My Knowing Glance, by Lucy A. Snyder

“This is what I knew about PVG: Within a week of transmission, an infected person gets a mild to moderate headache and some nausea. For some people, that’s all that happens. After a few days of taking it easy, they’re back to normal. But for others, the headache turns into the worst they’ve ever had. A day or so after that, they start vomiting up blood, followed by their stomach lining.”

—Lucy A. Snyder, My Knowing Glance

MiscreationsFirst, I must apologize for the lack of posts last month. I had intended to post this present review then, as a part of Women in Horror Month, as well as perhaps another. However, work life buried me in a ton of bricks to the point where all I wanted to do when I came home was stare vacantly at the wall. It’s still on-going but hopefully drawing to a close soon. Well, enough of that.

Lucy A. Snyder has been a terrific contributor to the cosmic/weird fiction genre for a long time, so when I saw that she had a story in the brand new anthology, MISCREATIONS (ed. Doug Murano and Michael Bailey), I immediately wanted to review it here. Murano is well-known as an editor of award winning anthologies (BEHOLD! and GUTTED) so the history of quality was also encouraging. The story didn’t end up being as mythos-related as I hoped but it still shared a theme or two with Lovecraft, as well as had a surprisingly prescient tone for a big news item today.

“My Knowing Glance” tells the epistolary story of a female prostitute named Savannah. You get the sense this story takes place in the near future when Snyder writes, “After the state blew up over the horrific human trafficking situation, voters finally decided to legalize sex work so women and children being held in slavery wouldn’t have to be afraid of getting locked up if they went to the police.”

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“Study for Paola” by Fabian Perez
Admittedly, I’m not very connected to the world of sex work, but I have heard that this is quite a real argument for legalizing it. Savannah is a little more sensitive to other people’s impressions of her profession than she’d like to admit, but colors her cognitive dissonance with a difficult memory about her father, who murdered her entire family. After some more background information on Savannah, Snyder drops some disconcerting revelations about a rampant disease that is terrifying the populace: PVG, or polymorphic viral gastroencephalitis. It’s so bad that if you’re caught spreading it you could be charged for murder, Savannah assures us.

Not long after that, Savannah is visited by a regular customer, Gregory. “He was shy, wrestling with gender dysphoria—he hated being male, but because his parents had been as shitty as my uncle Robert, the notion of identifying as someone other than a man made him straight-up panicky. He mostly wanted me to peg him.” (I had to look up what “peg him” meant. If you’re at all concerned about your search history, may I humbly suggest you do not do the same.) She knows right away something is wrong with him, but doesn’t suspect PVG. She also knows whatever it is, it’s too late as she laments that if anyone at reception had looked at him more than cursorily, none of what followed would have happened. The rest of the story unfolds quickly, with a tense, dynamic quality to the action leading to a body-horror-tastic denouement slightly reminiscent of Nathan Ballingrud’s angelic novella, “The Visible Filth.”

The disease Snyder has invented is disgusting. If a patient survives the initial onslaught and makes it out of the hospital, they need daily treatments to stave off the symptoms. Cracked skin. Erupting tumors. Degenerating brains. In Savannah’s own words, “It’s all pretty gruesome, but honestly not really that much more scary than a disease like Ebola, or even drug-resistant syphilis.” I read this story for the first time a couple of months ago and I have to say, rereading it now in the wake of the worldwide COVID-19 virus scare, it hits a lot harder. A lot. I don’t know how Snyder crystal-balled this precise moment, but kudos to her, I guess.

coronavirus_topic_header_1024[1]The conclusion of this story takes on a little bit of a different tone than the rest, and it’s here that the more cosmic horror elements of it come into play. If I have any quibble with the tale, it’s that I wish something had been introduced earlier that even barely hinted at what was to come. But that aside, it is good, oh boy is it good! Snyder brings it back around quite nicely to where she began, even tying a moist ribbon on the part of the narrative about Savannah’s father. There is a mention of elder gods that would feel perfunctory were it not handled in precisely the way Snyder does. However, the way she pulls it off concludes this tale on a rare tone for cosmic horror, which is not at all to say that it was unwelcome. Writers need to keep finding ways to do something new, and Snyder succeeds in doing that here in her last three lines.

Snyder’s writing is very accomplished and you can tell she’s comfortable inside her own words. Savannah’s casual, easy voice is spot on for the character and never once was I pulled out of the narrative. I particularly liked how Snyder would use parenthetical asides to counter a point. “‘Your father means well.’ (He didn’t.)” It felt almost conversational and exactly the sort of thing one friend might put in a letter to another. You’ll find no words like “cyclopean” here; it isn’t that kind of atmospheric story. But the way Snyder layers in unsettling passages throughout causes a reader’s blood pressure to constantly elevate, but in a measured rather than a dramatic pace. Until she hits you in the end, that is.

“My Knowing Glance” faithfully incorporates all of the themes raised by the subtitle of the anthology. There are gods, monstrosities, and other horrors, particularly disease and transmogrification. Maybe it’s just the cultural moment we’re in now vis-à-vis the COVID-19 virus, but ultimately this story struck me as being about sickness and how sickness can separate, divide, or alienate people. There’s a true horror in that and Lucy A. Snyder has tapped into at least my fears surrounding it.

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

 

Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Legs? by Michael Cisco

“Now he’s alone. After a while, he begins to fall back into place again, piece by piece.
“Just an oooold corpse,” a voice says.
He stands up, blinking tears away, nearly sobbing, shaking. Tenderly, he adjusts his poor, twisted clothes.
“Are you one of them now?” a voice asks. “Is this the way it’s done?”
“Perhaps one of the ways,” a voice answers.

—Michael Cisco, “Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Legs?”

“…there is another phase of cosmic phantasy (which may or may not include frank Yog-Sothothery) whose foundations appear to me as better grounded than these of ordinary oneiros-copy; personal limitation regarding the sense of outsiderness. I refer to the aesthetic crystallisation of that burning & inextinguishable feeling of mixed wonder & oppression which the sensitive imagination experiences upon scaling itself & and its restrictions against the vast & provocative abyss of the unknown.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Frank Belknap Long, February 27, 1931

This past weekend it was my family’s turn to keep our second grader’s class hamster. We were given everything we needed to care for it, including a hamster ball in which the little guy could roll around. After supper, we took him out of his cage and put him in the ball. All of us knelt around it on the floor, looming and leering, as it did…nothing. It did not roll around or frolic. It just stood there. After a moment passed, someone observed, “He’s shaking.” We took him out of the ball and sure enough, the poor creature was positively trembling. We placed him back in his cage and left him alone for the rest of the night. In the morning, he was dead. And in that moment, I understood cosmic horror in a clearer, more direct way than ever before.

1129835441[1]Michael Cisco’s new novella, DO YOU MIND IF WE DANCE WITH YOUR LEGS—to be published by Nightscape Press as the newest entry into their charitable chapbook line—taps deep into the terror of outsiderness which Lovecraft referenced in his letter to Long and brushes its fingers against the truest sense of cosmic horror like that I imagine was felt by the late hamster. I am grateful to Nightscape Press for providing me with a free e-ARC for the purposes of this honest review. If you don’t know about their charitable chapbook line, you need to learn about it. Each author selects a charity to which Nightscape Press donates one-third of the proceeds from the sale of each gorgeously illustrated chapbook. Michael Cisco has selected the LA LGBT Center.

This tale tells the story of Pedrito Marinetti, a transvestite man who may also be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and of his search for a missing woman, Irene Trigg. (Full disclosure: I am the whitest, most cis-gendered, straightest person, who is also not one hundred percent conversant with non-cis culture nomenclature (but I am trying to learn in an effort to be as supportive as I can). So, I feel a little unqualified to explore the deeper realities of Pedrito’s existence, and apologize in advance if I say something unwillfully ignorant.) Pedrito, who lives with his parents, enjoys being a bit of a loner and gets around on his trusty bicycle. “He likes the way bicycling puts him in the street while separating him from everyone else. His interactions with people seldom go well. Not a good idea. Not for him. Slipping away before breakfast also allows him to avoid his parents, who pester him with their hopelessly gentle questions and kind suggestions.”  Searching for missing persons is a pasttime of sorts for Pedrito, though, “As a rank outsider with a discomfiting personality unlikely to win the trust of strangers he can only hope to find Irene Trigg if there is something bizarre about her disappearance.” Pedrito comes at things from a different angle than the rest of us, and therefore sees the world differently. This is, in part, what has led me to wonder is he is autistic.

351839-admin[1]The deeper into the mystery he gets, the weirder the story becomes. Influences upon our world from beyond seem to be at play. This is more than a case of a missing person, and yet in many ways, it is also less. The hamster wheel awaits our frolicking while something outside looms and leers. As his name initially suggests, a reader begins to wonder who or what is pulling the strings, and to what, if any, end. But, Pedrito is undaunted; his autism (if that is what it is) acting as shield between him and the uncomfortableness or fear that would prevent a different person from continuing on the hunt. Whatever it is that is different about Pedrito, Cisco presents it in a kind, sympathetic manner. In fact, it may be his particular “stillness” that perfectly suits him for the role he has chosen in this story.

This is a difficult story to digest in one sitting and I struggled to understand it upon my initial read. After going back and looking over it again, I’m still not sure I totally get everything this is trying to accomplish. That is not to say the story is unworthy in any way, but it is to say that it is one which does not offer up its inner treasures easily, or without struggle. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity. We are put into Pedrito’s mind easily, which, while a remarkable authorial feat, is ironically what complicates the reader’s understanding. In telling Pedrito’s story, I believe that what Cisco is trying to do is show us that this kind of person has a story to tell and it is one that is both worthy of our attention and yet wholly independent of it. Pedrito does not need us to hear or understand his story, but if we choose to read, it is there for us to glean.

I am struck by the things which I do not fully understand. For example, there is a repeated number, 20904, that Pedrito receives over and over again as a response. The only clue we’re given to its meaning is a brief paragraph detailing a scene in which Pedrito watches a video tape he seems to revere, a tape he has cued up to time stamp 2:09:04. That is the moment in the video when his childhood guidance counselor is informing his parents that Pedrito tested as having an astronomically high I.Q. How Pedrito feels about this revelation (rather than the revelation itself) is a clue to unlocking your understanding of his character.

4[1]The last piece I want to explore is actually from the beginning. The first two words of the story, to be precise, which are the name of the main character.  Pedrito Marinetti. The diminutive applied to the first name is pretty self explanatory. Even as an adult, he is regarded as lesser by his peers and especially by his parents. It’s the last name that intrigues me. Why give a last name unless it were important? (Warning: I am now leaping off the ledge of solid footing into the space of Pure Conjecture.) Marinetti is not a name that seems like it would be picked out of a hat, because it is the surname of a major historical figure: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. That Marinetti was a poet, artist, and political activist in early twentieth century Italy. He is best remembered as one of the principle founders of the Futurist Movement, an artistic and social movement emphasizing speed, technology, and mechanized violence. It would go on to be a major influence on Dalí and the Dada movement.

cs22-01[1]On October 15, 1908, Marinetti had a car accident, in which he crashed his four-cylinder Fiat sports car into a ditch in an attempt to avoid (wait for it…) a bicyclist. That bicyclist helped him out of the ditch, and Marinetti wrote later that he emerged from that crash a new man. Futurism was born. In Cisco’s story there is a tension between the present and what is to come, and it is in that tension that the horror lies. While there is not mechanized violence, there is a repeatable, assembly-line nature to the violence that is present. It is dissociated, apathetic, and willful. It is the violence inflicted by placing an innocent hamster in a situation so stressful his little heart gives out. And then going out and buying a replacement hamster. It is a violence of which we are all guilty, except perhaps, for Pedrito Marinetti, who seeks to lift us from our wreck in the ditch of our lives.

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

The Amnesiac’s Lament, by Scott R. Jones

“Somewhere, in that vast array of sleeping bodies laced together in sticky pits of artificial neural tissue below me, is a dreamer who used to be a writer, or dreams she was one.”

—Scott R. Jones, “The Amnesiac’s Lament”

“One baffling thing that could be introduced is to have a modern man discover, among documents exhumed from some prehistoric buried city, a mouldering papyrus of parchment written in English, & in his own handwriting, which tells a strange tale & awakes—amidst a general haze of amazement, horror, & half-incredulity—a faint, far-off sense of familiarity which becomes more & more beckoning and challenging as the strings of semi-memory continue to vibrate…This idea has lain dormant in my commonplace-book for ages…”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Clark Ashton Smith, November 11, 1930

71zYC53sB5L[1].jpg If asked, “in what genre did Lovecraft write?” most of us fans would probably answer in an unconsidered, if decisive, manner: “Cosmic horror.” Lovecraft himself, however, would probably have said that “cosmicism” played a large role in his writing of strange or weird tales. What we think of now as cosmic horror was a homebrew by the Old Gent, stirring in elements of mystery, science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and the strange. Some of his stories, like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” lean pretty hard into the adventuresome thriller category, while others, like “The Shadow Out of Time,” rely heavily on sci-fi. The horror lay in the discovery of just how insignificant humanity was on the cosmic scale. Scott R. Jones‘ thrill-ride of a story, “The Amnesiac’s Lament,” found in his debut collection, SHOUT KILL REVEL REPEAT, follows Lovecraft through this particular portal. This collection was published by JournalStone’s imprint, Trepidatio Publishing (2019), last month and is ably introduced by Ross E. Lockhart of Word Horde. If this description isn’t enough to pique your interest, take note of the blurb at the top by none other than horror master Ramsey Campbell himself.

“The Amnesiac’s Lament” tells the futuristic story of Sunset Grey Theremin, a personality construct sent on a mission into an unforgiving desert landscape with partner personality construct Livid Ransom Stormcell. Right away you’re able to tell that this will be an unusual and very fun story to read, brought to you by Jones’ colossal imagination, which uses Lovecraft as a launching pad into his own unknown realm of cosmicism. Deserts in Lovecraft often mean the Yithians will be in play and here is no different. Our duo’s destination is a subterranean Yithian complex. However, before they set out, some precautions are in order. See, I mentioned this was a futuristic tale, and in this future, the Old Ones have returned and they are not messing about. 1_CPI-6ZtpYfMyV3bTt8EumQ[1].jpegThrough some seriously advanced tech Sunset and Livid cloak themselves in a “Deep Dendo” psychic shield, made up of the personalities of others, to protect themselves from the sanity blasting properties of the visitors from beyond the stars. “I don’t go outside unless I’m a hundred thousand people at once,” warns Sunset Grey Theremin. A hundred thousand people, casually sloughed off like so much dead skin.

Their adventure is thrilling, occasionally charming (“Yeah, well, hurry it up,” says Livid Ransom Stormcell. “Because it’s irritating the living fhtagn out of me.”), replete with countless Lovecraft and friends references—these, sewn into the skin of the narrative in clever ways so as not to distract the uninitiated, while paying homage to the devotee—and above all, entertaining. Like some of the best of Lovecraft, it saves its terror until close to the end, when you then sit up straight in your couch and take someone’s name in vain.

Lovecraft would finish writing “The Shadow Out of Time” in February of 1935, some four years, four months after the letter to Clark Ashton Smith referenced above. He was initially so disgusted with it that he almost ripped up all 65 pages, as he says in another letter that he had been doing a lot of lately. (Oh! Lovecraft! What hath we lost?) The ideas he sketched out in his commonplace-book (what he called his book of disassociated ideas and notes) would finally come to fruition and be published in Astounding Stories pulp magazine in 1936.

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From the highly acclaimed “Providence” comic book series by Alan Moore.  Art by: Jacen Burrows
“The Shadow Out of Time” is considered his magnum opus now by many, but I would never tell an inquiring reader to begin their Lovecraftian journey there. It’s long, and when Lovecraft gets long, he can get boring. (I know, I know, blasphemy, right? Who didn’t fall asleep reading Lovecraft at least once though?) What Jones does so well in this contemporary story is bring to the foreground the ideas Lovecraft used as the background, and spin a damned exciting yarn to read. It’s faithful and fresh all at the same time, and not one page felt boring. Few authors can do this as well as I felt like it was done here. Attempts either come off as pastiche or are too distant a cousin.

Jones’ balance here is near flawless and would be Lovecraftian storytellers should make a note. The fast-paced, page-turning sci-fi style (calling to mind Hugh Howey’s Wool series, strangely enough) is unlike anything HPL ever even approached. His writing is accomplished and crisp, confidence spiced with just a dash of whimsy. Combined, these elements produce the story’s biggest success for me: I felt as if I was reading something completely new while simultaneously being rewarded for having a base of knowledge.

The next story in the collection will go on to play in Ramsey Campbell’s Lovecraftian backyard, with just as satisfying results. I cannot wait to find out what the collection has in store beyond that, and neither should you. This is one for the fans, but neither will it be lost on newcomers.

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

Ammonia, by William Holloway

“The Pacific Rim was a wasteland of shattered cities hewn by earthquakes and drowned by tsunamis. The West Coast was in ruins, part of a line of devastation extending from Alaska to Cape Horn. New Zealand and Hawaii had essentially ceased to exist. Yes, the human race was only now beginning to comprehend the scale and power of the earthquake under the Ross Ice Shelf.

“Event.” Bamboo enunciated the word as he worked the notepad before him, covered in mind-boggling formulae, trying to understand mathematically what he’d survived.”

~William Holloway, “Ammonia”

ap_cover_front[1].jpgIt has been said before, but it bears repeating: Lovecraft would be shocked by both the popularity and the amount of Mythos-derived works extant today. He was always tickled when his colleagues used some of his ideas and creations in their own stories and, in fact, quite encouraged it. On August 14, 1930, he wrote to fellow Weird-Taler Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian), “[Frank Belknap] Long has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his—in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation.” No creation of HPL’s is as widely cited, utilized, and loved as Cthulhu, the dreaming god. Lovecraft’s seminal tale “The Call of Cthulhu” is one of his best pieces of fiction, and today’s story reimagines it, or at least the cataclysmic event it describes, for a modern audience.

“Ammonia” is found in the new book, THE ABYSSAL PLAIN: THE R’LYEH CYCLE, put out in November 2019 by JournalStone Publishing, and edited by William Holloway and Brett J. Talley. The cover art, by Mikio Murakami, is particularly striking. This book contains four novellas and, through four different lenses, purports to tell about Cthulhu’s rising from the Pacific Ocean. It functions as a sort of mosaic novel but the stories each have their own integrity.

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“The Eye of Cthulhu” by François Baranger. Illustration from “The Call of Cthulhu Illustrated” © 2017 François Baranger. Used with permission.
There are three character POV’s in “Ammonia,” but two of them get a pretty short shrift. The principal character is Quincy. He “…was a good-looking boy who grew into a good-looking man. Until recently, he’d gotten by on getting by, but the hard facts of advanced alcoholism at a relatively young age had hit home. His hands shook, he smelled, and his eyes had yellowed.” He lives in Austin, TX, and though he does not yet know it, Austin is beginning to flood. Sure, Quincy had seen flooded streets before but what is happening now is both more severe and, as it turns out, more widespread. And that’s not all. People are beginning to disappear.

Bamboo is the executive officer aboard the USS Georgia, a nuclear missile submarine that has recently been rocked by an unidentifiable underwater event.  His parts of the story were the most enjoyable for me to read, which is part of the reason why I wanted more of them.

Finally, Natalie is an executive assistant to a powerful Washington Post editor, with whom she is also having an affair. Through her job, she’s connected to and interacts with powerful people, including the Speaker of the House. Her story is uncomfortably sexualized as she perceives that allowing important people to grope her and giving them sexual favors might be her only way ahead. Bamboo and Natalie play very small supporting roles in the broader narrative of “Ammonia,” and I can’t help but wonder if they will reappear in the other novellas. I hope so, because if they don’t, then their characters won’t serve much of a point.

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“heroin” by flickr.com user B.A.D. – used under Creative Commons license

Readers know that this is a story about the beginning of the end of the world as we know it, but the characters do not know that at all. However, for each of them, this is a story about cataclysmic endings. Quincy sinks deeper and deeper into drug and alcohol addiction as he struggles to sort between a reality growing stranger by the hour and a drug induced dream state. It doesn’t help that he falls in with a Beatrice-like character (his own personal guide through the apocalypse) named Junkie Dave. Natalie faces the potential ending of her career if she doesn’t continue to sexually satisfy her married boss—and others—in an effort to make her big break. Bamboo comes closest, at least initially, to understanding the global significance of “the event.” He faces the ending of American hegemony as well as the ending of his ability to understand the world around him.

Holloway’s story is largely effective, and accomplishes what it sets out to do: to tell the story of Cthulhu’s rising through the lens of ordinary people caught up in the event unawares. Quincy was a difficult character for me to get behind, but I personally don’t like reading about drug and alcohol addiction as I see it too often in real life. It’s hard to see how he’d survive and he makes it harder to care. In as much as this is what real-life addicts can be like, Holloway is successful at communicating that struggle for compassion. In tone, “Ammonia” reminded me a lot of John Langan’s post-Cthulhu rising story called “The Shallows.” Langan went for more of a melancholy and fatalistic vibe though, whereas Holloway strives for almost a survival horror feel.

Through a believably authentic voice, Holloway brings Quincy to life in a way that doesn’t happen for the other characters. “Nobody home. He closed the door behind him, but not before he smelled that godawful ammonia again. Fuck. What the hell? Bitch complains about me stinking while that shit is going on?That is about as far as you can get from the Old Gent’s typical protagonists, and though he wasn’t my favorite character to read about, he was still refreshing.

As the horror around him grows, Holloway deftly communicates the rising tension of the unnameable and unthinkable, “He heard a sound above him, a groaning of timbers and a dragging, shuffling, sliding sound. Something was up there in the crawl space, something very big and very heavy. Something that didn’t move right, or something that moved very, very differently.” It is in passages like this that we get the strongest feel of an updated Lovecraft for the modern age. Gone are the florid clauses in favor of descriptive, yet manageable sentences. There is nothing unnecessary in this example, but it succeeds in showing the source of fear all the same.

We are close to the centennial of HPL’s writing of “The Call of Cthulhu,” and if the source material is to survive in the popular imagination for the next hundred years, it will need to continue to be modernized, the Mythos sandbox not only played in but raked out. “Ammonia,” as the first of this quartet of novellas, achieves that and I am excited to read the other three. I am grateful to JournalStone Publishing for providing me with a free electronic review copy.

William Holloway is the author of THE IMMORTAL BODY and other Lovecraftian novels.

This review was composed while listening to the albums “The Abyssal Plain,” and “The Realm of the Void,” by electronic music artist James Clements, aka ASC.

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

Merge Now, by Kurt Fawver

“Chisholm knew he should call the police. He knew this other driver’s madness was bound to cause disaster. But even as the situation sparked his anxiety, it also entranced him. He’d seen plenty of minor accidents in the past, but he’d never watched a major collision happen in real time, right beside him. A small part of him wanted to see it: steel and aluminum bending, glass shattering, bodies flying. The aftermath might offer an insight, a revelation, a perspective on life or death or the nature of reality that he’d never otherwise understand. It might offer up a release.”

61IdzlLY5EL._US230_[1]I have both seen and been personally affected by the aftermath of wrong-way, high-speed collisions, and I can say for a certainty it does not offer any insight on life or death other than we are, at our most basic physical level, meat. Once, I lived near a particularly bad intersection where there were always cars banging into each other. Thankfully, most of the time, they did not result in serious injuries. One time though, there was a bad one. I heard it from my driveway where I was working on tuning up my bike. I ran to the street and saw a conversion van versus a sedan, both pretty crumpled. People began falling out of the van, whose side door and been pushed open far enough that they could get out. Most seemed ok, just dazed. One guy though, the last guy, came out screaming and holding his face. He asked if he was gonna be ok, pulling his hand away from his cheek. When he did, half his face rolled down, exposing his muscle and teeth. I winced, gave him the oil soaked rag I was carrying in my hand and assured him he’d be fine. I suspect he probably was with the exception of a nasty scar. That was the accident I saw. The one I was affected by left me bereft of a close friend. We are meat, and when it comes to auto accidents, we are grist for the mill. There is no particular revelation about these sorts of accidents but that. Kurt Fawver’s excellent story, “Merge Now,” however, does offer up insightful commentary on how we live our lives, the vain things for which we strive, and the mindless, blind way we so often follow.

41D3v4VgygL[1]It is located in the extraordinary anthology NOX PAREIDOLIA, edited by Robert S. Wilson and published late this year (2019) by Nightscape Press. (The book’s cover is equally as remarkable, and more so once you understand the title.) In this volume, Wilson collects ambiguous stories by some of horror’s hottest writers, all paying homage to the late weird fiction master, Robert Aickman. If you don’t know Aickman or his singular style, you can still enjoy this anthology well enough, but reading a few of Aickman’s strange tales first would offer a more fulsome experience. Also, if you don’t know the work of Nightscape Press, you should fix that. They are doing amazing work, using a portion of a lot of their sales to benefit charities, and are soon putting out HORROR FOR RAICES, a response to the horror going on at our southern border with, again, an enviable table of contents. They deserve your attention.

“Merge Now” is the story of Chisholm, a bored office worker who could be a stand in for so many of us, grinding it out daily for his meager share of the American dream. While driving to work one morning, he witnesses someone affixing a strangely decorated blindfold to themselves and then speeding up in their car. At first, they miraculously avoided other traffic, but then, once they reached their apparent max speed, they swerved into the oncoming lanes and it was only moments before the inevitable occurred. His work day is shot and he can’t even pull himself together to drive home, calling a ride share. blindfolddriver[1].jpgLate that night, he’s searching the internet, trying to figure out what would make a person do something like that. “…well after midnight, he stumbled upon a Twitter post that mentioned ‘the blindfolded, seeing the answer others cannot see and gnashing their teeth in fear and ecstasy, do the great work of the eschaton. They will prepare the roads for its coming.'”

As the story goes on this sort of event becomes commonplace, with horrific traffic accident after horrific traffic accident filling the local news cycle. He witnesses another accident and can’t erase the grisly images from his mind. “A body hung behind it, limp and positioned at grotesque angles. Its head was partially occluded by a segment of collapsed roof, but the exposed portion revealed an unmistakable white strip of cloth inscribed with unknown glyphs.” The cult atmosphere developed by Fawver’s inclusion of these strange blindfolds is simple, but brilliant, and in the end, it’s all you need to wonder, wtf? One driver speaks as Chisholm encounters her during his unavoidable work commute, “As she passed, she rolled a window down and shouted, to Chisholm or the universe at large, ‘All is wreckage! All is collision!'” Chisholm eventually begs off work, unable to get behind a wheel, and who could blame him? It seems the whole world is spiraling out of control and he wants no part in it, but can he avoid it if it truly is the whole world going mad?

Fawver’s writing in this piece, undergirded with a certain fatalism, is measured and controlled, unlike the story he is spinning. His characters speak naturally and their internal monologues read as authentic. You are never once taken out of the story. Generally, I think that’s the harder feat to accomplish than writing a florid line.

Aickman wrote stories that some would not even consider horror, but I have never read one after which I was not deeply unsettled. He has no jump scares and little gore, but manages to nonetheless infect your consciousness. Upon finishing an Aickman story you are often left wondering, what did I just read? But then you find yourself turning it over and over in your mind hours or even days later, and that’s when you know he got you. This anthology is full of stories that do that, a just tribute to the master, and “Merge Now” is a particularly good example.

NEW-FATAL-2-HOWARD-FRANKLAN_1539945801431_59493418_ver1.0[1].jpgIn the story, Chisholm says he moved to the city for bigger, better opportunities, and wonders at one point if it would not have been a better decision to stay home in his small town and be a big fish in a little pond. But the allure of success, and the financial remuneration that accompanies it, was too much for him. How many of us have struggled with the same sort of question and come up, if not short, then at least mortally uncertain? That is where the cosmic horror is for me in this tale. It is not a horror beyond the stars, but it is one that is much bigger than any one of us individually. It is the horror of questioning whether we are enough. Are we good enough, rich enough, successful enough, pretty enough? If not, who do we have to follow to get there, and what do we have to do? What do we have to barter?  How many, chasing this unattainable carrot, have been left as human wreckage on the side of life’s uncaring, unfeeling highway?

Mr. Fawver recently moved, but before he did, we lived in the same region of Tampa Bay. Earlier this year, we had a rash of wrong-way, head-on collisions on our various cross-bay bridges, all resulting in multiple fatalities. I cannot tell you if these were the result of drunken mistakes, ill-begotten wagers, youthful ignorance, or what, but for a while there, it was a thing and I wouldn’t even get on those bridges. The above image is from the local news channel. I confirmed with Mr. Fawver that this tale is a creative response to those tragedies and I want to thank him for it. We all had a lot of emotion about what happened here and this story gave those emotions a channel to vent. I am grateful for that, as I am grateful for Mr. Fawver’s work. I hope he knows he is appreciated in the weird fiction community and that he is good enough.

Kurt Fawver is the author of a large number of wonderful weird and horror short stories, appearing recently in the August issue of Nightmare Magazine.  Comparisons to Thomas Ligotti are not misplaced. He also has published two collections: FOREVER, IN PIECES, and THE DISSOLUTION OF SMALL WORLDS, which contains the Shirley Jackson award-winning story, “The Convexity of Our Youth.”

Before I close, I would like you to know that no guts were punched in the writing of this review.

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

 

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

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