Echoes, by Jess Landry

Lucy brought her fists up, ready to pound again, but stopped herself when her eyes fell upon the outside world.
Or, where the outside world should’ve been.
There were no lights, no trees, no streets. It looked as though someone had plastered the windows in tar, allowing absolutely nothing to penetrate the obsidian darkness that looked back at her.
The outside world was gone.

Jess Landry, “Echoes,” THE MOTHER WOUND

A persistent feeling I’ve had over the last fifteen months was that I was going in circles. Without a customary structure to my day, with the kids trying to do school from home, with us not being able to go anywhere, it all felt like an eerie sameness. All my striving was a chasing after some former self, an elusive remnant of normality. Jess Landry captures that feeling in her story “Echoes” which appears in her debut collection, THE MOTHER WOUND, published by Independent Legions Publishing. I am grateful to Jess for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for this honest review.

“Echoes” begins with a thump. That is not only the sound at the beginning, but the literal first word of the story. And it’s more important than you think. This is a very tough story to review with any justice without going into spoilers (even from a craft perspective), so at some point I will insert a “read more” break for those who wish to avoid spoilers. If that’s you, I understand, so here’s the tl;dr — this is a brilliantly crafted ghost story that, while it treads haunted ground we’ve all trod before, it does so in a fresh way that sets up and then shatters readers’ expectations. Lovecraftian elements are non-existent (I was told about that in advance), but there is a cosmic sense about the story particularly as it relates to the setting.

Photo credit: Daniel Olson

Because I need to go at this in a slightly backward way, let’s talk a bit about the writing first. Landry shows herself to be a évocateur extraordinaire. Her lush descriptions of a haunted Victorian mansion are so precisely composed that I didn’t just feel like I was in this house. I closed my eyes and I was in this house with “…her light step barely creaking against the carpeted wood underneath. The sconces cast their sickly yellow hue on everything on this floor as well, nearly making it seem like an unnatural daylight had pierced the walls and was shining through.” I’ve lived in a home like that, with long, runner carpets accenting hard wood floors and wall sconces (sadly in my case electric not gas) flickering that yellow hue every time the AC kicked on. For a moment, I was back there. But Landry wasn’t done and next we went to a room I likewise had no trouble picturing: “a bedroom with a four-post bed, long undisturbed given the yellow-stained sheets, a large wardrobe that reminded her of the doorway to Aslan’s world, and a desk tucked away in the corner with an old typewriter resting on top, a single sheet of paper sprouting from its mouth.” I love the way she so richly transported me into this house. It made me forget that I was reading and that is real skill. The writing is accessible, too, neither laden with florid flourishes, nor so spare as to leave you guessing what the feel of the place might be. This made it particularly jarring though when there was a turn of phrase or a sentence constructed so that it took me right out of the story. At one point, for example, the main character, Lucy, “squatted herself.” Perhaps it’s just me, but I felt like there had to be a better way to convey that idea. There were a few other times when it happened as well. It’s odd, in a story otherwise so expertly crafted, to encounter constructions that rip me from the pages.

I want to turn now to the plot and the craft of Landry’s structure but I can’t do that effectively without spoiling plot, so if you do not wish to have this creepy little treat spoiled, DON’T FOLLOW HER!

Continue reading “Echoes, by Jess Landry”

The Well and the Wheel, by Orrin Grey

“If you’ve never walked into a house where someone once lived but no longer does, then you’re lucky. I recommend avoiding it for as long as you can manage. It’s a different feeling than walking into a house that happens to be empty, say because everyone is at work or out to a movie, or even a house that’s sitting empty because it’s for sale. There’s a vacancy that houses only get when their occupants have vanished in the middle of things, as if you can feel the vacuum left behind by death. That’s what I felt as I stepped through the front door of my dad’s house for the first time.”

creepy house

And so we come to our first haunted house story! Well, sort of. At least, it starts off that way. This story I came across in the anthology called Autumn Cthulhu, edited by Mike Davis and published by Lovecraft Ezine Press in 2016. I’ve read a few out of here now and I can tell you, they’re mostly excellent. autumn-cthulhu[1].jpgThe theme of the collection is Halloween stories, or at least Autumn stories, which just so happens to be my favorite time of year, so yeah, I’m excited for this book.

Emmy’s dad has just passed away, seemingly peacefully, in his front porch rocking chair at the house in the woods he retreated to following his divorce. Following a fight with her roommate, Emmy decides to move in to her dad’s old house for a while. She’s not emotionally ready to sell it yet and it seems a good hideaway from the world and her problems for a while.  As you can see, the story opens rather…normally…for one of these types of stories, but Lovecraft did that often as well. The horror of Lovecraft’s stories was partially to be found in the fact that the awful encroached upon the mundane; the unnameable thing in the house down the street, if you will.  We only get one hint that something might be off (save for the super creepy house in the woods whole thing).  When Emmy’s dad died, he was clutching a note to her that read, “Sorry Emmy.”

When I was reading this, there was one point, and I mean one sentence, on which this story just turned. I had to go back and reread it to make sure it was saying what I thought it was saying, but wow, did it sneak up on me and then just slap me across the face. Let’s put it this way: Emmy’s dad went to desperate and terrible lengths to protect his daughter. Her discovery of this shattering fact propels her through the rest of the story, but before it does, she has to take a minute.

Come on, you thought of “The Ring,” too, didn’t you?
“I thought that I might be sick, that I might vomit up what little food I’d managed to eat in the last twenty-four hours out behind the house…” This nausea drives her outside, and that’s where she sees the well. Because of what she’s discovered, she knows that water isn’t the only thing in that well, and though she has absolutely no desire to do so, she cannot help but take a look deep down in it.  This craving of knowledge is another Lovecraftian hallmark, and well put to use here by Grey.  At great personal risk to themselves, Lovecraft’s heroes often seek to know something they know they have no business knowing. Think here of William Dyer, Randolph Carter, Charles Ward. And it usually costs them at least their sanity if not their lives. This need for gnosis motivates Emmy beyond the pale of normal behavior.

Of course, I won’t say how the story ends, gentle reader, that’s for you to discover, but this was a good one. It’s got an originality to it somehow despite its dressing and familiar set pieces.  I believe that’s tied to the fact that what you’re waiting for isn’t what ends up happening.  What does happen is a far superior ending to the cliched one you might have been anticipating. I’ve gotta say, this was another story that kinda creeped me out. Now, I was reading it late at night with the lights down low, but that turn it takes in the middle just did it for me.  la_roue_de_fortune[1].png

The writing here is very good at pulling you along, too.  You almost want to linger for a moment, as if to get your bearings in this new house of yours (hers), to look around, to breathe in the must and sawdust of years.  But Grey’s prose, like Emmy’s tremulous discovery, shoves you forward to where you do not want to go. It’s not weighed down like Lovecraft’s can be sometimes, which rather modernizes the writing. Maybe that’s not the right thing to say, perhaps it popularizes it rather than modernizes it.  I will also say this – there’s a definite mood created by story, an atmosphere of dread that’s not always present in these post-HPL Lovecraftian stories.  It’s very good, and it’s fitting, given the theme of the anthology.

Have a care around wells, my friends. Their bottom is not for you. Unless, of course, it is.

That does it for this one. Stay tuned for next time, though, because I’m not sure I have such good things to say about it, and it disappoints me because I was excited to finally read one by this next author. I’m hoping it’s not indicative of their style, because I know they’re well thought of in the field. While writing this one, I listened to the 4th disc of the “Panorama of American Piano Music” collection, which sounds some fairly haunting notes.

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

Autumnal words of trepidation: “It was a cold October day, getting on toward evening, and though it was no longer raining, fog hung thick over everything…It felt as if I had stumbled out of the house and into a different world, for more reasons than one.”