In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, by Damien Angelica Walters

“This is the wrong door,” he says, and she startles. “This isn’t my house.”

“Jack, honey, it’s late. Come back to bed. It’s still dark outside, that’s why it looks so different, but it’s still the same house we’ve lived in for a long time.”

He shakes his head. “No. This is the wrong door. The right one is out there.”

A lot of the time, horror stories are utterly fantastic. For as terrifying as Cthulhu would be to encounter rising from the depths of the sea, he sure is fun to read about, because he’s pure fantasy. Damien-Angelica-Walters-2018-Author-Photo-1020x979[1].jpgThat’s one of the joys of reading horror; it gives the reader a sense of control over what would be totally uncontrollable in real life. We know the story will end, and so we bravely trudge on, turning the page. Some horror stories, however, come so close to reality that they reach though the veil and brush it with dreadfully cool fingertips. These are the horror stories someone is most likely to have to set down. They cut too close and the reading is no longer any fun. I suspect Damien Angelica Walters‘ story, In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, is one of those stories for many people.

It’s still Women in Horror Month and I wanted to make sure I highlighted an author about whom I’ve gotten excited. I went back and listened to her interview (Part 1 and Part 2) on the This is Horror podcast and at one point she spoke about how she sometimes gets very emotionally tied into her stories. She mentioned this story as a perfect example, sharing how when she finished writing it, she wept at the end. Normally (at least I imagined so), this kind of response is reserved for the reader, not the creator, and so I was intrigued. I had the story, contained in the excellent anthology “Autumn Cthulhu,” edited by Mike Davis and published in 2016 by the Lovecraft eZine Press, and so commenced to reading it.

dementia2-804x369[1].jpgGoing back over it now, I see how the opening two lines are well-crafted to set the tone, but as of yet, we do not know it. “A doe picks her way from between two trees at the edge of their back yard, keeping to the narrow path, her legs moving with a dancer’s grace. Helena holds her breath, even though she and the deer are separated by a wide expanse of lawn , a deck, and locked French doors.” This is a story about the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Helena’s husband Jack has been slowly slipping sideways into unknowing, and the experience for Helena is like that of seeing the doe. So close, but separated so profoundly by the familiar. I haven’t personally experienced the disappearance of a loved one into this diseased twilight, but have known many people who have and their reports are devastating. Angelica Walters captures that devastation in eloquent, sharp prose: “This isn’t my house,” he says, his voice razor-sharp. “I know it isn’t.” “Would you like to watch a movie?” She keeps her voice bright, cheerful. “Stop talking to me. I know what you’re doing, but it won’t work. This isn’t the right house.” If there is anything to criticize here, it is that while this story works as a weird story (why it does we’ll come to in a moment) it almost would work better on its own, without any elements of the weird.  But this is a Lovecraftian short story blog and the anthology containing the story is titled “Autumn Cthulhu,” and so let’s get to it.

night_forest_by_elenadudina_dcwy6o6-250t[1].jpgAs the story goes on, Jack mentions things about doorways, the right time, often speaking to someone who isn’t there. He gets up in the middle of the night and wanders around, sometimes out of doors. The doe from the opening lines makes more appearances, and now, it seems to be decaying—a symbol of Jack’s disease process. “There, at the end of the yard, the white-eyed doe. More patches of fur have fallen out; the bare skin beneath holds a strange grey cast.” Alzheimer’s works like this from what I gather. Patches of your loved one fall away, leaving behind a sallow blankness that can turn whip-crack sharp in their frustration.

By the time you reach the end, seasoned readers of the Old Gent will be thinking about Yog-Sothoth, what with all these mentions of doorways, gates, and time. It’s even possible some emissary of Yog-Sothoth has shown up.

Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror

And then, finally, you’ll understand why Damien Angelica Walters cried. It’s not so much that the ending is sad as it is that the whole damned, perfectly titled thing is sad. She brings to life this couple, their relationship, Helena’s tangled skein of grief and love with beautiful words and evocative episodes. We get only a glimpse, and yet in that glimpse we can see those we have loved. I imagine for readers who have gone through what Helena is going through this story will be especially painful and perhaps not at all cathartic. For them and their loved ones, there is no sense of control, no knowing the story will end, and so their bravery in facing each day is heroic. But then again, maybe it will be cathartic. That’s the beauty of fiction. This is a powerful piece of writing by an author whose name deserves to be known. It’s unusual for me to get so lost in a story (with a wife, a dog, and two kids under eight), but when I was reading this, it was as if I was in that quiet forest, following that elusive doe, and the world around me had faded into the background.

When I was listening to her interview on the podcast, she mentioned that one of her writing goals was to appear in an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. She’s appeared on the list of Honorable Mentions quite a number of times but had yet to break into the table of contents. Well, just two days ago on February 20, 2019, Datlow revealed the table of contents for the forthcoming The Year’s Best Horror, Volume 11, and right there in the middle of it is Golden Sun, a novelette by Kristi DeMeester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt. Congratulations Damien, you deserve it! Achievement unlocked!

That about wraps it up for today my fellow cultists. Remember, when your time comes, do not go gentle into that good night. This review was composed while listening to the Peaceful Meditation radio station on Spotify.

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

The plaintive plea of the wife: “I’m coming Jack. Stay there. Please stay there.”

Water Main, by S.P. Miskowski

“Terrible things happen,” she said. “We can’t change that. We have to go on living every day in the real world.”

“I don’t know,” Jim said. “Maybe everyone should be a little bit afraid of the things we can’t explain.”

Autumn Cthulhu8bS.P. Miskowski is an author I’ve been hearing a lot about the more I get familiar with the big names in horror and, specifically, Lovecraftian fiction. I’d also been looking for a good story to review for you for Halloween, and so it’s simply fantastic that Miskowski has a story in the wonderful collection “Autumn Cthulhu” put out by the Lovecraft eZine Press in 2016, and edited by Mike Davis. I recently read another story by her in the “The Best Horror of the Year” but it wasn’t particularly Lovecraftian and so didn’t work for here, but it’s still a great story and worth a look. A lot of Miskowski’s fiction takes place in Seattle or the Pacific Northwest, and having been there once in the Autumn, I can attest that it is a delightful setting for horror stories of any kind. This current story takes place on a residential street near downtown Seattle, a street filled with less than desirable apartment buildings near a place she calls “Dead Poets Corner,” which at least feels in her descriptions like a real place, though I don’t know if it is.

As she begins her tale—first of all, the opening paragraph is some of the most gorgeous autumnal writing, it just puts you in the right mood straight away—we discover ourselves to be in a flashback of Nancy’s, our main character. She’s gone back to a time when she was a child, listening to her Dad tell, for the umpteenth time, the story of his surviving an earthquake when he was a child. It’s dressed up slightly differently each time he tells it, often personifying the earthquake as a giant who chased him down though never caught him. For the first few pages of the story, we learn a lot about Nancy’s dad’s experience and the kind of person it made him. We get the sense that Nancy herself, while valuing her Dad’s experiences and stories, has no desire to emulate him. (Oh, how right she’ll be…) All of her dad’s cautionary tales could be summed up, we learn later, in one word: “Don’t.” He lived his life in fear, and she does not want to do that.

seattle-halloween-events[1].jpg

Halloween imagery is infused throughout this first sequence, and it really provides a lovely atmosphere when combined with the feel of the fog smothered city. Jack o’lanterns and references to the holiday abound, all serving to remind her, in an unwelcome way, of her father and his warnings. But, as we move into the present of this story, it is her boyfriend, and not her father, who becomes her chief foil. He’s an app programmer, which means he sits around all day playing video games and eating last night’s pizza. Nancy is not a happy camper. Nothing around the apartment is getting done, including the fixing of a leaky toilet and series of pipes, causing constant water issues. They have an argument and Nancy decides to go out for a walk, contemplating either breaking up or cooling off.

This middle section of this 20 page story contains some of the most beautiful writing Miskowski musters.  As Nancy reflects on her history, her present situation, and her immediate surroundings, we get a taste of Miskowski’s literary prowess. One passage in particular caught me up. As Nancy passes Dead Poet’s Corner and sees two aging hippies walking hand in hand, presumably seeing also everything she does not have in her current relationship, we get a profound sense of both melancholy and regret. “Night was spreading across the neighborhood. Nancy walked on. The sad grace of the couple on the lawn made her shudder but she couldn’t say which emotion was stronger, disappointment or dread. She didn’t like to think of the future anymore.”

This is a turning point towards the story’s final and weirdest act. On her walk back she observes an apartment building that has somehow escaped her notice before. It’s a bit odd looking, but then again, so is a lot of Seattle. It seems to her out of place (she mentions New Orleans), and possibly out of time. It has a bizarre, Seattle_-_west_on_S_Washington_St_at_night_02[1].jpgalmost nautical, theme to it appointments. A man, “studying his fingernails,” sits on a folding chair outside the main door. After a brief and equally as odd conversation, she enters the building to allow the man to show her an apartment. She doesn’t think she’s serious in any way, just wants a handle with which to shake her languorous boyfriend. Very quickly the tour turns quite Lovecraftian, and into something that I thought was reminiscent of some scenes from the John Carpenter film “In the Mouth of Madness.”  I’ve always liked how that film showed images that maybe were crazy, maybe weren’t and played on your doubts and fears, and Miskowski does that very well here in a few, short pages. At first, there’s just a little bit off…“She forced herself to look down at three babies crawling in sodden diapers, all of them wailing. Their faces glistened with tears and snot and as they crawled they left wet trails like slugs.” Three sick, crying babies in diapers. An innocuous enough image until you begin to  think about it. Who let’s their babies crawl around apartment hallways and steps? Who lets sick babies out unattended? It’s a very subtle madness and very well done. In the end, our hero makes a choice that is the living opposite of her dad’s best advice in a move that calls to mind the ending of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

As I’ve stated throughout, Miskowski is capable of beautiful, evocative writing, replete with an underlying dread that only fully manifests in the end, like some horrible, hatching egg. It’s normal, until it isn’t, and then all of a sudden, it really isn’t. There’s a danger in this kind of writing that somehow Miskowski neatly sidesteps. You don’t want to let your readers go too far in thinking one thing, only to knock them sideways in an abrupt and unexplained ending. She rides that edge here, but she accomplishes it. The only thing I was left wondering at the end was what the title of the story had to do with anything. Sure, there’s water problems in her apartment and that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for her with her boyfriend, but that doesn’t really merit a title. The only thing I could come up with here, and I know this is a pretty far reach, is a water main runs underground through everything, and when it goes, everything really goes. Emotionally, in the weird final act, everything really goes for this character. I don’t know. Maybe. What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

That about does it for tonight, fellow cultists. I wish you all a very happy Halloween, by which I mean full of creeping dread and cosmic nihilism. This review was composed listening to the Spotify playlist “Classical Halloween.” It’s pretty good.

Also, please remember, sharing is caring and if you enjoy these reviews, please give them a Like and maybe follow the blog. Better yet, leave a comment and start a conversation. Best of all, let your fellow Lovecraftians know about it, and help point them this way.

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

Leasor/Leasee fine print: “He stepped off the stairs at the next level and offered one hand to steady her. She touched it for a second but his softly tapered, damp fingers repulsed her. She let go and resisted the urge to wipe her palm on her coat.”