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

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.”