Dark Lantern of the Spirit, by Max Beaven

“The mass in the darkness seethed and churned and with a sudden furious motion…shed a part of itself. Now, in the small concavity that sat just a short distance from faint light that entered through the enlarged crevasse, a second writhing mass began agitated movements.”

51SBpwmEnGL[1]With a cover that looked like the lovechild of Red Dead Redemption and Bloodborne and a description boasting an adventure in the style of Robert E. Howard draped in the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, I was all set to love this self-published story from new author Max Beaven, who graciously sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review. DARK LANTERN OF THE SPIRIT: AN ARTHUR C. WILSON & BENJAMIN HATHORNE NOVELLA advertises itself as having a “late Victorian era frontier western setting” and when combined with the Mythos, this sounded right up my alley. So, it was with a certain amount of excitement that I turned the first page.

There I discovered the story of Arthur, a sheriff’s deputy originally hailing from New England but now finding himself in the Cheyenne territory of Casper, Wyoming. Truly, a tough place to be a law man. Through a whiskey haze he begins to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a well known and experienced trapper called Miles. A brief chapter later we are taken cross country to Salem, MA to meet Benjamin, a wealthy and typically bookish Lovecraftian protagonist, who is excitedly opening a newly delivered package. It turns out to be a bonafide copy of the Liber Ivonis, otherwise known to HPL fans as the Book of Eibon. This artifact makes its canonical appearance in “Dreams in the Witch-House,” “The Haunter in the Dark,” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” and then among some of the more familiar pastiches like ‘Ubbo-Sathla” by Clark Ashton Smith. After a few more chapters, primarily bouncing back and forth between these two characters, we are treated to an Interlude focused on some Lovecraftian style beastie from beyond the stars, and with that, the stage is set.

I wanted to try and get the plot description down in as positive a way as I can, because I do think there is a seed of a fun story buried within. Unfortunately, however, there are serious flaws with this book and I have to address those. Almost from page one there are numerous grammar and spelling errors. I’m usually forgiving when it comes to this stuff, but in this case they were so numerous that they quickly became difficult to overlook. Other errors abounded as well, like ignoring the conventions around dialog tags and the sudden deployment of a fifty-cent word betraying the obvious usage of a thesaurus. I can appreciate the desire to sound antiquated and erudite, but it must also be authentic. The vast majority of these missteps could have been fixed by an editor, which this book sorely needs. There are several things, though, I’m not sure an editor could have fixed. For example, each character’s voice sounds like the others to the point that it’s hard to distinguish who is who. Why does the Shoshone scout sound like the educated New Englander? Finally, while I can appreciate the author’s father passed on to him an encyclopedic knowledge of early firearms (so noted in the acknowledgements), the level of detail provided in both the prose and dialogue is often out of place to the point of being distracting. Like this, from a letter to Benjamin written by his friend Thomas, “I have taken to carrying an Enfield revolver with me at all times.” Would not “gun” have been crisper?

Unfortunately, this was a DNF for me, as by the half way point I had become entirely too frustrated to continue. I wanted this to be a fun Lovecraft pastiche in a wild west setting. I really wanted to enjoy this book, and I stand by what I said earlier – there are some enjoyable plot and character ideas here. The execution of them needed a lot more work before publication, however, and certainly needed the services of an editor. I hope Mr. Beaven continues to write and hone his craft. His passion for the Lovecraft mythos and the adventure stories of Howard is clear, and his enthusiasm for writing the tale he wanted to read, which he saw missing from the market, is evident. But, there’s still some work to do before I can recommend it.

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

A Shroud of Ghouls: Three Ghoulish Lovecratian Tales

“Clark Ashton Smith finished “The Ghoul” on November 11, 1930 and was pleased with the result. He mentioned it to Lovecraft: “The legend is so hideous, that I would not be surprised if there were some mention of it in the Necronomicon. Will you verify this for me?” Not surprisingly, Smith’s instincts proved to be sound; Lovecraft reported thusly: “Oh, yes—Abdul mentioned your ghoul, & told of other adventures of his…”

~Robert M. Price, Introduction to “The Ghoul” in The Klarkash-Ton Cycle

It’s been a while, fellow antiquarians, since I last reported in to you. Like many of you, the end of the year is a busy time for me and so I did not have much time to either read or write. But then vacation came around the New Year and I read many, many Lovecraftian tales, courtesy of new tomes gifted me by beloved family members. Three of those literary demesnes of doom all began with stories related to ghouls, two by contemporaries of the old gent himself and one by a current author. I thought it might be fun to suture them together here in one post to kick off the new year. Without further ado, a shroud of ghouls!

The Secret in the Tomb, by Robert Bloch

71xwdznqmgl[1]The introductory material contained in this book and in “The Klarkash-Ton Cycle” reinforced for me that HPL had great relationships with other writers, and loved playing with them in his mythos sandbox. His letters with these contemporaries, one of which is quoted in part above, are full of charm, playfulness, and wit, and I just love that. A ghoul, technically defined as “an evil spirit or phantom, especially one supposed to rob graves and feed on dead bodies,” was a concept attractive to HPL. He played around with it first in Pickman’s Model, then later in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” while hinting at it in other stories, like in The Statement of Randolph Carter.

Here we get a fairly straightforward take on the trope, as we do in the Smith tale. Robert Bloch (most well known as the author of “Psycho”) weaves a competent tale, though somewhat ham-fisted at times, about a man in search of a terrible family secret. Naturally, the secret involves the ancestral tomb, “rambling screeds in Arabic, Sanskrit, and pre-historic ideography,” and “the dust of centuries.” The secret turns out to be how to achieve a sort of life eternal, but it is guarded closely by the family member who has achieved that aim and become a ghoul. In an exciting sequence, it attacks, “Two claws, cold as flames of icy hell, fastened around my throat, two eyes bored like maggots through my frenzied being, a laughter born of madness alone cachinnated in my ears like the thunder of doom. The bony fingers tore at my eyes and nostrils, held me helpless while yellow fangs champed nearer and nearer to my throat.” You can immediately see the apeing of Lovecraft’s adjectival style. Truth be told, it largely worked for me, at least until we got to “champing.” Then I just had to laugh; who says “champing”? What really worked for me though was the way the story ended. It’s thoughtful, creative, and I didn’t see it coming, so check it out. This edition was published by Chaosium, Inc. in 2009 as a part of their Call of Cthulhu Fiction line (a tremendous resource!) and is readily available.

The Ghoul, by Clark-Ashton Smith

1568821603__93699.1403797795.500.659[1].jpgWhereas Robert Bloch came a bit after HPL, Ashton-Smith was a contemporary and a friend.  Reading some of their letters back and forth is incredibly humanizing, and sympathetically incarnates these literary giants. That said, I didn’t think this story worked as well as the Bloch one, but what does come through is his abject love of HPL and almost a juvenile desire to please. Of course, that could just be my interpretation of Smith’s impish solicitation of affirmation in his letter. This story is definitely less ham-fisted, but it is also less interesting, with an ending you see coming a mile off. It’s set sometime in the distant past (perhaps between 842 and 847 AD if the Caliph Vathek character is supposed to be the real Abbasid caliph, al-Wathiq who reigned during those years in what is near modern day Baghdad), and adopts a style that calls to mind the Arabian Nights stories. The protagonist, Cadi Ahmed ben Becar, is on trial for a series of heinous and gruesome murders, but everything is not as it seems. Though he admits his guilt, he has substantial mitigating evidence. The tale he tells beggars belief: a ghoul has made him do it to fulfill a hellish bargain. I wonder if Smith modeled his ghoul after the Arabian djinns, as that’s the vibe I pick up: “Then the ghoul said: it is this, that thou shalt bring me each night, for eight successive nights, the body of one whom thou hast slain with thine own hand. Do this, and I shall neither devour nor dig the body that lies interred hereunder.” No copying Lovecraft’s writing style here.  Nope, instead Smith goes for an antiquated lexicon akin to Tudor English. It was alright.

This edition was published by Chaosium, Inc. in 2008, also a part of their Call of Cthulhu fiction line, and is likewise readily available. So now, if Bloch’s ghoul is kind of like a lich, and Smith’s ghoul is kind of like a djinn, our next ghoul (for me) was actually the most ghoul-like of them all.

The Anatomy Lesson, by Cody Goodfellow

6161a8rza6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgCody Goodfellow might not have known HPL personally, but he’s got one thing our other two authors lack: breath. Therefore, this story is our most modern of the three, coming from Goodfellow’s initial collection, “Rapture of the Deep and Other Lovecraftian Tales,” published in 2016 by Hippocampus Press. And it was by far my favorite. This is so original, so interesting, and so action-packed. Now it isn’t totally thought provoking, and lands more in the camp of a fun adventure story with a (big) horror element than it does in the Lovecraftian head-scratching cosmic doom camp. Aw, let’s just call a spade a spade, this is a B-movie splatter-romp and it’s awesome!

Several medical students have to go grave-robbing to secure their “subjects” for their anatomy class (the university system falling on dire financial times, apparently). As they’re digging deeper into a recent grave in the local potter’s field, something horrific happens.  I’ve got to admit, while I saw the end of Smith’s story written all over the wall, what happens here totally surprised me and I was hooked. Never in unnumbered aeons did I imagine where this story would go. The bottom falls out of the coffin they choose and down they go into a grotesque underworld warren of the rotten and the hungry. “We fell in a screaming, battling tangle and landed in an insensate pile…We lay on the floor of a tunnel like a mineshaft, but the prospectors here were not hungry for gold. 9255054889_29d92b5a03_b[1].jpgAbove our heads, the root-choked roof of the tunnel was pocked with vertical shafts that terminated in the broken coffins of the nameless dead of Arkham.” What a vision! What an idea! The rest of the story sees our surviving scholars explore, invade, fight through, and flee the ghoul-world and it is a wild ride.

When you think of H.P. Lovecraft, ghouls might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but he definitely played with the idea. Sure, it’s not mythos stuff, but some of his most memorable stories employed the trope, and both his contemporaries and his literary followers enjoyed trying their hand at it as well. One that I wasn’t able to get a hold of was The Vault Beneath the Mosque (though I think it is also usually easily accessible) by Lin Carter, another HPL contemporary and correspondent. I had fun taking a look at some of these earlier pastiches, and even more fun digging into the relationships their authors shared with one another. In many ways, the horror community today maintains that close-knit feeling among its creatives, and for that, I think we can be grateful.

Speaking of the horror community, this review was composed listening to a new Spotify playlist I created, based on the suggestions of members of the HPLHS facebook group in response to a query about what classical music sounds like it could have been played by Erich Zann. Feel free to check it out, it’s called “The Music of Erich Zann.”

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

One more quote by Goodfellow, because it was so fun: “Show your work, boyo,” [the ghoul] said. Then he took out a meat cleaver and chopped off my right hand at the wrist.”