The Crimson Fog, by Mark Samuels

“The chambers of our four AK-47 assault rifles were emptied by us into the depths of red gloom. The noise was deafeneing, and bits and pieces of mutilated vegetation scattered into the air like wedding confetti. After three or four more bursts we ceased firing.
“See anything?” I said.
“Nothing,” Mayhew replied.
“Think we got the bastard?” Koszalski said.
The smell of cordite masked everything else.”

—Mark Samuels, “The Crimson Fog”

“It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space

Ever since I watched “Full Metal Jacket” at way too young of an age, I’ve enjoyed war stories told in an unconventional way or from an unconventional perspective. One of the very first stories I reviewed on this site was a Vietnam War era story and it remains one of the most memorable to me. Our present tale is set in more modern times, but the themes of terrible isolation in foreign territory, fear of an unseen enemy, untrustworthy companions, and ineffective weaponry connect these stories together. There’s something about the idea of wandering around in an unknown land armed to the teeth, yet wondering if it’s effective that just sets me on the edge of my seat. The films Predator and Annihilation accomplished that feeling and now “The Crimson Fog” is here to do the same thing. Mark Samuels, a British author, has produced a great volume of work in the contemporary weird fiction scene, but until now much of it has been unavailable in the United States. Thanks to Hippocampus Press (to whom I am indebted for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review) some of Samuels’ best work can now be consumed by US readers. THE AGE OF DECAYED FUTURITY contains 17 stories, all previously published, and is available now from Hippocampus Press.

It descended out of nowhere, the crimson colored fog of the title, over a no-man’s land in the Chang-Yi province of China. No one knew what it was, its provenance, or if it would go away. If anything, it seemed to be growing, consuming the land around it beneath its scarlet shroud. Russian, Chinese, British, and other governments investigate of course, but arrive at no conclusions. Teams that have been sent into it have not returned, and communications out of it are spotty at best. One broken communication has been received from a Major Qersh, the only apparent survivor of a previous team of soldiers. Now, another team of multinational soldiers is being sent on a rescue mission. The story unfolds from the perspective of Captain Thomas Sloane, one of these soldiers, who is joined by three others including a Chinese soldier, Yian-ho, who is the only one among them to have been inside the fog before and return alive. Their journey through the fog is treacherous, not only because they could lose their bearings and even each other, but because there is something in the fog and it is not friendly.

Much of what plays out plot-wise is territory that has been covered before, and indeed, if that were all that was here, this story would fall a bit flat for me. Not only do the two aforementioned films (Annihilation was originally a novel by Jeff Vandermeer, the first part of his Southern Reach trilogy) do something very similar, and to differing degrees better, but Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space was there telling this sort of story well before them. Indeed, Annihilation owes a great deal to Colour. Predator shines in the action; Annihilation excels in its exploration of the sublime. “The Crimson Fog,” however, distinguishes itself in the way it focuses on Sloane’s (and to a lesser extent his companions’) emotional and mental response to the incursion of the numinous. They are soldiers. They are there to do a job. The enemy is unlike any they have ever known, but in the end, that doesn’t matter much so long as the enemy bleeds. (This is an open question.) As fear breaks them down, their true natures are revealed, for better or worse.

Samuels asks, in the very first lines of the story, “How far does reality extend…Across billions of light-years to the mysterious point where the cosmos curves back on itself and the laws of time and space cease to apply? Only just as far as that visible universe mankind can detect and analyse with his instruments? Or is it confined solely within the limits of the skull of each and every isolated person who asks the question?” This question perambulates through the story from beginning to end, with the end particularly causing the reader to question what they think they know from what they have read. Not knowing what is real is a singular source of fear, and one which these soldiers work hard at ignoring for as long as possible. Their struggle against that knowing is what is so fascinating to me. Sloane holds out as long as he can. When he’s asked, “What do we have to lose?” he responds, “Only that which makes us human.” This in turn prompts the question, “You think our miserable species worth saving?” It depends on what is real. The cosmic dread hinted at in this exchange is familiar territory to experienced Lovecraft readers.

Samuels’ writing is very accomplished. I felt quite at ease looking through Sloane’s eyes the whole time; Samuels did not write him as a caricature of a soldier, but as a real person. For some reason, I think it would be easy in this type of story to do just the opposite. But, his doubts and fears, even his private hopes and personal truths, come into play before the end. Samuels is also quite reserved when it comes to descriptions of what’s in the fog, leaving much (save the result) to our imagination and I appreciate that on several levels. First, whatever I’m going to come up with in my mind is worse that what he can put on the page and second, whatever he does put on that page runs a severe risk of sounding silly rather than scary. Like the bloody parts of a Greek tragedy, best to leave it off screen and he is brave enough to do so.

Despite high quality writing and deep philosophical musings, I left this story with some mixed feelings. I could never quite shake the thought that I’ve been here before, many times in fact, and what this story contributes anew to the “alien substance/landscape calmly takes over a geographical area” sub-sub-genre of horror just didn’t quite attain a very lofty height for me. It was, in the end, “just a colour out of space,” that’s it, and one that felt a little too familiar.

I haven’t read every story in this collection yet, but I feel confident in sharing with you that the others I have read (while not Lovecraftian), are superior in every way to this story. For example, the opening story in the collection, “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror,” is one of the creepiest stories I have read in a long time. Its blend of Fawverian and Ligottian horror is spot on, while introducing Samuels’ own elements in a profoundly unsettling blend. In that story, his prose simply sings while his philosophical wonderings are given freer rein. I think Samuels is a terrific writer of weird fiction, and, at the same time, while good, “The Crimson Fog” wasn’t the best example of his powers.

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

Pieces of Blackness, by Michael Kelly

“It was a dark sky, but he could see another darkness, pieces of tainted blackness, tumours, coiling, forming a greater blackness. One day, he knew, it would open up, all of it; the sky, him, and the entire world.”

all+the+things-finalLurking just beneath the surface of your psyche, just out of sight, dwells a tiny demon comprised almost entirely of a warped and wicked mouth. This demon has a very limited, but a nonetheless puissant vocabulary, and it talks non-stop. Drilling through your ear canal it whispers, over and over again, “You are not good enough.” Some of us learn how to ignore this demon; a few of us can even temporarily silence it. Others, though—too many—succumb to its malice. Old, young, successful, it matters not. They succumb. Sometimes, you may not ever notice that they’ve given in. And other times, it is tragically obvious. In Pieces of Blackness, a story found in weird fiction anthologizer and author Michael Kelly’s latest collection (ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SEE) you’ll read of one man’s fight against that insidious foe. As the title suggests, this is a very dark story, suffused throughout with an almost overwhelming atmosphere of woe.

I am grateful to Undertow Publications for providing me with a free copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review. ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SEE was published in June of 2019 and is currently available for purchase in hardback, paperback, and e-book formats.

Our story opens with a scene of cosmic foreboding and moves quickly to introduce us to Peter, his wife Katy, and their six year old adopted son, Timothy. Katy awakens Peter, spoiling a naughty dream, with a worry that something is wrong with their son. He has been sleepwalking and they’ve found him on other nights in dangerous places. They’ve been told that this can be a normal part of the adoption process, as the child gets adjusted to the new home. The-sleep-paralysis-demon[1].jpgIt seems though that it is not just Timothy who needs to get adjusted. “Peter moved to the bed, stood staring at Timothy, his son. Son. He wondered, on nights like this, if he would ever truly think of the boy as his son. Wondered if he could be a father.” I was already gripped by this story before I even got to this section on the third page. As a parent myself, I’ve had many sleepless nights worrying over my children. But then Kelly introduces this extra element of dread, not worry over whether my child will be injured or killed, but worry over whether I will be a good father. He is here tapping into some pretty deep, primal stuff, and he drapes it in such heavy, black literary curtains that it became oppressive. It would not be going too far to say at times I found it hard to breathe.

Not willing to stop there, Kelly piles on the existential angst and, in a sentence or two, shows how Peter and Katy’s own marital relationship has changed since Timothy came into their home. This child, by his very existence, is an even greater interruption to life than it appears. What parent, on their darkest, most exhausted days, has not thought the same?

old-barn-hazel-billingsley[1].jpgTo escape the pressures of family, Peter from time to time will retire outside to an old barn on their property. In fact, it’s been in the family for ages as we learn that this is Peter’s boyhood home. Whilst out there he indulges in some of his more hidden pastimes, among them, cigarette smoking. It seems he was supposed to have quit when Timothy arrived, but he did not, and now he cannot bear to tell Katy that he has been unable to quit. So, he smokes clandestinely. “He didn’t know why he couldn’t just tell her that he hadn’t quit smoking. Maybe he didn’t want to disappoint her any more than he already had. Didn’t want her to see him as a failure.” There’s that demon again. This is the same fear of failure, of inadequacy, that drives so much parental dread and, in Peter, is even realized physically in his impotency. Turns out that his were the faulty parts that led them to adopt. Kelly works with some brilliant, connected symbolism throughout this tale, and I don’t want to get into all of it for fear of spoiling it. However, I need to say there isn’t a wasted action or loose symbol dropped here; everything is horribly connected and the barn is the locus.

Kelly’s writing is crisp, authentic, and emotionally evocative. He knows how to weave on the loom of the weird so that a greater image emerges over time. The only minor complaint I had was the overuse of the word “blackness.” I understand the need to create the atmosphere but by the fifth deployment of that word I was ready for another. What worked well though was how on each page a new crushing emotional challenge was unveiled making me as a reader want to cry out, “How much more can this guy take?” The only thing that stopped me (aside from normal social conventions) was the realization that most of us operate every day under the oppressive weight of these and even more stresses. We are all connected by the pain we have endured. 43eeb3e0-8c8d-4f96-9b3a-6563e2641295[1].jpegPunctuating these ideas are short, sharp pokes of sentences littered about at the ends of more effusive paragraphs, like the quick jabs of a professional boxer that set up a more powerful blow. Individually, they are sustained. Over time, they break you. Witness, from the ends of three paragraphs on the same page, “To no avail,” and “He was a failure,” and “Nothing was permanent, Peter knew.” That sense of impermanence closes out the story in a similar scene of cosmic dread to where we began. The supernatural here is definitely more implied than explicit, and so for our purposes here comparisons might more easily be made to J.S. Le Fanu than to Lovecraft.

This a fantastic story, but a deeply disturbing one. Sometimes it can be said that a story would work just as well without the supernatural element. That is not the case here. It works on many levels, and yet removing any one of those levels, including the supernatural, would diminish the whole. Pieces of Blackness is such a depressing, oppressive tale that when I finished and looked up I was surprised the sun was still shining. I read it in the mid-afternoon and it’s a pretty short story so I was less concerned that time had gotten away from me than I was that the cosmos had. I’d be careful about pairing this tale with alcohol of any kind. That said, and the good writing being a fine indication, I’ll read much more of what Michael Kelly has to offer. I suspect in a collection like this there is quite a variety of genre from the more to the less explicitly supernatural and I look forward to discovering it all.

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

 

Epiphany: A Flying Tiger’s Story, by Stephen Mark Rainey

“In all my experience as a fighter pilot, of walking hand in hand with death on a daily basis, I don’t believe I had ever felt so thoroughly terrified by my condition as a solitary, fragile, and ultimately minuscule being as I did now.”

81NDPG7P81L[1]Surely I won’t keep up this posting pace, but today’s a holiday and what the heck, here’s one more. Kevin Ross and Keith Herber’s edited anthology, Dead but Dreaming, was a collection I was glad to be able to get my hands on.  It had apparently only had a very small first run and became a well-lauded (Mike Davis, over at the Lovecraft Ezine, calls it one of the best Lovecraftian anthologies ever), but very difficult book to find.  It was first published in 2002 by DarkTales Publications, which quickly went under and this volume, in high demand, was apparently selling for over $300 on Ebay.  Thankfully, it’s been republished in 2008 by Miskatonic River Press, and I laid my tentacles on it for only $18.

The first story in the collection (when first reading a collection, I like to read the first story first, because I think it sets a tone, and they obviously chose it to lead off for a reason,) is called “Epiphany: A Flying Tiger’s Story,” by Stephen Mark Rainey.  Rainey is a prodigious author of novel, short stories, audio dramas, and a bunch of other creepy media. Like the first story by Laird Barron that I reviewed, this tale has as its hero a military man, in this case a WWII fighter pilot named Jack Wyndham. The story opens in the midst of our pilot seeing action in the Pacific Theater, Japanese Zero bullets rattling off his plane’s fuselage above the jungles of Burma. There’s a lot of zigging and zagging, some serious G-pulling dives, and a stone or two of hot lead flying through the air.

P40full4[1].jpg
American P-40b “Tomahawk”
Jack manages to pull away from his pursuers, but not before his P-40b Tomahawk is fatally damaged.  Options disappearing in black smoke pouring from his engines, he pops his cockpit glass, ejects, and watches his ride crash in a fireball in the jungle below.  It’s not long, though, before her hears the familiar whine again, and looks up in terror to see the vengeful Zeroes coming around to target his parachute with their cowl mounted machine guns. And then something bizarre happens.  A smoky haze seems to arise in front of the Zeroes, doing funky things to how they appear to Jack and muffling the sound.  Then, as if running right into a wall, the planes flatten and explode, as Jack continues his slow drift into the deep jungle canopy below.

The next part of the story takes place with Jack dangling from his chute, stuck in the top of the canopy with no safe way of getting down.  The Burmese jungle Rainey paints for us is a great Lovecraftian environment actually. It’s threatening and oppressive, but not because it’s malevolent. Rather it simply doesn’t care at all about the solitary human being hanging from its branches. It doesn’t look good for our Yankee airman and over the next pages (too many I felt, but it wasn’t that big of a deal) we read about him slowly coming to grips with the severity of his situation. No rescue will be forthcoming. No one knows where he is.  He can’t get down; he’s too far up to fall safely, and he’s out of reach of any branch that might support him. He’s got a single canteen of water. Oncoming night terrifies him: “Now, though, as the afternoon began to wane, a dread of the coming night settled heavily upon me; every nerve in my body railed against the idea of hanging helplessly in this place once the sun had gone down.”  The hopelessness of his case evokes strong, if localized, Lovecraftian themes.  The force (nature) against which he is arrayed is simply too powerful and too uncaring about his predicament.

VA001332-660x420[1].jpg
How would you like to land in this?
 

Oh, but then we get really Lovecraftian.  Because whatever those Japanese fighters crashed into is coming.  I don’t want to spoil it for you but Jack’s in for one heck of a ride through time and space. Something has taken an interest in him after all. For a moment even, he imagines the shrill chirping of the jungle insects is actually “a threnody piped by insane flautists.” Oh boy, Lovecraft fans, you know what that means! Azathoth may be near. (This is actually a Dunsaynian idea that HPL appropriated: the idiot sleeping god who dreams the world into existence, and is kept asleep by the music of lesser deities, and thank goodness for that because if he wakes up, it’s all over for everything.) But then it is over, the strangeness of our story I mean, and he wakes back up in a field hospital, miles from where he crashed, apparently having been rescued by a patrolling troop of local Burmese regulars.

I’m hoping this story actually does set the tone for the rest of this anthology because, like the Barron, this is well beyond pastiche or imitation. This is taking the best of Lovecraft’s sense of cosmic fear—fear of the unknown—and working it into a story all Rainey’s own. As I’ll probably no doubt say over and over again, Lovecraft wasn’t just all about the tentacles and the cultic magic.  Sure, that is a part of it, and a great lot of fun too, but what really sets Lovecraft apart is his sense of cosmic terror, that the evolution of human beings is a joke of the universe at best, a blip on the galactic timeline.  This story taps into that pretty successfully, except, perhaps, for at the very end when something happens that maybe makes the reader think the cosmic force is actually malevolent and actually does care about the humans or the earth, if only in a really scary way.  I’d love to read more authors’ takes on this theme and I’m hoping this anthology is a good place to do it.

The writing here is more than adequate but not poetic by any means.  While there weren’t any sentences that made me sit up and say, “What the hell?” neither were there any that made me want to read them out loud or made me feel something profound.  You don’t actually notice the writing as you’re reading this story, and that’s a pretty great feat in and of itself. There’s nothing particularly scary or creepy about reading this story, but it is one I think most Lovecraft fans will really enjoy, particularly those who understand the (potential) Azathoth scene.

Well, that about does it for this review, fellow Lovecraftians. While writing this, I listened to the Spotify playlist “WWII: Songs that Won the War,” compiled by user Angelfancy.

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

Words of cosmic dread: “I realized then that one of the stars ahead glowed more brightly than its neighbors, with a hot, greenish flame that blazed like a beacon. Soon, I could actually see it growing in size—or I should say looming larger, as my flight propelled me toward it. Something about this star unsettled me. Not the fact that I might fly into its heart and be instantaneously burned to to a cinder, but that the thing was not actually a star at all. It was something else entirely.”