“On Rook’s bed sat the hateful tome he’d taken to in the preceding weeks. To say he’d become enamored with the old book was an understatement. He’d been utterly consumed by it, though she understood not a word and only took to her own imaginings in the study of the archaic illustrations. She wished herself a woman of wealth, and wondered if she may have had a chance at deciphering the material with the proper training, but this was a fantasy far from her grasp.”
Imagine with me, if you will for a moment, that Goethe, having just come from an afterlife afternoon tea with H.P. Lovecraft, conspired with Clive Barker to put forth a modern re-visioning of the legend of Robert Johnson. The eventual offering of such a collaboration might be something like Farah Rose Smith’s “The Visitor,” from her debut collection OF ONE PURE WILL, but ultimately it would lack her unique grace and her singular skill that lend this story its stopping power. I’m not going to mince words or make you wait for it; when I finished reading this story I sat back and actually said out loud, “Holy shit, she can write!” If you read this review no further, you’ll have read far enough.
For the rest of you I would like to, of course, elaborate. The first thing you will notice, if you make the correct choice and buy the hardbound edition of this book, is that it is stunningly beautiful. Released last month by Egaeus Press, publisher of morbid and fantastical works, the cover captures your imagination almost instantly with a decaying (growing?) visage of the woman (or is it a man?) and glorious calligraphic script. That script is carried over to the inside and adorns the title page and chapter titles. There is an air of classical beauty about the whole book, such that when you page through it and glance at this line or that, you feel you are holding something of both aesthetic and intellectual value.
Numerous Lovecraft tales take as their starting place a professor or other curious sort looking for knowledge to which they have no right, many times in tomes over which they should claim no ownership, and periodically in locales that could charitably be described as inhospitable. While you’ll find no shoggoths or deep ones here, what you will quickly discover is that Smith also takes as her starting place the trope of forbidden knowledge acquired at a cost that can only be fully discovered over time. Such a classic theme is paired with a decadent writing style, and then brilliantly modernized by its subject matter. Rook, with whom we open our story, is a rock musician of little reknown, seeking fame, fortune, and the adulation of thousands of screaming fans.
In a hypnagogic state, she has traveled (whether astrally or within her dream is hard to say) to some hellish plane to seek audience with some outside power, reminiscent of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In that tale, Lovecraft described the Plateau of Leng as “a grey barren plain whereon at great distances shone little feeble fires. As they descended there appeared at intervals lone huts of granite and bleak stone villages whose tiny windows glowed with pallid light.” There is a similar decaying bleakness in Smith’s vision where “Vegetation was a mere memory, save for the shriveled vines atop starved monuments, powdered pollen searching the air in desperation for soil to nest in, haunted husks of trees, wisps of life screaming out into the eternal dusk. Low-lying fires flapped silently. Sands cascaded down stone slopes, hissing quietly into the oblivion of the deep. The terrible valley called out to them, its frozen darkness wailing generously at the rippling edges of their hearing. This was the afterworld in peril, wasted, rotting, reaching for the vitality of the waking world.” I highlighted that passage early on because I found it so beautiful in its desperation, but honestly, the whole story and indeed the entire book are so saturated with such dark allure that highlighters ought be be purchased in bulk.
The story goes on from there to tell, truth be told, a pretty familiar tale of desperate measures taken by a struggling artist to gain a boon from another plane and the dire consequences subsequently incurred. Were it not for her extremely confident and gifted hand holding the quill it could have quietly evanesced. But Farah Rose Smith won’t permit that, and commands your continued attention as she spins and weaves her seemingly recognizable plot. Though she here describes something else later in the story, the description is an apt one for her own writing and the reason you want to keep reading, “It had theatre, poise—an erotic tension so powerful that one would feel as if a serrated wheel ran back and forth over the genitals, ever-satisfied with a cosmic teasing.” What proceeds, because you will proceed, makes you question what is real and what is dreamt, what is teased and what is known.
“The Visitor” swims through deep thematic waters of identity (gender among others) and desire, passes through swift-flowing channels of avarice and self-centeredness, to arrive at the last upon an isle populated by the betrayed and lonely. There are no easy answers. There are no shortcuts. There are no cheap tricks to allow you to skip hard work or avoid the necessity of skill. The title of this story raises a question the deeper into it that you go: to whom does it refer? Naturally we turn to the Beast from the “afterworld in peril,” but is that a feint? I wonder if what we’re truly meant to ask here is if Rook is the Visitor, and if she, then us? When I go down that rabbit hole, I wonder if this is not a story more about self-doubt than greed, more about a certain stage fright than Faustian deals. If that is the case, and Farah Rose Smith is asking those questions of herself, then she need question no longer, for she had descended definitively onto the literary stage amidst fire, smoke, and Stygian melody.
A further word, though, needs to be said before we depart and that is that this story is unlike most of the stories contained within this lustrous book. While this story follows generally accepted structure patterns, only one or two others do as well. The rest read like dreams, some beautiful, some confusing, some terrifying; they are more like free verse poetry than plotted narrative. Unlocking them will require effort on the part of the reader, which is strongly hinted at in the erudite introduction provided by Fiona Maeve Geist. Honestly, after I read the introduction, I wondered if I were smart enough to read this book, but I’ve never backed down from a literary challenge and have usually been rewarded. So, too, will the careful, studied, and attentive reader, but those looking for fast thrills or page-turners should probably look elsewhere. Herein lies literature like a crumbling gothic cathedral where shards of broken stained glass both illuminate flesh and slice it. There are countless stories to be told in such places, but perhaps you will have to sleep, perchance to dream, in order to perceive them.
I was delighted to receive this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review, so my thanks to Farah Rose Smith. I was equally delighted and educated by several interviews that helped me to better understand where she is coming from. That felt more beneficial and necessary in her case than it usually does, and so I commend them to you:
This review was composed while listening to the greatest hits of KIϟϟ.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
Misplaced Veneration: “Rook worshiped the sound. “If only I could remember such sounds in my waking hours.” Her flesh sloughed off of her bones, rolling through the sand in circles. Fragile sprouts shivered out of hiding as the flesh nourished the ground, collapsing back into nothingness as it squirmed its way back up her legs.”