Lovecraftian horror which I’ll review here featuring….a teeny-bopper pop-star.

il_1588xN.1882103768_4ful[1]Appearing in Weird Mask Magazine, Issue 18, published in May of 2019, I am grateful to the author for a gratis review copy of this story. She is a new author to me but has been widely published in various anthologies and Zines including American Gothic Short Stories and Mysterion. In this story, Caroline Benzen, or “Cara” to her growing legion of pubescent fans, is stretching her creative muscles against the advice of her managers and wanting to try something completely different for her next album. Jim McKibben has the misfortune of being the journalist from SoundHound Magazine assigned to interview her as well as cover her latest tour. He explains how she is your typical teenaged star: grand ideas of herself coupled with a certain vacuousness. She’s got boyfriend problems (of course), teenage angst (only the kind that sells records), and a gifted set of pipes. Behind all that though there is a nascent strangeness. “I’m very informed,”  proclaims Cara, “I know things a lot of people don’t.” McKibben makes a note to look up some of the things she’s talking about before he writes his article: “Notes: Look up “The Keeper of the Keys”; “Yogg Sotthoth (sp?); “Goat with 1000 Young.” As you, informed readers, might guess, the prospects for the characters of our story grow decidedly grim.

Real life teen pop-star, Charlotte Lawrence, in concert in LA, 2018. Photo credit: Rachel Ann Cauilan.
Throughout this rather short story (2700 words) I appreciated the confidence of McSweeney’s authorial voice. Her writing flows and reads with ease, especially given the format. She delivers this tale in a sort of modern epistolary fashion, made up of emails, text messages, draft article pieces with private marginalia, journal entries, and memorandums. She wisely deploys these techniques in differently metered doses to create a well-rounded picture of contemporary communication at the same time as she propels a compelling narrative. I really enjoyed this multi-format approach and think other readers will as well. By writing in a way that contemporary readers are used to digesting information, she helps sink you into the world of her story that bends this new reality around yours. It may have you questioning yourself the next time you buy a ticket to a concert by the next-big-thing. When it’s safe to go to concerts again, maybe, just maybe, it won’t be.

There are some things that I think would’ve made the story stronger. The first (after some research) I think is just a function of the submission guidelines for Weird Mask (3000 word limit), but I really wish the story had been a bit longer. I think if she had the word count to further develop some of her ideas and concepts the story would really have benefited. As it stands now, the horrible things come too suddenly and too on the nose, in turn making the reactions of the journalist character somewhat difficult to believe. With proper build-up though, she would not have to rely on such directness and could dwell more in hints and allusions. A second element that would make the story stronger is more done with the boyfriend character as one much closer to Cara than McKibben, but still looking from the outside in. Finally, Cara’s development is too fast. In one case her brazenness works for her youthfulness and naïvete, whereas mostly it comes off as hurried plotting. She needs some more motivation, perhaps, as to why she falls victim to these forces, or why she particularly was chosen.

Title: Goat with a Thousand Young. (2013) Imgur artist: TransientCurse
I’d love to see early drafts of some of Cara’s new lyrics where she is working this out, and McKibben’s (or perhaps her boyfriend’s) reactions to them. Fan reactions to her proposed new direction would not be out of place in a longer version of the tale either. Perhaps those are separate issues, but perhaps not. What I am saying is that I’d love to read a more fleshed-out version of this tale in any future collection McSweeney publishes.

That about wraps it up for this review, friends. I tried to compose it while listening to early Britney Spears, but I just could not. Some horrors are too beyond the pale for even me. Instead I listened to a playlist of my own creation based on suggestions from an online Lovecraft group that I unoriginally titled “The Music of Erich Zann.” It’s full of dark string music and bizarre, experimental tone poems. Feel free to check it out.

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



The Tunnelers, by Geoff Gander

“The following document, as well as a bundle of newspaper clippings, was found among the personal effects of Dr. Vincent Armstrong, a community psychiatrist in the Evaluation Unit at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Care Center, whose disappearance in Montreal is a matter of public record.”

Forbidden knowledge is a favorite leitmotif of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and many of his literary heirs pick up the theme and run with it at well. It’s easy to see why. There is a certain allure to anything forbidden. Tell someone with a curious mind, like a professor, that they cannot see a certain book or acquire some particular knowledge and rest assured it will be the first thing they try to do. Sometimes, though, you don’t even have to go looking. Sometimes that knowledge find you, unbidden, and you’re stuck with it for better or for worse. In Lovecraft’s tales, let’s be honest, it’s for the worse. Think, for example, of the plight of the grand-nephew of George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University. He inherited a puzzling box containing a bas-relief, the revelation of which launched one of the most memorable adventures in all of literature.

41+tduQPnSL[1]Unbidden is exactly how Dr. Vincent Armstrong comes to possess singular knowledge of a terrible, hidden truth in Geoff Gander‘s short story, “The Tunnelers.” Published by Solstice Publishing in 2011, I am grateful to Mr. Gander for providing me with a free e-copy in exchange for an honest review. “The Tunnelers” tells of how Dr. Armstrong came to care for a patient suffering physical and mental trauma following a mining accident in Ottawa, Canada. Michael Kirkwood had been involved in a mine collapse with two other miners who did not survive the accident, and, when he comes to, babbles on about the “Digging! Digging! Beneath us, above us, around us!” As it turns out, the mining company with which Mr. Kirkwood was affiliated had been digging in an area considered forsaken by the local First Nation. They had warned them, but the company, blinded by the prospect of great riches, proceeded regardless. This is why we can’t have nice things. Or, at least why Mr. Kirkwood can’t have nice things. Like sanity.

The story unfolds in an epistolary fashion, as Gander reveals new information through Armstrong’s journal entries, interview notes, and official documentation. I have to admire Gander’s pacing; the story never bogs down and each new clue leading us deeper and deeper underground is discovered in a natural way that flows well. I was impressed, too, with the clinical way in which Armstrong would describe things in his journal as I felt the style of writing really fit the character. It is easy to say, then, that Mr. Gander’s writing is sufficient. I never got hung up on any choice of diction or syntax but nor was I ever blown away by a turn of phrase. This isn’t a bad thing at all, as some writers try to do too much and then fall flat. That didn’t happen here. Reading Gander’s words felt comfortable and easy.

KzHRTPm[1]In the end, though, being a good practitioner of the craft was not enough to cause this story to stand out in the crowd. One of the words oft bandied about in Lovecraftian circles is “pastiche.” Usually, these days, it comes pre-packaged with negative context, but I don’t feel like it’s a given that pastiche equals bad. In the early days, Bloch, Ashton-Smith, Derleth, Campbell and others wrote fun, accomplished stories that were pure pastiche. But the two things that made those work, in my opinion, were that they were the first ones to do it and they added something that had not been present before. Because so much time has passed now, it is harder and harder to do that and editors (like Ellen Datlow) are explicitly forbidding pastiches for their anthologies. There are good examples out there—John Langan has one that comes to mind, as does Cody Goodfellow, Joe Pulver, and there are very likely others—but they are few and far between.

“The Tunnelers,” I am afraid, is pure pastiche that adds nothing new to the genre. From the opening lines, a reader knows exactly where this story is going and to a large extent (depending on how widely they are read in the genre) precisely how it will unfold. The monsters, Lovecraftian in the sense that they are ancient beyond time and wholly unknown, feel a bit like ghouls and function a lot like Lumley’s “burrowers beneath,” but weren’t new enough to spark my interest. I had definitely been here before.

The last page of the e-book informs readers that “The Tunnelers is his first novel” (though, weighing in at 8000 words or so, ‘novel’ is a big stretch) and it reads like it. You can tell he knows how to write, you can tell he knows how a story needs to be structured, and you can really tell he has a firm grasp on pace. He just needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea wholly his own, or sufficiently twist one of Lovecraft’s to make it his own, and then he’ll have arrived.

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