Dagon and Jill, by J.P. Mac

“Going forward, there could be a small problem with Dagon and Jill in the chapter where young Jill lures a homeless man out onto a pier, then shoves him into the water…This is a wonderful empowerment metaphor about the rewards that come from facing scary things. However, legal is worried some might view it as mean-spirited. Could you include people from other cultures and races, who are also shoved off the pier, so as not to single out the homeless?”

—J.P. Mac, “Dagon and Jill”

All life is fundamentally & inextricably sad…That is why I consider all jauntiness, & many forms of carelessly generalised humour, as essentially cheap & mocking, & occasionally ghastly & corpselike.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, February 27, 1931 (emphases original to Selected Letters, Vol. 3)

It ought not to be a surprise to even casual fans of Lovecraft that humor was neither his interest nor his forte. However, in the event you doubted that, in the event you thought, “No, the Old Gent surely enjoyed a chortle as much as the next bloke,” his above quotation, taken from a 1931 letter to Frank Belknap Long, should serve to clear up any misconception on the matter. Lovecraftian humor is indeed very hard to pull off but, when it is successful, it is uproarious. JP Mac’s story, “Dagon and Jill,” had me actually laughing out loud. It can be found in Mr. Mac’s self-published collection, DEATH HONK, but don’t think this is an entire volume of humor because it is not. Our present story, however, is, and I believe it represents the first time on this blog that I’ve looked at a humorous work. In order to appreciate the humor you do have to be versed in your Lovecraft, but that should not be a problem for regular readers.

“Humpty-Dumpty After That Fall”
Art Credit: Denise Bledsoe

“Dagon and Jill” is structured as a contemporary epistolary exchange between Ezra Whateley and his editor, Martin Gelb-Crispling. Ezra, obviously a descendant of Old Wizard Whateley (likely from Wilbur’s line, right?) who was one of the principal figures in “The Dunwich Horror,” is attempting to publish a series of children’s books. Their titles are “Dagon and Jill,” “The Shadow Over Humpty-Dumpty,” and A Children’s Necronomicon,” and Gelb-Crispling is trying to market them to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s religious diversity program, “Different Voices, Different Ways.” While Gelb-Crispling believes heartily in the project, particularly with its possibilities of being included in a large religious diversity program, his legal team is concerned with some of the content. I was already laughing at the idea of a legal team having issues with such a book, but the reason Mac provides (given in the opening quote) is what really got me going. The humor in the story continues in this original vein, and indeed pushes the envelope, but for me it rode that edge successfully and never crossed into the distasteful. One of my favorite parts was when the editor writes how his own kids enjoy the books: “My Shannon must have four salt shakers and twenty candles in her room. I hear her up there pronouncing those jaw busting spells you so love to write. Shannon even goes online and chants with other kids. They’ve started a Facebook page.”

Art Credit: Eric Baxter

Amidst the humor there is a decidedly dark edge to the story mostly found in Ezra’s letters. His are written in dialect, much like “The Dunwich Horror” featured the same, and also in an old-fashioned manner. He addresses Martin Gelb-Crispling as “Goode Martin,” for example. Ezra’s shrouded goal is to bring about the return of the Great Old Ones; he actually doesn’t care at all about the selling of books, only the wide distribution of them. Gelb-Crispling begins to be concerned when reports reach him of some kids acting out the gruesome things about which they read, to the detriment of at least one postman.

Mac’s writing is crisp, skilled, and on point. The two different narrative voices he has to deploy are well-realized and serve to put you in the story, almost as if you’re a law enforcement officer, sorting through old letters trying to track down the origins of a ghastly mess. The contemporary setting is also well done, with Mac putting down just enough references to modern technology and pop-culture to assist the humor without being over bearing. This story is also just the right length, which is to say it is brief. Had it carried on much longer the humor would have worn thin and become groan-worthy, but Mac restrains himself to a good end. I can’t say that it will be for everyone, as Lovecraftian stories are pretty niche to begin with before approaching Lovecraftian humor, but if you’re an HPL fan and are in the mood for a quick story that provokes some good laughs, give it a try. And, if you’re looking for something more traditional or creepy, the collection does feature mostly dark works, including one other Lovecraftian tale.

Despite what Howard said to Long, he wasn’t dour all the time. So, after my sign-off I’ll leave you with a photo of Lovecraft genuinely smiling, standing next to his friend William J. Dowdell.

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

In His House, by Richard Thomas

“It’s not hard.
I just need you to listen.
And keep listening.
That part is essential.
I need you to recite a few strange words the morning sun, or the afternoon doldrums, or the long, ever-expanding night. Wherever you are, whenever you are, whoever you are.
In his house, he waits dreaming.”

—Richard Thomas, “In His House”

Is there a better way to round out the year of reviews than with the big “C” himself? I didn’t think so, either. This review also introduces us to a new anthology, and an author I’ve not reviewed before, but one with whose work I am familiar. Richard Thomas is well known in the horror fiction community not only for his fiction, but probably more as a teacher of fiction. He is the host and professor of Storyville, an online writing workshop with multiple class offerings for any experience level. In addition to that, he also teaches several classes through Lit Reactor, another online writing community. The present anthology in which Thomas finds himself published is THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX, published in 2020 by Justin Burnett and Silent Motorist Media. Featuring stories from heavyweights like Brian Evenson, Nadia Bulkin, and Stephen Graham Jones, this anthology also introduces readers to a great selection of newer and/or lesser known authors, like K.A. Opperman, Devora Gray, and S.E. Casey. THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX takes as its theme the unwritten, forbidden text. Lovecraft invented perhaps the most well known example with the Necronomicon, but Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Clark Ashton Smith’s Liber Ivonis, and Chambers’ insanity-inducing play The King in Yellow are all familiar examples as well. THE NIGHTSIDE CODEX expands on those ideas as well as introducing new ones, and not all of them are what you might expect. Burnett promises us that “musical scores, ancient glyphs, curbside ‘religious’ pamphlets, and real medical texts,” all lurk within.

“In His House” begins with the address, “Hello my friend,” alerting the reader to the epistolary format but also gently introducing the idea that this will be a story written in the second person. Admittedly, the second person is not my favorite point of view from which to read a story (it increases the difficulty level of the willing suspension of disbelief exponentially for me), but Thomas pulls it off pretty well. We go on to discover that the letter we’re reading has been around for a while, and distributed throughout multiple media formats. It is at the same time a plea for help and a gospel of sorts. “However it got to you, thank you for taking the time to read it. My fractured soul depends on your help here, your involvement, your support.” Veteran mythos readers will immediately recognize the next line, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” though if this is your first foray into the Cthulhu mythos (and I doubt it) you might find yourself not only tongue-tied but a bit confused. “Translated,” it means, “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

R’lyeh by Deviant Artist DQuaro

Over the course of the letter, the reader encounters both a sense of calling and inevitability. You were meant for this. You didn’t find this letter, it found you and now you cannot help but read it. In the reading of it, you bind yourself to the task to which it calls you; through the inadvertent recitation of the Cthulhu cult’s chant you have drawn the sleeping old one’s eye towards you and now assist in his awakening. It is, at the same time, both a bit silly and an enormous amount of fun. Thomas wraps his cosmic dread around such gems as “I want to talk to you about our Lord and Savior—the High Priest of the Great Old Ones, The Eternal Dreamer, The Sleeper of R’lyeh.”

In some ways, I read the story as a love letter to a forgotten feeling of adventure and discovery. When I first discovered Lovecraft, I was in middle school and I didn’t get it at all, but something about it stuck with me. It was almost as if I knew there was something special there, but I was not yet ready to unlock it. So when I came back to HPL in high school, I not only read the stories but researched the concepts. Tell me you didn’t do the same? Anyone else hold their breath a little when you found a “copy” of the text of the Necronomicon? I mean, I printed mine out, hole-punched it, and clipped it into a dark blue three-ring binder on the cover of which I drew my best elder sign. I was careful to never read the words out loud. I mean, I knew it was fiction, but what if it wasn’t, right? Thomas’ story taps into that same feeling and I really enjoyed it.

HPL’s own sketch of Cthulhu, to young Robert Barlow. Safe to say future artists would capture more of the cosmic horror Lovecraft intended.

Thomas’ writing is very accessible, bearing none of the hallmark’s of the Old Gent’s purple prose, but neither would you expect it to coming from an instructor of letters. If there is poetry to be found here, it is in the structure of the tale and not in the words deployed. He makes liberal use of single sentence paragraphs that generally accomplish their goal of slowing you down and calling attention to the gravity of the situation. Like those short paragraphs, the story as a whole is also very brief, leaving little room for either fluff or error, and Thomas’ deftly avoids both. There is a beautiful agony in the letter as well. Its in-text author is torn between evangelistic glee and his own horror at that to which he is luring the unsuspecting reader. This liminal narrative space was my favorite aspect of the story and where I think Thomas shines the brightest as a writer because I suspect that feeling is a very difficult one to accomplish.

In the end, this was a fun jaunt into the concept of the unwritten and forbidden text. Like most mythos work, it wasn’t particularly revelatory, but neither did it need to be because of the way it played with the already established concepts. If it had been longer it would have grown tiresome, but that’s where Thomas’ mastery comes into play. He knew exactly how long a story like this should and could be and he didn’t write it one word longer. Such self-aware economy is enviable. I look forward to digging into more of the stories in this volume. The premise is extremely promising to fans of cosmic horror and printed-off Necronomicon readers everywhere.

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

The Black Stone, by Robert E. Howard

“All eyes were fixed on the top of the Stone which they seemed to be invoking. But the strangest of all was the dimness of their voices; not fifty yards from me hundreds of men and women were unmistakably lifting their voices in a wild chant, yet those voices came to me as a faint indistinguishable murmur as if from across vast leagues of Space—or time.

—Robert E. Howard, The Black Stone

“I know it’s trite, but something in it gave me a kick for all that.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to August Derleth upon Derleth criticizing Howard’s story, quoted from Essential Solitude: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Weird Tales, 1931, Vol. 18, No. 4.

It’s taken me a while, but I have finally gotten around to reading “The Black Stone,” one of Robert E. Howard’s Lovecraft homages. Along with being in multiple anthologies, it is available for free here. Together with HPL and Clark Ashton Smith, Howard completed “the big three” of storytellers published in Weird Tales, where he became much beloved for the heroic hijinks of Conan the Cimmerian and Solomon Kane, among others. Howard and Lovecraft were penpals however, so like with Clark Ashton Smith, it was only a matter of time before he dabbled in elder gods and ancient, forbidden ritual. As you can tell from the quote above, Derleth was unimpressed, but the Old Gent liked it, no doubt more than a bit flattered by it. According to Howard scholar Steve Tomkins, “E.P. Berglund in the Reader’s Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos, [said] as of 1973 “The Black Stone” was the strongest Mythos story not written by Lovecraft himself.” Tomkins would go on to add, however, that “its supremacy has since been challenged by T.E.D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn” and Thomas Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin”.” (Personally, I might add a few others to that list, authored by folks like Kiernan and Barron.) There’s quite a lot to like about this story, but is it worthy of such high praise? Let’s find out.

I’ve been reading a lot of Howard recently, stomping about with Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran mak Morn, and even Sailor Steve Costigan, all of which I have tremendously enjoyed. I think I’ve gotten a feel for Howardian writing and it is definitely on display in this story, albeit much more towards the end than the beginning. As the story opens, we’re treated to a typically Lovecraftian premise of an ancient book (Nameless Cults) being discovered by the protagonist who then goes on to, through its pages, separate us from the current day and the very old history it describes. HPL did this multiple degrees of separation thing well in the likes of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for example. When Lovecraft used this device, it served not to safely separate a reader from the action (as it easily could in the hands of lesser writers) but to deepen the sense of history and ancient connection involved and thus heighten the danger the protagonist, and perhaps even the reader, may be in. He shows you the terrible depths involved, and then draws you into them. Howard does this pretty well here, though not as well as Lovecraft (or indeed, even as well as himself in other stories solely of his own creation), and if the story stayed in this vein, it would have ended up nothing more than a lovely pastiche. But it does not; it transforms into a true homage. Again, courtesy of Tomkins, “Steven R. Trout in his “The Horror Fiction of Robert E. Howard” (The Dark Man #2): “Howard couldn’t write a Lovecraft story without it becoming a Howard story.”

Artist: Paul Lehr. 1979.

The second half of the story is where Howard really shines. Our protagonist has arrived in the storied village of Stregoicavar nestled within the mountains of Hungary. A lot of the imagery reminded me a lot of the opening scenes of the Lugosi Dracula film, to be honest. “…a three days ride in a jouncing coach brought me to the little village which lay in a fertile valley high up in the fir-clad mountains.” (In the very next sentence, a Count is even mentioned.) Once the necessary history has been dispatched, and this takes a while, that which you came for begins to unfold. The protagonist, against all advice, seeks out the titular black stone, a monolith about sixteen feet high and a foot and a half or so in diameter. And wouldn’t you know it, but it just happens to be Midsummer’s Eve, “the very time that the legends linked with grisly implications to the Black Stone.” A dream-like state comes upon him and he witnesses some truly horrifying things in gruesome detail. Howard hits his stride in this section, deploying a brutality akin to what we find in some of his sword and sorcery tales, and one which Lovecraft never touched. This is when it becomes his story.

Howard’s writing is a lot more direct that Lovecraft’s and even though it isn’t devoid of description, it is not marked by the purple prose of the Old Gent of Providence. There is an immediacy to his writing, a real focus on seeing and experience rather than abstraction and contemplation. Howard repeats the phrase, “I opened my eyes,” a number of times, and constantly emphasizes the visceralness of what is before the character, demonstrating that what is going on is real. It may drive you insane, yes, but you are not insane yet. When the character does experience a hallucination, he shakes it off and continues with a Conan-like determination. I almost said to myself, “this is no fainting Lovecraftian antiquarian,” until, of course, he fainted, eliciting a chuckle from me and, I’d like to think, from Lovecraft himself. Howard also tips his hat to his friend with choice words like “cyclopean,” and Lovecraftian tropes like keys, among others.

Artist: Greg Staples. Weird Tales, 1931.

If Howard’s style is present in his writing, it is also present in his preconceptions. There is quite a lot in this story about racial superiority and inferiority, which comes as no surprise, but is regretful all the same. Over the short years they exchanged letters, HPL and REH sent each other some of the most vitriolic and xenophobic passages ever committed pen to paper. It saddens me to know that they thought this way; while it shows up in their stories in various and sundry ways that can often be overlooked by a casual reader, in their letters it’s plainly spelled out. This story contains a bit more explicit racism than others of Howard’s, yet, in a surprising turn, it also has words of praise lavished upon Muslims, who feature into the falling action somewhat. Probably Lovecraft and Howard’s relationship to race was more complicated than we can ever know, but it doesn’t excuse hateful writing.

Artist: Tim White. Cover art for “H.P. Lovecraft and Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,” ed. August Derleth. 1988.

I had a lot of fun with this tale, even if it did take little bit to get going. The respect for Lovecraft’s writing is evident, even as Howard turns his story into one unreservedly his own. That being said, this is not one of the best examples of Howard’s storytelling (there’s no way this out does his Conan tales, for example, or even other of his horror stories all of his own determination), but I don’t see how it could be anything else. He was playing in someone else’s sandbox, after all, even emulating HPL’s old country airs at times. Is it one of the best Lovecraftian tales not authored by Lovecraft? I want to answer that in two ways. First, if I put myself in mind of someone reading this straight out of Weird Tales in 1931, I think I can unequivocally answer yes. So many of the tropes deployed here were so much fresher then, that, when combined with Howard’s skill with words and his ability to instill a sense of immediacy and action, he’s created something new, familiar, and well-written. Second, reading this 89 years after it was first published I find it is pleasantly worn down, like a favorite pair of old jeans. The tropes are recognizable and anticipated; the racism is expected, if regretful; the skill and craftsmanship are on display. And, it’s still a perfectly delightful romp, perhaps even more so from our perspective of knowing the full legacy both Howard and Lovecraft would leave behind.

That about does it for this one, friends. I hope you enjoy this tale from the past as much as you enjoy more contemporary Lovecraftian stories.

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

The Crimson Fog, by Mark Samuels

“The chambers of our four AK-47 assault rifles were emptied by us into the depths of red gloom. The noise was deafeneing, and bits and pieces of mutilated vegetation scattered into the air like wedding confetti. After three or four more bursts we ceased firing.
“See anything?” I said.
“Nothing,” Mayhew replied.
“Think we got the bastard?” Koszalski said.
The smell of cordite masked everything else.”

—Mark Samuels, “The Crimson Fog”

“It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space

Ever since I watched “Full Metal Jacket” at way too young of an age, I’ve enjoyed war stories told in an unconventional way or from an unconventional perspective. One of the very first stories I reviewed on this site was a Vietnam War era story and it remains one of the most memorable to me. Our present tale is set in more modern times, but the themes of terrible isolation in foreign territory, fear of an unseen enemy, untrustworthy companions, and ineffective weaponry connect these stories together. There’s something about the idea of wandering around in an unknown land armed to the teeth, yet wondering if it’s effective that just sets me on the edge of my seat. The films Predator and Annihilation accomplished that feeling and now “The Crimson Fog” is here to do the same thing. Mark Samuels, a British author, has produced a great volume of work in the contemporary weird fiction scene, but until now much of it has been unavailable in the United States. Thanks to Hippocampus Press (to whom I am indebted for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review) some of Samuels’ best work can now be consumed by US readers. THE AGE OF DECAYED FUTURITY contains 17 stories, all previously published, and is available now from Hippocampus Press.

It descended out of nowhere, the crimson colored fog of the title, over a no-man’s land in the Chang-Yi province of China. No one knew what it was, its provenance, or if it would go away. If anything, it seemed to be growing, consuming the land around it beneath its scarlet shroud. Russian, Chinese, British, and other governments investigate of course, but arrive at no conclusions. Teams that have been sent into it have not returned, and communications out of it are spotty at best. One broken communication has been received from a Major Qersh, the only apparent survivor of a previous team of soldiers. Now, another team of multinational soldiers is being sent on a rescue mission. The story unfolds from the perspective of Captain Thomas Sloane, one of these soldiers, who is joined by three others including a Chinese soldier, Yian-ho, who is the only one among them to have been inside the fog before and return alive. Their journey through the fog is treacherous, not only because they could lose their bearings and even each other, but because there is something in the fog and it is not friendly.

Much of what plays out plot-wise is territory that has been covered before, and indeed, if that were all that was here, this story would fall a bit flat for me. Not only do the two aforementioned films (Annihilation was originally a novel by Jeff Vandermeer, the first part of his Southern Reach trilogy) do something very similar, and to differing degrees better, but Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space was there telling this sort of story well before them. Indeed, Annihilation owes a great deal to Colour. Predator shines in the action; Annihilation excels in its exploration of the sublime. “The Crimson Fog,” however, distinguishes itself in the way it focuses on Sloane’s (and to a lesser extent his companions’) emotional and mental response to the incursion of the numinous. They are soldiers. They are there to do a job. The enemy is unlike any they have ever known, but in the end, that doesn’t matter much so long as the enemy bleeds. (This is an open question.) As fear breaks them down, their true natures are revealed, for better or worse.

Samuels asks, in the very first lines of the story, “How far does reality extend…Across billions of light-years to the mysterious point where the cosmos curves back on itself and the laws of time and space cease to apply? Only just as far as that visible universe mankind can detect and analyse with his instruments? Or is it confined solely within the limits of the skull of each and every isolated person who asks the question?” This question perambulates through the story from beginning to end, with the end particularly causing the reader to question what they think they know from what they have read. Not knowing what is real is a singular source of fear, and one which these soldiers work hard at ignoring for as long as possible. Their struggle against that knowing is what is so fascinating to me. Sloane holds out as long as he can. When he’s asked, “What do we have to lose?” he responds, “Only that which makes us human.” This in turn prompts the question, “You think our miserable species worth saving?” It depends on what is real. The cosmic dread hinted at in this exchange is familiar territory to experienced Lovecraft readers.

Samuels’ writing is very accomplished. I felt quite at ease looking through Sloane’s eyes the whole time; Samuels did not write him as a caricature of a soldier, but as a real person. For some reason, I think it would be easy in this type of story to do just the opposite. But, his doubts and fears, even his private hopes and personal truths, come into play before the end. Samuels is also quite reserved when it comes to descriptions of what’s in the fog, leaving much (save the result) to our imagination and I appreciate that on several levels. First, whatever I’m going to come up with in my mind is worse that what he can put on the page and second, whatever he does put on that page runs a severe risk of sounding silly rather than scary. Like the bloody parts of a Greek tragedy, best to leave it off screen and he is brave enough to do so.

Despite high quality writing and deep philosophical musings, I left this story with some mixed feelings. I could never quite shake the thought that I’ve been here before, many times in fact, and what this story contributes anew to the “alien substance/landscape calmly takes over a geographical area” sub-sub-genre of horror just didn’t quite attain a very lofty height for me. It was, in the end, “just a colour out of space,” that’s it, and one that felt a little too familiar.

I haven’t read every story in this collection yet, but I feel confident in sharing with you that the others I have read (while not Lovecraftian), are superior in every way to this story. For example, the opening story in the collection, “Mannequins in Aspects of Terror,” is one of the creepiest stories I have read in a long time. Its blend of Fawverian and Ligottian horror is spot on, while introducing Samuels’ own elements in a profoundly unsettling blend. In that story, his prose simply sings while his philosophical wonderings are given freer rein. I think Samuels is a terrific writer of weird fiction, and, at the same time, while good, “The Crimson Fog” wasn’t the best example of his powers.

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

The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein, by Clint Smith

“Of course, the mid-’80’s decor matched just about everything Gwen associated with Florida: out-of-date pastel aesthetics, innocuously campy beach-bum trinkets. Beneath the Jimmy Buffet facade, though, there was a sense of everything being scoured and scrubbed. Sand-eaten, as though the Gulf Coast were just one slender, eroding jawbone.”

—Clint Smith, “The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein”

“…As a whole, climate is South Florida’s chief asset. It braces the old man up like a tonick. But the landscape is flat and rotten—swamp or sandy pine barrens—except in spots…But Key West is the real thing. Vast palms, banyans, and all the fixings. That’s the place for me!”

—H.P. Lovecraft to James Ferdinand Morton, June 16, 1931.

I’m always on the lookout for solid weird fiction set in Florida. Not only is it my home state, but I also think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it is very difficult to write creepy Florida fiction that doesn’t come off as campy or clichéd. When it comes to genre, ours is a state more inclined to provide the backdrop for salty crime or noir than it is horror. It’s just too damn bright here. So, when I come across a successful piece of weird Florida fiction (and no, the Florida Man reddit doesn’t count), I am always excited. Clint Smith has provided just that in this melancholy vacation story, weighed down with memory, yet buoyed by hope. It can be found in his second collection, THE SKELETON MELODIES, just released by Hippocampus Press with this beautifully haunting cover from Daniel V. Sauer. I am grateful to the folks at Hippocampus Press for providing me with a free copy of the paperback in exchange for an honest review.

This is the second story in this collection and before I go any further, I’d like to reassure Adam Golaski, who penned the introduction to this volume, that I did read the first story first, and so came to this present one in order.

The story opens on Gwen, a young single mom, taking her children and mother by car from Memphis to the Gulf Coast of Florida for a fun-in-the-sun vacation. They’re spending the night at a cheap interstate motel halfway to their destination as we’re alerted to the several states of being occupying that forlorn room. Abbi, the youngest, is thirsty but there is no chocolate milk which is what she really wants. Charlie is intrigued by a television report of the spate of shark attacks along the Atlantic coast. Kathy, Gwen’s mom, is feeling a bit weepy after a rare emotional dream of her deceased husband. Put another way: nothing will satisfy, danger is all around, and death is unfairly mitigated in dreams. Those three are the undertow that pulls at you throughout this tale.

Photo by Flickr.com user Christian Haugen. Used under Creative Commons license.

Much like it does in Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the weird slips in here subtly and slowly. A glimpse of a shadowy, not-quite-right figure down the hotel hall transports us momentarily back to the halls of Gilman House, but there’s no time to dwell there. “Gwen realized, getting to the door, that the figure was not her mother at all, rather something masculine yet featureless, his movements stilted, disjointed. A long arm was raised, beckoning.” Smith drops this here and then leaves it, a malodorous pile encountered on a stroll best avoided and forgotten. It’s an example of authorial restraint that allows the reader’s mind to be at play. We move on, but like a distant bell, it niggles at our memory.

A short time passes and then a mundane horror rises for a bite. Someone once asked me if any horror story or film has had a lasting impact on my life, and the answer is most assuredly JAWS. I swim in the ocean a lot and every time, every time, I wonder if this is the time a shark bites me. Here on the Gulf Coast of Florida, the water is pleasantly warm and clear. With the right polarized sunglasses you can see everything below and around you. Not so in Cape May, NJ, where I once swam – there the water was threatening and deep. I just knew Jaws was right below me, circling and biding his time. I don’t know many people for whom shark stories don’t provide a jolt of fear, and this one succeeds there as well. (Interestingly, from 2014-2017 the number of shark attacks off the coast of Florida experienced a sharp uptick. This story was first published in 2017, making it feasible Smith is responding to reality.) But that’s not the main thrust of the tale at all. It’s just the veneer of the real laid over the much more unsettling dimension below. Smith stitches those two together in this story with a deft hand and a sure stroke. In the end, with the right knowledge, the mundane can be fought off whereas the numinous will not be denied.

HPL’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth had a lot to do with ancestry and that’s true to a certain extent in this story as well, but it’s modernized and made relatable to the contemporary reader. From the very first page we observe who is not present: men. Kathy’s husband is long dead and she did not re-marry. Gwen’s husband, father to her children, is out of the picture and almost a verboten topic—“Gwen’s gaze drifted, eyeing the south, thinking of Key West, where she and Sean had honeymooned more than a decade before. She blinked a few times, ultimately looking away, releasing the inverted metaphor that the nadir of the country’s terra firma was simultaneously the apex of their happiness.” The scary figure at the end of the hotel hall is masculine, making the first hint we get of a male both frightening and clouded in mystery. Both of the absent husbands have a strong emotional pull on the women, another undertow if you will. Their effect is felt all around, yet unseen. Like all of us, they can escape neither their pasts nor the people who populate them. If I’m being honest though, readers unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth might struggle with the presence of the weird here.

Smith’s pen is a controlled one and he deals most effectively in suggestion, foggy memories and clouded futures. Gwen is a relatable character and shines a clear light on Smith’s talent. Her status as a single mother is highlighted by her generational uncertainties, both forward with her children, and backward with her mother. The visuals Smith summons are impressive given their brevity. Rain as “silver needles;” the Gulf Coast an “eroding jawbone;” a marriage as “an ill-shaped accretion.” Pain. Decay. Malformation. The Undertow. Structurally, he shows restraint as well, not bloating the tale with unnecessary backstory, but giving you just enough to understand. There’s quite a lot to like about this story, and from what I’ve read of the rest of the collection (though it might not be the best choice for a neophyte) The Skeleton Melodies is a worthy addition to any collection of elevated weird fiction.

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