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…”