Tiny Bones Beneath Their Feet; The Backwards Path to the Limbus, by Betty Rocksteady

“The bones had reminded her of Riley, of course, but everything did. They were too small, far too small, but they reminded her of him still. The bones that showed through his thin skin and the bones that by now filled his grave.”

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See what pleasure cats gave him?
H.P. Lovecraft loved cats. This is one of a few places where I disagree with the Old Gent, firmly being a dog person, but, I’d not want to trade barbs with him about it. He once committed ink to page for this biting piece of commentary, “The dog is a peasant and the cat is a gentleman.” Perhaps his most famous story involving cats is “The Cats of Ulthar,” a revenge/karma tale where a clowder of cats devour a despicable old couple who had previously killed a kitten. These same cats show up as sentient in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” And, of course, there is an unfortunately named kitty in “The Rats in the Walls;” even more unfortunate is that fictional feline seemed to bear a similar name to HPL’s real cat. Betty Rocksteady, in her debut collection IN DREAMS WE ROT, features two cosmic kitty stories that when read together form a perilous pair. It’s forthcoming (October 18) from JournalStone and I’m grateful to the author for a free advanced review copy.

 

idwr-front-cover[1].jpgRocksteady, who has published novellas like THE WRITHING SKIES and a host of short horror fiction seems to be primarily known for—ahem…tentacles in places where they ought not to go—erotic cosmic horror. And you’ll get that in this collection as well, fear not, but it’s not as closely related to HPL as these two tales. She’s also quite the artist and illustrates many of her own works, though this collection is not.

In “Tiny Bones Beneath Their Feet” we meet Harold, an eccentric man who keeps a few cats. Well, more than a few as the sheer number of his pets has come to the attention of the authorities. Sarah, representing a “trap, neuter, and release” organization shows up unbidden on his doorstep with an offer to “help.” Harold, however, is having none of it, but she wiggles her way into his home anyway, pen scribbling away on her clipboard. The further she gets into his house, the more cats we realize that he actually has (though he rejects the notion of ownership) and the more horrified Susan becomes. After realizing there is no getting rid of her easily, he decides he wants to show her something out back. Rocksteady is successful here at building a sense of unease as I think just about anybody in their right mind would be weirded out by this many animals of any kind in somebody’s house. “She scanned the yard as she spoke, and all the cats looked back at her. So many eyes.”

He leads her on a peculiar trail into the woods, a trail from which the title is derived. “He was hyperaware of what lay beneath their feet, but Susan didn’t seem to notice. That was fair, of course. There was a lot to take in, and the bones were so small. If you didn’t look closely, you might mistake the trail as some sort of rock purposefully pressed into the earth.” What happens in the latter half of the story I’ll leave for you to discover, but I have to say that I certainly didn’t see it coming, 50880b73d7a04.preview-620[1].jpgand that it opened up the story from what had been a fairly localized narrative into something more cosmic. It shows up at the beginning of the collection, and, when paired with the second cat story which comes near the end, they provide great bookends. I enjoyed it and would recommend it on its own. However, when coupled with the next one, they really blossom.

The Backwards Path to the Limbus” finds us in a bookstore with Miranda, who seems to have been sanctioned to serve time in a book group not of her choosing by a particularly creative psychologist. The title of the story is the title of the book they’re discussing, and Miranda is so not into it. “You’ll appreciate it more the next time you read it,” the woman reassured her. “I doubt I’ll read it again.” The man next to her butted in, a smear of chocolate on his face. “Oh, you will. We’ve all read it lots of times.” That’s on the second page of this story, which, at least for me, set the creep factor climbing a lot earlier than it did in the previous one. That notion that you’re the only one in a book group, which you didn’t choose, who hasn’t read the book once let alone multiple times just sent some cultic shivers up my spine. I can almost see them all leaning in to find out what she, the new one, thinks. We don’t really get to know what the book is about, but Rocksteady does drop this line which connects the stories, “The book had been divided into three sections, and the first concentrated on a man winding through a trail of tiny bones.” Now she had my full attention as I’ve really come to appreciate this sort of mosaic structure.

weird bookstore (2).jpgThe bookstore cat makes an appearance and something in his eyes reminds Miranda of her dead son, Riley. She finds she needs a breath, and a break from the hiveminded group. She follows the cat into the back stacks, away from the group and the light. Reality blurs and she’s following her son now into a small, cramped room where, “in the farthest corner, Riley, his hands in his lap, [is] sitting quietly on a box. Beautiful. Healthy.” Aside from the frightful notions of this apparition, there is something remarkably comforting about the idea Rocksteady works with here of being able to connect with a lost loved one in a bookstore or among the pages of a book. A character might remind us of them, in their description or in their actions. Or we might see a novel and remember reading it with a now deceased friend or lover, or recall the place where once it was read, or the company we kept when we read it. What is thought lost can be recovered among the pages of a well-loved book. I really loved this story. On its own it was my favorite of the two, but when read together, the emerging picture is rather wonderfully and cosmically frightening.

Rocksteady’s writing is surreptitious. At first, as you make your way through the opening paragraphs and even pages, there is nothing about it that stands out. Nothing that gets in the way either, to be sure. But then, you suddenly find yourself tearing through the story and wondering, when did she get me? How did she do that? The answer has something to do with the fact that it doesn’t take too long for you to find yourself in these tales (perhaps especially in the more, shall we say, moist ones). I believe that’s what makes them so successful. You’re reading along about someone else at the beginning, but by the end, you’re reading about yourself and it is a well-crafted and familiar nightmare. Prepare to squirm.

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

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Stabilimentum, by Livia Llewellyn

“She only noticed it later, as she was getting ready to leave for work—looking up as she struggled with her hair, she spied a large brown spider trembling on invisible strands, high up in the far corner over her bathtub. Thalia stared, momentarily slack-jawed, as the creature seemingly floated through thick circles and curves of a white spiral pattern within the invisible rest of the web, its pace furious in tempo and intent.”

When I lived in Chicago, I had a small, second floor apartment in an eight-unit building, each unit having exterior doors. Outside our doors on the second floor was a wrought iron, scroll work guard rail. It wasn’t until my first summer there that I discovered just how perfect that scroll work was for spiders to spin their webs. Almost overnight, as if a signal had gone out when the temperature rose to a certain degree, the spiders showed up. And I mean showed up en masse. Heavy, fat bastards, too; none of these wimpy, spindly types. I cannot impress upon you enough, gentle reader, the sheer number of spiders that invaded. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. That first evening, when I got home from work, I discovered why they were there. The lights. The lights outside each door attracted an equally enormous amount of flies, and by the later evening, each of the thousand, thousand webs was laden with gift-wrapped future meals. It was a perfect micro-ecosystem.

This is a story about spiders.

51FJMdhTYzL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Livia Llewellyn is an author who has made her name by writing stories that ask the questions, “What if desire were not absent from Lovecraft’s stories? What does cosmic horror look like if the erotic were present?” Well, that in addition to being a damn fine writer. This story is found in her second collection, called “Furnace,” which was brought to my attention recently in an interview I heard with Laird Barron over at This Is Horror. It was published two days after Valentine’s Day 2016 by the excellent group at Word Horde. I’ve read a number of stories in this collection now and they are mostly all fantastic. They call to mind the aesthetic and style of fantasist K.J. Parker in many ways: fantastic urban environs falling apart, strange societies almost like our own, and particularly in both her use of language and how she names her characters. The main character in this story is called Thalia, a name deriving from a Greek origin and meaning “to blossom or flourish.” You’ll shudder more knowing that after you read this story.

A ‘stabilimentum” is, according to wikipedia, “a conspicuous silk structure included in the webs of some species of orb-web spider. Its function is a subject of debate.

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Now you know. As our story opens, Thalia is residing in an apartment on the 37th floor of a downtown New York building. While getting ready for work she sees a large spider in the corner of her shower, spinning a web complete with one of these stabilimenta. Like me, Thalia’s not ready a spider person, and so immediately goes after it with a can of insect spray. She suffers a small bout of vertigo as she prepares to destroy the arachnid,  “always the sensation that she was rising, rushing upward into the clouds.” It will be a recurring theme. Remember that for when you get to the end. When she returns home from work, she is horrified to encounter three more fat spiders furiously spinning their webs in the same corner of the bathroom. She goes at them with hairspray—“Screw the ozone layer. She had spiders to kill, and an apartment to protect.”—having blown all her insect spray that morning.

Back in Chicago at my former apartment building, I remember that first week of the summer of spiders. I grew more and more disgusted with each passing day. I tired of dodging stray strands of webbing. I had nightmares about the spiders getting inside. When I could stand it no more, I took up arms—a broom—and knocked down the webs. I was a god among mortals. The spiders tried to scamper away, furious at the invasion. My boots crushed them as they scampered, popping their fat bodies like a kid with bubble wrap covered in corn flakes. When I had done my worst, I sprayed the area down with Raid and declared victory.

Things get worse for dear Thalia. As she sleeps, a blossoming takes place. And when she awakes, “Over the bathtub, a black mass writhed around a giant, white-webbed X.” She has absolutely had enough. Her neighbors, a gay couple, invite her to stay with them until the problem can be resolved. Maintenance is called in and an arachnid abatement protocol is enacted. As you might guess, it doesn’t work. She tries to break her lease, but that would mean financial ruin. And then shit gets really weird. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you at all because it’s pure, Lovecraftian awesomeness. I’ll just end with one quote as a teaser. She calls maintenance again in a fit of fury. (Recall her vertigo.) When she gives her 37th floor apartment number there is some confusion, “My switchboard says you’re calling from the three hundred and seventieth floor.”

It only took a few days after the slaughter of the spiders for me to realize my mistake in Chicago. The flies. Their predators annihilated, they spawned and spawned and spawned. And whereas the spiders were content to stay outdoors, the flies came inside,  black, whirling dervishes that tormented my sleep and disturbed my leisure. I could not get rid of them. Winter finally accomplished what I could not, and when summer came again and the webs went up again, I left them alone. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than to see those buzzing bitches caught and silk-wrapped. The spiders and I reached a truce; we left each other alone, so long as they stayed outdoors. With no flies in the apartment that summer, that wasn’t a problem. To this day, I leave spiders alone. Thalia should have, too. And maybe you should consider it.

I loved this story. By the way, if audio books are your thing, this story has received the Pseudopod treatment for your listening pleasure. Check it out here! Stabilimentum doesn’t have the hallmark eroticism Llewellyn is known for, and so if you’re looking for that (and you should), you’ll have to pick a different story, probably the final one in this collection, The Unattainable. But this one was fantastic, Lovecraftian, creepy, and crawly. All things that set my teeth chattering. Her writing, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, is evocative and puts you right in the story with ease. This is a quality present in almost all of her stories that I’ve read. (I keep hedging those kind of statements because I really just didn’t like Wasp & Snake.) The presence of sexual desire in her stories really sets her apart. Lovecraft detested sexuality, and so there is simply none of it in his stories. I don’t buy into the theories of latent homoeroticism present in such stories as The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Thing on the Doorstep, or The Dunwich Horror. I know others will point to other stories, too, like Hypnos. And it’s true, Lovecraft may have been gay, but it is my belief that even if he were, he was above that, asexual. In Hypnos the possibly sexual is described in ways that indicate HPL was disgusted, “It was like the others, yet incalculably denser; a sticky, clammy mass, if such terms can be applied to analogous qualities in a non-material sphere.” What Llewellyn is able to do so well is to bring both the immediacy and the beauty of human sexuality to the fore in her writing. You owe it to yourself to check out this fantastic author! Only, just in other stories, not this one. This is a story about spiders. In bathrooms.

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That about does it here, fellow arachnophobes (-philes???). Naturally, this review was composed while listening to a Spotify playlist of my own creation called “Crooner Christmas.”

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