The Case of Yuri Zaystev, by S.L. Edwards

“Days were measured in piling snow, lives in black-rotting cells and time in final breaths. The white-washed landscape was the endless world. To walk there, in that terrible and featureless place, was to take one more step toward heaven or hell…The only refuge from the cold, constant and unchanging place was even worse than the vast frozen desert. Death was written into the architecture of the outpost of humanity before the endless night-world, a prison where men were sent to rot and disappear in fog and ice.”

whiskey-front-cover[1]Whether it was the blasted heath of “The Dunwich Horror” or the dim shores of “The White Ship,” the sanity-stretching bricks of Rue d’Auseil or the colossal piles of bones beneath Exham Priory, one of Lovecraft’s many gifts was to set you with unsettling firmness within his mad geographies. With the indelibility of spilling ink, the importance of a sense of place seeps from his pages staining his settings in your mind as much as any of his quivering professors and eldritch monstrosities. Indeed, one of Lovecraft’s favorite stories was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” a story based upon the notion that the geography itself is set against you. Of Blackwood’s story Lovecraft wrote, “I am dogmatic enough to call “The Willows” the finest weird story I have ever read…” It was a sentiment he repeated in several letters. (As an aside, if you’ve not yet read “The Willows” you really ought to do so. Lovecraft was right; it’s that good.) Taking inspiration from “The Willows,” our current author, S.L. Edwards, has penned a tale of frosty nightmare and frigid death. “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” can be found in WHISKEY AND OTHER UNUSUAL GHOSTS, the second weird fiction collection released by Gehenna Books in 2019. It will be available for purchase on July 15. I’m grateful to Mr. Edwards for supplying me with an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

6787208-1[1]Yuri Zaystev is a soldier in Stalin’s army with a very singular task. He drives a truck out into the arctic tundra and dumps the bodies of those who have died in the Gulag, some friend, some foe. Burying them is not in the equation for Comrade Zaystev; not only is the frozen ground impossible to dig out, but the brutal, biting arctic winds make burial an unnecessary chore. “The tundra winds would claim human refuse, sweep it back into its cold folds and take the bodies far away from human eyes and memories.” And later, “If they were not eaten by polar bears the winds would be kind to them and strip them of their useless skin until their bones were as white and gleaming as snow.” He’s made this run a hundred times if he’s made it once—now, just think about that given the nature of his task and the real-life horror of this story peeks through—but today, for no other reason than garden variety ennui, he seeks companionship with an old, faithful friend: vodka. Stopping the truck at the appointed place, he gets out and walks to the back where he swings open the canvas covered truck bed and glimpses, to his absolute horror, nothing. To a normal person a truck bed full of frozen, emaciated corpses would provide the fright, but for Yuri, it is the opposite, their absence, that scares. What happens next I will leave to your reading, but I did find it enjoyable, and like “The Willows,” satisfyingly ambiguous.

31974480171_9cc0ea6a66_o[1].jpgI found this story to be surprisingly emotionally affecting. I don’t know whether it was reading about the horrific nature of Stalin’s death camps at a time when my own country is running concentration camps along its Southern border, or the howling bleakness of the arctic that Edwards presents, but I was moved by the reading. Did it live up to “The Willows” as a piece of weird fiction? Well, no, but that’s hardly a knock on the story – “The Willows” really is one of the finest examples of the genre, and that’s a tall glass of whisky to live up to. One of the things that made “The Willows” work so well was the long, slow-burn build up of undeniable tension. It’s a fairly lengthy story while Yuri’s tale is pretty brief by comparison. The terror and the weird “otherness” of the stories are very different and so it is difficult to say with any certainty how a lengthening of “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” would affect it. However (and there’s little to suggest that Edwards couldn’t do this well), I think it would improve an already gratifying story. As it is, there isn’t much time for a build up of tension. Rather, there is a presumption of tension already present. That allows the author to jump right into the more terrifying aspects of his tale with a certain, more immediate, ferocity, but the cost is a lot of that which made “The Willows” so successful.

Edwards’ writing is at times evocative and controlled, leading the reader to the edge of the icy crevasse so gently that they never look down to see it coming.  And, as I mentioned, it has the capacity to be emotionally arresting. See:

neverremember-1_fk51dh[1]
Actual photo of a Gulag victim, from the mugshot files of the People’s Commissariat for State Security (NKVD), Stalin’s Secret Police.
“He could not recognize the face or any other distinguishable thing about the body. There was nothing about the shape of the nose, the sculpting of the chin or any sort of scars or hair that would have caused Yuri to recognize the man. He was part of an endless, unremarkable crowd, only remarkable because he stood out against the decrepit wreckage of what is left in the human frame after its humanity has been forcefully removed.” 

Horror works because of empathy; sociopaths who lack it cannot grasp why what they do inspires terror. In passages like these Edwards captures a fleeting empathy amid the wild winds of the tundra. That empathy is present in all of the stories I read in this collection, and is one of the reasons I think he will ultimately be a successful author in the genre. However, at other times, that control I mentioned slips. Even within the beauty of the above quotation, my eye was tripped up when he used the word “remarkable” immediately after saying it was “unremarkable.” Another word might have been more effectively deployed here. I don’t say this to be super nit-picky either, as I found that to be the case several times across multiple stories. Now diction and syntax are incredibly personal, and likely some of those hangups were just my own as a reader. What I don’t think is just me, though, is that it seems like he often uses too many words when fewer will not just do, but be better.  I realize that’s hard to swallow following the thought that the story might be improved by being longer, but it’s a matter of the right words, not just extra words.

Here’s the other main reason I think S. L. Edwards will be one to watch in the weird fiction community: the ideas are there, in spades. Across each story that I read, I experienced a genuine, creeped-out “oh crap!” moment. The talent is here folks and I think he’s going to be around for a while. This story in particular, and the collection in general deserve your attention, especially if you’re interested in not just horror and weird fiction, but in knowing early on who are the up and comers. Like all writers, his craft will grow, his skill will sharpen, and when they do, he will make all those ideas running around inside his head bleed. You’re going to want to be there for that.

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

The Unheard Lament of Yuri Zaystev: “He was not a bad man! No worse than the men he worked with! But he had been a hero! He had been a hero of Stalingrad! Stalin personally had thanked him! This alone should have been a ticket for his salvation, something to save him from whatever cruel tricks the snows and winds were playing on him now! He screamed out his life, that it was not his fault men were killed! He was not the one who decided to leave their corpses unhallowed in the Tundra…”

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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.

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.

THE STRANGE COMPANY

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.

airship_by_terrylh-d60ffmw-970x342[1].jpg

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?”

Split Through the Sky, by Lena Ng

“Instead of stars, the pinpricks of light seemed as holes where an unknown, unfathomable voyeur was spying from the other side of the nocturnal sky as through a camera obscura.”

hinnom-front-kdp[1]As a teenager, one of the many joys I took out of reading Lovecraft was the sense of mystery and other-worldliness he was able to pack into his writing. It wasn’t just his florid prose or his antediluvian monsters. It was the way he was able to hint at whole worlds, whole bodies of hidden or forbidden knowledge simply by dropping the name of some ancient tome. Most memorable, of course, was the Necronomicon—a book which for years of my youth I was convinced was real. And no one could talk me out of it (I even found a copy of the text on the internet, so there!). But he also had others, like Cultes des Goules, and the Pnakotic Manuscripts which set my imagination alight just by seeing their titles. His immediate contemporaries followed suit: Clark Ashton Smith had his Book of Eibon, Robert Howard his Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Robert Bloch created the De Vermis Mysteriis (with HPL’s help on the final name). Brian Lumley later came up with the G’harne Fragments, and Ramsey Campbell had his Revelations of Gla’aki. Outside of the canon of HPL’s works, and the works of the named gentlemen above, I haven’t encountered too much use of this trope and that’s a shame. Then I read Split Through the Sky by Lena Ng and I was right back in my youth, my imagination on fire with possibility as words of forbidden texts and forgotten book titles crossed the page amidst beautiful, lurid, and very Lovecraftian prose.

Split Through the Sky can be found in the latest issue of Hinnom Magazine (Issue #010) published by C.P. Dunphey at Gehenna and Hinnom Books, released on May 20, 2019. G&H Books just completed a massively successful Kickstarter and so their publishing calendar for the rest of 2019 and into 2020 looks incredible! In particular, I am really looking forward to letting you all know about a story or two contained in Pete Rawlik’s forthcoming G&H collection, “Strange Company.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think Hinnom Magazine stands the best chance of being the spiritual successor to Weird Tales available in today’s market. Sure, there’s lots of other great magazines out there, but are they in print? No. Some great print magazines exist, like Black Static, but that’s over in the UK. Each issue of Hinnom consistently has great works of cosmic horror fiction, dark poetry (though that’s not really my thing), cool interviews, writing advice, and great interior illustrations. They’re not full color and glossy, yet, but I imagine that will be an achievable goal for G&H one day. I’m a big supporter of what G&H is doing and think you should be, too. If we don’t support creators like this, then, well, we’ve seen what happens. If you’re interested, check out their Patreon page.

9947739633_341b8e5040_b[1]Split Through the Sky is the haunting story of someone being called from beyond, out of their daily life, into a weird, wide world of terror and the unknowable reaches of space, at times reminiscent of Dreams in the Witch House. Our protagonist, never identified (though for some reason I imagined them to be a woman in their thirties), has trouble sleeping, and who wouldn’t: “Before I has gone to bed on the first night of torments, I had noticed a disturbing alignment of stars. Through mathematics, the stars and planets should follow a predictable elliptical path. But the planets of Versiveus, Kraelov, and Diaxon moved in enigmatic, unnerving voyages. Other stars crossed in horrendous formations, and I quaked at what such signs could mean.” Lovecraft fans should be all a-tingle just now, if you are anything like me. Ng’s writing, while calling HPL to mind, is of a style all her own, often unsettling while rewarding slow, attentive reading.

Through a series of disturbing events the protagonist discovers she (?) is not who she thought she was, and in fact was adopted from the particularly creepy sounding Gentrocide Orphanage. 2974d6bced8cb89094d8cfdfa770b708[1].jpgFrom there, “after much consultation through incantations and incense, oratory and arguments,” her journey of self-discovery takes her to the ruins of an ancient temple, seemingly still presided over by a high priestess. After an arduous journey, she is met by the monks who keep watch over the place, who escort her to the chambers of the high priestess, where not all is as you might expect it to be, no matter or not that you might have been expecting the worst. Clues to her genesis are given, and she is off again to the next nightmarish locale, still in the company of said sepulchral monastics. There she will finally learn the truth, horrible though it may be.

As I said above, most Lovecraft fans will find quite a lot here to satisfy their abyssal cravings. We’ve got nightmares and monks, ruined temples and orphanages, incantations and lost tomes and astrology. It’s all very, very good stuff. But Ng raises it to the next level with her writing, which is erudite (though bordering on stuffy at points where some will think a thesaurus was overused) and evocative. I rejoiced each time I saw another fantastic descriptor deployed —”lachrymosal,” “abattoirial,” “octrine,” “vomitus,”, and “mucosal,” were among my favorites. Somewhere, the Old Gent’s skull is grinning, too. It wasn’t just her vocab, either, that enhanced her writing, but an unusual flow and rhythm that sometimes stretched standard grammatical practices.  monsters in the skyThis sprinkled her prose with spice and flavor in quite delicious ways. For example, “Back in my studio, page after page I flung to the floor as I drew diagrams, scribbled equations, created derivatives and reductions of the movements of the stars, knowing the patterns of the celestial formation must be a part of a grander design.” See how she constructs that sentence to lead you into the emotion and immediacy of the moment, worrying more about what it feels like that what it looks like on a page? The whole story is written in this way and it was both refreshing and fun, without falling into aping HPL or others. Lena Ng, with several publications already to her name and with her fresh voice and clear command of the genre, is definitely an author to watch.

This issue of Hinnom Magazine comes with two other good pieces of fiction. Its Eyes Are Open, by Ben Thomas is a creature feature. As such, it is a lot of fun, and pretty creepy at times, but honestly I kept wanting it to develop in an unexpected way and it just kept on keeping on in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get style. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing special either.  Samantha Bryant’s story, Margaret Lets Her Self Go, on the other hand is very unexpected, creative, and scary. I almost reviewed it but then I read Ng’s story and knew I had to tell you about it instead.

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

Show Your Work at the Bottom of the Page: “Not the math of this world but the math of the parallel: non-Newtonian geometry, Fortunado’s topology, octrine trigonometry. Not even the black calculus of Crucerbus could decipher the malevolent pattern.”

The Space Between, by P.L. McMillan

“I should be out of the Space by now—if it respected any known laws of physics, that is, but I am still walking. The ground remains uniformly flat, almost smooth in its sameness.”

14206925991_801393ddf2_b[1]I read this story in New York City when I was visiting a few weeks ago, and thought, since I had about an hour, to install myself in the Rose Reading Room of the public library sitting off 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. It’s an impressive building begging to be explored. Fortuitous for me, when I drew close to the steps it had begun to rain, and so I took refuge inside as well as respite. However, much to my dismay, the area I had entered was no gorgeous piece of early 20th century architecture, all dark wood and rounded arches of heavy glass. Rather, that area was cordoned off for repairs, and I was ushered into a sad, small room with hastily built supplemental shelves and folding chairs and tables. It had a sterile, fluorescent feel, as if one was in any waiting room in any hospital. I almost left, but paused and thought, perhaps this is the perfect room in which to read a story called The Space Between. Turns out, it was.

22818-1808150436319[1].pngI should say that this story was provided to me free of charge, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review, by the good folks at Gehenna and Hinnom Press. If you’re looking to find this story, you can do so in Hinnom Magazine #006 available digitally or in paperback through Amazon.  I also want to say, at the outset, that I know female authors are encouraged by publishers to use initials in place of their first name because it sells better—men, it seems, are less apt to buy a book from a female, and that this reticence is mitigated somewhat if initials appear in place of a female first name—but I long for a day when that is not a necessity. It really ought to be here by now. (I also don’t know if that’s the reason for the “P.L.” here or not.)

In any event, onward: this is a story about Alyssa Dean, “employee of the US government and chairwoman of the Humanity Rescue Committee.” It takes place in the not so distant future at a time when the steadily increasing world population has passed a critical juncture. There is no space left for anyone, anywhere.  Into this (totally plausible) dire reality, a surprising discovery has been made in the Sonoran Desert, straddling the border of Arizona and California. A strange, extra-dimensional space, eight meters by eight meters, and rising six meters high has…developed?…appeared?…that can’t be seen but only felt. If you get too close to it, odd vibrations unsettle your body, sometimes accompanied by nausea and fainting. We get the impression that when our story opens, the government has know of the existence of this space for some time but hasn’t made much headway in understanding it. desert-clipart-cactus-desert-500898-4743694[1].jpgInitial forays into the space have revealed it to be enormous, exponentially larger inside than outside (shades of “House of Leaves” here). But Alyssa will be the first person to really go deep inside it.

Inside, though, gets weird in a hurry. Alyssa tries to measure the time she is inside it with her watch, until it stops working. She guesses at the distance she travels and ponders the possible uses of such a vast, free space. Apartments. Agriculture. Mechanized labor.  There are a lot of potential solutions to the earth’s census problems incarnated by this space, but the farther she travels, the less likely any of them seem. She sends notes and observations back to her colleagues via a pulley system, to which are attached plastic bottles that can contain her missives from within. She sends plenty of notes out, but her inbox remains empty, as it were. Farther and farther she walks, and her sanity suffers with the growing dearth of reference. “The mist surrounds me on every side. This rope is my only anchor to life. I wonder how far this rabbit hole stretches.” Towards the end of her journey she encounters…something. I’d rather not say too much for fear of spoiling it, because you really do want to read this story. I’d be curious to know, in the comments, what you think of what she encounters and how it ends. I think the story works fine with it, but I wonder if it might not work better without such…shall I say, clarity about the encounter. It doesn’t make for a bad ending in any way, but I didn’t need it. There are several other startling revelations at the end that worked better for me at instilling the sense of powerful dread and fear of the unknown for which the author seems to strive. The physical dimensions are not the only ones bent by the Space.

This really was a fun story that built up a creeping sense of fear, grounded in the fear we all share of that which we know not. Think of any exploration story you’ve read or seen on film, and this same sense of base terror at least touches it. I’m imagining the scene from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” when they go walking on the ocean floor the first time. For some reason, as a kid, I was more scared at that part than in the final confrontation with the giant squid. Or perhaps you might recall “The Goonies” crew spelunking in One-Eyed Willie’s final resting place. It was far less Ma Fratelli chasing them, terrifying though she was, that freaked me out, and much more not knowing was around the next corner. Here, it was fascinating to discover, as a reader, that that same fear was present when exploring a detail-less landscape. Alyssa’s plodding on and on into nothing effectively pressed that same part of the amygdala.

Someone suggested to me that McMillan might be one of the next great cosmic horror writers and if this story is a good indication of her talent and imagination, I’d say they could well be correct. I really thought she did well in the pacing of the story, and the structure of how it was told: small narrative chunks that were Alyssa’s notes back to the outside world. The stilted language of the scientist taking notes was also well done and served to ensconce you in the mind of our protagonist at first.  That pattern of language, though, then degraded as Alyssa’s mind degraded. She becomes less formal, and then downright pleadingly honest by the end, making her very believable as a character. Sound and smell were communicated effectively; I could sniff while reading and almost, almost sense cherries and bleach wafting towards my nostrils. Some refinements and restraint are in order, though, at least for my tastes. Entry 13 was too descriptive and, for me, took the fear of the unknown that had been building, and shone a great big light on it. The temptation, of course, that leads readers to think “oh, now that I see it…” That aside, there is a lot to love here, and The Space Between fits nicely in the broad canon of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. I truly look forward to reading more by this author, and you should too.

This review was composed listening to “Desert Roads,” composed by David Maslanka, and played by the Illinois State University Wind Symphony.

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

Hopeless, pleading messages in a bottle: “I don’t know how long it is taking each message to cross the vast distance between us, but if you don’t get here soon, it will be too late…”

Survivor Type, by Damir Salkovic

“Molly was kneeling by the window, her rifle cradled in her lap, her face lit by the red glare of the night. A strange cacophony came from outside, a wailing chant that was half screams and half laughter, accompanied by the rumble of drums and the shrill of pipes and flutes. The infernal din curdled Nick’s blood: he crept to the window and what he saw froze him in place.”

hinnom-008-cover.jpgLike many of you fellow cosmic trespassers, I have, from time to time, wondered what if Erich Zahn had broken a string; what if the strange alchemy of Armitage and Co. had failed and the powder was ineffective; what if Cthulhu rose and the armies of Y’ha-nthlei flopped ashore? In other words, what if Lovecraft’s monsters and gods won? In our last story, we saw a glimpse of that that didn’t quite meet with my expectations, enjoyable though it was to read. Tonight’s story, on the other tentacle, presents a vision that I can at least buy into. It’s a glimpse of a mythosian victory that is truly terrifying and very creative. I have to say a word about where I encountered this story. Hinnom Magazine (this issue was #008) is a relative newcomer on the horror zine scene, and I’ve only recently encountered it. When I saw what C.P. Dunphey and friends were trying to do I immediately became a subscriber. Their covers advertise the magazine as “the world’s most popular magazine of weird fiction and cosmic horror,” and while I think that’s more aspiration than truth at this point, I’m excited for that possibility and for a true successor to Weird Tales, of blasphemous memory. I’m on board and hope to see it come to pass. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Alright, on to the story.

I have to admit, when I first started reading I thought, “Oh no, here we go, another post-apocalyptic, Walking Dead type, survival story.” But by page 2, I saw how wrong I was. It is a post-apocalyptic survival story, but the reason for the apocalypse wasn’t political strife or even an errant tweet from an orange haired moron. It was the rising of what I’ll take to be an Old One that triggered the nuclear codes to be used – “…the bombers diving out of the the sun, trying to nuke the thing in Yokohama Bay.” Post-Nuclear-War-Landscape-Wallpaper-800x600[1]Apparently this happened in more places than one around the globe, and, before you can say “Geiger Counter,” everybody with nukes is slinging them around and voila!, nuclear wasteland. But the nukes were ineffective.

Nick, the protagonist of our tale, is wandering about the western USA when he finds another group of survivors (this is where I groaned about a possible Walking Dead scenario) who actually take him in after, oddly, checking him for ritual scars. My eyebrow raised. After they bed down for the night, it all goes to hell. Something comes. And while at first you may be tempted to believe, as I did, that what came was “the thing” this story was about, you’ll soon realize it is just one of many things, in a country taken over by things, on a planet now possessed by things. But this first one was definitely a cool, cosmically terrifying thing: “The creature moved like an oil slick, a huge, shapeless, ebony mass. It had already seeped over the glass front of the store and was crawling over the roof, the steel framework groaning under its bulk. Behind the horror lay a trail of devastation, asphalt and rock melted as if with acid.”

Narrowly escaping this slippery abomination, several of the survivalists accompany Nick as he flees. Later, they have an encounter that reminded me of nothing less than a scene from Turkish horror film Baskin (seriously, do not watch this unless you have a strong stomach, and in fact, the rest of the story here is only for the strong of stomach). There’s a lot of body horror over the next few pages and while that isn’t Lovecraftian, Salkovic had already established his story in a Lovecraftian setting and so the mash-up actually created something new for me. I’m sure he’s not the first person to have done it, but I enjoyed it. “Some of the horrors were composites, two or three or half a dozen cultists strung together into one shuffling, mewling whole…” I still see that when I close my eyes and think of this story. This whole scene was really effective from both a Lovecraftian and a horror point of view, and was easily my favorite part of a really good, well-written story.

Salkovic’s prose is gorgeous in its grotesqueries. He was really able to put me right in the midst of this scary, dark, lethal world where the elder gods have risen and the remnants of humanity are on their way out, whether they choose to worship or no. Check this out, “Its head was shrunken and lined, the drooling mouth wide, the eyes stitched tightly together, black, viscous tears tickling from the corners.” This is the cultist’s priest-thing for crying out loud.

Though it seems to be in a position of honor and even of adoration, it’s not a glorified image at all, not an image of one who has been somehow rewarded for faithfulness despite the end times.

I truly appreciated the combination, which was fresh for at least me, of typical Lovecraftian tropes (insane fluting cultists, tentacles, an Azathoth sighting I think, visions of cosmic enormity) and evocative, bloody, body horror. He excels at causing you to think about the words on the page and then you can’t help but shudder at the sheer awfulness of it. Like I said at the beginning, it’s a vision of the Lovecraftian Mythos victory that resonates with me a whole lot. And one in which I’d like exactly no part. In the midst of all that, the writing even manages to squeeze out a bit of emotion, like when he says, “They would believe him, the small, wiry woman and the man with the burned face. They needed to believe something.

If I take exception with any part of this wonderful story, it’s that the ending was not what I expected and not totally in a good way. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll just say this: how it concluded was not, in my opinion, sufficiently foreshadowed. Now before you say, well now wait just a second, if you totally foreshadow the ending it’s not a surprise! True, true. But here—and again, this is purely my opinion—parts of the story do not set up the ending to be plausible. If you get a chance to read it, I’d be fascinated to hear in the comments what you think about this: if this ending is true, then why does Nick respond the way he does in certain other, previous, situations?

I don’t want to make too much out of that because it’s a subjective observation. This is a wonderful story with impressive and affecting prose, memorable scenes, and a fascinating and believable vision of an end in which the mythos does what we all fear it might do. If you like the sound of that then let me encourage you to check out what the good folks over at Gehenna and Hinnom are doing, not only with Hinnom magazine, with but anthologies as well.  Send them a few bucks, because if you, like me, want another Weird Tales-like zine in true print form, we have to support it.

This review was composed listening to the sanity cracking monophony of “Azathoth” by Cryo Chamber.

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