Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Legs? by Michael Cisco

“Now he’s alone. After a while, he begins to fall back into place again, piece by piece.
“Just an oooold corpse,” a voice says.
He stands up, blinking tears away, nearly sobbing, shaking. Tenderly, he adjusts his poor, twisted clothes.
“Are you one of them now?” a voice asks. “Is this the way it’s done?”
“Perhaps one of the ways,” a voice answers.

—Michael Cisco, “Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Legs?”

“…there is another phase of cosmic phantasy (which may or may not include frank Yog-Sothothery) whose foundations appear to me as better grounded than these of ordinary oneiros-copy; personal limitation regarding the sense of outsiderness. I refer to the aesthetic crystallisation of that burning & inextinguishable feeling of mixed wonder & oppression which the sensitive imagination experiences upon scaling itself & and its restrictions against the vast & provocative abyss of the unknown.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Frank Belknap Long, February 27, 1931

This past weekend it was my family’s turn to keep our second grader’s class hamster. We were given everything we needed to care for it, including a hamster ball in which the little guy could roll around. After supper, we took him out of his cage and put him in the ball. All of us knelt around it on the floor, looming and leering, as it did…nothing. It did not roll around or frolic. It just stood there. After a moment passed, someone observed, “He’s shaking.” We took him out of the ball and sure enough, the poor creature was positively trembling. We placed him back in his cage and left him alone for the rest of the night. In the morning, he was dead. And in that moment, I understood cosmic horror in a clearer, more direct way than ever before.

1129835441[1]Michael Cisco’s new novella, DO YOU MIND IF WE DANCE WITH YOUR LEGS—to be published by Nightscape Press as the newest entry into their charitable chapbook line—taps deep into the terror of outsiderness which Lovecraft referenced in his letter to Long and brushes its fingers against the truest sense of cosmic horror like that I imagine was felt by the late hamster. I am grateful to Nightscape Press for providing me with a free e-ARC for the purposes of this honest review. If you don’t know about their charitable chapbook line, you need to learn about it. Each author selects a charity to which Nightscape Press donates one-third of the proceeds from the sale of each gorgeously illustrated chapbook. Michael Cisco has selected the LA LGBT Center.

This tale tells the story of Pedrito Marinetti, a transvestite man who may also be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and of his search for a missing woman, Irene Trigg. (Full disclosure: I am the whitest, most cis-gendered, straightest person, who is also not one hundred percent conversant with non-cis culture nomenclature (but I am trying to learn in an effort to be as supportive as I can). So, I feel a little unqualified to explore the deeper realities of Pedrito’s existence, and apologize in advance if I say something unwillfully ignorant.) Pedrito, who lives with his parents, enjoys being a bit of a loner and gets around on his trusty bicycle. “He likes the way bicycling puts him in the street while separating him from everyone else. His interactions with people seldom go well. Not a good idea. Not for him. Slipping away before breakfast also allows him to avoid his parents, who pester him with their hopelessly gentle questions and kind suggestions.”  Searching for missing persons is a pasttime of sorts for Pedrito, though, “As a rank outsider with a discomfiting personality unlikely to win the trust of strangers he can only hope to find Irene Trigg if there is something bizarre about her disappearance.” Pedrito comes at things from a different angle than the rest of us, and therefore sees the world differently. This is, in part, what has led me to wonder is he is autistic.

351839-admin[1]The deeper into the mystery he gets, the weirder the story becomes. Influences upon our world from beyond seem to be at play. This is more than a case of a missing person, and yet in many ways, it is also less. The hamster wheel awaits our frolicking while something outside looms and leers. As his name initially suggests, a reader begins to wonder who or what is pulling the strings, and to what, if any, end. But, Pedrito is undaunted; his autism (if that is what it is) acting as shield between him and the uncomfortableness or fear that would prevent a different person from continuing on the hunt. Whatever it is that is different about Pedrito, Cisco presents it in a kind, sympathetic manner. In fact, it may be his particular “stillness” that perfectly suits him for the role he has chosen in this story.

This is a difficult story to digest in one sitting and I struggled to understand it upon my initial read. After going back and looking over it again, I’m still not sure I totally get everything this is trying to accomplish. That is not to say the story is unworthy in any way, but it is to say that it is one which does not offer up its inner treasures easily, or without struggle. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity. We are put into Pedrito’s mind easily, which, while a remarkable authorial feat, is ironically what complicates the reader’s understanding. In telling Pedrito’s story, I believe that what Cisco is trying to do is show us that this kind of person has a story to tell and it is one that is both worthy of our attention and yet wholly independent of it. Pedrito does not need us to hear or understand his story, but if we choose to read, it is there for us to glean.

I am struck by the things which I do not fully understand. For example, there is a repeated number, 20904, that Pedrito receives over and over again as a response. The only clue we’re given to its meaning is a brief paragraph detailing a scene in which Pedrito watches a video tape he seems to revere, a tape he has cued up to time stamp 2:09:04. That is the moment in the video when his childhood guidance counselor is informing his parents that Pedrito tested as having an astronomically high I.Q. How Pedrito feels about this revelation (rather than the revelation itself) is a clue to unlocking your understanding of his character.

4[1]The last piece I want to explore is actually from the beginning. The first two words of the story, to be precise, which are the name of the main character.  Pedrito Marinetti. The diminutive applied to the first name is pretty self explanatory. Even as an adult, he is regarded as lesser by his peers and especially by his parents. It’s the last name that intrigues me. Why give a last name unless it were important? (Warning: I am now leaping off the ledge of solid footing into the space of Pure Conjecture.) Marinetti is not a name that seems like it would be picked out of a hat, because it is the surname of a major historical figure: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. That Marinetti was a poet, artist, and political activist in early twentieth century Italy. He is best remembered as one of the principle founders of the Futurist Movement, an artistic and social movement emphasizing speed, technology, and mechanized violence. It would go on to be a major influence on Dalí and the Dada movement.

cs22-01[1]On October 15, 1908, Marinetti had a car accident, in which he crashed his four-cylinder Fiat sports car into a ditch in an attempt to avoid (wait for it…) a bicyclist. That bicyclist helped him out of the ditch, and Marinetti wrote later that he emerged from that crash a new man. Futurism was born. In Cisco’s story there is a tension between the present and what is to come, and it is in that tension that the horror lies. While there is not mechanized violence, there is a repeatable, assembly-line nature to the violence that is present. It is dissociated, apathetic, and willful. It is the violence inflicted by placing an innocent hamster in a situation so stressful his little heart gives out. And then going out and buying a replacement hamster. It is a violence of which we are all guilty, except perhaps, for Pedrito Marinetti, who seeks to lift us from our wreck in the ditch of our lives.

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

Merge Now, by Kurt Fawver

“Chisholm knew he should call the police. He knew this other driver’s madness was bound to cause disaster. But even as the situation sparked his anxiety, it also entranced him. He’d seen plenty of minor accidents in the past, but he’d never watched a major collision happen in real time, right beside him. A small part of him wanted to see it: steel and aluminum bending, glass shattering, bodies flying. The aftermath might offer an insight, a revelation, a perspective on life or death or the nature of reality that he’d never otherwise understand. It might offer up a release.”

61IdzlLY5EL._US230_[1]I have both seen and been personally affected by the aftermath of wrong-way, high-speed collisions, and I can say for a certainty it does not offer any insight on life or death other than we are, at our most basic physical level, meat. Once, I lived near a particularly bad intersection where there were always cars banging into each other. Thankfully, most of the time, they did not result in serious injuries. One time though, there was a bad one. I heard it from my driveway where I was working on tuning up my bike. I ran to the street and saw a conversion van versus a sedan, both pretty crumpled. People began falling out of the van, whose side door and been pushed open far enough that they could get out. Most seemed ok, just dazed. One guy though, the last guy, came out screaming and holding his face. He asked if he was gonna be ok, pulling his hand away from his cheek. When he did, half his face rolled down, exposing his muscle and teeth. I winced, gave him the oil soaked rag I was carrying in my hand and assured him he’d be fine. I suspect he probably was with the exception of a nasty scar. That was the accident I saw. The one I was affected by left me bereft of a close friend. We are meat, and when it comes to auto accidents, we are grist for the mill. There is no particular revelation about these sorts of accidents but that. Kurt Fawver’s excellent story, “Merge Now,” however, does offer up insightful commentary on how we live our lives, the vain things for which we strive, and the mindless, blind way we so often follow.

41D3v4VgygL[1]It is located in the extraordinary anthology NOX PAREIDOLIA, edited by Robert S. Wilson and published late this year (2019) by Nightscape Press. (The book’s cover is equally as remarkable, and more so once you understand the title.) In this volume, Wilson collects ambiguous stories by some of horror’s hottest writers, all paying homage to the late weird fiction master, Robert Aickman. If you don’t know Aickman or his singular style, you can still enjoy this anthology well enough, but reading a few of Aickman’s strange tales first would offer a more fulsome experience. Also, if you don’t know the work of Nightscape Press, you should fix that. They are doing amazing work, using a portion of a lot of their sales to benefit charities, and are soon putting out HORROR FOR RAICES, a response to the horror going on at our southern border with, again, an enviable table of contents. They deserve your attention.

“Merge Now” is the story of Chisholm, a bored office worker who could be a stand in for so many of us, grinding it out daily for his meager share of the American dream. While driving to work one morning, he witnesses someone affixing a strangely decorated blindfold to themselves and then speeding up in their car. At first, they miraculously avoided other traffic, but then, once they reached their apparent max speed, they swerved into the oncoming lanes and it was only moments before the inevitable occurred. His work day is shot and he can’t even pull himself together to drive home, calling a ride share. blindfolddriver[1].jpgLate that night, he’s searching the internet, trying to figure out what would make a person do something like that. “…well after midnight, he stumbled upon a Twitter post that mentioned ‘the blindfolded, seeing the answer others cannot see and gnashing their teeth in fear and ecstasy, do the great work of the eschaton. They will prepare the roads for its coming.'”

As the story goes on this sort of event becomes commonplace, with horrific traffic accident after horrific traffic accident filling the local news cycle. He witnesses another accident and can’t erase the grisly images from his mind. “A body hung behind it, limp and positioned at grotesque angles. Its head was partially occluded by a segment of collapsed roof, but the exposed portion revealed an unmistakable white strip of cloth inscribed with unknown glyphs.” The cult atmosphere developed by Fawver’s inclusion of these strange blindfolds is simple, but brilliant, and in the end, it’s all you need to wonder, wtf? One driver speaks as Chisholm encounters her during his unavoidable work commute, “As she passed, she rolled a window down and shouted, to Chisholm or the universe at large, ‘All is wreckage! All is collision!'” Chisholm eventually begs off work, unable to get behind a wheel, and who could blame him? It seems the whole world is spiraling out of control and he wants no part in it, but can he avoid it if it truly is the whole world going mad?

Fawver’s writing in this piece, undergirded with a certain fatalism, is measured and controlled, unlike the story he is spinning. His characters speak naturally and their internal monologues read as authentic. You are never once taken out of the story. Generally, I think that’s the harder feat to accomplish than writing a florid line.

Aickman wrote stories that some would not even consider horror, but I have never read one after which I was not deeply unsettled. He has no jump scares and little gore, but manages to nonetheless infect your consciousness. Upon finishing an Aickman story you are often left wondering, what did I just read? But then you find yourself turning it over and over in your mind hours or even days later, and that’s when you know he got you. This anthology is full of stories that do that, a just tribute to the master, and “Merge Now” is a particularly good example.

NEW-FATAL-2-HOWARD-FRANKLAN_1539945801431_59493418_ver1.0[1].jpgIn the story, Chisholm says he moved to the city for bigger, better opportunities, and wonders at one point if it would not have been a better decision to stay home in his small town and be a big fish in a little pond. But the allure of success, and the financial remuneration that accompanies it, was too much for him. How many of us have struggled with the same sort of question and come up, if not short, then at least mortally uncertain? That is where the cosmic horror is for me in this tale. It is not a horror beyond the stars, but it is one that is much bigger than any one of us individually. It is the horror of questioning whether we are enough. Are we good enough, rich enough, successful enough, pretty enough? If not, who do we have to follow to get there, and what do we have to do? What do we have to barter?  How many, chasing this unattainable carrot, have been left as human wreckage on the side of life’s uncaring, unfeeling highway?

Mr. Fawver recently moved, but before he did, we lived in the same region of Tampa Bay. Earlier this year, we had a rash of wrong-way, head-on collisions on our various cross-bay bridges, all resulting in multiple fatalities. I cannot tell you if these were the result of drunken mistakes, ill-begotten wagers, youthful ignorance, or what, but for a while there, it was a thing and I wouldn’t even get on those bridges. The above image is from the local news channel. I confirmed with Mr. Fawver that this tale is a creative response to those tragedies and I want to thank him for it. We all had a lot of emotion about what happened here and this story gave those emotions a channel to vent. I am grateful for that, as I am grateful for Mr. Fawver’s work. I hope he knows he is appreciated in the weird fiction community and that he is good enough.

Kurt Fawver is the author of a large number of wonderful weird and horror short stories, appearing recently in the August issue of Nightmare Magazine.  Comparisons to Thomas Ligotti are not misplaced. He also has published two collections: FOREVER, IN PIECES, and THE DISSOLUTION OF SMALL WORLDS, which contains the Shirley Jackson award-winning story, “The Convexity of Our Youth.”

Before I close, I would like you to know that no guts were punched in the writing of this review.

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

 

Pieces of Blackness, by Michael Kelly

“It was a dark sky, but he could see another darkness, pieces of tainted blackness, tumours, coiling, forming a greater blackness. One day, he knew, it would open up, all of it; the sky, him, and the entire world.”

all+the+things-finalLurking just beneath the surface of your psyche, just out of sight, dwells a tiny demon comprised almost entirely of a warped and wicked mouth. This demon has a very limited, but a nonetheless puissant vocabulary, and it talks non-stop. Drilling through your ear canal it whispers, over and over again, “You are not good enough.” Some of us learn how to ignore this demon; a few of us can even temporarily silence it. Others, though—too many—succumb to its malice. Old, young, successful, it matters not. They succumb. Sometimes, you may not ever notice that they’ve given in. And other times, it is tragically obvious. In Pieces of Blackness, a story found in weird fiction anthologizer and author Michael Kelly’s latest collection (ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SEE) you’ll read of one man’s fight against that insidious foe. As the title suggests, this is a very dark story, suffused throughout with an almost overwhelming atmosphere of woe.

I am grateful to Undertow Publications for providing me with a free copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review. ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SEE was published in June of 2019 and is currently available for purchase in hardback, paperback, and e-book formats.

Our story opens with a scene of cosmic foreboding and moves quickly to introduce us to Peter, his wife Katy, and their six year old adopted son, Timothy. Katy awakens Peter, spoiling a naughty dream, with a worry that something is wrong with their son. He has been sleepwalking and they’ve found him on other nights in dangerous places. They’ve been told that this can be a normal part of the adoption process, as the child gets adjusted to the new home. The-sleep-paralysis-demon[1].jpgIt seems though that it is not just Timothy who needs to get adjusted. “Peter moved to the bed, stood staring at Timothy, his son. Son. He wondered, on nights like this, if he would ever truly think of the boy as his son. Wondered if he could be a father.” I was already gripped by this story before I even got to this section on the third page. As a parent myself, I’ve had many sleepless nights worrying over my children. But then Kelly introduces this extra element of dread, not worry over whether my child will be injured or killed, but worry over whether I will be a good father. He is here tapping into some pretty deep, primal stuff, and he drapes it in such heavy, black literary curtains that it became oppressive. It would not be going too far to say at times I found it hard to breathe.

Not willing to stop there, Kelly piles on the existential angst and, in a sentence or two, shows how Peter and Katy’s own marital relationship has changed since Timothy came into their home. This child, by his very existence, is an even greater interruption to life than it appears. What parent, on their darkest, most exhausted days, has not thought the same?

old-barn-hazel-billingsley[1].jpgTo escape the pressures of family, Peter from time to time will retire outside to an old barn on their property. In fact, it’s been in the family for ages as we learn that this is Peter’s boyhood home. Whilst out there he indulges in some of his more hidden pastimes, among them, cigarette smoking. It seems he was supposed to have quit when Timothy arrived, but he did not, and now he cannot bear to tell Katy that he has been unable to quit. So, he smokes clandestinely. “He didn’t know why he couldn’t just tell her that he hadn’t quit smoking. Maybe he didn’t want to disappoint her any more than he already had. Didn’t want her to see him as a failure.” There’s that demon again. This is the same fear of failure, of inadequacy, that drives so much parental dread and, in Peter, is even realized physically in his impotency. Turns out that his were the faulty parts that led them to adopt. Kelly works with some brilliant, connected symbolism throughout this tale, and I don’t want to get into all of it for fear of spoiling it. However, I need to say there isn’t a wasted action or loose symbol dropped here; everything is horribly connected and the barn is the locus.

Kelly’s writing is crisp, authentic, and emotionally evocative. He knows how to weave on the loom of the weird so that a greater image emerges over time. The only minor complaint I had was the overuse of the word “blackness.” I understand the need to create the atmosphere but by the fifth deployment of that word I was ready for another. What worked well though was how on each page a new crushing emotional challenge was unveiled making me as a reader want to cry out, “How much more can this guy take?” The only thing that stopped me (aside from normal social conventions) was the realization that most of us operate every day under the oppressive weight of these and even more stresses. We are all connected by the pain we have endured. 43eeb3e0-8c8d-4f96-9b3a-6563e2641295[1].jpegPunctuating these ideas are short, sharp pokes of sentences littered about at the ends of more effusive paragraphs, like the quick jabs of a professional boxer that set up a more powerful blow. Individually, they are sustained. Over time, they break you. Witness, from the ends of three paragraphs on the same page, “To no avail,” and “He was a failure,” and “Nothing was permanent, Peter knew.” That sense of impermanence closes out the story in a similar scene of cosmic dread to where we began. The supernatural here is definitely more implied than explicit, and so for our purposes here comparisons might more easily be made to J.S. Le Fanu than to Lovecraft.

This a fantastic story, but a deeply disturbing one. Sometimes it can be said that a story would work just as well without the supernatural element. That is not the case here. It works on many levels, and yet removing any one of those levels, including the supernatural, would diminish the whole. Pieces of Blackness is such a depressing, oppressive tale that when I finished and looked up I was surprised the sun was still shining. I read it in the mid-afternoon and it’s a pretty short story so I was less concerned that time had gotten away from me than I was that the cosmos had. I’d be careful about pairing this tale with alcohol of any kind. That said, and the good writing being a fine indication, I’ll read much more of what Michael Kelly has to offer. I suspect in a collection like this there is quite a variety of genre from the more to the less explicitly supernatural and I look forward to discovering it all.

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

 

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

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

lovecraft-and-a-cat[1].jpg
See what pleasure cats gave him?
H.P. Lovecraft loved cats. This is one of a few places where I disagree with the Old Gent, firmly being a dog person, but, I’d not want to trade barbs with him about it. He once committed ink to page for this biting piece of commentary, “The dog is a peasant and the cat is a gentleman.” Perhaps his most famous story involving cats is “The Cats of Ulthar,” a revenge/karma tale where a clowder of cats devour a despicable old couple who had previously killed a kitten. These same cats show up as sentient in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” And, of course, there is an unfortunately named kitty in “The Rats in the Walls;” even more unfortunate is that fictional feline seemed to bear a similar name to HPL’s real cat. Betty Rocksteady, in her debut collection IN DREAMS WE ROT, features two cosmic kitty stories that when read together form a perilous pair. It’s forthcoming (October 18) from JournalStone and I’m grateful to the author for a free advanced review copy.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

creepy black cat (2).jpg

 

 

Harvest Song, Gathering Song, by A.C. Wise

“Adams lowered her scarf. Her lips were cracked and bloody, but light clung to her.  She was holy, we all were, and I watched in wonder as she used her teeth to pull her glove free, ran her finger around the inside of the bottle, and rubbed the last of the honey on her gums.”

916DsQjmudL[1].jpgIn The Shadow Out of Time, H.P. Lovecraft put forth his grand oeuvre on the subject of cosmic horror. His fictional (?) theory (doctrine?) was that humans were really only a galactic blip, here for but the blink of a horrible, solitary, nictitating eye. There were races that came before us, like the Yith, and races that would succeed us, such as the beetle-like Coleopteran. If human beings were anything on the cosmic scale of things, we were a joke. In this magnificent story, A.C. Wise deftly plays with that horrible sense of sheer insignificance. Such an enormous backdrop would swallow a lesser author. One of the many brilliant things she does to avoid that, though, is despite working with a galactic size canvas, she focuses narrowly on the very local story of a group of mercenaries out on just another job. Though this story was first published in “For Mortal Things Unsung,” edited by Alex Hofelich, I read it in “The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Ten” edited by Ellen Datlow, and published in 2018 by Night Shade Books. I didn’t get all the way through this volume before I had to return it to the library, but it’s very well worth your time. There’s some great stories in this collection, though the vast majority are not particularly Lovecraftian or even cosmic horror. Of particular note is John Langan’s story Lost in the Dark – I loved it.

“Our first night out on the ice, we traded war stories. Reyes, Viader, Kellet, Martinez, Ramone, McMann, and me. We were all career military, all career grunts, none of us with aspirations for command.” This otherwise inauspicious group is out on another mission – another day, another dollar. This time, the assignment is Antarctica on a top secret mission to acquire a military asset of incomprehensible value: a honey-like substance that blocks the pain receptors in the brain while still allowing the user to operate at full physical and mental capacity. The military applications of such a substance are lost on none of the group, and neither are they lost on the reader. The harsh environment (putting one immediately in mind of At the Mountains of Madness) takes its toll on our soldiers even as the addition of a blowing storm delays and debilitates them. A sample of the product they’re after is brought forth. It’s the only way they’ll be able to keep going. They ingest, and shit gets weird.

normal-honeycomb-with-honey[1]“Then Adams tilted the bottle and let a drop touch my tongue. Her limbs bent strangely, and there were too many of them. I saw myself reflected a dozen-dozen-dozen times in multi-faceted eyes. The honey was liquid fire…it was like swallowing stars.” As their situation continues to devolve, their seeming acceptance of all the inexplicable and bizarre things happening to and around them is notable. They are caught up in something so much larger than themselves (and so much more horrible and terrifying) that they simply acquiesce to otherwise very objectionable goings on. I don’t know what it was particularly about this story but it caused me no small amount of distress as I read it, and even now as I reflect upon it. It wasn’t look-over-your-shoulder scary, but it was shudder-inducing, cringe-inducing, grossed-out body horror mixed with a grave sense of insignificance and cosmic horror. And it was beautiful to behold. Once they discover where the stuff is kept/produced/stored, madness sets in and not everyone makes it out alive. Towards the end, the story fast-forwards to the present and we, the readers, get to see what has become of our ill-fated mercenary companions in the months gone by since the mission ended in, dare we say, success. It has not gone well for them.

The ending was spectacular, exploding outward from the local to the universal, and I won’t say much about it to avoid spoilers, but Wise very effectively gives us a hint (in her own version of the cosmos, not HPL’s – this is very much not a pastiche but a creatively original work) of what’s really out there, of what has been, and of what might yet be. The eponymous concept of the song, which I, again, can’t say too much about, is brilliantly executed. It’s a forbidding foretaste, slathered in sickly-sweet honey. trypophobia face.jpgParts of it reminded me of some scenes from Nick Cutter’s novel “The Deep,” though Wise does it better here. Some of those same parts triggered a feeling of trypophobia, and, I suspect, if you truly suffer from that, this is not a good story for you to read. Also, don’t look at the picture. Trypophobia is the fear of closely-packed holes and if Wise wasn’t playing with that on purpose, I’d be surprised.

Her command of pace, of structure, and of language are all top-notch. This is an experienced author who knows what she is doing, at the top of her game. I’d say, above all, her ability to evoke a mood of dreadful apprehension is what sets this story apart from and above many of its contemporaries, even in a volume of the year’s best. At the same time, we feel sorry for the characters, and then we don’t, but not because they deserve what they get or any such nonsense as that. This is a tale above petty ideas about karma. We don’t feel sorry for them because they don’t matter. We don’t matter. And that sets us a-trembling. It’s masterfully accomplished; I can’t say that enough.

It should tell you something that A.C. Wise is the only author in this collection to have two stories included. I didn’t read the other, but I sure would like to go back and give it a shot as well. Besides the Langan, other standouts include Fail-Safe by Philip Fracassi, Better You Believe by Carole Johnstone, and Furtherest by Kaaron Warren (it was very strange indeed, but I’m still thinking about it long after the memory of lesser stories has faded).

That about wraps it up for this review. So, in this ending, remember: Harry Crews had it wrong. You should cross the street to read genre fiction. Just be sure to look both ways first. Twice.

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

Clinging, sticky lyrics of the harvest song: “Adams dipped a finger in the honey and held it out to me. I pictured light leaking from her eyes like tears, seeping from her pores. The harvest song howled in the dark. Shadows bent over us, long fingers needle-sharp and venom-tipped, ready to stitch through skin and bone. I sucked her finger clean. It wasn’t sex, it was more like farewell.”