The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud

“There were four saved images and a video file. He stared at them a moment. He tried to come to terms with what he was seeing, tried to arrange the world in such a way that would accommodate his own mundane life, the daily maintenance of his ordinary existence, along with what he saw arrayed before him in neat little squares, like snapshots of Hell.”

For a brief slice of time, I tended bar. Oh, not in a down and dirty dive like the setting of Nathan Ballingrud‘s fantastic novella, The Visible Filth, where fights broke out at the drop of a hat and cockroaches ride the beer taps like carnival slides. No, I tended bar for the always rich and sometimes famous (that party is a story for another time) at a swank conference and retreat center with prohibition-era hidden liquor cabinets in the walls and a crown molding that was the actual inspiration for Joe Camel. But, if there’s one thing all bartenders have in common it’s the fact that they’ve seen some shit. Heard a fair amount of it, too. So, when I heard about this bartender story from the good folks at This is Horror, I knew I had to check it out. Though the original publication, a solo novella, is out of print, it has been reprinted in this new collection by Mr. Ballingrud titled “Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell” dropping soon on April 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

51wTZnGf5EL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgBallingrud, though born in Massachusetts, has deep ties to the South where he’s put in some hard hours. When his first collection, “North American Lake Monsters,” hit the shelves it was an instant classic of the weird and disturbing and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best debut collection.  But it wasn’t until The Visible Filth that he fully utilized his bartending experience as the seedbed for a story. And be glad that he did, because this is a tale that will hold you close, settling you down like that first drink in a long night, but won’t let go until who knows how many drinks later when the room is spinning and people are talking without words. Then, when you finally manage to stumble free, blood diluting the alcohol in your veins, you’ll look around and not recognize your surroundings. You’ll ask yourself, did that really just happen, but not until after you’ve crawled your way back to consciousness.

Meet Will. Thirty-something bartender at Rosie’s, a dive tucked back off the main drag in uptown New Orleans. He’s on a first name basis with all the regulars, from the local bad boy to the off duty cop. His best friend, Alicia (who Will wishes he was fucking but isn’t), drops by pretty frequently, too, her newest boyfriend in tow. And back at his low-rent apartment, Carrie, his college-hottie girlfriend is bent over her books. Life isn’t exactly all peaches and cream for Will, but he does alright by a certain standard, and he’s content. Mostly. On a week night (pick one, they all run together), Erik the Bad Boy comes in to shoot pool with a couple of punks, but that devolves quickly into a fist fight. It turns dirty when Erik’s opponent smashes a beer bottle and swings the cut glass like a scythe across Erik’s cheek, harvesting a noticeable chunk of cheek. Lots of people jump in then and it’s over almost as soon as it started, only the room’s more decorated in blood splatter than before. Hours later, when the dust clears and Will is about to go home, he notices a cell phone amid the wreckage. Thinking it belongs to one of the college kids who popped in just before the fight broke out, he pockets it and heads home. He’ll give it back tomorrow when they come looking for it.

Cut_Wound_Transfer_1600x[1].jpgViolence has already spattered these pages, but it’s not until Will gets home that the weird breaks in. The phone he picked up begins beeping with incoming text messages and it sounds like someone’s in trouble. “I think something is in here with me. I’m scared.” As he interacts with the texts they get weirder and more aggressive until some picture files and a video come through. Through four sequential pictures he and Carrie witness a beheading and then, something even entirely more out of the ordinary. “The head shifted slightly, as if it heard something and had to turn a fraction to listen more closely.” There’s much more to this quote but I’m not going to share it because it’s so good and so weird that I want you to experience it for yourself in all it’s gory context and body horror glory.

Will and Carrie investigate, following up on a clue from one of the horrific pictures. A book’s spine is visible near the beheading scene, betraying the intriguing title “The Second Translation of Wounds.” Can we just take a minute to admire the inclusion of the word “second” in that title? I mean, holy hell. (That’s what separates Ballingrud’s writing from the rest of the pack here, little details like that.) As they look into the matter, Carrie gets drawn in deeper and deeper in decidedly creepy and unhealthy ways. Will makes a series of poor decisions, or you might say continues to make them, but somewhat redeems himself by keeping an eye on Erik, the cut up brawler.

At the end of a downward spiral into insanity lies an ending that leaves the reader stunned and feeling in desperate need of a shower and perhaps a prayer. The action that takes place in the end was somewhat inevitable, but I thought a different character would be more involved, so it definitely kept me on my toes. My only regret was that it wasn’t longer. I wanted more. I wanted to know more about who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing. But this is always my struggle with novellas.

Let’s talk about the quality of the writing for a moment. You’ve glimpsed it already. There’s a gritty authenticity to his descriptions and a bitter sorrow in his dialogue. He’s got his finger on the pulse of so many types of people (as perhaps only bartenders, barbers, and clergy can) which gives him the ability to weave a realistic tapestry of character, time, and place. Like here, towards the beginning, when the college kids try to buy a beer, “The kid showed him his ID, sighing with the patience of a beleaguered saint. Legal less than a month.” Every bartender has seen that look. Or here, once the fight has taken place, “The escalation of violence shifted the room’s atmosphere. It almost seemed that another presence had crept in: some curious, blood-streaked thing.” Oh, it had, too, though they knew it not. Or here, my favorite metaphor in the whole story, so perfect for the character and atmosphere, “By the time he arrived back home, the sun was bruising the sky in the east.” Brilliant. When last shift workers head home the sun does not rise. It bruises the sky. Like I said, finger on the pulse of humanity.

I haven’t said much about a Lovecraftian connection for this one because frankly, there’s not much of a direct one. It does share a theme of leaving-well-enough-the-fuck-alone as in From Beyond, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and countless other Lovecraftian stories. But beyond that, there isn’t much of the old gent in this one friends. It’s just a good story, and given what happens at the end, and how, I suspect it will appeal to HPL devotees nonetheless, as it did to me.

When all is said and done, aside from all the weird and the horror and the gore, there’s a melancholic fatalism that bleeds through these pages. Will hates his job, but is going no where else. He’s punching above his weight in his romance, but even so, he loves another. His only swat at changing his stars there is a pitiful, sophomoric attempt that’d be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But even given all that, what gets him deeper and deeper into trouble here is his care and concern, even love, for others. For Carrie. For Erik. For Alicia. Anybody who’s ever even been halfway around the block knows that love can make us do strange things and can take us down some dark roads. That’s really the beautiful thing at the scarred and beating heart of this marvelous story. You should seriously pick it. You should do so quickly even, as there’s a film coming out soon directed by Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) and starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson.  You know what they say about books and movies and which is better. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to see what a director like Anvari will do with it.

The rest of the collection looks pretty amazing too. I had a chance to read only one other story, The Atlas of Hell, which was weird and awesome and terrifying in a whole different way. Know though that these tales are connected more than just by being gathered together in the same collection. They share themes and explorations, dark words and cruel intents. Shaken, of course, not stirred.

I also need to say that I’m grateful to Mr. Ballingrud for providing me with a review copy of “Wounds,” for his kindness, and especially for his generosity towards a friend.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist “New Orleans Jazzfest 2019” complied by user Peter Blair.

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

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Harvest Song, Gathering Song, by A.C. Wise

“Adams lowered her scarf. Her lips were cracked and bloody, but light clung to her.  She was holy, we all were, and I watched in wonder as she used her teeth to pull her glove free, ran her finger around the inside of the bottle, and rubbed the last of the honey on her gums.”

916DsQjmudL[1].jpgIn The Shadow Out of Time, H.P. Lovecraft put forth his grand oeuvre on the subject of cosmic horror. His fictional (?) theory (doctrine?) was that humans were really only a galactic blip, here for but the blink of a horrible, solitary, nictitating eye. There were races that came before us, like the Yith, and races that would succeed us, such as the beetle-like Coleopteran. If human beings were anything on the cosmic scale of things, we were a joke. In this magnificent story, A.C. Wise deftly plays with that horrible sense of sheer insignificance. Such an enormous backdrop would swallow a lesser author. One of the many brilliant things she does to avoid that, though, is despite working with a galactic size canvas, she focuses narrowly on the very local story of a group of mercenaries out on just another job. Though this story was first published in “For Mortal Things Unsung,” edited by Alex Hofelich, I read it in “The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Ten” edited by Ellen Datlow, and published in 2018 by Night Shade Books. I didn’t get all the way through this volume before I had to return it to the library, but it’s very well worth your time. There’s some great stories in this collection, though the vast majority are not particularly Lovecraftian or even cosmic horror. Of particular note is John Langan’s story Lost in the Dark – I loved it.

“Our first night out on the ice, we traded war stories. Reyes, Viader, Kellet, Martinez, Ramone, McMann, and me. We were all career military, all career grunts, none of us with aspirations for command.” This otherwise inauspicious group is out on another mission – another day, another dollar. This time, the assignment is Antarctica on a top secret mission to acquire a military asset of incomprehensible value: a honey-like substance that blocks the pain receptors in the brain while still allowing the user to operate at full physical and mental capacity. The military applications of such a substance are lost on none of the group, and neither are they lost on the reader. The harsh environment (putting one immediately in mind of At the Mountains of Madness) takes its toll on our soldiers even as the addition of a blowing storm delays and debilitates them. A sample of the product they’re after is brought forth. It’s the only way they’ll be able to keep going. They ingest, and shit gets weird.

normal-honeycomb-with-honey[1]“Then Adams tilted the bottle and let a drop touch my tongue. Her limbs bent strangely, and there were too many of them. I saw myself reflected a dozen-dozen-dozen times in multi-faceted eyes. The honey was liquid fire…it was like swallowing stars.” As their situation continues to devolve, their seeming acceptance of all the inexplicable and bizarre things happening to and around them is notable. They are caught up in something so much larger than themselves (and so much more horrible and terrifying) that they simply acquiesce to otherwise very objectionable goings on. I don’t know what it was particularly about this story but it caused me no small amount of distress as I read it, and even now as I reflect upon it. It wasn’t look-over-your-shoulder scary, but it was shudder-inducing, cringe-inducing, grossed-out body horror mixed with a grave sense of insignificance and cosmic horror. And it was beautiful to behold. Once they discover where the stuff is kept/produced/stored, madness sets in and not everyone makes it out alive. Towards the end, the story fast-forwards to the present and we, the readers, get to see what has become of our ill-fated mercenary companions in the months gone by since the mission ended in, dare we say, success. It has not gone well for them.

The ending was spectacular, exploding outward from the local to the universal, and I won’t say much about it to avoid spoilers, but Wise very effectively gives us a hint (in her own version of the cosmos, not HPL’s – this is very much not a pastiche but a creatively original work) of what’s really out there, of what has been, and of what might yet be. The eponymous concept of the song, which I, again, can’t say too much about, is brilliantly executed. It’s a forbidding foretaste, slathered in sickly-sweet honey. trypophobia face.jpgParts of it reminded me of some scenes from Nick Cutter’s novel “The Deep,” though Wise does it better here. Some of those same parts triggered a feeling of trypophobia, and, I suspect, if you truly suffer from that, this is not a good story for you to read. Also, don’t look at the picture. Trypophobia is the fear of closely-packed holes and if Wise wasn’t playing with that on purpose, I’d be surprised.

Her command of pace, of structure, and of language are all top-notch. This is an experienced author who knows what she is doing, at the top of her game. I’d say, above all, her ability to evoke a mood of dreadful apprehension is what sets this story apart from and above many of its contemporaries, even in a volume of the year’s best. At the same time, we feel sorry for the characters, and then we don’t, but not because they deserve what they get or any such nonsense as that. This is a tale above petty ideas about karma. We don’t feel sorry for them because they don’t matter. We don’t matter. And that sets us a-trembling. It’s masterfully accomplished; I can’t say that enough.

It should tell you something that A.C. Wise is the only author in this collection to have two stories included. I didn’t read the other, but I sure would like to go back and give it a shot as well. Besides the Langan, other standouts include Fail-Safe by Philip Fracassi, Better You Believe by Carole Johnstone, and Furtherest by Kaaron Warren (it was very strange indeed, but I’m still thinking about it long after the memory of lesser stories has faded).

That about wraps it up for this review. So, in this ending, remember: Harry Crews had it wrong. You should cross the street to read genre fiction. Just be sure to look both ways first. Twice.

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

Clinging, sticky lyrics of the harvest song: “Adams dipped a finger in the honey and held it out to me. I pictured light leaking from her eyes like tears, seeping from her pores. The harvest song howled in the dark. Shadows bent over us, long fingers needle-sharp and venom-tipped, ready to stitch through skin and bone. I sucked her finger clean. It wasn’t sex, it was more like farewell.”

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