No Healing Prayers, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

“Captain Jack sits on his front porch. Shotgun on his lap.
Coffee gone cold.
Waiting.
Waiting for The Thing That Sails On Tears.
The Black Goat.”

—Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., “No Healing Prayers”

maddy-did-me[1]Jospeh S. Pulver, Sr., known primarily for his championship of the Yellow Mythos of the Bierce/Chambers creation, “the King in Yellow,” has died. I did not know him personally, but I followed the heartbreaking medical drama over these last long months through his wife, Katrin’s (aka Lady Lovecraft) social media postings. Relatively speaking, the Lovecraftian community is a small one and because I know that his death has hit hard for a lot of people I read, correspond with, and respect, it has hit hard for me as well. I was very sorry to receive this news. I have hoped, one of these days, to get to a Necronomicon in Providence and had hoped perhaps to meet Joe. Life is so short, friends. Treasure what you have and who you spend your life with. Treasure your friends and reach out to those you’d like to know more. You never know what that last dread bell shall toll for them or thee. And so, on this sad occasion, I have done two things. I ordered a Pulver book (“The King in Yellow Tales, Vol. 1”) as a teensy gesture of support and because it’s one I’d like on my shelf, and I found a Pulver story in a collection I already owned and read it, as I thought it would be a nice homage to review it here on this tragic occasion.

Dead but Dreaming 2“No Healing Prayers” is a super-short, but emotionally-packed story found in DEAD BUT DREAMING 2, edited by Kevin Ross and published in 2011 by the now defunct Miskatonic River Press. The first DEAD BUT DREAMING has a pretty neat history as its first and only (at that time) edition (2002, DarkTales Publications) sold out quickly, was universally lauded as being in the top tier of Lovecraftian collections, and began to fetch prices on Ebay of $200-300+. It wasn’t until 2008 when a reprint license was finally obtained that most people could get their hands on it. In that volume, the editor focused on the cosmicism of Lovecraft, seeking stories of both “depth and heft.” He avoided pastiche and stories directly invoking Lovecraftian creations, like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. In volume 2, he relaxed those guidelines, and sought stories that dealt with the emotional or human aspect of the encroachment of the Mythos.

Pulver’s story, “No Healing Prayers” is one of grief, loss, and the desire for retribution. The last time (which was the first time) I reviewed a Pulver tale, I was both excited and disappointed. Excited because I knew he was a giant in the field; disappointed because I was unprepared for Pulver’s unique writing style and in so being unprepared, found it difficult to connect with it. This time, I was ready for the free verse prose-poem of a Pulver story and found that expecting it up front, I was able to enter into it in a much more comfortable way. Not that the reader’s comfort is always what its all about, but for me in this case, it helped.

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This is a famous photo, taken by Bob Adelman, but it fit so well that I just had to use it. It depicts a man, one Reverend Carter, expecting a visit from the Klan after he had registered to vote in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, 1964.
Our main character, Captain Jack, a hard-working railroad man, is waiting on his porch for someone or something to show its face, and when it does, he’s got a shotgun ready for it. As the less than 5 page story progresses, we learn that Jack’s wife had died and did so under mysterious circumstances. Mysterious, and perhaps demonic. After “all her dances” were taken away, Jack asked around and learned that that fateful night, the Piper Man had been seen, dancing and playing his diseased tune that called out to the Black Goat. HPL fans will recognize one of the appellations of Shub-Niggurath, The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. After that, everything went to Hell. “Creek out back dried up. Brambles thick as tar. Braided like rage-hard fingers white-knuckle tight. Fence gate broken. Empty house at his back.” It is left to the reader to decide whether these were effects of the Black Goat’s visit, or is it just that after his wife died, nothing else mattered anymore and he let it all go. And I will leave it to you to read this story and discover how it ends for yourself.

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Art credit: John Bridges. Attribution: Xaviant Games
Pulver, in so few words, manages to suffuse this narrative with an overwhelming sadness and heavy inevitability. You are right there with Captain Jack on his porch, the weight of the shotgun pulling down your hands, tricking you into relaxing. Jack is a man who has worked so hard for so little and he’s managed to be satisfied with that, maybe even happy. She made him happy, and they had each other, and that was all that mattered in the end. Everything else, window-dressing.

I can’t help but see this story, though it was from 2011, as a kind of coda on Pulver’s life. He married his beloved Katrin late in his life and now she is the one left standing on the porch, alone in the dark. I want to leave you with her own words, from her public announcement of his death on social media. I’m going to get my finest whisky.

“So, tonight, while I sit here with unmeasurable pain and a de, gaping hole in my soul, I want you to celebrate our bEast.
Have a glass of your finest Whiskey. Smoke the grass.
Have some great seafood, or Mecivan, or fire up the BBQ have a huge-ass steak.

When night comes and you see the stars blinking in and out, light a candle to guide him on his way ro eternal Carcosa.

Here’s to a life well lives. A career that outshone the twin suns,
To a precious, loving and fucking amazing human being.

Thank you, babe, for being in my life for more than 10 years and making it so much brigher. I love you.

Rest well in Carcosa, my King.” [sic]

Jospeh S. Pulver, Sr., 1955-2020.

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

The Stagnant Breath of Change, by Brian Hodge

“His shift had an hour to go yet, and by the look of things he’d been home long enough for three cans of Iron City already. Matt was the first person she was aware of who’d figured out that once you had a job in Tanner Falls, it was impossible to lose it, a fact of life he exploited with heedless impunity. Termination was change, and hey, they couldn’t have that.”

Boy EatingI play on a recreational softball team with a person who just moved to our area. When I asked her how she chose to live here, she smiled and said, “I closed my eyes and pointed to a map of the United States.” Incredulous, I inquired further. She said it was true, and in the last six years this method had taken her from Asheville to North Dakota, from San Francisco to Hawaii. She moves, finds a job, and then finds a club sport to play. I couldn’t believe it. When I didn’t know what to say, she smiled and said, “I like change.” I immediately had two thoughts. The first as an arm chair psychologist: from what are you running? The second, as a realist: I would hate that. I don’t like change, you see, and if you’re anything like most people I know, neither do you. That’s what this story is about – change, and what it might actually look like if its withheld. At first glance, some of you might think that sounds great. Think again.

Brian-Hodge-profile-photo-200x200[1]Brian Hodge is an author whose work you ought to know. And yet to my dishonor, while I was familiar with his name, I hadn’t read anything by him until recently. My own ignorance aside, the man has been publishing forever with over ten novels, over one hundred twenty short stories, some now compiled in six collections, several novellas, and of whom no less than Peter Straub wrote, “a man of spectacularly unflinching gifts.”  His latest collection, “Skidding Into Oblivion,” published only this month by ChiZine Publications (who graciously provided a review copy to me in exchange for a fair and unbiased review of a story) in 2019, gathers together twelve stories, all of which have been previously published (since 2010) except the final one. Two of the stories are overtly Lovecraftian, the one I’ll review here and another entitled The Same Deep Waters As You. I could have picked either one, as they are both equally effective and entertaining, but The Same Deep Waters As You is an Innsmouth inspired tale and I feel like I written about a bunch of those already. The Stagnant Breath of Change (originally published in “Shadows Over Main Street,” Cutting Block Books, 2016), however, is about Shub-Niggurath and there aren’t near as many of those stories.

The story opens with two horrors: a man who won’t/can’t/is not allowed to die, and a town that will not abide change. Both are tied to one another. The man, Beasley, is the last of his ilk, a good-ole-boy-town-patriarch type who we’ll learn brokered some sort of Faustian deal to maintain the town’s prosperity. Or maybe it was just about that way he liked it. il_570xN.1617872404_p2m8[1]On account of this bargain, almost nothing is allowed to change, “It was all exactly the same, as immutably fixed as the old spoke-wheeled cannon on the courthouse lawn, commemorating a war no one alive had even fought in.” Even a sign almost everyone acknowledges as racist, highlighting the town’s history as a sunset town, cannot be taken away, painted over, or otherwise destroyed. “It had been more than fifteen years since they’d given up trying,” shining light on how the concept of socio-cultural immutability is fraught with peril and commenting subtly and brilliantly on how the sins of our civilization cannot easily be wiped away or forgotten. But with who, or what, had the deal been struck to effectively freeze the evolution of Tanner Falls?

In 1928 in The Dunwich Horror, HPL “quoted” from a chant in the Necronomicon that discussed the Old Ones and mentioned, “Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” Two years later, in The Whisperer in Darkness, we’d get only slightly more information as he wrote, Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!”  What’s our first clue here that this is the particular Old One we’re dealing with? “The hoofprints…a row of inches-deep depressions striding along the broadest clearing in the field. They hadn’t filled in during the twenty-two years they’d been there, as if something about their creation had seared them in place for all time. Life shunned them. Not even the most opportunistic weeds grew in them, or anywhere close.” 6324586_landscape[1].jpgShub-Niggurath gets a little love among mythos writers, but perhaps most recently by being an obvious (to those who know) influence on the popular film, “The VVitch.” Of course, the black goat has long been associated with Satan as well, and viewers not tuned to the mythos will only pick up on that.

I thought one of the creepier aspects of this story was in how no one could leave Tanner Falls. Not only can nothing change, but literally nothing can leave. This is described wonderfully when, after being alluded too several times, one family decides they’ve had enough and pack up to go. One of Shub-Niggurath’s infamous “thousand young” is dispatched to bring them back, bonus points if they’re whole. This was honestly one of the most creative uses of the Black Goat’s thousand young I’ve ever encountered and I loved it. Such an inescapable position leads naturally to despair, and despair to thoughts of self-harm. But in unchanging Tanner Falls, such ideations are ineffective in their execution. Hodge evokes that sentiment to perfection, to absolute perfection, when he refers to the hospital in town as a “warehouse of failed suicides.” 

That brings me to the writing. Not once did it get in the way, but by the same token, only occasionally did it cause me to sit up and take notice. Between reading this story and writing this review I’ve had a chance to read a bit more of Hodge’s work, and I can tell you quite readily that he’s an accomplished writer. However, of the very small sampling that I’ve read thus far, he’s not a lyrical writer. I don’t find that to be a bad thing, particularly when the author is writing in the mode of modern-day Lovecraft pastiche. The story flowed quickly—very well-crafted, without hiccup—and I didn’t want to put it down. Yet, if you’re looking for high language, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for fun, thought-provoking, Lovecraftian horror, stop here, for you have found it. Shub-Niggurath has got you in her clutches and she’s not wont to let you go.

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Everything organic, from our bodies to our societies, tends towards homeostasis. Biologically, it’s one of the ways we know something is alive. We don’t like change, on the cellular level, a fact written into our DNA. What I love about Hodge’s story is he takes that life necessity, indeed that societal preference, drags it to the extreme edge and then forces it back down our throats. Without change, as you’ll discover when you read this, we become violent creatures. Perhaps more violent than we are when change is allowed. Because as much as we don’t like change, we don’t want to die either. The absence of homeostasis is contraindicated for life, but as Hodge defly shows, too much of a good thing is just as fatal.

There are many more great stories to encounter in Hodge’s collection, many more unnatural fears to stare down and overcome. I suggest you buy this book and get started. Be warned though, skidding into oblivion is thirsty work.

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

Bleatings of the Young: “These were not cries of physical pain. She was intimately familiar with those. These were worse, in a way. Pain could be managed. Hopelessness and despair came from a deeper place than nerve endings.”

A Study in Emerald, by Neil Gaiman

“My dear Lestrade. Please give me some credit for having a brain. The corpse is obviously not that of a man—the color of his blood, the number of limbs, the eyes, the position of the face—all these things bespeak the blood royal. While I cannot say which royal line, I would hazard that he is an heir, perhaps—no, second to the throne—in one of the German principalities.”

511NAV28TQL[1]Some of the works I’ve been reviewing here have come from collections put together by their authors, while others have been edited according to a theme. Sometimes that’s been a more general theme and at other times they’ve zeroed in on a particular HPL story. The collection today’s story comes from is closer to the latter, but with a twist. We’re combining universes in a proton-smashing literary fusion event! As the dusk jacket asks, “what would happen if Conan Doyle’s peerless detective and his allies were to find themselves faced with mysteries whose solutions lay not only beyond the grasp of logic, but of sanity itself?” In some of the forums I look at from time to time and on some of the Lovecraftian podcasts out there I’ve heard a lot of folks asking the same question, “Is this collection worth while?” I admit, I was skeptical at first as I felt my purist blood rising, but then I thought, quite simply, “why not?”  While I have read only two stories in the collection so far, I have enjoyed them a lot. I do have to admit though that I am only a Holmes fan in theory. I’ve never read a single Sherlock Holmes story. I’ve seen a variety of TV shows and films, and listened to a bunch of stories on tape an age ago when I was a child, but I’ve not once read the stories out of a book, nor do I have a grasp on Holmesian canon. I suspect that if I did, I’d enjoy this collection a lot more. Great care seems to have been taken to present the stories in chronological order according to Holmesian canon, but that care and detail is largely lost on me.  I’m here for the Lovecraft.

The opening story in the collection is a fun one, if a bit of an odd ball. Its author, Neil Gaiman, is likely no stranger to most of you, so he doesn’t need much introduction. And, if you’re a Conan Doyle devotee, the story itself will, strangely, not need much of an introduction either.  “A Study in Emerald” is a riff on the first Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel that introduced Holmes and Watson back in 1887 called “A Study in Scarlet.” Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes on the British TV series Sherlock engages this case in that show’s first episode, though there it is called “A Study in Pink.” Our story opens with Holmes meeting Watson for the first time, just as the original story does. sherlock[1].jpgEverything you could want out of a Sherlock Holmes story is present in Gaiman’s offering: the insanely insightful Holmes, the ascerbic Dr. Watson, quick witted banter, mystery, murder, and baffling clues. One of the parts of this story that I loved the most was its window dressing. Prior to each chapter opening, there was a little advertisement that gave a hint that things were not all as they ought to be in typical Sherlock adventure.  Everything from a drama troupe advertising a play entitled “The Great Old Ones Come,” to (my favorite) an ad for a professional ex-sanguinator from Romania named V. Tepes to help with your arthritis! If you don’t know, this is the Romanian name of Vlad the Impaler, as in, Dracula! I thought that these ads were a really fun inclusion and they reminded me of the ads present in the stories from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s “Dark Adventure Radio Theater” productions. However, as I said, this was just a bit of clever window dressing and didn’t do enough to really indicate we were in a Mythos story. So, how exactly is this a cross over story that begins an entire collection of cross over stories?

Well, what we find out before too long, intrepid reader, is that in this version of Sherlock’s London, the Great Old Ones have come and conquered seven hundred years before!  No one is left out, “…the Queen of Albion herself, and the Black One of Egypt…followed by the Ancient Goat, Parent to a Thousand, Emperor of all China, and the Czar Unanswerable, and He Who Presides over the New World, and the White Lady of the Antarctic Fastness, and the others.” 

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“…the Ancient Goat, Parent to a Thousand…”
But, are you ready for this, they (or at least the British Old One) seem to be largely benevolent rulers! I don’t know about you, but this was the part that really threw me off and for this sole reason I don’t know that I would have chosen it to lead off the collection. I get that you want a powerhouse author to kick off your book, but in my humble opinion, I wanted something a bit more true to Lovecraftian form. None of this is to say that this is not a creative, fun, or interesting story. It is all of that and more – truly, this was a joy to read, even as a Sherlock novice. Gaiman’s a consummate writer and he puts you right there in the story quite easily, no matter how familiar it might be to you. But I just couldn’t wrap my unmalleable mind around a beneficent Old One! For crying out loud, she heals Watson’s war wound! “Then the limb uncoiled and extended, and she touched my shoulder. There was a moment, but only a moment, of pain deeper and more profound than anything I have ever experienced, and then it was replaced by a pervasive sense of well-being. I could feel the muscles in my shoulder relax, and for the first time since Afghanistan, I was free from pain.” At least, I suppose, her limb uncoiled rather than reached out. All that being said, it does have this going for it: I didn’t see it coming! If you’ve read this story, I’d love to know what your reaction to this odd turn of events was, so please leave a comment.

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“A Study in Emerald” by Deviant Artist: kelseyleah
If you’re at all nervous about this anthology and the whole cross over idea, don’t be. It’s fun. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about? I do have to say the other story I read in this collection (“The Weeping Masks”) was a lot creepier, though less overtly Lovecraftian. You can almost never go wrong with Neil Gaiman (except for Good Omens – and I know I’m in the vast minority here, but that book did nothing for me) so I get why they chose him for the lead story. However, I am hoping the remainder of the anthology is a lot more like “The Weeping Masks” than this one. I really look forward to seeing the deerstalker capped one take on the Mythos in a more traditional form. How will his unbreakable logic hold up to the mind-shattering knowledge of the cosmos? Will he be able to name the Unnameable? We shall find out, and I hope you’ll join me.

This review was composed by listening to my sick child laboring to breathe. Perhaps it was the croup, or perhaps it was her gills breaking open.

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

Logical fallacies of an incomparable mind:  “…there are those who do not believe that the coming of the Old Ones was the fine thing we all know it to be. Anarchists to a man, they would see the old ways restored—mankind in control of its own destiny, if you will.”