The Visitor, by Farah Rose Smith

“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.

Of One Pure Will CoverFor 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.

Of One Pure Will Title Page.jpgIn 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.

Of One Pure Will Inside Cover.jpg“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,
~The Bibliothecar

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.”

We All Speak Black, by Lynne Jamneck

“Something moved beyond, in the water, behind a swell of oversized waves. Whales? I looked down and saw my naked legs dangling in shadowy green water that fathomed into infinity. A vast shadow undulated below me, came into focus and it was not a whale at all. Grotesquely bloated, it began surfacing, blooming in size.”

51L6tUbw2+L[1].jpgIt was hard not to be excited when I first heard about the “Ashes and Entropy” kickstarter project. A new anthology, edited by Robert S. Wilson, featuring brand new stories by such incredible authors as Laird Barron, John Langan, Jon Padgett, Nadia Bulkin, Kristi DeMeester, and many, many more, all in the noir or neo-noir vein with a cosmic horror or downright Lovecraftian tilt. Did I mention these were going to be brand new, never before published stories? Cause, holy cultists, Batman, that’s a cauldron-full of amazing authors all producing new tales. Normally, when you buy an anthology, you get mostly re-published stuff with maybe a story or two of new material.  But this is a previously untapped gold mine, and very, very much worth the kindle asking price of $6.99! It’s hot stuff, too, only having been published by Nightscape Press in mid-December, 2018. All the brilliant artwork featured in this review comes from the book and is the work of Luke Spooner of Carrion House Illustration.

I had some time this afternoon and wasn’t all that excited to pick up the novel I’m working my way through, but it was cold and raining and I wanted to read, so I bought the kindle edition and picked three stories to read almost at random. I read two by authors I’d never heard of before, and one by an author I’d been wanting to read but hadn’t had the chance to delve into yet. I think it bodes very well for this collection that all three were stunning, beautifully written, enthralling, and full of existential dread and cosmic horror. All. Three. I had to pick one to write about tonight, so I selected one of the ones by an author I’d never heard of before, We All Speak Black, by Lynne Jamneck.

IMG_2104.PNGLynne Jamneck is a New Zealand author and editor with a publication history as long as my arm, so I guess it’s my fault I’ve not heard of here before now. This story, however, takes place in South Africa where a group of disenfranchised people turned to the occult and got in way over their heads rather quickly. “The Cape Town cults summoned an outer thing they had no hope of ever understanding into a world that the thing itself didn’t understand either.” Right, so we’re off and running then! Surprisingly enough, the events surrounding this errant summoning of what sounded suspiciously like a Godzilla-monster functioned only as the background for the story. The action really takes place in the aftermath of not only the summoning, but the new reality such an event might call into being. Immediately, what might have been a fun-but-run-of-the-mill Lovecraftian cultist story turns into something fresh and interesting. There’s ecological repercussions, political repercussions, physical repercussions, psychological and spiritual and social and economic and on and on and on. It’s a brilliant look at a doomsday scenario plus thirty years in a Lovecraftian world. I think the Old Gent would’ve been proud once he got over the setting and the author’s double X chromosomes.

We follow an unnamed female narrator as she navigates an increasingly speedy spiral into madness. Her dreams are tormented by nightmarish and confusing visions and astral journeys, and apparently, she’s not the only one. Her dreams, however, seem to be the most…advanced I think we can say.  When consulting a pair of self-proclaimed experts in the matter, they ask her what she sees in her visions. “It was kind of a no-no to ask someone that because talking about visions was like admitting that you had a kind of tumour; one that didn’t show itself but instead haunted the nebulous highways of your subconscious.” She tells them she see “burning stars,” which turns out to be bad. (Also, a bit of a redundancy, but I digress…) She’s apparently the first to see the stars, and that seemingly portends a significant shift in the current cosmic arrangement that bodes well for exactly no one. Yet this is taken in stride by these two happy-go-lucky devotees of the elder gods. From there the story speeds on to a somewhat predictable but nevertheless fun, even poetic, and satisfying conclusion.

IMG_2103.PNGPart of the excellence of this piece is in Jamneck’s superb craft. She is able to  communicate vast ideas with devastating one liners and parting, evanescent barbs. From the beginning, there’s a bit of political criticism that I read with a certain extra delight (and cringe), given my American context, now in day 29 of  the longest partial-government shutdown in my nation’s history. She writes, “…as a nation we still couldn’t dissolve ourselves of party politics for long enough to smell the coffee, and in the weeks leading up to the cataclysmic events of a bright October day, the amalgamated ANC and DA parties had been so neck-deep in political shit-slinging that they’d had little time to “waste listening to a bunch of crackpot conspiracists yammering about nothing.”  Then, rather than just let that lie as backdrop, she expertly twists it into a raison d’être for her plot. “…because they were too involved in brownnosing and corruption, the partisan fat cats failed to notice that their constituents, angry and hopeless beyond reason at the lack of change, had begun bowing to altogether darker forces than those at work in parliament.” For me, this was one of the most powerful sentences in the entire story. At other times, she turns her skill to a bit of comic relief, “[The clamor] came from the opposite end of the room where once a coterie of librarians had conversed in secret languages behind a heavy oak counter. Nowadays it was strictly self-checkout.”

This was a terrifically fun, unique story, full of confident, honed, and precise writing in what looks like it will be a very successful and effective collection. I look forward to discovering within its bounds more authors like Lynne Jamneck, who I’ve heretofore not had the pleasure of reading. You should, too. Seriously. Pick up this book and be not disappointed.

This review was composed while listening to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)” and was refreshed by the cold bite of Cutty Sark Scottish whisky. (Couldn’t pour a single malt for this one, this is noir.)

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

Navel gazing after nuclear fallout: “After the Koeberg Event there were reports that the big cats—seven of them at the time—had escaped their enclosures. Apparently, nuclear fallout had mutated them into things you really wanted to avoid at all costs. Local legend claimed they roamed the roads between Somerset-West and Stellenbosch, stalking meals of the two-legged variety. Similar stories have grown arms, legs, tails and horns about the animals once kept at Cape Town Zoo. Of course, no-one has ever seen any of this first hand, but I guess we needed new myths to replace the old ones.