Tidal Forces, by Caitlín R. Kiernan

“And here, on the afternoon of the Seven of Pentacles, this Wednesday weighted with those seven visionary chalices, she tells me what happened in the shower. How she stood in the steaming spray watching the water rolling down her breasts and across her stomach, and up her buttocks before falling into the hole in her side.”

—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Tidal Forces”

“He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1936.

houses_under_the_sea_by_caitlin_r_kiernan[1]Welcome to Women in Horror Month 2020 here at the Miskatonic Review! Of course, I read women horror authors throughout the year (and so should you!), but this is the month in which I’ll join with others in the horror community in lifting up the wonderful work they are producing. You can look back through the archives and catch up with reviews of other fabulous authors, but this WiHM, I’m going to try and highlight some I haven’t yet gotten on the roles of the tenured faculty here at the Miskatonic Review. As I looked through the faculty list, I was stunned by my own omission of Caitlín R. Kiernan because I don’t think I could create a short list of top tier Mythos writers that did not include them. Kiernan is one of my absolute favorites. Their writing is achingly gorgeous, intimate in both its beauty and its pain, inducing a reader to sighs of often inexpressible origin. You don’t read a Kiernan story; you breathe it through your pores where it gives as much as it takes. Late last year, Subterranean Press released a limited, signed, cloth-bound hardcover collection of their best Mythos stories entitled, HOUSES UNDER THE SEA: MYTHOS TALES, for which I hit the pre-order button as fast as I’ve hit it for anything. Those marvelous editions are now gone, but you can pick up the e-book version here for a terrific price.

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That’s right. I’m bragging.

The story I’d like to tell you about tonight, “Tidal Forces,” is found in this collection, but was originally published in Sirenia Digest (#55) in 2011 (the author’s own subscription service) and later that same year was reprinted in Eclipse Four, edited by Jonathan Strahan published by Night Shade Press. It begins, “Charlotte says, “That’s just it, Em. There wasn’t any pain. I didn’t feel anything much at all.” This is a completely misleading opener if ever there was one, at least if we consider the emotional resonance of this story. Charlotte and Emily are lovers. They live on the ocean where, on one innocuous Saturday morning, while Emily was sitting on the porch watching some birds at play, Charlotte paused in her gardening to stretch and look out over the waves. She sees a shadow on the water, as if created by clouds above or something enormous below, but whatever it is it is moving fast and heading towards her on the shore. Emily watched as Charlotte was struck and knocked down. Stunned though she was by an apparent nothing knocking her down, she is unscathed. “But it wasn’t until we were in the bedroom, and she was dressing, that I noticed the red welt above her left hip, just below her ribs.” The injury, the hole, grows slowly instead of healing, and through it can be heard ever so  faintly a “thin, monotonous piping.” Equally as slowly, the implications wear down the women’s psyches. This is not a normal injury, not a normal wound that can be covered by a band-aid until all better.

I’ve always regarded Kiernan’s writing as very smart, and this story is no exception. Three examples. First, they don’t tell this story linearly; if they had done, it wouldn’t be near as interesting or compelling (pretty simple, actually). By bouncing back and forth across the time line they are both making a meta comment on what is happening in the plot and leaving you bread crumbs in both the past and the future that you’ll want to follow, both directions leading to a singularity. Second, they also color the narrative with references to Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, particularly the scene in the rose garden. Here Kiernan offers us a clue that what appears to be reality may only be a thin façade. f52814ae0135dc293e6abbef1058394b[1]Third, Emily names the days, back and forth in time, after individual cards in a deck. The day of the incident is labeled, “The Seven of Clubs. Wednesday, or the Seven of Pentacles, seen another way round…weighted with those seven visionary chalices.” Speaking of Alice, that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I don’t know much about Tarot cards and I don’t know whether Kiernan does either or not. Either they are playing with fluidity here—which would not be an uncommon theme for a Kiernan story—or they are mixing up their tarot suits and their modern suits. The four tarot suits are Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins, corresponding respectively to Spades, Clubs(?), Hearts, and Diamonds. (I couldn’t find definitive information that Wands corresponds with Clubs, so this is a guess.) Here Kiernan says the seven of clubs, which ought to be the seven of wands, but she alternatively names it the seven of pentacles (another name for the suit of coins) but depicts it as having “seven visionary chalices.” As a metaphor, this is quite mixed up. Chalices, or cups, is the last image they leave us with so that was the one I wanted to explore, and wow, is it a treasure trove of symbols for this story! The element of the suit of cups is water; our story is entitled “Tidal Forces,” the initial word of which functions on at least two different levels but one is water. And the shadow that kicked off the troubles was over the water. The suit of cups in tarot deals with emotional situations and events and again, contrary to the opening line, this story is about two people in a very emotional, romantic relationship dealing with their emotions about the inciting incident. The seven, particularly, is a caution not to build castles in the air. This card, it seems, is suited perfectly to the day.

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“Au Lit:Le Basier” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (d.1901)
Emotions and relationships and love being at the center of this story are what makes this story so powerful, and work so well. Kiernan is turning Lovecraft inside out. The Old Gent never wrote about love, despised relationships, and thought emotions a weakness. Kiernan answers by penning a very Lovecraftian Mythos tale which highlights a lesbian relationship, centers on emotion (also inducing emotion in the reader), and uses love as a driving force for the resolution of the story. It’s beautiful!

As I said in the introduction, Kiernan is one of my absolute favorite Mythos writers. I’ve never read a story by them that failed to elicit a powerful emotional response or one which I’ve easily forgotten. (Also contained in this collection, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929),” needs to be read and re-read by every HPL fan, and then someone needs to combine the two stories into a single, B&W noir film. Please.) Like the title suggests, this is a story that draws you in and doesn’t let go. It is neither violent nor grotesque, but quietly suggestive, emotionally gripping, and beautifully haunting.

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

To Rouse Leviathan, by Matt Cardin

“My theological namesake quoted approvingly to his Greek audience a common bit of philosophical wisdom from their own cultural milieu when he spoke of God the Father as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” Does not such a formulation recall Yog-Sothoth, who walks with the other Old Ones between the dimensions, and in whom past, present, and future are one? Does it not recall Azathoth, the primal chaos that resides not only at the center of infinity but at the center of each atom, each particle, perhaps serving as the unaccountable subatomic bond that has categorically escaped scientific explanation?”

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INTRODUCTION

This is a review I’ve been looking forward to writing for a long time. Years before I knew of him, Matt Cardin published his first collection, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP (Ash Tree Press, 2002), and his second, DARK AWAKENINGS (Mythos Books, 2010), both of which are pretty hard to find now at an affordable price. However, you don’t need to. TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN in an omnibus collection containing revised and expanded versions of both of those previous collections, as well as an entire section of newly collected work, published in August 2019 by Hippocampus Press. The exquisite cover art is by the very talented Michael Hutter. If you find you enjoy Cardin’s thinking, he, along with a brain trust of cosmic horror luminaries, blog over at The Teeming Brain. For those unfamiliar with him, Matt Cardin writes a very particular brand of cosmic horror. Don’t turn away when I tell you that what he writes is theological horror, for it is of an ilk you have never read and I dare say most have not presumed to imagine.

Why have I been looking forward to reviewing this ever since I knew of its existence? Because TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN exists at a strange cross-section in my life. What you may not know about me is that in addition to being a fan of Lovecraftian and cosmic horror, I am also an Episcopal priest. So, this will be a longer and different sort of review, as I want to cover in the Introduction what I think is going on in Cardin’s work (which I believe I am uniquely situated to do) and then comment on a specific story I’ve chosen, “The New Pauline Corpus.

1271d404bc966d20f3fed067649475e2[1].jpgA significant amount of 19th and early 20th century western horror was situated in a faithful literary world. That is to say, the Judeo-Christian worldview held sway. Bram Stoker’s vampires could be warded off by a cross, for example, and many of M.R. James’ ghost stories featured Christian clergy in a positive light. Lovecraft adopted a different world view (save, oddly for him, in “The Dreams in the Witch House”) which largely ignored or denigrated a Judeo-Christian heritage, and posited a universe in which magnificent, malevolent, and/or uncaring alien deities were at the top of the divine food chain. As Christendom died, many horror authors abandoned theologically-based or theologically-resolved horror, choosing instead the milieu championed in 1882 by Nietzsche in which “God is dead.” Now, in the wake of sinful and heinous sexual abuse scandals across denominations, we see a lot of horror content in which the church itself and her chosen representatives are the antagonists or, in the least, at the root of the antagonism. Cardin does not fall easily into any of those categories, but you must understand those categories if you’re to grasp the genius of what he is doing.

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“The Undying Worm” by Ed Odson
Cardin’s work imagines neither that God is dead, nor that God never existed; God, in Cardin’s work, is very much real and very much alive. Further, he does not imagine that God is all-benevolent either, but rather that God is almost exactly as the Judeo-Christian scriptures present him, difficult passages and all. Especially those difficult passages. Passages like Genesis 15:12-13a, 17; Numbers 11:33; 16:46, 49;  Isaiah 66:24; and quite a lot of the book of Job. In Cardin’s stories, he wrestles extensively with something theologians like to call theodicy, which are the ways we try to prove God’s goodness in the face of the existence of evil. The book of Job is a biblical mythological work of theodicy, but has a conclusion that does not satisfy most readers. The complicated problem can most easily be explained by imagining a triangle of three philosophical points.

One point maintains that God is omniscient, the second point that God is omnipotent, and the third that God is omnibenevolent. Ask most believers if they agree with those points individually and you’ll likely get near universal assent. However, if you examine it more closely in light of the existence of evil, one point seems like it must break down. If we take for granted God’s omniscience and omnipotence, then, given the existence of evil, we cannot understand God to be omnibenevolent. If God knew bad things were going to happen, and had it in his divine capacity to stop them, and if he were all-good, he would. But evil still exists. It works the same way as you go around the three points.  When taking for granted God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence, given the existence of evil, God cannot then be omniscient. Likewise, when taking for granted God’s omniscience and omnibenevolence, given the existence of evil, God cannot then be omnipotent. For thousands of years theologians, philosophers, and regular people in the pews have wrestled with this concept, making little headway.

 

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Tiamat
This difficulty so befuddled early Christians that it is easy to understand the rise of Manichaeism, a particular brand of gnosticism that sought, in part, to address theodicy. Mani was an early third century Persian who said that, because of the very problem our triangle above illustrated, the world could not have been created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good god. It didn’t work. Mani believed that such a god existed, and that this god was the God of the scriptures, but did not believe that god was the creator of world, because of the manifest presence of evil. Mani, like many gnostics, divided the cosmos into duologies. Therefore, while the god of the scriptures was out there somewhere, the creator deity (who was NOT omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent) was not that god. This explains the presence of evil in the created world. Cardin taps into this concept immediately in his stories, marrying it with the early Babylonian creation myth (Enûma Eliš) that tells of order—in the form of Marduk, bull-calf of the Sun god Utu—triumphing over chaos—in the form of Tiamat, dragon goddess of the salt sea. A similar, if less anthropomorphic, creation narrative is told in the first verses of Genesis.

In TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN, Cardin writes of a god who is something of an amalgamation of Tiamat and the demiurge of Manichaeism, and, from my perspective, is a genius creation and a terribly thought-provoking character who is decidedly not benevolent at all. No where does Cardin abuse the scriptures or take any more liberties with them than Christian orthodoxy does. He just interacts with them in a decidedly different way. His accurate and working knowledge of biblical Hebrew goes a long way to help this and his understanding that both Masoretic vocalization of the text, as well as all punctuation, are editorial decisions as much as literary fact solidifies his command over his material. Remarkably, Cardin is doing a lot more than that in these stories, but time does not permit me to tell of them. While as a theologian, I do not reach his same conclusions, I also operate from the perspective that this is not primarily a work of theology, but a work of contemporary cosmic horror fiction. On to the story!

 

THE NEW PAULINE CORPUS

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“Let the day perish on which I was born. That day—may it turn to darkness. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let the blackness of the day terrify it. Let those sorcerers who place a curse on days curse that day, those who are skilled to rouse Leviathan.”  ~Job 3:3-5, 8
At first I wanted to write about the first story in the collection, “An Abhorrence to All Flesh,” which still ended up being my favorite. Then I read the second story, “Notes of a Mad Copyist” and wanted to write about it. Then I wanted to write about “The Basement Theater,” the most Ligottian story in the book in my opinion. But when I finally reached “The New Pauline Corpus,” I knew I had to write about it as it combines a good portion of Cardin’s theological musings with the Lovecraftian Mythos.

Towards the beginning, Cardin writes, “…theology-as-story does not preclude ontology but incorporates it…we are living the story of a war between levels of reality. Our metanarrative is the tale of how space-time, the cosmos, the created order, was usurped by a reality that is more fundamental, primary, and ancient.” That usurpation was of the Lovecraftian gods over the god of the scriptures and this story is told from the epistolary perspective of a neo-Paul writing to a certain Francis (the current Pope?) attempting to integrate the Christian worldview with the cosmological disaster that has occurred. Further ponderings ultimately lead to the eminently quotable line, “What has Christ to do with Cthulhu?”

Neo-Paul answers this query in sections bearing such theologically awesome sub-headings as “Its Immanence,” and “Its Awefulness.” In them he explores the concept of divine fear, and how the mythos gods more acutely evoke such reactions. He questions the true purpose of religion, but not in the same tired way that Marx did. b62823de8fba75f50b67d94136fe47a4--pictures-of-jesus-christ-pictures[1]He closes the loop between the creation myth of Genesis and the vision of John the Revelator. He wonders about the sustaining power of narrative, invoking the scene from Ezekiel wherein God commands the prophet to eat the scroll. And finally, given their awful circumstances, he is forced to conclude that, “What might be a wholesome human form dressed in liturgical vestments and wearing the papal mitre might also be a mutated manshape sprouting dragon’s wings and surmounted by a head like a cuttlefish…” This is, obviously, a much less serious story than those that precede it, but at the same time it is a more fun one which I enjoyed immensely not only for its self-awareness, but for its function near the end of this omnibus of allowing you to breathe again. To breathe, and even to laugh.

Matt Cardin’s writing is beautifully erudite, at times bordering on academic, but it is never boring or oppressive. He invites you to bring your brain to this reading and then thoroughly engages it. TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN is a thinking person’s collection of horror, and will lustrously reward those who are willing to peep with him over the edge of the abyss and not retreat when it returns the gaze. It is also the most fun I’ve had with a single author collection in a long time. This volume deserves to be shelved in your place of highest honor, a fair companion to Lovecraft, Ligotti, and whomever else you consider to be a master of the craft. Matt Cardin’s brand of horror is Lovecraftian in some ways, it’s true, and Ligottian in many others, but I suspect it won’t be long now before we refer to it simply as Cardinian.

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

A Reading from Matt Cardin: “These psychic disturbances that have so terrified us of late, all the collapsing distinctions between thought, imagination, and physical reality, so that a stray wish or undisciplined notion may cause finned, clawed, and tentacled atrocities to appear, or may even alter one’s own physical body in awful ways that some of us have been unable to undo afterward, as in a nightmare from which one cannot wake because one has awakened inside the nightmare itself—may these not be the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the paraclete to “guide us into all truth” and “convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment,” and of his promise that his followers would perform even greater miracles than he himself had performed, and of the apostle Paul’s teaching that the divine spirit living within us will show us directly those primal mysteries which “no eye has seen, no ear had heard, no mind conceived?”

Here endeth the reading.

 

SPECIAL DOUBLE FEATURE! Azathoth in Arkham; The Revenge of Azathoth, by Peter Cannon

“At the end of the session, I impulsively proposed to host the next meeting at my place, the very house where Edward Derby had grown up! The gang enthusiastically accepted my offer, and a date was set for the following week.”

9781568820408-us[1].jpgPeter Cannon kept company with an esteemed literati, including such lofty Lovecraftian personages as Frank Belnap Long, Dirk Mosig, S.T. Joshi, Robert Bloch, and others. Whereas a lot of the authors I read and review here are more modern in their context, Cannon was active in the early days of this contemporary renaissance of Lovecraftian literature. These two stories were first published in 1994 and collected in the volume in which I found them, “The Azathoth Cycle,” edited by Robert M. Price and published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1995. Do you remember 1995? Braveheart was in the theaters, that’s what I remember; and I loved it. But that was before most of us recognized that Gibson was an ass with a Messiah complex. In any event, these Chaosium volumes are intriguing, collecting stories focused on a single Lovecraftian entity or concept for the particular purpose of providing background reading to those who delve into the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Now, I’ve never played that myself, but these resource books are actually a fantastic boon to fans of the Mythos. Admittedly they are a little hard to read straight through due to the lack of variety (I mean, there’s only so much Azathoth I can take, you know? At least in one sitting…), but when you just want a story about that one elder God and can’t remember which collection you found one in, voila!, here you go.

Peter Cannon brings a vast knowledge and love of the original tales by the Old Gent, but doesn’t fully prostrate himself at the altar. Were he to visit the supposed grave of HPL, I imagine he’d smile wryly, maybe give the headstone a pat or two, and then walk away. He certainly wouldn’t leave a silver key, read poetry, or offer a malediction of blood, all things done fairly regularly there at the Swan Point Cemetery. galaxyy[1].jpgThis one-step removed posture allows Cannon to write with a wink and a nod, and infuse his compositions with an informed humor that you can only chuckle at if you’re as well-read as he in the native tales.

These stories are both sequels to The Thing on the Doorstep, imagining that it was Azathoth which somehow infected the minds of Asenath and Ephraim Waite. The first story, Azathoth in Arkham, follows the exploits of Edward Derby Upton, son of Edward Derby’s best friend, though never a particular fan of his namesake. “I confess that I never much cared for ‘Uncle Eddy…’ as a youth keen on such manly sports as boxing and baseball, I found Derby too flabby, too feminine.” The story takes place a little over a year after the events in Thing and finds Upton attempting to settle his own father’s affairs, who had died following a fit of madness and brief incarceration in the same padded cell at Arkham Sanitarium that had held Edward Derby. While doing some research on his father’s interests he learns of a group of young men who’d formed an interest group of sorts, the Dead Edward Derby Society. (Here, as elsewhere, we get a glimpse of Cannon’s sense of humor.) He ingratiates himself rather easily into the society and soon invites them to his home for their meetings, the home where Edward Derby had grown up.

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The Derby House in Salem, MA
They’re astonished and immediately accept the offer, though after a rich repast upon their first meeting there, the young scholars request spaghetti for the next dinner, which was lovingly prepared by the house butler, Soames. As with the previous story based on Thing that I covered, the tale ends unsurprisingly with a bit of a switcheroo.

However, Cannon isn’t done yet.

The second story, The Revenge of Azathoth, retells the action from the first story, but from the perspective of one of the Derby acolytes in the Dead Edward Derby Society, a young man named Vartan Bagdasarian. It’s important to read these stories both in order and together, otherwise you run the risk of missing important details and the full extent of Cannon’s authorial whimsy. In this sequel to a sequel, we learn the why of certain events from the first story and a fuller picture comes into focus. Vartan is a literary critic who isn’t as star-struck with Upton as his compatriots. Rather, he has a deeper drive to research Derby, and Azathoth, and will use the fortuitous happenstance of the Society encountering Upton to his utmost advantage, especially after glimpsing a cupboard that contained some of Derby’s writings. “There was a silence as I  waited for him to make the obvious offer. Finally, I spoke up, and in as casual a tone as I could muster, suggested that I’d be glad to save him the effort of examining the cupboard’s contents, not that I wanted to impose or anything…” A female foil (from Innsmouth, of all places) named Wendy is introduced, who provides a focal point for Upton’s transforming appetites. I do have to add, though, that there is a flavor of misogyny present around this character—even if it’s written in a less than flattering light—that this reviewer found distasteful. In the end, another rather unsurprising conclusion is offered as we all are once again supposed to gasp at miscegenation.

The second story is better than the first, though neither of them particularly blow your hair back. Sure, there’s a chuckle or two to be had, especially with the flip way in which Cannon handles Lovecraftian material to which other authors, and HPL himself, assigned such grave importance and cosmic magnitude. There was something human in that, and somehow that was a bit refreshing. There is real genius in the second tale, though, and I would have missed it, I admit, had it not been for Robert M. Price’s introduction to the story. I quote, “The literary cult of Lovecraft himself becomes the basis for the “Dead Edward Derby Society,” and the chief Derby zealot who has moved to Arkham for the sole purpose of living among his hero’s haunts, Vartan Bagdasarian, is based on both August Derleth…and S.T. Joshi…” That’s both a fun and a tongue-in-cheek move, and I’m indebted to Price (who isn’t the darling he once was in the Lovecraftian community on account of his own outspoken xenophobic beliefs, and more recently, his public approval of Donald Trump as President) for pointing it out.

These two stories are a good example of some of the earlier work being done in this current wave of Lovecraftian fiction. Derleth, Bloch, Campbell, Carter, Ashton-Smith, and others wrote a lot of pastiches on the way to laying down a few of their own original bricks. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But this isn’t even on the same playground where Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín Kiernan, Ruthanna Emrys, and others are currently giving flesh to some of the best dark fiction period. If it took some pastiche work, and some less than inspired stories to get to where we are today, then I’m deeply grateful. Don’t get me wrong, gentle reader, these aren’t bad stories, and if you’re a Lovecraft fan you’ll have fun with them. They just aren’t up to the mind-blowing, reality-shifting status of some of the others I’ve reviewed here. I may be in danger of overvaluing the present at the expense of the past, but I don’t think too much so.

One final point, despite the intent of these tales, and despite their titles, they didn’t have a lot to do with Azathoth. I’m still in search of a really good Azathoth story, so if you know of one and can point me to it, please do so in the comments. I don’t know exactly what Daniel Upton found on his doorstep, but if Azathoth had anything to do with it, it was only in the inspirational sense.

This review was composed listening to the Spotify playlist “Classical in A Minor” compiled by Laura Guthrie.

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

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“wash away my demons” by Deviant Artist: crimsonnonyxx

Survivor Type, by Damir Salkovic

“Molly was kneeling by the window, her rifle cradled in her lap, her face lit by the red glare of the night. A strange cacophony came from outside, a wailing chant that was half screams and half laughter, accompanied by the rumble of drums and the shrill of pipes and flutes. The infernal din curdled Nick’s blood: he crept to the window and what he saw froze him in place.”

hinnom-008-cover.jpgLike many of you fellow cosmic trespassers, I have, from time to time, wondered what if Erich Zahn had broken a string; what if the strange alchemy of Armitage and Co. had failed and the powder was ineffective; what if Cthulhu rose and the armies of Y’ha-nthlei flopped ashore? In other words, what if Lovecraft’s monsters and gods won? In our last story, we saw a glimpse of that that didn’t quite meet with my expectations, enjoyable though it was to read. Tonight’s story, on the other tentacle, presents a vision that I can at least buy into. It’s a glimpse of a mythosian victory that is truly terrifying and very creative. I have to say a word about where I encountered this story. Hinnom Magazine (this issue was #008) is a relative newcomer on the horror zine scene, and I’ve only recently encountered it. When I saw what C.P. Dunphey and friends were trying to do I immediately became a subscriber. Their covers advertise the magazine as “the world’s most popular magazine of weird fiction and cosmic horror,” and while I think that’s more aspiration than truth at this point, I’m excited for that possibility and for a true successor to Weird Tales, of blasphemous memory. I’m on board and hope to see it come to pass. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Alright, on to the story.

I have to admit, when I first started reading I thought, “Oh no, here we go, another post-apocalyptic, Walking Dead type, survival story.” But by page 2, I saw how wrong I was. It is a post-apocalyptic survival story, but the reason for the apocalypse wasn’t political strife or even an errant tweet from an orange haired moron. It was the rising of what I’ll take to be an Old One that triggered the nuclear codes to be used – “…the bombers diving out of the the sun, trying to nuke the thing in Yokohama Bay.” Post-Nuclear-War-Landscape-Wallpaper-800x600[1]Apparently this happened in more places than one around the globe, and, before you can say “Geiger Counter,” everybody with nukes is slinging them around and voila!, nuclear wasteland. But the nukes were ineffective.

Nick, the protagonist of our tale, is wandering about the western USA when he finds another group of survivors (this is where I groaned about a possible Walking Dead scenario) who actually take him in after, oddly, checking him for ritual scars. My eyebrow raised. After they bed down for the night, it all goes to hell. Something comes. And while at first you may be tempted to believe, as I did, that what came was “the thing” this story was about, you’ll soon realize it is just one of many things, in a country taken over by things, on a planet now possessed by things. But this first one was definitely a cool, cosmically terrifying thing: “The creature moved like an oil slick, a huge, shapeless, ebony mass. It had already seeped over the glass front of the store and was crawling over the roof, the steel framework groaning under its bulk. Behind the horror lay a trail of devastation, asphalt and rock melted as if with acid.”

Narrowly escaping this slippery abomination, several of the survivalists accompany Nick as he flees. Later, they have an encounter that reminded me of nothing less than a scene from Turkish horror film Baskin (seriously, do not watch this unless you have a strong stomach, and in fact, the rest of the story here is only for the strong of stomach). There’s a lot of body horror over the next few pages and while that isn’t Lovecraftian, Salkovic had already established his story in a Lovecraftian setting and so the mash-up actually created something new for me. I’m sure he’s not the first person to have done it, but I enjoyed it. “Some of the horrors were composites, two or three or half a dozen cultists strung together into one shuffling, mewling whole…” I still see that when I close my eyes and think of this story. This whole scene was really effective from both a Lovecraftian and a horror point of view, and was easily my favorite part of a really good, well-written story.

Salkovic’s prose is gorgeous in its grotesqueries. He was really able to put me right in the midst of this scary, dark, lethal world where the elder gods have risen and the remnants of humanity are on their way out, whether they choose to worship or no. Check this out, “Its head was shrunken and lined, the drooling mouth wide, the eyes stitched tightly together, black, viscous tears tickling from the corners.” This is the cultist’s priest-thing for crying out loud.

Though it seems to be in a position of honor and even of adoration, it’s not a glorified image at all, not an image of one who has been somehow rewarded for faithfulness despite the end times.

I truly appreciated the combination, which was fresh for at least me, of typical Lovecraftian tropes (insane fluting cultists, tentacles, an Azathoth sighting I think, visions of cosmic enormity) and evocative, bloody, body horror. He excels at causing you to think about the words on the page and then you can’t help but shudder at the sheer awfulness of it. Like I said at the beginning, it’s a vision of the Lovecraftian Mythos victory that resonates with me a whole lot. And one in which I’d like exactly no part. In the midst of all that, the writing even manages to squeeze out a bit of emotion, like when he says, “They would believe him, the small, wiry woman and the man with the burned face. They needed to believe something.

If I take exception with any part of this wonderful story, it’s that the ending was not what I expected and not totally in a good way. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll just say this: how it concluded was not, in my opinion, sufficiently foreshadowed. Now before you say, well now wait just a second, if you totally foreshadow the ending it’s not a surprise! True, true. But here—and again, this is purely my opinion—parts of the story do not set up the ending to be plausible. If you get a chance to read it, I’d be fascinated to hear in the comments what you think about this: if this ending is true, then why does Nick respond the way he does in certain other, previous, situations?

I don’t want to make too much out of that because it’s a subjective observation. This is a wonderful story with impressive and affecting prose, memorable scenes, and a fascinating and believable vision of an end in which the mythos does what we all fear it might do. If you like the sound of that then let me encourage you to check out what the good folks over at Gehenna and Hinnom are doing, not only with Hinnom magazine, with but anthologies as well.  Send them a few bucks, because if you, like me, want another Weird Tales-like zine in true print form, we have to support it.

This review was composed listening to the sanity cracking monophony of “Azathoth” by Cryo Chamber.

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

Epiphany: A Flying Tiger’s Story, by Stephen Mark Rainey

“In all my experience as a fighter pilot, of walking hand in hand with death on a daily basis, I don’t believe I had ever felt so thoroughly terrified by my condition as a solitary, fragile, and ultimately minuscule being as I did now.”

81NDPG7P81L[1]Surely I won’t keep up this posting pace, but today’s a holiday and what the heck, here’s one more. Kevin Ross and Keith Herber’s edited anthology, Dead but Dreaming, was a collection I was glad to be able to get my hands on.  It had apparently only had a very small first run and became a well-lauded (Mike Davis, over at the Lovecraft Ezine, calls it one of the best Lovecraftian anthologies ever), but very difficult book to find.  It was first published in 2002 by DarkTales Publications, which quickly went under and this volume, in high demand, was apparently selling for over $300 on Ebay.  Thankfully, it’s been republished in 2008 by Miskatonic River Press, and I laid my tentacles on it for only $18.

The first story in the collection (when first reading a collection, I like to read the first story first, because I think it sets a tone, and they obviously chose it to lead off for a reason,) is called “Epiphany: A Flying Tiger’s Story,” by Stephen Mark Rainey.  Rainey is a prodigious author of novel, short stories, audio dramas, and a bunch of other creepy media. Like the first story by Laird Barron that I reviewed, this tale has as its hero a military man, in this case a WWII fighter pilot named Jack Wyndham. The story opens in the midst of our pilot seeing action in the Pacific Theater, Japanese Zero bullets rattling off his plane’s fuselage above the jungles of Burma. There’s a lot of zigging and zagging, some serious G-pulling dives, and a stone or two of hot lead flying through the air.

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American P-40b “Tomahawk”
Jack manages to pull away from his pursuers, but not before his P-40b Tomahawk is fatally damaged.  Options disappearing in black smoke pouring from his engines, he pops his cockpit glass, ejects, and watches his ride crash in a fireball in the jungle below.  It’s not long, though, before her hears the familiar whine again, and looks up in terror to see the vengeful Zeroes coming around to target his parachute with their cowl mounted machine guns. And then something bizarre happens.  A smoky haze seems to arise in front of the Zeroes, doing funky things to how they appear to Jack and muffling the sound.  Then, as if running right into a wall, the planes flatten and explode, as Jack continues his slow drift into the deep jungle canopy below.

The next part of the story takes place with Jack dangling from his chute, stuck in the top of the canopy with no safe way of getting down.  The Burmese jungle Rainey paints for us is a great Lovecraftian environment actually. It’s threatening and oppressive, but not because it’s malevolent. Rather it simply doesn’t care at all about the solitary human being hanging from its branches. It doesn’t look good for our Yankee airman and over the next pages (too many I felt, but it wasn’t that big of a deal) we read about him slowly coming to grips with the severity of his situation. No rescue will be forthcoming. No one knows where he is.  He can’t get down; he’s too far up to fall safely, and he’s out of reach of any branch that might support him. He’s got a single canteen of water. Oncoming night terrifies him: “Now, though, as the afternoon began to wane, a dread of the coming night settled heavily upon me; every nerve in my body railed against the idea of hanging helplessly in this place once the sun had gone down.”  The hopelessness of his case evokes strong, if localized, Lovecraftian themes.  The force (nature) against which he is arrayed is simply too powerful and too uncaring about his predicament.

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How would you like to land in this?

Oh, but then we get really Lovecraftian.  Because whatever those Japanese fighters crashed into is coming.  I don’t want to spoil it for you but Jack’s in for one heck of a ride through time and space. Something has taken an interest in him after all. For a moment even, he imagines the shrill chirping of the jungle insects is actually “a threnody piped by insane flautists.” Oh boy, Lovecraft fans, you know what that means! Azathoth may be near. (This is actually a Dunsaynian idea that HPL appropriated: the idiot sleeping god who dreams the world into existence, and is kept asleep by the music of lesser deities, and thank goodness for that because if he wakes up, it’s all over for everything.) But then it is over, the strangeness of our story I mean, and he wakes back up in a field hospital, miles from where he crashed, apparently having been rescued by a patrolling troop of local Burmese regulars.

I’m hoping this story actually does set the tone for the rest of this anthology because, like the Barron, this is well beyond pastiche or imitation. This is taking the best of Lovecraft’s sense of cosmic fear—fear of the unknown—and working it into a story all Rainey’s own. As I’ll probably no doubt say over and over again, Lovecraft wasn’t just all about the tentacles and the cultic magic.  Sure, that is a part of it, and a great lot of fun too, but what really sets Lovecraft apart is his sense of cosmic terror, that the evolution of human beings is a joke of the universe at best, a blip on the galactic timeline.  This story taps into that pretty successfully, except, perhaps, for at the very end when something happens that maybe makes the reader think the cosmic force is actually malevolent and actually does care about the humans or the earth, if only in a really scary way.  I’d love to read more authors’ takes on this theme and I’m hoping this anthology is a good place to do it.

The writing here is more than adequate but not poetic by any means.  While there weren’t any sentences that made me sit up and say, “What the hell?” neither were there any that made me want to read them out loud or made me feel something profound.  You don’t actually notice the writing as you’re reading this story, and that’s a pretty great feat in and of itself. There’s nothing particularly scary or creepy about reading this story, but it is one I think most Lovecraft fans will really enjoy, particularly those who understand the (potential) Azathoth scene.

Well, that about does it for this review, fellow Lovecraftians. While writing this, I listened to the Spotify playlist “WWII: Songs that Won the War,” compiled by user Angelfancy.

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

Words of cosmic dread: “I realized then that one of the stars ahead glowed more brightly than its neighbors, with a hot, greenish flame that blazed like a beacon. Soon, I could actually see it growing in size—or I should say looming larger, as my flight propelled me toward it. Something about this star unsettled me. Not the fact that I might fly into its heart and be instantaneously burned to to a cinder, but that the thing was not actually a star at all. It was something else entirely.”