The Tunnelers, by Geoff Gander

“The following document, as well as a bundle of newspaper clippings, was found among the personal effects of Dr. Vincent Armstrong, a community psychiatrist in the Evaluation Unit at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Care Center, whose disappearance in Montreal is a matter of public record.”

Forbidden knowledge is a favorite leitmotif of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and many of his literary heirs pick up the theme and run with it at well. It’s easy to see why. There is a certain allure to anything forbidden. Tell someone with a curious mind, like a professor, that they cannot see a certain book or acquire some particular knowledge and rest assured it will be the first thing they try to do. Sometimes, though, you don’t even have to go looking. Sometimes that knowledge find you, unbidden, and you’re stuck with it for better or for worse. In Lovecraft’s tales, let’s be honest, it’s for the worse. Think, for example, of the plight of the grand-nephew of George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University. He inherited a puzzling box containing a bas-relief, the revelation of which launched one of the most memorable adventures in all of literature.

41+tduQPnSL[1]Unbidden is exactly how Dr. Vincent Armstrong comes to possess singular knowledge of a terrible, hidden truth in Geoff Gander‘s short story, “The Tunnelers.” Published by Solstice Publishing in 2011, I am grateful to Mr. Gander for providing me with a free e-copy in exchange for an honest review. “The Tunnelers” tells of how Dr. Armstrong came to care for a patient suffering physical and mental trauma following a mining accident in Ottawa, Canada. Michael Kirkwood had been involved in a mine collapse with two other miners who did not survive the accident, and, when he comes to, babbles on about the “Digging! Digging! Beneath us, above us, around us!” As it turns out, the mining company with which Mr. Kirkwood was affiliated had been digging in an area considered forsaken by the local First Nation. They had warned them, but the company, blinded by the prospect of great riches, proceeded regardless. This is why we can’t have nice things. Or, at least why Mr. Kirkwood can’t have nice things. Like sanity.

The story unfolds in an epistolary fashion, as Gander reveals new information through Armstrong’s journal entries, interview notes, and official documentation. I have to admire Gander’s pacing; the story never bogs down and each new clue leading us deeper and deeper underground is discovered in a natural way that flows well. I was impressed, too, with the clinical way in which Armstrong would describe things in his journal as I felt the style of writing really fit the character. It is easy to say, then, that Mr. Gander’s writing is sufficient. I never got hung up on any choice of diction or syntax but nor was I ever blown away by a turn of phrase. This isn’t a bad thing at all, as some writers try to do too much and then fall flat. That didn’t happen here. Reading Gander’s words felt comfortable and easy.

KzHRTPm[1]In the end, though, being a good practitioner of the craft was not enough to cause this story to stand out in the crowd. One of the words oft bandied about in Lovecraftian circles is “pastiche.” Usually, these days, it comes pre-packaged with negative context, but I don’t feel like it’s a given that pastiche equals bad. In the early days, Bloch, Ashton-Smith, Derleth, Campbell and others wrote fun, accomplished stories that were pure pastiche. But the two things that made those work, in my opinion, were that they were the first ones to do it and they added something that had not been present before. Because so much time has passed now, it is harder and harder to do that and editors (like Ellen Datlow) are explicitly forbidding pastiches for their anthologies. There are good examples out there—John Langan has one that comes to mind, as does Cody Goodfellow, Joe Pulver, and there are very likely others—but they are few and far between.

“The Tunnelers,” I am afraid, is pure pastiche that adds nothing new to the genre. From the opening lines, a reader knows exactly where this story is going and to a large extent (depending on how widely they are read in the genre) precisely how it will unfold. The monsters, Lovecraftian in the sense that they are ancient beyond time and wholly unknown, feel a bit like ghouls and function a lot like Lumley’s “burrowers beneath,” but weren’t new enough to spark my interest. I had definitely been here before.

The last page of the e-book informs readers that “The Tunnelers is his first novel” (though, weighing in at 8000 words or so, ‘novel’ is a big stretch) and it reads like it. You can tell he knows how to write, you can tell he knows how a story needs to be structured, and you can really tell he has a firm grasp on pace. He just needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea wholly his own, or sufficiently twist one of Lovecraft’s to make it his own, and then he’ll have arrived.

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

No Healing Prayers, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

“Captain Jack sits on his front porch. Shotgun on his lap.
Coffee gone cold.
Waiting.
Waiting for The Thing That Sails On Tears.
The Black Goat.”

—Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., “No Healing Prayers”

maddy-did-me[1]Jospeh S. Pulver, Sr., known primarily for his championship of the Yellow Mythos of the Bierce/Chambers creation, “the King in Yellow,” has died. I did not know him personally, but I followed the heartbreaking medical drama over these last long months through his wife, Katrin’s (aka Lady Lovecraft) social media postings. Relatively speaking, the Lovecraftian community is a small one and because I know that his death has hit hard for a lot of people I read, correspond with, and respect, it has hit hard for me as well. I was very sorry to receive this news. I have hoped, one of these days, to get to a Necronomicon in Providence and had hoped perhaps to meet Joe. Life is so short, friends. Treasure what you have and who you spend your life with. Treasure your friends and reach out to those you’d like to know more. You never know what that last dread bell shall toll for them or thee. And so, on this sad occasion, I have done two things. I ordered a Pulver book (“The King in Yellow Tales, Vol. 1”) as a teensy gesture of support and because it’s one I’d like on my shelf, and I found a Pulver story in a collection I already owned and read it, as I thought it would be a nice homage to review it here on this tragic occasion.

Dead but Dreaming 2“No Healing Prayers” is a super-short, but emotionally-packed story found in DEAD BUT DREAMING 2, edited by Kevin Ross and published in 2011 by the now defunct Miskatonic River Press. The first DEAD BUT DREAMING has a pretty neat history as its first and only (at that time) edition (2002, DarkTales Publications) sold out quickly, was universally lauded as being in the top tier of Lovecraftian collections, and began to fetch prices on Ebay of $200-300+. It wasn’t until 2008 when a reprint license was finally obtained that most people could get their hands on it. In that volume, the editor focused on the cosmicism of Lovecraft, seeking stories of both “depth and heft.” He avoided pastiche and stories directly invoking Lovecraftian creations, like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. In volume 2, he relaxed those guidelines, and sought stories that dealt with the emotional or human aspect of the encroachment of the Mythos.

Pulver’s story, “No Healing Prayers” is one of grief, loss, and the desire for retribution. The last time (which was the first time) I reviewed a Pulver tale, I was both excited and disappointed. Excited because I knew he was a giant in the field; disappointed because I was unprepared for Pulver’s unique writing style and in so being unprepared, found it difficult to connect with it. This time, I was ready for the free verse prose-poem of a Pulver story and found that expecting it up front, I was able to enter into it in a much more comfortable way. Not that the reader’s comfort is always what its all about, but for me in this case, it helped.

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This is a famous photo, taken by Bob Adelman, but it fit so well that I just had to use it. It depicts a man, one Reverend Carter, expecting a visit from the Klan after he had registered to vote in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, 1964.
Our main character, Captain Jack, a hard-working railroad man, is waiting on his porch for someone or something to show its face, and when it does, he’s got a shotgun ready for it. As the less than 5 page story progresses, we learn that Jack’s wife had died and did so under mysterious circumstances. Mysterious, and perhaps demonic. After “all her dances” were taken away, Jack asked around and learned that that fateful night, the Piper Man had been seen, dancing and playing his diseased tune that called out to the Black Goat. HPL fans will recognize one of the appellations of Shub-Niggurath, The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. After that, everything went to Hell. “Creek out back dried up. Brambles thick as tar. Braided like rage-hard fingers white-knuckle tight. Fence gate broken. Empty house at his back.” It is left to the reader to decide whether these were effects of the Black Goat’s visit, or is it just that after his wife died, nothing else mattered anymore and he let it all go. And I will leave it to you to read this story and discover how it ends for yourself.

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Art credit: John Bridges. Attribution: Xaviant Games
Pulver, in so few words, manages to suffuse this narrative with an overwhelming sadness and heavy inevitability. You are right there with Captain Jack on his porch, the weight of the shotgun pulling down your hands, tricking you into relaxing. Jack is a man who has worked so hard for so little and he’s managed to be satisfied with that, maybe even happy. She made him happy, and they had each other, and that was all that mattered in the end. Everything else, window-dressing.

I can’t help but see this story, though it was from 2011, as a kind of coda on Pulver’s life. He married his beloved Katrin late in his life and now she is the one left standing on the porch, alone in the dark. I want to leave you with her own words, from her public announcement of his death on social media. I’m going to get my finest whisky.

“So, tonight, while I sit here with unmeasurable pain and a de, gaping hole in my soul, I want you to celebrate our bEast.
Have a glass of your finest Whiskey. Smoke the grass.
Have some great seafood, or Mecivan, or fire up the BBQ have a huge-ass steak.

When night comes and you see the stars blinking in and out, light a candle to guide him on his way ro eternal Carcosa.

Here’s to a life well lives. A career that outshone the twin suns,
To a precious, loving and fucking amazing human being.

Thank you, babe, for being in my life for more than 10 years and making it so much brigher. I love you.

Rest well in Carcosa, my King.” [sic]

Jospeh S. Pulver, Sr., 1955-2020.

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

Exposure, by Helen Marshall

“The black stars, a trick of that same light, because they weren’t black, not really, not stars really—something to do with the atmosphere, some sort of dust in the air, like how the northern lights could make the sky seem alive and crawling, the black stars were like that, except they made the sky seem dead, they made the sky seem like a giant bloated corpse crawling with flies…”

j5jRPVci_400x400[1]It’s Women in Horror Month! From the Women in Horror website: “Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.” Here at the Miskatonic Review we want to celebrate all of the Women in Horror, but particularly those who are writing in the Lovecraftian vein. When I think about Molly Tanzer, S. P. Miskowski, A. C. Wise, P. L. McMillan, Nadia Bulkin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Angelica Walters, Ann K. Schwader, (of course) Helen Marshall, and so many others, I don’t think “women in horror,” but rather about a group of artists who are in the forefront of the weird renaissance. You can read a lot more about WiHM at their website, linked above, and you can see particular individuals highlighted over at Horror Tree or Thinking Horror: A Journal of Horror Philosophy. At the Miskatonic Review tonight though, we want to highlight Helen Marshall.

cs+small[1].jpgHelen Marshall is the author of two short story collections, two poetry collections, and a forthcoming novel from Random House Canada, “The Migration” (available March 2019). I encountered her in the Chaosium, Inc. anthology “Cassilda’s Song” edited by Joseph Pulver, Sr. (2015). Her story in this anthology is entitled Exposure, and before some of you purists cry “Foul!”, I am aware that Carcosa, the King in Yellow, and the whole bit is first an Ambrose Bierce creation (An Inhabitant of Carcosa, 1886) and secondly developed in Robert W. Chambers weird fiction collection (“The King in Yellow,” 1895) all before being played with by Lovecraft (principally in The Whisperer in Darkness, 1931). From there it was adopted into the Mythos primarily by August Derleth and the rest, as they say, is history.  So yes, we are doing a King in Yellow story on a Lovecraftian blog. What makes it even more appropriate for this posting is that Cassilda’s Song is an entire collection by female authors. From Pulver’s introduction, “Cassilda’s complicated sisters, unwilling to be hidden away and boarded up, sound the thunder. Hot and colorful, in full view and shaded by the aroma of discord, they stand before you unmasked.” Pulver is not only an excellent assembler of anthologies, but also an expert on the King in Yellow mythos, and so is an apt guide through these ladies’ stories.

Exposure begins with a troubled tourist trip by a mother and daughter to a very real place (in the story) called Carcosa; it seems to be an island in the Mediterranean near Greece. While the mother clearly has reasons for going to such a destination, it does not a vacation make for Serena, the daughter. She’d much rather party on the white sandy beaches of Mykonos than visit lost, strange Carcosa. “Fucking Carcosa. She could have gone to Venice. She could have gone to Barcelona. Or Paris. Carcosa was nothing but rocks, ruins—no one went to Carcosa, not now, not anymore.” I loved how Marshall immediately locates Carcosa within reality, even though she hints with an enviable economy of words that it’s not what it once once. And Serena’s whiny gripe isn’t totally true either, because they’re on a sightseeing boat loaded with camera-laden tourists bound for Carcosa’s dim shores like it was Disney. Once they arrive there, she and her mother resume their argument and eventually split up, exploring the island separately. But when it comes time to go, and the captain calls all aboard, Serena’s mother is not among them.

A strange negotiation ensues in one of our first clues (though admittedly I blew right by it) that something is off. Serena says they can’t leave yet because her mother isn’t back, but the mate doesn’t care. He says they have to go, telling Serena in broken English that she will stay on the island and after he drops off the rest of the group back at home-base, he’ll return for her and her mother. camera in surf“They left her on the shore, standing in the wavering sunlight, feeling naked and exposed as they watched her, each of them smiling, each of them with their fucking cameras, each of them grasping after one final, fatal shot of the shoreline. Hours pass. Day turns into night. And then what has been an entertaining if fairly prosaic weird tale takes a left turn. Greatness follows.

In the final act, Marshall takes us on our own tour into the madness of the yellow king as things move from bad, right past weird, on their way to worse. When the black stars of Carcosa ascend, the night goes strange indeed. There’s a party around a bonfire, a liberated sensuality, a transmogification, all shrouded in a sort of cosmically out-of-place feeling that twirls and whirls the reader in its dizzying dance steps. Keep up. Carcosa is not a place where you want to fall out of step or time.

I really enjoyed Marshall’s writing throughout. It never got in the way, even when she deployed the f-bomb on numerous occasions. Not a word I like to use very often, but from Serena’s angsty lips it seemed right. Again, I loved the feelings she was able to evoke in the space of so few words. She sometimes had these long sentences, brimming with description but they never felt over full. They might have been long but they didn’t contain a single unnecessary word. And they flowed beautifully. It felt at times like I was in Serena’s head, just behind her eyes, seeing what she was seeing, and feeling what she was feeling (which in at least one scene was particularly uncomfortable, but that’s a credit to the author). This is a terrific story in a wondrous collection, and you’d do well to familiarize yourself not only with these works, but with these women authors.

GFmc66T[1].jpgThe title of the story relates at first to the argument between the mother and daughter over sunscreen, but then at the end it relates to what was exposed on some film. Marshall doesn’t share with us (for we would go mad) what was on the film Serena picks up. It might have been the Yellow Sign, but I like to imagine that it was the Yellow King, Hastur, him(it)self. At a deeper level, I thought about how far we’ll go in pursuit of our goals, the sorts of things, people, environments, even philosophies we’ll expose ourselves to in chasing after selfish aims. The danger of overexposure is not only that we ruin the picture by saturating it with too much light, it is also that we desensitize ourselves. Sometimes it’s better to stay on this side of reality. Sometimes, when they tell you that the play will drive you insane, you should listen, and burn your ticket.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist, “The King in Yellow,” compiled by Andy Michaels, and the electronica album called “The King in Yellow,” by Martin Kuzniar.

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

Movement in the Carcosa Rave: “She knew it. This was where she was supposed to be. This was always the place she was supposed to be. Maybe it was fucking Carcosa, but it was also fucking Carcosa, baby…She went out onto the dance floor, trailing blood-stained footprints behind her.

 

 

 

Trick…or the Other Thing, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

“Nearly 11 o’clock. Insistent bell again.
“Fuck.” Atticus opened the door. Glower, takedown power pushing the same energy that shotgun projectiles deliver at impact.
“Trick…
or the other thing?”
Christ. Wasn’t even a kid. Guy. Over seven feet by any measure. Old old guy, goddamn senior by the look of him. Black as Miles Davis poured liquid smooth from the coffinBLACK that lies between the stars.”

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Nyarlathotep often appears as a very black man, darker than night, and sometimes as an avatar of the Devil, as in HPL’s “Dreams in the Witch House.” You may freely read into this HPL’s noted racism, or not, as you prefer.
In 1921 HP had a dream which he described to his friend in a letter in this way: it was “the most realistic and horrible [nightmare] I have experienced since the age of ten.” In the dream he was enjoined by another friend “Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterwards. I am still shuddering at what he showed.” And this became the basis for one of Lovecraft’s most enduring creations and a mythos pantheon regular, Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, the Man of a Thousand Faces, who takes center stage in our story today. He’s also appeared in a variety of ways in several HPL tales, and I’ll try to show you some artist depictions of those throughout this entry. He’s been a big part of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, into which sadly I’ve never delved, as well as many stories by other authors.

Like the last entry, this story is found in Mike Davis’ edited anthology, Autumn Cthulhu, published by Lovecraft Ezine Press in 2016. I wasn’t going to read two in a row from the same anthology, but when I saw the byline for this story, I just kept on reading because I’d heard so much about Joseph Pulver and had been wanting to read one of his stories. He works a lot with the King in Yellow cycle, which isn’t a Lovecraft creation but has been adopted into the mythos by many owing to its kissin’ cuzzin status.  I hadn’t read Pulver yet because I’m still making my way through the original The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. But here was a Pulver story in the anthology that was in my hands, so why not just keep reading, right?

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Nyarlathotep is described in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” by HPL, as looking like an Egyptian Pharaoh.

I mentioned last entry, too, that I wasn’t as big a fan of the next story and I have to say a lot of that distaste stems from Pulver’s distinctive writing style. You get a taste of it above in our lead quote. He writes with almost a free verse poetical style, inventing words, mashing words together, and in this story at least, sometimes just putting in song titles instead of describing a mood or something.  It’s…interesting.  Immediately, I did not care for it. However, I felt like it lightened up a bit as the story went on. Funny thing though, when I went back to look at it again prior to writing this, I saw that it didn’t, so perhaps I just had gotten used to it.   Needless to say, it’s not going to be for everyone.  I’d be willing to give it another try, though, now that I know what I’m getting into, but going in cold, I was turned off a bit.  Purely subjective analysis. Take it for what’s it worth – just about nothing.

the_haunter_of_the_dark_by_marcsimonetti[1].jpg“Trick…or the Other Thing” is a basic revenge story when you get to the heart of it, decorated for Halloween and tossing in Nyarlathotep for a mythos flavor.  I have to say, I really like the title. It made me chuckle and shudder in quick succession.  We’ve got a washed up, drug addled rock musician named Atticus and his cheated on and emotionally abused girlfriend Marilyn calling it quits, and Nyarlathotep makes visits to both of them, in different forms of course. To Atticus he appears as a costumed Tutankhamen trick-or-treater (not so much a costume, but what does Atticus know), while to Marilyn he shows up as a grandfatherly gentlemen accoutered in a black wool Armani sweater. Sadly, to neither of them does he show up as the hideous bat-winged thing from “The Haunter of the Dark”.  See left. Marilyn’s encounter goes exactly as she hopes, though she may not have realized it at first, may not even realized that she had such dark hopes.  But she trusts the elderly, besweatered man, and opens up to him.  Or rather, she is opened up by him. One, an outcome of being vulnerable with a caring stranger, the other a violation from beyond the stars.  In response to the dusky gent’s titular question, Marilyn replies, “Treat, please. I really could use one.” Pulver elaborates, “Fast, almost excited. Generally she’s a listener, a good one, but if she warms-up to the person she’d dive into conversation. Marilyn’s shocked how easy that slipped out. Feels like she’s been unlocked or unwittingly pried open.” Yep. That’s creepy.

Nyarlathotep, of all of Lovecraft’s mythos gods, plays the most with the world and the puny, insignificant humans who walk the earth. We don’t know why. Perhaps he enjoys a perverse pleasure in control, in bringing suffering, or just in kicking the ant pile. Sometimes, he even gets out his magnifying glass after he’s kicked the ant pile of humanity and focuses the energy of the distant, dark suns of Carcosa into an incinerating beam of malevolence. As he does here. It does not go well for humans in this story, and perhaps the most Lovecraftian thing about it, aside from the Crawling Chaos of course, is how easy it is for this visitor from beyond to mess with us, to stir us up, to interact with us, and ultimately to ruin us. We don’t matter. We are below the threshold of caring.

It’s hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend this one to all of you cultists out there, and the only reason is the style of Pulver’s writing is going to present an obstacle. Like I said, I didn’t like it at first, although I enjoyed the story. It wasn’t a mind blowing story. It wasn’t an original story. It didn’t go in new or interesting directions. However, all that said, it was a fun plot, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s about? I’ll be willing to give Pulver another try and whether you want to give him a try at all is up to you. But go into it forewarned as I was not. If you’ve read Pulver before, what do you think of his style? Is it a boon or a bane to you?  Pulver himself is undergoing some serious health crises and so we do wish him well and hope he recovers fully soon.

This new site is starting to get some followers, which is great, and site traffic is doing moderately well.  So, would you do me a favor, friends?  If you like what you’re reading here, give the post a like, maybe give the blog a follow? Better yet, tell your fellow Lovecraftian friends about it and share links to reviews you’re interested in.  Of course, I still hope to get some comments going and see where some discussion might lead us. At the end of the day, even if all you do is read the post, know that I very much appreciate you and your taking the time to visit this non-Euclidean corner of the internet.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist, “Ancient Egyptian Music” compiled by user eradiel.  I wonder how they know what that kind of music is, but it worked for me.

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

Incontrovertible testimonies of the Mi-Go: “After balancing the scales of a slight disaster involving Mindless Jaws and Things in the Water, Nyarlathotep turned to face a deranging corruption gnawing on the hearts of mortal rivers. As the mortal things departed their worldly-shells, he remembered his conversation with Marilyn about Atticus.”

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Probably my favorite interpretation of Nyarlathotep. Artist: saltibalzane (Deviant Art)