Edward’s Journal, by Lee Murray

“Giraldy is back,” he said. We jumped rotting logs, trampled low bushes, in our haste to reach them. It was Giraldy, but he was barely recognizable: supine on the muddy ground, he was tinged blue and enveloped from head to toe in thick gelatinous slime. Opaque and criss-crossed with white filaments, the glutinous cocoon put me in mind of a frog’s spawn with it’s gelatinous covering, or perhaps a spider’s prey, wrapped for consumption at the creature’s leisure. Inside his filmy wrapping, Giraldy jerked.”

—Lee Murray, “Edward’s Journal”

Grotesque Monster Stories Lee MurrayWhile Lovecraft’s stories enjoy a variety of settings, from the Arctic mountains to the Australian desert, there is little question that the author himself, and many of his preconceived notions, are quite firmly rooted in the American Northeast. The Old Gent loved his Providence, and indeed, could barely stand it when circumstances forced him to move to New York. While there, he wrote what is arguably his most despised short story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” a story replete with racist stereotypes and the ideals of white supremacy. For that reason, and just because I am interested, I try to seek out Lovecraftian stories set in different cultural contexts to balance out the spate of New England-y horrors. So it was that when author Lee Murray of New Zealand reached out to me with her new collection, I jumped at the chance to take a peek at it. Sadly for me, I did not discover any Cthulhu stories (one might expect that, right, out of New Zealand, so close to R’yleh?), but what I did discover was a story full of more indigenous terrors.

GROTESQUE MONSTER STORIES is Lee Murray‘s debut collection and is published by Things in the Well Australia; it was released in July 2020. It contains eleven stories, including four original to this collection, and two that are specifically Lovecraftian. One of those, “Edward’s Journal” captured my imagination more than the other. It’s set against the backdrop of the New Zealand Wars (1845-1872), which have also been known as the Māori Wars and the Land Wars. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these were about the land grabs of the British Crown and indigenous resistance to the empire’s incursions. The story is structured around a young woman’s reception of her beloved’s war diary and what the pages of that diary contain.

book-1941299_1280-e1497905055505-1024x708[1]It has been 13 years since Margaret has seen Edward or his journal, and aside from assumptions about his fate, this journal is the first clue she’s had of what befell him. “Margaret, we arrived this morning in New Zealand…we were marched from the creaking timbers of the Castilian to a place called Onehunga, which the locals pronounce Own-nay-hunger…” What follows is a series of pairs, with Margaret (and thus, you, the reader) reviewing Edward’s entries, framed as letters to Margaret, and then her reaction to them. They detail Edward’s company’s exploration of the New Zealand bush and the strange events that begin occurring to them, as well as Edward’s private thoughts. Their explorations hearken back to the grand adventure stories of a bygone era, something I think ole HPL would’ve enjoyed, and are tinged with excitement, danger, and the thrill of conquest.

Two things served to disturb me about these sections. One was the fact that we are not in the bygone era of pulp adventure stories anymore and so I was painfully aware that the thrill of conquest I was feeling came at the expense of Māori lives and land. When I read stuff like this in the original pulps (Howard, et al.) I take it with a grain of salt – all things being located in a particular time and place. (That is a decision I have made as a reader. Not all readers will make the same decision, and that is perfectly understandable.) I believe Murray is messing with us here, successfully making us question the thrills we’re getting from the story and also calling us to question who is the real monster.

The second thing that disturbed me was a writing choice she made in order to tell the story. The journal entries are so detailed, replete with complete dialogues in seemingly perfect recall, that I can’t imagine anyone actually keeping a journal in that way. Interior monologues I would understand, but such a high amount of dialogue (though it seems necessary to drive her plot) in a journal entry actually took me out of the story rather than deeper into it. The rest of the writing is accomplished and sucks you right into Margaret’s world. There are some descriptions towards the end that made me grimace with delightful body-horror shivers.

bush-background2[1]The Lovecraftian elements are subtle, aside from one journal entry in which Edward recalls seeing a “sea monster” during a storm while aboard the Castilian, that may or may not have been a mythos-type creature, or even real at all. As the New Zealand bush experience grows fatal for Edward’s fated company of British soldiers, a recurring sound induces more and more dread in the men. Murray describes it as a “ululation,” and I immediately thought of the shoggoths of At the Mountains of Madness: “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” But when I ran a search, that sound does not appear in AtMoM at all, and only four times in the Lovecraft canon. Mistake aside, I began thinking about shoggoths and their enslaved relationship to the Elder Gods. This got me thinking about encroaching empires and suffering native populations the world over, especially in the New Zealand context. Like what Victor Lavalle did in “Up From Slavery,” Murray accomplishes here as well by using her unseen monster to turn the tables on the colonizers.

I do have one word of caution. In both the stories I read, “Edward’s Journal,” and “Dead End Town,” there are hints (in the former) of what some may regard as inappropriate sexual attention by an older male towards an underage female, and outright violent rape (in the latter). In both cases, the two persons involved are closer on the family tree than I care for. In the case of “Dead End Town” the use of the term “uncle” may not be familial, but that was unclear enough to me that I bring it up here. In “Edward’s Journal,” Edward and Margaret are first cousins. I am trying not to be ethnocentric and so just be aware your mileage may vary.

And now, I have to speak about the end and that will represent a spoiler, which I don’t like to do, but it is necessary here. So, if you don’t want to read the spoiler, stop reading now knowing that I enjoyed the story and would recommend it, with the caution, to anyone looking for Lovecraftian fiction in non-New England settings or from non-New England authorial perspectives. If you don’t mind spoilers, or have read the story, please click through.

Continue reading “Edward’s Journal, by Lee Murray”

Mummer’s Parade by Joshua Chaplinsky

“Do not worry,” the King said. “If the man decides to cut you into pieces, I’ll have him relieved of his head before a quarter hour has passed,” to which Triboulet replied, “Would it not be possible to relieve him of his head a quarter hour before?” The King laughed even harder, stopping only when he saw the look in Triboulet’s eyes.”

Joshua Chaplinsky, “Mummer’s Parade”

“It is my constant complaint that allegedly weird writers fall into a commonplaceness through reflecting wholly conventional & ordinary perspectives, sympathies, and value-systems; & in [The Outsider] (as in others) I sought to escape from this pitfall as widely as I could.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, June 19, 1931.

51uht08crhL[1]Some stories have the almost magical ability to instantly transport you to another time and place through the right combination of diction, syntax, and imagination. It has been a long time since I have read a story that accomplished that as well as Joshua Chaplinsky’s “Mummer’s Parade,” found in his 2019 collection WHISPERS IN THE EAR OF A DREAMING APE, published by Clash Books.  I am grateful to Mr. Chaplinsky for providing me with a free e-book in exchange for this honest review. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I began to read this story because the title is used in its original context. Because I lived in Philadelphia for a number of years I was immediately put in mind of the Mummer’s Parade held there every January 1 – a drunken, raucous affair with sometimes unpleasant overtones. However, this present story is about an original mummer’s troupe of sorts, meaning a medieval group of performers in disguise. Dating back to as early as 1296, and possibly earlier, mummer’s troupes would dice with the royalty in court for jewels of great value in a kind of forbidden derring-do only permissible on select occasions. Gradually this evolved into roving bands of mummers who would go door to door in costume with the offer of a dice game, usually for something of value. Over time, the dice fell out of favor, and the troupes performed whole plays. The earliest extant play we have is from 1779 in Lincolnshire, England and is called “Morrice Dancers.” It was a Christmas show.

ae1b6ec61437da735568f66ad6d4be87[1]There is something inherently creepy in the idea of a roving band of performers in masks and costumes who knock on your door and offer to gamble with you for something of value. A threat is almost implied, as if taking the gamble is the only chance you have of escaping consequence. A simple refusal to play might not be permitted. Think of “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN,” the menacing scene in the gas station when Anton invites the owner to call a coin toss asking him, “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?” It is into that same sense of quiet menace that Chaplinsky strides. We quickly learn that our main character, Triboulet, was “won” by a mummer’s troupe, relieving his parents of the burden of caring for their deformed child. Triboulet, you see, suffers from macrocephaly, a disease where the head swells to sometimes grotesque proportions causing a host of attendant difficulties. A poor farming family would not have had the resources needed to care for such a child, to say nothing of the potential social stigma. Likely, a macrocephalic birth would be regarded as a very ill omen indeed.

Triboulet’s very name accomplishes the goal of instant transportation that I mentioned in the opening. You need to know nothing of history to hear the sound of that name and be taken to the middle ages. But for those who do know history there is even more. For Triboulet was a real historical figure, a French court jester for Kings Louis XII and Francis I. Victor Hugo included him in one of his plays, and Verdi’s famous opera “Rigoletto” is based on that play. In Switzerland, the word “triboulet” came to mean a jester dressed all in red, a reference, which in the case of our present story, could easily become an allusion to a blood-soaked joker.

459907_1_En_1_Fig2_HTML[1]The mummer’s troupe which bought Triboulet was no ordinary troupe, but was in fact the young prince of the land and his friends who were out to sow their wild oats. When he returned to his princely duties Triboulet went with him, for they had become fast friends, and more than that, Triboulet was a source of wise counsel for the future king. Things rarely work out well in these kinds of stories though, and Triboulet grew jealous of the prince-now-King. Triboulet’s disease eventually robbed him of his powers of speech and he lost his usefulness to the King. Betrayed, Triboulet takes matters into his own hands and effects a coup, deposing the King and taking his place.  From there things get even weirder and I don’t want to say much more because I want you to read this wonderful, weird story yourself, the ending of which will send you right back to the beginning to start all over again.

Chaplinsky’s writing is marveous. It is succinct yet possessing a rhythm that carries you along.  He often is darkly humorous, making you chuckle quietly until you are embarrassed at what you are chuckling over, for it is terrible. One of the best examples of this is actually the first two sentences of the story, which are just wonderful for all the reasons I’ve already said, “Triboulet was known throughout the realm for having the King’s ear. He wore it around his neck on a silver chain.” This tells you almost everything you need to know about what kind of story you’re getting into and I was all in from the start. He deploys delicious words like “maudlin,” and “proffering,” and “imp,” that carry more than their weight for setting the scene. 743717431_fullsize[1]If I have one complaint, it’s that in a story so clearly well researched and meticulously laden with historically accurate medieval European markings, I was mildly frustrated to see a kris make an appearance at one point. A kris is a wavy bladed dagger said to be imbued with talismanic power popular in Southeast Asian cultures. Because I knew that, it totally clashed with the pseudo-European setting Chaplinsky had so well established and it took me out of the story. (I have nothing against kris daggers or Southeast Asian cultures in and of themselves.) That said, if that is my one complaint, it’s extremely minor!

I have said nothing so far of the Lovecraftian connection for this story, and that’s because there actually isn’t much of one, at least to Lovecraft’s fiction. An argument could be made that it shares themes of being a misfit with HPL’s “The Outsider,” and perhaps during the alchemy scene one can see shades of “From Beyond,” but not much else. No, instead, I think this is a story Lovecraft would have been very happy to read. “The Outsider” is widely acknowledged to be emotionally autobiographical and the Old Gent may have seen in “Mummer’s Parade” a glimmer of his own sense of displacement. More than that though, Lovecraft liked weird fiction to present a different, uncommon sort of viewpoint and this story excels in that aspect.

That does it for this review friends. I loved this story and recommend you check it out as well as this whole collection of weird and unsettling fiction.

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


Of Card Games and Airships: Two from Strange Company, by Pete Rawlik

“The backs of the cards were gray, and without embellishment, though they were creased and stained more than any other deck he had ever seen. Of the cards that sat face up, he could only see details of the top one. The background was white or cream, and held an image of a green line, a yellow curve, a blue five-pointed star, a crimson square, and a circle that was solid black. In forty years of gambling, the stranger had never seen anything like it, and he knew that he had finally found what he was looking for.”

45317055[1]A lot of mythos/Lovecraftian/cosmic horror stories take themselves very seriously, and to be honest, this is not a bad thing. It’s hard not to take the end of the world at the hands (tentacles?) of a galaxy-devouring elder god seriously. But Pete Rawlik is here to remind us that there is another way to look at things, too. A light-hearted, fun, over the top way, because when Azathoth sets his sights on earth, you might as well smile.  I first encountered Pete Rawlik on the Lovecraft eZine podcast, where he is one of the regular personalities and contributors, but until now I had not read any of his work. The good folks at Gehenna and Hinnom Books recognized that Rawlik had written and published a lot of short stories, but thus far had not put out a collection of unrelated short stories, and so they sought to remedy that.  STRANGE COMPANY AND OTHERS is the result, and I’m grateful to them for providing me with an e-arc so that I could end my ignorance of Rawlik’s considerable contribution to the mythos.  When I first glanced at the TOC I saw that it was divided up into three sections: “Mainstream Mythos,” “Other Horrors,” and “Alternate Mythos.” I didn’t think I could do justice to all that this collection entails without taking a closer look at a story from both the first and last sections, so that is exactly what we’re gonna do. First up, the second story from the collection, DRAKE TAKES A HAND.


This tale opens up in an unnamed desert town with a tall man in a well used duster, snakeskin boots, and a wide-brimmed hat walking into a saloon that boldly advertises, “NO GAMBLING,” sitting down at the bar, slamming a whiskey, and asking where the card game is. Immediately, I was hooked. Knowing that this story was in the “mainstream mythos” section of the book, I was very curious to read a Lovecraftian/western mashup, and DRAKE did not disappoint.

carl-hantman-cowboy-standing-against-the-bar-of-a-western-saloon[1].jpgIt’s hard to talk about this story’s plot too much without giving anything away, but I think it is safe to say that a card game does break out, and it is a most unusual card game to be sure. Now while this story takes itself a bit more seriously than the other I’ll review below, it isn’t without its pranks. As the rules to the card game take shape, I had to laugh out loud because it’s basically Uno, with a mythos deck! I loved how Rawlik slowly reveals the cards, the rules, the strategies, and ultimately, the stakes of this game: “The table shook, the lights flickered, and Drake was plunged into a nightmare vision of the universe.”  The players, too, are quite a cosmic crew: “He found the cigarette he had made earlier and struck a match. A figure came out of the darkness. Whatever it was that had come from the hall was not human.”

Eschewing Lovecraft’s more pompous diction and syntax choices, Rawlik instead opts for a tale told in everyday language, which allows you as the reader to easily slide into this card game and the world that surrounds it. I thought the sense of place he was able to evoke, and very quickly too, was effective and made the biggest impact on my enjoyment of the story.  There’s no grand message here, no moral or caution. Instead, it’s just good, old-fashioned pulp. At the same time, it is not a pastiche work either. This story, like most in this collection, demonstrate a serious command of and love for Lovecraftian lore. There’s deep respect for the original material here, even if viewed through the lens of an Uno game.


I’ll turn now to the titular story in this collection, and one found in the final section of stories, the “Alternate Mythos” section. THE STRANGE COMPANY immediately snagged my attention out of the TOC because I noted that it had originally been published in the Brian Sammons anthology, STEAMPUNK CTHULHU. I’d never read anything from that anthology before, but boy was I excited to now! I wrote a moment ago that DRAKE takes itself a bit more seriously than this one, and you need to understand that before going in. While this is a ripping yarn, it is pulpy, a bit bizarro, jam packed with ridiculous action, and is complete with a cast list of the who’s who of the Lovecraftian mythos. And just as I said above, there’s a deep love and respect for the source material here. The name drops he gives, the places he references, the stories alluded to in rapid fire succession all tally up to say you’re not just dealing with an author who is a Lovecraft fan, you’re dealing with a Lovecraft student.  Casual fans will easily pick up on Dunwich and Cthulhu references, but will likely miss out on some of the best ones, like Lord Jermyn.  That said, if you’re in the mood for something atmospheric, weird, unsettling, or disturbing, let me stop you right here.


This story opens in the “observation blister” of the airship “Strato-Sphere” in the midst of what sounds like a very long running, heated conflict between, you guessed it, the forces of good and the cosmic forces of ultimate evil.  Both heroes and villains are ripped from the Lovecraftian canon.  After a brief amount of discussion and plotting, the story charts a course for an action packed, steampunk battle. Physics is pushed well past its generally accepted limit as alien weapons are blasted about and evil scientists and warlocks alike are tossed to and fro. “Far below, the Strato-Sphere hung in the air like a soap bubble surrounded by a strange field of black light. Off to the side, on the top of another tower, a team of men were manipulating a massive array of emitters, while steam billowed out around their feet. St. John cursed the fusion of cheap energy and alien technology.”

While I was reading this, I couldn’t help wishing that instead of a short story, this was a comic book. I say that and I’m not even a comic book fan, but the material is just so well suited to that medium that somebody outta adapt it.  Rawlik writes in that anachronistic pulpy tone that makes you think you’re reading something from a bygone era, but were you to compare this side by side with something from Edgar Rice Burroughs for example, you’d find that Rawlik’s modern milieu is actually shining through more than you expect.  For example, female characters take center stage in the action, and not as damsels in distress but as heroes, something you wouldn’t find in the John Carter stories.

cbab9d9f344dca5adf5bd3f16b167ee8[1]I feel like steampunk, as a sub-genre, has run its course, and that makes me a bit sad because of just how much fun it is.  Rawlik clearly had fun writing this and I hope that this new collection is able to get stories like this into new readers hands who might otherwise have missed out on the steampunk craze.

In Conclusion

This is very different fare from what I typically enjoy and from what I’ve almost universally reviewed on this website, but I am glad I did. While it might not be my go-to style when it comes to cosmic horror, it was an amazingly fun detour. Lovecraftians and cosmic horror junkies alike, if you don’t have any Pete Rawlik in your collections yet, this is a wonderful introduction and a great addition to any bookshelf. Let STRANGE COMPANY take you on its wild ride and help you remember that even while raising up that which you cannot put down you can still have fun along the way.

This review has been brought to you by Dust of Ages: Essential Saltes for Every Household. Remember, a little dash will do ya!

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

I didn’t see that one coming: “Senor Clapham-Lee, haff you not come to understand that there ess nothing that you can keel that I, Doctor Rafeal Carlos Garcia Muñoz, el Reanimatador, cannot bring back to life?”

The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons, by John Langan

“I went to touch the thing, to add its texture to my catalogue of impressions, only to hesitate with the tips of my fingers a hairsbreadth from its paper. I was seized by the most overpowering repugnance, such that the hairs from the back of my hand right up my forearm stood rigid. I swear, my flesh actually shrank from the thing.”

I feel like I need to be upfront about this. In the latter part of the last decade I was reading an actual print copy—slick, glossy pages; beautiful, full-color illustrations; edited by the estimable Ann VanderMeer; the whole shebang—of Weird Tales. How we all should have reveled in those days! While reading, an advertisement caught my eye. It was for a forthcoming collection of stories by an author I’d not heard of by the name of John Langan. “Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters.” Somewhere between the gorgeous cover art and the promise of tales truly told in the title, I was seduced. I had just started to come out of my Serious Books Only phase and was looking to branch out. This seemed just the thing.

This is the part I need to be up front about. I was disappointed. Only one of the five stories contained therein captivated me. I was looking for something to scare me, and this didn’t do it. I put it aside and when Mr. Langan’s first novel came out, I let it pass me by. Fast forward to roughly now and I’ve really gotten into horror short stories, particularly those with a Lovecraftian bent. And I start seeing Langan’s name everywhere, so I decided to give him another try. I read and reviewed The Supplement, which I enjoyed most everything about save the title. 9828b5516ad62e6ff3200eaf07ea775e.image.400x600[1].jpgThen I read Lost in the Dark, found in The Best Horror of the Year (2018, edited by Ellen Datlow), Volume 10, and wow, was it awesome! So awesome I recommended it for a Story Unboxed episode of This is Horror! and I think Bob and Michael are going to do it. Then I read John Langan’s short novel, “The Fisherman” and I was stunned. When I finished that book, I laid it down gently next to me and thought for close to forty-five minutes. I’d like to say more about that novel here sometime, if the chance presents itself, but for now I’ll just say that I loved the easter egg he left in Mr. Dunn for fans of “The Fisherman.”

Perhaps Mr. Langan had grown on me, perhaps he’d gotten better at his craft, perhaps I’d broadened my reading tastes so as to be able to appreciate his style. Likely some of all of those. So, when I heard his third collection, “Sefira and Other Betrayals” was coming out this month from Hippocampus Press, I was very excited, and reached out for a review copy which was happily granted. Thank you very much. Mr. Langan was gracious enough to even point me to two stories which might best fit my Lovecraftian requirement. The one I did not choose (not because it was unworthy) was called Bloom. You have to admit, The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons just sounds way cooler.

Like a lot of Mr. Langan’s stories, this one clocks in at a longer word count than most other contemporary short horror fiction, and it contains several nesting stories and interwoven character threads. Combined, these provide for a rich reading experience, if perhaps not one that you can get through in one sitting unless you’ve got some stamina.  It tells the tale of one Mr. Coleman, a novelist, who, having read about the curiosity of Mr. Dunn’s balloons, decided to go investigate them for himself. On the train to Mr. Dunn’s estate, he meets Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw who are also going to visit Mr. Dunn, but for a very different reason. Mr. Earnshaw has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and, with his time short and likely painful, he sought out alternative assistance. Mr. Dunn, in addition to his balloons, was apparently known for easing the pain in the last days for terminal patients.

Balloon Ride by Andyp89.jpg
The Balloon Ride by Deviant Artist andyp89

Things are not all what they seem on the surface, as you might expect. Coleman can’t get a handle on Dunn or on his weird, oddly repulsive balloons, and Mrs. Earnshaw becomes increasingly uneasy with her husband’s course of “treatment.” When Coleman inquires of her about her husband’s tolerance of pain, she responds, “I cannot understand how he bears it. But I might wish he were bearing it with me rather than with Mr. Dunn. I will lose my husband soon enough, Mr. Coleman; I would like to spend what time I have left with him in his company.”  In a very Langanian fashion, nestled inside the Earnshaw/Coleman narrative is another story, told by Dunn, about a former time during a war. Coleman was unsettled by this telling just as much as he was by the balloons. “He was thinking that Dunn had uttered his description of the war in a tone not of horror, but nostalgia.” This kind of thoughtful, gentle disquietude pervades this tale and much of the recent work I’ve read by Langan.


266791566021212[1].pngBy the time we get to the end all of the narrative threads return to the source to form a beautiful and horrifying picture more disturbing than any single one of them might have led you to believe. Themes of grief, loneliness, the ethical boundaries of pseudo-scientific research, the questions and emotions and sad futility of end of life care, the horrors of war, they’re all here vying for headspace and cloaked in the weird and the pernicious. In the end, and only in the end does it get Lovecraftian, and I won’t spoil how but it was marvelous. Readers familiar with HPL’s From Beyond, Pickman’s Model, and to some extent The Shadow Out of Time and The Colour Out of Space, have fun stuff to look forward to!

John Langan is a very erudite, studied, and well-read author, and with each successive story by him that I read (though perhaps none as much as “The Fisherman”) I appreciate his scholarship and knowledge base more and more. He layers his texts with complicated but believable emotion. His characters are fully-fleshed out in this one and you want to go deeper with them, to know more. For example, Coleman is the son of a Swedenborgian—a peculiar religious sect of Christianity extant in only a very small part of the United States, that I only know about because I once had the good fortune to meet one—and while this detail might seem superfluous, it efficiently locates Coleman both in time and place, while saying something about his spirituality that might impact how he encounters the rest of what is ahead of him in this tale. Langan accomplishes all that with a word. This revelation was followed by a short ontological discussion touching on both eschatology and soteriology. Again, Langan manages to cram all that into three sentences, molding real meat onto the bones of his characters. Some, I suppose, would label this story “literary horror,” but I find such a description to be an unnecessary restatement and mildly offensive.

Nevertheless, if you like your horror on the longer side, bearing the hallmarks of college-professor authorship, and more thought-provoking than gut-churning, then I suggest you give this story, and this collection, a try. But don’t fret if you’re more into action, because there’s a ripping good sword fight that bookends Mr. Dunn as well! Without a doubt, The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons will tug uncomfortably at an unattended corner of your soul, worrying it like an old dog with an older bone who knows there’s still something to be consumed deep within the scarred and pitted exterior.

If you’ve not read Langan before, I suggest you start with “Sefira”. There’s no reason not to, and in “Sefira” he’s at the top of his game.  Then, if you like what you read, do yourself a favor and pick up “The Fisherman.” I really can’t recommend that one enough. Personally, I’ve come a bit full circle on John Langan, I have to say, and I think I’d like to go back and give “Mr. Gaunt” another try. I still have the beautiful hardcover on my shelf.

This review was composed listening to my wife’s television show, The Real Housewives of somewhere, in the background – a horror of an altogether different nature.

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

The Betrayals of Attraction: “The successful arms merchant who washes his hands of the blood in which he’s steeped them for nigh on twenty years to devote himself to the promulgation of his new Spiritualist beliefs—not to mention, to fashioning his elaborate balloons—how could such a figure not be of interest?

The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud

“There were four saved images and a video file. He stared at them a moment. He tried to come to terms with what he was seeing, tried to arrange the world in such a way that would accommodate his own mundane life, the daily maintenance of his ordinary existence, along with what he saw arrayed before him in neat little squares, like snapshots of Hell.”

For a brief slice of time, I tended bar. Oh, not in a down and dirty dive like the setting of Nathan Ballingrud‘s fantastic novella, The Visible Filth, where fights broke out at the drop of a hat and cockroaches ride the beer taps like carnival slides. No, I tended bar for the always rich and sometimes famous (that party is a story for another time) at a swank conference and retreat center with prohibition-era hidden liquor cabinets in the walls and a crown molding that was the actual inspiration for Joe Camel. But, if there’s one thing all bartenders have in common it’s the fact that they’ve seen some shit. Heard a fair amount of it, too. So, when I heard about this bartender story from the good folks at This is Horror, I knew I had to check it out. Though the original publication, a solo novella, is out of print, it has been reprinted in this new collection by Mr. Ballingrud titled “Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell” dropping soon on April 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

51wTZnGf5EL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgBallingrud, though born in Massachusetts, has deep ties to the South where he’s put in some hard hours. When his first collection, “North American Lake Monsters,” hit the shelves it was an instant classic of the weird and disturbing and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best debut collection.  But it wasn’t until The Visible Filth that he fully utilized his bartending experience as the seedbed for a story. And be glad that he did, because this is a tale that will hold you close, settling you down like that first drink in a long night, but won’t let go until who knows how many drinks later when the room is spinning and people are talking without words. Then, when you finally manage to stumble free, blood diluting the alcohol in your veins, you’ll look around and not recognize your surroundings. You’ll ask yourself, did that really just happen, but not until after you’ve crawled your way back to consciousness.

Meet Will. Thirty-something bartender at Rosie’s, a dive tucked back off the main drag in uptown New Orleans. He’s on a first name basis with all the regulars, from the local bad boy to the off duty cop. His best friend, Alicia (who Will wishes he was fucking but isn’t), drops by pretty frequently, too, her newest boyfriend in tow. And back at his low-rent apartment, Carrie, his college-hottie girlfriend is bent over her books. Life isn’t exactly all peaches and cream for Will, but he does alright by a certain standard, and he’s content. Mostly. On a week night (pick one, they all run together), Erik the Bad Boy comes in to shoot pool with a couple of punks, but that devolves quickly into a fist fight. It turns dirty when Erik’s opponent smashes a beer bottle and swings the cut glass like a scythe across Erik’s cheek, harvesting a noticeable chunk of cheek. Lots of people jump in then and it’s over almost as soon as it started, only the room’s more decorated in blood splatter than before. Hours later, when the dust clears and Will is about to go home, he notices a cell phone amid the wreckage. Thinking it belongs to one of the college kids who popped in just before the fight broke out, he pockets it and heads home. He’ll give it back tomorrow when they come looking for it.

Cut_Wound_Transfer_1600x[1].jpgViolence has already spattered these pages, but it’s not until Will gets home that the weird breaks in. The phone he picked up begins beeping with incoming text messages and it sounds like someone’s in trouble. “I think something is in here with me. I’m scared.” As he interacts with the texts they get weirder and more aggressive until some picture files and a video come through. Through four sequential pictures he and Carrie witness a beheading and then, something even entirely more out of the ordinary. “The head shifted slightly, as if it heard something and had to turn a fraction to listen more closely.” There’s much more to this quote but I’m not going to share it because it’s so good and so weird that I want you to experience it for yourself in all it’s gory context and body horror glory.

Will and Carrie investigate, following up on a clue from one of the horrific pictures. A book’s spine is visible near the beheading scene, betraying the intriguing title “The Second Translation of Wounds.” Can we just take a minute to admire the inclusion of the word “second” in that title? I mean, holy hell. (That’s what separates Ballingrud’s writing from the rest of the pack here, little details like that.) As they look into the matter, Carrie gets drawn in deeper and deeper in decidedly creepy and unhealthy ways. Will makes a series of poor decisions, or you might say continues to make them, but somewhat redeems himself by keeping an eye on Erik, the cut up brawler.

At the end of a downward spiral into insanity lies an ending that leaves the reader stunned and feeling in desperate need of a shower and perhaps a prayer. The action that takes place in the end was somewhat inevitable, but I thought a different character would be more involved, so it definitely kept me on my toes. My only regret was that it wasn’t longer. I wanted more. I wanted to know more about who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing. But this is always my struggle with novellas.

Let’s talk about the quality of the writing for a moment. You’ve glimpsed it already. There’s a gritty authenticity to his descriptions and a bitter sorrow in his dialogue. He’s got his finger on the pulse of so many types of people (as perhaps only bartenders, barbers, and clergy can) which gives him the ability to weave a realistic tapestry of character, time, and place. Like here, towards the beginning, when the college kids try to buy a beer, “The kid showed him his ID, sighing with the patience of a beleaguered saint. Legal less than a month.” Every bartender has seen that look. Or here, once the fight has taken place, “The escalation of violence shifted the room’s atmosphere. It almost seemed that another presence had crept in: some curious, blood-streaked thing.” Oh, it had, too, though they knew it not. Or here, my favorite metaphor in the whole story, so perfect for the character and atmosphere, “By the time he arrived back home, the sun was bruising the sky in the east.” Brilliant. When last shift workers head home the sun does not rise. It bruises the sky. Like I said, finger on the pulse of humanity.

I haven’t said much about a Lovecraftian connection for this one because frankly, there’s not much of a direct one. It does share a theme of leaving-well-enough-the-fuck-alone as in From Beyond, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and countless other Lovecraftian stories. But beyond that, there isn’t much of the old gent in this one friends. It’s just a good story, and given what happens at the end, and how, I suspect it will appeal to HPL devotees nonetheless, as it did to me.

When all is said and done, aside from all the weird and the horror and the gore, there’s a melancholic fatalism that bleeds through these pages. Will hates his job, but is going no where else. He’s punching above his weight in his romance, but even so, he loves another. His only swat at changing his stars there is a pitiful, sophomoric attempt that’d be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But even given all that, what gets him deeper and deeper into trouble here is his care and concern, even love, for others. For Carrie. For Erik. For Alicia. Anybody who’s ever even been halfway around the block knows that love can make us do strange things and can take us down some dark roads. That’s really the beautiful thing at the scarred and beating heart of this marvelous story. You should seriously pick it. You should do so quickly even, as there’s a film coming out soon directed by Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) and starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson.  You know what they say about books and movies and which is better. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to see what a director like Anvari will do with it.

The rest of the collection looks pretty amazing too. I had a chance to read only one other story, The Atlas of Hell, which was weird and awesome and terrifying in a whole different way. Know though that these tales are connected more than just by being gathered together in the same collection. They share themes and explorations, dark words and cruel intents. Shaken, of course, not stirred.

I also need to say that I’m grateful to Mr. Ballingrud for providing me with a review copy of “Wounds,” for his kindness, and especially for his generosity towards a friend.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist “New Orleans Jazzfest 2019” complied by user Peter Blair.

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