Root and Branch, by Jen Downes

“Dark, bad days:  environmental collapse, weird roiling skies, breather-masks to supplement oxygen as vast tracts of ocean perished, monstrous corrosive storms gnawing away structures, human and animal populations crashing in months while lunar industry expanded exponentially and cities raced into production at L5 so fast, several suffered fatal flaws.

For a moment every one of Frankie’s vast years haunted her eyes. Then she visibly shook herself, dragged herself back to the moment. “In those years, desperate people accepted stringent measures. These folks, in modern cities? They’re soft, spoiled, demanding, petulant when they don’t get their own way.”

—Jen Downes, “Root and Branch”

“His [Rheinhart Kleiner’s] mother is gravely ill with Spanish influenza, & though he has assistance in the daytime, he has to act as her nurse throughout the night. He is utterly exhausted , & to cap the climax is now fighting a cold which may prove to be the same affliction from which his patient is suffering. This influenza is nothing light, & I certainly hope Appleton [Galpin’s hometown] may escape.

—H.P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, October 18 or 19, 1918

“It’s odd, but despite all the repeated epidemics of the past decade, I’ve never had influenza. No doubt the gods are saving a deal of picturesque suffering for my last days!”

—H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, February 9, 1926

DSPV1_front_cover_2nd-edition_r1_ebook_Ingram[1]This review represents something a little bit different from our normal fare, but as I read this story, I couldn’t help but be struck both by how prescient it was (having been written before our present, global affliction), and by how moving was its commentary on humanity’s behavior. Truth be told, “Root and Branch” is closer to something Clark Ashton Smith might have written than HPL so if you’re just here for Lovecraftian story suggestions, you may want to skip this one. It appears in the inaugural issue of Dim Shores Presents (Volume 1, Summer 2020), a new weird fiction bi-annual anthology. I was excited to purchase a copy as soon as I could pre-order it. I haven’t read the whole volume yet, but I can tell you that what I have read of it has been consistently excellent, consistently surprising, and by a whole plethora of authors whose names are new to me, which is all very exciting. I will be buying the Winter volume when it is released straight-away, as I think Sam Cowan is doing a great job with this! (If I may offer one piece of unsolicited advice: Anthologies like this truly benefit from an Introduction and Story Notes by the authors. Neither are present here.) From the description on the back cover, “Weird horror, strange science fiction, and dark fantasy rub shoulders with each other here,” and that is certainly true. This story is definitely in the strange science fiction category.

The opening sentence tells you what’s happening, “She’s dying,” but not to whom it is happening. Or, in this case, to what. The stakes are high as here we are concerned with the impending death not of a person, but of an entire city. Nor do I mean the deaths of the people who inhabit that city (well, at first), but the city of Waratah itself. Waratah is organic, alive, and it has contracted a deadly virus that is slowly but surely killing it. With no planetary, lunar, or interplanetary habitat able to take all of Waratah’s residents as refugees, disaster looms large, and the scientist Julia Chen and her team are racing against an enormous, ticking, biological clock.

Organic City by Spivak000
Organic City by Deviant Artist Spivak000

While the plot and the characters are both very intriguing (and, as I mentioned above, pleasantly unexpected) they are not what caught my attention the most about this tale. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, with COVID19 being responsible now for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people world-wide. In many countries they have managed to control the spread of the disease by now, but not so here in the United States. This seems to be a peculiar outgrowth of what makes my country so great: our freedom. That sense of personal freedom is now being brought to bear at the cost of societal well-being and public health. As the plague ravages Waratah, and the threat of it spreading to other bio-cities grows, Downes drops little glimpses into her future/our present that knocked me for a loop with how true they’ve become. (I have no idea when this story was written, but based on the publication schedule of the anthology, it had to of been well before COVID19.) For example, here she presages the mistrust of science, “You want to live in a world where science collapsed and a few survivors compete for dregs shipped down from the space cities?” Elsewhere, the strange importance/insistence on entertainment plays a significant role. Finally, as shown in the block quote at the top, the petulant behavior of some to the detriment of the health of the masses (“We demand haircuts!”) is on full display.

Star Citizen: Into Orbit, video game screen grab
Downes is a new author to me, and I cannot find anything about her on the internet except a Goodreads author page with minimal listings, so my suspicion is she is at the beginning of her professional writing career. I, for one, will definitely be looking for her name in future Table of Contents because this was an excellent story. It features compelling prose, huge ideas, and just enough threat and fear to allow its strange sci-fi-ness to rub shoulders with weird horror. Though I do want to be clear and say that this is not a horror story. Her writing is never distracting, and often full of beautiful concepts, as here, “…it’s a mistake to believe all knowledge and memory spring from the brain. They’re rooted in every cell in your body. Those are your great-grandmother’s ears you’re wearing: you don’t know it, but your body does.” In other places, pure poetry shines through as you both see and feel what is happening, “Fatigue crept over Julia like a thick, quilted blanket. She sat on the couch, sunset behind her, while their voices receded, the lab faded to gray, on into black, and she slithered into dreams without realizing she’d fallen asleep. Even in dreams, she’d begun to plan.”

Lovecraft’s concept of cosmic horror was one that presented disinterested interstellar beings who most often inadvertently threatened humanity with destruction. His horror worked in the same way that the horror of an ant colony might be described as the gardener’s shovel wrecks and scatters its habitat to make way for the new planting. Famously, in At the Mountains of Madness, it was suggested that the creation of humanity was a cosmic joke, for the amusement of vastly superior beings. Disease, especially ones that reach the state of being a global pandemic (like the Great Influenza of HPL’s time and COVID19 in our time), is a cosmic horror all its own. It is uncaring, indiscriminate, and lethal. I don’t know how Dim Shores did it, but they managed to include “Root and Branch,” a story about a pandemic of sorts in an anthology released during a pandemic. It’s possible the story would strike a reader differently if read in a different age, but I didn’t, and so this one hit me hard.

Stay safe out there, friends. Wear a mask!  Keep good distance between you and others! Only together can we send this thing back to the nether reaches of the galaxy!

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

The Horn of the World’s Ending, by John Langan

“Where the man’s table was, the room was noticeably darker—almost more so than it should have been—and the man seemed dim, of a piece with the shadows gathered there. It was as if, the young officer thought, the darkness behind the man was casting him forward, and not the other way around.”

—John Langan, “The Horn of the World’s Ending”

“The year must have been in the late republic, for the province was still ruled by a senatorial proconsul instead of a prætorian legate of Augustus, and the day was the first before the Kalends of November. The hills rose scarlet and gold to the north of the little town, and the westering sun shone ruddily and mystically on the crude new stone and plaster buildings of the dusty forum and the wooden walls of the circus some distance to the east.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Donald Wandrei, November 3, 1927

H.P. Lovecraft was a classicist. This comes as no surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in the Old Gent, but what you may not know is he buried a short story (later entitled “The Very Old Folk”) set in the late Republic period of the Roman Empire in a letter to his friend and supporter, Donald Wandrei. You might know as well that it was Donald Wandrei, with August Derleth, who did the lion’s share work of preserving HPL’s works after his death through the publishing house they founded for that purpose, Arkham House. The story is fascinating and can be read in it’s entirety here, but for our purposes, I hope that it illustrates HPL’s admiration for the Roman period. It is also important to note that the story is presented as a recollection of a dream (some recall!) within a letter, but more on nesting stories in a bit.

cfog_cover_sm-518x800-1[1]Our present story is set around a century after that. “The Horn of the World’s Ending,” by short horror fiction master John Langan, is found in his latest collection, CHILDREN OF THE FANG AND OTHER GENEALOGIES  published by Word Horde. I am grateful to Ross Lockhart at Word Horde for providing me with a gratis e-copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review. Likely this review will be a bit longer than normal as there is much that I want to explore and unpack in this marvelous story, so pour a dram and settle in. In fact, if it isn’t too much of a spoiler about what I might say, while you’re settling in, go ahead and pre-order a copy of this book now (it drops in August). The story was originally published in THAT IS NOT DEAD: TALES OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS THROUGH THE CENTURIES, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, and was published by PS Publishing in 2015.

The tale begins when an unnamed young Roman officer steps into a tavern in Judea (ever a Roman backwater) looking for a drink, trouble, or possibly both. Much like Frodo’s gaze was pulled towards Aragorn in his darkened corner of The Prancing Pony, our officer spies a strange man sitting swathed in darkness and is compelled to visit him. The older man, also a Roman officer, inquires after the younger man’s legion. 322318937a2cb48d5a05fac47d7be0a8[1]He informs him he is from the Ninth, the Hispana, the famed lost legion of Rome. If you didn’t know it already just from picking up a Langan story, you know it now: you’re in for a hell of a ride. Once trust is established, the older officer shows the younger an artifact he acquired in his years of service, “a short, black horn, such as might have ornamented the skull of a not-especially-large goat.” Strange symbols had been carved into it, “The writing seemed to shift as he studied it: whatever his gaze fixed on held steady, but he had the overwhelming impression that the symbols at the edges of his vision were moving, turning like carvings to show themselves from a slightly different angle.” He tells the younger officer that it came into his possession in Britannia, and claims it is a relic of Lost Atlantis. Then he invites the younger man to sit back and listen to his tale.

This story is presented in three chapters and like most Langan stories it is both longish and concatenated. The above action takes place in the first chapter and the second chapter is the older officer’s story. The final chapter returns us to the present and the young officer. This is classic Langan, nesting one story within another, creating layers that play on each other. This kind of structure allows Langan to add depth without losing the reader’s interest amid the greater detail. It also creates a feeling of the weight of time that lends credulity to the tale. 9781939905215_p0_v1_s1200x630[1]It’s a brilliant and time-honored strategy, and it is certainly a calling card of this author (see, THE FISHERMAN, for a novel length example).

Langan’s other calling card is his erudition. He does not write thin, quick, or ultra-accessible fiction. History, religion, culture, art, and literature are all subjects one needs to have under their belt to fully appreciate his work, and I know that I always finish a Langan story and ask myself, “Ok, what did I miss?” But neither is he above playful call-outs to his own friends, as here, recalling Laird Barron’s symbol of the cult of Old Leech, “The lid bore a mark that I had not seen, a circle broken about two-thirds of the way around.” In this story, there are several themes at work that merit exploration: light and darkness, Judeo-Christian concepts of deity, and (from the title of the collection) his own literary genealogy.

Whenever evil is present in this story, as in many, it is accompanied or preceded by darkness. But Langan toys with readers here, teasing out thought and inviting us to wonder. Here it is never outright darkness, but always a seeming dimming of the light. It’s never an actual thing, only a removed tilting of the head. “The man seemed dim…” and, “The campfire seemed to dim.” This made me pause and consider the nature of evil and good. Is evil so powerful that it causes even the light to dim? Or is good so strong that even in the full presence of evil it is only dimmed?

Black Goat
Goat Demon by Vassilios Bayiokos.  Digital illustration, 2018. Used with permission. More of his work found here.

It’s a matter of perspective and how you think about that changes how you read a story like this. The biblical Gospel of John put it this way, “The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Setting a story in Judea that begins with a line like, “When he imagined himself encountering a god…” and shortly thereafter including a reference to “this inn outside Bethlehem,” cannot help but evoke concepts of Judeo-Christian deity. Not unsurprisingly, direct references to YHWH, the god of the biblical Israelites, or to Jesus of Nazareth (born, according to the Gospel of Luke, in the stable of an inn in Bethlehem) are absent here. Since we’re dealing with the Cthulhu mythos (and we are), we’re automatically thinking of altogether different sorts of gods. But the setting alone begs us consider those of the Judeo-Christian traditions. What is a god? What is their power? Does that power have limits? Does their power corrupt their adherents? At the very least, there is a suggestion here that proximity to deity generates an allure for divine power. Langan goes to some interesting places that I don’t want to spoil, but a religious tack on this story is far from inappropriate.

The third theme I’d like to examine is Langan’s own literary pedigree. The subtitle of the collection refers to genealogies and in the “Story Notes” found at the back, he states that most of the stories in this collection were “written in response to invitations to anthologies devoted to a single author,” and how those influences to which he was responding “constituted a (rough, imprecise, incomplete) genealogy.” 91GryENlywL[1](As an aside, I love collections that include Story Notes, and firmly believe all collections and anthologies benefit from their presence.) Even before I read the story notes for this tale, I knew that it was paying homage not only to Lovecraft, but also to Robert E. Howard and to Arthur Machen, a contemporary of HPL’s and one of HPL’s greatest influences. The relic coming from Lost Atlantis where it was once involved in a fight with lizardmen hearkens back to Robert E. Howard’s proto-Conan character, King Kull of Atlantis. A more brooding, thoughtful, philosopher-King character, he never achieved the recognition of the more action-oriented Conan, but is still a great character in his own right. (And, readers of Howard’s Conan stories, rather than just his movie followers, will be quick to point out that Conan was way more of a thinker than ole Arnie portrayed him to be.) Shortly after this allusion, Langan writes, “The children of the gods, he said, had come to the king’s aid. Which children? I asked. Of which gods…Did he mean Pan?” This calls our attention to one of the greatest influences on HPL (and subsequently, on Langan) Arthur Machen, whose literary credits include the enormously influential novella, THE GREAT GOD PAN. 517V3hglbBL[1]These two, combined with fairly direct references to HPL’s Black Goat of the Woods serve to pay homage to some the greatest pulp and weird fiction writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In many ways, this entire website is dedicated to these genealogies, but Langan has somehow managed to masterfully wrap a short story around that.

Lastly, a brief word on Langan’s writing. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but in short, it’s brilliant. He’s a first class writer at the top of his game. He is, however, going to make you work. He builds tension slowly, methodically, but carefully and intentionally. Everything matters, including and especially his structure. He leaves you with no easy answers. His diction and syntax are elevated. For example, a character in this story does not simply die, he “completed his journey out of this life.” Now, I know that won’t be for everyone. Some will level the charge of pretension at John Langan. I think they’re wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that the thought will be there in the minds of some readers. Some might say that Emily Brontë or Jane Austen are pretentious, but that doesn’t change the fact they’re both brilliant, classic writers whose stories will live on forever. In a hundred years, when folks are digging up the history of weird fiction writers in the early 21st century, I suspect John Langan (with Caitlín R. Kiernan and Laird Barron) will be a name they already know, much as we know H.P Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood today. He’s that good.

Thank you if you stuck with me to the end, but there was a lot to say (and even more could have been explored). I loved this story and sat and thought about it a long time after I completed reading it. John Langan is so in touch with the history of the period about which he is writing that it moved me. It wasn’t particularly frightening on its surface, but when you ponder the significance of the questions it raises, it taps into some the oldest anxieties we have as a human race. I hope you buy this collection and if you haven’t yet, do also read through his back catalogue. THE FISHERMAN, specifically, is already a classic of 21st century weird fiction and one of the best pieces of cosmic horror I have ever read. Encourage your local public library to obtain a copy if they don’t have one already. Stay safe out there, friends.

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