In His House, by Richard Thomas

“It’s not hard.
I just need you to listen.
And keep listening.
That part is essential.
I need you to recite a few strange words the morning sun, or the afternoon doldrums, or the long, ever-expanding night. Wherever you are, whenever you are, whoever you are.
In his house, he waits dreaming.”

—Richard Thomas, “In His House”

Is there a better way to round out the year of reviews than with the big “C” himself? I didn’t think so, either. This review also introduces us to a new anthology, and an author I’ve not reviewed before, but one with whose work I am familiar. Richard Thomas is well known in the horror fiction community not only for his fiction, but probably more as a teacher of fiction. He is the host and professor of Storyville, an online writing workshop with multiple class offerings for any experience level. In addition to that, he also teaches several classes through Lit Reactor, another online writing community. The present anthology in which Thomas finds himself published is THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX, published in 2020 by Justin Burnett and Silent Motorist Media. Featuring stories from heavyweights like Brian Evenson, Nadia Bulkin, and Stephen Graham Jones, this anthology also introduces readers to a great selection of newer and/or lesser known authors, like K.A. Opperman, Devora Gray, and S.E. Casey. THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX takes as its theme the unwritten, forbidden text. Lovecraft invented perhaps the most well known example with the Necronomicon, but Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Clark Ashton Smith’s Liber Ivonis, and Chambers’ insanity-inducing play The King in Yellow are all familiar examples as well. THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX expands on those ideas as well as introducing new ones, and not all of them are what you might expect. Burnett promises us that “musical scores, ancient glyphs, curbside ‘religious’ pamphlets, and real medical texts,” all lurk within.

“In His House” begins with the address, “Hello my friend,” alerting the reader to the epistolary format but also gently introducing the idea that this will be a story written in the second person. Admittedly, the second person is not my favorite point of view from which to read a story (it increases the difficulty level of the willing suspension of disbelief exponentially for me), but Thomas pulls it off pretty well. We go on to discover that the letter we’re reading has been around for a while, and distributed throughout multiple media formats. It is at the same time a plea for help and a gospel of sorts. “However it got to you, thank you for taking the time to read it. My fractured soul depends on your help here, your involvement, your support.” Veteran mythos readers will immediately recognize the next line, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” though if this is your first foray into the Cthulhu mythos (and I doubt it) you might find yourself not only tongue-tied but a bit confused. “Translated,” it means, “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

R’lyeh by Deviant Artist DQuaro

Over the course of the letter, the reader encounters both a sense of calling and inevitability. You were meant for this. You didn’t find this letter, it found you and now you cannot help but read it. In the reading of it, you bind yourself to the task to which it calls you; through the inadvertent recitation of the Cthulhu cult’s chant you have drawn the sleeping old one’s eye towards you and now assist in his awakening. It is, at the same time, both a bit silly and an enormous amount of fun. Thomas wraps his cosmic dread around such gems as “I want to talk to you about our Lord and Savior—the High Priest of the Great Old Ones, The Eternal Dreamer, The Sleeper of R’lyeh.”

In some ways, I read the story as a love letter to a forgotten feeling of adventure and discovery. When I first discovered Lovecraft, I was in middle school and I didn’t get it at all, but something about it stuck with me. It was almost as if I knew there was something special there, but I was not yet ready to unlock it. So when I came back to HPL in high school, I not only read the stories but researched the concepts. Tell me you didn’t do the same? Anyone else hold their breath a little when you found a “copy” of the text of the Necronomicon? I mean, I printed mine out, hole-punched it, and clipped it into a dark blue three-ring binder on the cover of which I drew my best elder sign. I was careful to never read the words out loud. I mean, I knew it was fiction, but what if it wasn’t, right? Thomas’ story taps into that same feeling and I really enjoyed it.

HPL’s own sketch of Cthulhu, to young Robert Barlow. Safe to say future artists would capture more of the cosmic horror Lovecraft intended.

Thomas’ writing is very accessible, bearing none of the hallmark’s of the Old Gent’s purple prose, but neither would you expect it to coming from an instructor of letters. If there is poetry to be found here, it is in the structure of the tale and not in the words deployed. He makes liberal use of single sentence paragraphs that generally accomplish their goal of slowing you down and calling attention to the gravity of the situation. Like those short paragraphs, the story as a whole is also very brief, leaving little room for either fluff or error, and Thomas’ deftly avoids both. There is a beautiful agony in the letter as well. Its in-text author is torn between evangelistic glee and his own horror at that to which he is luring the unsuspecting reader. This liminal narrative space was my favorite aspect of the story and where I think Thomas shines the brightest as a writer because I suspect that feeling is a very difficult one to accomplish.

In the end, this was a fun jaunt into the concept of the unwritten and forbidden text. Like most mythos work, it wasn’t particularly revelatory, but neither did it need to be because of the way it played with the already established concepts. If it had been longer it would have grown tiresome, but that’s where Thomas’ mastery comes into play. He knew exactly how long a story like this should and could be and he didn’t write it one word longer. Such self-aware economy is enviable. I look forward to digging into more of the stories in this volume. The premise is extremely promising to fans of cosmic horror and printed-off Necronomicon readers everywhere.

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

The Black Stone, by Robert E. Howard

“All eyes were fixed on the top of the Stone which they seemed to be invoking. But the strangest of all was the dimness of their voices; not fifty yards from me hundreds of men and women were unmistakably lifting their voices in a wild chant, yet those voices came to me as a faint indistinguishable murmur as if from across vast leagues of Space—or time.

—Robert E. Howard, The Black Stone

“I know it’s trite, but something in it gave me a kick for all that.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to August Derleth upon Derleth criticizing Howard’s story, quoted from Essential Solitude: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Weird Tales, 1931, Vol. 18, No. 4.

It’s taken me a while, but I have finally gotten around to reading “The Black Stone,” one of Robert E. Howard’s Lovecraft homages. Along with being in multiple anthologies, it is available for free here. Together with HPL and Clark Ashton Smith, Howard completed “the big three” of storytellers published in Weird Tales, where he became much beloved for the heroic hijinks of Conan the Cimmerian and Solomon Kane, among others. Howard and Lovecraft were penpals however, so like with Clark Ashton Smith, it was only a matter of time before he dabbled in elder gods and ancient, forbidden ritual. As you can tell from the quote above, Derleth was unimpressed, but the Old Gent liked it, no doubt more than a bit flattered by it. According to Howard scholar Steve Tomkins, “E.P. Berglund in the Reader’s Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos, [said] as of 1973 “The Black Stone” was the strongest Mythos story not written by Lovecraft himself.” Tomkins would go on to add, however, that “its supremacy has since been challenged by T.E.D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn” and Thomas Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin”.” (Personally, I might add a few others to that list, authored by folks like Kiernan and Barron.) There’s quite a lot to like about this story, but is it worthy of such high praise? Let’s find out.

I’ve been reading a lot of Howard recently, stomping about with Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran mak Morn, and even Sailor Steve Costigan, all of which I have tremendously enjoyed. I think I’ve gotten a feel for Howardian writing and it is definitely on display in this story, albeit much more towards the end than the beginning. As the story opens, we’re treated to a typically Lovecraftian premise of an ancient book (Nameless Cults) being discovered by the protagonist who then goes on to, through its pages, separate us from the current day and the very old history it describes. HPL did this multiple degrees of separation thing well in the likes of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for example. When Lovecraft used this device, it served not to safely separate a reader from the action (as it easily could in the hands of lesser writers) but to deepen the sense of history and ancient connection involved and thus heighten the danger the protagonist, and perhaps even the reader, may be in. He shows you the terrible depths involved, and then draws you into them. Howard does this pretty well here, though not as well as Lovecraft (or indeed, even as well as himself in other stories solely of his own creation), and if the story stayed in this vein, it would have ended up nothing more than a lovely pastiche. But it does not; it transforms into a true homage. Again, courtesy of Tomkins, “Steven R. Trout in his “The Horror Fiction of Robert E. Howard” (The Dark Man #2): “Howard couldn’t write a Lovecraft story without it becoming a Howard story.”

Artist: Paul Lehr. 1979.

The second half of the story is where Howard really shines. Our protagonist has arrived in the storied village of Stregoicavar nestled within the mountains of Hungary. A lot of the imagery reminded me a lot of the opening scenes of the Lugosi Dracula film, to be honest. “…a three days ride in a jouncing coach brought me to the little village which lay in a fertile valley high up in the fir-clad mountains.” (In the very next sentence, a Count is even mentioned.) Once the necessary history has been dispatched, and this takes a while, that which you came for begins to unfold. The protagonist, against all advice, seeks out the titular black stone, a monolith about sixteen feet high and a foot and a half or so in diameter. And wouldn’t you know it, but it just happens to be Midsummer’s Eve, “the very time that the legends linked with grisly implications to the Black Stone.” A dream-like state comes upon him and he witnesses some truly horrifying things in gruesome detail. Howard hits his stride in this section, deploying a brutality akin to what we find in some of his sword and sorcery tales, and one which Lovecraft never touched. This is when it becomes his story.

Howard’s writing is a lot more direct that Lovecraft’s and even though it isn’t devoid of description, it is not marked by the purple prose of the Old Gent of Providence. There is an immediacy to his writing, a real focus on seeing and experience rather than abstraction and contemplation. Howard repeats the phrase, “I opened my eyes,” a number of times, and constantly emphasizes the visceralness of what is before the character, demonstrating that what is going on is real. It may drive you insane, yes, but you are not insane yet. When the character does experience a hallucination, he shakes it off and continues with a Conan-like determination. I almost said to myself, “this is no fainting Lovecraftian antiquarian,” until, of course, he fainted, eliciting a chuckle from me and, I’d like to think, from Lovecraft himself. Howard also tips his hat to his friend with choice words like “cyclopean,” and Lovecraftian tropes like keys, among others.

Artist: Greg Staples. Weird Tales, 1931.

If Howard’s style is present in his writing, it is also present in his preconceptions. There is quite a lot in this story about racial superiority and inferiority, which comes as no surprise, but is regretful all the same. Over the short years they exchanged letters, HPL and REH sent each other some of the most vitriolic and xenophobic passages ever committed pen to paper. It saddens me to know that they thought this way; while it shows up in their stories in various and sundry ways that can often be overlooked by a casual reader, in their letters it’s plainly spelled out. This story contains a bit more explicit racism than others of Howard’s, yet, in a surprising turn, it also has words of praise lavished upon Muslims, who feature into the falling action somewhat. Probably Lovecraft and Howard’s relationship to race was more complicated than we can ever know, but it doesn’t excuse hateful writing.

Artist: Tim White. Cover art for “H.P. Lovecraft and Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,” ed. August Derleth. 1988.

I had a lot of fun with this tale, even if it did take little bit to get going. The respect for Lovecraft’s writing is evident, even as Howard turns his story into one unreservedly his own. That being said, this is not one of the best examples of Howard’s storytelling (there’s no way this out does his Conan tales, for example, or even other of his horror stories all of his own determination), but I don’t see how it could be anything else. He was playing in someone else’s sandbox, after all, even emulating HPL’s old country airs at times. Is it one of the best Lovecraftian tales not authored by Lovecraft? I want to answer that in two ways. First, if I put myself in mind of someone reading this straight out of Weird Tales in 1931, I think I can unequivocally answer yes. So many of the tropes deployed here were so much fresher then, that, when combined with Howard’s skill with words and his ability to instill a sense of immediacy and action, he’s created something new, familiar, and well-written. Second, reading this 89 years after it was first published I find it is pleasantly worn down, like a favorite pair of old jeans. The tropes are recognizable and anticipated; the racism is expected, if regretful; the skill and craftsmanship are on display. And, it’s still a perfectly delightful romp, perhaps even more so from our perspective of knowing the full legacy both Howard and Lovecraft would leave behind.

That about does it for this one, friends. I hope you enjoy this tale from the past as much as you enjoy more contemporary Lovecraftian stories.

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

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

Star Crossed, by Jonathan Oliver

“Jasmine reached for the book, but withdrew her hand the moment she touched the wrapping. It hadn’t felt like cotton or hessian, rather something unpleasantly organic. Stealing herself against disgust, Jasmine snatched up the book, quickly throwing off its noisome shroud.”

—Jonathan Oliver, “Star Crossed”

“If I should try to write a story outside the weird area which engrosses my emotions and drama sense…Whatever I treated of would have to be dragged in from outside, & would consequently have to be handled without the innate fire which animates any true work of art, however humble.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, September 29, 1933.

Performative utterances, in the philosophy of language, are those sentences that not only describe a particular reality, but also bring about the reality they describe. Two recognizable phrases that do this are, “You are under arrest,” and, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” You can see how the words themselves do what they describe, or are performative. Prior to the officer or the minister uttering them, the reality they describe does not yet exist. But after they have been said, the whole ballgame has changed. In Jonathan Oliver’s summoning story, “Star Crossed,” he plays with this concept and the importance that words have when trying to effect some new change. Not just the words themselves, though, but the whole manner in which they are deployed. As the Bard proclaimed in Hamlet 3:2, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” “Star Crossed” is found in Jonathan Oliver’s debut collection, THE LANGUAGE OF BEASTS, available now from Black Shuck Books. I am grateful to Mr. Oliver for a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The plot of this medium length short story revolves around Jasmine, a young college student whose mother’s magic shop is in danger of going out of business. Her mum doesn’t do much real magic now but we’re given the sense that in the past, she could have performed actually wondrous acts. While digging through the basement Jasmine discovers, hidden behind a section of crumbling masonry, a text wrapped in cloth of apparently ancient provenance. It contains the handwritten spells and sorcerous illustrations of one Nathaniel Creed. But when she uncovers the long-hidden tome, its discovery reverberates through the magical planes and others who would possess its knowledge are made aware of its surfacing.

An ancient wizard named Arodius desires Creed’s grimoire and molds his decrepit form into that of a strange young man, that he might more easily meet Jasmine. Calling himself Richard, he ingratiates himself into her good graces, magically seeing to it that they are cast as the leads in the university’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. Initially, Jasmine rebuffs his attempts to see Creed’s book, but eventually relents. Once he confirms for himself what they’re dealing with, Richard warns Jasmine she’s toying with power beyond her comprehension (we feel like we have been here before, but trust me…), “…the knowledge within this book concerns itself with something far greater. Magic is mere wish fulfillment; ludicrous ritual, offering, at best, a temporary salve to suffering…To involve oneself with true knowledge, one must entirely forget oneself. Humanity is nothing; less than nothing—a cosmic joke. There are beings out there that have terrible, infinite power. True sorcery, real magic, lies in attracting their attention.” You can almost hear the echoes of “tekeli-li” in the distance. What starts out as a story we all feel like we have read before shifts at this point into something special and the beauty of Shakespeare’s language begins to give Jasmine profound ideas about how to work the magic Creed wrote about, magic that Arodias/Richard heretofore has been unable to perform. For all his mansplaining, he can’t do what she seems like she’s going to be able to do, and that is a delicious development.

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet.” If Jasmine can truly attract the attention of some otherworldly being, then perhaps she can save her mother’s store, their home and livelihood, their everything. Her motivation is simple, but strong and pure. However, this magic leads to no wish-granting djinn. Once Jasmine figures out that Creed got the formulas correct, but that his magic lacked poetry, the two threads of the story begin to converge. “The play’s the thing,” indeed, and this is what Oliver has been building towards all along. Combined, the poetry of the Bard and the formulations of Creed become performative and lead Jasmine to a completely unforeseen turn of events in which it becomes painfully obvious that the Dramatis Personae of the school’s playbill is woefully incomplete.

I loved the ending of the story, but I felt that it took a long time to get there. The build up is necessary, though, to feel the power of how Oliver flip-flops this narrative. He takes a trope with which we are all familiar, summoning the long-dead wizard, and uses it to make a point about the power of words themselves. Unintended consequences seem a narrative by-product of the pure beauty of poetic magic. Words, poetry, Oliver seems to be saying, have the power to cut and no one should be surprised when blood is spilled in their service. The typical Lovecraftian theme of antiquarian researchers lost in dusty tomes is twisted just right here to modernize it for a contemporary audience. Worldly necessity, rather than luxury, drives a female student to out-perform her ageless male counterpart. Then, he twists it again, and brings it home with a true Lovecraftian flair in which we hear the gods laugh.

“Garden,” by Pixiv user Nyarko.

Performative utterances are strange things. Some, like “I now pronounce you husband and wife” seem to require your participation in their calling a reality into being. Others, like “You are under arrest,” can see you wail and moan all you want against it, and it will affect it not. Yet in both cases the words themselves release a certain kind of magic, perhaps unfelt by you and yet unmistakably recognized by others. In “Star Crossed,” Jonathan Oliver has performed a similar feat, in which fans of Lovecraft will be treated to something they’ll think they recognize—all the elements are there; the gods, the names, the tomes, the antiquarians—but (to paraphrase Oliver himself), “unlike [Lovecraft, Oliver understands] the true power of words, how the sounds and rhythms they [make are] as important as their meaning.” There’s a new story being told here, a new way of thinking about literary magic and if Oliver had tried to write it in any other way other than his own, tried too hard to imitate the Old Gent for example, like so many pastiches it would have been“without the innate fire which animates any true work of art.” For the patient scholar, this tale is truly rewarding.

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

The Hargrave Collection, by Max D. Stanton

“Paying for college destroyed me. Lots of people can say that, but few of them mean it like I do. My debts led me to madness, murder, and Hell.”

Max D. Stanton, “The Hargrave Collection”

“Your catalogue of hellish and forbidden books sounds highly impressive, and the very names make me shudder. Of only one have I ever heard before—this being (can I bring myself to write the dreaded words?) Mülder’s infamous Ghorl Nigral. I even saw a copy of this once—though I never opened or glanced within it. It was many years ago in Arkham—at the library of the Miskatonic University.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, August 14, 1936

The best part of this hobby is getting to know new writers. The best part of the best part is when you encounter a new voice that simply blows you away. I’ve never heard of Max D. Stanton before his collection, A SEASON OF LOATHSOME MIRACLES (Trepidatio Publishing, June 2020), dropped earlier this summer but you better believe I’ll be looking for his name in anthologies and zines going forward. Within it, “The Hargrave Collection” will thrill Lovecraft fans through and through while adding a combination of adventure often missing in many of HPL’s works, the same creeping dread found in the best examples of faux-documentary horror films (see Hell House, Mortal Remains), and a splash of blood to whet the appetite of gore hounds.

The story opens with our destitute student landing a Miskatonic University campus job from one Professor Charles Casar, Anthropology Department. It’s a research gig, digging into the papers of the late Dr. Leopold Hargrave—disreputable anthropologist and Casar’s academic antecedant—which have just become available. Hargrave mysteriously disappeared in 1969 and Casar is interested to know if these newly released private papers can shed any light on the matter. He wrote the book on the man after all, American Shaman, and is perhaps looking to provide an addendum to his research. With all of this being new information to the protagonist, he checks it out with another student, a writing tutor he fancies named Chris who is possessed of “gorgeous curly brown hair and long legs” in addition to being active in the campus LGBTQ scene. Chris knows of Casar but has a low opinion of him, telling the narrator, “Casar’s a fossil…A critical reappraisal of Hargrave’s work might have done really well. But apparently American Shaman was just an adoring monument to a monster, and there’s enough of those already.” Right there is one of the reasons Stanton so stood out to me. Within the text of his adoring Lovecraftian story he subtly critiques the Old Gent at the same time he sneers in the direction of those in the fandom who sweep HPL’s more unsavory characteristics (racism, misogyny, etc.) under the literary rug, and that through the voice of a gay character! It’s brilliant.

Our character’s assignment quickly leads him to some dark places as he descends further and further into what becomes a mad search for truth and treasure. The material is located in none other than the archives of the Miskatonic University library. I loved the description of the archivist, “She had a fragile, war-weary demeanor, which seemed unusual in a person whose job was simply to watch over Miskatonic University’s historical records.” Yes, simply watch over. But what has she seen down there? What has she prevented from being seen by others? War-weary indeed. In the Hargrave boxes he uncovers some old tarot cards, engraved on shrunken leather of questionable provenance (shudder) that point to even darker and more mysterious findings. What ensues is a merry chase through kind of a who’s who and a what’s what of the wider Lovecraft mythos (complete with a Chambers reference) in which you can’t help but think of Indiana Jones. But Stanton’s skill is such that this never feels like too much pastiche or too much name dropping. Each mythos reference is not only important to the story somehow (no small feat) but deftly manages to inject a measured thrill for the fans, while not overburdening the narrative for the uninitiated. What’s so skillful about this is if you were to strip away all the mythos references, if you were to take away all the Lovecraft, you’d still have a wonderfully troubling story of the occult. Unlike others, it’s not reliant upon Lovecraft to work, but, for fans, it works even more beautifully because of it.

As readers we ride those thrills all the way to the surprising ending that I, at least, did not see coming. One twist I expected, but not the others. It was fabulous. I even went back to see if I missed anything and I don’t think I had. This was a terrific story and a rollicking, gruesome adventure that I enjoyed the heck out of even as it cemented Stanton’s name in my mind as someone to watch.

A big part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was how successful I thought the writing was. Stanton is an elevated but not a stuffy writer, often deploying the perfect word choices to make the reader feel a range of emotions normally only able to be located in whole paragraphs. Here, for example, witness how much the word “carrion” adds to the sentence: “Dr. Hargrave sought out the company of carrion priests with no respect for life, and wherever he went, he was the worst person there.” I know all I need to know and more about these priests, but I also know that Hargrave was worse, and that’s what made me uneasy. In other places, a poetic infusion, as here: “My social life dwindled away. I didn’t see my friends anymore; I saw nobody except the archivist, the sole witness to my slow and painful disintegration.” I was near overcome by the waves of melancholy flowing from those lines. It is not only in isolated places that such treasures may be found in this story, but throughout, carefully buried along a seven-fold path.

I’m grateful to the author for providing me with a free e-copy of his book in exchange for an honest review and it always pleases me immensely when I can honestly give a glowing one. This story was special and I really look forward to reading more Stanton in the very near future. He alerted me to the presence of at least one more Lovecraftian story in the collection, as well as one that nods to Thomas Ligotti, but I will let you discover those for yourselves.

This review was composed while listening to the masterful Lovecraftian ambient album “Hastur” by Cryo Chamber. If you don’t know them yet, seriously, check them out soon if for no other reason than your games of Arkham Horror will be immeasurably enhanced.

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