The Tunnelers, by Geoff Gander

“The following document, as well as a bundle of newspaper clippings, was found among the personal effects of Dr. Vincent Armstrong, a community psychiatrist in the Evaluation Unit at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Care Center, whose disappearance in Montreal is a matter of public record.”

Forbidden knowledge is a favorite leitmotif of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and many of his literary heirs pick up the theme and run with it at well. It’s easy to see why. There is a certain allure to anything forbidden. Tell someone with a curious mind, like a professor, that they cannot see a certain book or acquire some particular knowledge and rest assured it will be the first thing they try to do. Sometimes, though, you don’t even have to go looking. Sometimes that knowledge find you, unbidden, and you’re stuck with it for better or for worse. In Lovecraft’s tales, let’s be honest, it’s for the worse. Think, for example, of the plight of the grand-nephew of George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University. He inherited a puzzling box containing a bas-relief, the revelation of which launched one of the most memorable adventures in all of literature.

41+tduQPnSL[1]Unbidden is exactly how Dr. Vincent Armstrong comes to possess singular knowledge of a terrible, hidden truth in Geoff Gander‘s short story, “The Tunnelers.” Published by Solstice Publishing in 2011, I am grateful to Mr. Gander for providing me with a free e-copy in exchange for an honest review. “The Tunnelers” tells of how Dr. Armstrong came to care for a patient suffering physical and mental trauma following a mining accident in Ottawa, Canada. Michael Kirkwood had been involved in a mine collapse with two other miners who did not survive the accident, and, when he comes to, babbles on about the “Digging! Digging! Beneath us, above us, around us!” As it turns out, the mining company with which Mr. Kirkwood was affiliated had been digging in an area considered forsaken by the local First Nation. They had warned them, but the company, blinded by the prospect of great riches, proceeded regardless. This is why we can’t have nice things. Or, at least why Mr. Kirkwood can’t have nice things. Like sanity.

The story unfolds in an epistolary fashion, as Gander reveals new information through Armstrong’s journal entries, interview notes, and official documentation. I have to admire Gander’s pacing; the story never bogs down and each new clue leading us deeper and deeper underground is discovered in a natural way that flows well. I was impressed, too, with the clinical way in which Armstrong would describe things in his journal as I felt the style of writing really fit the character. It is easy to say, then, that Mr. Gander’s writing is sufficient. I never got hung up on any choice of diction or syntax but nor was I ever blown away by a turn of phrase. This isn’t a bad thing at all, as some writers try to do too much and then fall flat. That didn’t happen here. Reading Gander’s words felt comfortable and easy.

KzHRTPm[1]In the end, though, being a good practitioner of the craft was not enough to cause this story to stand out in the crowd. One of the words oft bandied about in Lovecraftian circles is “pastiche.” Usually, these days, it comes pre-packaged with negative context, but I don’t feel like it’s a given that pastiche equals bad. In the early days, Bloch, Ashton-Smith, Derleth, Campbell and others wrote fun, accomplished stories that were pure pastiche. But the two things that made those work, in my opinion, were that they were the first ones to do it and they added something that had not been present before. Because so much time has passed now, it is harder and harder to do that and editors (like Ellen Datlow) are explicitly forbidding pastiches for their anthologies. There are good examples out there—John Langan has one that comes to mind, as does Cody Goodfellow, Joe Pulver, and there are very likely others—but they are few and far between.

“The Tunnelers,” I am afraid, is pure pastiche that adds nothing new to the genre. From the opening lines, a reader knows exactly where this story is going and to a large extent (depending on how widely they are read in the genre) precisely how it will unfold. The monsters, Lovecraftian in the sense that they are ancient beyond time and wholly unknown, feel a bit like ghouls and function a lot like Lumley’s “burrowers beneath,” but weren’t new enough to spark my interest. I had definitely been here before.

The last page of the e-book informs readers that “The Tunnelers is his first novel” (though, weighing in at 8000 words or so, ‘novel’ is a big stretch) and it reads like it. You can tell he knows how to write, you can tell he knows how a story needs to be structured, and you can really tell he has a firm grasp on pace. He just needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea wholly his own, or sufficiently twist one of Lovecraft’s to make it his own, and then he’ll have arrived.

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

Split Through the Sky, by Lena Ng

“Instead of stars, the pinpricks of light seemed as holes where an unknown, unfathomable voyeur was spying from the other side of the nocturnal sky as through a camera obscura.”

hinnom-front-kdp[1]As a teenager, one of the many joys I took out of reading Lovecraft was the sense of mystery and other-worldliness he was able to pack into his writing. It wasn’t just his florid prose or his antediluvian monsters. It was the way he was able to hint at whole worlds, whole bodies of hidden or forbidden knowledge simply by dropping the name of some ancient tome. Most memorable, of course, was the Necronomicon—a book which for years of my youth I was convinced was real. And no one could talk me out of it (I even found a copy of the text on the internet, so there!). But he also had others, like Cultes des Goules, and the Pnakotic Manuscripts which set my imagination alight just by seeing their titles. His immediate contemporaries followed suit: Clark Ashton Smith had his Book of Eibon, Robert Howard his Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Robert Bloch created the De Vermis Mysteriis (with HPL’s help on the final name). Brian Lumley later came up with the G’harne Fragments, and Ramsey Campbell had his Revelations of Gla’aki. Outside of the canon of HPL’s works, and the works of the named gentlemen above, I haven’t encountered too much use of this trope and that’s a shame. Then I read Split Through the Sky by Lena Ng and I was right back in my youth, my imagination on fire with possibility as words of forbidden texts and forgotten book titles crossed the page amidst beautiful, lurid, and very Lovecraftian prose.

Split Through the Sky can be found in the latest issue of Hinnom Magazine (Issue #010) published by C.P. Dunphey at Gehenna and Hinnom Books, released on May 20, 2019. G&H Books just completed a massively successful Kickstarter and so their publishing calendar for the rest of 2019 and into 2020 looks incredible! In particular, I am really looking forward to letting you all know about a story or two contained in Pete Rawlik’s forthcoming G&H collection, “Strange Company.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think Hinnom Magazine stands the best chance of being the spiritual successor to Weird Tales available in today’s market. Sure, there’s lots of other great magazines out there, but are they in print? No. Some great print magazines exist, like Black Static, but that’s over in the UK. Each issue of Hinnom consistently has great works of cosmic horror fiction, dark poetry (though that’s not really my thing), cool interviews, writing advice, and great interior illustrations. They’re not full color and glossy, yet, but I imagine that will be an achievable goal for G&H one day. I’m a big supporter of what G&H is doing and think you should be, too. If we don’t support creators like this, then, well, we’ve seen what happens. If you’re interested, check out their Patreon page.

9947739633_341b8e5040_b[1]Split Through the Sky is the haunting story of someone being called from beyond, out of their daily life, into a weird, wide world of terror and the unknowable reaches of space, at times reminiscent of Dreams in the Witch House. Our protagonist, never identified (though for some reason I imagined them to be a woman in their thirties), has trouble sleeping, and who wouldn’t: “Before I has gone to bed on the first night of torments, I had noticed a disturbing alignment of stars. Through mathematics, the stars and planets should follow a predictable elliptical path. But the planets of Versiveus, Kraelov, and Diaxon moved in enigmatic, unnerving voyages. Other stars crossed in horrendous formations, and I quaked at what such signs could mean.” Lovecraft fans should be all a-tingle just now, if you are anything like me. Ng’s writing, while calling HPL to mind, is of a style all her own, often unsettling while rewarding slow, attentive reading.

Through a series of disturbing events the protagonist discovers she (?) is not who she thought she was, and in fact was adopted from the particularly creepy sounding Gentrocide Orphanage. 2974d6bced8cb89094d8cfdfa770b708[1].jpgFrom there, “after much consultation through incantations and incense, oratory and arguments,” her journey of self-discovery takes her to the ruins of an ancient temple, seemingly still presided over by a high priestess. After an arduous journey, she is met by the monks who keep watch over the place, who escort her to the chambers of the high priestess, where not all is as you might expect it to be, no matter or not that you might have been expecting the worst. Clues to her genesis are given, and she is off again to the next nightmarish locale, still in the company of said sepulchral monastics. There she will finally learn the truth, horrible though it may be.

As I said above, most Lovecraft fans will find quite a lot here to satisfy their abyssal cravings. We’ve got nightmares and monks, ruined temples and orphanages, incantations and lost tomes and astrology. It’s all very, very good stuff. But Ng raises it to the next level with her writing, which is erudite (though bordering on stuffy at points where some will think a thesaurus was overused) and evocative. I rejoiced each time I saw another fantastic descriptor deployed —”lachrymosal,” “abattoirial,” “octrine,” “vomitus,”, and “mucosal,” were among my favorites. Somewhere, the Old Gent’s skull is grinning, too. It wasn’t just her vocab, either, that enhanced her writing, but an unusual flow and rhythm that sometimes stretched standard grammatical practices.  monsters in the skyThis sprinkled her prose with spice and flavor in quite delicious ways. For example, “Back in my studio, page after page I flung to the floor as I drew diagrams, scribbled equations, created derivatives and reductions of the movements of the stars, knowing the patterns of the celestial formation must be a part of a grander design.” See how she constructs that sentence to lead you into the emotion and immediacy of the moment, worrying more about what it feels like that what it looks like on a page? The whole story is written in this way and it was both refreshing and fun, without falling into aping HPL or others. Lena Ng, with several publications already to her name and with her fresh voice and clear command of the genre, is definitely an author to watch.

This issue of Hinnom Magazine comes with two other good pieces of fiction. Its Eyes Are Open, by Ben Thomas is a creature feature. As such, it is a lot of fun, and pretty creepy at times, but honestly I kept wanting it to develop in an unexpected way and it just kept on keeping on in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get style. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing special either.  Samantha Bryant’s story, Margaret Lets Her Self Go, on the other hand is very unexpected, creative, and scary. I almost reviewed it but then I read Ng’s story and knew I had to tell you about it instead.

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

Show Your Work at the Bottom of the Page: “Not the math of this world but the math of the parallel: non-Newtonian geometry, Fortunado’s topology, octrine trigonometry. Not even the black calculus of Crucerbus could decipher the malevolent pattern.”

Dagon’s Bell, by Brian Lumley

“Then I remembered something he had said. “David, you mentioned two manifestations of this—this ghostliness. What was the other one?”
“Eh?” he frowned at me, winding up his window. Then he stopped winding, “Oh, that. The bell you mean…”
“Bell?” I echoed him, the skin of my neck suddenly tingling. “Which bell?”
“A ghost bell!” he yelled as he pulled away from the kerb. “What else? It tolls underground or under the sea, usually when there’s a mist or a swell on the ocean…”

1635159[1].jpgAlongside such venerable names as Clark Ashton Smith, Lin Carter, Robert Bloch, and Frank Long, one of the other early mythos writers was Brian Lumley. He would, of course, go on to fame in his own right with his best-selling Necroscope series, but it was writing in Lovecraft’s world where he cut his teeth. He created the original character Titus Crow who, quite opposite HPL’s more academic characters, was a man of action who greeted bad guys and monsters alike with persuasive displays of force.  If you find you’re interested in a more action-oriented approach to the mythos, you might want to look up those books, but this present story, however, does not feature Crow. Dagon’s Bell, which I found not in the pictured volume, but in the “Shadows Over Innsmouth” collection edited by Stephen Jones published in 2013 by Titan Books. Originally, however, it was published in two parts in “Weirdbook,” numbers 23 and 24, in 1988.  It definitely falls more into the category of pastiche, though not totally as it picks up a bit after the Shadow Over Innsmouth left off, and in an original location. The seeds of Lumley’s own creativity and originality are here, but Dagon’s Bell relies heavily on HPL’s work. Not that that’s a bad thing at all!

f4865a24edeb1c63e3fc6e58f57ce52d[1].jpgWilliam Trafford is our protagonist who gets, with an old school chum named David Parker, caught up in a great misadventure on the north-east coast of England at a place called Kettlethorpe Farm. One of the things I really liked about this story was how it developed. It starts off fairly innocuously, building little clue by little clue towards a horrible set of realizations. In some ways, it reminded me of the pattern of discoveries made in The Call of Cthulhu. “It strikes me as funny sometimes how scraps of information—fragments of seemingly dissociated fact and half-seen or -felt fancies and intuitions, bits of local legend and immemorial myth—can suddenly connect and expand until the total is far greater than the sum of its parts, like a jigsaw puzzle.” Accordingly, it is also a bit longer than most of the other stories I’ve been reviewing here, checking in at around 42 pages. It’s organized in short chapters though and, because of the way that it builds, makes for compulsive reading.

There’s loads of mythos stuff in here for fans to enjoy, everything from deep ones to degenerate, ancient bloodlines, while introducing new elements like the eponymous bell (which, by the way, was decidedly creepy) and something called “deep kelp” which rose from the bottom of the sea at certain times of year to blight the surface waters with its noxious miasma. Those certain times tended to be around lesser known Christian holidays, like Roodmas (September 14, celebrating the alleged finding of the “true cross” by Helena, Constantine’s mother, in Jerusalem in 355). This taps successfully into the common idea that these holidays were really taken over by Christianity once it developed as a global religion, but that they already existed, for some good reason, as sacred days of certain special, and older, observances.

CGI art by Martin Punchev
Kettlethorpe Farm, which Mr. Parker has purchased with his new wife, seems to have been built for purposes other than raising a young family, hale and hearty. It’s built in a U-shape, facing the sea like arms outstretched in embrace, and underneath it, the entrance hidden by one of the buildings on the property, lies a great series of caverns. By now you’ll be able to guess what inhabits those caverns. They call to the newly anointed Mrs. Parker and she hears them, hears them and is unable to ignore their siren sound. Her health deteriorates as she is only ever able to focus on things below and not more mundane stuff, like eating. Mrs. Parker will not leave and when Trafford asks why, her husband replies: “The place is like…like a magnet! It has a genius loci. It’s a focal point for God-only-knows-what forces. Evil? Oh, yes! An evil come down all the centuries. But I bought the place and I shall cleanse it—end it forever, whatever it is!” Here we get a glimpse of Lumley’s preference for more direct men of action, and then we’re launched into the deep delve that will see the story through to its frantic end.

Lumley’s writing is very mature, controlled, and precise. He knows what he wants to do with words and the effect he desires them to have. There are occasional moments of logophilic joy. See, “…that sluggish stream, bubbling blindly through airless fissures to the sea.” The sounds are performative; they do what the words describe. The double “G’s” in sluggish slows down the sentence, and thus describes the stream in the way he means.  Your head almost physically bobs up when pronouncing the quadrilogy of “B’s” in bubbling blindly, forcing an embodiment of the way this water moves, before gliding easily into the sibilants of the conclusion. It’s great stuff!

“Bell” by Deviant Artist: alexandreev
If you’re a Lovecraft fan, it almost goes without saying (I’m sure there’s an oddball out there) that you’re a Shadow Over Innsmouth fan. Here, you are in luck, for there’s just a lot to like in this story. Sure, it’s pastiche, but again, you liked the original for a reason, so don’t be silly and lay off something as fun as this because it isn’t original enough. It’s plenty creative, and brilliantly plotted. And, as a bonus, there’s no long, rambling section of infodump by a drunk in the middle, written in almost nigh unreadable dialect. Though there is a nod to ole Zadok Allen, which made me smile at least. I believe most HPL fans will enjoy this one, but I guess I should say that if you’re not an HPL devotee, or not familiar with Shadow Over Innsmouth, then there’s probably not a whole lot of reason that you’d really enjoy this one, unlike some of the others I’ve reviewed. Like most things, read the original first. As a final piece of parting advice (though I suppose it should go without saying, but I’ll not bear that responsibility for the sake of brevity), when purchasing real estate by the seaside, avoid property built over buried temples from which emanate—on a quarterly basis—horrible, ghostly visages of possibly Phoenician gods to the distant sound of a discordant bell. There, now you can’t blame me.

This review was composed listening to some of the greater organ works of J.S. Bach, in minor keys.

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

Miasmic Words of tempting: “I seem to recall loading my shotgun—several times, I think—and I have vague memories of discharging it a like number of times; and, I believe that David, too, used his weapon, probably more successfully. As for our targets: it would have been difficult to miss them. There were clutching claws, and eyes bulging with hatred and lust; there was foul, alien breath in our faces, slime and blood and bespattered bodies obstructing our way where they fell…”